Dogma splayed both of his hands on the door leading outside and braced himself. "Alright. Let's try this one more time."
"I'm ready." Cody's reply was muffled by the door, but determined. "On three?"
"On three. One, two, three..." On the final number, Dogma shoved at the door with all the force he could muster. His feet skittered awkwardly on the polished floor — of all possible times, why had he waxed it on the day before? — but he pushed on, leaning against the door with his shoulder once his arms began to ache and putting his entire weight behind the shove.
He could hear Cody whimper; by the sound of it she tore at the doorknob as forcefully as she could. Both of their efforts seemed to be for naught, however, as the door remained steadfastly stuck. They might as well have tried tearing through the stone walls for all the good their struggle was doing them.
Just as Dogma thought that, the door gave a sudden, deafening creak, joined by an oddly fleshy sound as one of the bulging vines holding the door shut finally snapped. The door moved forward an inch before halting, stuck once more. Thin morning light shone in through the gap. Dogma had never seen a more beautiful sight.
Cody peered inside the church, squinting. What little Dogma could see of her face was red with effort. "Are you okay?"
"I should be the one asking you that. Pushing is easier than pulling." Dogma wiped the sweat of his brow and took stock of the situation. The broken vine had been one of the largest, but not the hardiest: over a dozen vines still blocked the doorway. Most on them were larger side of the equation, but more troublesome were the few thin, wiry ones that felt similar to braided steel when he touched them. "At least now we have enough room to take a blade to them."
"Just a second." Cody reached into the pocket of her culotte skirt and retrieved a small plant knife. "Not sure how well this works, but..."
"It's something. Give me a moment."
From the squishy, creaking noise, Cody had ignored his words and begun sawing at one of the vines already. Dogma stepped away from the door and walked to where he had hung his sword on the wall. It hadn't seen much use in recent months, and to his shame, he hadn't kept it as well maintained as he should have. Still, the blade was keen, and with any luck, would cut.
Returning to the front door, he placed both his hands on the hilt. "Step back for a moment, please. I don't want to stab you by mistake."
Cody's shadow vanished from the door. Dogma placed the blade just above a vine at his chest level, one of the larger specimen, and attempted to cleave it. The blade halted less than half an inch in, failing to cut through as much as one fifth of the vine.
Dogma groaned. "Stubborn, aren't they?" Preparing himself for a long, boring task, he began sawing at the vine, ignoring the way the noise from it wormed into his brain as best he could. More than stubborn, the vines were impossible. The world around them had grown wilder and wilder in recent times, but the previously harmless plants flourishing on the church walls trapping him inside overnight were nothing short of sorcery.
"Swords aren't meant for this." Cody, invisible from Dogma's vantage point but for her outstretched hand, had returned to cutting as well. Her much smaller blade was making far more headway: she was already halfway into a vine while Dogma was still struggling to add anything to the results of his initial slash. "If only we had an axe."
Yes, axes were what one used to rid oneself of plants, weren't they? Those, and... "Cody... could you set fire to them? The door can always be replaced."
A flickering flame appeared just beyond the narrow crack of the door, then vanished just as quickly. "I'd... rather not even try." Cody's voice was unusually faint. "There's an awful lot of them."
As Cody was more than capable of summoning an entire sea of flames at will, Dogma was forced to assume there was too much kindle to risk fire. "That's fine. We'll get through this as is." He returned to sawing with renewed vigour.
After what felt like close to ten minutes, another vine snapped, then another as Cody set to work on the same shoot as he did. Dogma gave the door a tentative push and managed to widen the gap by another inch. More light flooded in, but that was all their efforts had rewarded them with so far. Sighing, he crouched down and set his sword on another thick vine at his calf height while Cody worked on one of the skinny, sinewy tendrils higher up.
The sun had fully risen and dispelled the worst of the grey mist clinging to the town by the time he gave the door another try. The gap more than tripled in size, with enough space between the remaining vines for him to step through.
"Want to try it?" It was as if Cody had read his thoughts. Not waiting for a response, she took a step backwards.
"Yes." He had done his best to remain calm since finding the door fixed shut in the morning, but the longer he remained trapped, the more the church began feeling like a crypt. He set his sword on the ground and exhaled sharply, then pushed himself sideways against the narrow opening.
For a brief, dreadful moment, he thought he had managed to trap himself, but the very next instant he was out in the open, sunlight on his skin, unscathed but for faint, dull pain where the door had squeezed against his torso.
"Tch." The raised his hand to his aching side, but quickly forgot about it when he glanced up and saw the exterior of the church for himself. The blockade on the door had merely been the tip of the iceberg. Vines both thick and thin, abounding with large, purple flowers, snaked all across the walls and roof with so few gaps between them the real edifice could barely be glimpsed at. The church looked less like what it was and more like a massive, living creature composed entirely of plants.
He turned towards Cody. "I see what you mean now. That is...quite..."
"Creepy." Cody finished the sentence for him.
Dogma nodded. He had been aiming for "bizarre", but Cody's choice of words was far more apt. "I suppose we have no choice but to eradicate them. Although that's easier said than done."
"All of them? 'Tis a pity." It was unmistakably Doctor Kantera's voice. Dogma had no idea when he had arrived, but he was gazing up at the church just behind him and Cody, his arms folded into his sleeves and his head tilted.
"Yeah...it kinda is..." Cody bit her lip.
It really was a pity, Dogma had to admit. He had liked the vines, and even now, he couldn't honestly claim he sensed anything demonic about them. Still, normal plants didn't multiply in the dark.
