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[ACT ONE: FANTASIA]


“...the exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with the past. 

Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. 

A culture that is preserved is no culture at all.”

-Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism


SEPTEMBER 6, 2019

Friday Afternoon

Confederation Park, Ottawa

S&P/TSX: -39.48C$ / Temp: 21℃

It is Jenny Aubade’s birthday. The coming autumn clouds have retreated for now, giving the park a favorably sunny disposition. The newly seventeen redhead has taken the chance to sit down in one of the lousier benches, wood already starting to scrape up, and pass judgment on passerby with a silent, watchful gaze. A blond, middle-aged man, sweat pouring out of his suit, snarls at his phone; his job’s his life, she sentences him as he pays the petite, brooding girl no mind. She’s got no peace of mind, is what a mother of three noisy, raucous kids gets after a casually callous glance. They’ll waste what little future we have , to a couple of college dudes, designer clothes fashionable but smelling of piss and beer. She shoots a scornful frown at the True Party of Canada pamphleteer, you’d have me in a conversion camp if you could. A hungry-looking teenager, biting their lip, almost makes eye contact, and Jenny has to stop herself from thinking to the pit, for all I care.

“Gets old after a while, doesn’t it? This game?” She hadn’t realized a man was seated by her side.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, mister,” Jenny turns her eyes away, “but it’s probably got nothing to do with you anyway.”

“To the contrary, dear”, a butterfly lands on his outstretched palm, “playing, uh, ‘supreme arbiter of humanity’, it’s very…”

He closes his fist, the butterfly vanishing in a dusty glow. Some of it lands on Jenny’s face, and she looks back at him.

“...how should I put it, familiar? You probably know a better word.” The man, sharply-dressed and obliquely-masked, chuckles.

What does he know , she thinks, noticing that the mask in his face quite resembles the butterfly that now rests in his shoulder.

“I know a lot of things. That’s a quality we both share, wouldn’t you agree? Knowledge… and power.”

“Are you trying to say you won’t go away if I decide to ignore you, creepy masked man?”

“How astute of you to notice. Sorry, sorry, I did not intend to come off as rude. It is your birthday, after all.”

How… “How the fuck do you know it’s my birthday?”

“Eh, if it bothers you, pretend I didn’t say it. I just wanted to kick off a spirited conversation, and this seemed the way‒”

Jenny stands at once, clutching at her bag. Her tie, well-made, flows like her hair with the breeze, and both obscure the sharpness in her. The man, eyes glistening with fog, leans back, one of his gloved hands reaching into his suit pocket.

“You’re testing me. Throwing me for a loop with every sentence. You want to see when I crack. I… I won’t , mister.”

“There’s the knowledge.” He points at her heart through her dress shirt, his smile visible from the mask’s crack. “Those capable of holding up their end in such an affair are so… are so scarce these days… you know?”

He’s right. God damn this fucking discount university pervert in his Eyes Wide Shut costume, but he’s right.

“I do. But I also don’t make a habit out of debating the nature of humanity with strangers in parks.”

“Why not start? You may find it surprisingly engaging, considering the nature of your hobbies.”

“Look, you want to debate with me, put on a kid face, sign up for a debate club, and maybe, just maybe , you’ll get lucky. Otherwise, this is bullshit. Frankly, I don’t even… even give people I know this much time of the day.”

She turns, about to make herself scarce, but it’s not any of the stranger’s tricks that keep her there. You can’t walk away now, can you? From the one worthwhile thing… one interesting thing… What does it matter anyway? What does any of it matter?

“You mentioned power, ” Jenny questions, sun striking her eyes as she moves back, “what did you mean by it?”

The light, seemingly from nowhere, coats him from above, as he pulls out a case from his pocket, and hands it to her as she sits back down. The effect would be quite astounding to the sight, if Jenny wasn’t focused on opening it to find a transparent, smooth visor.

“Your power. My power. Everybody’s power… humanity’s power. It’s in my… well, it’s a proposition of sorts, you see.”

She carefully, quietly, dislodges it from its place, then puts the visor on, finding that it’s as invisible as when seen without it.

“A wager, dear. What human can resist a wager? Even I can’t. Heh, a little joke there, if you‒”

“You gonna get to the point?”

“Alright, alright,” He chuckles, before fixing his eyes on her, as if to reveal whole universes. “To the faithless who looks for humanity’s dark heart‒ you’ll find what’s to come thought lost. It’s in the cards, you see? This… uh, this slow cancellation of the future; its chickens are coming home to roost. In less than a year’s time, catastrophe will strike, not from heaven above or hell below, but wrought by men’s hands… hands guided by instinct, without wisdom to stay or redirect them. You’ve broken it all, you see, and now the wheel has turned and seen that you all be broken too. Forever. Which is to say, essentially, that all these poor foolish folk that you despise for whatever reason are doomed, and it’s their own fault. Catch my drift?”

Silence.

“Shit, what kind of bet is that? I don’t even know what’s on the line.”

The man mumbles, aware his speech did not have the intended effect, but opts to keep on nonetheless:

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Everything . All that there is, all that there might be, undone by stubbornness‒ by fear of the light that could guide humanity to something better. That’s my bet anyway, dear. How ab‒”

“I bet you’re wrong, mister. I bet you’re dead wrong.”

What. What what what what--

“Consider our contract sealed. Usually, it takes far more… subterfuge for things to go this way, but you’re really not one for, uh, performances, are you, Jenny Aubade? No, not at all, I see. This could prove to be very interesting, all things considered.”

“It’s done. This fucking bet of ours. I see you again, I’ll call the police.”

At that, he can’t help but chuckle. The sun has gone back to normal, Jenny finally noticing the supernatural brightness, and already starting to regret indulging the mad fool who’s now standing. As she puts the visor back in its case, he says his goodbyes:

“This might as well be it for me, dear. My subordinates will aid you with what comes next. Until then, be safe, faithless… and be wise.”

Pulling a velvet card from his pocket, he hands it to her. Jenny takes it, wielding the warmth of someone handling uranium, and looks down, finding it to be a birthday card. She looks up, weapons grade sarcastic reply at the ready, but he’s up and vanished. That’s what you get for having a playdate with someone straight out of the Black Lodge. The girl stands, shoving her gifts inside her bag, and decides to walk back home, hoping to have no other meetings on this godforsaken day. Nevertheless, she reminisces:


Friday Morning

Ottawa Collegiate Institute

“Happy birthday, Jenny!”

“Thanks, Cora!”

“Happy best day ever, Jen!”

“You know it, Ronnie!”

“Happy birthday, girl!”

“And don’t I forget it, Sam!”

“Have a merry birthday, miss Aubade.”

“Thank you, Mr. Huxley.”

“Happy birthday, debate queen!”

“Thank you, Jay!”

“Another year bites the dust, Jenny!”

“So it does, Mike, so it does…”

“Happy birthday, Jenny!”

“Thanks, Colin.”

“May you have a joyful birthday, classmate!”

“Heh, I, uh, thank thee, Tristan.”

“Happy birthday, grumpy!”

“T-thank you, Jacques!”

“Happy birthday, Jenny!”

“Thank you, M‒ Andrea!”

“Happy birthday, Jenny!”

“Thank you, uh, Maryam.”

“Happy birthday, Jenny!”

“Thank you… uh… sorry…”

“Happy birthday, Jenny!”

“...thank you…”

“Happy birthday, Jenny!”

“...thank… you…”

“Happy birthday, Jenny!”

“...thank…”

“Happy birthday, Jenny!” “Happy birthday, Jenny!” “Happy birthday, Jenny!” “Happy birthday Jenny!” “Happy birthday Jenny!” “Happy birthday Jenny!” “Happy birthday Jenny” “Happy birthday Jenny” “Happy birthday Jenny” Happy birthday Jenny Happy birthday Jenny Happy birthday Jenny happy birthday Jenny happy birthday Jenny happy birthday Jenny birthday Jenny birthday Jenny birthday Jenny birthday jenny birthday jenny birthday jenny jenny jenny jenny


the well

She’s been here before. Whenever her thoughts get… tied up, it seems her feet just walk on their own. Through the fog, the concrete jungle, it’s always there. It stands at the end of her road. The all-familiar well, moldy brick melted into the grassy ground. Hues you could almost call colored if the fog didn’t obscure them. A smell of dirt and water and petrichor. The darkness waiting below.

Let’s do it. It’s been too long. Seventeen whole yeeeaaaars

She’s‒ Jenny’s‒ confused. So much confusion. So much at once. And nothing to show for it. Nothing happens at the end of the road. The end of history. Just the same days and the same nights, the same lives and the same deaths. It’s no way to live. Waiting for oblivion as if oblivion wasn’t all around her every day in every place and every time and every person… in every her.  

It’s gonna be the same every time until you’re gone gone gone gone gone gone gone gone gone gone gone gone gone

You’re close to the well. Jenny’s shivering. Your hands are shaking. She wants it… don’t you? Like scratching at your skin until you bleed, the itch just grows and worms inside and penetrates every lasting depth of your flesh until it’s all want and need and she’s here for it and it’ll never end until she makes it end and it needs to end and it needs to end now because it’s all gone wrong

A blister of light seems to burst from her bag. Jenny opens it, slowly, methodically, to find the visor case almost breaking apart. Burning to the touch, she nevertheless holds onto it, experiencing every last moment, before suddenly raising it above her and throwing the box right into the well like a basketball through the hoop. A lonely, delayed splash is all that happens, and Jenny realizes she was holding her breath. Letting it out, condensation clouding her sight, she turns back from the cold, and tries to find her way home.


Friday Evening

The Aubade House

Jenny strolls to the front of her house, the typically middle class refuge’s lights out, and hopes that this means her stealth will have paid off. No luck. As soon as she steps on the aptly-named front steps, the garage lights flicker into life, revealing a trio of girls around her age. Sam Wu, almost biting on a cigarette, finally takes it out of her lips, coughing a bit before greeting her sardonically:

“It’s us, the Superfriends!”

Her short black hair and height advantage makes it just a bit intimidating, but another coughing fit kills the mood. She giggles, handing the cigarette to the girl at her right, who eagerly shoves it inside a ziploc, before zipping it shut. That done, Cora Anderson, all wide eyes and friendliness, waves at Jenny, who can’t help but smile. Ronnie Cannon, feeling feisty, pushes her long brown hair back with her hands, then races to her friend, freckles contorting with her predator smile as she embraces Jenny with the strength of a bear.

“We waited like two fuckin’ eternities for ya, Jen! And… uh… why your jeans damp?”

Them being damp at the bottom precludes the more awkward options, but Jenny is not in the mood to make much talk either.

“It’s… nothing. I’m‒ thank you all, but… why were you waiting for me?”

“Your ma and pa wanted a little surprise party,” Sam comments, twiddling with her jacket sleeves, “they went to get cake, by the way. Should be back in half an hour or so.”

“We know you’re usually not in the mood for like, you know, big celebrations and the like,” Cora adds, “so we thought about, I mean, you know, a little shoot-the-shit girl group routine… yes?”

“She means nerd shit,” Ronnie whispers in Jenny’s ear, “girl homebrewed a one-shot campaign just for ya.”

“Don’t spoil other people’s gifts, Ron,” Sam admonishes her, “bad enough you forgot yours.”

“It’s stuck through shipping, ke! God-Emperor Bezos is still pissed at us for helping ya with that fucktastic‒ Jen?”

The birthday girl is breathing deeply, eyes focused as if elsewhere. Ronnie lets go of her and backs away slowly, soothingly.

“Are you, you know, feeling okay, Jenny?” Cora questions slowly, “You look worse than after Loretta.”

“We do not talk about the nonentity Loretta,” Sam whispers harshly, “but she’s right, Jenny. You don’t look well. Can you speak?”

“I… yes, I… just go. Please, I… today was not… not a fucking good day. I’m… okay, I’m‒ just, let’s, let’s talk tomorrow.”

Ronnie holds out her hand, and Jenny takes it, playfully twisting her arm, but without the smirk that usually accompanies it.

“We’ll let ya be, Jen, don’t ya worry. Come talk to us to-morrow, if possible… we’d appreciate it…”

“I… I’ll try…”

“That’s swell for me! When the debate queen sets out, she fuckin’ wins it, don’t she?”

Jenny chuckles, and Ronnie lets go, straightening her suspenders. Cora walks up to her, scratching at her gloves, and takes Jenny in a hug of her own, to the latter’s surprise. The other two friends are also fazed, but make no comment, and Cora holds onto the birthday girl’s shoulders as she disengages, as if to say something, but instead moves back with Ronnie. Her turn, Sam approaches, holding a small package in her hands, which she hands to Jenny, before facing her straight-on in the eyes:

“Unlike some,” she nods, “I bought local. Hope you like it. I’ll warn your parents that you’re not in the mood.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t you mention it. We look out for each other, the four of us. That’s forever, is it not?”

Jenny can’t bring herself to answer, so Sam simply smiles, waving goodbye at her with the others as they head out of the neighborhood. Holding the package, she takes care to open it, and finds a small notebook in her hands. The cover’s faded, but its patterns seem to resemble those of a sigil. Beautiful decorations on each page, but otherwise they’re all empty. Its smell is old, but not dusty. Rather, almost antique. Static, even. She holds it in a tight grip as she enters the house, climbing up the stairs into her bedroom. Making little notice of the mess, she throws her bag aside, undressing quickly, and putting on pajamas more out of necessity than anything else. Notebook still within her reach, she puts it beside her, alongside the velvet birthday card that’s floated atop her things. Dropping onto her bed like a starved cadaver, Jenny weakly claws at the covers, before a heavy, mournful sleep overtakes her.


???

Standing. Standing amongst the fog. Even in her dreams she finds herself there. It feels different this time. A blue light seems to descend on her‒ the butterfly from before. It touches her fingers, then gently flies forward. Jenny follows it, finding herself unable to do anything but walk, until Doric-style blue columns seem to occupy the space all around her. Losing herself through the maze of pillars, unable to look up, she eventually stumbles upon a lonely chair, beckoning itself like the jaws of death. Obviously, she sits on it. At that, a table, which seemed once far away, is now right in front of her. Soon enough, another chair joins them, this one with an occupant facing her directly. Long-nosed, doll-like, the old man in a suit seems to jump over the uncanny valley itself. He croaks squeakily:

“Welcome to the Velvet Room. This place exists between dream and reality, mind and matter‒”

“I figured.”

“Respect my master, guest,” speaks a moustached figure, similarly doll-like. Striking yellow eyes pierce her soul from the side of the table where he stands, outfitted in a greek-style toga, except velvet blue, just like the curtains that slowly fall from the columns, closing in to create the ambience of an actual room. Jenny simply looks on impassively.

“My name is Igor,” speaks the long-nosed man, “the attendant by your side is Henri. As you have entered a contract, it becomes our responsibility to assist you in the journey to come.”

“A… contract?”

Henri pulls out the velvet birthday card from within his toga, lightly resting it on the table, as Jenny groans:

“Oh, kooky mcfucker.”

“His name is Philemon, guest,” Henri reprimands her, “and you wouldn’t do well to antagonize him. Trust me.”  

Henri looks to the side as he says that, but Jenny can make out something other than the harsh face he’s been putting on. All the while, Igor taps the birthday card, flipping it to reveal a tarot card. None other than the fool, perchance.

