Chapter Seventeen: Unravelled
Content warnings for this chapter:
Graphic descriptions of physical injuries; self-harm, negative self-talk, and suicidality; brief mentions of animal abuse.
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)
It wasn’t much longer before I heard the branches rustling from Alchemist getting close to us. I got up and peered towards the sound, and pretty soon I spotted their cute head bobbing in and out of the leaves. They picked their way through the bushes along the shore of the brook, occasionally giving a nervous glance into the bloodstained water.
Beside me, Yali squeezed my shoulder. Quietly, she muttered, “I know you’ll want to tell Alchemist about everything had just happened. But leave it for later. It’s important that we let them tell us what they’ve been thinking of, before we distract them.”
“What have they –”
In front of us, Alchemist made their way through the last bit of brambles, and padded into the clearing with us. I ran up and gave them a big hug.
Alchemist smiled a little, but their eyes were downcast. They wobbled back and forth.
“I’ve, been, thinking, and…”
Alchemist clearly had a lot weighing on them. Their eyes were puffy and their robes were matted down from the rain. They kept their hands clasped together right in front of their chest, their shoulders curled inwards. Yali and I waited for them to get their thoughts in order.
“I know, what, you said. Morrow… his powers… we can’t get near him without his powers, hurting us. But, what if…”
“What if, he, didn’t, have, his, powers?”
“But how?” I reacted.
“The Broken God! You, Yali, said, my, alchem –, my, powers, are, parts of the Broken God stored in a physical medium. And the god can do it! That’s what I realized! It ravels into me, and then it unravels out of me! There’s part of it that does the unravelling!”
I was about to say something, but Yali’s hand squeezed my shoulder. I clamped my mouth shut and kept listening.
“So, if, maybe, the unravelling goes into a potion? And the potion goes into Morrow?”
We were all silent for a while, digesting that question.
“Is that possible?” I said. “I thought the Ravelling was, like, a special rule that even the gods have to follow! Like, the Blood God wouldn’t even need to kill anyone if it could just ‘unravel’ the Farseer – one god shouldn’t be able to remove a different god’s threads –”
“If any god can do it, it’s the Broken God,” said Yali. “When all plans fail and all hope seems lost, the Broken God finds a way forward,” she intoned.
“Is that a Broken saying?” I asked.
“Actually, it’s a Waiting saying.”
“Oh duh, it refers to plans, haha. Wait, never mind that! You really think it’s possible? You’re right, this changes everything! If there was a potion like that, I could drink it and then – no, wait, you could drink it and then the Waiting God wouldn’t –”
“Rinn. Shhhh. You’re the one who said we need to save Morrow first.”
I looked back at Alchemist, who was still watching us nervously. “Shit, sorry. This is about Morrow, we’ve gotta think about Morrow. So… what’s the plan? Alchemist makes this… unravelling potion, and then…”
Alchemist drooped. “Oh… I didn’t think…”
Yali said exhaustedly, “We do have a way to safely bring it to him, now…”
“Oh yeah! I have my soulfire now! No one can stop me!” I was excited, but Yali didn’t even crack a smile. “Yali, are you okay…?”
She clearly wasn’t happy. “I hate that you’re going to help him right after he abused you. I actually hate it,” she said neutrally. “But at least this will stop him from putting us in danger. I can live with that.”
Making the potion wasn’t as simple as I had assumed.
“I, maybe, know how to make the potion. But… it needs…” Alchemist manifested a flask of water in their hand. “This… isn’t, enough, it, needs…”
“A stronger medium,” finished Yali. “Materials that are capable of holding such a powerful sorcery.”
“Oh… you, maybe, understand it, better…”
“No. You’re the one who told that to me. In the future. You explained a lot. You understand more than you know. You just have trouble putting it into words. So, if you’d like, I can fetch the words for you. Your own words, from the future.”
“I, maybe, yes? I would, like that?”
The next bit of conversation was… certainly interesting. Alchemist kept saying something vague or even just waving their hand aimlessly, and every time, Yali filled in a clear, detailed description.
Up until now, Alchemist had mostly just directly manifested the materials for their potions. But if a potion was too powerful, manifested matter wouldn’t be able to hold it. The same power that let the potion do what it was supposed to do, could also destabilize the matter that contained it. And this particular potion was even worse. It was specifically designed to mess with a person’s soul. So, even when it was still in a bottle, it would constantly be trying to mess with any soul that touched it. And manifested matter wasn’t technically part of your soul, but it was still connected to your soul, and that meant the potion would mess with it. So we definitely needed to make the potion out of matter that came from the world, not from us.
“So, do we have to go find some clean water?” I said. “I was at a stream a while back –”
Yali stood up. “Not just water. Not for this. We’ll have to go and search for ingredients.”
Alchemist hesitantly followed her. “Do you, know, what, we’re looking for?”
“I don’t. But you’ll recognize it when we get to it. So let’s go, in, in, any direction, and just stop sometimes so that I can look in each direction and tell you whether we find anything that way in the future. Then we’ll know which way to go.”
It was a long walk, through a lot of mud. At first, I manifested a swath of fire to boil it away. Yali liked it, but it scared Alchemist. So then I just manifested a bunch of wooden boards to lay down over the mud. That worked for a while, but when it came time to use the Seeing, Yali asked me to stop manifesting to make it easier. So then we had to trudge through a lot of mud again. At least I had my nice boots now.
While we walked, we also filled in Alchemist on everything that had happened since they left. I was excited to tell them everything we’d learned about the Blood God and the Waiting God. But they mostly just kept their head down and occasionally hummed their acknowledgment. They were probably still thinking about Morrow.
“But with the unravelling potion, this changes everything!” I said again.
“Yes…” said Yali. “Alchemist, if the potion works, would you mind making another one for me afterwards? I want to drink it, so that the Waiting God doesn’t rejuvenate. Not yet, but in the next layer.”
“Hmm? Oh, yes, if you want…” Alchemist wasn’t really paying attention.
At last, at one of the spots we stopped at, Yali saw something in the future. She pointed Alchemist to the general area where they had found something, then let them lead the way.
Alchemist led us to a tiny brook and knelt down next to it. They lowered their hands into the water, kneading the thick clay from the streambed and drawing up handfuls of it into a little sack.
“Solid… But it needs…”
“The clay will stabilize the potion. Without the clay, the energy from the sorcery might be released prematurely or damage other parts of the medium. But the clay isn’t receptive to magic by itself. With only the clay, the sorcery wouldn’t stay in potion form, it would float away into the air. So we’ll also need –”
“Okay, that’s nice, but,” I said, “Morrow’s going to have to drink a bottle of clay??”
Yali looked into the future. “It can be diluted. Not with water, but with, with, oil.”
“How are we gonna get oil?”
“Let me look something up.” Yali pulled out her phone.
Suddenly we had to do a lot of research. Yali opened the encyclopedia on her phone and started looking up ways you could extract oil from plants. To give the rest of us something to do, she also manifested two copies of her phone so both of us could look in the encyclopedia, too.
“Remember, I can see if you look at anything private,” she said as put one of the copies into my hand.
“Oh gods, did I do that in the future?”
Yali chuckled. “Don’t worry about it.”
Not that I was much use. I looked up a bunch of plants, but I didn’t find anything about extracting oil. Then I found an article about a giant, enchanted tree that ate people. It was made by a serial killer who was also a sorcerer, and even after he got caught for a different murder, the tree ate a few more unsuspecting people over the next few months before they figured out what was happening. Nobody suspected it because it looked like any other tree until it grabbed someone and ate them. After they finally dealt with it, they also cut down and replanted all the other trees in the town he was from, just in case.
Then I followed a link and read about another serial killer. I kept at it until I finally got interrupted by Yali speaking up, saying that she had found what she was looking for.
Of course, even now that we knew what plants we needed, they didn’t seem to be growing anywhere around here. But after a long discussion, Yali and Alchemist agreed that they could use Alchemist’s powers to grow the plants they needed. Regular manifesting wouldn’t work, but the Broken God could cheat plants out of nowhere. Even then, it was too similar to manifested matter, but if they just started with seedlings and let them grow the rest of the way from the soil, most of the matter would be from the soil, so it would work.
