UN R A V E L I N G
It was late at night, or perhaps early on the morning of Velles the Eleventh, when Isabella was awoken by a persistent pinching of her earlobe. "I'm up, I'm up!" she croaked, sitting up in bed. "Fuckin' 'ell." All around her, on stands and manikins, from lines where they hung and basins where they'd been dyed, lay the fruits of her labour. The pinching returned and it was Jocasta. <What. Want.> she pinched back, after a taking a moment to find her old refuge friend some ways away.
<Marci.> came the reply. <Hurt. Bad.>
Isabella was up within moments, dressing and swinging herself out of bed and into her wheelchair.
They'd all been called: Isabella, Luisa, Felix, and Yalen. They'd only missed Abdel. He'd slept through the barrage of pinches as was his custom. Five tethered gathered in a nondescript townhome within the faculty quarter, one with wide doors and hallways, low countertops, and a pulley lift to the second floor. Their sixth lay on the dining room table, made marginally comfortable by the inclusion of some hastily-arranged blankets and a pillow beneath her head. Though the outwardly-evident wounds had been healed, the damage was grave and irreparable.
"She'll be rabid," Jocasta was saying, in response to a question from Felix. "Blind, mad, aggressive." People hugged themselves and eyes darted around, seeking uncertain assurances that could not be given. Yalen, the only one standing, leaned against the kitchen counter, arms crossed, and avoided looking at Marceline. He'd lit the lamps and candles. They did just enough.
"But she's..." Luisa reached an arm around Felix and hugged him from the side, their wheels butting up against each other's. "Well... on zero, right?"
Isabella nodded, having arrived and been filled in second of all to Yalen. "And she's the copy, right?" she added.
Jocasta nodded slowly. "She is," the senior tethered confirmed, "as long as they didn't get mixed up. I've seen it happen." She smiled faintly. "With some hilarious results." The smile faded almost immediately, however, for all knew that there was no levity to be had here.
"Well, can she be cured?" Felix prodded. "Of the aberration effects, of course." All tethered knew that, once you were fully on two - once the tethering reached your spinal column, there was no going back.
Yalen pushed off from the countertop and uncrossed his arms. "I have the gift I received from an aberration last year," he offered. "It can reverse some of the effect."
"And then a Grey Ab," exclaimed Luisa with some relief. "Two birds, one stone!"
The others exchanged serious eyes. "I know this may sound heartless," Felix offered, "But this is just the twenty-five hour copy, right?" He voiced what all - or at least most of them had been thinking but afraid to say.
Jocasta pursed her lips, nervous hands occupying themselves by taking a moment to fix the folds on Marci's tattered dress. "Yeah," she replied, "It should be."
"So we just... put her out of her misery?" Isabella concluded, not liking the sound of it even as it left her lips. Her eyes darted about guiltily, at her fellow tethered and at their dancing shadows on the walls, dim and distant.
Felix shrugged. Yalen pursed his lips. "Whatever we do," he decided, "We can't let her wake up like that, no matter what. The way I understand copies is that the memories go back to the original."
"I can keep her under for a day," Jocasta offered, "until she disappears." She left out the unspoken 'or not'. She shrugged. "Real Marci will receive no memories from after her copy here went unconscious." She drew back from the countertop and regarded the others in turn. "That sound reasonable?"
There were murmurs of consent and a few explicit affirmatives. Hugs were exchanged. Eyes lingered on their fallen sister. If she was not the true Marceline, she was a part of her and it was all too real, eerie, and uncanny. "Love you Marce," said Isabella, squeezing the girl's unmoving hand before rolling away. "You silly little thing," fretted Luisa, pushing herself up on her arms to plant a kiss on the girl's forehead. Felix ruffled her hair with glum fondness. Then, one by one, they rolled out of the door, Isabella lingering last. "If you need anything," she assured Jocasta and Yalen, eyes darting once again to Marci's prone form, "I'm just an annoying pinch in the night away." She offered a brave smile and a nod before backing away and closing the door behind herself.
The husband and wife to be were left alone in the dining room of their home, and the latter heaved a tired, worried sigh. She closed her eyes and rubbed at the bridge of her nose. "Yalen," she began, opening them, "I know there's no reason, but do you think you could try to cure her anyway?" Just in case, her mind but not her mouth added. "I can't look at her like that and..." She shrugged. "It'll be good practice, right?"
