Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth.
-H. P. Lovecraft, "The Dunwich Horror"
I woke, screaming, cackling, scorned.
Somewhere above me, a paramedic yelled "Scarlett" through the bellowing sirens, over the engine roar and the panicked hiss and beeping of their godless machineries of modern science that were nothing - nothing! - compared to ancient eldritch power that had filled my veins. My limbs jerked in galvanic response to its lingering radiation, tearing fabric restraints as if they were tissue paper. Hands on my shoulders tried to hold me down to the ambulance bed. A needle pierced my flesh. I laughed!
Physical shells were as tidal foam to me now I had opened the gate and seen reality for the dream it was. Drugs fled before my primal blood. Death could not hold me. Madness could not break me. Space could not contain me. Time had no dominion. I was in the ambulance, in the temple, in the classroom, on the bed, in the asylum, in New York, in his arms, in hers, all places, all at once. I saw it all, everything, the truth and the lies of it all.
The paramedic was screaming now too. There was a broken needle in my arm and the rest of the syringe in his eye. I pushed it in deeper and giggled through his gurgles. Behind the bright splashes of blood, his skin was pale, his hair dark and short, a raven's-wing gone spiky away from the heart-shaped face. Glass broke. I realize I wasn't giggling; he was - no, she was, giggling from out of a dead throat, from a corpse twisted (by her power? by mine?) into her likeness. A face I had seen before. A face from the past and present and future. Brakes squealed and the whole vehicle shook and shifted and rolled. I whispered her name in atavistic dread and pleasure.
And I remembered. I remembered how it began.
My family stirred slowly and reluctantly from our aestivation. Anyway, that was how Riley put it. The Crawling Chaos - or dear Uncle Neil as I was calling him now - said we were a bunch of lazy stay-a-beds who needed a good kick in the grief-bladders, and how one time on the Iberian peninsula he'd had to assemble a gross of camels and train them to play horns for, well, I didn't listen to the rest of that story. The point was, sleep lingered. And, hey, I'd just helped save the world, so a victory nap seemed called for and my brother's human bed was so damn comfortable. So, of course, when I woke up again, it was to him whining.
"Chloeeeee! That's myyyy bed!"
(Except he used more words of course. I'm paraphrasing. He used one of my other names too. Chloe wasn't my real name, obviously. And yet it was, too. Like Riley was his, for reals, and for mask too. Both true, both lie. You've gotta understand, when you're an Great Old One, you take for granted entire concepts that can't even be named in human tongues. Not without exploding people's heads, and that's never as much fun as you'd think, you know? All that mess!)
So I pointed out that it was big enough for two, or, actually, more like five, and I was wondering, out loud of course, whether our cousins were still awake, because hate-sex is the best kind of sex, when he tried to drag me off the bed, which I was having none of, thank you very much! I pulled him down with me and we fought with wild abandon, shredding pillows, blankets and sheets alike. Wrestling with my brother always takes me back to those first times in the depths, surrounded by gigantic bones of antediluvian animals as we married in flesh and spirit and ether, birthing our starspawn in spews of writhing orgasmic ectoplasm.
This time, though our grappling bodies also extended outwith your paltry spacetime, we kept our human shells on. What, you've never had a touch of kink in the bedroom? There's just something deliciously erotic about a thin splash of civilization on an ancient line of monsters. Of course, he would keep trying to speak or move in the wrong way, and I'm afraid I was paying more attention to keeping my hand across his mouth while I rode him at, mm, just the perfect angle, than to our surroundings. It wasn't the first time, and it won't be the last, I suppose, but, really, who enters a bedroom without knocking when a girl is pumping her brotherwifemate for all the agonized-dimensional pleasure she can?
Humans, really. They have such unfortunate timing.
Perhaps this was how Travis had felt when Riley had eaten his soul to - I could barely think the words - to protect me. I could still see them, whether I closed my eyes or not. Those creamy thighs, those perfectly dewy breasts, the glow of her flawless skin as her head fell back in pleasure. My stomach twisted. Hot and cold chills ran through me. I'd thought I'd like to be her friend. Her friend! And now I could only say her name in a choked whimper.
"From our math class?" Bree asked, pouring me an orange Fanta to match her own and pressing it into my hands as if it's cool, sweet, tangy, fizziness could fill the infinite chasm within me. I barely remembered how I'd come to be here, after stumbling from that place where Riley and Chloe had been - had been - I couldn't even think it. I tried to listen to Bree, who was saying something about how she was going to kick Chloe out of the drama club.