"It can't be helped," he said out loud. "For all we know, they'll spread further still and infest other houses."
Doctor Kantera bowed his head. "Yes. I cannot argue with that."
Cody nodded. "I'll ask around and see if people can help us to get rid of them later today."
"That's probably for the best." Dogma gave Cody the first proper look that morning and paused to stare. She had a distinctly sickly air that he had somehow completely missed until then. "Why are you so pale? Are you ill?"
Cody gave him a flustered glare. "Have you looked in a mirror?" She lowered her gaze. "It's nothing serious. I just kept...having weird dreams again last night."
"Ah." Understanding dawned, and fresh apprehension with it. When their eyes met, it seemed pointless to verbally confirm what he and no doubt Cody too suspected: that once again, they had shared the same nightmare that had plagued them for months now.
"Well," said Cody after an uneasy pause. "I'll go ask around, then." She tried to smile. "I'm sure someone has some tools lying around that we can borrow, at least."
Dogma nodded. "Mind your health."
"It's fine. Really." She had barely taken ten paces away when a pitch black tentacle shot up from the earth right in front of her. She side-stepped just in time to avoid colliding with it and stood in place, staring at it.
"It's fine," she repeated thinly. "It didn't touch me. It's fine..."
She hastened away, shuddering.
"My...that was a close call." Doctor Kantera had quietly observed the developments and now looked very pensive.
Dogma realised he had stopped breathing and took steps to rectify the matter. There was no need to panic. Cody was unharmed, and that was all that mattered.
The tentacle remained where it stood, waving slightly despite the lack of wind, so black it looked like it swallowed any light that touched it.
"It seems such happenings are more common by the day, do they not?" Doctor Kantera continued after a while. Dogma had always had a difficult time reading him and his airy smiles, but with the smile replaced by a light frown, he had to assume Doctor Kantera was speaking earnestly.
"Indeed." Dogma closed his eyes. "...Still, things will turn around. The Lord won't let us suffer for much longer."
Doctor Kantera's smile returned, though without its usual mirth. "You may say that, Dogma, but your expression doesn't quite match with your words."
Dogma had no retort to that. He hadn't intended his words as a lie, but he had to admit his conviction wasn't fully behind them. After witnessing every settlement but their own succumb to a disturbing fate, and daily observing more and more unnatural things cropping up in their town, too, it had become...strenuous to maintain unwavering faith.
Though the revelation disturbed him, he didn't have time to dwell on it, as Doctor Kantera continued on unperturbed. "Perhaps you might accompany me on my morning stroll? I would appreciate the companionship."
"Oh... y-yes, I don't see why not." He couldn't continue with his daily duties anyway since he was essentially locked out of the church for the time being.
Doctor Kantera's strolls had never stretched very far, but in recent times, they had been little more than a circular tour around the centre of the town at an extremely leisurely pace. Leisurely both because the good doctor never cared to rush, but also to better avoid the various obstacles that swarmed the path. Mostly, the were black tentacles, similar to the one that had nearly skewered Cody earlier, but there were also remnants of popped balloons and odious, indeterminable reddish-black stains, none of which would budge despite several attempts to rid the town of them.
They walked in silence for several minutes, long enough for Dogma to wonder if Doctor Kantera had actually meant what he had said when he had invited him to join him. Surely he wasn't getting anything out of Dogma walking by his side without comment.
"How is the mayor?" he asked to break the silence.
"Ah." Doctor Kantera's eyes shot skywards. His already lethargic pace slowed down to glacial. "As a matter of fact, I visited him just before. He is unchanged." He shook his head. "I assume this doesn't come as news to you."
"It doesn't." Dogma only knew as much about Mayor Saxon's illness as Doctor Kantera had told him before: that it was most likely due to complications with anemia, and that it wasn't endangering his life for the time being. After ten weeks with no changes to his condition, it didn't take much guesswork to assume the situation would remain as such for some time still. "He will recover. He is a just man and will ultimately receive a just reward."
Doctor Kantera cast him a curious glance. "That you do believe in, then?"
"...Yes." Even if the extended sequence of ill omens had eroded his faith, he wasn't about to toss one of the cornerstones of his beliefs away. "In the end, we all reap what we sow."
"Hm." There it was again, the elusive smile he couldn't make heads or tails out of. "Mayhap it sometimes takes more time for the harvest to ripen than one might expect?"
They fell into a deep silence until Doctor Kantera halted completely. "Oh." He raised his hand high enough to hide his mouth behind his sleeve. "This one wasn't here when I last passed by."
Dogma grimaced. It was yet another pitch black tentacle, spawning right in the middle of the path and rising to his chest height. "What are these things?"
"You attempted to study them before, did you not?"
"Briefly. It did no good." His actual knowledge of the tentacles was limited to very few facts: they spawned at inopportune moments, grew more numerous by the day, and all plants within a certain radius of them soon withered. Beyond that, they seemed... malicious wasn't the right word, but toxic, to the point where the thought of touching them was repulsive, more than hit the mark. Something about the tentacles was intrinsically wrong, and though Dogma had considered several possible reasons why, not even their vague resemblance to unsavoury sea creatures seemed to merit that level of repugnance.
"Hm." For a moment, Doctor Kantera seemed lost in thought. "In recent weeks, a notion has occurred to me as to what they may be."
Dogma stared. "You know what they are?"