“You are haunted by lost futures, my wild card. This is because you are the fool, the zero of infinite possibility. If you learn to master its power, to have faith in the world around you and those by your side, then the doomsday clock might finally cease its ticking.”

“Why… would you help me with that?”

“You sign a contract with a higher power, the Velvet Room is open to you,” Henri explains, “nothing personal about the arrangement.”

“...sure. Go on, Igor.”

“More will come to you as day devours night and night devours day. The reality of the situation will haunt you inside until it cannot be escaped. Our part in what’s to come is limited by reach and fate, but before the curtain falls, I would like a moment.”

A deck of Arcana lies in his hands, shuffling itself without his interference. Henri gestures for Jenny to touch the fool, lightly pushing it to the left of the table. He smiles at her for a brief moment, while two cards float from the deck into the table, facing down. Igor pulls one, revealing the judgement, then the other, revealing death. Side by side with the fool, the three cards seem to surround Jenny’s future.

“This is your journey, my guest. Trials, tribulations, transformation. You must have faith in it, or your future will be stillborn.”

“I‒ this is not an agreeable proposition, Igor.”

“Yet the crux of it is in all humanity. You must listen, and be ready. Your exordium will soon be at hand.”

Jenny’s about to retort, when Henri suddenly touches her shoulder, as if to say something, only for nothing at all to come.

The curtain falls.

Chapter Text

“...our national, criminal cases bear witness precisely to something universal,

to some general malaise that has taken root among us, and with which,

as with universal evil, it is already very difficult to contend.”

-Fyodor Dostoyevksy, The Brothers Karamazov


SEPTEMBER 7, 2019

Saturday Morning

The Aubade House

S&P/TSX: ‒‒ / Temp: 14℃

“🎵pretty soon, you’re dead / you can’t pretend, you can’t deny, you can’t deny / pretty soon, you’re dead / You can’t pre‒🎵”

Jenny wakes to her alarm, set to “Pretending” by Sweet Trip . Turning it off with a harder press than necessary, she manages to sit on the edge of the bed. Step one down, rest of the day to go. Staying in bed like a rotten root sounds very appealing, but she had to make that promise yesterday. Standing, she undresses, looking herself over in the mirror; she’s not even a meter seventy tall. Pale skin, ordinary physique, stretch marks and a few surgery scars. A bit of back acne hidden by her shoulder-length red hair, dark circles bigger than the sun around her brownish-green eyes, a little bit of dirt in her small, roundish nose. She bites her lip. This is her body, same as always, yet she feels… Jenny feels like she’s diseased. Did that twat-faced pervert slip something in her? It would explain that freaky dream. She could go for a blood test, but they’d ask questions, and Jenny’s not sure she even knows what happened. The sounds of her parents moving in the kitchen below shuts these thoughts out, as she gets to her morning routine. Grabbing her phone, which she’d turned off after… She flicks through birthday greetings from relatives and the OCI debate club, alongside National Gallery ads, fanfiction notifications, and even a Ludovic Nuvall pseudo-racist screed that somehow evaded her spam folder. As she brushes her teeth, Jenny logs onto Chaos - the messaging app - and enters the aptly-named server, “Ronnie’s Cabaret”, where her friends are expecting her:

[9/7 8:16 AM] dunkindong: th enemy of fun is finaly awake @littlemisssunshine 

[9/7 8:16 AM] littlemisssunshine: Fuck you.

[9/7 8:16 AM] dunkindong: you wish. when we meetin @AntiCisAktion @SerafinaPekkala

[9/7 8:17 AM] SerafinaPekkala: how about at lunch time? >doubt emoji< weather should be good by then :)

[9/7 8:17 AM] AntiCisAktion: I agRee with CoRa. The usual place, somewheRe else?

[9/7 8:18 AM] dunkindong: fix you keyboard that shit anoys me. usual at mid it is then

[9/7 8:18 AM] littlemisssunshine: Noted. Gotta load up on food, see y’all then.

Logging off, she finishes up, then moves to her wardrobe. Dark loose pants and a striped teal button shirt are picked almost at random, while Jenny moves on to the most relevant choice: her ties. Arranged like vines, they’re a spectrum of colors and patterns. She feels each of them with her fingertips, the worries of the world seeming to fade for a moment, before picking a grey squared tie. Truly gorgeous. She throws it over her shoulder, then leans down to grab a worn-down purse, where she places her phone, her wallet, the notebook from yesterday, a pen, earphones, and a truly crusty ipod. Jenny Aubade’s survival kit is complete.

She steps down the stairs, leaving her stuff by the living room before entering the kitchen. George Aubade, his curly red hair cut criminally short, finishes tending to the secret seasoning in his french toasts. He waves at Jenny, who nods at his face. Putting on his roundish glasses, he looks again, then wipes off the sauce from his beard. She smiles, and sits by the table, where Caroline Aubade is absorbed in a stack of papers dangling precariously close to the syrup and milk. She turns to Jenny for a quick kiss on her daughter’s forehead, before her face is hidden again in a veil of wavy, graying hair. George brings the food over, and they all sit down to eat.

“I see you liked your gift,” George eyes the grey tie, laughs. “That’ll be an easy one in future.” Jenny tries to smile, but the result is so disturbing she quickly thinks better of it. Why? Why can’t she do these things? There are a thousand reasons. There is no reason. The answer is somewhere in between.

She remains silent for most of the rest of breakfast. She is aware of her parents’ banal conversation as if there was a radio on in the background. Funnily enough, there is-- the CBC announcer is reporting strange nocturnal occurrences in the Rideau area. Unfortunately, all the witnesses were too drugged out or mentally ill to be reliable. In her head, a mordant laugh track plays; the story is the weird shit, not the hobo junkies O.D.ing on the pavement.

“What was that trouble at the university, honey?” Caroline asks, not looking up from her paperwork. 

“It’s no matter,” he replies, a bit too hastily. “Just some more of that Nutty Nuvall bullsh-- a-hem.”

“Don’t think you gotta extend that consideration anymore. She probably knows words you’ve never even heard of.”

“Heh! You’re right. Could teach’em to me sometime, though, huh?” He nudges her kiddingly, causing her to breathe shallowly. He backs off, but retains the jovial spirit. “Don’t wanna be behind the times.”

“Might have to resign yourself on that front, hon.” They both laugh. A silence follows. Jenny normalizes, then rubs her fingers together in preparation for the asking.

“Okras tonight, then?” she asks. George looks straight at her, startled for a moment. Their eyes meet. A moment of panic. Then he smiles. She rubs her fingers faster, hurting. 

“You said it. Okras tonight. You 17-year-old, you.” Caroline nods economically. Jenny feels the satisfaction of an endeavor rewarded. She gets up, waves awkwardly, and prepares to set out. A jacket light enough for September, lavender backpack with the unremovable gum stuck underneath, jingly keys with the bus pass attached, and she’s ready. 

“Have a good day!” her mother shouts, a little too loudly, still not looking up. Tensing up involuntarily just like every other day, she turns the doorknob. At least now she knows. If everything else ends up shit today, she’ll still have okras. That will keep her‒

“Top of the morning to you, fair neighbor!”

Jenny widens her eyes. Looking to the side, she finds Daniel Pérez lounging on his respective porch. His lanky, nerdy physique shrinks into a rocking chair, a lampshade hanging above the teen boy. He nudges his hair, book in hand, taking a better look at her:

“You seem queer today, Jenny. Granted, that wordplay was below even me, but still, you look‒”

“Like metastasized roadkill?”

“Uh,” Dan grimaces, “ ...no? Anyway, I have a most interesting read on me, if perchance this is of your interest…”

He hops out of the rocking chair, hitting the lampshade at once - “porra” - then leaning into the divide between their homes. He produces the oldish tome from his hand, handing it to Jenny. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A. E. Waite, has a traditional depiction of the Magician Arcana in its cover, and she instantly remembers last night’s dream. Spying the hanging lampshade, now tumbling gently along the air, Jenny takes it as an act of god. A most generous and gifted god, of course.

“That’s… actually, yes, it is. May I consider it a late birthday gift?”

“That would have been the intent, Jenny. I wasn’t aware of your preferences, so I had fate’s whims guide me, and I’m not surprised I hit the jackpot. You see, the elements of our reality are ordained according‒”

“I’m thankful, Dan, but I need to go.”

He sighs dramatically, then waves her off. Jenny waves back, walking into the sidewalk, and can’t help but giggle when he hits the lampshade again while sitting back down. God, she feels like a different person when she does that. Such is life… or is it?


Saturday Midday

Elgin Street Diner, Ottawa

Jenny strolls inside. She’d managed to put off most nagging doubts by burying herself in the library with Joy Division and Kelly Lee Owens , but now the ugliness pops back up to the surface. Jenny needs to make it right, she needs‒ a polite tap from a bystander and she steps out of the door’s way. Gripping the book tight, she darts her eyes around, catching sight of families and teenagers alike. The characteristic rumbling soon attracts her to her friends, seated by a corner: Cora is nervously tapping the table with the tip of her nails, whilst Sam and Ronnie are comparing sausage sizes from their salad plates - a combo which Jenny had convinced the diner to offer after Ronnie pestered them both non-stop for nearly two years straight. Suffice to say, it’s become a popular choice within its demographic. Cora notices her staring, and drops an awkward smile, as she walks up to them and sits by Ronnie’s side, facing Cora:

“They were hungry,” she mumbles.

“Not surprised.” Jenny nods at Sam, who’s pretending not to chomp down, whilst Ronnie hurries to add:

“The missus Wu had us move a shitload o’ stuff, ya know. What was a certain grumpy dwarf doin’ all the while?”

Jenny lands the book on the table lightly, then quickly switches it in the right direction. Sam looks it over, mumbling with her mouth full, as Ronnie frowns at the olde looking tome. Cora, for her part, motions for it; Jenny pushes it to the side, and she begins flipping through its pages:

“The Pictorial Key… that’s Waite, alright. ‘He is a prince of the other world on his travels through this one’.”

“You’re familiar?”

“Oh, you know, he’s the one who made that tarot I gave you, remember? Umm, Golden Dawn, uh, Rosy Cross, I mean, you know, occult boogaloo and all that. He was Aleister Crowley’s nemesis! ...or something.”

“...Crowley?” Sam asks.

“I mean, c’mon, you all know him. Aeon of Horus? Uh… Moonchild? No?” She sighs. “Pyramid hat?”

“Ain’t that from Silent Hill?” Ronnie questions.

Cora groans, “ no. I used this stuff on our summer campaign, I think, between the Kabbalah and the Tolkien.”

“I’m not keeping track,” Sam admits, “we’ve been going at it for, let me guesstimate, almost a decade?”

“Yeah,” Ronnie adds, “remember we used to have these ugly-ass gormiti figures to be our characters, and that shit-fucking plastic broke up all the time? Like, all the time? What was up with that?”

“You threw them in boiling water.”

“It was for realism, Jen! Realism!”

“Truly, an artiste,” Sam mocks, “the Godard of Bytown.”

“Not sure she’d be up to snuff,” the arriving server interjects, lightly, “what can I get the rest of the gang of four?”

The two make their orders, Cora seeming to hesitate a bit, before the four are left to themselves again. A festering silence overtakes the table, Ronnie’s chewing barely breaking through, and Jenny breathes in deeply. It’s time she made it right:

“You are all aware of my… behavior yesterday. I know you’ll insist on forgiving me‒”

“Yep, bitch.”

“Thank you, Sam. Nevertheless, I should… I should… there should be an explanation for it. This might be harder than simply apologizing and moving on, but I‒ you all deserve better than that. My‒ the birthday yesterday… I would say it, um, what it did was trigger something… pardon me, I’m being obtuse‒”

“Don’t talk like Dan.”

“The point is, seeing so many people I barely knew treating me as if we’d been close since forever, I… it pulled the devil straight out of my ass, to be honest. It made‒ feels fucking idiotic to say it out loud, I realize that… it made me feel complicit. We’re all singing along happy birthday to me while the world dies a slow death‒ no, it’s been that way since I was born. I… it’s more like chronic illness. You learn to live with the pain, of course, but it’s still there. It flares up‒ changes nothing. The pain’s blinded you to change, even if all it is‒ it’s just humming, just a birthday tune. Feels sick to live sometimes… feels like I’m… I’m dis… diseas… like I’m diseased. I know I’m wrong‒ it’s not healthy, it’s not proper, you name it… but what if it’s right? What if‒”

Sam sneaks her hand and grabs Jenny’s, stating firmly: “Then we’ll face this malaise together. Like comrades do.”

“Ya won’t be able to hurt us, Jen,” Ronnie smiles at her, “don’t even worry about tryin’. We’ll stick by you forever.”

The absence of a follow-up strikes the three, and they look at Cora, scratching at her palms anxiously. She mumbles to herself at too low a volume, darts her eyes at her friends around her, and sighs slowly, painfully. With dismay, she lets out:

“Maybe you should, you know, you should hurt us‒ you should hurt me. While you still can. I… I deserve it, I guess.”

“What in the fuck Cora‒”

“I’m leaving. I mean, leaving Ottawa, leaving you all. The week after, I’ll be gone from here. Father, you know, he got a transfer‒ the Kirijo Group got him a place in the countryside. Small town, barely any internet, but vital to them… to his whole work. He said yes. We talked it over… me and mother and Imogen… mom couldn’t bear to be away from him. We agreed, we thought it best, we’d go with him. I couldn’t really believe it, couldn’t really entertain it, you know, and maybe if I waited it out‒”

“Cora, how long ago?”

“...a month. I’ve known since a month. The school let me attend the first few weeks here… more of a favor than anything…”

This is what she wanted to say. This is what’s been edging at you, flaring up the malaise. She’d known. You’ve known. Or you should have known, does it matter? There is no holding out the storm together. There is no waiting for more, only for less and less and less until there’s nothing. Until there’s you. How’s that for being right?

“You knew you were leaving us. For a month. For a whole fucking month. And you said nothing. Nothing at all. Is that right?”

“I don’t like where this is going, you two‒”

“Is that right?”

“...yes.”

Make her feel it.

“Cora, how could you even conceive of this as a good idea? What demented fucking reasoning would bring your stupid little head to digest this situation as anything but utterly fucking humiliating? Is what’s left of your goddamned brain so far down your intestinal tract that you've mostly shat it away in a hurry? Did you leave your intelligence - no, your motherfucking maturity - behind in the kid’s toilet with the rest of us? Are we that worthless? Or are we fragile like fucking paper? Were you infantile or did you merely think us so - think us unable to tell the goddamned truth from your fantasy shitter? One. Fucking. Month. How MORONIC must you be to lie to yourself for that long. You’d smear the shit in your face and call it perfume if it made yourself feel better, right? How naive of you.”

“Jenny did not mean a single word of what she‒”

“No, Sam… she’s, uh, she’s right. I needed that. I‒- how naive…”

Cora leaves the sentence unfinished, standing as if in a daze. She can’t bring herself to look at any of them, instead walking out of the diner in a hurried step. Sam calls out to her, then races after the girl, leaving Jenny, eyes still piercing the now empty seat, and Ronnie, who grips the former’s hand tightly, but silently. And there you’ve done it, girl. You’ve made it right at last, right?


the well

Her stomach growls. Of course Jenny couldn’t bring herself to eat after‒- afterwards. Ronnie’s eyes fell on her when she stood to leave, but she didn’t do anything. She just kept looking. Even now that she’s far away, even now that the familiar chill has settled itself between her bones, the looking persists. Every rotten trunk hides mirrors, the fog just smoke and show to make Jenny believe she’s alone. She’ll never be alone. As long as she stands upright, people will keep coming and going around her, and she will be a part of it. She will hurt them. It’s all she can do - she can’t love. Love would require believing in someone… in something. Jenny Aubade is where beliefs go to die. Broken, restless, hurting, they are made void. Which raises the question: where does Jenny Aubade go to die?