I shook my head. How could I explain? "She's not anyone you've met. She's his-"
His what? His sister? His lover? His mate? His … wife? Again the images assailed me, crashing through my mind like waves beating at the shore, wearing my hope away with every repetition. The two of them, so glorious, so inhumanely beautiful, moving together as if they had been crafted from one piece of marble, made from a single flesh. How could I compete with that?
"It doesn't matter who she is, Andi," Bree decided, pulling me into a voluminous hug. "Riley is the villain here. You're more than just his girlfriend or accessory. You are a person in your own right, and you deserve to be treated as such. You should break up with him in public. Really humiliate him."
I shook my head again, pulling away from her. "It's not him. It's me. I'm not worthy of him. I thought, after the theatre - but, no. I never have been."
"You're worth ten of him," Bree insisted. "He cheated on you. He's the monster!"
I gasped. "He's not a monster! He's not!"
I didn't understand how she could be so wrong about this. Then I realized. Of course! Bree didn't know. She still thought Vikram had had a Vespa accident. I had to explain. The whole story spilled from my lips, vomited up with my pain. Who Riley really was, why we'd gone to New York, how Vik had betrayed us, what Epistola had done and why. With each word, Bree's eyes grew wider, and I could just tell she was judging Riley.
"Can't you see?" I begged her. I needed someone to understand. "He's eternal and I'm like a mayfly. Of course I wouldn't be enough for him."
Bree snorted. "Girl, listen to me. I don't know about the rest of this crazy jive, what nonsense he's been putting in your head to excuse his cheating behavior, but I know one thing. If a guy doesn't tell you before he sleeps around? He's the one at fault. He's the cheater."
Each time she said the word, it was like an echoing explosion going off inside me. Cheater! Cheater. Cheater...
How had I forgotten Bree's habit of being crazy smart at everything? Of course she was right. Of course he had cheated. Even if it was because I was insignificant before his eternal dark majesty, even if he had reasons, he'd still done it. I felt the understanding bubble up through me, turning pain into rage, despair into hate. Riley had cheated on me. No. Worse.
He had scorned me.
This, I suddenly realized, this is how Scarlett had begun. "Looks just like the last one," Uncle Neil had said, so long ago in that shop. And I did. I looked just like her now, for I too had been scorned. For a horrifying moment, I felt a sort of twisted sympathy for her. It was too strange. Everything was changing. I was changing, and I didn't know into what. I had to get out. I had to get away.
Ignoring Bree's startled cries, I leapt to my feet and darted out of the door.
Andi knocked over the Fanta as she left. I slipped in the sticky orange as I tried to follow and by the time I'd gotten to my door, she was long gone. I sighed, resting my head against the doorframe for a long moment, before coming back in to clean up. You'd think a life on stage would have prepared me for my friend's dramatics, but she surprised me still. What a tale! Love, betrayal, ancient monsters from the deep - ready torn from some Shakespearean play, perfect to be trotted out across the stage, overwrought yet timeless all the same.
Seriously, though. Who romanced Cthulhu?
No, Andi was just confused, I decided. It was all some mind game that Riley Bay was playing on her. I wished now that I had never interfered, never given in to Andi's clear interest and sought out his name, tried to find out what was under that exterior - that arrogance that I had assumed was a mask of interminable shyness and poor social skills. If I hadn't invited him to Jerrid's pool party, would any of this have happened? A chance meeting in the first act, murder or wedding in the fifth; a single stone, appearing insignificant as it falls, causing ripples that spread across the whole pond...
I snorted. The most important person in a story and it wasn't even my own! Such was the life of an actor, I supposed. Always the mask, never the mistress.
A little water took care of the Fanta. There's something soothing about cleaning, about setting everything right again. I shouldn't say this, but my favorite part of any play is when we take the make-up off, put the costumes away, take the sets down. The part after Puck has declared this just a dream, after Prospero has broken his staff and set his magicks aside, when all the pretence is wiped away and reality returns. Music is the food of love, fantasy the food of mind, but nothing is as epically comforting as the simple physical pleasures that follow once the dream has been dispersed.
Like, I could totally kill a BLT right now, you know? Nothing is more grounding than bacon.