So that’s what they did. Alchemist wiggled their fingers into the dirt, coaxing little stems out from the ground. Then they cupped their hands around the new sprouts. Before long, the plants were growing absurdly fast, stems and leaves shooting up to be almost as tall as we were, and the ground shifting subtly up and down as the roots spread into the surrounding earth.
Meanwhile, I set to work trying to make a bottle, because the container couldn’t be made of manifested matter either. First I tried to make a clay bottle. But shaping the clay into a bottle was a huge pain. Layo could’ve probably done it, but all I got was a lopsided bowl. Just to see what would happen, I tried to fire the clay by manifesting it to be really hot, but it just cracked into pieces. So I gave up and tried to make a bottle out of wood instead. I cut down a tree and hollowed out a chunk of it with my Blood Blades. The first few times I tried, I accidentally put holes through it, but eventually I got the hang of it. And the Blood Blades were razor-sharp when I needed them to be, so it worked out fairly easily. Pretty soon, I had a whole row of asymmetric wooden jars and bottles in front of me.
While I was doing that, Yali and Alchemist harvested the seeds from their big plants. Once we had the seeds, then we had to press them. Yali found some diagrams of a big metal press for extracting the oil. Of course, we had to build it piece by piece based on the pictures, because none of us had imprinted anything like that. We didn’t do a great job of it, and we ended up with bits of seeds mixed into the oil. But it was good enough.
Next up was the ingredient that was “receptive to magic”. Once again, Yali looked up a plant with the right magical properties, and Alchemist grew it. This time, it was a sprawling bramble bush, with little, dark reddish berries speckled between its thorns. Alchemist and Yali got to work hunting the brambles for berries that were just the right ripeness. They weren’t paying much attention to me. So I idly picked a few of the berries and ate them.
Flavor exploded in my mouth, stabbing wildly down along my jaw and up behind my nostrils. They were the absolute WORST thing I had EVER tasted. I immediately reached for some more.
“Don’t eat too many of those, they’re poisonous,” said Yali casually, not bothering to look back at me.
Yali chuckled. “As long as you only eat a few, your natural manifesting will keep you from getting sick.”
“Oooookay,” I said, dropping the ones I was holding.
Finally, we had everything assembled.
“You’ll have to take it from here,” said Yali to Alchemist. “I can’t See anything after you start making the potion.”
Alchemist nodded and closed their mouth. Then they closed their eyes, too. They set one of my wooden jars on the ground in front of them. After a short pause, they dipped one hand into the mixture, then the other hand. With oily clay coating their hands, they reached into the air, their fingers curling like someone playing a harp.
The haze stabbed into my head and heart. Lines of force flickered in the air, spreading out like lightning in slow motion, as if Alchemist was prying open fractures in the universe itself. It was almost painful to look at, but I couldn’t look away. The feeling was way beyond the normal buzz of sorcery. Every time the lines flickered, it sent a jarring feeling through me, like it was trying to shake me to pieces. And in between, there was a terrible sense of unease, a doubt that anything I believed had ever been real.
Yali frantically muttered to me, “They’re going to start again! We have to stay back!” She took my arm and hurried me away from where Alchemist was sitting. I couldn’t resist glancing back as Alchemist started the process again. But Yali blocked me. “Don’t look at it either! Don’t pay attention to it!”
“That, that, that stuff can take apart a human soul! We don’t want our souls to get caught up in it! And if you pay attention to it, that makes you closer to it –”
Even when I looked away, the cracks in the universe were still sizzling in the back of my mind. “How do I ‘not pay attention’ to that?!”
“I, I, I –” Yali looked around wildly. Then, without warning, she shoved me by the shoulders. I stumbled backwards.
“Woah, what –”
In moments, Yali had pinned me with my back to a tree. She leaned in and kissed me on the mouth. “I’m distracting you,” she said.
“You sure know how to distract me,” I laughed, thrills running through me as she planted a series of kisses starting at my ear and moving up the side of my face. I pulled closer to her, grabbing fistfuls of her sweater, and clamped my lips onto hers. We pushed back and forth, squishing our bodies onto each other, barely remembering to come up for air.
At some point, I noticed that I didn’t feel like the world was being torn apart anymore. And that Alchemist was looking at us.
I peeled myself off of Yali, laughing and straightening my shirt. “Oh, hey there, Alchemist, haha, how did it go?”
Alchemist hesitated, then waved for us to come look. They led us to where they’d been working. The wooden jar sat alone on a mat on the ground, not looking like much. Its lid was closed tight, and I couldn’t feel anything from it.
Yali took one look at it. “So it worked? It’s stable?”
Alchemist hesitated again, then nodded.
“The Seeing is working again. That’s good…” She looked into the future for a while. “I can See up until when Morrow drinks the potion, then it’s all blank again.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The unravelling potion is supposed to be impossible. It breaks all the rules of the Ravelling. So it’s no surprise the Waiting God can’t see past it. But that doesn’t make things any easier for me…” She sighed. “I guess we should be concerned what’ll happen to Morrow after he drinks it. If the Seeking God is all that’s keeping him going, then when it’s taken away from him… He might pass out, his injuries might be more dangerous to him…”
“What injuries?” I said without thinking. “Oh, right.”
“If Rinn is bringing, one potion to him…?” mumbled Alchemist.
“Oh yeah, I could bring a healing potion too –”
“You have a hard time convincing him to drink even one potion!” said Yali.
We launched into yet another argument about what to do. Right when I was in the middle of arguing, Alchemist sprayed me in the face with a spray bottle of water. I was completely flabbergasted.
“Oh… I didn’t, mean to, hit you…”
I tried to brush the water out of my face. “Wait, are you thinking, a spray-on healing potion?” I said. “Wait, can we spray on the unravelling potion?!”
“No, that one needs to be completely absorbed,” said Yali. “But a healing potion might, might, be able to be more, more superficial.”
So there we were, trekking through the wilderness to track down Morrow, equipped with spray bottles full of healing potions and the jar with the unravelling potion.
It wasn’t hard to follow him. Even a normal person could have spotted all the manifested junk he left behind him. And to Yali, it was even more obvious. We followed him through the woods, the terrain getting rougher and rougher. The further we went, the more downhill it got. Before long, we started having to detour sideways so we didn’t end up sliding down the steep, muddy, rocky slopes.
From the look of things, Morrow had slid straight down them.
I squinted across at a short smear of blood on the rocks. “Should there be this much blood?” I said. “I mean, there’s not, like, lakes of it, but we’ve been following him for a while, so it adds up –”
“It’s manifesting. His wounds aren’t healing because I did them with hostile intent and damaged his soul. But he unconsciously manifests more blood to replace the part he’s losing.”
“Oh gods, what if he loses all his original blood and then he gets back to Earth and –”
“That’s what the healing potion is for,” said Yali bluntly.
We descended to the mouth of a ravine, guarded by a tall, blackened tree with splotches of blood on its trunk. Morrow must have paused to rest here. Or, knowing him, paused because he was physically unable to keep going. Yali stopped walking and squinted. “Do you feel it, too?” she said.
I stopped alongside her. When I paid attention, I could feel something sloshing at the edges of my mind. “Yeah. I do.”
“We’re getting close. This is where we stay behind, and you go on alone.”
Yali handed me the unravelling potion, letting me carry it in a bag hanging from a long strap. She didn’t want it to touch my soulfire directly. “You’ve got this,” she said.
I laughed. It came out louder than I expected. “That’s pretty reassuring, coming from someone who can literally see the future.”
“Don’t get careless.”
“Fine. What do I have to look out for?”
“…don’t lose your cool if he hurts himself. Just hold onto your soulfire. It’s rare, but if you lose it, I have to step in to protect you. Then you’re okay, but Morrow is dead for real.”
“Yeah. You ready?”