We can make it special, can’t we?  A final birthday gift. Only nobody will ever open it will ever find it will ever see it

The trail is open before her. She knows where it leads. A few more steps, and she can do it. She can make it right, truly right, in the only way she can. Jenny can almost believe that. There’s no rhyme or reason but there is right. It’s not about how things go on, it’s about how things end. She’s tunneled her way through life to this. The end’s already gone by and they’re all just sticking around even as decay sets in. The cold will spread. The fog will overtake the light in the end and we’ll all be just like Jenny facing the well at last‒

A well with a passed-out girl resting on its side.

Jenny’s circular stupor breaks for a moment. The curly dark hair atop clear brown skin, the preppy-but-elegant outfit, the scar across her face that somehow makes her delicate features even more entrancing‒ oh, and the vomit all over it. Jenny hopes it’s vomit at least. Wouldn’t surprise her coming from Beatriz Brubaker, miss student council president and notorious party girl, who also just woke.

“Eeeeehhhhh… Bytown blues gotcha good, Jane?”

“I‒ what are you doing here, Miss Brubaker?”

Beatriz shrugs, holding onto the well to lift herself up, tears in her shirt showing. She moves far too quickly to cover them, and Jenny can’t believe the drunkard bruised herself all the way here. Jenny gestures at her wound, and Beatriz smiles awkwardly:

“S’nothing, nothin’ really. Say, why a‒- you here?”

“It’s… I just like to come here. Nothing more to it.”

“S-s-sure, yeah. It’s, uh, quiet. Very quiet. You shouldn’t‒ seductive, it’s almost seductive. You can believe… believe anything when there’s n-no voice‒ dissent, voice of dissent. Even that you don’t believe, yeah? Get it?”

“Uh… yes?”

Beatriz smiles, and Jenny can’t help but think it beautiful, even under the vomit. It’s that senior spell, she realizes, the one that’s got her this far. Even as the drunken girl stumbles away from the well, seeming to take on more conscience and posture as she does, Jenny still can’t shake off the comfort she got from her.

“I’mmmm get going, okay? Take care, Jane!”

“Thank you, Miss Brubaker.”

As Beatriz disappears behind her, Jenny once again shares a look at the well, ever-present. She breathes in, the cold sinking down her lungs, and looks at her hands. They shake, almost as if called out, but Jenny turns back. She walks away, at least for today.


Saturday Evening

The Aubade House

Dinner is quiet. The stewed okra with tomatoes are a blissful assault on the senses, but both parents realize something is amiss. Jenny eats on, dead-eyed, and finishes her meal without a word. Caroline holds her hand, letting her daughter lean on her shoulder - which she does for but a moment. George hugs them both, saying no words himself, and kisses the top of her head. Jenny nods solemnly at both of them, and walks upstairs, fully aware of both pairs of worrying eyes set on her.

You are chatting with SerafinaPekkala

[9/7 9:34 PM] littlemisssunshine: I’m sorry.

[9/7 9:34 PM] littlemisssunshine: I fucked up.

[9/7 9:34 PM] littlemisssunshine: Can I talk to you?

[9/7 9:36 PM] littlemisssunshine: please

The messages remain unanswered. Jenny wipes at tears she believes should be there, but aren’t. Looking over at her unpacked bag, she grabs the notebook. Flipping through it, she checks the various notes she made of the tarot dome in it, alongside some very poor attempts at drawing the arcana. Holding it far too tightly, she suddenly throws it aside, and digs her face on her bed, smashing at it with two uncontrolled fists. Letting out a hoarse, soundless scream, Jenny steps back, shaking again, and hurries back onto the bed, burying herself onto the pillow, forcing herself to sleep amidst pained, pathetic whimpers. She hopes for the Velvet Room to come, for anything to take her away from here and now. Anything at all.

Nothing happens.

Chapter Text

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space”

-Lord Byron, Darkness


SEPTEMBER 8, 2019

Sunday Morning

the well

S&P/TSX: ‒‒ / Temp: -13℃ -14℃ -15℃… 

Shivering. Jenny’s hands tremble as she touches the grass, digging into the coarse earth. Barefoot, she feels the dirt mesh with the blood under her soles from a few cuts here and there. The grayish sweatpants and white dress shirt, beyond being now dirty, serve little purpose to protect her from the rising cold. Jenny doesn’t care, though. The bags in her eyes are like goggles, and she stares ahead at the well with middling hesitancy and fledging desire. Each curve of the rocky structure’s an invitation, each scar in its bricks a mirror image to how torn she is inside. The chill from the deep seems to strangle her tight, and Jenny can’t help but wish it were so.

Every breath of hers is poison, and every word a dart aimed at others. To acknowledge the world is death is but to acknowledge your own little death, and Jenny knows she’s found herself taken by its piper song. The danse macabre is her own, and delaying it only serves to drag those she loves into its sway. Better to take the reins, pretend she has a choice, and just fucking get it over with.

That’s the bullshit she tells herself, of course. In truth, she is more than terrified - Jenny is helpless. What’s happening here goes beyond her mental health, or even a Saturday morning call to adventure… she’s been touched by something. She’s been made filthy. Filthy of mind, of soul, of… she’s cut herself in the hand as well. Raising her left arm, she watches the blood trickle down onto her shirt, and breathes into the stranglehold of her soul. Destroy it all. Rid the world of the disease within your lungs, your heart. End yourself.

Taking the marching orders in stride, Jenny stands. The paleness of her skin or the weakness of her steps do nothing to break her from the walk. Reaching the well, she touches its stone for the first time, the roughness seeming to burrow inside her. The shivering stops. Using the strength she’d thought gone, she lifts herself, raising one leg after the other, to sit on the inside of the well’s borders. Looking down, she sees nothing but a distant reflection. An ending in sight. With a gentle push, Jenny stumbles forward and falls into it.


???

Falling.

At least there’s that.

But who knows where it will end?

Who knows if it will end?

Then suddenly--

A gate. She stands up and regards it dispassionately. Don’t go through. The imperative is so strong she almost hears it out loud. But on she presses, ignoring it utterly. Cold fingers grasping colder iron, she pulls the intricately-adorned latticework toward her. Slowly. It creaks. The rust flakes off and falls to the damp ground. Stylized skulls and other horribly cliche macabre motifs taunt her, daring her to step forward into the place of death she’s just opened. 

Don’t. Don’t!

She does. Behind her, a faint creaking is heard, but she doesn’t look back. Inside, the tombstones seem to sprout up irregularly from the earth as if they had grown of their own accord, pressing close against each other. A garden of stone, overgrown. It makes advancing tricky, but she nimbly negotiates the maze, jumping over obstacles when necessary. All the names are illegible, but she has the horrible feeling that they were once ones she would recognize. Gone now. Unknowable. Not my concern.

The graveyard seems endless, each successful advance into a new area revealing a dozen new potential avenues. She doesn’t stop, doesn’t think. Just keeps going. Somewhere… somewhere here is what she’s looking for. But does she want to find it? Or just to keep searching, comfortable in the knowledge of its existence without having to cope with the horror of its nature. That doesn’t sound so bad. Like falling, not knowing when you’ll reach the bottom or what you’ll find there. 

But, sure as gravity, it’ll come.

Trying to vault over a particularly tall cross, her leg catches and she tumbles to the ground. Unnatural sounds issue from every direction. For some reason, they make her more frightened than she’s been at any time since she entered the well. Casting about for a reason as she remains prone and immobile, she finally comes upon it: it’s laughter. They’re laughing at her. It takes her a second to realize the ‘they’ is the most frightening part of that statement. Though in a way she’d known all along-- someone else is here, guiding her. But that does not make them a friend. Probably the opposite.

She grabs hold of the headstone in front of her and pulls herself up. The sounds die down. Everything is clear now. She’s being led along this path, carried by the collar to what awaits. It’s a show. And the more she stumbles, the more the audience laughs itself to death. Having realized this, she decides she has no interest in prolonging this entertainment. So she proceeds, with renewed vigor. 

They don’t seem to like that. But the company’s repertory is not yet exhausted. They’ve more horrors in store, but nothing to slow her advance. She will not give them an inch, no matter what they throw at her. That is her vow-- soon to be severely tested.

The cemetery begins to lose whatever real-world quality it once had and becomes a pure-heroin nightmare embellished by a madman. No more stones, rather crude assemblages made of what are very clearly parts of the deceased here entombed. Put together as if by an artisan making up for his incompetence with sheer perverse glee in twisting the everyday into the utterly grotesque, each is more nauseating than the last. Legs, arms, torsos, and all the other expected ingredients are there-- except for the one so obvious Jenny doesn’t even notice its absence at first (though it’s not like she’s inspecting these gorey monuments closely). 

Oh, Jesus fuck. The heads. Where are the fucking heads?

She has the terrible feeling she will soon find out. As she goes on, the assemblages become more elaborate, almost like the artisan was learning his craft. No longer just crosses and rough tombstones, her path is now flanked by entire mausoleums, some incorporating entire corpses stretched to fit the contours of the structure. They are no longer even vague signifiers of people, just things, mushy, pliable things. Material. 

Even now, though, the heads remain conspicuously absent-- even the full corpses, Jenny grimly observes, are all decapitated. She hasn’t been counting, but by now it’s clear that with the sheer amount of human matter that’s been put to use in this macabre construction project, the architect (he’s far more than an artisan, it’s become clear, unless-- which is worse?-- more than one is responsible) must have raided the entire cemetery for fresh meat. And not only that: the supports for the structures are made up of bone, her way forward-- now alarmingly quite straight and wide-- coated with dust. You can’t say he wasn’t thorough, whatever psychopathic genius brought this into being. And all for her benefit… 

...and the audience. Oh, right. Almost forgot. They have been strangely quiet lately. Hushed in anticipation, perhaps, or maybe she’s just been singularly unamusing since her earlier pratfall. Either way, their silence is as palpable a reminder of their continuing presence as any number of otherworldly noises… possibly even more horrifying, for it leaves only the soft sound of her feet crunching on the dust at a steady pace, making good time but never seeming to make any progress in this insane endless fever dream. She feels as if she is in a vacuum, utterly cut off from anyone or anything alive, differentiated from the dead that surround and vastly outnumber her only by her relentless motion. If she should stop-- better not to think.

At long last, the dread terminus appears in the dim, darkened horizon. Its spire reaches up into the dead starless sky, while the building’s foundations are sunk deep in the cold earth. It’s a church. Of course it is. As she approaches it, Jenny makes out more details: the style is Gothic, or rather an overwrought imitation of it. Actually looks just like the Ottawa Basilica (which she always found butt-ugly despite Dan’s insistence on its architectural significance), strangely enough, though with a notable difference: it’s made entirely of bones, just like that chapel in Slovakia. Or was it Romania…

She walks up to the steps and looks up. The edifice towers above her, its countless individual components forming an imposing whole that feels paradoxically more solid than any building she’s seen in her waking life ( that’s right, keep hoping this is a dream… ). She brings her gaze back down and sees the doors are open. Might as well come in for the service.

Predictably, there is no service, but that doesn’t mean the cavernous interior is deserted. Amid the rich reliquaries and ornate candelabra (all also fashioned from human remains, as befits the not-particularly-subtle running theme), a solitary figure in an ancient wedding dress is lying in wait, gripping the altar and apparently weeping. Jenny steps forward, concern mixed with understandable apprehension. As she approaches, the bride doesn’t seem to take any notice of her.

“Excuse me…?” As soon as she says this, the figure lets go of the altar and turns slowly to face her. Seeing her face makes Jenny draw her breath in sharply, and no wonder: it’s her own. She has journeyed into the deepest part of a nightmare to meet herself. And yet not quite herself: her features seem more exaggerated (skin even paler, hair even redder), like a lead performer in a Victorian opera, as are her mannerisms, though both are still recognizably her own. And the eyes. They’re yellow, yellow like a chunk of hardened sulfur. And they’re staring at her, right through her.

“You made it. You don’t know how glad that makes me.” The shadow-Jenny speaks distantly, deliberately, like she’s putting on a show of her melancholy. Or just stepped out of a bad Gothic melodrama, circa 1800. “Did you like the arrangements I made? It took me so, so long.” She removes her gaze, surveying the rest of the church uncertainly. Jenny finds her words again. “You did all that? You--” “M-hmmm. So cold, their touch… no one to help me, no one to look approvingly on my work. Only the worms and vermin for company. It’s no way to live-- no way at all.” She says this last line to the enormous stained glass window above, which depicts various gruesome memento mori vignettes. Jenny is once more at a loss.

“That’s why… I’ve been waiting for you. For your warmth, for your blessed touch. Come, give me your hand.” She holds out her hands, staring with those horrific eyes at her again, and Jenny can’t help but do as she says. She shudders violently as she touches her doppelganger’s skin-- it’s colder than a metal pole in February. The shadow-Jenny, however, seems to derive a powerful nourishment from her own flesh. In fact, she seems unwilling to let go.

“Could you-- don’t you think that’s enough?” She doesn’t reply, so Jenny pulls hard-- to no avail. Apparently shadow-Jenny is possessed of a truly vise-like grip. Naturally. “Stop! Stop that!” With growing horror, she feels the life flowing out of her, all the vitality that remained after that soul-killing trek evaporating with increasing speed. Soon, she’ll be powerless to stop it--

Suddenly, with a gasp, shadow-Jenny opens her eyes and lets her victim go, making a surprised Jenny fall backwards onto the cold stone floor. The bride looks slightly guilty from her feasting and tries with limited success to hide her obvious pleasure. “I’m very sorry. I was just so glad to see you, you see. You don’t know how long I’ve been in this cold, dark place… alone…” Before Jenny can recover sufficiently to ask what this place even is, the unearthly laughter starts up, louder than ever. She spins around, still on the floor, and realizes it’s coming from inside the church. More precisely, the choir, which only now seems to be illuminated by candles (anyone’s guess what the fat in them comes from). Against her better judgment, she crawls forward to get a closer look.

Oh. 

So that’s where all the heads were.

“Must remember the show. They expect a show. They must be obliged…” shadow-Jenny mutters, growing more and more incoherent. Her living counterpart is too paralyzed by terror to react. The chorus of heads continue to laugh, deafeningly. Shadow-Jenny begins to rub her hands together as she advances toward her, but avoids looking at her counterpart directly. 

“It’s all so horrible… the world, so sick and moribund… believe me, I’ve seen it. Better to put it out of its misery, don’t you think? In death, there’s no worry. No need to try so hard to be you… you can just be parts. And then… the best part… you can settle back and watch the show. Join the others. There’s so very many now… this is only a province. Out there there’s a Continent-- the Continent of the Dead. The most blissful, entrancing place you’ve ever seen. So cold… so silent… so beautiful.” She reaches out again, preparing to clasp Jenny’s neck with her hands, as the crowd goes wild. The poor girl feels like she’s the protagonist of an insane decadent staging of the world’s weirdest revenge tragedy, the only fitting climax being, naturally, murder-suicide at her own hands. It’s so… 

Overdone.