T W O
Jocasta did, of course, call upon Isabella again, and Luisa, Felix, and Yalen. If the otherwise-incurable part of the madness was gone thanks to the last of them, not-Marceline was still utterly mad, blind, and paralyzed from the neck down, and would remain so until she disappeared.
Each took a shift watching over the girl, trading spare periods or playing hooky when absolutely necessary. They remained diligent: careful to keep her under so that her true self might not experience the horrors that would inevitably follow were she to wake.
So it was that the day passed. Marceline, as yet unaffected by the horrors wrought upon her doppelganger by her risky decisions, went about her business with Zarina, moving from tenseness to triumph. Meanwhile, the version of herself that had paid for her sins remained, lying still and silent on Jocasta's spare bed, chest rising and falling shallowly as she yet drew breath.
First, it was Yalen. Then, it was Felix, followed by Luisa. Isabella missed an afternoon period and then Jocasta maintained Marceline from afar. The afternoon drew on and the hour drew near.
The sun began to ripen in the sky, hanging like a fruit ready to drop, and Jocasta had long since returned home. At first, she looked in from time to time as she busied herself with her daily chores and marking papers, but then she began to linger. Worry sat, hard and high, atop her stomach, pulling at its strings and tightening them. She came often into the room, rolling quietly across the floor, tugging at the sheets, glancing out the window at the setting sun. Finally, it rested atop the jagged skyline of the city and began to dip below, fat and orange-pink. It could happen at any moment, she knew. She prepared herself for Marci to disappear. As the last of the sun slipped from view, she prepared the sigh of relief and waited for it to come.
T H R E E
How, Marci!? Jocasta couldn't get the thought out of her head. How could you fuck it up!? The girl was usually smart. She'd started a business with Zarina that had become an Ersand'Enise staple and was poised to explode across the twin continents. She'd outsmarted everyone in the Melon Derby and Thin Air, and come a hair from beating Juulet in Mano e Mano. How the hell could someone like you make such a stupid mistake!?
At some point, Jocasta slipped into acceptance. She was numb for a couple of minutes, the anxiety that had churned her insides gone. On some level she'd known. That undefinable impulse that some might call 'gut instinct' had warned her. He cleansed you, at least, she thought at the girl, but it was so much worse. It was unfathomably worse.
The sun had disappeared completely and she realized that she could wait no longer. While the Zenith had called a citywide curfew in response to the recent unrest, Jocasta was exempt from it as a Tan-Zeno. If she looked more like a student, then she was distinctive: the only blonde tethered woman in the entire city. She was allowed, so far as she'd bothered to read her intake materials during hundri, to escort two people, and... well, those had to be Marceline and Yalen. They had to get to the Groove. They had to get a white or grey ab. She didn't allow herself to think past that point.
Pushing herself into action, Jocasta turned on the spot and dodged the new wheelchair Yalen had gotten her from the Trials. She rolled out of the room and down the hallway. "My love," she called with some urgency, knocking on his door. He was soon to begin his evening prayers, she knew. She was about to knock again when she heard footsteps. A moment later, she was gazing up at Yalen, freshly bathed, his blonde hair still damp and smoothed back. By Ipté are you gorgeous!
"You radiate worry," he observed, stepping through the doorway. "Is it...?" He trailed off, and she nodded. "Marci." She wasn't sure whether to hug herself or have her hands on her wheels. Yalen solved the problem by reaching down and pulling her into an embrace. "We need to get her an aberration," he said, releasing Jocasta. He left the rest unsaid. "Jo, do you think you can teleport us?" he asked tenderly, and she swallowed in response, arms instinctively wrapping themselves around her small form. "I..." She stopped her automatic answer and considered. "I can teleport you two, straight into the backroom of the Swirl." She shook her head. "I'll follow as quickly as I can, but those... things will attack if I try to go. Can you handle her until I get there?"
Yalen scowled thoughtfully. "I... think so," he responded, "But this is aberration madness. You've got about a day from the time it sets in to clear what you can." Left unspoken were the other effects. Left unspoken was that nearly a day had passed.
Isabella was at her loom, putting the finishing touches on a project, when she felt a pinch on her earlobe. With the skill of a master, she managed to avoid ruining the pattern she'd been working on. <Marci. Here. Still.> She put down what she'd been doing and sat there for a moment as it dawned on her. Her heart sank. <Real. Marci.> she questioned. <Real.Marci.> came the response.
