Chapter Fifteen: The Scream
Content warnings for this chapter:
Details of strange and unpleasant brain experiences; traumatic flashbacks; abusive relationships, and people not wanting to admit how bad they are; child abuse and neglect, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, dissociation, homelessness, and survival sex work, with no physical details of the sexual abuse, and no long scenes of abuse, but many details about the social and emotional context, told as a retrospective summary; brief mentions of addiction.
If you see other material that should be marked (such as common triggers or phobias), e-mail me. I am serious about web accessibility, and I will respond to your concerns as soon as I can manage.(hide content warnings)
The Broken God was a god of pleasure and pain, life and death.
According to legend, in the beginning, there were five gods – the Stern God, the Blood God, the Seeking God, the Waiting God, and the Great God.
First, the Great God made earth and sky, sea and stone. It shaped the arch of the heavens, set the golden sun up above, and laid down generous swaths of sand and clay below.
Then it rested, and left to the other gods to play among its creations. The Stern God divided land from sea, mountain from valley. The Waiting God created the cycles of the tides, the rain, and the lumbering motions of the earth below. The Seeking God whipped up storms to tear at the land and wash it away to wherever it would go. The Blood God carved great ravines to make its mark upon the world.
But the Great God was not done. It rose from its rest to create life. Trees drilled their roots into the soil, holding fast against the storm. Algae bloomed and floated in the many waters. Crickets filled the air with their song, while birds cried out in the air above. Slimy things crawled up from lightless holes, churning through the ground and gnawing at the bodies of the dead.
The other gods loved these new beings. The Waiting God taught spiders to build great webs and beavers to block up the rivers for their own advantage. The Seeking God entered the minds of countless animals, making them play for the sake of playing, and it made the forests burn one year and thrive the next. The Stern God set out how the wolves would mark their territory against each other, and it gathered ants and bees into organized colonies, working together for a reason greater than themselves. And the Blood God exulted in their raw passions, the thrill and flow of the hunt, the agony of their death throes, love and grief and desire.
But the Great God was not done. It rose from its rest to create humanity.
The other gods recoiled as their forests were cut down, their beloved animals slaughtered for humanity’s comfort. But they soon forgot their worries, for within humanity there was a potential greater than everything that came before. The gods set about creating cultures and traditions, laws and morals. The Stern God made them build walls and temples, perform worship and sacrifice. The Waiting God showed them how to remember their ancestors and dream for the generations yet to come. The Seeking God gave them the ingenuity to create things that even the gods had not dreamed of. And the Blood God filled them all with a passion for life, bringing meaning to their brief and chaotic existences.
But the Great God was not done. It began to dream of its next creation, which would overturn even humanity.
But this time, the other gods were not content. They had poured their souls into humanity, and they refused to see their accomplishments torn apart because of the Great God’s whim. So together, they fought back. The Seeking God found the Great God’s secret weakness. The Waiting God orchestrated the plan to strike before it would be aware of the danger. The Stern and Blood became the sword and flame that would seal the Great God’s downfall.
Together, they broke the Great God.
The Blood God tore out the core of its soul, the rope of fibers that kept its will coherent against the chaos of arbitrary thought. The Stern God sliced apart the woven fabric of its design for the universe. The Seeking God ripped off the glowing tendrils that gave it the spark of desire. And the Waiting God traced the remaining threads to every knotted clump of intention, and scattered them, so that it could never again take action with a purpose of its own choosing.
Purposeless, intentionless, the Broken God drifted in the world.
But though it was broken, it was still a god of mountains and sand, forest and fen. Where its drifting threads touched the world, new life sprang forth, and the old life died meaningless deaths in equal measure. The fragments of its will continued without any central purpose to guide them. For anything it did, it might just as easily do the opposite. In one place it raised up rolling hills, and in another it beat against the cliffs until they fell into the sea. In one year it made the cropland thrive, and in another it sent pestilence and blight. It filled some humans with feelings that overwhelmed thought, and it emptied away the feelings of others.
So, even today, the four gods wage a constant struggle, to maintain their vision for humanity against the tidal wave of the Broken.
Nowadays, we know that the legend isn’t entirely true. After all, there are other cities with other gods, so our Broken God can’t have created the entire world. But it was a story that every child in the city knew by heart. And that gave it a kind of meaning that went beyond the literal.
The first thing I heard was the rustle of leaves in the wind. The first thing I smelled was the soft odor of the rotten treetrunk nearby. I looked around, and saw grass and trees, mushrooms and mold. Life.
In all of the Otherworld so far, there hadn’t been a single living thing besides us Ravellers. I hadn’t thought about it too much at the time, but now that I was here, I couldn’t wait to take it all in. I shamelessly hugged one of the trees, scraping my face on the hard bark and laughing.
The next thing I did was I got rid of the uniform the Stern God made me wear. I stepped out into the open and manifested blades from every pore of my skin, shredding the stiff cloth into a zillion little scraps. I shook them off into a little pile, and peeled away the last few bits that had stuck to my sweat. Then, standing naked in the wilderness, I manifested a ball of fire in my hand and threw it on the pile, burning the hateful uniform into ash. And good riddance.
Then I threw myself into the grass.
My skin drank up the cool morning dew like a dry sponge drinking up water. Every part of me was euphoric, from the tall grasses tickling my neck all the way down to my toes digging into the soft earth. I rolled over and over, relishing my freedom to throw all worries to the wind and relax.
Haha, Yali could see me right now, couldn’t she. This wasn’t quite how I’d been expecting for Yali to see me naked for the first time. I smirked. If she didn’t like it, she’d just have to deal with it. I stretched out luxuriantly, strutting my stuff so she could take a good look at whatever she wanted. Then I just flopped over on my back and let every part of me relax, just staring unfocusedly into the twilit sky.
This was what life should be like. Crisp air filled my chest, piercing to the very bottom of my lungs and flushing out all the staleness. I had never breathed so easily, the air passing in and out, bringing all the strong and subtle smells of nature to my senses. My eyes wandered, drinking up the deep greens and browns, the occasional dash of color where flowers bloomed on the vines. I just couldn’t get over how much I loved this place.