“Ready now?” Yes. Strangely enough, she’s ready. As the cold grip starts to choke the life out of her in the most dramatic way possible, she feels only a mild impatience. Hurry up, won’t you? I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m ready, I said… and the orgasmic climax feels very close at hand indeed.

But, before it comes, there is a voice. “Jenny Aubade.” Something about it makes her trust it instinctively. Flickers of doubt about her impending fate start to manifest themselves. “Do you wish for this to be your end? To die at the hands of your triumphant shadow-self in an ossuary, a vain, hideous monument to the macabre? To surrender your life in service of this ridiculous pantomime? All this is nothing but melancholy as performance, no more real than stage tears-- wiped away just as easily. Forge a contract with me, young girl, and bring the burning light of wisdom to bear on these ghastly vaudevillians!” She’s at precisely the point where life and death lie equidistant now; a short push will send her over to where there’s no return. There’s still time, though. Still time to accept the offer. But how?

“See yourself . You, as you truly are, without affectation or performance. This is wisdom. This is enlightenment. This is the way of life.” As darkness closes in from all sides, a light shines in from an unknown source. Simultaneously, an enormous circular mirror is raised from behind the altar, visible over shadow-Jenny’s head. She looks at the frightened, desperate face reflected in it, then at the overwrought countenance of her doppelganger just below… and she makes her choice. 

Another beam of light, streaming in from the stained-glass window, catches shadow-Jenny from behind and makes her cry out. She drops everything and flees into a shadowy corner. The heads are baffled. Now only Jenny herself remains in the light, still regarding herself in the mirror, which is floating toward her, its outlines distorting uncannily as it does so. It’s a confident young woman she sees, one who knows the world as it is but does not retreat from its horror into performance-- entirely the opposite. Smoke issues from her eyes, clouding the reflective surface. When it clears, the mirror’s become a snazzy pair of mirrored glasses, which she puts on. The venerable voice is pleased.

I AM THOU, THOU ART I. Thus is our contract sealed. I am Yacob.” Through her newly-found true sight, she sees her invisible helper floating over the altar in a geometrically pleasing mosaic arrangement, almost seeming like an extension of the window behind him, except for the life and light he radiates in defiance of all that the window’s vignettes and the church itself seem to promote. He is angelic, yet hardly of the harp-and-wings type. His dark countenance is lit by two penetrating, brilliant eyes. Floating, constantly shifting ribbons surround him like speech scrolls in a medieval illuminated manuscript. The overall effect is of a bastion of supreme reason, attached to but superior to the human world. 

Jenny is in awe, but has also gained a rare resolve. “Okay, Yacob. Now can we kick some ass?” The ribbons around him immediately extend to their fullest in preparation for ass-kicking. “Yes.” They proceed to rack up the choir, sending the heads flying into the shadows of the cathedral, where they appear to vanish. Only once the audience has been disposed of do they turn to shadow-Jenny, who’s still in her corner. 

“I don’t understand. It was going so well… the show… such a lovely performance--” Jenny cuts her off abruptly, batting away one of the arms she was using to make a dramatic gesture. “ Stop that! You’re embarrassing yourself. This act you’re putting on… it’s sickening. I can’t allow it to continue.” Again shadow-Jenny stares, but now her counterpart can take it. “You’ve seen how shitty everything out there is, so you do this. Make a church outta bones, romanticize death, dress up like a Mervyn Peake illustration. Just like I do my ironic suicidal outsider shit. But that’s not me . You’re not me. ” The bride seems horrified by this statement like nothing else, but she still doesn’t speak, allowing Jenny to continue her monologue, picking up steam. “That horror at the world is a part of me. I won’t let it go. But it’s not all of me. And I know… now… there’s another response to it. So it’s time for this charade to end. Like, now.”

Shadow-Jenny takes all this in, but ends up just looking blank. “Well…” she finally says in a tinny, broken-porcelain-doll voice. “Let’s try something else, then. For the grand finale.” Without warning, she lets out an unbearable scream that causes Jenny to stumble backwards. By the time she’s got her bearings again, she finds to her horror that her counterpart is gruesomely transforming into a nauseating parody of the angelic form. Within moments, any trace of human form is gone and Jenny finds herself facing an enormous being of decomposing meat, strips hanging down, holes pecked here and there as if by carrion birds. Chains encircle it, binding it and only increasing its obviously unbearable suffering. And, oh yeah, it’s on fire.

Its screaming is deafening.

“End this wretched thing’s pain” advises her ally. If only she knew how to go about that. Heads are one thing, but this… it barely fits in the church, and Jenny seriously doubts if it can even be killed. That would require being, in some sense, alive in the first place. “Take your weapons!” Yacob instructs her, a marked note of urgency entering his serene rational voice. And, indeed, before her, seemingly materialized from the shadows, are a compact three-section staff straight from an old JRPG and a sleek Walther PPK straight from Goldfinger. Despite never handling a deadly weapon before in her life (unless you count a really big steak knife), she takes both and instantly feels at ease handling them. Still, it feels like Yacob might be better suited to striking at the monstrosity. She holds out the staff in the direction of the enemy--

“Yacob!” He flies forward, ribbons spinning into sublime patterns, and strikes with the pure light of wisdom, which inflicts great injury on her monstrous shadow-self. Bleeding a putrid substance from various blackened orifices, the monster goes on the attack, leaping at Jenny herself with frightening speed. 

She bats its reaching chains away with the staff and fires four times into the fleshiest bit she can find, halting its advance. Yacob swoops in from the other side, continuing his barrage of shining attacks, in such quick succession that the hideous church is illuminated from within and gains some measure of sanctity. 

The shadow is trapped between two attackers now, nowhere to run-- except up. Desperate, it launches geysers of its vile lifeblood, coupled with a devastating chain whip that brings Jenny down with a stinging hit to the side of the face. An opening found, the shadow surges up, flying right above the fallen Persona-wielder.

But she won’t allow it to escape and find another dark hole to climb into. No, she will not allow that. With all her strength, Jenny leaps up and grabs hold of one of the chains, first letting her pistol fall to the ground. The monstrosity apparently doesn’t even notice as it bursts through the vaulted ossuary roof, sending a cascade of bones raining down. Jenny winces at them but retains her grip, breathing in the frigid night air. Yacob follows at a distance, looking concernedly at Jenny. She has a plan, though. Before they get too high, she sticks her staff right into a mushy segment of the creature’s anatomy. Pushing it in as far as she can, she feels a strange thrill hearing the shadow’s resultant scream, louder than ever. Almost immediately, it begins to lose steam and drop to the nightmare land below. Now what?

The tumbling abomination picks up speed at an unnatural rate, threatening to come to a very sticky and very gross end in a matter of a few seconds. Jenny isn’t quite sure what to do. Is this what she was supposed to do? Slay the beast only she could slay, die in triumph. Well, as deaths go, it’s a whole lot better than the last one she faced. Still… there’s an inescapable feeling of anticlimax. All that-- for this? 

No. There must be some way. 

Better think fast…

There’s an end to this fall, but it’s not a nice one.

What if--

Jenny!”

A burst of light. Suddenly she finds herself on a featureless plain of smoke and mirrors, no splattered remains of falling abominations to be seen. Yacob is floating gently above her. Jenny sighs deeply. “I’m alive, right?” The Persona nods. “Yes. Thanks to my intervention, you avoided another unpleasant fate.” “I suppose I should be grateful.” “Unnecessary. We are bound by a sacred contrast, my dear. It is my duty-- and my pleasure. Perfectly reasonable.” She laughs. Her Persona sounds like the coolest philosophy teacher you ever had.

“Nevertheless, young girl, I advise that we evacuate from the premises at once. This promise of a Haunting will fade into empty soon enough.” Jenny nods, dematerializing her weapons. Doing so, she notices her new outfit - a checkered black two-piece business suit, matched with oxford shoes and a radiant tie equally as black. In one word, she looks… hot. “Stylish would be more appropriate. Let us make haste.” Yeah, definitely a teacher figure. Yacob fades in a puff of smoke, rejoining her visor’s reflection, and she moves on.

A door is sighted soon enough, ornate wood clear to see from misty oblivion. Before Jenny races there, a whimper catches her attention. Turning back, she finds a shadow trailing behind her. The floating pumpkin-headed figure stops, gripping its lamplight, and chuckles nervously. Jenny approaches, newfound wisdom guiding her in open arms, and she asks of it: “Hello there.”

“W-was it true, hee… what you said? That‒ that there’s another way? Oooooo, that the world isn’t all hell?”

“I believe it so,” Jenny states, instinctively amping up her persuasion, “and I believe we can find it together if it’s of your interest.”

“Hee-ho, then I’ll c-come with you! I’m Jack-o’-Lantern, hoo, pleasure to shine a light for you…”

The shadow, now a persona as well, puffs away likewise, its reflection chuckling inside her glasses. Jenny’s not quite sure of what she just did, but she can tell it was the right thing to do. Strolling to the door at last, she opens it, finding herself somewhere anew.


This could have been a beautiful place. A place where memory and culture and consciousness mesh to construct an endless palace to imagination. The design of its expansive corridors, ornate doorways, and intricate paths still cling to what it might have been. Except, as Jenny comes to find it, this place is abandoned. Not of people, to be sure - shadows, masked, monstrous, or maddened all roam the darkened hallways. There is no soul to this place, however - its books are dusty, almost fixed in place; elaborate electric systems clung to rusty disuse; floors worn with failure and what looks to be mold but is probably worse. A shithole of a place is what it is.

As soon as she steps into the pitch-dark library, Jenny instinctively glides her hand over her visor, summoning Jack-o’-Lantern. Fearful, he nevertheless shines his lantern, which immediately attracts a pack of pixie-like shadows, eyes bloodlusted. With a flick of her glasses, Jenny switches to Yacob, ribbons twisting to form a staff like her own, and she steps back‒ only to slip into the mold and hit the switch behind her. She lets out a shriveled “FUCK”, but is distracted by the ethereal lights coming on full-force, lighting up her sector. The pixies stop, as if a veil had been lifted, and breathe out in relief. Grateful, they snip at Jenny with a load of kisses, and she playfully swats them away. Yacob, for his part, conveys an instruction to her, and she has him cast a ‘Dia’ spell on her, healing herself a bit.

“You’re ali‒” At the grasping touch on her shoulders, Jenny instantly turns, pistol summoned and pointed right at Henri’s fabulous moustache. He realizes the emotion in his face, and soon turns it off to assume a more hostile behavior. “Erm, you’re alive. Excellent.”

“What. In the. FUCK. just happened there, Henri?”

“You’ve gone through a lot, guest. My master wishes to meet with you again, so you would do well to follow me.”

He promptly departs, disregarding the gun pointed at his head, and Jenny groans, before dematerializing it and following him.

“Um, twink with the horseshoe moustache, what is this place, exactly?”

“The Library of Souls. I was once told it’s like a great magical network, of all the great things humans are and will be. Thoughts?”

Jenny turns back to the darkened sections, seething disease and madness in its presence, and gulps nervously.

“If you’d asked me earlier today, I probably would have agreed. I’m not so sure now.”

“That is… alright. Anyhow, we are now at the velvet doors. Watch closely.”

He pulls out two pairs of velvet keys, one of which he hands to her. The other he uses in a similarly color-coded door, of which there seem to be many throughout the library. She can’t quite count them, as Henri guides her inside the foggy room, where Igor awaits.


The Velvet Room

“Welcome back, my dear guest.”

Jenny’s seated once again, suit jacket held neatly on the back of her chair. Yacob and Jack-o’-Lantern are beside her in the fog, whilst Henri stands beside Igor on the other side of the table.

“You have done a great thing, today, my wild card. You came through science and visions, and in them you found your shadow.”

“It was… that thing, right? That yellow-eyed, diseased, emaciated me, that was my‒”

“Thaumiel was but a proxy shadow. Your true shadow…” Henri starts, to which Yacob completes:

“...is me. Had you embraced the little death of that vile no-place, I would not have been your Persona.”

“You never would have found your wisdom. That is the desperate gambit of the Library of Souls. It targets the foolish…”

“The vulnerable,” interrupts Jenny. Henri moves to censor her, but Igor gestures at him not to.

“It makes Hauntings of their faults, has them embrace their worst selves, and feeds on the misery and excess. That is the hunger the Library has been condemned to. In the lack of wisdom such as yours, humanity has doomed its imagination to a slow, disheartening demise. The Library lashes out, hungry, and those in its grasp are not only gone from reality, but memory as well.”  

“But I survived.”

“But you survived. For you are the wild card, able to not only tame your shadow into a Persona, but also to tame others as well. The army you amass and the bonds you forge will strengthen these forces, and you may yet still identify the root of this disease.”

“...and I’m supposed to handle this cosmic catastrofuck alone?”

“Many will come to you, human and shadow alike. The Fool’s power lies in the union of many, used with wisdom.”

“Nevertheless,” Henri interjects, “as per the terms of your contract, the Velvet Room is bound to assist you. Our wisdom is limited by the will of fate, but my Compendium is open to you.” He taps the heavy book tied to his toga. “Any knowledge into the workings of shadows, personas, and the wider unconscious that we may share will be yours as requested. Likewise, you may also request my master to fuse your personas, so that stronger allies may come to be.”

The fog disperses behind the two, revealing a sacrificial altar, faint traces of blood in two different platforms.

“Hee-hoo, that looks nasty, eh.”

“Eh… I’ll consider it. This is… I assume there are no better choices, so if it comes to me… I’ll fix it. I will try, at least. I owe the people who didn’t escape the Hauntings that much, I think. Still… how do I start with this shitshow?”

“There are other factors at play already, my wild card. You foiled the consummation of your Haunting before it could even mature, so the Library will strike quick as it can. Be on the alert, my faithless. Have your faithful inquisitor at the ready.”

“And me, ho!”

“And him. We will return you to reality now, but know that the key in your hand will guide you back here when you wish so.”

Jenny looks down at it, the key being soiled by the cut in her hand that’s starting to return. As the fog seems to overtake all around her, she looks at her personas. There’s no precedent that Jenny knows for what she’s going through. Even as madness and disease would seem the logical choice when faced with this much unreality, she somehow feels… sure of herself. Not in the way kings do before falling in battle. But like the philosopher in their cave, when all else is long gone, and there is but the self. Truths come out in the darkness, and these truths may be batshit insane, but if they result in the world changing for the better… maybe her tightly-gripped fist is just what it needs. She awakes in the real world, the well long gone, and instead in the bushes besides the Ottawa Collegiate Institute. Familiarity washes at her, but before she can make the connection, the coming twilight urges her back to where she should be.


Sunday Evening

The Aubade House

George Aubade sits in the kitchen, eyeing the phone with an anxious, despairing glance. He waits for it to ring, be it from Caroline saying she’s found their daughter, or from Jenny herself. He shouldn’t worry. The four friends have gone off dark more than once before, sometimes even from each other. Still, tomorrow’s a school day, and the last few days have put George into a melancholic mood. He doesn’t want to think about the worst, but sometimes it’s all he can think about. It wouldn’t be the first Aubade he’s failed.

