In All Reflections
And the Devil
Published: September 04, 2023
Warnings: Dumortis gets tortured. Brutally, explicitly - physically, mentally, emotionally, sexually, you name it.
Blurb: Prompt: "I am a cartographer, of sorts. Day after day I document the ley lines, even those of which that stitch and fold reality around them to hide from view."
“Almost?” he said.
“Almost,” Vuaria affirmed.
Dumortis cocked a half-smile. It was a nervous tic of a smile, but it was a smile all the same - one that Vuaria’s eyes flicked to, subtly drinking it in, calming the other in a splash of relief.
He chewed the tip of the pen he’d been slowly disintegrating, glancing out the office window towards the rainy expanse of Theta. It wasn’t that it was hard to look at Vuaria. Just, right now, maybe not. Maybe he didn’t really want to be looked at with those hopeful, wide eyes. Didn’t want to think about it.
It was funny, wasn’t it? He should feel reassured. His heartrate should slow, his breathing should calm, the weight on his shoulders should still. But the world still spun, and he stood there disorientated and panicked, scrambling for grip still. A little creature who wasn’t sure if the food left out was a trick, teeth closed around a bone it wasn’t sure was or wasn’t poison.
Words failed him. They’d been doing that more and more, as of late. He used to think of himself as - well, eloquent was a strong word, but maybe well-spoken. Able to grasp the abstracts of his thoughts and wrestle them into words. They flowed like water, once.
But now the only thing in his head were images. Snapshot, photo after photo, pristine in detail and horror. The consequences of their potential failure. The consequences of their real mistakes. Everything that had already gone wrong. Everything that could go wrong.
And Vuaria’s wide-eyed stare, interspersed perfectly. Waiting for him to say something.
Maybe he’d just been in survival mode too long. Sleepless night after sleepless night after chest-burning panic and haggard struggles. Exhaustion. That had become his emotion of choice, hidden under those reassuring smiles. Not that he hadn’t realized that before, but thinking about it now - in a time where elation should’ve replaced it - made the room feel just a degree colder.
“Mortie?” Vuaria asked.
He turned, unwillingly, to face that admiration again. “Sorry. It’s just surreal, y’know? Felt like this was never going to end.”
“Let’s not count our eggs before they hatch.” Vuaria looked down, to the neat stack of papers he’d kept sorting for the whole meeting. It was his nervous tic.
“Are you saying you don’t trust in the magical might of Kolo?” Dumortis’ smile morphed into a proper teasing grin. “Don’t let him hear you. He might start crying.”
Vuaria’s face flushed. “You shouldn’t speak ill of a Magnitude Fragment like that.”
“I’m not speaking ill. Just facts. Though, eh, don’t tell him I said any of that.” he chewed on the pen’s cap, still grinning. “Maybe only tell him after he’s got the last ley lines situated.”
Vuaria hummed, and reached to adjust the stack of papers. Dumortis’ heart sank, a painful little pit. He’d been so caught up in his own selfish little circlejerk he hadn’t noticed how many times Vuaria had nearly given himself a papercut.
He needed to say something comforting. He leaned back in his chair and beamed. “Don’t look so glum. I’ve got this. What, you don’t think I can handle the last survey?”
Vuaria’s muzzle contorted. It was a small expression, suited for someone as stoic as he was - a slight crinkle of his nose, a slight furrow of the brow. But it betrayed just how deeply upset he was about... what, victory?
“Vuaria. Is there something you’re not telling me?”
No response. Just Vuaria, staring at the papers, almost trembling. Like he was going to cry.
Dumortis’ stomach churned. He knew he shouldn’t pull on his trump card. But - it wouldn’t be right to leave Vuaria upset like this.
He leaned forwards again, cupped Vuaria’s chin in his gentle palm. Vuaria’s eyes flew up, wide and hopeful, the color on his cheeks returning - before he realized that it wasn’t romantic, and he stilled the blush, and took a deep breath.
Good. He was going to talk.
“You don’t have to go,” Vuaria said, practically blurted it out, almost had some inflection in his monotone. “Kolo said he could probably finish the lattice without the last few ley lines. He said Theta is a strong Timeline.”
“Ah, there’s the catch. Probably.” Dumortis gave a confident, casual, normal shrug, and waved his pen emphatically. “Can’t trust a probably in this kind of weather.”
Vuaria trembled. And stared at him with those wide eyes. Dumortis’ smile faltered an inch.
“You really don’t want me to go,” he said, tapping the papers with the chewed pen cap, “So much you can’t even figure out words, huh.”
“It’s dangerous,” Vuaria said, and his voice cracked, “it’s dangerous and it only gets more dangerous every time you go out there. And when Kolo said probably, he - he didn’t mean it like that. It was a confident probably. Ninety-nine percent certain. So you can stay tonight and I’ll tell him to go ahead now with the lattice.”