After a long, refreshing rest, the itch to move started nudging at me.
I rolled over, my hands and knees pressing into the soft dirt as I climbed to my feet. And then, I started walking. It didn’t really matter which way I walked. I had no idea where anyone was anyway. And somewhere out there, Yali could see exactly where I was, so she was going to come find me regardless. But something had just made me feel like exploring.
The woods were dense with shrubs and vines. I kept having to push them aside with my hands, or hold one vine out of the way while I ducked or climbed over another. The hard bark got some solid scratches in on my bare skin. I deliberately stepped the arches of my feet onto big roots, turning the poking feeling into a massage.
In other places, the plants stood ankle-deep in wide pools of water. I dipped my feet in the water, and they came up dripping and matted with fallen leaves. Another time, I splashed right across, letting the cool water come up to my ankles, squishing my toes into the soft clay below. Back on land, twigs and leaves stuck to my damp feet, forming a funny sort of coating as I pushed my way through the foliage.
As I tried to step under some bushes I was holding aside, I stubbed my toe on a root. Hopping from the pain, I lost my grip on the bushes, too. They whipped back into place, a thorny branch slashing my leg and tearing open the skin. Swearing, I retreated to lean on the nearest tree, then manifested away the cuts. Then I decided to put on at least some clothes. Having my bare skin against the world was awesome, but that pain had been a little too much to be fun. So first, I manifested on some heavy jeans, tough and skintight, and boots just the perfect size for me, ready to stomp through whatever old brush got in my way.
Then I thought, if I was getting dressed up, I was gonna do this right. I manifested a full-length mirror, leaning it against a tree and jamming it between some vines for balance.
The face that looked back at me looked flat and dead with exhaustion. Its hair was matted down, and way too symmetric for my taste. Its eyes were weary, the muscles around them tight with suspicion. It was scraped and covered with flecks of dirt. Whose face was this? Not mine, for sure.
It was time to take Rinn back.
The first thing I did was to get my hair straightened out. I tore at it with a comb until the comb got stuck, then I gave up and just chopped half of it off without a second thought. I recolored the rest into a rainbow of red and gold and midnight black, like a living flame in the darkness.
Next I gave myself some clothes, manifesting everything to snap right into place. A white shirt under a black leather jacket, gripping snug around my arms, with metal studs like the one Pèi always wore. Black leather fingerless gloves, perfectly fit to the shape of my hands. A bright blue sweatband to contrast with my hair. I let the jacket hang open in the front, keeping the breeze close to me.
I left the scrape and the dirt stains right where they were. I grinned and threw my head back. This was more like it.
I climbed to the nearest tree right away, happily putting the first stain on my new clothes. Standing in the branches, I felt the old joy of looking down and seeing how much smaller the ground became. I jumped and climbed from tree to tree, walking along each limb like a balance beam. I climbed higher, looking up at the treetops stretching up to a dozen times my height. When I looked down again, my breath caught in my throat from how far down the ground was. It was exhilarating. I was terrified, and I wanted more.
Actually… if I fell from up here, I could really hurt myself. And I wanted to jump wildly – it felt so easy and fun, like I might do it without thinking. Slightly freaked out, I lowered myself back to a height where I’d only hurt myself somewhat badly.
Jumping between the trees wasn’t anything like the gymnastics I’d had to do in the Endless Maze. There, the Seeking God had put everything just barely within reach, so that every movement was a challenge, but possible. Here, the trees were spaced out at random. Some places were so dense that I could just step from one tree to the next. Other places were sparse enough that I couldn’t make it even with a flying leap. I had to make my own challenges. I left the forest littered with ladders, long ropes I used to swing from tree to tree, and bits of my own blood from when it didn’t work out so well.
I kept at it for hours and hours. My muscles got more and more tired, and I collected a nice assortment of bruises too. After a long time journeying, the trees opened and I came to a broad stream, where water flowed lazily down from a rocky hillside. I held onto a branch above my head and leaned out over the water, looking down into its sparkling surface.
It looked deep enough for me to swim in. I couldn’t resist. I manifested my clothes away again, and leapt from the tree branch into the water, breaking the surface with a massive splash. The shock of the sudden cold made me snap fully awake. After a little flailing around, I came up shivering and laughing. I hadn’t felt this refreshed since… well, probably ever.
I kicked out my legs and propelled myself downriver, relishing the cold current as it flowed over my skin. My head dipped up and down near the surface, soaking my hair and splashing the cold water over the back of my neck. Seeing the trees go past, I pushed myself to swim as fast as I could, zooming down the stream, smooth and fast and exhilarating.
After a while, I let myself slow down, and just floated along, gazing up at the trees and the sky. Endless, colorful and growing landscapes drifted past. I lost all sense of time.
The stream opened out and I slid headfirst into a lake blooming with algae. I pulled myself up onto the grassy shore, shaking water and algae off of me as I went. I shivered again. The cold wasn’t exhilarating anymore – now, it was just tiring. So I raised my fists and manifested my whole skin to be hot. My body hissed with steam as the water boiled off of me. In minutes, I was perfectly dry. I jumped and manifested my clothes back on again, making sure to keep the same stains and rips from before.
Then, I made myself a hammock between two trees and sprawled down in it to rest.
I still couldn’t believe how great this place was. Especially coming from the Stern God’s layer before it. That place had been the worst. It was still freaking me out how I’d felt disconnected from my own body. Yali didn’t think it could be the Stern God that made me feel like that, but what else could have been? Like, here – I took another deep breath – here, it didn’t even feel like I could be disconnected from my body. I was my body. But there, it had all felt so distant. Even things that should have felt important, like when Justicar –
I jumped to my feet. Where was Justicar now?! Was she here?! I looked around wildly. How could I have spent all this time just running around in the woods?! I had to do something! Or else – I could practically feel her sword crashing through my chest. She was going to – I was going to –
Suddenly it was all too real, too much pain and terror stabbing against me. My heart pounded. I dropped into a crouch, ready to fight against enemies on all sides. My whole battle with Justicar kept replaying in my head. The sword hanging over me. The steel walls blocking every escape. The blood seeping from the hole in my chest. And it wasn’t even the pain that hurt. It was the helplessness. At the end, I had just lain there motionlessly while her sword plunged into me. Why hadn’t I moved?! I should have moved, I should have fought back, twisted out of the way, ANYTHING!! How could I have been so stupid, so WEAK?!