"'Tis only a humble theory, but if you so wish, I will share it." With that, Doctor Kantera approached the tentacle on their path and raised his hand so it was mere inches away from it. Dogma instinctively shuddered. "One might call it a curse.... or perhaps an illness, if you'll allow a sickness of the soul be called that."
Dogma folded his arms, frowning. "I'm not sure I follow."
"I shall explain. You must be aware 'tis possible to harness one's emotions for magic?"
"Yes. Then you know of the power they can wield. As for how they can be a curse... you are familiar with the hospital by the seaside, I assume. I have not seen it for myself, but from Russell's words, it appears to have been abandoned around the same time as misfortune befell Darcover Town."
Dogma's mouth dried at the mention of the forsaken town. "So, back when this all began?" It had been almost a year since then, but something about the timing of events seemed... off, somehow. Hadn't Russell returned from the hospital with the medicine he had foolhardily left to fetch by himself? Surely the hospital hadn't been abandoned already then.
He allowed it to slide. Neither Doctor Kantera nor Russell had any reason to lie as far as he could tell, so he was probably misremembering the sequence of events.
"Yes. I did not witness it first-hand, but based on his tale..." Doctor Kantera stepped behind the tentacle, skirting unpleasantly close to it. "'Twas due to an outbreak of fatal jealousy which had gained a life of its own and seeped into the foundation of the building. 'Tis uncommon, but when a powerful emotion grows too strong and gains a life of its own, it becomes a disease. Incurable by medicine, sadly. And if it spreads further..." He stepped back, once again almost brushing the tentacle with his fingers, then finally withdrew. "That is when it becomes a curse. I believe this is what happened to the hospital."
Dogma was beginning to understand. "You mean to say..."
"The emotion had grown so powerful it had become a force of nature. I cannot speak of its effects of the hospital... but according to Russell, the chief way the jealousy manifested itself was as tentacles spawning through the floor."
"In other words..." It was as good an explanation as any, and better than anything Dogma himself had managed. Still, something didn't quite seem right with it. "You mean to say these are all..." he nudged his hand uncertainly towards the tentacle, "Jealousy?"
A shadow passed over Doctor Kantera's face. "Not quite. I suspect another powerful emotion." His eyes met Dogma's. "Guilt. Overwhelming guilt, growing stronger by the day."
"Guilt..." Finally, a piece of the puzzle that seemed to match what he saw. If the tentacles and other horrors were a manifestation of emotion, surely they weren't jealousy. Something as volatile as unchecked guilt, on the other hand... "But who here could possibly suffer from such guilt?"
"Who can tell?"
Dogma had already opened his mouth to ask Doctor Kantera to elaborate when he was stunned to silence. The doctor was still smiling, but in a mournful manner Dogma had never seen on his face before.
Their eyes briefly met before Doctor Kantera averted his eyes, focusing on the tentacle. That one look was enough to tell Dogma exactly one thing.
He already knows.
"Doctor..." He began, but before he could finish the sentence, Doctor Kantera straightened his back, his smile morphing to its usual calm, cryptic state.
"This stroll has left me fatigued. I hope you will excuse me." He bowed his head, then quickly left without waiting for a response.
Dogma looked on, too overwhelmed to consider pursuing him until he was gone. Perhaps for the time being, it was for the best.
Heading homewards with his head bowed, he did his best to ignore the strange sapling that had taken root in his mind.
Kantera hesitated momentarily before crouching down to avoid the flowering vines hanging across the entrance to the church. He hadn't participated in destroying the overgrown plants the day prior, as he had dozed off soon after lunch and slept well into the evening, and thus couldn't be certain whether the remaining vines had been spared in the massacre or if they were new ones that had grown overnight. He suspected the latter.
He discovered himself smiling in earnest as he walked down the carpeted corridor between the rows of benches. He rarely visited the church, a place that had no bearing on either his upbringing or his current life, but he appreciated its calming, sombre atmosphere nevertheless.
Speaking of sombre...Dogma sat near the front of the church, his head bowed. As Kantera reached the bench, it became obvious the priest was lost in slumber: his eyes were firmly shut, and an abandoned broom lay at his feet. Just then, he mumbled something inaudible and tossed his head to the other side, his forehead a map of deep creases.
Kantera sat down next to him. He debated waking him, as Dogma's dreams were clearly not of the pleasant sort, but there was no need. As soon as he leaned back, Dogma's eyes fluttered open on their own accord.
"Doctor Kantera?" His voice was groggy and uncertain. He rubbed his eyes with both hands and blinked owlishly. "...Oh. Did I sleep for long?"
"I just arrived, but I suspect not." Kantera placed his hands on his lap. "I mean no offence when I say this, but naps are only good for your health if you lie down for them."
"I believe you. I only meant to sit down for a moment and..." Dogma's voice trailed off. He had caught sight of the shadow of vines through the stained glass.
"How can they be back already?" he exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "We burned them all..." He had taken nary a step forward when he faltered, raising his hand to his face in a spell of dizziness.
Kantera quickly leaned forward and reached for Dogma's arm to steady him. "Relax. 'Tis much better for your constitution not to rush."
Allowing Kantera's touch to guide him, Dogma sat back down, fresh unease distorting his features. "I shouldn't be this exhausted."
"If you cannot sleep at night, isn't it only natural you cannot stay awake during the day?" From the way Dogma winced, Kantera knew he had hit the nail on the head. "Perhaps I may offer you some herbal remedies for inducing sleep? I'm afraid they cannot guarantee a full night's rest if your mind is otherwise preoccupied, but they may be of use to you all the same."