The recycling bins had been left out in the side-alley. I took the empty Fanta cans out with the rest of the sorted rubbish, thinking about how I would give Andi a few hours to calm down and then go and find her. Unless she'd run off to New York again because gas prices were just insane these days, I thought and chuckled, knowing that I'd drive even further to keep my friend safe. I lifted the lid to throw the recycling in and discovered that, once again, someone had thrown any old rubbish they liked in as well. Didn't people know things had their proper places? It was in the Bible and everything. A time for everything and everything in its time. And old clothes definitely weren't cans and paper, unless Lady Gaga had had a closet-clearing session - and would even she wear hospital scrubs covered in still wet blood? Well. Probably. But still: gross.
A shadow fell across me as I let the lid fall back. I turned. The sun had somehow come around at just the wrong angle, blinding me, reducing everything to flat shadows. I raised a hand, peering out between my fingers, at the approaching figure, whose edges seemed to fuzz and melt into shadow and light. Despite the strangeness, it looked almost familiar. I asked, "Andi? Is that you?" blinking rapidly, trying to make out details. Whoever it was, they were wearing - I wasn't sure: belts, ribbons, buckles, but mostly nothing. Maybe it was Lady Gaga. And then she stepped forwards and I saw her eyes, even as her hand flashed out towards me, like I was stuck in amber, like she was on fast-forward.
I managed to say "Miss Epistola?!"
And to my own bemusement, as the darkness rose to claim me, I suddenly understood that Andi hadn't been quite as confused as I'd assumed.
Returning to the theatre where I was thwarted was only fitting. Hadn't I seen it? Nothing ever happened only once. Azathoth woke, dreaming, in endless cycle; to disturb his sleep was to disturb reality itself, each universe destroyed to create the new, as my universe had been so cruelly destroyed when I was so brutally scorned. They had dared, they had dared-!
"My love meant nothing to them," I explained to the Fifan girl as I hefted her weight up onto the stage. This part had been so much easier when I'd had minions. Vik- No. There was no past. Only the eternal now, a single endless moment of infinite joy and infinite suffering. But still the words dripped from my lips, like acid into the eyes of Loki. "I'd thought it true, unique, a forever love, of two souls entwined; then I came back early one day and found the two of them, there, in my bed, going at each other like animals. I even tried to blame myself, tried to find some fault that I could fix, until I realized - it was just them. It was always them."
I wasn't sure why I was telling her this. Perhaps it was the teacher in me.
"What-?" The girl coughed, licked her lips, blinking her big, stupid cow eyes up at me. I wondered what she saw. Not my real self, certainly, not an infinite circle of selves like insect husks, round and round through the gate. Just the smallest intersection of my existence as it passed over and over through the now. "What are you-?"
"They assumed I was small. That I could only understand small things. But I held the Necronomicon in my hands. I held the Grimoire." My cackling laughter echoed from the stalls to the gods. Did they really think I would read only those pages of most immediate use?
"I read the histories and the prophecies! I read the ancient words of power, the powerful words of the ancients. Here, in this theatre, where I intended to sacrifice his heart - hah! - I learned the ultimate truths. They don't have a care-"
Memory crashed over me. Time broke. I was, I don't know, five, six. I was sitting on the sofa with my father. On the small television, grainy footage of David Bowie waved its hands as it said, "They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe." Then dad changed the channel over to some wildlife thing about giant squid we'd seen a dozen times before, because of his job, and said, "There, now, that's much better," and he sounded like he was speaking from somewhere simultaneously vast and far away, even though he was right there next to me.
Except he wasn't, of course.
The girl - Bridget - was gaping at me. Her eyes were hazel, like my own, I realized, then dismissed the thought as irrelevant. She asked, "What are you going to do?"
"Do? I'm going to do what I have always done. I am going to take my power and my revenge," I crowed. "I am going to speak the Secret Names, utter the Words of Undoing, and shake the very foundations of the sky. I don't need to wait for Alignment this time. Not for her."
"But why am I here?" Bridget selfishly whined.
"Isn't it obvious, my dear child?" I sneered. "I'm going to dangle you in the waters until I catch myself a bite - a worm to catch a small fish to catch a bigger fish." And after them - well, there was always a bigger fish, a larger dreamer, just primed to be disturbed in turn as I ever rose, becoming greater on each return, as rebounding ripples raised and lowered each other, as waves crashed every more furiously against the shore.
Did I dare disturb the universe?