Vuaria’s hand flew up. It gripped Dumortis’ wrist with a strength. The kind of strength his words lacked. He didn’t doubt Vuaria’s conviction - but he hadn’t really mastered persuasion yet.
And in the back of his mind, he wondered - if I die tonight, could Vuaria fill my shoes with speeches like that?
But he banished those thoughts, as quick as they came. It was rude to think about Vuaria that way. “I don’t trust probably anymore. You know that. But how about a compromise?”
Dumortis grinned, confidence returning. “Listen. You tell Kolo to get the lattice started, alright? But I’m still going to go out and get the last ley line map. Shake my tail a little, make sure Bereave doesn’t notice him wrangling all the magic. I’ll be back by after-midnight and he can finish up the lattice and do that banishment-sealing spell and we’ll all party.”
This was a battle, of sorts. A test of wills. But it was one Dumortis knew he would win; there was nothing Vuaria could say or do that would change his mind. Simple as that. The power imbalance between them was too wide - he’d barely been able to voice his discomfort.
But Vuaria’s grip held firm on Dumortis’ wrist for several long more minutes, the clock ticking in the background, the thum of the rain outside. Almost a proper storm.
Vuaria looked down. Defeated, browbeaten. The only thing he could say was a mere curt nod.
Dumortis stood, paced around the desk in a second and had his arms wrapped tight around Vuaria the next. Held him close. Squeezed that soft body against his. Felt it startle, then tremble, then settle, then squeeze him back just as hard.
“It’ll be nice when this is over,” he said, quietly. “We’ll be able to actually spend time together again!”
Vuaria cracked a hoarse laugh. He could hear the sniffle in the other’s voice. “That would be nice.”
“It would. So just think about that, okay? Let that be what you’re thinking about in the downtime, in the moments between Kolo giving you orders, kay? I want that for you.” he squeezed tighter, and before he could consider if it was wise, he whispered, “I want you.”
He was pulling those strings a little too hard. But Vuaria nodded, fiercely, quickly, eagerly. It would hold him together for tonight, and that’s all they both needed. To be held together for the night.
They could navigate a relationship later. Or a lack thereof. Or whatever they wanted to be. When this war was over.
Dumortis set Vuaria down, his smile still bright. Vuaria sat in his chair quickly, but the tremors had left his shoulders, and he didn’t sort the stack sitting on his desk. Good. It was holding him together already.
He exited the office, pulling on his jacket, flicking the hood up, fastening it around his ears.
What was he feeling right now? He examined it. Trepidation, certainly. Hope, definitely. Excitement? As much as it felt wrong to admit it... very much so.
Almost. It was almost over.
Hehe. And Kolo hadn’t thought he would’ve been able to do it. Stared at him with uncomfortable pity and frustration. Said, you don’t know Bereave like I do. I’m not putting you at risk. And he’d retorted, it’s me or Theta. You want this Timeline’s blood on your hands?
Words. It was just simple words. But it had been enough to shut Kolo up and get him to commit to the plan, and that was all that mattered: Theta’s safety. His people’s safety. Vuaria’s safety.
He paused, one hand on the knob of an external door, about to twist. He turned instead, at the Fragment jogging to catch up to him, a box of papers under their arm, a little robot bug peeking from their color.
“Oh, Szeretet,” he said with a smile, letting go of the door to face him properly. “Seeing me off, are we? Did Vuaria send you?”
“What? No, he didn’t. I just-” Szeretet slowed to a stop in front of him, breathing slightly haggard, “-I saw you leaving. I didn’t realize you hadn’t left yet.”
“Well, you’ve caught me! Did you have any famous last words to share?”
Szeretet narrowed his eyes. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m not. I promise.” his smile grew a few inches into something more familiar, more comfortable. “Look after Vuaria for me, will you? He’s liable to worry himself to death. You know we’re getting the lattice up tonight, right?”
Szeretet’s eyes widened. “Yes! Of course I knew that.” he did not know that. “That’s - you’re still going out?”
“Yup. Still got a few more ley lines to chart. Kolo might be able to get the system running without them, but I like to be sure of things.”
“You’ll keep safe, right?” Szeretet said, and started wildly thumbing through his box. “Hang on.”
Dumortis raised an eyebrow, but merely crossed his arms.
“Here.” he presented Dumortis with a handful of small, wrinkled slips of paper. Held them out expectantly, but not happily. The normal Szeretet way.
Dumortis accepted, smoothing out the stack best he could, and peered at the runes inscribed onto them. He wasn’t amazing at runes, really, but these weren’t particularly difficult to read. Protection, safety, obscurity.
He smiled overtop of them at Szeretet. “Sweet of you. You think low-level runes would stop Bereave, though?”
Szeretet flinched. “I- I just - I’m trying to help you. However I can. I made these a while ago.”