"Erm..." Dogma fidgeted for a moment before relaxing. "Yes, something like that would probably be for the best. Thank you."
"Think nothing of it." His initial reason for wanting to speak with Dogma all but forgotten, Kantera closed his eyes and enjoyed the stillness and the brief respite from his usual thoughts, dwelling instead on recipes for sleeping draughts, taking special care not to think of from whom he had learned them.
"I've thought about what you said yesterday." Dogma's words shook him back to reality. Well. He could only expect so much of a respite, couldn't he?
"I'm still not sure I understand."
"Perhaps the fault was with my words, then. 'Twas merely a theory, after all." A theory he very much believed was true, but he saw no reason to state that out loud.
"A good theory," said Dogma, a touch sharply. He fixed his eyes on his boots. "I don't really trust my instincts when it comes to things like this, but those tentacles being guilt... feels right. Only, for there to be so much guilt..." He shook his head. "There simply isn't a single person who could be the source of all this."
"Ah. Is that so?" Kantera couldn't help but regard such a statement with bitter amusement.
"I've given it a lot of thought." Dogma had either missed his smile or else ignored it. "For there to be so much guilt that it turns into a curse, it's unlikely to be misplaced. In other words, there must be a grievous sin behind all this, and... w-well..." He grimaced. "The Catties were wicked, so this could have been the effect of their collective guilt, but... they are all dead."
"So I have understood."
"I considered the possibility of survivors elsewhere, but..."
"Exactly." Dogma paused for a moment, his eyes downcast. He sighed. "All that leaves is our town."
"You do not believe anyone here is a likely culprit?"
Dogma raised his head and met Kantera's eyes. "Who could it possibly be? I know my sister well enough to know she could never do something like that. Russell is still a child, as is Gardenia. Tabasa, Mireille, Yumi... they are all good people as well." His brow furrowed. "For a while, I suspected the Informant, but that was pure conjecture since I know him so poorly. Isn't he a child, too, after all?"
"Yes. It does seem the possibilities are few indeed." By the sound of it, Dogma had completely neglected to consider Kantera despite the obvious effort he had put into his ruminations. How that had happened, he could only guess, but perhaps his presence would be enough to lead the priest on the right track.
That didn't appear to be the case, as Dogma shook his head, raising his hands to massage his temples. "It has to be guilt, though. The more I've thought of it, the more I believe it. Only, there is no-one..."
He stilled, very slowly lowering his hands. Kantera expected him to turn towards him with shock and accusation in his eyes, but it never happened. He merely sat there, staring at something invisible in the distance.
"Dogma?" Kantera prompted when the silence stretched on past comfort, to no response. Either the realisation of what Kantera had done had struck him mute, or his mind had landed on a wholly unrelated track Kantera could only guess at. If only there was a way to directly understand another person's heart.
Too busy with an internal struggle of his own, Kantera didn't have time to further guess at his thoughts. He had spoken up about his suspicions regarding the curse on the world with the sole intention of confessing his crime, a task which had proven monumentally difficult for reasons beyond his ken. The longer he waited, the more blood there was on his hands, and yet...
Naming the tentacles for what they were was his biggest accomplishment so far, and he had hoped that alone would be enough to clue Dogma in on the truth about his conscience. Now it seemed a further push was needed if he wanted to get to the core of the matter. A push he wasn't sure he was capable of.
"If I may..." It felt like pulling teeth, but he found himself capable of speech after all. Dogma finally shook out of his reverie, too, as he turned his unfocused gaze towards Kantera. "I would like to present you with a hypothetical scenario."
Dogma said nothing, but his eyes sharpened.
"Suppose there was a man feigning innocence, even to himself, despite having committed the worst crime of all. A man who murdered a relative, all the while claiming it was for their own sake, and escaping as far as he could possibly go." Kantera closed his eyes. "A man who went on to live a simple life, pretending all was as it should be, forgetting there is no escape from karma. Now, his crime has caught up with him." He opened his eyes. "What should such a man do?"
"He..." Dogma's voice was vague and faint, like a whisper in the wind. "I suppose... all he can do is to truly repent and... try to make amends..."
"And if he has already attempted those, and his guilt has not subsided? Or perhaps his karma runs so deep he cannot make amends?" Kantera scrutinised Dogma's expression carefully. There was no understanding there yet, only deepening apprehension. "I know your creed is against it, but would it be a greater sin for him to ignore the consequences of his deeds when it harms the innocent, or for him to pay for his sins with his life?"
"I... I don't know." Dogma seemed to be at a genuine loss for words. "...Would the man's death put an end to the consequences?"
"I believe so, yes." Kantera leaned back. He felt more at peace than he had in years. He was still a coward, for failing to end his life as soon as the first tentacles appeared, and for being to unable to directly confess, but this was the furthest he had come to admitting his guilt outside his dreams.
"Forgive me for being so blunt, Doctor Kantera, but..." Dogma broke the calm in a wavering voice. "I have to be certain. I understand what you're speaking of isn't actually speculation, but..." He swallowed whatever he had been about to say and continued: "Who are you talking about?"
Kantera took a deep breath, fighting a desire to bury his face in his hands and never look up again. He was almost certain this wasn't stupidity on Dogma's part and rather some sort of misplaced, fervent belief in Kantera's innocence, but that made it no better.
"Of myself, of course." Four simple words that would have cleared any doubt in a heartbeat. Four words his mouth simply couldn't pronounce.