Getting rid of Riley post coitus interruptus had taken an annoyingly long time - like, I loved my brother, but come on, sea urchins have more spine, you know? Pretty little critters. And completely useless too, so that makes the comparison more apt! Anyway, annoying long, as I said, so I was still trying to decide between the hot pink mermaid dress and the deep cerulean tutu, when she came barging back in to accuse me of incestuous infidelity and ruinous interference and blah blah blah what about the love? Won't someone think of the love?
(I didn't mean to be callous, but you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times, you know?)
"Love is not loving," I tried to explain, putting on my best comforting voice. "It's fire and ice under your skin, driving you on in desperation, clouding with light, illuminating with darkness. Love is the comfort of the scourge, driving you ever onwards, breaking you over and over. The pain is how you know it's real." She sniffled, and I nodded sagely, spreading my arms. "You need a hug."
She almost took a step forward - I saw one well turned ankle twitch, I swear - before she caught herself. I was quite impressed. I give the best hugs, you know? I mean, I wouldn't turn me down.
(Actually, that was a pretty awesome idea; I was definitely going to try that at the next opportunity.)
"What about what we meant to each other?" she demanded, sobbing.
"He will long for me, no matter what you say, no matter what you do-" I broke off, frowning. "No, hang on, that's a Leonard Cohen lyric."
"Who?" she asked bewildered, dashing tears from her eyes.
"No," I said, grinning, "that's Roger Daltry." She looked, if this was even possible, even more confused. "From 'The Who'? The rock group?" I sighed. "Look, I tend to spend decades asleep, okay? You try keeping up with muggle music while you're busy haunting the dreams of the sensitive sea-bound souls."
(Harry Potter was awesome, sidebar. Inspiration for the Giant Squid? Just saying.)
"You said I was special - that I was uncanny," she insisted, a bit of steel in her voice now. I thought of breaking out the pompoms but I didn't think she'd take it in quite the sincere way I'd intend it. "I thought we would be- Why would you do this?!"
"Why wouldn't I?" I asked gently. "You hunger for something more than human - provided it comes in a perfectly human form. But the cover is not the contents, the role not the player, the mask not the face. We're like icebergs; the greater parts of us are hidden in the depths, but they'll still rip Leo and Kate apart the second you take your eyes off them. This is our essential, inviolable nature. You can love only a facet; that's perfectly cool, you know? But you gotta know the rest is there, or, well."
I shrugged prettily. I mean, the situation spoke for itself, right?
"So, Miss Scar--"
"Slate," she corrected, stamping her foot. "Andi Slate!"
I blinked at her through the twists of time, orienting myself in the correct present. So she was! My bad. I ran the previous conversation back through my head, decided it still all applied here, too, and shrugged.
"Andi, then. The real question is, now you do know, what do you want?"
What did I want? That was the big question. Chloe had opened my eyes to a truth I had thought I already knew. Neither she nor Riley were human. They'd lived for eons. They had seen entire human cultures rise and fall and rise and fall again. Hadn't Riley spoken of Atlantis, first hand, though it had been lost for so long that fragments of broken statues had been worn down to the sea-glass he had given me? They couldn't be judged by mere human standards, no more than actors could be judged for their dramatics, or British people for their love of tea.
I couldn't think while Chloe was stood there before me, a comforting warmth in her eyes, her piercings glittering prettily in the half-light as she dressed with an ease and economy of motion I envied as much as the way the mermaid dress she'd acquired highlighted the delicious curve of her breasts, the delightful sharpness of her hips, the dangerous length of her slender legs. I turned away, rummaging in my purse for tissues, and found the very sea-glass I'd just been thinking of it.
Smooth under my fingers, it glimmered as I turned it over and over, seemingly illuminated from within. Green ripples of light slid across me like the patterns on the ceiling of an indoor swimming pool. The piece was the color of his eyes, a constant reminder of him. He'd called it appealing. Had he been telling the truth? I tried to think past the anger. Perhaps, I allowed. Perhaps he had meant what he had said - but there had been all the things he hadn't been saying, and hadn't he also meant all of those? Weren't they as much a part of him as his love - please, I whispered to myself, please - his love for me?
Chloe turned on the radio as she redid her make-up in the mirror, putting on a lipstick so dark red it might have been black, a shade that would have made me look washed out but which only accentuated the translucency of her skin. Some man was singing about a kid in a Marcus Allen jersey, asking for a cigarette. "Companionship is where you find it," he sang, "so I take what I can get." Is that what it was, I wondered? Chloe, Riley, me. Just taking what companionship we could get. Was this Riley's nature? Was it Chloe's? And what of me? What lay beneath my surface? The make-up had come off. Now what?