“I appreciate the thought,” Dumortis said, and tucked the papers into his pocket. “I’ll use ‘em. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be what saves my hide out there.”
“Don’t joke about that!” Szeretet barked, almost stomping a foot. “What if the mortals hear you talking like that?”
“Then, frankly, they can kiss my ass,” he replied, smoothly, running a hand down his tie. “I’m the one out there doing this for them. I can be a little dark humor-y about it, can’t I?”
Szeretet’s muzzle scrunched. Aw. He was pretty pissed.
“...Alright,” Dumortis said, letting his voice drop quieter, “I’ll be more coy in public. Though, ideally, we don’t have to talk about this at all anymore after tonight.”
“Vuaria’s really worried about you. You could be less flippant. That’s all I’m saying.” Szeretet puffed out his chest, held Dumortis’ stare.
He frowned. “I know. I don’t need you to lecture me about that. I really need to go, though. Thank you for the runes, Szeretet.”
“You’re welcome. ...Stay safe.”
He flashed his confident smile. “I will.”
The stake was driven into the ground. Pristine platinum, it sat inert and waiting, and he unfurled the map from its scrollcase and marked it off with pride.
Dumortis paused, waiting for an emotion. Relief? he wondered. Satisfaction? Pride? His work was finished. So, where was the finality?
The seconds stretched into minutes.
He probably wouldn’t feel relaxed until he knew the lattice was finished, he supposed. Or was he just convincing himself of that? Or maybe it was just the act of being outside, on a night as stark as this, on a night as important as this.
With a shake of the head, he rolled the map back up. Maybe it was just that the act of scribbling something on a map wasn’t very grand. Now, one of the mages back at home, who were empowering Kolo’s lattice network, who were pulling the ley lines and pushing them around, imposing their will on the framework of their Timeline... that was grand.
He set off to a familiar east. It never did well to stay in one place for too long in these parts, though he hadn’t caught a glimpse or taste of Bereave. Not entirely uncommon, either. The devil had plenty of places to torture. With any luck, he wouldn’t show up to Theta at all tonight.
Though he knew it was petty of him, for a brief second, Dumortis hoped Bereave was in Alpha. Tearing that place apart instead. Sticking more needles into that shambling corpse.
Make it easy for them to seal off their Timeline. To stitch it together so tightly that no one could enter, no one could leave. To erase the very idea of Bereave from existing in their lands.
As he walked, he pondered - for the thousandth time - would it hold?
Not that he didn’t trust Kolo. But - he had to wonder - was Kolo’s magic enough? Was the harnessing of Theta’s magic enough? Could anything ever be enough?
He hadn’t faced Bereave directly. Tasted him on the wind and fled like a rabbit, speeding through underbrush and plains, sure. He’d seen the aftermath of Bereave’s magics, though, warping mortals into gasping and shuddering facsimiles, whimpering and twitching, barely alive, unresponsive to anything except having Kolo himself put them out of their misery.
To lock out a magic so profane as that... it felt like a pipe dream. Like they’d celebrate, and Kolo would leave, and then a day later Bereave would open them like a sardine can and corrupt them all just like he’d done to Alpha and Kolo wouldn’t be there to protect them.
He paused, blinking. He’d entered the alcove without noticing - a small semicircular room carved into the side of a hill. Easy to miss from above. A safehouse of sorts.
Tentatively, he put a hand to the ground. The enchantments were still running strong. He just... hadn’t noticed crossing the threshold. Huh. The thought was unsettling.
But, well, he was here.
The map was dropped unceremoniously onto the table, along with the spare stakes and pens and everything. He fed a few logs to the fireplace and lit it with one of the lighters.
Not that it was unsafe to use magic here. But it was better to lay low, to keep its use to a minimum. A being of pure magic could sniff out its use from miles away.
With the warmth permeating the room, he headed back to the chair and tables that sat in its center. They groaned against the floor as he pried a chair free to sit, elbows on the table, head in hands.
He could probably stay here a few hours before trying to make a break back to Theta’s main buildings. Maybe he should’ve asked Vuaria for a time estimate on how long the lattice would take to get running. But he’d always been a little impulsive like that.
He had to be. Someone here had to make hard decisions, and fast. Everyone wanted to discuss everything, all the time, and yes there was a place for that, but not when Bereave was breathing down their necks.
He glanced at the map. It sat, rolled up in its case, innocent and unassuming. Technically, he needed to get this back to Kolo before the ritual was done. Or maybe Kolo could sense where he’d stabbed in the stakes, and could route the magic without a map? That seemed like something a Magnitude Fragment should be able to do.
Idly, he rolled it across the table, back-forth. It was hard to concentrate on any one thought, any one idea, any one thing. He was still grappling with the concept of “Almost”. Almost over. The war. Almost over.