The Enthishwoman's hands fell to her wheels, trembling. <Need. What.> she asked. <Need. You. Portal. Now.> She looked up to find it waiting for her.
F O U R
The Vermilion Swirl was a place of pleasure. Certainly, there was the odd miserable old git who cared naught for anything but blunting his own unhappiness. By and large, however, it had established the sort of culture that made it an oasis. This was a place of privilege as much as refuge and, as a result, it was rare to see the worried, the ill, and the desperate here.
Then there were the three tethered: the Enthish clothing designer, the former priest, and the third. She was young and unmoving, laid on a table in the backroom that all knew led to The Groove. "It'll be enough," the first was saying. "I took one half this size with Luisa and Felix and it pushed each of our symptoms back as far as they'd go." Absently, she indicated a line just above her hips.
Yalen considered. He closed his eyes for focus and scanned Marceline's prone form. He could feel the nerves in her arms, shoulders, and chest firing again. He followed them down into her midsection and all the way to that invisible line just before they branched out into her legs. He scowled. "It's the aberration side of things that worries me." He shook his head. "A normal mage is a menace if they go mad, but a tethered?"
Isabella shrugged uncomfortably. "She could wreak havoc all over the city and it'd take hours to find the source."
It was at about that moment that Jocasta rolled breathlessly into the room. She took a moment to compose herself, chest heaving, and shook her arms out before fixing her hair. "So it's done? she asked. "She's taken it?" Her eyes, still adjusting to the darkness, searched her peers' faces before flicking Marci's way.
Yalen nodded. "You didn't have to run. It was pretty straightforward."
Jocasta took a few pushes, rolling right up to the unconscious younger girl. She brushed some hair from Marci's eyes. "How far did we get?" Is she...?"
Isabella nodded. Yalen shook his head. "As far as we thought," the former replied. "As far as us."
Jocasta closed her eyes. She took a deep, shuddering breath, held it, and released it before opening them. "Godsdammit, Marci: you brave, stupid little person." She hadn't walked since she was thirteen, hadn't felt anything below her waist since then and, in a lot of ways, living with effectively half a body was... her normal. Gods, she knew it was hard, though, and she shuddered to think of how impossible it would be without the Gift. "You're gonna do it, Marce." She ran her fingers through the girl's hair. "It's gonna be hard and I know you thought it was a bullet you'd dodged - Gods, I wish you had - but you're going to be okay, like me and Issy." She looked over at her childhood friend and they exchanged tight, knowing smiles. "This is a bump in the road, I promise, and there are good things waiting on the other side of it."
She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. She tried to screw her jaw shut and will them away, but it was no use, so she ran the back of her hand across her face. She wanted to be angry. She wanted to destroy Juulet: to pound her to pieces, to make her beg pathetically for her wretched life and to coldly refuse. She wanted to, because the yasoi had hurt someone she loved, but it rang hollow. It had been Marci's choice and Marci's mistake. She had started buying into her own cleverness and invincibility and would be forever marked by it. Jocasta knew that feeling. She took a deep breath. "I want her to have privacy for a few days, to be safe from what's going on in the city." She sniffed and straightened. "That still okay?"
U N R A V E L I N G
F I V E
The rooftops of Ersand'Enise did what they could to hold back the start, but the sun rose just the same, pale fingers of light reaching across the cityscape, into windows and bedrooms, waking those who had slept. Many had not. The city of the bells waited, its dew sparkling and swelled with destiny, like the grassy plains of a battlefield before.
Some businesses duly opened. Others remained shuttered. Some students peeled out of their nightclothes, shrugged into their dayclothes, and prepared to go to classes. Others remained shuttered. The air was drawn taut, threaded across rooftops, doors, and gardens, rigid through living rooms, a barrier in bedrooms, diving into lungs and constraining them. None who had been here for more than mere hours could breathe easy.
Yet, as a pale ivory sliver split the curtains of a large apartment just outside the city walls, one did. She had woken before, to be certain, so briefly as to not even recall it. The girl - she was too young to be called 'woman' - was in a warm haze, and had settled back to sleep without a shred of awareness.