I would NEVER be that weak again. My hands clenched around my blades, looking for something to strike against. The next time I saw Justicar, I’d KILL her! I’d rip my blades into her flesh before she had a chance to fight back! Then she would NEVER be able to hurt me AGAIN! Roaring, I slammed my blades into the nearest tree, an enormous oak I probably couldn’t even have fit my arms around. I beat and hacked at the tree until it splintered and fell, crashing violently through the woods. I leapt on top of the fallen trunk, glaring down at the world. I was STRONG! I was POWERFUL! I had CRUSHED this tree, and I could CRUSH anyone else who tried to stop me!!
But in my core, I knew that I was grasping at lies. I had known it since the first time I hit the tree, because it didn’t feel anything like how it had felt to hit Justicar. My blade had scraped over her face like fingernails scraping against a mountain. How could I ever hope to stop her?! I could almost see her in front of me, coming back to finish me off, her sword plunging towards my eyes. Terror clawed at me, threatening to rip my heart out of my chest. I was going to die! Nothing I did was going to change a single thing! I was going to feel my life bleed out of me before I could even leave a mark on the world!!
The pain was too much. I felt a scream building inside me. I had to get out of here. I ran frantically into the woods. Branches tore at my arms and head. My legs hurt and I could barely see where I was going. But the pain didn’t end. It was inside of me.
I stumbled to a halt, hunched over and gasping for breath. I couldn’t go on like this! I had to do SOMETHING! I had to get myself under control somehow! But I couldn’t get away from her! Everywhere I ran, I felt Justicar two steps behind me! I had to get her out of my head! I had to think about something else, ANYTHING else! I cast about for something to think, but nothing came to me. There had to be something! Even if it was just the things I had done right before or after the fight! What had I been doing before? I wrenched the memories out of my mind. I had been struggling through the Blood Child’s Path – because I was on my way to the portal – because –
I had stabbed Yali.
The scream ripped out through my lungs, burning through the inside of my chest. Waves of heat pulsed from my body, charring the grass at my feet. Leaves dried and cracked around me. Dark clouds gathered overhead. And the scream didn’t end. My lungs were empty, and I couldn’t stop trying to scream until they ached from lack of air. And as soon as I gasped, a second scream tore through me, even more painful than the first. No human lungs should have been able to handle this amount of pain. My body was too weak a vessel for the power that was forcing itself through me. The ground and sky themselves had formed a bridge through my body, using my lungs as their highway.
I had stabbed Yali.
There was no end to my raw vortex of pain. Time stretched on and on. How long had I been screaming? I could barely remember the time before. The trees withered and blackened before me, bark peeling away in the slow passage of minutes. I felt weaker and weaker. I fell to my knees, my hands clutching at the dying soil. Cracks tore forth through the earth from my hands. The ground buckled under me, raising me up while the fissures zigzagged out in every direction. I felt my arms and legs sinking in the ground. I could no longer lift my head to take my next breath. Tears squeezed from my eyes, sizzling and boiling away as they tried to soak the parched earth.
And then, in a moment between my screams, in a gut-wrenching pause before I would be torn apart again, the sound of footsteps broke through.
The footsteps pounded through the crackling leaves. I had never been so desperate to see another human face. Looking up, I barely made out who it was, the figure rushing towards me, pelted by my howling storm. “MORROW!!!” I tried to scream. But even his name was lost in the roar of pain. I looked up at him desperately, hoping he could tell from my eyes what I was begging him to do. Help me! HELP ME!! Do the loopy thing on me again, do anything you can think of, just as long as I don’t have to feel this for a moment longer –
“Gotcha covered!” panted Morrow. He closed his eyes, covered his head, and ran the last few steps towards me. Then he grabbed onto my head with his hands. “Hold on tight, this is gonna get interesting!”
The world swam around me. I felt Morrow’s mind pressing into my own. Then everything turned inside out. My pain drained away immediately, completely, leaving a horrible empty space inside me. Instead of my vision closing in, it expanded outwards, far too much outwards. I could see everything, every tiny detail. Specks of burning dust patterned against the sky. Ants crawling over tree bark a hundred meters away. Every pore of Morrow’s skin, every fiber of his shirt. It was all shoved into my head without heart or understanding.
“That’s not better!!” I screamed. Even my own voice was far too vivid in ears. “Put it back, put it b–”
“Hold on, hold on! Everything’s different, I’m gonna just –” The empty space inside me was suddenly, thankfully filled, with a sick feeling in my stomach, like being stuffed with too much food. The feeling expanded upwards, blossoming all the way up into a pressure behind my mouth, like I was going to vomit. Then the vertigo hit. The world spun around and the ground slammed into me. And then, even lying face down on the ground, I kept feeling like I was about to fall.
Do you have any idea what you’re doing?! I yelled inwardly. My mouth was in the dirt, I couldn’t say it out loud. Morrow was already crouching over me again. In my rage, a vision blazed in my mind. With just a thought, I could summon the Blood God’s blades against him, white-hot and invincible, to strike him with fire and fear so he would run far away. No, no, that wasn’t what I wanted! I needed his help! He just didn’t know how to do this right, this wasn’t like the other time when we were all calm and had everything under control –
“Yeah, just hold on! I’m gonna fix it!” Replacing the nausea, a feeling of unbelievable comfort washed through me. The dirt and rocks I was lying on the felt like the softest mattress. At first, it felt like a relief. But something was still wrong. It felt like a roaring anxiety, smothered just barely under the covers. As good as it felt, I couldn’t relax. Every second that passed was agonizingly drawn out. Can you do something about that?! I thought at Morrow.