“Alright, let’s do this thing.” I threw my head back and howled into the air, letting off a flare of my soulfire into the air around me. Then I tightened it back into a steady burn, a warm, invulnerable glow radiating from every muscle. I grinned. I still couldn’t get over how awesome it felt to fill myself with soulfire. “See you both soon!” I declared. Then I hurried onwards.
The ravine was narrow and cut deep into the ground. A little brook ran along its length, not leaving much room to walk alongside it. Where there was room, spindly, twisted trees hogged up the shore. But the water wasn’t much deeper than my foot. I confidently strode down the middle, splashing it aside. When it soaked my shoes, I just unmanifested them and walked barefoot in the cold stream, my soulfire keeping me warm.
As I got closer, the forest swam around me. It felt like the world was unstable, trying to make me forget which way was up and which way was down. But from inside my soulfire, it didn’t seem so threatening. I was a transcendent pillar of flame. I knew exactly where I was. It was just the rest of the world that was having trouble.
I was deep in the ravine when I spotted him. He was stumbling along away from me, his feet dragging through the water. As I watched, he wavered off to the side and had to brace himself against a tree, then stumbled back into the middle of the brook again.
Before I approached him, I stowed the unravelling potion behind a rock. Yali had told me to do that. If I carried it with me, Morrow could break it by accident before he decided to drink it.
“Morrow!” I called out.
Morrow must have heard me, because he tried to turn around. But somehow, he only managed to trip over his own feet and go sprawling into the wall of the ravine. I rushed to help him, but almost as soon as he had gone down, he lunged to his feet again, his grinning, battered face swaying towards me.
Yali had seriously fucked him up. Like, I’d beaten up plenty of assholes myself – and I had gotten beat up plenty of times too, when I picked fights with people bigger than me – but I had never seen someone messed up this bad. One eye was completely swollen shut, and the other one wasn’t looking much better. His nose was sticking off at an angle, dripping a mass of blood right down his chin. His hands were messed up too, fingers sticking off in all the wrong directions.
I immediately wanted to hurt whoever had done this to him, but that was Yali. And revenge wasn’t what I was here for. I knew what I had to do. “Morrow! I’ve got something for you.”
Morrow’s one working eye wavered back and forth, never quite focusing in on me. There was a horrible grin on his face. The air was thick with his power, pulsing and flickering as he moved. “Who are you!!” he screamed.
“You can’t see me? I’m Rinn –”
I didn’t get a chance to finish. The power rushed in at me. As soon as I said my name, I could feel it locking on, making me the one focus of the entire world. The trees, the hills, and even Morrow faded into the background. I was the one on stage, and all around me, it was like millions of scrabbling fingers trying to pull at my thoughts, tongues pressing in to lick away my skin and get a taste of the essence inside.
But even the grotesque pressure of his powers could not overwhelm my soulfire. I hung on tight, blazing brightly against the vortex, holding the chaos firmly at arm’s length.
“Too bright!!!” Morrow screamed. “It’s burning me, you’re burning me, take it away –”
“I’m not going to lower my soulfire. I will help you as much as I can, but I can’t do that without protecting myself. Yali told me –”
“Yali!!! You’re here to finish me off!! You’re going to kill me, you’re going to burn me to death –” Even as he screamed and spit blood, he kept on grinning and stumbling towards me, bent way over, unable to stand up straight.
“I’m here to help,” I said firmly.
Morrow stumbled right into me, his head bumping in the midst of my soulfire, his face smearing blood onto my shirt.
I clasped him by the shoulders. I didn’t know if he could feel what I felt, but when his blood touched me, it formed a sacred bond between us. In fact, it had come full circle. When we had first met, I had put some of my blood into him. And now, his blood had landed on me as well. We were linked together now, no less than I was linked with Yali or Alchemist.
“Morrow. I know you’re in pain. I want you to listen to me. I’m here to help.” In the warmth of my soulfire, it was all so simple. The things to say were so obvious.
“Pain? Pain where?? Y’mus’be thinking of someone else! I’m fine, I’ve seen so much, you gotta come check out –”
“I’m always interested in the things you come up with, but this is more important. Can you –”
Morrow pushed himself up, carelessly shoving me sideways. I had to brace myself against the ground. “Check this out!!” he yelled.
Morrow waved one of his broken hands. Along with it, some of his blood floated out into the air, held up by his manifesting. In the air, the blood coiled into an intricate shape, a three dimensional spiral almost like the Endless Maze symbol, but also with narrow spikes jutting off of it in random directions.
As I watched, one of the spikes extended outwards, a long line stabbing through the air. It pierced into the wall of the ravine, sinking into the earth like an injection. Near where it struck, huge chunks of the ground bubbled and stretched, ballooning into bulbous shapes. It spread upward through the ground, all the way to the edge of the ravine, where it bubbled under the trees standing there, knocking some of them over, pulling up some of their roots.
“Morrow! You’re already losing enough blood, we have to –”
“I’m fine!” He gestured at the distorted ground. “Can’t you see it??”
The old me would have been frustrated. I would have said something like you literally just manifested with your own blood, how can you not realize you’re bleeding?!. But now, it all seemed so much clearer. I could see Morrow’s desires laid out in front of me. He was a tiny, lonely flame trying to carve out a hole in a huge cloud of fear. And he was also the cloud, trying to drive the flame away from danger and pain. And he was also the pain, trying to scream out to be heard. He was reaching out for… comfort? No, for… safety? No, not even that. Even just basic safety was beyond what he could think of right now. He was clinging onto anything that could make him feel like he was in control of what was happening.
“I can give you a way to get back in control. How does that sound?”
Morrow tried to pull me by the arm, tugging me into walking along the ravine with him. His broken fingers didn’t do a good job of it, but he tried. “You’ve gotta see this! It’s just up ahead!”
I was pretty sure there wasn’t anything up ahead. But I played along. He was starving for someone to listen, and if I could feed that hunger, he might open up to me more.
As we walked along together, I watched how he was moving. He jerked along, alternately flinching in pain and lunging forward to compensate. It was clear that the literal, physical pain was overwhelming him. How was I going to reach him? As long as the pain was there, there was no way I could expect him to step back and think about what I had to say.
I held up one of my spray bottles. “Morrow, I’ve got a healing potion in this bottle. It can heal your wounds, all I have to do is –”
Suddenly, Morrow was listening intently. “A potion! Raylie! You’ve been with Raylie! Raylie!!!!” Morrow leaned away from me, and I felt a surge of his powers again.
He was trying to reach Alchemist’s mind! I grabbed onto his head, letting soulfire flow from my hands to stop him. “This is no time for you to reach out for Raylie!” I said firmly. “You hurt them before. If you want them back, you have to understand what you’re doing. Otherwise you’re just going to hurt them again.” I didn’t feel like my words were getting through to him. I really needed to do something about the pain. “I’d like to give you this healing potion. All I have to do is spray it on to you. It’ll make the pain go away. Is that okay with you?”
“Raylie… Raylie…” he moaned.
I wasn’t going to get a direct answer. I wanted to just go ahead and spray him, but I had to be careful. If I made him feel like I was taking away his control, he might cling onto his problems even harder. How could I get him to accept help with the pain, when the pain itself was stopping him from listening to me ask about the pain? I had to approach this differently. “I’m going to spray the healing potion on you,” I said. “It’ll make the pain go away. If you’re listening, if you don’t want me to, just tell me, okay? I won’t do it if you say you don’t want me to.”
“Raylie… I’m burning, where are you, Raylie…”
The cloudy potion splattered and dripped down his face. Where it touched his swollen eyes, they rapidly shrank back to their original shape. It missed a few spots, so I squirted the bottle a couple more times, drenching him. Then I went for his hands. He was kind of swaying and not reacting, like he was in shock, so I just grabbed his wrists and held them up to get a good angle to spray. Before long, the fingers were all back how they should be.