The door opens, and George slowly steps into its view, expecting an exhausted Caroline. What he finds, instead, is Jenny - in a Nosferatu-themed sweater. Even as she explains that this was all Dan had to lend her after she got her clothes dirty, Jenny finds herself trapped in a warm hug from her father. He touches her bandaged hand, and she tells him she grazed it, but his expression’s somber.

“I made you worry too much, father. I know… I know you don’t tell me, but mom’s made it clear enough. It’s not like that.”

“What is it then, Jenny?”

“I’ve looked at things the wrong way for a long time, and it’s hurt people. If I’m going to fix it, and I will, I need to change.”

“Will this involve… disappearing for a whole day again?”

“Hopefully not.”

“Just… don’t get lost in the stars, okay? You and your mother are all I have. Don’t suffer quietly, reach out to us if you need.”

“I won’t be quiet, dad. Aubades sing. I will reach out to you when I need it, and I know you’ll be there to reach back to me.”

With that said, they part from their hug, George tracing the bandage before pulling his hand back. He makes out a smile, one that’s fragile and wounded but still here, and she makes one of her own - just as wounded, but strengthened by what’s come to pass. It’s in this pause that a voice comes to her head, soothing her thoughts as an invisible glow washes over her father:

I am thou… thou art I.

Thou hast established a new bond… 

It will unveil that which obscures the spirit… 

Let the Hierophant be key to its mystery… 

The afterimage of the Hierophant’s card fades from sight, as Jenny realizes this is what Igor meant by bonds. She can feel her father’s presence feed into her own, and in her heart she knows it can grow even further. As George tells her he’ll call her mother and get dinner ready, she nods, saying she’ll take a quick nap. Climbing up the stairs to her room, she sets to do just so, but makes sure to log onto Chaos before hopping onto bed, leaving a final message on “Ronnie’s Cabaret” before a triumphant sleep overtakes her:

[9/8 7:04 PM] littlemisssunshine: I’m done hurting myself and others. None of us deserve this pain. 

[9/8 7:04 PM] littlemisssunshine: I won’t choose death - there’s too much life in the waiting.

[9/8 7:05 PM] littlemisssunshine: I will not wound that which I should cherish. I will make amends as many times as I need to.

[9/8 7:05 PM] littlemisssunshine: If that means forever, it will be the only life I’d rather live.

[9/8 7:06 PM] littlemisssunshine: I’m gonna crash for a bit though. TTYL.

[9/8 7:07 PM] dunkindong: N need 4 speech. We always w/u

[9/8 7:13 PM] AntiCisAktion: She’s Right. We’Re foRever.

And finally.

[9/8 7:32 PM] SerafinaPekkala: Thank you <3    

Chapter Text

Aubade: concert donné à l’aube sous les fenêtres de quelqu’un.


“By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied;

but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside,

where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.”

-Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena


1976

“Look, grandpa, I’ll find it! I’ll find the co-met!”

The little boy’s voice echoes in the rural Ontario hill. A multitude of stars shine down onto the grass below, unfettered by city lights and urban burdens. The boy, hopping about even as he holds the toy telescope in his tiny hands like it’s diamond, turns to his grandfather, the old man’s gaze fixed on the horizon. He pokes the non-responding man on his scarred hand, but gets no response. Again, no response.

“Grandpa Jerry…?”

The boy steps in front of him. Where red hair like the child’s once stood in the man’s head, there’s but fading white. His face’s forlorn, eyes like empty cameras, and the humble clothing - rural threads on an urban body - fits only in that it hides the worst of his age. The boy, by contrast, is vigorous, warm like the nearby cottage’s fireplace, and though dressed like his age, has the poise of someone closer to the other. Still, he is a child, and when ignored, a child takes matters into their own hands. The boy throws himself at his grandfather, arms set to crush him with a loving, demanding hug, when the old man’s eyes light up - not in care, but alarm. A weakened shove is still enough to send the boy hurtling back, the noise of his body hitting the dirt and rolling a few times enough to warn his parents. The father hurries to his own, trying to bring the grandfather out of his violent stupor, while the mother races to her child’s need, wrapping the sobbing boy in protective arms:

“George‒ you okay, George‒- it’s okay, what happened‒ George, don’t worry, it’s okay‒”

“Is grandpa‒ he went at‒ grandpa shoved me‒ I just‒ the comet‒ I wanted to show him the co-met!”

The starlight shines on. The Aubades turn back to the cottage, the sky above gifting only cool indifference and a constant promise.


1984

“Germain Aubade was a committed communist. When the call came out from Valencia to a world yet unfamiliar with fascist siege, he was the first to drop the factory switch and the protest sign in favor of a rifle and the fate of human progress. As a proud part of Canadian countrymen under the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, he rubbed shoulders with Spaniards and Americans alike as they fought for freedom and the promise of a better world. Though Spain fell, and so would the whole of Europe if not for Allies that looked past each other’s differences, the promise remained. He returned wounded in both body and spirit, and the government of the time saw it fit that he be recognized for neither. Such was Canada’s contempt for the man that he wasn’t even allowed to retake duty’s call in the World War that followed. Nevertheless, he made do with what he had, raising a son who would strive for more than what this country had given them, and who in turn would raise a son whose gaze would turn above countries, and onto the stars themselves. He died nearly forty years after the call came out, when Comet West took to our skies to shine yet another call for all of us - one that invites us to settle our scores and be united as a people beyond this Earth.”

George lets out a breath he’d been holding while reading his assignment to the rest of class. He glances at them, piously yearning for some support. The teacher, by his corner, grimaces, wondering what approach would work best here. The other students, meanwhile, are torn between teenage apathy and outright contempt of the overwritten sob story. Recognizing their reactions, George mumbles to himself, slowly edging back to his seat, to the teacher’s relief. This unspoken truce is soon broken by a characteristic, malicious snarl:

“Careful not to get lost in the stars like your daddy did,” the brutish boy mimics a hanging gasp, “Geooorgie!”    

What happens next is to be expected.


1992

“I have to say… a double major in both physics and psychology? That takes brains… or a lack of ‘em.”

“Check for yourself…”

Caroline giggles, the adult woman looking down at the young man whose head rests on her lap. With one hand, she caresses George’s curly, overgrown hair, while the other goes through yet another cigarette. Even through the veil of smoke above him, the university student can’t help but be entranced by the brown locks and the sharp face behind them. She’d been hired to counsel undergraduates in need through their career choices, and that’s what Caroline’s doing… in her own way. Having him cook dinner for her was definitely a plus, all things considered.

“It’s more of a promise than anything. My father and his father before him always looked to the stars… and they both had mental health troubles of their own. I had to honor both sides of them… and maybe… maybe, you see, I could unite them for the better‒”

“Like psychophysics? I snooped on your research folder, don’t mind me.”

“Heh. Exactly that‒ not simply to study how physical stimuli shape our perception, you know, but to wield it as well.”

“Mind control? Kinky.”

“More than that… a ‘psychophysical space’, where people would be put to ease - not like those cheap mall center tricks, something more… substantial. A place that would speak to them… like the stars do. Where we could ground ourselves… where we could be allowed to thrive and survive… and be rewarded for it.”

She puts out the last cigarette, resting it on her ear, then touches his scalp with both her hands. Nuzzling him, Caroline hums for a bit, before leaning down and kissing him square on the mouth. George widens his eyes, surprised, but leans into it, before pulling back.

“First time kissing a woman?”

“First time kissing Caroline Harris.”

“You’re confident it won’t be the only time?”

“I’m good at hypothesizing.”

He’s the one to initiate the next kiss, and his curls mesh with her locks. They soon join together as one.


1999

George looks at himself. Rather, a yellow-eyed version of himself. The fog has lifted from what once were the corridors of the Ottawa Collegiate Institute, revealing nothing less than outer space. The science teacher gasps, surprised to find himself breathing - even as he feels no air going into his lungs. His mind races into overdrive, pointing out each and every flaw of the cosmological scenery around them, from the light of the stars to the shape of the void. None explain why he’s here, or who stands grinning before him. The doppelganger speaks:

“I am your shadow, George Aubade. The evening song to your morning chant. The black hole to your sun.”

“What‒ how are you? How am I here? What do you want?!”

“I’m the revelation you’ve kept inside for so long that a Haunting grew out of it. The truth of the Aubades.”

George looks at his Shadow, some sort of spacesuit covering irradiated, burnt skin. Its mere presence triggers nausea, vertigo, panic… like psychophysics. Like it was designed to do so. Designed by someone who peeked inside his soul and found all that was ugly in it.

“What do you‒ there’s no… there’s no truth. There’s no truth!”

“But there is promise. A promise of pain and death and dementia. Be scientific about it, George - am I wrong?”

“You‒ fuck, fuck you! It’s fucking mental ilness, not a fucking curse!”

Shadow George chuckles, its engorged laugh seeming to come from a thousand throats.

“Two names for the same happenstance. You’ve seen it happen over and over; this hypothesis has been well and truly verified. Every time an Aubade reaches out - every time you try and make do on promise, on connection, you end up burned.”

At that, the spacesuit’s personal force field lights up, only to catch fire. George steps back, knocking himself backwards onto the platform ground they seem to be on. Shadow George pays no mind to its charred flesh, simply crouching down at the man’s level:

“Grandpa Jerry’s dead. Father is dead. Mother is a wreck. Your childhood friends hate you - your colleagues think you queer. Caroline lost her job because of her love for you. What was your crime? To reach out, to open yourself to the world. Aubades burn.”

“Aubades burn‒ fuck you! Fuck you! This‒ it’s a torture chamber, is that it? You… it’s just about making me suffer, is that it?”

Shadow George suddenly lunges, grabbing George’s arm. He flinches, but the fire that spreads to his clothes doesn’t seem to burn him. He’s helped up by the Shadow, who looks into his eyes, its own seeming almost pitying:

“Not at all. Give up on promises. Give up on burning. Be the black hole, and I’ll be the sun. Nobody will reach you anymore.”

“P-promise?”

Both giggle, as the flames consume them, leaving behind the possessed George Aubade, who sits atop the Dyson Sphere’s center.


2002

“There we go, there we go… there! Whoa, she’s a gem!”

The doctor carefully raises the newborn girl, doozy face covered with vernix. Caroline, groggy from the excruciating pain, can only giggle in satisfaction, whilst George, hand crushed by her grasp, lets out a squeal. The baby stays quiet, worrying those present, but a quick check from the nurse confirms that heart rate and breathing are normal.

“Feet-first, and yet here she is. This little girl’s a fighter! You two should be proud.”

The nurse gently wraps a towel around her, ready to move to postnatal procedures, but Caroline gives her a death glare:

“Now. You can do that later.”

Fearful, the nurse complies, handing the baby over to George, who gently rests her atop her mother, whilst the procedural staff wait for the placenta to come out.

“You’ve seen it all, haven’t you, girl,” Caroline whispers, “nothing shakes you, does it?”

“She’s scared of her mother, like she should be.” George laughs at the subsequent glare.

“Well, her mother’s finally figured out her name, if you’re not scared of that.”

“Oh? What will it be, love?”

“Jenny. After your grandfather. Germaine sounded a bit too antique, so I tried to follow up in spirit.”

“It’s… it’s…” George’s face frowns slightly.

“Oh?”

“It’s great, Caroline. I’m just,” he gestures at the room, “a bit overwhelmed, is all.”

“Well,” Caroline smiles, “I’m the one riding that pain high, so you buckle up a bit more, okay?”

“Of course, of course.” Nevertheless, Aubades burn still echoes inside his head.

Jenny finally realizes she’s alive, and lets out a heartful cry to compensate.


2008

The credits roll. The Michael Giacchino score is replaced by a new theme, as Chim-Chim rampages through the screen. The Speed Racer movie is over. Children are turbocharged by sheer awesomeness, parents are either baffled or discreetly awed as well, and the rest are simply snoozing or epileptic at this point from the computer-generated barrage. The Aubades leave the theater, the normally reserved Jenny acting way more hyper than usual, to George’s consternation and Caroline’s delight.

“This movie FLIPPIN’ ROCKED!”

“Langu‒ ouch‒ yes, little miss, it sure did.” Caroline retracts her elbow, pecking her husband on the cheek.

“B-but… mommy, daddy, you saw that, there… in the end, the X dude… Speed’s brother…”

“What about him, dear?” Caroline asks.

“...like, they vroom and vroom and defeated all of the evil suit people, b-but his brother… he still didn’t go back to his family…”

“Because he kept it a secret.” George explains.

“Yeah, you big furry dummy, ‘he kept it a secret’, b-but… why? Why the se-cret?”

Jenny’s eyes are wide and unfocused, but an intense feeling’s felt behind the childish glare. George and Caroline look at each other, and the latter nods. They stop by a bench, his wife saying she’ll grab some chocolate, as George has his daughter sit down:

“You know you’re a smart girl, right, Jenny? A very mature, intelligent, scarily intelligent girl.”

“You said intelligent twice, dad!”

“Oops, I did. I better watch what I say, right? It’s important to know what we’re saying at any given time, don’t you agree?”

“Mom tells me that every-time we visit grandma, dummy. We don’t make people sad by saying wrong things, I get it!”

“Of course you do, little miss, you really are too smart. So, sometimes, when we don’t say things, what do they become?”

“Uh… mmmmm‒ wait! Mmmm… secrets? The things we don’t say… daddy, you’re saying they’re se-crets?”

“That’s right. Sometimes we have to keep secrets… to keep our friends… our families… to keep them safe. To keep them happy.”

Jenny’s gaze turns down, reflecting inwards, before she raises her head and speaks her verdict:

“That’s so dumb, dad.”

“Is it?”

“Yesssss, dummy! Look, dad… There are, umm, two things, types of things you don’t say. Things both know, and things only you know. When you don’t say a thing that, like, you and the other person know, that’s… mom said that’s a sign of respect, I think. B-but, like, then, when you don’t say a thing, and the other person doesn’t know that you’re sa‒ not saying, the thing you’re not saying, the secret, uh… look, if you care about the person, you can tell them WHATEVER. It’s like, they care, they trust, they… they should know, that’s what I think. Right?”

“That’s,” George swallows, processing the argument she just made, “that’s a beautiful opinion, Jenny. Don’t forget it.”

“I won’t!”

Caroline’s arrival seems to deter any further introspection, but the five-year old manages one last line:

“Anyway, daddy, secrets are all really fucking dumb.”


2012

George looks out the window as Jenny runs out with her friends. The loud brunette, the energetic asian boy, the quiet raven-haired girl. They make for a proper fab four of sorts. Content that they’re within the neighborhood, George settles in the kitchen, uOttawa’s endless rows of paperwork seeming to brim through the ceiling into the depths of his consciousness. Nevertheless, a ring of the doorbell wakes him from this formulaic trance, and he steps out of purgatory to answer the door, only to be met by a young man in a far too ironed out suit with a badge.

“Umm, CSIS specialist, mister… ‘Chester Cole’, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I was told to look for your expertise, Mr. Aubade.”

“Look,” he hesitates at the agent’s youth, “uh, ‘sir’, if you need consultation, my office hours are very much open to you. I’m a professor at the Department of Physics of Ottawa University, so I believe‒”

“Nonsense, eh.”

Agent Cole forces his way in with a smile, a timid bouquet on his other hand. George glances at it - all blue roses - before Cole settles down where the university professor used to be seated, arms outstretched as he yawns comically:

“I won’t be long, Mr. Aubade. I’ll be long gone before your wife gets home… I just need information.”