The comfort ripped away, turning the rocks into daggers pressing into my flesh. Not like that!! I screamed inside. The rage burned within me again, nearly blotting out whatever feeling Morrow was going to stick me with next. It felt so real, like I had already jumped to my feet, like I was already about to strike him with my blades. It would be so easy… All I had to do was let it happen… The only thing stopping me was a tiny part of me, still terrified of what would happen if I lost control. But that part felt so small… I clung onto that terror desperately. I couldn’t give in to the anger! Controlling Game!! I shouted at myself. I turned the rage against itself, mercilessly locking it away. Please, Morrow, just finish this before I can’t hold on any longer!
“Hold on, hold on!” Morrow repeated. Then the whirlwind of feelings began again.
I lost track of time. It was impossible to think straight, desperately clinging to the edge of the roller coaster between the feelings Morrow was putting in me and my terror of what I would do if I tried to reject them. I felt hot and cold, empty and full, nearly asleep and far too awake. Everything blurred together, stretched out, fell to pieces, and sank horribly away.
I heard yelling around me. There was Yali’s voice, and… another one that I couldn’t place, both shouting words I couldn’t understand.
I tried to look up from the ground. My head was spinning. Wild patches of color were smeared over everything. My mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls, and when I tried to move my tongue, it didn’t feel it was moving at all.
The voices kept yelling. Every syllable echoed and distorted in my head, beating on my skull from all sides. I was sure they sounded like normal words, but somehow, I couldn’t understand a single one.
Eventually I gave up on trying to hear the words that were bouncing off of me. Instead, I tried to map out what was around me. My body was propped up in a sitting position against a cushion, leaning against a tree. A face loomed over me, but I couldn’t see it quite right because there was a smear of color right over it. I angled my eyes to the side, to aim a clear patch of my vision at the face, and saw that it was Alchemist. Behind them, Yali stood, also looking down at me with… worry?
“I think, maybe, it’s working?” said Alchemist. Something sounded different about that sentence, but I couldn’t place it. But then I realized – for the first time, I had actually been able to make out the words.
“Wath worggih?” I said. Half my mouth was still numb. I had to push through the cotton balls to make a sound, and when I did, my own voice pounded on my head from the inside. “Wha the fuuh. Thih thuuuth.”
Alchemist pressed a potion into my hands. “You could, drink this? It makes, Morrow’s, stuff, feel, less bad.”
I drank. The potion was thick and hard to swallow, and afterwards it felt like a lump in my stomach. But at least it felt like it was going to stay in my stomach. A wave of cool pressure expanded though my body, clearing most of the noise from my senses. It left me feeling just regular exhausted.
I tried to speak again. “Whereshh Morrow? What’d I miss?”
Yali and Alchemist exchanged a look.
Now that my senses were working properly, I could see them a lot better. Clearly, something had happened. Yali had a foul expression on her face. Alchemist had a big bruise under their eye.
“Yali?” I said.
Yali crouched in front of me. Her voice was strained, like she needed a lot of effort to force the words out. “When Morrow was in your mind, were you angry?”
I felt like I was being accused of something, and I didn’t even understand what. “Does that matter?” I said.
“Were you?” she demanded.
“Well, okay, I was, but I used the skills you taught me! I –”
Yali sat down and began to cry.
I had always assumed that if I ever saw Yali cry, it would be dignified, like in a movie where someone sheds a single tear while staring mournfully into the distance. But it wasn’t like that at all. Her face sort of scrunched up, pinched in on itself. She looked so overwhelmed, so broken down. What could possibly have done this to her?! This was Yali! Yali!! The one who had stared down Justicar nearly empty-handed! “What’s wrong?! What happened??!” I yelled. She hardly seemed to notice me. She just kept shaking with tears.
A sense of dread was growing inside me. Not thinking of anything else to do, I turned to Alchemist. “Alchemist, what happened? Is she –”
Alchemist’s face looked like nothing I’d seen before. Their mouth was twisted into a grimace, tensing and flickering between anger and worry. A great battle was raging inside them, between their newfound anger wanting to be let out, and their old fear holding it back.
In the end, the anger won.
“What happened,” Alchemist exploded, “is that your girlfriend beat Morrow half to death!”
“That can’t be right. That’s impossible…” I said weakly. But at this point, nothing seemed impossible anymore.
“I’m so, so, sorry,” Yali choked out, her voice breaking and breathy. “This whole time, I’ve thought I was protecting you! I thought we had to stop you from being angry! To protect you, not to make you vulnerable! But it was my own skills, my own skills that let him violate you! It’s all my fault, everything he did to you is my fault!!”
“I mean, uh…” I had no idea what to do in this situation. “Uh, you’re talking as if Morrow, like, sexually assaulted me. Wait, are you saying he –”
Yali looked at me incredulously. “He was inside your mind. How are you defending him?!”
“I mean, sure, it sucked, obviously, but I knew he was trying to help! It’s not his fault if –”
“No,” said Yali. “He wasn’t.”
The words hung in the air between us.
“That’s impossible…” I said again. “I mean, he wouldn’t do that, would he? Just, what, mess with my head just because he could?”
“He would. He did. I’m so sorry.”
“Uh…” I still wasn’t sure what to say. I mean, I normally would’ve been pretty pissed off at Morrow, like, dude, what the fuck? But the way Yali was talking about it, it was like it was deeply serious. I couldn’t help being nervous – if Yali was taking something seriously, there had to be something much bigger that I wasn’t thinking of!
I fidgeted with the tail end of my jacket. I couldn’t make sense of this feeling. I took another look around, trying to find something that made sense. My eyes landed on Alchemist’s face again.
“How’d you get that bruise?” I said.
Alchemist shrank back uncomfortably.
“Hey, it’s okay, you don’t –”
“It was my fault,” said Yali. “They tried to pull me off of Morrow. I, I, I, hit them a few times before I realized who they were.”
“Eh, shit happens.” I turned to Alchemist. “You okay though?”