I let go of his wrist. He stumbled off at an angle, bumping into a tree and crouching down towards the ground. He still had the potion on his face, and he seemed pretty stressed out about it. It was kind of like that time in the first layer when I had dumped a bucket of water on him and then we couldn’t manifest it off. But this time, there were lots of other things I could do. I brushed my hand over his face, letting my soulfire boil away what was left of the potion. His body relaxed a little, sinking down onto the ground. When I took my hand away, he looked as good as new.
Well, except for one thing. I almost hadn’t noticed it earlier between all the bruises and stuff, but Yali had put the Watchful Eye on him, too. It wasn’t even laid out neatly like mine, it was sort of scrawled diagonally up his cheek from the corner of his mouth.
“Morrow,” I said gently, looking down at him. “Can you hear me? Do you know where we are, do you understand why –”
Morrow grinned up at me. “Rinn!” he exclaimed. His legs were splayed randomly across the grass, but he already seemed a lot closer to reality. “You said you’re help – the spray – Raylie! She must have sent you to heal – no – there was more! You followed me for some other reason, what was it – no don’t tell me, it must have been –” His powers rushed in at me again. But I held on firmly to my soulfire.
“You’re right,” I said. “I did have another reason to come. I have another potion for you. It –”
“Another potion, what does it do??”
“It will break your connection to the Seeking God. You’ll be Morrow again.”
Morrow stared at me blankly.
“You’ll be able to see Raylie again, without hurting them. You’ll be safe. We’ll all be able to hang out together.”
He wanted it. I could feel him wanting it. But there was something else inside him that was making it impossible. “I’ll find my own way!” he insisted. “I can be safe in my own way! And I’ll hang out with y’all by myself! I’ll be so safe, you won’t believe it!!”
I decided to ignore the obvious contradiction. I needed to stick to the things that truly mattered. “If you drink this potion, it’ll be the best thing for Raylie. I know it’s –”
“I – that’s – I want –” he began. Then he interrupted himself angrily. “No, no, no! You’re not offering me this potion! It’s not happening! Your potion doesn’t exist!!”
“I know it’s hard to face. I know it won’t be fun for you to lose your powers. But if you think about everything, it’s –”
“I’ll lose my powers…”
“Yes. I know it’s hard, but just think about –”
“Wait a sec, has that ever happened before?! A Raveller without powers?!” Morrow’s eyes lit up. “That’s so impossible! No one’s ever done this before! I’ll be the first one ever, EVER!” I could feel a rush of relief roll off of him. His Seeking desires suddenly wanted the same thing as his human ones. Morrow stuck out his hands. “Give it to me before I change my mind! Gimme gimme gimme –”
“I don’t have it on me!” I laughed. “I left it over there.”
Morrow ran to where I pointed. As soon as he spotted where the potion was sitting, he dove and snatched it up. He plowed into the ground, then clumsily rolled into a sitting position. Then he wrenched off the top of the jar and slammed it onto his face.
For a moment, I was in a panic, thinking he might spill the potion. But it all flowed into his mouth, almost of its own accord. His eyes bugged out as he frantically took four giant gulps. And then it was done. He chucked the empty jar on the ground and looked up at me.
I looked back at him.
“What comes next?! Is it gonna –”
Morrow jerked forward, like he was choking. Some… thing started spilling out of his mouth. It was like the magic from the portals – I couldn’t see it physically, but it was dazzling. I could feel it even through my soulfire. Bright sparks of feeling, the rush of discovery, the captivating challenge of paradox. All in a jumble, they blazed brightly and winked out.
Moments later, it was gone. The pressure of Morrow’s powers suddenly lifted, too, leaving just the woods and the quiet sound of the water moving around us.
Morrow looked up at me again, his head bobbing excitedly. “Rinn! You’re back!” He looked around, wide-eyed, as if he was seeing everything for the first time. “Nice woods! Just think of all the things we can –”
He slumped forward and fell motionless.
I prodded Morrow with my foot.
At least he was still breathing. He didn’t look like he was in good shape though. His neck was limp, his mouth was hanging open, and he was kind of drooling on himself.
At this point, he’d been lying still for a while, so there probably weren’t going to be any more surprises. I lowered my soulfire. That was kind of a relief. Soulfire felt totally amazing, but after feeling totally amazing for a long time in a row, sometimes it felt better to just relax.
Now what? We hadn’t really talked about what to do after he drank the potion, other than making sure he didn’t die. I decided I should probably take him back to the others.
I knelt down and slung him over my shoulders. Carrying him was almost effortless. At first I thought it was because of how skinny he was, but he probably weighed more than me anyway because he was a bunch taller. No, it wasn’t about him. It was the Blood God’s strength that was helping me.
Nothing much happened as I carried Morrow back out of the ravine. With his powers gone, it seemed like maybe things could be calm again, at least for now. I just had to make sure not to drop him.
When I got back to Yali and Alchemist, they were already standing to greet me. Yali looked way different than she had when I left. Her usual sweater was covered in a dense webbing of black vines – it seemed like Alchemist was growing them for her, as a suit of organic armor. And she had a new, broad belt, with a few potions hanging from it, and enough pouches for a lot more.
“What’s up with all the gear?” I called out.
“Preparations for when we confront Justicar,” she said firmly.
“Oh yeah, that’s a good point.”
When I got close, Alchemist crowded up next to me to check on Morrow. “Oy, let me put him down first,” I laughed. I held Alchemist back, manifested a mattress, and slung Morrow down onto it.
As Alchemist crouched over him to check his vital signs, Yali looked down at him from above, her expression sour with contempt. “I don’t believe there is any risk that I will attack him again,” she said. “But after he wakes up, things will be much easier if he is kept a good distance away from me.”
“Sure, we can do that,” I said. “Right, Alchemist?”
“Oh… yes, I can, keep him away from you…” Alchemist’s voice wavered between empathy and resentment. The tension between Yali and Alchemist was tearing my heart into pieces. But both of their emotions were real and important. There was nothing I could do to just make it go away.
“I want to move on to the next layer as soon as we’re ready,” said Yali. “I want to get this over with.”
I couldn’t disagree with that. This layer was nice and all, but we still had the threat of Justicar to deal with. I couldn’t really just enjoy myself while that was hanging over us.
Getting to the portal was simple. All we had to do was walk, in any direction, with the intent to move on to the next layer. If we did that for a couple hours, then wherever we ended up, there would be a portal there. Yali wanted us to all walk together, so that we could sit around the portal and make plans for the next layer, then all go through at the same time.
“You two can walk ahead of us,” Yali told Alchemist grumpily. “That way, we won’t have to go back for you if Morrow… does Morrow things.”
“I can, do that.”
So, once Morrow woke up, that was what they did. Yali and I stood at a distance while Alchemist helped Morrow get to his feet. Alchemist spent a while explaining what was going on, then walked away with him. Since Yali had put the Watchful Eye on Morrow, it was easy for us to follow them even when they were physically out of sight.
“I kind of wish I hadn’t…” muttered Yali as we walked. “Now I can see him all the time, even when I don’t want to. Which is always.”
“Wow. That sucks.”
“It was the right decision at the time…” she grumbled.
We walked together slowly, holding hands and bumping shoulders together. It didn’t matter how fast we walked, because it was all magic anyway.
“Seriously, though,” I said, “what’s up with you hating Morrow more than Justicar? I mean, when you talk about Justicar, it’s always ‘she probably wants to fight us in the fifth layer’ and ‘we must be prepared to confront her’, but with Morrow it’s ‘maybe he SHOULD be killed!’ and ‘so I’m probably not going to murder him, like, RELUCTANTLY’ – I mean, I get that what Morrow did was bad, but Justicar almost KILLED me! Her sword was literally in my chest!”
“How long do you think we were in this layer before Morrow attacked you?!” said Yali angrily.
“I dunno, I was having fun in the woods for a while, maybe a day or two? Why does that –”
“It was two days and four hours! And what do you think was the first thing I did when I entered this layer?!”
“Well, I guess you would have – oh gods.”