“Erm, ‘by hook or by crook’?”

“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” Cole answers, missing the reference, “we’ll even pretend this conversation, well, it never happened.”

“Say what you came in to say, ‘sir’.”

“Well, well,” he flips through his note cards, “do you know of an individual by the name of Stephen Campbell?”

The sense that a knife’s pierced through his brain makes George squirm, but he shakes it off at once:

“I… can’t say I have, no. Could you specify who you’re referring to?”

Cole flips again, a bit frustrated, then continues: 

“You were a science teacher in the Ottawa Collegiate Institute from 1996 to 2005, is my information correct?”

“A physics teacher, yes.”

“Was Stephen Campbell among any of your students?”

The knife-feeling strikes through again, but no matter how far it goes, there’s nothing for it to reach.

“No. I remember their faces - there was no Mr. Campbell among them. Why all this trouble?”

“A Mr. Stephen Campbell is registered on the Institute’s paper records, but wholly absent from its digital copies.”

“I’m afraid it was the administration’s duty to check records, not the teachers’, ‘sir’.”

“Smartass, eh.” He smiles evilly: “Just about done. Does the word ‘shadow’ bring up any sort of familiarity?”

This conversation’s somehow bringing him pain, but George decides to power through it, unabated:

“It’s a, umm, it’s a common word, ‘sir’. Is this meant to be some sort of secret agent code?”

Cole waves the thought away with a gesture, then concludes: “Last question - what are your experiences with burning?”

Aubades burn.

“Well… my grandfather, he had a break, and, and he d-died when I was no older than six or seven. They cremated him. Threw his ashes to the wind over the night sky. My… my, my father… When I was fifteen, my f-father… he self-immolated. He’d had depression, coupled with stress and… and… I think he wanted… f-felt like he needed… grandfather… sometimes I burned a bit too. Does that satisfy you?”

The youngster pulls a watch-looking device from his pocket, acting like some sort of counter, and carefully looks over the glyphs in it. Sighing, he places it back, then turns to George, placing his notes back inside another pocket.

“I think that’s all, Mr. Aubade. I’ll just leave you with this,” he plucks a blue rose from the bouquet, and leaves it among the house’s own.

“What are you‒”

“It’s the Blue Rose. Boss said they got it from that old tv show. Tried to watch it as a kid, but dad always sent me to bed. Fathers, eh?”

“...fathers.”

“Anyway, mail a blue rose back to us if you ever come across something that could be of use. It can be more important than you’re even able to imagine, Mr. Aubade.”

George guides Cole to the door, before shoving it on his face and locking it with force. He walks back to the kitchen, intent on curing his headache with work, but the blue rose seems to be its own siren song of sorts. He moves to it, and wonders in returning familiarity

“Stephen Campbell…?”


2017

“Look, love, it’s just‒ no, forget it, you’re right. You’re right! I’m just being paranoid‒ gotta go. See ya, bye.”

From his desk, Professor George Aubade, previously engrossed in a call, looks up at the uniformed woman in front of him. She’s held onto the door to enter quietly, but now lets it go with a sheepish smile. George takes a minute to look over her: impeccably-ordered service dress uniform, tied-back tian hair, roundish pinhole glasses. She extends her arm forward, presenting her hand:

“Brigadier-General Sydney Weyland, Joint Task Force Central. Am I interrupting?”

He shakes her hand, trying to keep his cool and not seem all that unnerved:

“Dr. George Aubade, Chair of the University of Ottawa Physics Department‒ you probably know that, sorry. I… my daughter, she’s been enrolled in OCI and, well… I’m proud, of course I am‒ sorry, I’m rambling, but my gut’s not feeling quite right about it.”

She giggles innocently: “It’s important to trust your gut, doctor. Except when it’s turned against you.”

“What… What do you mean by that, General Weyland?”

“Puh-leeeee-ase,”  she says, friendly, “call me Syd, doctor. Come, I’ve talked to mister Frémont already, we sorted it all out. Come!”

She beckons him to follow her out his office, which he does, reluctantly.

“W-what is this about, Br‒ Syd?”

“Think cognition. You remember Tokyo?”

“The… the Phantom Thieves? Vaguely…”

“Vaguely is right. ‘Vaguely’ is also a problem when even your embedded operatives can’t remember a thing straight. Human intelligence, signal intelligence, technical intelligence, all gone to SHIT! We were blind as babies…”

“You’re talking about some sort of amnestic effect?”

“I’m talking about a lot of things. Bad things. Worse things.”

As they reach one of the STEM Complex’s conference rooms, watched over by two soldiers in plainclothes, a gas-masked kid joins them, reaching out with their gloved hands to grab George’s. Weyland smirks softly at him, and he lets the child grasp them, their thumbs pressing onto his palms. The valves in the mask seem to shift, letting out a foggy substance, before they let go of him and turn to Weyland:

“Clear.’

“Thank you, Ridley. That’s all for now,” she turns to George, “can’t have any Shadow Operatives snooping inside your head.”

“Snooping inside…?”

She shushes him with a press of her finger, then walks him inside, where he recognizes fellow faculty from psychology and engineering. Weyland gestures for him to sit in front of her like the others, and he does, finding himself in the center of this impromptu assembly.

“Most people in the field know of cognitive psience from the invasive events in Tokyo during the year 2016. Kids playing robin hood with fire from the fucking gods, as common sources seem to ascertain. The truth, however, is that cognitive psience dates back to decades ago… as far back as the early twentieth century, from what we now know. The trouble with mapping it out, is that the corrective effect of cognition washes away its scars like sandcastles in the beach. Do you get what I mean by this? Cognition change is untraceable. This isn’t psyops with a paper trail of leaflets leading straight back to army printers - this is surgery with invisible knives. Sleeper agents turned with a flick of a brain nerve, morale that is literally manufactured by itself… that’s just the tip of what cognitive warfare would entail. We’ve blurred the lines between civilians and combatants so many times, but this would make the distinction wholly obsolete. Mind, body, terrain, all the same.

“All around the world, in Iran, China, Russia, the United States, this same conversation is taking place. They’ve made the calculations, and they know that if they don’t get their head in the game, ‘they’ would cease to exist as wholly-independent entities. Their entire identity will depend on a sort of power projection that extends everywhere. They will build weapons of war, literal mind-killers that will simply spear through populations and render them void. As for us… I don’t want a spear, gentlemen and women, I want a shield. Can you build one for all of us?”

“This…” a voice rings out from one of them, “this is insane. We’d need… a full committee, at least, international if we‒”

“They already have those, professor. ‘Shadow treaties’, ‘shadow resolutions’, not that they do much good for this country. This is more of an independent endeavor. Does anyone here trust Donald Trump to help us through this? I don’t think so. What we need is proof of concept, and I’m confident you and your brightest students can deliver that. As for you, Dr. Aubade, I’d like you to lead this project.”

“Me?”

“Your doctorate was on ‘psychophysical spaces’ - you’re our gap between cognitive investigation… and literal cognitive engineering. I need you to build a psychophysical space… or to use the common term, a metaverse. Or you and your daughter will burn like all of us.”

George looks straight at her, eyes inscrutable behind the pinholes, and, feeling his shaking hands come to a halt, he answers:

“I’ll do it. We’ll build your Svalinn.”

“Good boy. ‘MINDSEYE’ is now operational as of this moment.”


2019

“This TRAVESTY will go on no longer, you TRAITORS!”

Ludovic Nuvall, leader of the True Party of Canada, stands atop a pile of shelfs in the project room. A loose horde of patriotic militants have barged in, holding most of the research staff to one side, whilst some grapple and fend with the remaining scientists. George has been dragged close to the babblering man, watching ‘Nutty’ Nuvall do his preaching as they raid and sabotage the Mind’s Eye Project for the phones aimed at them, live streaming this publicity stunt everywhere. A true partisan hands some papers to Nuvall, who flips through them:

“Look at this… LOOK AT THIS! Cognitive… Magatsuhi…these people are researching the SOUL! The precious God-given human soul! That’s where all that ‘taxpayer’ money they borrow from the UPSTANDING, MORAL CITIZEN goes to! To PERVERT OUR VERY NATURE! Are you mad as hell? Are you tired of being quiet when they TAKE so much and GIVE so little? When they make LAWS about the world, about creation, about a private citizen’s RIGHTS? Do you see GREATNESS in this country? Do you? I DON’T, AND I’M NUTS ABOUT IT!”

His spit drools down his blonde beard - all very much calculated, of course. The orderly hostage-taking, the care that his thugs are taking when ripping the papers apart, it’s all aiding the performance. It’s easy to get swept in from afar, even if - or especially if - you disagree with his vulgar ‘politics’, but up close it falls apart fast. Does that terrify George more? After all, even if Nuvall puts up a show, he clearly seems to believe the core of what he says. Just like Grandpa Jerry did. They both stared into the stars, with the difference being that Ludovic’s alive.

“WHAT CAN I DO, the good man asks. He’s tired of the degenerate science, the cowardly faith, the traitorous tolerance. WHAT CAN HE DO, I ask you all. HE CAN BELIEVE, you tell me. He can believe in MAN, believe in GOD, believe in STRENGTH! We built empires, and we‒”

“YOU BUILT NOTHING, FAT PIG! ALL YOU’VE DONE IS BREAK SHIT AND CRY LIKE A BABY, YOU FUCKING LOSER!”

It took most of a student’s voice, but they managed to get the phone cameras’ attention. Stepping back, they allow the front charge to step in - wielding chairs like phalanx spears, the burly students push through into the room, blocking off the closest partisans. They curse and spit at the young volunteers, but they respond with laughter - probably practiced, from the synchronicity of it. The tactic works, and the enraged thugs break rank, allowing the second line to act. These ones all carry bats or hockey sticks, moving in formation to ambush their adversaries, closing them off from each other. The final line, made of the faster students, carries a mass of ropes tied together at the end, using it to encircle the struggle from the rest of the room. The students inside, as if on a mosh pit, collide against the thugs, knocking them off balance, as those on the outside pull them out. The stranglehold a success, they herd the captured partisans to the door, untying the rope so they can flee like the cowards they are. The whole operation leaves only Ludovic Nuvall and a couple other TPC militants remaining, who chase after them.

“That’s something campus security never would’ve managed,” one of the student researchers comments, “not that they’d want to.”

“Doesn’t matter,” says the student from earlier, “if we have to, we’ll hold this city ourselves. I’m tired of mister nutella’s voice.”

They walk up to George, still seated on the floor, and help him up, a disarming smile offsetting poor shaving:

“Luc Mackendy, they/them. Randall’s told me a whole lot ‘bout you, professor. I would love to hear more.”

It’s been too long since he’s had a non-physics, non-project student go out of their way like this. George wants nothing more than to share ideas, put them under his wing, maybe even mentor them through graduation. But instead, what comes out is more like this:

“Oh, uh… sure, Mackendy. We’ll… we’ll talk later. My office is always a good place, if… if so. Thank you, I must go.”


September 8, 2019

George Aubade sits in the kitchen, eyeing the phone with an anxious, despairing glance. He’s got plenty of reasons to assume his daughter is fine, that this is all some teenage bullshit or the like. Still, how could he know? If the black holes and revelations of his life have taught him anything, it is that all he touches goes away - the closer the touch, the stronger the burn. Sure, sometimes he feels like he’s lived a half-life of sorts, never making the move, always shying away from others, but that’s a necessary… sacrifice. The stars are meant to be seen from afar, right? To yearn for everything, to have it ever close, to consume indiscriminately - that’s the behavior of a dead star. One that burned itself out long ago, and, sure, George has burned too… he can still feel it when he presses down by accident… but there’s plenty of fire left to go. Enough for Caroline, enough for Jenny. If he shares the burn just enough, maybe it’ll be him who’s failed, instead of everybody else.

The sound of the door opening scrapes these thoughts from his mind’s surface, and he moves to greet his wife, readying to share what pain will come, but instead it’s… Nosferatu, worn in a sweater by Jenny. She’s mumbling something, but much like the silent sirens on his head that warn him of affection, he pays both no mind. Hugging his daughter like he hugged her all the time and will hug her for all time, George finds peace of mind for a moment, broken by the sight of her bandaged hand. Worry, pain, compassion, all comes flooding back in as he touches it.

“I made you worry too much, father.” She says. “I know… I know you don’t tell me, but mom’s made it clear enough. It’s not like that.”

“What is it then, Jenny?” He asks, realizing there’s only doubt in his voice.

“I’ve looked at things the wrong way for a long time, and it’s hurt people. If I’m going to fix it, and I will, I need to change.”

The words hit him right where he realizes they hit her when she thought of them. God almighty, he’s done it all wrong.

“Will this involve…” he wonders, distracted, “disappearing for a whole day again?”

“Hopefully not.” Smartass.

“Just…” George begins, wishing these words more on him than her, “don’t get lost in the stars, okay? You and your mother are all I have.” He breathes in. “Don’t suffer quietly, reach out to us if you need.”

Her eyes glisten proudly: “I won’t be quiet, dad. Aubades sing. I will reach out to you when I need it, and I know you’ll be there to reach back to me.”

They part from their hug, warmth shared in both body, mind, and soul, as he traces the bandage, remembering those he had made for himself. He won’t ask for the truth, but he doesn’t need it - his daughter, his family’s all he needs. He makes out a smile, one that’s fragile and wounded but still there, and she makes one of her own - just as wounded. As a pause fills the space between the two, George can only think:

Aubades sing.


1976

Grandpa Jerry lies on a hospital bed. While his parents talk to the doctor outside, George sits by his grandfather, head leaning on his frail arms. Jerry, for his part, watches the morning light hit the bland ceiling of his room. Weakened, disoriented, burdened, the old man asks a request of his grandson - for him to see the small, fading light in the daytime sky. Carrying his chair close to the window, he does so, being told that’s the star Sirius. Resisting the urge to cough, Jerry looks at his grandson’s back, legs waving on the chair, and tells him one more thing:

“S-sing for me, Georgie. Aubades sing.”

The boy, confused, nevertheless complies, mumbling the words to a very familiar song that he’s managed to memorize:

Ground Control to Major Tom, Ground Control to Major Tom

take your protein pills and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom

commencing countdown, engines on

Check ignition and may God’s love be with you…  

Having strained with the lyrics, George decides to keep on, intent on honoring his grandfather’s wish. Facing the star and light, he sings, while behind him, Germain Aubade’s slow, tortured breathing comes to a stop - the morning star gifting him not indifference… but hope.

Chapter Text

“In a world that has been thoroughly permeated by the structures of social order, 

a world that so overpowers every individual that scarcely any option remains 

but to accept it on its own terms, such naiveté reproduces itself incessantly and disastrously.”

-Theodor Adorno, Why Still Philosophy?


???