“I, yes? I guess I, could, heal it up, if…”
Poor Alchemist. They really weren’t cut out for fighting. I really wished they could just have a nice life instead of being stuck between me and Morrow and – apparently even Yali was in the business of beating people up now. But Alchemist… they just kept on trying to help. Asking me to protect Morrow even when they thought Morrow might hurt someone… Bringing me all those potions to heal me up… Even just now, knowing what to do to –
My blood ran cold. “Alchemist,” I said, my voice coming out harsh.
“Yeah?” they said nervously.
“That potion you gave me. You said ‘it makes Morrow’s stuff feel less bad’.”
“You NEVER say anything like you’re sure about it! So how would you know how that potion feels – unless Morrow did the same thing to you?!!”
For a heartbeat, all three of us were frozen.
“That’s not what happened!” Alchemist lied frantically. If I’d had any doubt, it was gone now. They were such a bad liar. Seeing them try to defend him made me even more angry. I shoved myself to my feet, already charged up and ready to fight. I wanted to scream out in rage, but no words were enough. How DARE he do such a thing to poor, sweet, INNOCENT Alchemist!! Blades sprouted involuntarily from my back and arms, piercing through my shirt, through my jacket, and stabbing into the air. The more I imagined it – Morrow crouching over a helpless Alchemist, making Alchemist feel all those disturbing, terrifying things – the more I couldn’t bear to just stand here. All my old sympathy for him was lying in shreds. I wanted to make him suffer. My blades kept growing, sprouting from every part of my body. I couldn’t stop them now. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to.
Yali drank a potion, then stepped between me and Alchemist. Her face was set cold and hard against me, like a stone cliff against the ocean waves. “Expressing Game,” she said.
How could she stand in my way when Morrow had done such a thing?!! My fists clenched tighter. My blades grew further, pressing against their limits. But another part of me knew that if Yali was saying that, it was serious business. And it was only the Expressing Game. Fighting against a terrible resistance, I tried to force my rage into words. My voice felt alien. “How DARE he! Alchemist – Alchemist TRUSTED him! What kind of a MONSTER – he’s a MONSTER – I’ll –”
“Morrow isn’t here,” said Yali severely. “You’re looking at Alchemist. How do you think you’re making Alchemist feel?”
I was locked in place. I COULDN’T give up my rage! That was just WRONG! But Alchemist was right in front of me! They were going to be terrified! I had to –
“Controlling Game,” said Yali.
“FINE!” Painstakingly, I forced my blades to retract. One by one, they absorbed back into my skin. Once I had just my regular, small human body left, a wave of exhaustion nearly knocked me to the ground. I leaned hard on a tree, not even bothering to manifest my shredded shirt back together. “Fuck!” I yelled into the bark of the tree. I didn’t even want to look at Alchemist. I just kept leaning against the tree, letting the hard edges of the bark dig into my skin and distract me from anything I was feeling.
I heard Alchemist’s shaky voice in the background. “Is, she…”
Yali answered firmly. “She’s under control, for now.”
Reluctantly, I sat back down with the two of them. Looking at Alchemist made me feel like shit. “I’m –” I began. I was about to say I’m sorry, but it was still just so wrong to apologize for wanting to defend them. “This is all so fucked,” I said instead.
“Morrow, isn’t, that bad,” said Alchemist.
“What do you want me to say?” I said bitterly.
“I, guess, if, you…”
We sat in silence for a while.
“I still don’t see why I can’t bring him a healing potion…” said Alchemist mournfully.
“Because you will DIE!” Yali thundered, yelling in Alchemist’s face.
“Hey, go easy on them!” I snapped. “Weren’t you just saying –”
“You think I don’t want to?!” Yali roared at me. “If I go easy on them, they somehow convince themselves it isn’t so bad! Then they go after Morrow, and Morrow attacks them! I’ve Seen it! Morrow is completely out of control, he starts messing with Alchemist’s mind as soon as they get close! He doesn’t realize how much damage he’s doing until Alchemist’s mind is DESTROYED!” She spat the last word in Alchemist’s face again. Alchemist cringed away from her.
“Holy fuck,” I said.
“But… he loves me!” said Alchemist. “He wouldn’t keep going if –”
“He would! That is the truth! And you can say you don’t like the truth, you can try to change it, but you can’t just pretend it isn’t there! You think love will protect you? I have known since I was six years old that love is not enough! If you love someone but you hide from the truth, your love will do NOTHING! Morrow loves you! He would never do anything to hurt you! But when he is taking your mind to pieces, he has no idea how much he is hurting you! He would suffer if he knew, so he hides from it! His love does nothing! And you! You love Morrow, but you want to rush into danger without a plan! You don’t want to believe that he would hurt you, so you hide from it! Your love will do nothing – no, less than nothing, it will destroy you! Love will never save you without a plan! So what’s your plan, Alchemist?!”
Alchemist hunched over. Their hands were shaking unevenly. They sniffled and took quick, shallow breaths.
Half glaring at Yali, I offered my arms to Alchemist. Alchemist immediately collapsed onto me, blubbering into my shirt.
“I’m, scared, I, Morrow, Morrow, –”
“It’ll be okay. I’m sure we’ll think of something,” I lied. Inside me, I felt the Blood God’s distaste for my lying. Alchemist didn’t seem very reassured either.
Alchemist turned their head in my arms, trying to look up at Yali. “You beat him half to death! I saw, I saw, I saw –” Alchemist panted heavily. “And now you say I can’t even help him! I, h-hate, I hate you!!” they sobbed.
Yali looked at them coldly. “A lot of people hate me. What makes you special?”
“Yali, stop it —”
“Morrow’s out there, maybe, dying! And you! You! You won’t do anything, to, save, –”
“Don’t expect me to help save someone who just attacked Rinn –”
While they argued, another thought shot forward in my mind. “We have to do something,” I interrupted. “Otherwise, Justicar is going to kill him.”
“Well maybe he SHOULD be killed!” Yali snapped back.