“That’s right. The first thing I did was check the future to see if you’d be safe until I got to you. What do you think I saw? You weren’t okay. You drooled on me when I picked you up, you kept shivering and holding onto me and you wouldn’t say a word. I needed Alchemist to fix you, and Alchemist wasn’t much better.
“So I ran. I drank the potion Alchemist made to make me faster, and for two days and four hours, I ran as hard as I could sustain. Two days and four hours of pushing myself as hard as I could. Two days and four hours of cursing myself for not getting an extra Severing Step from Alchemist when I had the chance. I did everything I could to get to you before Morrow did too much damage. Because even doing everything I could, I couldn’t get there in time to stop him attacking you. I was forty-five minutes too late.
“Justicar took me by surprise! I didn’t have time to be upset. But I had to watch for forty-five minutes while Morrow abused you. And I’m not like you. I can’t be angry at someone and then forgive them with my next breath. It doesn’t matter what I believe now. I will hate the face of Morrow for as long as I live.”
“Woah, that’s… I mean, shit. If I’d realized – I mean, that explains it completely. I’m sorry –”
Yali frowned. “I, I –” she said in a quiet voice, “I’m not sure it’s the whole explanation.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think there’s a, a, a, deeper reason. Morrow has always been like the Dalners. Temperamental, holding on to obsessions to cover up his reality. But –”
“Hey, I’m temperamental. Morrow’s kind of a mess, but –”
“For my entire life I have had to clean up other people’s messes! Don’t you dare try to tell me I should be happy about it! But Justicar… Justicar is like me.”
“Are you kidding me,” I said.
“The Stern God values conviction and sacrifice. Both Justicar and I will sacrifice anything to achieve our goals. Both of us will destroy anyone we have to. The only difference is that Justicar will stop at the gods, and I will not. And so, and so… even if she’s my enemy, it’s hard for me to hate her when we share so much of the Stern God inside us.”
“But anyone can fight for what they believe in, that’s not just the Stern God. The Stern God is about, like, obeying the law and shit.”
“Rinn. Rinn. Listen,” said Yali softly. She squeezed my hand. “The Stern doesn’t have to be about sacrificing what you care about just to be obedient to someone else. It can also be about sacrificing… unimportant things… to get what you truly want.”
“Unimportant things like ever being happy?!” I snapped.
“That’s not what I meant!” Yali snapped back. “Being happy is very important to me! I will definitely make sure it happens! Besides, I am happy with you –”
I had kind of said it on instinct, based on my arguments with Justicar earlier. But if Yali was going to respond like that… “Listen to yourself! Is that what someone who was happy would say?”
“– I’m talking about little things. Like when I don’t want to get up in the morning, but I get up anyway because I know I can’t see you if I don’t get up. Or when I’m having pain and it’s hard work to carry my laundry to the washer, but I do it anyway because I know I’ll feel better if I have clean clothes later. That’s Stern. Well, it’s also Waiting, but –”
“You shouldn’t have to do that! You shouldn’t have to work hard when you’re already in pain!”
Emotionlessly, Yali replied, “I shouldn’t have to. But I do have to. And if I didn’t have the Stern to help make myself do it, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t get up in the morning.”
“That’s awful, forcing yourself all the time, that’s not what life is supposed to be about –”
“Maybe your life is easier than mine,” she said coldly.
My words caught in my throat. It was true. A life where you couldn’t just enjoy yourself, a life where you didn’t want to get up in the morning… Tears sprang to my eyes. I threw my arms around Yali, squeezing tight and burying my head into her soft flesh. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry –”
“I was trying to open up to you.”
“– oh gods, I’m sorry –”
“It’s okay,” she said gruffly. “There will be another time.”
A few hours later, Alchemist wandered back to us, leaving Morrow out ahead.
Dry leaves blew past on a chilly wind, clearing the dust and fog from the air. Our boots were covered in mud from walking over slimy ground. It was a slow, squelching walk, pulling up our feet one after another. When Alchemist got close to me, we greeted each other with a comfortable hug, softly rubbing our cheeks together.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Alchemist despondently. “I don’t know what to say… He’s…” They gestured vaguely in the air. Floating leaves formed into a picture of Morrow, sprawled out and twisted into several pieces. It was obvious what it meant.
“Have fun with that,” muttered Yali.
“I’ll go talk to him,” I said tiredly.
Beside me, Yali stiffened.
“Look, he can’t hurt me again even if he wanted to. He was helpless to my soulfire even when he had his powers. Now he’s just, like, some loser.”
“Fine. Go. Just don’t expect me to be happy about it.”
I wanted to argue back, to say that it wouldn’t be so bad. But I had a feeling that we would just get in a fight again, and I wouldn’t be able to convince her of anything. So I let it go. “Thanks. See you soon.”
I hurried on ahead.
Now that I actually had somewhere to get to, I wasn’t going to put up with just trudging along. I leapt forward into a run, manifesting a crisp asphalt road under my feet as I went.
Before long, I spotted Morrow walking along ahead of me. As I watched, he stumbled a few steps forward, then stopped to lean on a tree, then stumbled a few more.
Morrow half-startled. After a moment, he looked back at me. “Oh. It’s you.”
Something instantly seemed off about him. His reaction was way slower than usual, and his words came out slower, too. He seemed… glum? At first I thought that was super weird. I’d seen him ripping himself apart, but I’d never seen him just regular sad, or any sort of less-energetic mood at all. Then I thought, of course! He didn’t have the Seeking God inside him anymore. It had probably been the Seeking God that was keeping him going the whole time. And now…
“How are you, uh, feeling?” I said as I got near him.
Morrow’s eyes moved slowly. “How do you want me to feel?”
Well, he was still Morrow, at least. “Dude. You really gonna make a game out of it now?”
“Ehh…” He looked back away from me, and kept plodding along. I caught up and walked alongside him. I stayed quiet, waiting for him to make the first move. I didn’t especially want to talk to him – I had mostly come here to be nice to Alchemist. I could still feel my bond of blood with Morrow, and I would have gladly fought a bear to protect him, but I was kinda sick of him as a person.
After a while of us just crunching through the leaves, Morrow broke the silence.
“Raylie keeps telling me I didn’t do anything wrong…” he said gloomily.
“I did something wrong… didn’t I?”
I sized him up, deciding how to answer that. Alchemist would probably have wanted me to soften the truth. But if I did that, I would feel like I was bullshitting him. And even if I did, he would probably just keep digging until he got the truth out of me.
“You pretty much did,” I said. “You fucked up real bad, and you hurt all three of us. And it could’ve been a lot worse if we hadn’t all worked together to save you. But –” I grabbed his shoulder and made him look at me. “– it’s over now. You don’t have to hurt anyone anymore.”
Morrow pushed his hands through his hair and weakly pulled on it. It was like he was trying to rip his hair out, but couldn’t summon up the energy to do it. It was kinda heartbreaking. Before long, he dropped his hands limply at his sides again. “I knew it…” he muttered. “I’m so fucked up…”
“It wasn’t all your fault! It was the Seeking God. It –”
Morrow looked back at me with a blank expression, his eyes exhausted. “You think you know something about me?” he muttered.
“What do you mean?”
“I was a psycho before I was ever in the Otherworld. I hurt animals, I stole from good people. Still want to be all nice to me now?” He said it in a tone as if it proved him right.
“Uh, yes?? So what if you’ve got some bad things you did in your past! After everything those people did to you I’m glad you’re alive, never mind trying to –”
“She told you too, did she?”
Shit! I hadn’t considered that Morrow might not know about Yali seeing his memories. Although, at this point, it looked like he’d already heard about it from Alchemist. “Uh… yeah,” I said awkwardly.
“Then she told you how I tried to drown the neighbors’ dog –”
“Yeah, she said you were just mimicking the behaviors you saw from your dad, you’re not –”
“What about Jaroc? He was a good kid! He was generous! We were together for months, we slept under the same blanket in the cold! But one night when he was sleeping, I took all his money and left him there! I never saw him again, I don’t know if he’s alive or –”
Yali had mentioned someone like that. “You were hungry! I’m not gonna judge –”
Morrow stopped walking. He shook, frustration fighting against despondency. “Why won’t you just believe how bad I am?!” he blurted. “I’ve always hurt everyone around me! My parents, my friends, everyone I –”
“Isn’t your dad the one who abused you? Who gives a shit what happens to him?!”