Cora turns the dial on her lock. The narrow locker-lined corridors surround her, devoid of the usual human stampede. A shiver runs through her, and she almost laughs out loud. She’s heard all the stories; Gabrielle and the rest of the soccer team can’t get enough of breaking in new girls. Every corridor of this ancient building has a ghost story of its own, from the eighteen fifties all the way to the two thousands. It’s almost… comforting. To know that she’d been watched over. A true believer makes peace with the unknown. Even if the unknown means leaving Sam… Ronnie… Jenny… no, why think of it. Out of mind, it won’t come to pass. Something’ll come up, surely‒

Fuck, she spun it too much. There, now, perfect. Strange. It’s not opening. Cora clutches at the lock, spinning it again, ignoring the fog that creeps at the corner of her eyes. Spinning, spinning, her field of vision seems to unfurl. Rather, it’s the lockers. The hallway. Falling away into reflections, unfurling as they spin, a thousand shadows lurking in the edge, until… beauty. Shining spires, glittering fountains, trees hung with jewels. It’s just as she imagined it would be. Cora proceeds down the cobbled path, turning it to yellow bricks with each step. Yellow-eyed, tarot-masked silhouettes watch from afar, while she strolls happily into the castle above. Now she is in.

Consumption begins.


SEPTEMBER 9, 2019

Monday morning

Ottawa Collegiate Institute

S&P/TSX: -40.24C$ / Temp: 15℃

Ronnie chomps down on a cereal bar. Mike winces at the crunchy noise, but disguises it with a louder mouth fart. Bonnie laughs, before a nod from Gabrielle makes them jolt out of the room together. Jacques watches them go, appreciatively, before a backhanded slap from Marietta puts him in his place. Dan pays them no mind, rambling to Sam and Tristan about something involving police boxes, the former eyeing Colin suspiciously. He tries to carve a hammer and sickle into his desk, but barely manages a scratch. Maryam sits atop it, chit chatting with Wilfred, who can’t hide his blushing even as Burt fumes‒

“You tend to survey all your surroundings, young girl. It is fascinating to witness.”

Jenny’s broken out of her spell. She knows Yacob’s in her head‒ is her head, technically, but it used to be not so chatty. Jack’s a bit more quiet, but she catches some ‘hee-hoos’ from time to time. The visor’s safe inside her bag, but if she were to pull it out, she’d be able to see the two of them. More than that, obviously, but her priorities lie elsewhere. Cora lies elsewhere, and that worries her alot‒

“Hee-hoo, that’s one loud bell y’all got there.”

The class quiets down as it rings, eleventh-graders taking their places, while Mr. Huxley adjusts his thick-rimmed glasses and scratches his impressive grey beard. Coughing a bit too fakely, he travels his sight from corner to corner of the class.

“Alright, then. Guess we’ll get started.”

“Wish I had a beard like that,” Mike whispers wistfully, “real philosopher-like.”

“All in good time, man.” Jacques states, while Huxley sets up his slides, grumbling much less philosophical words.

“I dunno. Look at my face - I’m no Childish Gambino. Think the most I’ll ever manage is… OG Shaft?”

“Dude? You’re complaining about THAT?! Look, I’m not Dan, but‒”

The actual Dan flips the bird with a push of his glasses, shushing them in time for Mr. Huxley to begin his lecture:

“Right! So… I’ve talked to you a lot last year about what these old guys in wigs had to say… and that’s great, that’s philosophy. But that’s not all philosophy is. Rousseau was never on Snapchat‒ or, you know, whatever‒ so you could say he doesn’t really say all that could be said about our age. This weird, crazy, paradoxical age all y’all are growing up in. How does philosophy work when you can search ‘me-ta-phy-sics’ in your Google machine and get the five minute Youtube explainer? Well, I’ll tell you it works just fine. But it’s not quite the same… in some respects, it’s quite different. You’ve heard of information overload‒ I mean, people haven’t shut up about this damn thing since y’all were fetuses. That’s not really the issue here, though. It’s the omnipresence of readily-available information. Got a question? Wanna know the answer? Search it up! That’s how we think these days. That’s how your generation’s been conditioned to. I mean, you could do it right now… on my prehistoric BlackBerry, even. Let’s say… who’s got a question?”

Terrified, awkward silence. Dan dutifully prepares for the sacrifice, when both Ronnie and Mike raise their hands at once. They stare each other down, Huxley slowly moving his pointing finger between the two of them, before settling on the boy.

“What was John Diefenbaker’s dog called?”

“Oh. Perfect.”

Laughter erupts. Mr. Huxley duly searches it, taking a little time to type it out.

“Happy, apparently. A Labrador Retriever. Well, if you learn one thing from today’s class, let this be it.”

“This man does not express himself in the clearest fashion… but it is clear his wisdom is great.”

Jenny nods along to Yacob, whilst the class’s raucous laughter dies down in time for the teacher to resume his lecture:

“Here’s the thing. When you’ve got all the wisdom you need right in your pocket… right there… so you don’t even have to think about it… then it gets very easy to take it for granted. To assume that knowledge and understanding can be acquired simply by seeking them. If you remember our friend Socrates, that’s what he warned y’all against. Sophists - the lifestyle gurus of fifth century Athens - might sell wisdom for a reasonable price, but not Socrates. He knew that wisdom wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t cheap. We’ve lost sight of our need for philosophy, of all it represents, funnily enough, by quoting it, and explaining it, and referencing it to no end. That’s just one of the paradoxes of the Internet age.”

“Say,” Jacques whispers to Sam, “couldn’t you say that Huxley’s commodifying philosophy just by discussing it? Whaddya say, Sammy?”

“You could.” She smiles. “But then you’d be an asshole, ‘Jacky’.”

He laughs his irrepressibly tinkling laugh, attracting Huxley’s attention. Jenny sighs deeply, Jack-o’-Lantern hee-hooing.

“It seems Jacques has something to say. Perhaps about the liberating power of jokes cutting through phony veneration?”

“Y-yeah… that. Sir.”

“Good. Skipping over the thought-provoking implications, we’ll resume our introductory class.”


Monday Midday

Ottawa Collegiate Institute [Cafeteria]

They agreed to meet up here. Most people their age usually eat out or elsewhere in school, so Jenny waits in line among a rabble of ninth-graders to get some lunch‒ or rather, for Ronnie to get some lunch. She clutches her ‘lunch bag’, yesterday’s leftovers in it, as Ronnie butts heads with the lousy line jumpers, who are all close to Jenny’s size, tragically enough. The woes of being shortest in class, you could say. The quest done, the two head on over to a nice table, scaring their juniors away with sharp glares, as Jenny peeks at Sam, who’s discreetly handing out flyers to the corridor people. Waving her over, the girl hops on, carrying her own lunch.

“Diefenbaker’s fucking labrador,” Ronnie whines, “I wanted the nuclear codes. Hey, lemme check sumthin’...”

She takes a bite out of Jenny’s lunch, humming appreciatively, before making for a conclusion:

“Yesterday’s food still fresher than the corner-cutting crap they feed the little rat fucks. What is this, vegan growth hormone?”

“Don’t tell Jenny or she’ll dive in,” Sam jokes, “but anyway, Cora didn’t come today, right? Swear I saw her this morning.”

“Trick of the eye, Sam.” Ronnie adds, “once thought I’d seen Jen, turns out it was fuckin’ Quentin of all people.”

“I find that… improbable,” Jenny interjects, seriously, “but fact of the matter is she didn’t come in. I don’t like it.”

“She’s probably helping… helping with the move. We’ll check on her tomorrow, don’t worry. You wanted to say something?”

Jenny quiets down, looking at the lunch table, thinking of what she’ll tell them, when Ronnie interrupts her train of thought:

“Quit with ya speeches. We know them, we like them, we won’t fuckin’ tire of them, but we don’t need them right now.”

“She’s right, Jenny. You already apologized back at Elgin. Things… happened, but intent still stands. Or is there…?”

“Yes… yes, there is. I… reflected on things yesterday, and I’ve gone at this all wrong. I thought myself sick, so I quarantined myself from others, tried to face down my own nightmare world alone. It felt like the right thing to do - to protect all of you, to make sure you’d never be hurt. But that was how I hurt everybody. I hurt my parents, I hurt you two, I hurt Cora… most of all, I hurt myself even more. I’ll still hurt you all more until it’s all over… if it will ever be over. But maybe that hurt is part of something more… something bigger… and if I open up, I can share all of it with you. The good, the bad, the ugly, you’ve more than earned all that there is of me. The world we’re in might be grey, but there’s so many‒ so many fucking shades, they need to be seen in full. Together. That’s… there it is.”

“She did the fookin’ speech again.”

“Yes, and it’s always music to my ears,” Sam states, thoughtful, “but it’s not what we need to hear.”

“It’s easy to speak of openness perched atop one’s fortress of solitude.” Yacob likewise admonishes.

Jenny winces at his remark, and Sam catches sight of it, continuing her calm, careful response:

“Rather, it’s not that we need to hear it, but that we need to see it. This isn’t the first time you’ve made amends, Jenny. Hell, it’s not the first time any of us fucked up good enough that we had to. This is routine. What we always did, and what you need to do now, is show us what those words are worth. After that time I broke Ronnie’s arm, I promised to be mindful of my forcefulness - fast forward to now, and when’s the last time I laid a strong finger on any of‒ Ronnie that doesn’t count don’t even fucking say it‒ anyway, to promise to be more open is always welcome, but we need you to open your castle doors, Jenny. That will be meaningful, worthy of yourself.”

“Just be a bit more open, girl. No need for a Gabriella Montez character arc.”

“Don’t. Trigger those memories.” Sam reflexively reaches for a cigarette, only to remember she’s out - and in school.

“I‒ you can count on it… Opening up. I will, Sam. Ronnie. I will try. You can trust me.”

“Of course we can. We’re the Superfriends. Also, I’m glad nobody’s breaking into song yet.”

“Ninth fooking graders. These fetuses prolly never heard of High School Musical.”

Some of them proceed to side eye the three girls from across the room, but Ronnie flips them the bird with a fork. They settle down and finish their respective lunches, swapping bits of each other’s meals, and stay seated together, letting the silence - and the noise of beeping phones - fester amicably over their rest. As the bell nears ringing, the three stand, moving for their lockers:

“By the way,” Sam starts, “gonna head on over to the Glebe after class. Pamphlet them a bit for the climate march next friday.”

“Those Glebeians?” Ronnie chortles “I’m comin’ with you. Not sure ya’ll get anything through their dummy thick skulls‒”

“Better me than Colin or the rest of the Gonzaloist LARP brigade. Are you coming too, Jenny?”

“I’m afraid I have some practice to look forward to. Wish me luck… and hopefully we’ll pick it up with Cora tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Sam wonders, as the bell overwhelms their hearing, “hopefully.”


Monday afternoon

Ottawa Collegiate Institute [Corridors]

“This doesn't look like practice, hoo!”

Jenny shushes her persona, sneaking inside an unused classroom. Leaving her bag by a corner, she zips it open, shuffling through her stuff. Visor in hand, she zips it back, then puts the glasses on. At once, the empty room is revealed to be full. She pays no mind to the formless shadows in each seat, crawling through the windows, grasping at her from below - the faint light of wisdom keeps them away. The fog leaks in from everywhere, and as Jenny opens the door, the once-packed corridor is now bare of people. She strolls through it, the smoky lockers of no attention to her but Cora’s, and stops by a window. The glass swirls with her touch, boiling as if to blow vapor at her, but, by instinct - or something more - she simply inserts her arm, grabbing an unseen doorknob and pulling the door open. Stepping inside the Library of Souls, Jenny finds herself in her suit once more, and flexes a bit too eagerly.

“The strength of your soul determines your strength here, young girl. What will you do?”

“Fighting’s like debating. It’s a skill that needs sharpening. I need to be prepared.”

Guiding herself by the wiring of the illuminated wing, Jenny arrives at the frontier to the untamed zone. Materializing weapons, she steps through, ready to rumble. Nothing happens. Looking around, she shrugs, then walks on for a bit, one or two stray shadows catching her sight from a distance. Stumbling onto a chest, she cocks her gun, then leans in, silently blowing it open. Shifting through its contents, Jenny grabs some smoke bombs, a yashichi, and a couple bill stacks of an unknown currency, which all fit comfortably inside her pockets somehow. Shrugging again, she opts to flip through the books arranged on the corridor shelves, not actually looking at any of them. The titles vary from mechanical - dates and locations - to ambiguous - a picture of a sunflower - but they all seem to describe… events? Memories? Yacob’s echo is about to ring out with a suggestion, when Jenny slips on a creaky wire. The book in her hand falls forward, but she’s caught in the nick of time. Catching her breath, Jenny realizes she heard no crashing noise, and finds the book now held by a tarot-masked crab. Confused and slightly worried, she then turns to the hand gripping her, finding it’s similarly masked. And also disembodied. As the shadow tightens its grip, she materializes her pistol, blowing a hole through the XIII in its mask. She does the same to the crab, its VI cracking as they dissolve into smoke, but the gas attracts a host of Deadly Hands, charging right at her.

Stepping on another Loving Pincer, she calculates her options - there’s no way she can face the horde alone. Touching her suit pocket, she grabs the smoke bombs, hoping their effect is as cartoonish as they look. She throws them to the ground, and the resulting smoke wall successfully halts the Deadly Hands. Looking back, Jenny sees herself covered, so she grabs at the yashichi, noticing its pinwheel shape, and winds it up at the wall. It runs itself out, the item vanishing, but a powerful gust of wind spreads the smoke, blinding the shadows. Taking a deep breath, the persona-wielder runs inside the confusion, stepping through the host, before arriving at the other end of the zone, free from the freaky sprites… and face to face with a cohort of four monstrous, unmasked shadows.

“Just got out of a handsy situation… no patience for the fucking monster squad beatles. Yacob!”  

The mosaic angel materializes above her, his ribbons lashing out at the stingray and goblin shadows. Simultaneously so, the plant-like screecher tries to pummel Jenny - she summons her staff just in time, parrying its strike. She unlocks the staff, splitting it into its three sections, then raises it vertically, hitting the shadow with the bottom end. A slash cuts through her shoulder, and she blocks the next attack with the top end, facing the daemon-like shadow. Yacob’s charged by the stingray, but protects himself with a ribbon net, trapping it and ramming it at the daemon. Freed, Jenny turns to the screecher, striking it forward and wrapping the staff around its head, strangling the shadow. The goblin shadow casts a spell, draining some of Jenny’s vitality, and she lets go of the screecher, panting. Grabbing her shoulder, she gestures to Yacob, who casts a kouha spell - the forthcoming blast of light knocks the shadow down, and Jenny finishes it off with a shot, dissipating the goblin. She fires a couple of warning shots at the stingray, freeing itself from the net, then gestures at the screecher - Yacob chooses to cast Hama, and it is as if time stops. Glowing card sigils surround the screecher, and a final howl can almost be heard before the light surrounds it, the shadow no more. The daemon strikes then, however, a cursed blast hitting Yacob dead-center. Jenny’s knocked back, Yacob unsummoned, and she grasps her visor, breathing faster. In it, another echo remains, and she summons Jack-o’-Lantern, giggling. The fiery persona concentrates, Jenny gasping harder, then launches a fireball straight at the daemon. The agi spell’s a success, burning through the daemon, and leaving nothing behind. Firing at the freed stingray, the flames do little, and it retaliates with bufu. The ice’s like a spear, piercing through Jack and leaving Jenny frozen in place, shivering and bleeding at its face. The stingray nears, charging to strike, but Jenny struggles against the ice, desperate. Right as contact between them is imminent, the ice breaks, and Jenny summons her staff, splitting it mid-attack to pummel the shadow twice. Having successfully avoided the hit, Jenny summons Yacob once again, his ribbons searing into the stingray, before Jenny runs forward and brings the staff down on its head, throwing herself above the shadow and knocking it down, holding it in submission below herself, panting in triumph.