“No fucking way! Look, if you’d killed him when he was, uh, assaulting me, I guess, that would totally suck, but at least I’d understand it! But there is no FUCKING way I’m going to let JUSTICAR be the one to kill him. I’d rather –” I was about to say I’d rather kill him myself, but Alchemist was still clinging to my shirt, and I really didn’t want to hurt them any more. I swallowed. Then something else exploded into my head again. Holy shit, how did I not think about Justicar?! I almost jumped back up to my feet again, every part of me tensing up. “Wait, where’s Justicar right now?!! Is she coming for us?!”
“She went on ahead.”
Yali stared at me exhaustedly. But even as tired and angry as she was, she managed to start explaining. “This is the Broken God’s world. The Broken God doesn’t have any, any intentions for us, so we can move on to the next world whenever we choose to. Justicar moved on as soon as she arrived. We won’t be in danger from her until the next layer.”
I slumped back down. Alchemist and I leaned on each other. Alchemist was quiet again, just shaking and crying on me. I look back to Yali. “Well, that’s a relief, but… why? The next layer is the Blood God’s, I figured she’d try to kill us here instead of going on the Blood Child’s home ground.”
“It may be your home ground, but Justicar wants a direct confrontation. The Blood God is a god of direct confrontations. The Broken would, would, would, complicate things. The Broken doesn’t believe in right and wrong, or even winners and losers. This world is probably even more uncomfortable for her than it is for me.”
“What? How is this world uncomfortable? This world is great.”
Yali’s whole face tensed up. “Of course it would be comfortable for you. But I, I, constantly feel like it’s trying to break down my defenses, like it’s trying to make me forget everything I need to do. Not even the Seeking God’s world was this uncomfortable for me.”
“Are you kidding me!! Not even the Seeking? So the Stern doesn’t place at all?!”
Through gritted teeth, Yali replied, “I don’t expect you to understand this, but, but, the Stern God feels reassuring to me. It says to me, that every part of myself that I’ve had to give up to get where I am, was a worthy sacrifice.”
“But – you shouldn’t have to give up parts of yourself!! That’s fucked up –”
“Can we not argue about the Stern right now?!”
“Fine! Let’s talk about what we’re going to save Morrow!”
“If we’re going to save –”
“Come on, we can’t just abandon him! He was fine before this, we all thought so –”
“No, we didn’t.”
“You thought he was fine. The rest of us knew he might be dangerous. He put me on edge from the beginning, even before –”
“But – you never – you never said –”
“I didn’t say anything because I wanted to make sure you could tolerate each other! You have no idea how hard it was for me! Keeping you and him and Justicar balanced, making sure none of you blew up on each other! But if this is what happened, then even that was a mis–” She was overcome with emotion again. “No, I don’t know if it was a mistake. Much worse things could have happened in the first layer if I had not.” She took a shaky breath, glaring at the ground. “I just hate to think I did all that work to cover for an abuser.”
“An… abuser?” The words felt wrong in my mouth. Him doing that stuff to Alchemist was absolutely fucked up, but reducing him to just an abuser was… “That’s…”
Yali looked dismayed. “You’re allowed to have, to have, complicated feelings, about it. But what he did is abuse. To you, to Alchemist…”
“But it really isn’t like him! He’s always been –” I thought back to the second layer. He had always jumped to hurt himself, but he never tried to hurt anyone else, except maybe as a prank. And even then, if I got mad about it, he’d fold over right away – “Wait, that’s it! Think about it! He was reading my mind, so he must have known that I was thinking about fighting back against him! He should have been scared, just like he was scared of me before! But he didn’t react at all! There must’ve been something else influencing him, it must’ve been the Seeking God! Think about it! He’s just like me! His god made him want to, you know, do things that hurt other people, just like mine! But the difference is, he didn’t have a genius like Yali here to help him through it! And he still managed to not hurt anyone for, like, three whole layers? I think? We have to help him, he’s been fucked over by the gods just as much as we have!”
Yali glared at me. But I could see some doubt breaking through to her. Her face almost softened for a moment. But then it tightened up again. She shouted back at me, “Even if I agree to that, how are we going to help him?! Neither of you has any powers that could protect you from him! You –” she jabbed her thumb at Alchemist “– Alchemists can make all kinds of potions, but none that can protect you from this! And –”
“But, I made, –”
“What, the one I just drank? That’s like a wall that blocks all physical attacks! But Morrow’s powers are soul-based! There’s no such thing as a soul wall! Even if you made a potion to block specific soul things, Morrow’s creative, he’ll always find ways to work around it! And you –” she jabbed her thumb at me “– you should be able to summon soulfire, but –”
“It’s this, this, magic fire thing, that beats every other kind of magic. Every Blood Child has been able to summon it instinctively, except for you.”
“What the fuck, I don’t want to go down in history as the least powerful Blood Child ever! Wait, never mind that, we’re talking about Morrow! You said neither of us can protect ourselves, so what about you?”
“Well, I can resist his magic long enough to get close to him. That’s not one of my powers, it’s just how my mind works or something. But there’s just one little problem with me going to help Morrow –”
“If I catch up to him, I’ll kill him.”
“Well, can you at least, like, help us figure out something to do? I mean, you’re the one who’s good at planning –” Yali glared at me so hard I was actually scared for a moment. “I mean, and, like, you’re the one with the Seeing, you can’t not help us –”
“I know I should. And I haven’t checked it since…” She sighed and looked into the future. Then her eyes widened a little. “Oh, I forgot this, because it wasn’t the most important thing at the time… Morrow spilled his thoughts all over the place.”
“It must be an effect of his powers going out of control. His memories are literally here in the air around us. I can see them when I use the Seeing.”
“That’s great!” I said. “Maybe that’ll tell us how to get through to him –”
“This feels, this feels, invasive…” Yali muttered. Then she shouted herself down – “HE DIDN’T WORRY ABOUT BEING INVASIVE WHEN HE WAS IN RINN’S MIND!!”