“It was me who made him angry. If it wasn’t for me, then he –”
I gaped at him. “Is that all you’ve got?!” I snapped. “If you’re trying to make yourself look like the bad guy, you’re doing a shit job of it! Are you gonna get on with telling me something actually bad, or is it just more of this stuff where the real victim is you?”
Morrow stared at me blankly.
“You got a raw deal!” I said. “I care about people who got a raw deal!”
Morrow shook his head repeatedly, as if he was trying to shake my words off of him. But he couldn’t. His eyebrows pinched together, his face covered with a slow stress. I was already feeling bad for him, but somehow, seeing him look like this made me feel it even more.
“So…” he said emotionlessly, “you know about everything… and you’re not treating me like trash…”
“Of course I’m not!”
“You’re –” Morrow’s voice broke into a breathy whine. “You’re stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid!” He burst into tears.
I idly scuffed my feet in the dirt.
Morrow was sitting with his back against a tree and his knees curled up to his chest. He hadn’t said anything for a while, mostly just sobbing. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with him. It definitely felt like he was getting a big emotional release, in a good way. But his emotions weren’t my emotions, and I still didn’t know how to relate to them.
After a while, I stepped up to him and put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey, uh… so, I’m not against curling up and crying for hours, but we should probably get moving again before Yali catches up to us. I don’t want to make her – to make you two have to be in the same place with each other.”
Morrow moaned and shivered.
“That’s okay, I get it. You’ve got a lot to handle.” I hesitated for a bit. “Listen, when you get back to Earth, –” I began. I wasn’t completely sure where I was going with this. I’d kind of been planning to tell him to go get a therapist, but it was a little hard to imagine him opening up to a therapist. Worse, therapists cost money, and it didn’t sound like Morrow had much money. We needed some sort of free public therapist. Or actually, what we needed was someone who was in charge, not like someone telling him what to do, but like someone with the authority to give him a place to live and food to eat while he got his life sorted out. Someone who could say “you deserve support, you deserve forgiveness, you can find a new purpose in life” and have it count because what they said was the sacred truth –
Sacred? Oh, duh. What I was thinking of was a priest.
But not a Stern priest, obviously. I’d never stick Morrow with the Stern. They’d probably tell him he was bad, and then he’d end up like Justicar. Well, actually, he’d probably tell them to go fuck themselves. But if he did trust them, it would still be bad. There were Seeking and Waiting priests, too, but they probably weren’t what he needed either. So why was I –
It dawned on me like it was obvious, like remembering something I’d known forever and just not thought of. What he needed was a Blood priest. A Blood priest would help him find his heart, help him see the value in his life. If he had no home to go back to, the Blood Temple would take him in. If he was lost without something to give his life meaning, the Blood Temple could give him meaningful work to do. The Blood Temple would provide anything he needed to make his life whole. I could just imagine Morrow going there and getting… wait, no, ugh, I could just imagine him avoiding the place because he thought he didn’t deserve any help. But you couldn’t “not deserve” the Blood Temple, just like you couldn’t be unworthy of your own blood! The Blood Temple wasn’t generous by helping people, it was just a fact of life! The Blood Temple providing for everyone was just what the Blood Temple was!
But there were no Blood priests now. And there was an aching hole in the city where the Blood Temple should be. It was the city’s heart, and without it, the city was slowly bleeding its warmth away. How many people had suffered and died without the Blood Temple to hold them up? How many people had thought they deserved their suffering, growing up with the Stern as the only word of right and wrong? Now I was crying, too. To finally, fully realize it… seventy-four years of children growing up without Blood… Tears flowed freely down my cheeks. It was too much. Too great a violation. A hole too deep to even see the sky.
I sat down with Morrow. I shifted so I could put my arms around his shoulders, gently pulling him to lean on me. He sniffled and shook. We cried together, taking a long moment, silent except for the occasional times when I pulled tissues out of thin air for both of us to blow our noses in.
I could think about the city more later. Right now, Morrow needed help, and he was right in front of me. He needed the Blood God, and I was here.
“Morrow…” I said gently, “I’m not sure I know how to do this, but… I can tell how you’re feeling.”
“Nice trick, how’d you pull it off?” said Morrow sulkily. He didn’t believe me.
“Magic, actually, I think it’s a Blood Child power. It just started happening in this layer. Whenever there’s a part of you that’s crying out to be heard, I can hear it, even if you don’t say it out loud. And right now… the loudest one is… I can hear you crying out that…” I concentrated, trying to interpret it. I couldn’t literally hear words like a voice talking, it was more like a feeling that I had to put into words myself. “…that you need to get moving, that just sitting around and crying makes you pathetic. It doesn’t make you pathetic, but that feeling is real, and it means something. And there’s another part of you crying out that I have to be wrong, that you have to be a bad person, because… because that’s the only thing you know how to hold onto about yourself. You’re not a bad person, but that feeling is real, and it means something. It means you want a sense of identity, something to call your own. That’s not a bad thing. I want you to have that, too. And there’s another part of you crying out that you don’t need any of that, that you just need to not have any feelings, to not ask anyone for help. Everyone has feelings, and everyone needs help sometimes, but that feeling is real, and it means something. It means you want to be strong, you want to be able to fight for yourself. I want you to have that, too. And there’s another part of you… actually, there’s a lot more parts of you… and they’re all real. They all mean something.”
I put my hand on Morrow’s heart. “And this is your heart. Feel how it keeps beating, no matter what happens. This is your strength. It’s how you can take every feeling, and feel it, completely. And feel the meaning completely. And then keep fighting on.”
Morrow sobbed, curling into a fetal position in my arms. “I don’t want to keep fighting on,” he choked out. “I want to die. I want to stick my head in a blender.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s real, and it means something. It means –”
“It means I’m fucked up.”
“– It means you’re reaching out for a way to escape from the pain. You’re reaching out for safety. For comfort. That’s not a bad thing. I want you to find safety and comfort, the safety and comfort that you deserve. That we all deserve, everyone who has blood.” I pulled him closer in my lap. He wasn’t trying to argue back. I could tell that my words were sinking in. “And I know it won’t be easy. But I know you can find it. Just look to your heart. The Blood God will always be there. It will lend you its strength whenever you’re ready to ask for it. And –” I took his hand and placed it on my own heart. “– And it’s inside me, too. We’re all connected. The Blood God ties us all together.”
We sat together like that for a while, huddled together, hands on each other’s hearts. I manifested some big pillows for us to lean against. Slowly, I felt a bit of the tension leave Morrow’s body. A few of his muscles twitched, then went limp against me. He stared down at his legs, slowly crying, occasionally manifesting big candy bars to chew on.
Finally, Morrow spoke, talking to his knees, mumbling through a mouthful of candy. “No, no, no, I don’t believe you…” he said. But he was almost laughing as he said it. It was like he was saying it just to say it, going through the motions of denying it because that was what he always did. He twisted around and gave me an awkward hug, squeezing me tight. “Everything you just said is bullshit, and I hate you,” he laughed. “My feelings aren’t real, and your Blood God is a bunch of baloney. And when I looked to my heart, which I didn’t do, I definitely didn’t feel anything. No way. Nope, definitely don’t need the Blood God to heal me. So you’re wasting your time. Yeah! Totally wasted!”
I hugged him back. “I am so glad to hear you say that.”
“Hey!! You’re not supposed to be like that, you’re supposed to fight me –”
I laughed. “Sorry, I’m the Blood Child. I only heard what you actually meant.”
Time passed. Slowly, Morrow’s tears dried. He lay down across my lap and my pillows, finally relaxed, staring into the air. There was still a heavy weight of sadness and guilt lying over him. But that was okay, because that was what someone should feel in a situation like this. It was the Blood way to feel.