I was Andi Slate, late of Portsmouth, daughter of professors but having no great truck with academics, dull of hair and pasty of skin, friend to the barest few and non-entity to most; if I was bright, it was only as the moon was bright, reflecting the greater suns: Vik, once; Bree; Riley. If I had to accept the whole of Riley, then surely I first had to accept the whole of me? But on reflection, it seemed I was only a shallow pool to Riley's ocean. If I was his heart, would did that say about me, about him, about love itself?
The truth came to me with disheartening clarity. I wasn't Christine. I was the one who tried to fashion the innocent into something of my own design out of selfish love. I was the one who tried to pour Riley into a tiny jug of humanity as shallow as myself instead of allowing myself to dissolve into his vast and greater depths. I wasn't Christine; I was the Phantom. And like the Phantom, I had to sacrifice for love.
But just as I was trying to decide how, my phone rang.
Earlier, I thought Andi was confused, and that was still maybe true. Then I had thought I had been the confused one and, frankly, I wasn't going to make a decision on that point for at least another act. But now one thing at least was certainly clear: Scarlett Epistola was definitely on the confused list. Also, judging by her ranting, the batshit crazy list. Frankly, it just confirmed my theory - as I'd proposed during that trip to Brazil with the lit club when that Thirty Shades of Horrible nonsense had come up - that all the hot ones were stupid evil.
See: Bay, comma, Riley.
I wasn't sure how her craziness had gotten us here, or where exactly here was. I'd clearly been out a while; long enough to brought here and tied up with - I twisted my arms, trying to feel - guy ropes. (At least I wasn't suspended from the batten like the piece of scenery Scarlett was currently treating me as!) Judging by the state of the decor, the theatre had either been abandoned for a while, or someone was far too into the Hammer Horror house of interior design which, actually, given Scarlett's attire, I would buy. I needed more clues. Taking a breath - and promptly coughing on the dust in the weirdly briny air - I tried asking Scarlett why I was here or what she was doing but got only nonsensical ramblings in response. Scarlett had clearly bought hook, line and sinker into the whole Elder Gods thing. Or she was just really pissed at an ex-girlfriend. I wasn't sure.
I wasn't currently sure about most things which I found really quite disquieting in an, oh fuck, I'm going to die, sort of way.
Maybe, it occurred to me, it was Andi who had bought into Scarlett's delusions, not the other way around. There was a certain charisma to the woman, an oily but attractive sheen, and Andi was - well - Andi, god love her. Great Old One love her, whatever. Maybe Riley was the trios in their folie à deux; maybe this Chloe was, or both, or neither of them. Either way, the most sensible thing to do seemed to be to play along, maybe find out a few things or maybe even get a chance to run for it. I shifted against the ropes again, glad they were behind my back so I could try and escape and talk at the same time, without the latter giving away the former. Good stage handling was all about misdirection.
"Why use me as bait?" I asked. "Wouldn't it make more sense to just kidnap Andi? Or Riley? Or this Chloe girl?"
"That's a very good question," Scarlett mused. I really hope she had an answer and didn't just decide I was worthless and kill me right out. That would've been a great start, Bridget! Fortunately for me, if fortunately was the right word, she did have an answer. "You don't have to be a victim here, Ms Fifan - may I call you Bree?"
"Bree, then." She knelt down in front of me. Her smile was quite pretty if you ignored her eyes, although doing that left you staring at her breasts, so. Yeah. "You could help me. People mock you, don't they? Call you names? Deride your opinions? Offer you false comforts and then betray you at every turn? Pretend to be your friend while making sure everything is always about them?"
That ... wasn't entirely untrue. I tried to block out the seductive breasts. Words. Seductive words. My hands, scrabbling at the ropes, bumped against me, and I realized that my phone was still in my back pocket. Clearly Scarlett had been too into the bondage thing to search me. I couldn't take it out, but I could press buttons; if I had a signal at all - and I really hoped I did, because I had no way to check, or to move and get one if I didn't - speed-dial would connect me any second.
"You could join me," Scarlett offered, her voice low, warm, and filled with probably poisonous honey. "We could take our revenge together. I can show you things you have never even dreamed of."