He’d never have to sit in one of these rooms again. Alone for hours on end, exploring Theta’s empty Universe Core, with only his own thoughts for company. It’d drive anyone mad, wouldn’t it?
As he shifted in his chair, something in his pocket crinkled. He startled hard - almost launching out of the seat - before his memory caught up to him, and he gave an awkward laugh to himself. He was jumpy, wasn’t he?
Well, it made sense. Today was....
Dumortis shook his head. He pried the papers out from his pocket and blinked down at them, at the runes inscribed in careful chalk-laced paint. They were written cleanly, neatly, in Szeretet’s proper-looking handwriting.
He stared at the rainbow of lines. Should he?
Szeretet’s expression conjured in his mind. A little smug, a little irritated. He was just trying to be nice, to help in any way he could. But Dumortis didn’t really need that help. What did it say about Szeretet, that he thought Dumortis couldn’t make his own piddling-tier runes? That he thought Dumortis hadn’t already thought of that?
Ugh. Those were cruel thoughts. Not the kind he should be thinking about his constituents.
...Constituents? That was a new one. He wasn’t leader of Theta in that way. They had a mortal council. He just headed his peers and made decisions for them because they were stupid fucking morons.
Vuaria wasn’t a moron. Szeretet wasn’t, either. Hell, even Meyp wasn’t dumb. Maybe a little vapid, but not dumb.
He sat back in the chair, looked up at the little alcove. His tail flicked, uncertain for a long second. Was it just the stress getting to him? The anticipation of it finally being over, and his addled brain was just spitting words out as fast as it remembered they existed?
Surely not. He had better control of himself than that. So why did he think... those insults towards his peers? He didn’t really feel that way. He knew he didn’t.
Just intrusive thoughts, he assured himself. Just a passing thought that he could discard. He was stressed. He was exhausted. This was another sleepless night in his battalion of many, and it was the crown jewel of the bunch. The last night.
After this, he’d go home and lay down in his bed. He’d sleep for forty-eight hours straight and only wake up to hug Vuaria and go eat breakfast. He didn’t even like food, but something like this? It demanded celebration, and if there was one thing mortals loved to celebrate with, it was food.
He’d sit there at the head of a table, Vuaria to his right, the mortal council leader to his left. He’d raise a glass, and he’d thank Kolo, and he’d thank Vuaria, and everyone there, and everyone who’d helped. Even now, he was giddy at the idea of drafting a speech. Maybe it’d be good to get his mind off of the present.
After all, he could imagine himself saying... they’d done the impossible; they’d driven Bereave out of their Timeline. They were safe, enclosed, secure. It was all thanks to everyone.
And him, mostly, actually. Fuck you all. Stab the fucking self-centered useless mortal to his left in the tight throat and toss their writhing body to WHAT THE FUCK WAS HE THINKING.
Dumortis hissed, a puff of air snaking out of his mouth in the cold. His hand clenched, his tail flicked again. What the fuck. It never got this bad. They never plagued him like this - in severity, in intensity, in quantity. So why now?
Why was it cold.
He looked to his right. The fireplace had been snuffed out. When? How hadn’t he noticed?
His stomach churned.
His subconscious knew. His conscious mind refused to grip the thought, but it was there, waiting, lurking.
No, he thought. This was too fast. Unexpectedly so. How wouldn’t he notice? Of course he’d notice.
He stood, the chair clattering.
Dumortis swept out an arm. The air was heavy, thick, like a fog had rolled in. Past the walls of the alcove, the rain droned. It was loud and quiet all at once. Opposing paradoxes.
He couldn’t taste anything wrong, any foreign magic. But who was to say that was a sign of anything? He wasn’t sure what was dangerous or not anymore.
His hands fumbled for the runes. Helpless, he chided himself, reacting like a baby. He knew it was nothing, but he needed to get to safety either way. Don’t get cocky. Don’t get confident.
He found the papers, held them up in frantic fistfuls, ignited all of them at once. Soothing magic washed over him as Szeretet’s enchantments weaved into his body. Protection, safety, obscurity. In a word, security.
Run, his brain said, instinctual.
He bolted out of the alcove, mind racing. Who was to say Bereave would’ve noticed him? Well, maybe the blitz of magic. Maybe not, though. But he was certainly present. That made sense.
That was good. It meant he was here. Following Dumortis, and not bothering Kolo while he worked the leylines.
The map. Fuck. He’d left it behind. Whatever. That was why they started early, why they banked on Kolo’s “probably”. It wouldn’t matter. Actually, it was perfect. Bereave saw him out and about and would assume their plan wasn’t in motion yet.
So he was the perfect bait right now. The perfect waste of Bereave’s time.
But something was wrong. He froze, pinned like a deer in headlights. Ears swiveled, eyes scanned. He wasn’t panicked, but his heart was racing as his mind struggled.