I didn’t know how to feel about that. Before I could think of anything to say, Yali was already doing it. Her eyes glared into the unreal with a razor-sharp focus. It was so intense that it made me instinctively follow where she was looking, but of course, she was looking at something the rest of us couldn’t see. Her eyes kept refocusing at slightly different angles, as if she was scanning through thousands of images.
As she looked, a twisted expression grew on her face, halfway between a grimace and a cruel smile. When she finally spoke, her voice was sharp and unfeeling. “Wow,” she said, “he was abused even worse than I suspected. Even worse than I was.”
“You too?” gasped Alchemist. So they hadn’t known about Yali, but had known about Morrow…
Yali barely noticed them. Even when she’d spoken, her eyes had stayed focused on that other space. She was only giving us updates, not coming back to us.
“The memories of the present, they’re all mixed up with, with… So that’s why he didn’t fight back. He must have been having a flashback to being beaten by, by, by, that must be his father…”
As Yali spoke, Alchemist wrung their hands, overwhelmed with anxiety. Wordlessly, I offered them a hug. They collapsed onto me. We leaned into each other, clinging to human warmth in the face of the cold truth. It was killing me that Alchemist had to hear this stuff. “You know,” I murmured, “if you don’t want to hear this, I’m sure me and Yali could –”
“No. I know. I’m listening too.”
Across from us, Yali continued talking. The hint of cruelty was gone. She had turned cold again, brutally matter-of-fact. “It wasn’t just beatings. His father locked him in his room and starved him for days at a time. I had suspected something like that. He constantly berated him, calling him worthless trash. More than once, he nearly drowned him in the kitchen sink, to the point that he was coughing up water.
“It is hard to get a clear view of the rest of his life. I am used to looking through the old Farseers’ memories, but this is much less organized. We Farseers have more organized minds than most people, but I believe Morrow is much worse than even a normal person. It’s probably because he avoids thinking about his own past. He never looks back and makes the connections between his different memories. To make this work, I will have to make the connections myself.
“It seems likely that Morrow was an unwanted child. His mother was terrified of his father. I see her being too afraid to stand up to him even in the smallest way. And Morrow’s father treats Morrow as an object to be used. I see him bringing Morrow to a series of ‘uncles’, who molested him. It seems that his father sold him to them as a –”
“That’s too much!” I blurted out, horrified, still holding on tight to Alchemist. “How could so many horrible things happen to one person –”
“Shut up. If you can’t handle the truth, you shouldn’t have asked for it.”
“That hurts,” I said.
Yali talked over me, her eyes already flicking back into the memories. “There’s one thing I see him reaching for, to give him a break from the suffering. Whenever he’s alone, he is constantly curious. I see him picking up sticks and harassing stray animals to see how they’ll react. It’s like, as soon as he goes outdoors, he completely forgets what was going on in the house… And even when he’s locked in his room, he’s constantly picking things apart to see what’s inside them. No… I think actually he spends most of the time feeling traumatized. But when he’s in the curious state, he doesn’t remember that he was just in the traumatized state, that’s why I thought –”
“Oh gods… even his curiosity is a coping strategy?”
“A coping strategy? The way his mind lights up when he is experimenting with something, it’s genuine excitement. I don’t think you could feel that way if you were just forcing yourself to cope. He certainly used it to cope, but, but, I think it’s just inherently how he is. He built with the pieces that were left to him.
“I see him running away from home. I see, I see… more than one version of it? He must have run away at least, at least, four different times. I see the police finding him and bringing him home. And after the police have gone – that is one of the times his father nearly killed him. I see him begging strangers to take him in. Some of them threaten him and chase him away from their doors. Some of them sympathize but still turn him away. Some –”
“The Blood Temple would have taken him in!” I said bitterly.
“– Some of them ask where his parents are, and those are the scariest of all.
“One of the times he ran away, he must have finally succeeded. I see him living on the streets and hiding from anyone who might try to take him home. I see an icy street feeling like freedom to him. Sometimes. He alternates. Sometimes he is very happy to simply experience life for himself without any abuser hovering over him. Other times, he can’t get away from the cold and hunger. To survive, he became – he became – he – well, the word he used was ‘Defiler’, but –”
“Oh! I, uh, I think you can say ‘sex worker’.” Defiler was the common word for sex workers in the city, but some people considered it really derogatory. Which made sense, since it basically lumped them in with people who vandalized temples and pissed on altars. Not that I had a problem with anyone pissing on a few altars, especially if they were Stern altars, but anyway. Some uptight Stern types acted like any kind of casual sex was defiling the honor given to you by the gods. That was obviously bullshit, because casual sex was literally sacred to the Seeking, but everywhere you looked, there was some Stern person trying to lecture you about it.
So. Morrow was a sex worker? I felt like I should be surprised, but nothing would have really surprised me at this point. Thinking back, he had always been kind of… indifferent to sexuality. That would make a lot of sense, I guess, if he thought of it as just a job.
“Yes, thank you,” said Yali, still cold and emotionless. “He became a sex w–”
“Holy shit, do you think Justicar knew?!” I exclaimed.
Yali’s eyes flicked back out of the memories to focus on me for a moment. “What did you say?”
“It was practically the first thing she said to him! ‘If you defile anyone’s mind, your life is forfeit’! You think she was hinting at…?”
“How would she have known?”
“I dunno. I mean, she was a cop. Maybe she knew some kind of, uh, secret signal?” Now than I was trying to explain it, I wasn’t quite as sure after all. “Or maybe it’s just the way she talks.”
“I don’t think it matters at this point…”
I didn’t have more to say. Yali looked back into the memories.
“His feelings toward his clients are very positive. Even though, even though – I saw a memory of some clients beating and robbing him when he was older, but even after that, he feels very safe around clients in general. I believe it is because, because, because none of them ever tried to take him home to his parents. Well-meaning strangers are still terrifying to him.”
“‘When he was older’… fuck, this all happened when he was still a kid?”