Feeling the phone vibrate a little in my pocket and, really hoping someone was listening, I took a deep breath, leaned in a little to Scarlett (making my eyes go big and innocent, playing the role like my life depended on it, which it probably did) and spoke.
"Tell me more."
I smiled happily. I so loved a captive audience!
"In this temple, I tried to open the dread portal, to usher in the eschaton by negating present reality; the ultimate act of nigh-Buddhist abnegation. For an infinite yet infinitesimal moment the dream would have ended; we would have returned to the formless chaos from which we had all begun. All divisions, all separations, everything, blended into one. But then..." I added dramatically, drawing it out. "But then--!"
"Yes?" the girl gasped breathlessly. "After the end of all, what could possible happen?"
"The beginning of everything!" I announced triumphantly. "The New Dream! Crafted in our image, in our favor; space and time skewed and reflected and rotated into perfect position so we could be reinserted into our lives, our new, better, more fulfilling lives!"
"Wow," she said. I could tell she was impressed. "Wow. That's just… Wow."
"But they stole it from me - just as they stole my love, leaving me filled only with anger and hate, once a queen, now forever…" I hissed the word. "Scorned."
"I can see how that might distress a person," the girl said sagely.
"We can bring it back. With you helping me, we can show her the lies she has been surrounded with. We can convince her of the real reality of reality: the cruel undreaming dream of the mad god! We can persuade of the truth!"
The girl nodded. "That her boyfriend was cheating on her, so it's time to end the world?"
"Precisely!" I crowed.
The theatre echoed my voice back from a thousand different angles, now softening, now enriching, so it seemed an entire chorus of speakers spoke along with me, before me, after me. Yes! This was revelation! The meaninglessness of time, of space, of person! With my new loyal acolyte, this would be the moment of triumph! Demonic angels would sing! The Outer Gods would deliquesce in homage! While we held the gate, through which the All would pass, the agonized genuflections of anathemas and abominations from primal eons would sound the revenant knell of the ever undying universe and, through their unholy sound of weeping we would hear, we would hear-
Something electronic beeped.
We both startled. I saw the guilt flash in her eyes. Even as she opened her mouth to deny it, I spun her around. There, in the pocket, the proof of her betrayal: the phone, and on its screen, the number of the girl who had held a demon's heart.
"In a way, you've helped me," I mused. "I wanted her to come, and now she will. So, thank you for that, Bridget Fifan." The girl started to speak. I closed my hand across her mouth. "But you also betrayed me. I offered you the hand of friendship, and you scorned it. You scorned it, Fifan! And for that you must be punished."
But, as I was lifting my hand to strike, a bright, cheerful voice pierced the Stygian gloom.
"Hey loser." A smile the color of dried blood flashed in the darkness. A body slid into view, shadows sloughing off it like water falling from a bloated corpse as it breached the surface, having risen from the depths, buoyed up by its own rotting gasses. "Is this a private party or can anyone join in?"
Chloe had come.
Following the phone call to its location would have been child's play even if Scarlett hadn't conveniently told us exactly where she was. I brought Scarlett with me, of course, but I sent her scurrying off to untie her little friend while Andi was ranting about - no, wrong way around again. It was so hard to keep track of these things, you know? However humans cope in such a linear existence, it amazes me, it really does. So, anyway, there I was, and there she was, the two of us together again. But not, like, together, together. That would probably have been inappropriate.
"Hah!" Scarlett grunted out. "You have come, as I knew you would. Before, you were the goddess and I the mere mortal, but now, now the power of the gateway still flows through me. Kneel in subjugation before me and--"
"Delightful as that mental image is," I mused, watching a tell-tale flush spread across her neck, "that's really not going to happen. You don't actually have any power here, you know? Maybe a bit of lingering ichor in your veins, nothing more."
"You lie! I kept the gate!" She screamed. Froth flew from her mouth. I wished I'd brought a camera. "I am the incarnation of Yog-Sothoth!"
"You are a vain avatar," I explained, sympathetically. "Yog-Sothoth cursed you for taking her name without merit. He does that. It's kind of cute, really." I giggled. "Who's a grouchy little gate-keeper then, eh?"
Talking of grouchy, I quickly pulled out my phone and texted my brother to come meet us. I know, I know, it's rude to text while people are talking, but Scarlett does go on a bit.