He wanted to confess. Rather, he desperately needed to confess, but whenever the possibility of speaking up presented itself, all of his resolve abandoned him. This roundabout confession was just about the best he could do, so close to the actual truth it set his teeth on edge, but just like he was incapable of being candid, it seemed Dogma was incapable of seeing what Kantera needed him to see.
He looked helplessly at Dogma, trying to think of another hint he could drop, when a piercing scream rang from outside.
Kantera blinked, startled, but Dogma was on his feet at once. "Cody!" Without another word, he was up on his feet and rushing down the corridor.
Kantera followed after him, his heart thrumming with foreboding.
Cody was directly outside, along with Russell and Gardenia. Gardenia's eyes were wide with fear, her mouth hidden behind her hands. Russell's expression was as blank as usual, but the knuckles around the knife in his hand were white, and there was a layer of sweat on his brow.
Cody stood between them, clutching her left arm, a ghostly pallor to her skin. Rivulets of ruby red blood ran down her bared arm from a long, but relatively shallow cut starting near her wrist and running all the way to her elbow. She appeared otherwise unharmed, Kantera noted to his relief, merely in a state of shock.
Dogma, meanwhile, was in full panic mode. "What happened?!" he demanded, wringing his hands, his voice a whole key higher than usual.
"It's fine," Cody bit in a pained tone, convincing no-one.
"It's not fine!" In a flash, Dogma was by Cody's side, staring at her damaged arm as if unsure if touching it would hurt her further.
"What happened?" Kantera asked, looking at Russell and Gardenia.
"We... we thought we'd get a head-start on the new vines when we saw them," Gardenia began, biting her lip. Kantera's eyes drifted to an axe and machete lying on the ground next to her. They had no doubt been used to remove the vines on the previous day. Fresh bloodstains speckled the blade of the machete.
Dogma looked as if he was about to lose his mind. "Just the three of you? Without saying anything to anyone?"
"It's not like we went traipsing into the woods unarmed or something!" Cody snapped. The outburst returned some of her regular composure to her demeanour. "It was just gardening work like yesterday. How was I supposed to know the ladder would break, and the knife would slip, and..." She looked away.
Kantera tried not to imagine what might have happened had the machete fallen from Cody's grasp entirely, and didn't quite succeed. "You are quite fortunate this is the worst of it."
"I know." Cody looked nauseous.
"It was so weird!" Gardenia exclaimed. "The ladder was just fine, and then the rung snapped clean off! It was almost like magic."
From the corner of his eye, Kantera saw Russell, who hadn't said anything the entire time, raising his hand towards Cody. At Gardenia's words, he let it fall again, withdrawing from the loose circle of people gathered around Cody.
"...Or a curse." Dogma appeared to have calmed himself, though he was still wheezing. He shook his head. "We'll discuss it later. First and foremost, that cut needs to be healed."
Obligingly, Cody extended her arm. Dogma held his left hand above it and brought his right one to his chest, focusing.
Frowning, Dogma tried again. Once more, nothing.
Cody was the first to break the ensuing silence. "You need to rest, brother. I can get this healed without magic." She tried to look brave despite her obvious discomfort.
"Yeah." Gardenia smiled brightly, almost brightly enough to hide the nervousness in her eyes. "That happens to everyone when they're tired!"
Dogma didn't appear to listen. He stared at his hand, more puzzled than anything. No doubt he was thinking what Kantera thought, too: that though plausible, it was fairly unlikely he had no mental energy left for a simple healing spell.
The back of his neck tingled, and he turned to see Russell staring first at Dogma, then Cody. There was deep anguish in his eyes, understandable after witnessing his friends' misfortune, but so profound Kantera found himself curious nevertheless. For the briefest of moments as he observed the boy, he felt he was at the cusp of a revelation.
Then, Russell turned his gaze to him.
His heart skipped a beat.
Without thinking, he broke eye contact and raised his voice. "Should you allow it, Cody, I will gladly dress your wound for you."
"Oh...yes, please." Cody cast another concerned glance at her brother, then, still holding her arm, she followed Kantera as he hastened away.
Though he couldn't be sure Russell kept staring at him, Kantera felt his eyes on his back.
Dogma woke up with a start. Visions of fire faded into the darkness like vapour into air.
From the book on his lap, the waxy stump of a candle in the nearest candlestick, and his otherwise shadowy surroundings, it didn't take much guesswork to conclude he had dozed off while attempting to study. From the lack of light, he had to assume he had nodded off for several hours, but he felt no more rested than he had in the evening. The medicine Doctor Kantera had prescribed to him might have helped, but until then, Dogma had forgotten all about it: he had received it second-hand from Cody, and most of his attention had been claimed by the strip of bandage peeking from under her sleeve.
Cody had returned in a cheery mood, or at least feigning such, all ready to continue with the work despite her wound. She'd already picked up the machete when Dogma had protested, and only relented when it became obvious she really couldn't both support herself and handle the weapon at the same time. Even then, she'd kept smiling, as if he hadn't failed her, repeating it was all exhaustion and that he needed to rest more.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head against his shoulders, hoping to catch a few more winks of sleep. Miraculously, he wasn't immediately transported back to Dead Tree Hill. Rather, he stayed in place while the church pooled in sunlight, and Doctor Kantera sat down next to him once more.
"Suppose there was a man..."
There had been nothing hypothetical about the man Doctor Kantera had spoken of, of that Dogma was certain. There had been an obvious intent behind his words... an intent that ought to have been as clear as day, but for some unfathomable reason wasn't. It was as if an invisible wall had risen in his mind, blocking his path to the logical conclusion. What was he supposed to see, and why couldn't he see it?