“I’m not, not sure. They’re his memories, I can’t see him directly. I think he might be… early teens? Not much older than I was when I went to the police. But then…” I heard a hint of doubt creep into Yali’s voice. “…then, he and I have a lot in common… We both had to escape our families around the same age, we both had to figure out what to do all by ourselves… But I didn’t abuse anyone else after I got out! He’s nothing like me!”
Yali went quiet, frowning.
I shifted my weight, trying to get more comfortable where I was sitting with Alchemist. I wanted to say something to Yali, but I was nervous about interrupting her.
Into the silence, Alchemist mumbled something I couldn’t quite hear.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Am I the only one, of us five, who has, with my family, a good relationship with my family?”
“I mean, mine’s not bad. Sure, Mom and Dad are Stern hypocrites and they kinda suck about me being gay, but I still love the guts outta them.”
“Okay, maybe that is a little bad. Wow, it’s really just you then. Shit.”
“Unless… we don’t know if, Justicar, –”
“I actually do, she told me a lot about herself back in the second layer. I think she, like, approves of her parents. I’m pretty sure they were actually horrible to her though.”
Yali suddenly focused on me again. “You know more about Justicar? You’ll have to tell me sometime – anything we know about her could be important when –”
“Oh! Yeah, she told me how, when she was a kid, she –”
“Not now!” Yali snapped. “We can deal with one person who’s going to kill us at a time!” She pointedly looked back into the memories.
“Eventually, Morrow met up with, with, with… he thinks of them as ‘the girls’. He views them like family. I see them showing him how to open a bank account, I see them teaching him what foods you can keep in the fridge… those must be things he missed out on from his abusive home. They were… also sex workers, it looks like, only a little older than he was. But they had much less trauma than he did. It looks like they took him in out of pity. And they had, or keep having, lots of fights about it. He doesn’t realize how much they worry that he’s going to get them all arrested –”
“Wait a minute, I thought you were looking at his memories! How do you know something he doesn’t know?”
“It’s, it’s kind of obvious. From the memories, if you just think about it. But if there’s one thing Morrow is good at, it’s avoiding thinking about things…”
“You got that one right…”
Yali spent a lot more time digging through the memories. The way she was telling it, it seemed like Morrow had never gone two weeks without some messed up shit happening to him. One time he’d been attacked by feral dogs. Another time, the battery in his phone had exploded. Another time, a client had insisted on doing koltac with him, and he had been hooked on it for about a week until he freaked out and went cold turkey and spent the next week distracting himself from the withdrawal symptoms by playing chicken with trains, and then he never touched the stuff again. But throughout all the bad stuff, every time the immediate pain was over, he pretty much blocked it out and switched back to amusing himself, a state of almost innocent curiosity.
“And whenever he has some extra money, he gives it away to help other people! He thinks they need it more than he does, but they obviously don’t! Why does he do that? Why does he do that!?”
There were a few times when Yali found Morrow doing some messed up shit to other people, too, but each time, she had a logical explanation for why he would do the things as a reaction to his trauma. She wanted to use them as a reason to hate him, but with everything she knew from learning about abuse online, she just couldn’t.
“One thing I don’t understand is, I never saw him in school. Did he never go to school? I’m not seeing any memories of… No, I see something. It’s a traumatic memory though? There’s a school, but, but, the, the teachers yelled at him, called him a freak, sent him home… Why? He doesn’t remember this very well… I’m trying to think back… it was because, because, he, touched other children sexually.”
“But…” Yali’s voice tightened. “That’s a textbook sign of sexual abuse! Every Stern teacher is supposed to be trained to recognize the signs of abuse, they’re supposed to –”
“You think the Stern give a shit about us?” I said hotly.
Yali looked dismayed. “I, I know the police aren’t always, aren’t always, don’t treat everyone well. But, but, these were teachers! They’re supposed to care about kids! And they, they, they just didn’t care! They saw how he was acting, they must have even seen his bruises! And they just sent him right back home to be beaten again! How could they just not care?”
“Yeah, well, maybe they care about you if you’re a Seti.”
The words hung in the air between us.
Yali wasn’t answering. Right away, part of me felt horribly guilty. I wanted to say, Oh gods, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it! But another part of me, thundering right behind my heart, refused to back down. I surged to my feet, carelessly bumping Alchemist off to the side. “Teachers or not, they’re still Stern! The moment someone steps out of line, you can say goodbye to your ‘caring about kids’, their job is to beat us down! Try growing up in the fifth ring and thinking the Stern were ever on our side! Bet you’ve never seen a kid get dragged out of class, humiliated in front of everyone, just for wearing the wrong kind of braids! Because I have! And you think the police ‘don’t always treat everyone well’?! You haven’t got a fucking clue what it’s like!” I was being a little hypocritical there, because “you haven’t got a clue what it’s like” was actually what some other kid had said to me sometime when I was making jokes about getting arrested. But now, it felt so real. “Just because the cops were on your side once, you think – no, you probably grew up thinking they were the good guys! You’re just like Justicar, you’ve got some fucked-up idea like the Stern would be fine if they just obeyed their own rules all the time! But that’s not how it works! Every part of the Stern is a violation! From Justicar trying to kill me just for existing, to the cops ripping up people’s lives over the most inconsequential shit, all the way down to random teachers telling kids to shut up and obey the rules, it’s all trampling on the city’s blood! The Stern are choking away our lives, everything that matters to us, and –”
“Where are you going?!” snapped Yali.
“What?” I followed where Yali was looking, and saw that Alchemist was trying to slip off into the woods.
“I was just going to, maybe, take a walk? I, um, it looks like you two have, maybe, some things to work out with each other…” Yali kept glaring at them. “I promise I won’t look for Morrow. I know it wouldn’t be…” They shuddered. “You can look in the future if you don’t believe me.”
Yali did look in the future. She spent a long time using the Seeing, subtle changes moving across her face. When she came back to the present, all of her sharp insistence had gone dull. “Fine. You can go.”
Alchemist hesitated, turned, and walked away. Now just me and Yali were left. I couldn’t bear to look at her. My rage had lost its edge, and now it was like a raw wound had been torn open between us. I couldn’t bear to think of what she was about to say back.