In the distance, I heard the crunch of leaves. It became a small and steady pattern, coming closer.
“That’ll be Yali and Alchemist,” I said gently. “Do you think you’re okay to let me go for a while?”
“No, I’ll never let you go,” he said as he sat up to let me move.
“Thanks.” I climbed to my feet, wriggling my way out from under him. Before I went to meet the others, I paused and looked back down at him. “You’re gonna make it,” I said. I clapped him on the back. “Just keep your head out of the blender, okay?”
Morrow smiled back at me. “Fuck you,” he said.
I ran to meet up with the others.
We ended up deciding to switch back – me walking with Yali, and Alchemist walking with Morrow. Once they could coax Morrow into getting up, that is.
Yali and I hung back while Alchemist went to do that. As soon as Alchemist and Morrow were out of sight, Yali turned to face me.
“I still hate Morrow,” she said.
“But, that stuff you said to him… it was…”
“Oh right, you could see us the whole time.”
“It was… I don’t know how to say this. It was, it was… good? If I had tried to talk to him, even if I tried a thousand different things in the future, I don’t think I would ever have thought of something that would get him to open up to me. But you did. I’m, I guess I’m, impressed.”
“Uh, thanks.” I was dancing inside. Yali had said she was impressed!! But I wasn’t sure how she’d feel if I got excited about it, given the whole Morrow thing.
“There’s something I’ve been thinking, ever since you got your soulfire. You know how, if we live through this, the Blood God will rejuvenate? Well, in the beginning, I didn’t want the Blood God to rejuvenate. I thought it was dangerous, but I assumed we’d be stuck letting it rejuvenate because I wasn’t going to let you die. But now, with the potion, we have a choice about it, but at the same time… I am starting to think that the Blood God should rejuvenate.”
“Woah! What changed your mind?”
Yali spoke gravely. “Some of the earlier Blood Children were more like you. More like the way you were with Morrow. They all ended in rage, they all killed me, but they had moments of goodness too. In the later years, only the rage is left. If the Blood God is a god of anger, and it has been starving for the last seventy-four years, shouldn’t people be less angry now? No… anger has always been a part of, of, of humanity, of humans. The only difference is that now, their anger isn’t being overseen. They don’t have a god who knows how to… to guide their anger to a better purpose, to –”
“To bring meaning to it!” I said.
“Yeeeeessss…” Yali stared into the distance. “Besides… even if we did want you to drink the unravelling potion, we still shouldn’t do it yet. Your soulfire is one of the only powers that can pierce Justicar’s armor.”
“I’ll have to kill her…” I said. I swallowed. “Does it have to be that way?!”
“It may be necessary,” said Yali gravely.
“Fuck!” I yelled. “That’s – I mean, you know I’m all about beating the bad guys, but actually killing someone? That’s – that’s – If you kill someone, they’re dead! Dead dead! Please don’t tell me that’s the only way – wait, you said ‘may be necessary’ – you think we can get away without a fight?”
“The final portal won’t open until the conflict is resolved. But there are other possibilities. She doesn’t have to die if she can be persuaded to call off her attack –”
“– like that’s gonna happen –”
“– and it doesn’t have to be you who bears the burden. Alchemi–”
“No FUCKING way!!! We are NOT making ALCHEMIST fight our –”
“–st would be capable of creating a weapon that I could use to –”
“Still no! I’ll just do it myself, we are not getting Alchemist involved in this! They are SOFT and SWEET and – gods, Yali, how could you even think of such a thing?!”
Yali shouted back, “Me thinking of things that hurt people is why you’re still alive right now!”
“Yeah, but not like this –”
Yali stepped closer, shouting in my face. “Yes, like this! Exactly like this! When I saw Justicar draw her sword on you, my first thought was, ‘what powers do I need so I can get there and save you?’ And my second thought was ‘how loud do I have to yell at Alchemist so they’ll be scared enough to hurry up and do what I say, but not scared enough to mess it up?’ If I had wasted time thinking about how to be nice to them, you would be dead right now! If I hadn’t forced them to try and make a weapon back then, I wouldn’t have had anything to bluff her with! So don’t ever tell me not to think about something because it’s too cruel! For my entire life, I have had to be the one who sees what has to be done, when everyone else can only see what’s right in front of them! I have always been the one who does what has to be done, when no one else will!”
I wanted to argue back, but against the thunder of her words, I didn’t feel like I could say anything at all. It was the first time she had ever aimed the full force of her anger and judgment directly towards me. It wasn’t like I couldn’t handle it, but… shit. I could finally understand how she was the same person who had bullied another kid into a nervous wreck. And at the same time, that terrifying power, lurking right under the surface… It was part of why I’d always loved her, why I couldn’t get enough of her.
And the worst part was, she wasn’t wrong.
“Well… fuck,” I said. “I, uh, I didn’t mean to criticize you. I mean, I guess I did, but, uh… fuck. I’m sorry. I’m just… Alchemist doesn’t deserve this.”
Yali looked away. “We all trample over the Broken to get what we want.” It was an old saying.
“It shouldn’t have to be that way,” I said.
Yali didn’t answer. Instead, she looked out at the world around us. I followed her gaze. There were the bulbous protrusions of land that Morrow had made when I was bringing him the potion, with trees pointing almost completely sideways after the ground had moved under them. Further in the distance, I could still make out the black cloud, slowly dispersing, that had risen when the trees charred from my scream. And somewhere out there was the river of blood, too…
It was true. We had scrawled our feelings right on top of the Broken God’s world. Because we were in pain, because we were fighting each other… “Humans shouldn’t have to fight and kill each other…” I said. “Gods shouldn’t be fighting and killing each other…”
“Oh gods, is Alchemist the only one who didn’t…?”
“Justicar stabbed me. Morrow did… that thing, to me and Alchemist. I stabbed you…”
“And I beat up Morrow.”
“Right. But Alchemist… Alchemist didn’t do anything.”
“There’s still time…” muttered Yali.
“What? Time for Alchemist to hurt somebody? That doesn’t – wait… was that, like, a joke?”
“I, I, I, think so? I don’t know. I can’t stand this world.”
I couldn’t get my mind off what Yali had said. Alchemist making a weapon? Alchemist didn’t deserve any of this. They were just a normal person who had gotten sucked into this world of dangerous magic powers and gods trying to kill each other. They should never have had to use their powers for combat! But Yali had forced them to, and now she was saying she had needed to do it, like it was the only right thing to do. How could it be right to use them like that? I desperately wanted her to be wrong. But… how could I say it was wrong when it was the only thing that had saved me from being killed? I didn’t want to die. I couldn’t see any way out of accepting it. But the thought of her forcing them to make a weapon again, for real this time, was tearing me up all over again.
“So, uh…” I said. I didn’t feel confident. “I get what you’re saying. Sometimes you have to do things that… aren’t good… because you have to. And it doesn’t make it right, but… uh… ugh, you know what I mean. But this time…” I swallowed. “We really don’t have to force Alchemist to make a weapon again. We’re not in a rush like that time. And I have my soulfire. I can do it. Waiting knows I’m the one who deserves to.” I laughed hollowly. “I guess I shouldn’t be saying ‘Waiting knows’ anymore, should I…”
“It’s okay. I understand.”
“Just, be nice to Alchemist, okay?”
“I’ll try.” Yali sounded regretful. “I, I, wasn’t going to make them do it. It was just… a possibility. But I have a feeling it was always going to be about just you and me, in the end.”
“Rinn…” she said quietly. She reached across and held my hand. “I…”
“I don’t like arguing with you,” she said bluntly.
I was suddenly nervous. Was she criticizing me? But I could feel that something was different. “You’re – wait, are you trying to open up to me again?”
“I, I think so.” Yali was silent for a long time, long enough that I started to feel awkward. Was I supposed to wait for her to go on, or was I supposed to say something? Just when I was about to say something, she spoke again. “How do people express their emotions?” she said.