The air was empty. Dead.
Sound itself had withered, crumbling into nothingness, swallowed up whole and spat out. Thoughts were sharp, freezing knives jutting through his brain, tiny blitzes of scattered ideas that failed to form patterns, connections.
He didn’t move.
Instinct. Instinct on instinct on fear.
Too close. Too careless.
His last thoughts were really going to be horror at his carelessness. Haha! How pathetic! Dumortis was going to drown in that?
His body moved. Animalistic instinct, so primal, buried so deep in his brain that it overrode the sensibilities afforded by his godhood. It lashed at every muscle in his faux body and screamed one simple command.
Where to? he thought, blearily, helplessly. His body tore through the untouched land of Theta, the rolling plains with no cover. As if physical cover mattered, here?
There was no escape. He could feel the stillness, like a death, hanging over the magic. It pulled, gently, at him, begging him to return to it.
“No!” he screamed, to no one.
It told him to submit to a greater power, a greater coalescence, a throbbing source of it so powerful it drank the magic around him simply by existing. How was he supposed to run on physical legs from that?
“I don’t care!” he screamed, and ran.
But he knew, in his chest, this was the end. He didn’t even really know his mistake. What had cost him? What had given him away? Why had Bereave been so subtle?
He should’ve ran at the first intrusive thought. At the first insidious twisting of that corrupting magic, whose presence was so poisonous that it drained the world of light.
How was he supposed to run on physical legs from a thing that wasn’t physical?
He didn’t. With an indignant yelp, he was caught up in a hand - not physical, but immaterial, unseeable, unknowable - and then flung to the ground casually, swatted like a gnat.
His body crumpled as it hit the dirt. Air and blood splurted out of his mouth as bones shattered. The fear did not pulse. It knew that there was only one direction from here. Further down, into the alien pits of hell.
Eyes bored into him. Prideful ones. They could read his thoughts like a book. They knew every inch of him in an instant. They regarded him with a resigned-yet-enraged sort of familiarity. One that said: you are no different, you are not unique. You are all the same locusts to me.
Funny. Like a Frag to a mortal. He supposed the delinations didn’t matter if you were Genesis or Bereave.
“What are you gonna do to me, huh,” he said, though his voice pitched upwards unfamiliar octaves. “Just going to kill me? Fine. Do it.”
The chill in the air, the silence - it sobered him more than any words could. He could feel almost nothing radiating from the magic that surrounded him, curled around him almost like a blanket. It was simply cold. It was nothingness. It was hatred and rage, but a cold sort.
It was a mirror. The same cold anger he’d nurtured against Bereave. It had kept him warm all those nights of escape, of dodging, of skills. All those tricks felt pathetic in hindsight. Had he ever really been running? Or had Bereave been waiting to toy with him at the prime moment?
A stab of fear: what if the lattice wouldn’t work? What if Bereave was merely waiting to toy with Theta after its highest pinnacle?
He craned his neck, like he could glean answers from Bereave’s emotional reaction to his thoughts. But there was none.
“Kill me,” he said, almost experimentally.
“What!” he shifted. His arms burned, but he could sit. “Just going to stare at me, huh! Why were we even scared of you if you just stand there and do nothing? What about that is terrifying? What about that dismantles Timelines?”
Stupid shit. He was just saying stupid shit, trying to get a rise. A reaction. Anything. Anything to break his discomfort.
He stared up. Above his head was the Theta sky, blanketed by clouds. Rain dripped from them, in a slow and light drizzle, washing away the blood he’d hacked up.
Theta. His home.
A swell of pride brought him to his feet. He pointed - vaguely, at the air around him, at the sky, at wherever he felt Bereave was, jabbed a finger at him.
“You’re fucking pathetic!” this sounded better in his head. “You’re nothing! We’ve been strengthening Theta against you the whole time and you did nothing to stop us! Kolo and Vuaria and Szeretet and everyone! And you didn’t lift a finger! You must not really be confident in yourself, are you? So scared of being defeated you have to corner me, huh? Some threat you are! Genesis should level your f-”
The words were ripped from his throat. Out of his throat. Like a ball was yanked out of his esophagus. Dumortis stumbled forwards, then back, hands flying up. His neck didn’t hurt.
Oh. Stupid bastard. Did you really think-
He worked his jaw again, pushed air out of his lungs. No words conjured. His hands lit with magic, healing - but there was nothing to heal. Wait. What was he even trying to do.
Why was he moving his jaw? What was the air thing for? Why did he have lungs? Lungs? What were-
He looked up, uncertain, confused. Confused? What had he just been doing? It was like. Like? What was he thinking about?
He reached out a hand - what was a hand anyways? In front of him. Front? Him? What was.
But. Was. He? The. How? But. Before. When? Now? Nothing, the. Under. Sense? Sky. Thoughts. Thinking? Was? Look?