Sometimes, he wished the waking world were more like dreams, where even the most implausible things made perfect sense.
Of course, his dreams hadn't been making much sense lately, either.
He slammed the book shut and set it aside before standing up. He had only picked it up in hopes of learning more about guilt made manifest, but it only spoke of the emotion on an abstract level.
It was a rare bright night outside, with the full moon peeking through cracks in the sea of clouds. The outlines of the pews and the distant altar were just visible when he squinted, but he knew their placement by heart anyway.
He shuffled onto the aisle and stood in place. As long as he could exit without having to battle vines on the way, there was nothing menacing about the church even in the dark. It was simply a quiet place of worship in a state of repose, waiting for sunrise.
His spirits raised by the sentiment, he returned to the mystery vexing him. Prevented from taking their logical path, whatever it might have been, his thoughts turned inwards, seeking another alternative. Perhaps the meaning behind Doctor Kantera's words was more oblique than he felt it was, and he had merely convinced himself it was something obvious. The human mind was a strange thing, after all.
Though it made his stomach turn, he re-entertained the idea that had dawned upon him when he had last spoken with Doctor Kantera. He had excluded every single person from the list of potential culprits, all except one. Himself.
At face value, it made no sense, but he persisted. Hadn't he given due consideration to everyone else? Was it possible he had committed a momentous sin and completely forgotten about it? That kind of denial was preposterous, but then again, so was the magnitude of guilt, and the thought anyone else in town could be behind it.
"A man who murdered a relative..."
Unbidden, his nightmares returned to him. Namely, the figure that haunted them more often than anything else; the pale, careworn face of his and Cody's mother.
The monster on Dead Tree Hill had been just that, a monster. But perhaps, just perhaps...
He raised his hand to his head as a sudden pain surged through it. He couldn't think straight like this. He desperately needed more sleep.
At the same time, his thoughts kept hounding him. How Doctor Kantera knew what he knew, he could only guess. But clearly he knew. No doubt he had felt showing discretion when confronting Dogma would be more effective, hence why he had spoken of a matter in such a roundabout way. But if he really behind the curse...
At a loss, he closed his eyes. His hands automatically clasped themselves in prayer. God would have the answer if no-one else did.
"Oh, Lord," his voice echoed from the walls. "I need Your guidance. How can I make amends for a crime I'm not certain I committed?" There couldn't be repentance without awareness, that was self-evident. "Please, give me the strength to face my sins, or else..."
An unfamiliar, creeping noise forced his eyes open. Yet another vine crawled down the nearest stained glass window, faster than any plant was meant to grow.
He unclasped his hands and let his hands fall to his sides, more sensing than seeing the roots bore themselves into the foundation.
It was noon, by Kantera's reckoning. The sun disagreed.
He gazed through the window at what should have been a bright day, but looked little different from twilight for a moment longer, then shut the curtain and returned to the counter. Though the world outside was slowly succumbing to chaos, his little shop was unchanged. Deliveryuu lay curled up in deep sleep by the table. Kantera hoped their dreams were more pleasant than his.
His gaze lingered on the piece of red cloth he had placed on the counter in the morning, as he had done every morning for the past two months. He placed his elbows on the counter and stared down at it until his world narrowed down to it and himself — or, rather, the thin and sharp knife that lay beneath the cloth.
In his dreams — the good ones, anyway — he had already died a hundred times over. Each time, he gladly allowed the knife to sink into his flesh and put an end to the whispering shadows and the stares of the eyeless jizou. His guilt would die with him, and the curse would be lifted. Nothing could be more simple.
Languidly, he leaned against one hand and extended the other towards the cloth. Two inches away, his hand stopped as if it had hit a wall.
He retracted it and took a deep breath.
Before, he had tried to convince himself the invisible force holding him back was outside his control, but that morning, he was painfully conscious it was merely his own cowardice, just like the voice in his dreams claimed. What else could there possibly be?
He sighed. Perhaps it was time he attempted to reveal his past to another person again. It had already been a week since his failed confession to Dogma, and as the priest hadn't sought him out since then, it was likely he still hadn't understood what Kantera had alluded to.
Yes. He would try again. After all, even in his dreams, he couldn't bring himself to aim the knife at himself. He always had help.
It was as if those words had been all it took to summon someone to his humble home. Russell burst in through the door, breathing shallowly. Without hesitation, he strode to the counter.
"Russell? "Is something amiss?" Kantera's eyes flitted between Russell and the cloth. He decided it would be more suspicious to attempt to hide it and the weapon than to leave it as it was.
As soon as he had thought that, Russell grabbed him by the sleeve and tugged at it urgently. "You need to come right now."
"What has—" From the way Russell's shoulders hitched up, Kantera understood questions would have to wait. "Very well. Show me the way."
Russell let go and retreated outside. Kantera followed, hastening his steps. Russell wasn't one to show emotion, so for him to appear so distressed, something notable must have happened.
Evading the tentacles on the path with practised ease, Russell led him to the church. Yumi waited in the doorway with her arms crossed.
"Good of yer to come so quick." She tipped her hat. "I know this ain't really your kinda medicine, but if there's anythin' you can do..."
Kantera bowed. "Of course. What is the matter?"
Yumi's response was to beckon them inside, bowing her head to avoid the hanging vines by the doorway. Russell scurried in with his head held up, short enough to dodge them without effort. Kantera followed.