Now, however, her eyelids fluttered. Warm and ensconced beneath her blankets, she lay there in semiconsciousness, trying to ignore the slight headache that pinched at her being and promised unwelcome lucidity. A hangover some portion of her groggy mind decided and, with the deliberateness of that thought, the veil of slumber was indelibly broken. Try as she might, Marceline could not drift away again.
She snuggled deeper into her pillow in a futile attempt, feeling something wrong but not being wakeful enough to place what it was. Groggily, she opened her eyes and noted semi-familiar surroundings. This was Isabella's spare apartment: the one above her warehouse in Fascino. She must've gone out after the party and had too much to drink, for she could remember...
An entire day out with Zarina that she could not account for. Memories from her temporary clone began to appear as well: disastrous ones that ended with -
Involuntarily, Marceline went to shift in bed, and then she felt it or, rather, didn't. It was an impossible feeling. With a start, unbidden adrenaline rushing through her, she went to kick her blankets free. She couldn't feel them. This was one of those nightmares. Her heart pounded, but she let herself be relieved. She'd had many like it: suddenly being unable to walk, her tethering suddenly having turned her into Jocasta or Isabella or... her mother! This was one of those, even though it was uncannily real and there was a tinging feeling about her waist. She tried to end the dream as she sometimes did. There was the sound of wheels in the hallway: a tethered approaching. Still, she tried to end it and everything faded mercifully to black.
They spoke in murmured worries: three tethered women around a bed where the fourth lay. "Things are getting hairy," insisted one, "real hairy."
"It's a full-on riot at this point," another declared. She twisted on the spot as the third settled a light jacket about her shoulders and bid the first do so as well. "You're... going?"
The third nodded. "It's more than a riot, too." She set hands to wheels and rolled through an archway, gently pushing the door to a room open. The others released their brakes and followed her. All three filtered slowly into the room. "Protecting those worth protecting and killing those worth killing is my job tonight," Jocasta said cryptically. "Marci is yours." She swallowed and fixed the younger girl's covers before turning about.
"She's already woken," Luisa offered.
"And she thinks it's a dream," Isabella responded. "I used to have them too." All three exchanged glances. All tethered had such dreams. While they had been forced to face the reality of those, they had yet hoped that Marci might not have to, that one of them might get away. "Next time, she won't," declared Jocasta with finality.
"Will she wake?"
The other two shrugged. "I don't think so," replied the blonde, "I dosed her enough for a begemot."
"But if she does..." Isabella trailed off.
"Right," Luisa concluded. "Don't let her be alone."
S I X
She was alone. She could feel it the moment that sound reached her ears and sensation her skin. She was alone in a still and quiet room and, once more, Marceline awakened to a glow upon the horizon. A grim pinkish-orange light warped and threw the silhouettes of Ersand'Enise across the surrounding countryside, as far as this second-floor apartment at the edge of Belleville.
For a moment, the girl lay there and breathed. She pulled air into her lungs and let it out: a simple thing that she had control over. From the moment that consciousness had started to reclaim her, she had opened her senses and bade her mind to feel her body. She curled and uncurled her fingers. She focused on the light touch of the covers on her bare shoulders. She'd had the most terrible dream and she worked her way down, already - in some unwelcome part of her mind - knowing what she would find. She worked her way down to wiggle her toes and...
Her heartrate increased as she lay there in the shrouded darkness of this room, as the distant fires of a revolution sent ominous, orange-tinted shadows to writhe and snap across the floor of her room. Her knees. Marceline tried to move them - to sense them.
Numbness and the sensation of pins and needles about her waist. A deep, cold, feeling congealed inside of her and she lay there for a moment. She just lay there. She lay there and thought about not thinking. Instead, her memories flooded back: two separate sets of them, as if she had been two separate people at the same time. For a moment, she imagined, she was the copy, but her heart beat faster and a frigid... something swept through her. A whole day's worth of memories. If she was the copy...
This was real. But it couldn't be. She was the original. She'd claimed that she was and the other had taken the risk. She'd - Her heart beat faster. She had two sets of memories. Which one had been hers!? Which person had been her!? She pinched herself just below the ribs and nothing happened but a flash of momentary pain. Everything trembled, from her breath to her fingers. She tried to twist, but there was a weight: a great awkward weight that pulled at her - or the bottom of the 'her' that she could feel - at that line. That line, suddenly, was defining. It was where she ended and she did not know why. She could not fathom why. "Issy!?" she called, and her voice felt small and rough. "Issy!!!"