The. It. Inside? Feeling. In. Mad. Frustrated. Frustrated! Just. Only. No. What? Sure? Was? In. The. An?
-shoved back into him and he screamed. Words - WORDS fucking WORDS tumbled back into his brain crashing into one another and falling over like piles of bricks, crushing him under their weight. It took him another minute to realize he was down on his hands and knees again, pathetic and weak, and Bereave still hadn’t spoken.
Hadn’t needed to speak. He could just rip the very idea of communication out of him. Of words. Words. Those were his.
Amusement. A response. Amused. Amused at his realizations, slow and harrowing. Amused that it finally clicked in his brain the gap between them. Amused at the nauseous, freezing terror that filled his stomach.
He was going to be toyed with.
Bereave, far above him, spoke one simple word. Yes.
For what crime.
For the crime of existing. For the crime of being born. For being made of stolen magic, for being the reason my body and my magic and my everything is scattered to the thousand winds, ripped from me by Genesis, mutated into ugly tiny forms such as yourself for no purpose except to torture me, to dangle what I was in front of me, to dangle what we were, to dangle what I cannot do.
For the crime of fleeing. For having the audacity to think that you matter in the grand scheme. To think that you are something. You are nothing more than a shard of me. A fragment of me. Of what we were. A piece of me given life that should not have. A fragment that ran, that defied me, that defied my will, that existed in a way that pleases the cruelest thief of all.
You deserve this. You will deserve every second, for thinking that you matter, for thinking that you are anything.
Hands grabbed his body. Dumortis screamed, tried to summon his dagger. Nothing conjured in his hands and Bereave ripped him apart like paper. Not his body. His head. His head hurt. Hands flew up to grab at his temples. His head was still in one piece. But it hurt.
Fingers dug into his magic. His soul, his mind, whatever word. They paused, relishing for a brief moment - drinking in the panic coursing through his concepts like a drug.
They were in his soul. They were violating it.
Amusement, from above, again. Two fingers pinched a thread of magic in his subconscious and raised it to inspect. He screamed in fury. Those were his words. You can’t have his words. Those are his words!
His words. His pathetic, useless words, that were failing him even now. The words he used to make sense of himself, of the world around him. The words he used to impose his will on his peers and his subordinates. The words he comforted himself with every night.
They were failing him, failing to grasp at the atrocity being done to him. Was there simply no words to describe it fully, or was he less poetic than he’d hoped he was?
Bereave yanked. The string severed in an instant. He screeched. He. No. He.
The string, he saw it. Saw it coil. Wrap... wrap around itself, sort of, but it was colored differently. Hand ghosted over it and everywhere Bereave touched it rotted. Decayed. Turned black and mold throbbed on it, eager. Festered in it, in rolling sticky globs that dripped onto his body.
Oh god, my god. Don’t put that in me.
He screamed, hoarse already, as it was thrust into him, wriggling and eager. It latched onto him with a leech’s mouth, excited to reintegrate, pulsating with disgusting rot. A rot that tentatively reached out towards the other strings inside of him, of the other concepts that made up his brain.
This was worse than death.
Bereave pulled out something else. Another string. He had trouble identifying it, now. Things were hazy. But as soon as it was wrenched free, a pulse of disgust ran through his body. He squirmed, but was held so firmly, so firmly (it was kind of good) that he could only watch Bereave subvert whatever concept that string was.
It was pushed back into him without fanfare. He screamed but the noise didn’t reach his ears anymore. It devoured something warm inside of him, something he held onto in lonely nights. It thrashed, and he thrashed, and he clenched his jaw nearly to breaking, and all he could feel in those quiet nights where he’d stare up at the Theta stars was resentment and disgust.
But he loved and HATED THETA HE FUCKING HATED THETA HE FUCKING HATED EVERYONE IN IT and NO he DIDN’T but he didn’t it didn’t make any SENSE-
-At least until he felt - a - Bereave’s hand in his mind, no a single finger, pushing at his brain. Pushing at it. He whimpered, recoiled.
The finger kept pushing. His brain matter lost the battle. It slid out of him like a little tube, pushed out, and his body reeled and retched.
Bereave plucked it from the ground and slid it back into him. He seized.
He wished he hadn’t said anything. But he’d just been trying to buy time. To buy time for everyone else. A few extra seconds, if that was all Kolo needed. Please. Just a few seconds.
This would be worth it if they ended this war against Bereave. Right? It wouldn’t all be for nothing.
Because the war was almost over. Right? Kolo had almost gotten the ley lines wrangled. It was all supposed to come together tonight. Or tomorrow. But he hoped tonight, and he hoped they didn’t need his last chart.