Part of me wanted to say something like What? You just express them! But I knew Yali was trusting me. I had to really listen. Trying to sound comforting, I replied, “Right, that’s not easy for you, is it.”
“It’s not. I’ve always handled all my emotions on the inside. And it’s the one thing the memories don’t help with. If I try to use their skills, I end up expressing their emotions, not mine. The only thing I know how to do is analyze it… I’m analyzing it right now… I don’t want to be, I want something else, but I don’t know what it is. I wonder if, if, if you might be able to help me.”
“Well –” I wanted so badly to help her. I tried to think about what I actually did when I was expressing my emotions. It always felt so natural, like it was coming right out of my body – “I guess, listen to your body?” I said. “Try to feel what it wants to do…”
“Okay. I’m trying.” After a moment, Yali’s head and shoulders slumped down. “Can we, can we, sit down?”
“Of course.” We both sat down in the dirt. I put my arm around her shoulders. “You must be exhausted.”
“You’re right… I’m exhausted…” She said it like she was noticing it for the first time. She leaned against me. It was a little awkward since she was so much bigger and heavier than me, but I braced myself and made it work. She had been working so hard. She needed someone to lean on. “I… I want to be more like you,” she said. “I want to be able to be happy when I’m happy. I want to be able to be angry when I’m angry. But no matter what happens, I always feel like it’s happening at a distance. Like it’s someone else who’s happy, not me.”
“I felt something like that in the Stern God’s world. I felt – the Blood God felt so hopeless, it was like I didn’t want to feel anything at all. Is it something like that? Like it’s a way of protecting yourself?”
“I think so. It feels like, if I ever let anything affect me, I’ll get hurt…”
I squeezed her tight. “It’s okay to let things affect you. But that feeling is real, and it means something –”
Yali laughed a little. “Don’t try the thing you did with Morrow. It won’t work on me.”
“Can you just…” she looked down. The muscles in her face were more relaxed than I’d ever seen them. “I like your soulfire,” she said.
“Do you want me to –”
Yali unbuckled her potion belt and set it aside, then leaned on me again. I let a warm glow of soulfire flow from my heart, covering my skin with a thick layer of warmth, then expanding to cover Yali as well.
“I like this,” she said. “I’m glad I got to feel your soulfire at least one time when it wasn’t about the gods. Or about Morrow.”
I kissed her on the cheek. “Yeah. Just about us.”
The bond between us… it had been through so much. It had survived us being stuck on the star together for weeks. It had survived me stabbing her through the chest. It had survived us fighting over this whole mess with Morrow. It had been weathered and frayed at the edges, but at its core, it was still strong. We would be able to step into the last layer together, joined by an unbroken rope of strength, ready to face whatever came our way. And when this was all over, we would be able to curl up together in bed, in warmth and comfort, and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.
Of course, eventually, Yali decided it was time for us to get moving. We followed after the others, squelching through the mud again. A warm rain had moved in. My hair got matted down, and I had to hang my head to keep the drips out of my eyes.
Soon, the portal loomed out of the mist, a black and shimmering expanse where a hillside should be. Alchemist and Morrow were already sitting near it, huddling together on a pile of blankets.
Before we all went in, we made a lot of plans about what to do in the next layer. It was a little awkward because of everyone’s relationships – Yali refused to go anywhere near Morrow, but we needed to include Alchemist in the planning, and Alchemist didn’t want to leave Morrow all by himself. But eventually we found some compromises.
Yali asked Alchemist to make some more potions for her, and a few potions for me as well. The ones they gave me were mostly for sneaking around – making me turn invisible and fly quickly and quietly. “I think the Blood God might let us arrive in the same place in its world,” said Yali, “but if it doesn’t, I want you to avoid Justicar for as long as you can. Just stay hidden and let me find you. If it comes to a fight, I wish I could give you fighting potions, but it’s no use. The most important thing in a fight will be your soulfire, and your soulfire will purge any potions from your system anyway.”
An old part of me felt like complaining about me not getting more potions. But it was only a small part. I didn’t need potions for this. I had myself, and that was stronger than any potion.
Next, Yali made me tell her everything I could remember about what Justicar had said in the second layer. I had to tell her about everything we’d done together, even the stupid parts.
Yali considered it all seriously. I was a little embarrassed. Telling Yali about our arguments was fine, but telling her about the petty stuff I’d done just to irritate Justicar… Now that I’d felt the confidence of the Blood God inside me, that stuff wasn’t really who I wanted to be. Of course, Yali took it as if it was just normal for me. Ugh.
Yali was more focused on Justicar. “It seems like it will be, be, difficult, to change her mind,” she said gravely.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I laughed.
“It’s not impossible,” Yali continued. “She is capable of admitting that she is wrong, and –”
“Only about stuff that doesn’t really matter! She’s never gonna admit that it’s wrong to do what the Stern God wants –”
“I think our best bet is to convince her that killing you isn’t what the Stern God wants.”
“Doesn’t she know what the Stern God wants? Like, by magic?”
“Remember, the gods think much slower than we do. I believe the Stern God gave her some, some, priorities, and a general sense of the situation, but it’s up to her to figure out the right thing to do from day to day. So we may still have a chance. I was thinking I could start by telling her what we found out, how the Waiting God manipulated everyone. It even manipulated the Stern God and took advantage of the Justicars, so –”
“She’s never gonna believe that! She thinks the Stern God is perfect, she probably thinks it can’t even be tricked. You’ve gotta say it like she was the one who got tricked, she’s always talking about how she isn’t perfect –”
We spent the next few hours in a long argument about how to change Justicar’s mind. It wasn’t the worst argument, but it was frustrating, because we kept talking past each other. We were making completely different assumptions about how Justicar’s mind worked. By the end, I felt like I knew even less about Justicar than I had before. And Yali didn’t seem very confident either.
In the end, Yali settled on a few strategies to try if we got the chance. Neither of us thought they were likely to work. But I couldn’t think of anything better.
Our work went on for hours and hours. We made potions. We made plans. I practiced summoning soulfire. Alchemist finished growing Yali’s new armor. We practiced fighting a little, but Yali’s safety precautions made it awkward, and we didn’t really know what powers we would be up against. When Alchemist wasn’t making potions, they took care of Morrow, and when they weren’t doing that, they spent a lot of time thinking about their family back on Earth. Their older sister Niemah had been scheduled to take an important certifying exam, to become some sort of magical technician. We didn’t know exactly how the flow of time in the Otherworld matched up with Earth, but today was probably somewhere near the week of the exam, so Alchemist was thinking about it, really hoping she would pass. It was a surprisingly normal thing to worry about at a time like this. It helped me remember the human life we were fighting to get back to.
Finally, we all got some rest to make sure we would be fully alert for the challenges to come.
Now, the portal beckoned. Yali squeezed my hand. “Before we go through the portal and finish things, if there’s anything we still need to talk about…”
“I… you know what, I actually feel like we’ve got things figured out! I mean, I’ll probably think of something else in like two minutes, but, you know. I think I’m good. What about you?”
“I…” She looked away, then back again. “We still haven’t talked about… When I made you do the Controlling Game. When –”
“Oh gods, don’t remind me,” I said.
“Remember, I, I promised I’d check in with you, to make sure –”
“Uh, yeah, you were totally fine. I was being a huge asshole to Alchemist, I’m glad you stopped me.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” she said heavily.
And just like that, everything was settled.
Yali wrapped me up in a tender embrace. I leaned in, pressing my lips against hers. “I love you,” I whispered. “I love you, I love you, I love you –”
Yali smiled. “You don’t need to say it more than three times. We’re going to make it through this.” She stroked my hair. “I love you too.”
A few meters away, Alchemist and Morrow were doing about the same thing.
Before long, Alchemist padded over and held my hand. “Are we, going?” they asked. I could tell they were eager to move on.
“I think so. Everyone ready?”
We all stood together, holding hands in a line. Yali, then me, then Alchemist, then Morrow.
“Three, two, one, go!” I called. And then we all stepped into the portal.