"You're thinking about it too linearly," I interrupted her again. "Yog-Sothoth lies outside time. It experiences every moment of this little bubble simultaneously. Cause only succeeds effect from one particular frame of reference. But if you look at it the other way, well..." I saw Andi freeze, hands on the loosened knots holding Bridget, so I addressed the question to her, too. "Haven't you ever wondered why your timing was so terrible?"
"That's a paradox," Bridget complained. "Without the antecedent, there's no subsequent. If Scarlett only feels scorned because, having been scorned, she annoyed Yog-su-whatsit into creating the situation whereby she would be scorned then she would never have been scorned in the first place."
We all stared at her.
"Well, she wouldn't," Bridget said defensively.
"Failure to understand our own essential nature is the only true sin," I told them, although this wasn't technically true - but sometimes you have to fudge things to keep stuff going, you know? So I fudged a little. My bad. "Our choices echo out into the world, reframing our past, reshaping our future. You," I pointed, "are the Heart. You," I pointed again, "are the Woman Scorned. These are aspects, facets of your existence, even as this body is a facet of my own."
"This is my existence," Scarlett yelled at me. "This is what you made me. You! Not the Mad Priest. Not the whim of the Gate Keeper. I am a shell upon unholy, undammable rage!"
(I thought about pointing out the contradiction, but, meh. She was on a roll, you know?)
"I am who I have made myself be, and that person shall be your undoing, foul temptress. And I shall have my new acolyte to help me!"
"Uh, did you miss the part where I was totally playing you, crazy lady?" asked Bridget.
"Not you," Scarlett sneered, swing on Andi. "You! Do you not see, we are alike! We are twins! I am who you become, you are who I was, the ingénue, scorned! Join me! We will draw on the mystical forces that have moved through us, make them forsake their former masters and bend them to our will. Join me, and we will make her pay for what she's done!"
I applauded. What? It was a lovely little speech.
"Don't listen to her, Andi," Bridget begged. "She's crazy. They're all crazy. I don't know what you've got yourself mixed up in, but we can just leave. Sure, Riley cheated on you, but that just means he's a douche-bag. Let's go get ice-cream and bitch about him, and you can cry a bit to get him out of your system, and then we'll, I don't know, jump-and-hump a couple of college students."
That deserved a bit of applause too, I decided, and gave it some. They all glared at me, which was pretty damn hilarious.
"You were the Heart," Scarlett told Andi, like I hadn't already explained that. "He cast you aside for physical congress with the beast. Help me strike her down. Help me take her power for my own."
"I don't-" Andi looked wildly between us, from Scarlett to me, from me to her own hands, from her hands to Bridget, and then back to Scarlett again. One big circle. "I don't know-"
"Fine," Scarlett said viciously, and shoved her aside. She pulled a wavy dagger from frankly I don't like to think where, that can't be hygienic, and turned towards me. "Now is the hour of your release!"
She swung wildly at me as she advanced which did, I admit, look cool, even if it was completely pointless. I was just considering whether I should go ahead and eat whatever passed for her soul these days when, somewhat to my surprise, Andi leapt into the gap between us.
"Wait," she cried. "I've made my decision. I know what I want to do."
My mind was in a whirl. I couldn't follow the conversation about the hallowed gatekeeper. I remembered how Riley had been so mad at Scarlett for claiming the name. I thought it must be like pretending you were a superstar, or someone's long lost relative. Fake and hurtful all at once. But I felt like- This twisting in my stomach, this strange shivery heat. Prickles under my skin. Was fake and hurtful what Riley was? Was Bridget right and I should just go, give them all up? Was Scarlett right and I should take revenge; make them feel as I feel? But how did I feel? Was Chloe right, and I couldn't judge Riley for my not knowing the whole of him, when I didn't even know the whole of me?
Bridget managed to free herself despite my useless fumbling at the knots, and she tried to tug me back. She and Scarlett were both talking at me. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how I felt. Was this madness, I wondered; was this the seed of madness? I was the heart, Scarlett had said, Chloe had said, Riley had said. I was his heart. I was his - but was he mine?
Scarlett suddenly pulled out a dagger and lunged for Chloe.
I was gripped by sudden, overwhelming fear. But not fear of Scarlett. Fear for Chloe. That twisting in my belly rushed through my whole body like wildfire, like lightning, like - like love. Suddenly I remembered Neil saying "one of three" with such perfect clarity, it almost seemed like he was there. The rising, rushing force moved through me. Strange, wonderful thoughts unfolded in my mind as it washed through me, as it moved me. Into the path of the dagger unheeding, I threw myself, filled with new understanding.