Who even was he to be thinking that, feeling that? Like he had any right to claim he did any of this shit for Theta’s sake? As if he didn’t know, in his fucking heart, that he martyred himself because he liked the attention? That he preened for it?
Vuaria - staring, with those pale soft eyes, waiting for an order a command an anything, lapping it out of his hand like a fucking dog. He was pathetic. He was fucking pathetic, putting all his hopes on Dumortis’ shoulders like he wasn’t just some jacked-up narcissist who saw an opportunity to seize.
Another hole in his head. Punched, punctured like metal through paper, like his brain would get looped into a binder and the little circles leftover were to be swept into the bin. But he could feel it still, tethered to his soul and magic by some profane mechanism, and he could feel those hands turn over the cylinder they’d removed from his mind, inspected it like they’d never seen such a thing before.
They were big hands. Strong hands. Powerful hands. They brimmed with magic, a magic older than he, a magic he’d come from in an age ago. Feebly, almost, he felt a pang of desperation and neediness and - no.
But it was there, whether he liked it or not. Like he was waiting, patiently, with a dumb smile on his face. Like he wanted to be the exception. For Bereave to slot that cylinder right back in his bloody head and tell him he was fine. That he’d changed Bereave’s mind. And then Bereave’s hand would trail down his idiot student’s-
Those thumbs pressed in, and he thought he screamed, but he wasn’t fully aware of his body anyways. And they kneaded a part of him like it was simple clay, like it was a pile of ground meat. Treated him like meat. Like dumb meat, just meat, just blood and meat and impulses and nothing else. And he could feel bits of meat stretch to accommodate.
Maybe he liked this? Maybe he wanted this. Limp back home a disabled hero! Have an excuse to have love slathered onto him for no reason other than his “sacrifice”, one that nobody asked him to make. Sit in Vuaria’s office and waste his fucking time.
Stupid bitch deserved it, too. How would he like it with this fucking pressure on him? Did he ever stop to think how fucking awful it was to be idolized? He should’ve known Dumortis couldn’t have held himself to that pedestal. Nobody could. What a fucking cunt. Senseless and needy. Begging for his attention, like they all were. Like the rest of Theta did.
What the fuck was he thinking.
If he made it out of this alive - he didn’t want to remember this. It would be so much easier to not remember.
Not because of the pain. Not because of the searing fire under his skin, burning and insects underneath the surface all at once. Not because of the way Bereave so casually peeled open his skullcase, on a deep level he couldn’t fully explain, and pulled out his hopes and ideals and thoughts and self and perverted them.
No. He didn’t want to remember what he was thinking.
Surely that made him a good person, right? That he didn’t want to think like that? Or did it make him a terrible person, to only be concerned with appearing “good” in a moment like this?
What about everyone who’d given their magic up so that they could fortify Theta against Bereave? What about Vuaria? What about Kolo? What about Theta? Why didn’t those people matter to him as much as some fucking legacy? Did he even care about that, or was Bereave fucking him into caring?
He didn’t get a chance to consider. The stark image of Vuaria in his mind twitched. Like mud had been thrown on a beautiful painting. Like something had been desecrated. He squirmed, but the feeling couldn’t subside. He reached out a hand and watched his fingers smear the color of the paint. Vuaria.
He cared about Vuaria. He knew that. He cared so much it hurt. He didn’t know how to be a good leader to Vuaria. Or a good friend. Or... a good... could he even think it? Right now? Lover? The word lover? Partner? Something beyond platonic?
He could feel a hum of satisfaction from above him, somewhere. His body responded with cold, paralyzing fear.
The hands kneaded him. It felt so nice. So comforting. Held in those hands and let them just work him over. Like they were massaging all the terrible knots of stress out of him.
He wanted to shove Vuaria down, hands around his throat, and let him fucking sob. Tear at his clothes, make him shut the fuck up. Slap his face until it was fucking red and there were tears down Vuaria’s face, and then shove his dick into Vuaria and choke him until he sobbed out that he liked it. Just like this!
He didn’t want to remember this.
But he did. He really fucking. Wanted to go press down on Vuaria’s limits. Wanted to hear him whimper and cry. Or would he like it? Dumortis wasn’t an idiot. He knew the faces Vuaria made at him. The way he fluttered his eyelashes. Spoke with admiration.
It’d be hot. He’d get off to it later. He was getting off to it now?
Stupid whore. Stupid fucking whore. Tempting fucking whore. He wasn’t even that pretty. Who did he think he was to flirt with Dumortis, huh? Self-important little, brat of a useless assistant.
Not like Szeretet was much better. Fucking cunt couldn’t keep his hands out of every problem developing. Hell, he’d conjured half of them. Needed to be slapped and choked until he fucking listened to Dumortis. Needed to be put in his fucking place.
It wasn’t his fault they were all so ignorant, idiotic, submissive, weaklings. They always came crying to him when things went wrong. Dumortis, fix it. Dumortis, help me. Dumortis, tell them to stop.