“End ‘ME’ already. A great marquis like ‘I’ should not live with defeat by a merciful opponent in mind.”

“You… you can think of it… think of defeat, I think… think of an alliance. A meeting of strengths, if you will.”

“You’d have ‘ME’ by your side? ‘I’ would have killed you, human. Still… never forget Forneus’ might when it counts.”

With a puff, the new persona finds its way inside her visor, joining the two others. Taking a moment to recompose herself, she instead drops to the floor, leaning on a shelf, exhausted. Managing to summon Yacob, she has him cast a dia, but it only manages to heal the cut on her arm. Almost in delirium, she watches a two-dimensional claw emerge from between the books above, carving a hole into the wall besides. It crumbles, as if paper, and a sort of wheeled shopfront steps up instead. The two-dimensional claw retreats, and a gaunt, gigantic man steps wholly from it, bending back into full depth as he ties his bowtie with the manicured claws. Jenny can’t even muster a reaction at his nonexistent eyes or ears, as the giant pulls out a minuscule medicine-like bottle from his large patterned apron. Carefully unwinding the dropper, the giant lets some droplets fall into Jenny’s lips, reinvigorating her. She slowly stands, intimidated.

“Soul drops. Can’t have our regular dying before her first purchase, can we? He’s Loudovikos, I’m Vlachos. Nice to meet you.”

A petite copy of the giant peeks out from the shopfront. Despite being the talker of the two, their mouth has been stitched shut, arms likewise tied to its body, tastefully covered in a priestly garb. Loudovikos starts arranging the items from the back, as Vlachos watches Jenny approach the stand, very confused at this turn of events:

“You’re… you’re not shadows? Why did you help me?”

“There are a great many things in the Amala other than shadow and flesh, madam. We’re just traveling salesmen ourselves.”

“What could you have that would be of use to me… besides that?”

“A great many things, madam, a great many things. You won’t have time to plunder every chest in this place, so as long as you keep cleansing more and more areas, we’ll recuperate all that’s been scattered here, and sell it back to you at a fair price. You might think of us as parasitic, madam, but this is how we’ve made a living these past few aeons, and it’s been a profitable arrangement for all.”

Jenny simply grimaces, more at the uncanny salesmen than their offer, but Loudovikos gestures at the Library around them:

“He says you’ve already done more for the place than the previous dwellers from last whence we came here.”

“Previous…?”

“Oh, you are not aware. My bad, my bad, don’t mind me, it’s not our place to say. Just take a look at the catalogue, please.”

Groaning, she does so, sifting through the pages and carefully selecting her preferences, before realizing:

“Uh… do you take credit? I only have bus money on me… you work with loonies?” She shows the two a Canadian dollar bill.

“We work with Macca only, madam. It’s pretty multiversal, pardon the pun. You might have gotten some already?”

“Oh, I did,” she fishes through her suit pocket, pulling out the stacks, “how much does this get me?”

Loudovikos makes a pitiful frown, then brings out a bag of soul drops and a volt ring, and nothing more.

“Well, have this on the house, madam,” Vlachos brings out a homunculus, “it’ll do you good soon enough.”

She makes the purchase, attempts at asking further information on the cryptic items entailing but similarly cryptic addendums, and steps back. Turning to another switch, she moves to close it, still a bit strained from the fight, but Loudovikos volunteers, cleansing the area for her. As the lights fill this corner of the Library, Jenny waves the salesmen goodbye, palming at a door in the wall, taking her back to the empty classroom. Removing her visor, she lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, and heads back home.


SEPTEMBER 10, 2019

Tuesday Morning

Ottawa Collegiate Institute

S&P/TSX: +42.25C$ / Temp: 17℃

First class of the day is history. Even well-rested, Jenny is not prepared for the sheer… volume… of Mr. Gorki’s ramblings:

“...so that’s how our dear old kraut Peter numero tres got yeeted out the throne. Getting a Prussian on the Russian throne, imagine that! Really, imagine that! Sure, he was pretty tight as leaders go - bit on the friendly side, could even jive with your queen Lizzie over on the other side of the Atlantic nowadays, but the point is… not so right a heir. Know who’d make an appropriate heir? Da, me, of course, with my Russian and all that. So, anyway, Catherine! The great, the enlightened despot, the empress regnant, all that pomeranian jazz. She was also a bit of a kraut herself, but girlboss got it right in going down on the people and making herself not only useful, but beloved. And loved that babe was! One of her favorites was a dude called Grigory Potemkin. Like a true simp, he’d helped her in her coup‒”

Feeling drained by the torrential submachine fire of cringe, Jenny instead turns her eyes to her phone, only to find notifications in Chaos. Discreetly tuning into it, she scrolls to “Ronnie’s Cabaret”, to be greeted by a dour thread:

[9/10 9:03 AM] AntiCisAktion: CoRa’s missing.

[9/10 9:03 AM] AntiCisAktion: MRs. AndeRson phoned me right before class.

[9/10 9:03 AM] AntiCisAktion: She said CoRa went to school but neveR came back.

[9/10 9:04 AM] AntiCisAktion: I told heR we didn’t see CoRa either. She didn’t hide out at any of ouR places.

[9/10 9:04 AM] AntiCisAktion: I think they’Re calling the police to seaRch foR heR.

[9/10 9:06 AM] dunkingdong: fuckfucfukuckfuckfckfuck wat we do ?

[9/10 9:07 AM] AntiCisAktion: We split up afteR class. The AndeRsons have ouR numbeRs if they need us to help them.

[9/10 9:07 AM] AntiCisAktion: We’ll do ouR own seaRch. Don’t tRust the fucking OPS to do this Right.

[9/10 9:14 AM] littlemisssunshine: Understood. We’ll get her back.

“So, miss Aubade, could you snap your thoughts on Potemkin villages our way?”

She masks her distraction with a cringy grimace, offset by a convenient coughing fit faked by Ronnie. As Gorki jokingly offers her his ‘personal vodka stash’, Dan has their row pass back a note detailing potemkin villages: ‘fake paradises built to impress the naive’.

“So, miss Aubade,” Mr. Gorki resumes, “got a story sent to us?”

“I understand the idea of illusory heavens, professor - it’s very useful to distract people with glitter and gold. If you pardon me, however,” Jenny insists, “I believe illusory hells can be just as effective, if not more addictive. Inaction by satisfaction doesn’t have to be positive - the spirit-breaking certainty that things will never change can be just as satisfying to justify inaction. Both are hopelessly naive, nevertheless… the Bastille as we know it was just as fictional as Camelot, in a way… castles of our own making…”

“That… erm… had nothing to do with what I asked…” Gorki explains, “but tee-bee-eitch, it was pretty cool, so I’ll take it.”


Tuesday Afternoon

The Library of Souls

Jenny pays her suit no mind as she steps into the Library once again. As predicted, Henri is already waiting by the side, compendium in hand:

“I must admit, Jack-o’-Lantern and Forneus are each classical starters, but together‒-”

“Where. Is. She?”

“...move rightwards, you won’t miss it. And, guest…” He looks to the side, “be careful.”

She’s too busy heading there to dignify the Velvet Attendant with a response, choosing instead to summon Yacob to light the way. A couple of warning shorts ward off any Deadly Hands or Loving Pincers or Priestly Wyrms who come on sight, and soon a locked door makes itself known. Gastric noise and a foul, cancerous smell are the only hint of what’s behind the lightly-decorated, remarkably pleasant-looking entrance, and Jenny’s frustrated, futile shots do little but add gunpowder to the palette. Yacob, for his part, flies down, extending a ribbon into the keyhole, and calmly unlocks it. He holds her hand, as if to silently warn her, before puffing back into nothing.


Stepping forward into the Haunting, she finds the putrid odor gone. Instead, what lies ahead is literally a yellow brick road. Pixies sing by the trees, whose wooden faces are strung out in bliss, its fruits seeming out of this world. Experimentally, Jenny strikes one with her staff - the high out of its mind tree is unaffected, but its falling fruits are converted into Macca for her pockets. She repeats this same process a few times, then notices a message literally written into the ground below her: ROAD TO CASTLE FANTASIA. Poking it, she seems to pierce the road itself, only to find that a life-size map has somehow been overlaid over the land. Looking up - and peeking at the sefirot-like collection of suns - Jenny glimpses the castle, and hurries to it, unaware of the sinister gaze directed at her from there.

 A short trek later, the moving castle is on sight, bridged to the ground by the same chains that bind it there. As she steps on, the gravity below her seems to bend, and Jenny is lifted right into the gate - or rather, gates. Two identical doors stand side by side, with two reddish, brutish shadows guarding each. They pay her no mind but to huff through their fangs, blades glistening in the cheery air, while a tarot-masked shadow, dressed in a brightly mismatched tuxedo, welcomes her aboard:

“Pardon my tardiness, Heroine, but many happy returns,” begins the Foolish Greeter, “I do trust you’re here for Princess Fantasia, from your concerns?”

“Heroine…? Look, I’m here to bring Cora home. If you’re as polite as you seem, tell me where to find her. Now.”

“The Princess lies in no other Castle, you’ll find.” The Foolish Greeter adds, “however, we must test your strength - that of your mind. One door leads to your friend’s breath - the other to certain death. One Oni always lies, another is always sincere. You have but one question to unveil it, hear?”

“Will they… will they rhyme in metric too?”

“No.”

“It is a rather classic logic puzzle, my dear. A moment of reflection will sort it out forthwith.”

Jenny looks up at the Onis, saliva brewing in their mouths, and wonders if they’re even capable of speech. Nevertheless, she decides to play along. She’s heard this riddle about a thousand times now, and the answer usually goes like…

“You,” she points at the leftward Oni, “would the Oni by your side claim the door you guard lead to Cora?”

“...He would not.”

“Then this is the one.” She smirks triumphantly: “Either he’d lie in his answer, or yours is incorrect - doesn’t really matter which.”

Determined, Jenny opens the gate, strolling by the shadows, and sure enough finds herself inside the castle, unharmed. With a snap of her fingers, she materializes Forneus, and heads on. Torrential blasts of bufu freeze most Magical Spooks in the way, shots from her gun shattering them in sequence. A maid-like shadow is immune to it, but a fiery agi from Jack-o’-Lantern takes care of her. Jenny’s rampage goes on almost unopposed, and she even picks up a Bicorn after beating it down with her three section-staff in retaliation for its psychic attack. Plundering some more Macca and assorted healing items from corridor chests, she’s on a roll.

Until, obviously, she comes face to face with her watchful stalker. White-skinned, blond, deer-crowned, the warrior-hunter shadow points its sword at her, handsome face soiled by a sullen frown:

“You seek the lord of this realm, do you not? I will bring you to her… on your knees.”

“Believe what you will.”

She has Jack-o’-Lantern fire at the shadow, but the agi has no effect on it. Shrugging, he easily dodges Jenny’s gunfire, and as she switches from Jack to Forneus to Bicorn, evades all their spells with swift ease. Materializing her staff, she barely parries his sword, managing to disarm him for a second. Summoning Yacob, she has him envelop the blade in his ribbons, before blasting the shadow. It shrugs his light like it did Jack’s fire, before charging straight at Jenny, knocking her down. It headbutts her repeatedly, their foreheads banging against each other, then rips the staff from her hand. The weapon fades like her persona, and it grabs its sword once more.

“I believe what my lord believes - that includes you, to your luck.”


Tuesday Afternoon

Castle Fantasia

Dragged on her knees, business pants scraping against hard tiles, Jenny comes to. The dome-like room’s ceiling is mirrored, as if to stare back at them: two rows of horseback knight shadows guiding the hunter and the captive girl to the castle’s ruler: Cora. The short, dark-haired girl’s dressed in flowing orchard robes that disguise her slightly uneven tilt. Plump, tender hands are perfumed and painted, but the rot in their tips is apparent. Her small, inquisitive eyes are perched where they should be, except they’re now a sharp, decadent yellow. She smiles softly, face hidden in graying bangs, and Jenny does her best not to grimace at the sight.

“You… like, you came! I didn’t know… is this possible? This is, like, happening, isn’t it? I’m so glad!”

“Cora… what… I came to… fuck, your shadow… I came to get you…”

“Whaaaaat? Look around you, Jenny! This is… like, this is all I could want! Every story of mine… here.”

“What… fucking hell, Cora, what about us? Ronnie, Sam, me?”

“If you found your way here… like, maybe they can do too. We can, you know, we can all be together.”

“Together… here? This place… this fucking place… it’ll swallow you up. It’ll swallow all of us into nothing. You can feel it.”

“Shut up shut up SHUT UP! This is… this is what you fucking do. You deny wonder to justify your misery.”

The mirror above seems to… shiver? Jenny looks back at Cora… or rather, Shadow Cora, who’s emerging.

“This is a treasured place, intruder, free from the grasp of a used universe. In here, you cannot deny beauty, you cannot deny wonder, you cannot deny truth. My truth… Cora’s truth. The glorious ember that blossoms into the riches of this realm. My mirror has seen you for what you are, Jenny Aubade - you are foul to the core. You would burn all that’s been built to feed your fantasies of realism. We will not allow this rot to fester within these walls. The castle will stand above pain, above decay, above the lies of the world. The labyrinth of the moving castle is now closed off to you, foreigner… forever.”

Dark energy flutters in her hand, and with a cursed, distorted voice, Shadow Cora speaks, the mirror raining below:

“Mudo.”

Sigils manifest around Jenny, turning in ever-increasing speeds. Yacob seems to choke up, gasps echoing inside her head. Cards flutter. The glassy droplets rain down on her head. Darkness seems to come from all sides, the shadow of death. It corners her, lashing onto her whole self, enveloping it. The curse seems to consume all within. A final, shrill cry agonizes over the whole room.

The homunculus dies, leaving a trembling, scared Jenny behind. The hunter-warrior is surprised, as are the other shadows in the room. Shadow Cora, for her part, simply laughs, stepping down her throne to meet with them, caressing both her and the hunter.

“Fate has made its decree. Fionn mac Cumhaill, my Hunter, it has fallen upon you to finish her… outside.”

The Hunter nods, solemn, then turns to Jenny, who screams back at Cora in despair:

“YOU CAN’T… CORA… I WON’T… WON’T LET YOU GO… WE WON’T LOSE EACH OTHER… NOT AGAIN…”

“I am found, Jenny. It is you who will always be lost to the world.”


Tuesday Afternoon

The Library of Souls

The two have stepped back through the Haunting’s door, a defeated Jenny letting the Hunter walk her back outside. It wields its sword, ready to strike, and Jenny, hand forward, asks herself if she should really try to parry its attack. Closing her eyes, she feels each of her companions opine differently - Jack is fearful, Forneus is resigned, Bicorn is panicked, but Yacob simply tells the ‘young girl’ to make her choice. She breathes in, and the choice is made - materializing her staff, she’s ready to defend herself to the last‒

“Go.”

Opening her eyes, she finds the Hunter leaning on the door, sword on its sheath. 

“You care for my lord much like I do. If you are truly worthy… you will find a way through the labyrinth… and we will face each other again. Fate made its decree, and I must let it finish its course.”

 “I will. I promise it will be so. For Cora.”

“For Cora. It is the wise thing to do.”

It turns back, entering the Haunting once again, and Jenny is left all alone.