I did know who I was: who I had always been.
I did know what I wanted: what I had always wanted.
What everyone wanted.
"Wait!" I cried, putting myself between the dagger and Chloe. "I've made my decision. I know what I want to do."
Scarlett stopped, frowning in confusion. Bridget took the opportunity to start sneaking up on her with - was that an oar? Not important - a prop of some kind, clearly intent on whacking Scarlett with it. I shook my head at Bridget before turning back to Scarlett.
"You are the Scorned Woman. You were scorned, and you let it fill you up, until that's all there was of you. As if that one aspect was all that matters. But you said it, Bridget," I added to her, barely seeing her quickly hide the prop behind her back when Scarlett looked around too. "I am more than just Riley's girlfriend. I'm Andromeda Slate, the girl who loved, and was loved in return. And even though I was hurt, Scarlett, even though it seemed for a moment that the world had ended and there was nothing in my future but, but scorn--!"
Scarlett shook as if I had struck her like Bridget was clearly itching to do. I had to remember to talk to her later about her violent impulses.
"The truth is that I was still that person too. I understand now." I turned my back on them, to face the other woman, and I felt that heat in my belly again as she smiled at me. "Love remains. Because I am the Heart. Like both of you said. I overturned his inherent nature that you keep talking about. I made him part of me, as I am part of him. He saw my flaws as part of me and loved me all the same. And I saw the chaos behind the mask and I loved it anyway. Because- Because."
I took a step forward and she nodded encouragingly. I took another step, another, closing the gap between us.
"Because my heart … is his heart. I love… as he loves."
And I kissed Chloe.
It was glorious. Soft and warm and wet. She tasted like a sparkling ocean breeze on some tropical island. I felt heat rush through my skin. My hands tingled where they touched her. I could hear my heart beating in my ears like waves across the mouth of some submarine cave, a slow, deep drum of rightness and acceptance. Like everything else, I was coming to understand, love had many facets. Finding new ones did not diminish what you had, it showed you how much greater it was than you knew.
Screaming, Scarlett flung herself at us. Bridget's swing caught her a glancing blow, changing her direction enough for Chloe and I to easily dodge the first strike, but not slowing Scarlett any. She wheeled on the spot, lunging again, only for the wrist below the dagger to be caught in a sudden hand. As she struggled, the rest of a body appeared from the shadows, flowing in to the shape of a man who casually tossed Scarlett aside. My man. My Great One.
"Hey loser," said Chloe cheerfully. She leaned sideways to wink at Bridget. "Good arm there. Timing needs some work."
Riley ignored her, coming to me and taking me in his arms. I stared into his deep verdant eyes, like perfect Atlantean sea-glass, like the smoothed out edges of Andromeda, and felt the last traces of scorn dissipate. He embraced me, and then Chloe squeezed her way in, embracing us both. Love was not loving - but it could be so. It could be.
"I'm sorry I hurt you, my ittle, bitty, pretty one," Riley said sincerely.
I kissed him too.
With one last scream, Scarlett vanished. I barely noticed, for I was in the arms of my love - all of them.
And so there they were. All three of them. Just, macking away like it was no big deal.
Everything seemed over, but none of it made sense. Scarlett being plain crazy I could buy. Andi and Riley having some weird monster mash thing going on, sure. Even Chloe's freaky appearance I could put down to stage trickery; I'd done as much myself, come show time. But Andi kissing Chloe like that? I mean, whoa, hot, but come on. And Riley had literally appeared out of nowhere. Just, woosh! Not to mention that Scarlett fricking vanished. Like literally vanished. None of this any sense. Andi did seem to be enjoying herself, so, yay on that front, I guess, but come on! Did the paradox of Scarlett's self-induced trauma - which I definitely didn't believe - somehow resolve itself by Andi cutting the Gordian knot in her own inimitable fashion? But then how could any of this have happened at all? Had it even happened?
"Guys? Hey, guys? Hello?"
Nothing. I might as well not have been there. Never mind that I had been kidnapped, no, you three just go on making out right there. I was starting to feel a little scorned myself, and that never ended well. No, I thought, best to leave them to it; so that's just what I did, leaving by the back door and finding a local place to get that BLT I'd been craving. But even as I dug into my sandwich, one last nagging question festered in my mind.
In the land of the mad, was the one sane girl the queen - or the fool?