Now, she panicked. Marci tried to sit up and... she couldn't! She strained, willing it, but there was nothing below that prickly line. She ended there and her heart beat faster. She felt her pulse in her ears and the world grew faint. Marci called upon the Gift. She scrabbled with her arms and sat up unsteadily, the world seeming tentative and unsteady. "Issy, please!!" She cast about for the owner of this place. "Anyone!" She paused, chest heaving, sweat pasting her hair against the side of her face. "Anyone!" She couldn't feel her legs or her... anything. She tried to focus. She tried to use the Gift. They were there, but they were lost to her. She lifted her hands from the bed, where they'd been supporting her, and could immediately feel herself start to fall. She clenched up and half-caught herself, arms shooting back to prevent the rest. She called upon the Gift to support her and, tentatively, lifted one arm free, reaching down to untangle the sheets.
It was... like touching somebody else's leg: a foreign object. With a terrified fascination, the girl ran her hand down a thigh and up again all the way to - She stopped and wrinkled her nose. Wetness. For a moment, every part of her body that she had control over tensed in revulsion. She knew what it was and she wiped her hand vigorously - frantically - on the covers. With a noise, not that of anything sapient or worthwhile, she released the hold of magic upon her form and waited for herself to fall back: to fall back so that she wouldn't feel, so that this would all be some bad dream or a temporary setback she would overcome, as she had so many others.
If she could just - She let out a second wail, and a third, loud enough to rip at her throat. She threw herself back. At least she could still do that. There had to be some way. She had magic. There had to be some way to undo this, to reverse it, to prevent it. She could see the shadows on the floor. Something bad was happening outside and she did not want anything to do with it. I'm broken, she screamed inwardly. I'm broken. I broke myself. I'm half a person. Half a person! She tried to picture herself: her, Marceline, in a wheelchair, just like Mama and Jocasta and Isabella. She tried to picture that her, tried to imagine her happy, like they were, but the fear won out. How had they done it!? How could they function!? Would she have to depend on the Gift to do basic things for the rest of her life!?
It was too much to even cry: too much to process, too much finality, too much all at once and it was damning. She couldn't sit up on her own. She could move! She had pissed herself, like a baby, and not even known. She couldn't even feel it. What else she might not feel remained a subject unbroached but very much present. Juulet had done this to her: a powerful person breaking her and discarding her. Marci had never thought she'd be discarded. Even in her worst moments back at the refuge, she'd believed otherwise. She'd always been clever. She'd always been sure that she would make something of herself in the thirty-odd years she'd been given. You are a stupid, worthless piece of shit and anyone who invests in you is making a mistake.
She tried to direct her anger at Juulet and swore that - whatever it took - she would see that vile bitch die in terror and agony, but it rang hollow and pathetic. What the hell is a pathetic little cripple like you ever going to do to a Goddess? Just the mental image of herself - in a wheelchair - trying to go up against that sort of Titan seemed bitterly ridiculous. Marceline was nothing, or half of nothing now. She wasn't even smart. She'd fucking mixed up herself and her copy. She'd gloated instead of just fucking shooting Juulet between the eyes when she'd had her. She hadn't taken the seed - so stupidly overconfident. She'd let herself be swayed - even momentarily - by the bitch's ridiculous story about Dory. She'd gotten Fiske involved and - She didn't even know where he was or if he was okay. The weight of her mountain of failures crushed her crippled body and she lay there numb and sobbing and just wishing she could fall asleep and fade away and it would all be better.
Only, it wouldn't. It would never be better. She had ruined herself, permanently, or for however blessedly short a time she lasted. She would lie here in her own piss and misery, the girl who had wanted to live forever, telling herself that it was too much. That she couldn't do it, that she couldn't live even fifteen more years like this. She would stop taking aberrations. That's what she'd do. She'd stop taking them and fade away quickly - just get it over with, just be a fond memory of someone her friends and family had known.
A fist clenched around her stomach and she felt sick. Did they know this had happened? Did they know that she was like this!? It squeezed and twisted. They couldn't know. They couldn't see her: none of them except for whoever had put her here. They mustn't. They wouldn't! Thus, she stared blankly at the wheelchair by her bedside and focused her racing mind with thoughts of how she might disappear and how it would be better that way.