For a moment, nothing seemed amiss. The church was as spotless as ever, with fresh candles by the walls. Then, he spotted Cody sitting on the floor, her back against one of the benches and covering her mouth with her hand. Her eyes were red-rimmed and staring fixedly ahead at something just beyond Kantera's sphere of vision.
Troubled, he took one step forward to see the target of her glazed eyes. It was Dogma, lying prone on his back on the floor next to Cody, his eyes lightly shut, his characteristic frown replaced by a vacant expression. He appeared to be in deep slumber.
From there, Kantera's eyes travelled downwards. Dogma's collar was open, revealing a deep, bright red abrasion that encircled his neck, marring the tender skin of his throat. Friction burns, unmistakably so. Suddenly, his stillness made a different kind of sense.
How or why, Kantera had no time to consider, but somehow Dogma had found himself on the same path as Kantera himself. Only, he had gone further.
He approached and crouched down, looking at Cody. "Is he..."
He fell silent. If Cody had heard him, she showed no sign of it. Kantera couldn't blame her.
"He's breathin'" Yumi said from behind him. Of all the people involved, she appeared the most composed, though lacking her usual easy-going mood. "Or was jes' a minute ago when we cut him down, anyway." Russell had slinked to her side, standing in place like he was her shadow. "Dunno. I came running when I heard screaming, but we've got no clue how long it was before Cody and Russell found him."
"I see." Pushing emotion aside, Kantera focused on the task at hand. This was far removed from his area of expertise, but surely he could at least verify whether Dogma was alive or not.
Carefully avoiding the damaged skin, he trailed two fingers on Dogma's neck, searching for a pulse, while simultaneously holding his other hand just above his mouth. He quickly found a heartbeat, thrumming violently, and soon after felt a faint breath against the back of his palm.
"He... I daresay he is in better condition than I expected." To live at all after what Kantera assumed had transpired, let alone breathe without assistance... was he mistaken? "What exactly occurred?"
"Er, hold on a tick." Yumi cast an awkward glance at both Cody and Russell, then procured something from the bench to her left and stepped towards Kantera to hand it over. "You get the idea."
Kantera accepted the noose with surprise. He had expected hemp, not flowering vines twined into a coil.
He twisted the makeshift rope in his hands. It had been cut near the knot, which had already begun to unfurl. Kantera had never considered hanging as means of ending his own life — from the beginning, it had been steel — but something about the composition of the knot seemed strange despite his unfamiliarity with the process. The rope itself was sturdy for one made out of plants, but the noose didn't seem quite taut enough to do the deed.
"I believe he made a very fortunate mistake," he said out loud. "There is little I can do besides healing the wounds, but unless I'm much mistaken, he should recuperate on his own accord." Whether Cody or Russell were listening at all or not, he thought it wiser to leave unstated the kind of damage oxygen deprivation could ravage on a brain. That could wait for when it became relevant.
"That's a relief." Yumi smiled and crouched to retrieve the noose, tugging it back out of sight. "Can we move him up to a bench? Can't be good to lie on the floor like that."
Kantera nodded. "It should be safe enough, yes."
"I... I'll help." Cody sounded like a shadow of herself, but it was a relief to see her recover from her stupor. She stood up awkwardly, her eyes hooded.
"Don't push yerself." Yumi tilted her head, eyeing Cody carefully. "I'd feel a whole lot better if ya sat down for a bit longer."
From the decisive way Cody shook her head, she would brook no argument. Therefore, they had little choice but to accept her help while Russell quietly observed their efforts by the door.
Kantera blinked his eyes open. He was used to having a nap around this time of the day, and while he hadn't given leaving the bench-side vigil a second thought, his mind had drifted off as the deafening silence lingered on.
Now, he found himself perfectly alert, looking on with rapt attention as Dogma glanced uncertainly around.
"It's me." Cody stood up and looked down at her brother. During the silent hours they had waited for Dogma to wake up, the last of her shock had evaporated. Her words were so faint it was impossible to be sure, but to Kantera she had sounded very cold.
Yumi, who had taken a seat near the entrance, moved to stand up, then decided otherwise, leaning backwards. Russell sat on the other side of the same bench, holding his knees up against him, unmoving, his eyes gleaming in the candlelight.
Kantera too thought it better to give the siblings some space for the time being. He tugged his hands back into his sleeves, feigning a peace of mind to the best of his ability.
After an extended silence, Cody spoke again. "...Say something."
Dogma sighed, briefly closing his eyes and opening them again to stare up at the ceiling. "I don't know what to say."
"You can start by explaining something." Cody spoke very deliberately, grinding her teeth. This time, it was plain the chilliness belied a crackling anger beneath it. "What were you thinking?"
Dogma turned his head minutely, facing Cody. He squinted at her like through a haze, but when he spoke, his tone sounded lucid enough. "It thought it was necessary."
"Neces—" Cody's hands curled into tight fists. She took a deep breath, then continued more evenly, her flaring temper just under control. "Why would you ever think so something so stupid," she caught herself again, "would be necessary?"
Dogma attempted to raise his head, then winced and allowed his head to sink back down. He exhaled. "To put an end to the curse."
"What curse?" Cody was still livid, but her anger was rapidly fading into confusion.
"The one behind the tentacles and the rest of the destruction. The one that got you hurt."
"You're not making any sense. This?" She raised her left arm. Though some mark of the cut no doubt still remained, it was imperceptible through her long sleeves. "It was an accident. You had nothing to do with it."
Dogma shook his head. "It shouldn't have happened."
"You didn't cause it!" Though she had raised her voice, Kantera could see little of her initial anger remaining. "Why would you even think something like that?"
The emotions Kantera had so carefully set aside before reminded him of their presence by stabbing his conscience. He was the true cause behind the curse, after all. Could it be that somehow, through some warped logic, Dogma had misinterpreted his attempt to reveal it as an accusation?
"I..." Dogma frowned, as if he could no longer fully follow his own line of reasoning, either. "I couldn't repent, so I thought if I paid with my life, it might be enough to spare you."
"Repent for what?" A new emotion surfaced on Cody's face: fear.
"Darcover Town. We..." Feebly, Dogma raised his hand to his forehead. "We were both there, but I thought it might be enough if just one of us died for it. I hoped it was just a reflection of the true sin to which you were uninvolved, but I couldn't be sure..."
"...You're still not making any sense." Momentarily, Cody sounded younger than her years. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes.
Dogma remained silent for a while, his frown deepening. "...I... well..." He hesitated. "...It made sense at the time."
A silent tear rolled down Cody's cheek.
"Is this why you were so weird?" Her voice was shaky and thick with emotion. "Why didn't you say something? How could you think something so stupid..."
Her tirade ended with a sob. Dogma looked on wordlessly, eyes half shut, as she began to cry in earnest, burying her face in her hands.
Kantera looked on as well, unsure what to do. Was there anything he could say to comfort her? Having lived under a mask for so long, he had grown as comfortable with his deception as one possibly could, but here... No. All that came to him were empty words and lies by omission, and thus further fuel to his guilt. He had done enough harm already.
At length, he realised Russell had slipped away without him noticing. He chose to follow his lead, stopping briefly to speak to Yumi.
"I shall go fetch some herbs," he said in a low voice. Yumi's eyes were fixed on the still weeping Cody, brimming with sympathy. "To treat the friction burns so they will not be infected."
"Good plan," Yumi said softly, nodding without turning her gaze. "I'll hold the fort."
Kantera nodded back, then retreated.
He almost collided with Russell, who sat down against the church just by the entrance, leaning into both walls and vines without heed, his face hidden behind his arms and knees.
"Russell," he said as gently as he humanly could. His heart ached. The poor child had witnessed something no child should, and he had almost forgotten about it.
Russell looked up towards him with unseeing eyes.
"Perhaps you ought to come with me. There is no medicine for pain of the soul, but something that brings a momentary respite�—"
"Thanks... but I'm fine." A lie, from the way Russell turned away alone, but Kantera decided to let it go.
"Please tell me if you change your mind." Kantera gave him the warmest smile he could under the circumstances. Russell didn't appear to notice.
Before Kantera could decide on his next course of action, Russell spoke up again, his voice hollow. "This shouldn't have happened."
"One could say that, yes." He sat down on the grass opposite Russell, folding his legs underneath him. He doubted he could offer much in ways of meaningful comfort, but he couldn't leave Russell all alone when he looked so crestfallen. He would simply have to push his guilt momentarily aside. "Unfortunately, it isn't within our abilities to dictate what ought not to happen."
Russell finally looked at him, with a very peculiar expression to boot. There was a ready retort in his eyes, but it died out as soon as Kantera became aware of it.
"I just... never thought..." Russell closed his eyes. "If I had known something like this could happen... I would've..." He shook his head and fell silent.
"'Tis the same for all of us." The words felt like poison as he spoke them, but he was experienced at portraying a serene disposition regardless of what he felt. "Please, do not blame yourself."
Russell re-opened his eyes, and focused his intense stare on Kantera.
Kantera's skin prickled in the same strange manner it sometimes did when speaking with Russell at length. That, however, was meaningless by comparison to what he saw in his eyes.
Though he said nothing in protest, Russell had clearly seen through the deception his platitudes had been, and even through the mask that was his smile. He kept staring, his sharp blue eyes piercing and much older than the rest of him. Perhaps he could see all the way to Kantera's soul, and to the guilt twisting around it like the vines coiled on the walls of the church.
With a small sigh, Russell looked away. "I don't want anyone to get hurt anymore." There was no blame his words. If anything, there was a curious hint of defensiveness, but for the most part, they were full of resignation.
His stare, Kantera realised then, had been identical to his stare from when Cody had been injured. He had misread its message then. It wasn't an accusation, let alone a command. It was a plea, a prayer, whether it was meant as such or not. A prayer Kantera could answer.
He stood up, possessed by long overdue resolve. "Then no-one further shall be hurt. I hope you will excuse me." He bowed deeply.
Russell's eyes followed him as he walked down the path, maintaining his regular pace.
He entered his shop and walked over to the counter. In the corner, Deliveryuu raised their head. "Ah, Kantera. Welcome—"
Not responding, Kantera picked up the red cloth and the knife with it. He set the cloth aside, then turned the knife in his hands so it was pointed at himself.
"Kantera, what..." Panic flashed in Deliveryuu's usually calm eyes.
Kantera listened no further. He raised the knife, aiming the blade beneath his ribcage. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax.
Then, bracing himself, he attempted to plunge the knife into his abdomen.
His arms refused to budge.
He tried again. The muscles in his arms had transformed into rigid steel, steadfastly refusing to obey.
The knife clattered onto the floor, and Kantera sank to his knees after it. Dully, he gazed at the stainless steel which should have been covered in his blood.
Deliveryuu said something, their tone fearful, but Kantera couldn't hear it. All he heard was the indistinct voice from his dreams ringing in his head, taunting him again and again.
Coward. Coward. Coward.