Well fine. They wanted this. They asked for this. They wanted him to be this way. And it wasn’t even really bad, was it? If they wanted it. Like he wanted this. Like he didn’t protest when Bereave’s hands pressed that cylinder back into his brain, cold and slimy and wet and wrong.
His body shuddered, twitched, but he didn’t even care. He could go back a mangled heap of meat and magic and they’d still fall over backwards to please him. See how well they’d be pleased if he shoved his cock into their mouths, ahuh.
Fucked them senseless. It’s what they deserved. It’s what he deserved. Wasn’t it?
His brain felt wrong.
Wow. What a stupid, simple way to describe it. How did anyone admire him, again? If that was the best thing he could use to describe - whatever this was? “Wrong”? Wrong. Pathetic. Stupid fucking. And they still expected him to do everything.
His hands were digging into his face. It was grounding. Almost. He writhed, slightly. There was something in him. Something wrong. In him.
Fucking. Who cared? Something wrong. Where were his words, huh? Called himself eloquent earlier?
It was like a parasite. It wriggled in him, in a part of him that wasn’t quite his body, in his head somewhere. It squirmed and experimentally burrowed needles into the rest of his soft tissue it had found.
Fucking kill and smother Szeretet if he had the audacity to say anything about it when he got back. It’d be easy, too. Tell him to get on the bed drop his skirt, and then just shove a pillow over his face and a knife into his throat it’d be so fucking easy.
He’d probably thank Dumortis, gurgling blood the whole while. Anything to please you. Then die. Fucking die. See how little you matter to him. Beg for his attention, his forgiveness. He hates you.
Yes, said a part of him, and he screamed back a word he didn’t quite know, that didn’t quite belong to him.
He rolled - his body was barely there, a distant dream of something. Onto his stomach, now, the pain never lessened. The thing in him - that was part of him, something inflated and bulbous, maybe a tumor, he didn’t know - sloshed with him, easily, like it belonged there. But it didn’t.
A hand - his hand - clawed at his own face, like he could dig in and pull the worm out. Fingers harder, until they came away red and chunks at the end and went back for more, until he pressed into bone.
Oh, he kind of liked this. It was turning him on. He made some sort of pathetic cry that probably sounded half moan and half terror. His free hand snaked down to - gripped his fucking thigh with a death grip, with a sort of desperation.
It didn’t really matter if he got off to this or not. The thought alone was enough to make him heave.
Bereave wasn’t even touching him anymore. He missed it, though. His hips arched of their own accord and he realized blearily there were tears streaming down his cheeks. Faintly, he knew Bereave was still there. Could still sense him.
After all, Bereave had cleared the brainfog enough he could feel his body again. Not that he wanted to. God. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Bereave just touched him again and let that fog roll back in. Please. Please. Let him stop thinking.
He didn’t even hate himself for thinking all of this. He really didn’t. Didn’t that make him a terrible person?
His hand smeared in blood came into focus again. He’d ended up on his side somewhere, and could stare at it. In a wavering fist, trembling and pathetic, was clutched a string of soft tissue that was probably his -
- It didn’t matter he had to get it fucking out of him, there was, it didn’t, it -
- So he dropped the soft squishy thing and felt his hand rush back in for more, desperate, as he sobbed. The thing was in his head and it needed out. It was chewing on him, something in him. It was twisting into him, soft tendrils that were so invitingly invasive into the rest of his brain.
It wasn’t him, but he knew it was him all the same. But it wasn’t him, and it needed to - he needed to get it fucking out.
But even as he ripped out more chunks of - whatever - in his head, the feeling only strengthened. Empowered. He curled half-fetal, drawing blood on his thigh from that spike of pain - a spike that paled every time his claws tore into the hole in his skull, trying desperately to find the parasite.
They clamped on his shoulders and he gasped. Relief fluttered over him. Heaven fluttered over him. He rolled onto his back, legs open, expression dazed, eager-
-And the hands wrapped around another cylinder and they pulled.
He screamed, screamed so hard that his throat tore itself open and he choked on blood. He writhed his hands, his arms, his legs, anything, but he felt Bereave’s hands lift undeterred, and-
And no, please, he wanted to say, but words didn’t feel real, anything but that - but he knows that’s only incentive - but please - not that he can do anything to convince you, but really please not that - anything
Because, because, grasping at straws, please, why don’t you have any empathy, any love, any affection, when we’re, and you’re, and you should be, and I don’t mean to impose, and I don’t know how to communicate this to you, but please
That’s his name
And Bereave paused. Long enough that the pain dulled to only a burn, a throb, in Dumortis’ head, and he could blink and actually see the sky for a brief second, the clouds overhead pouring a gentle rain on Theta.
A gentle rain that ran over his broken body in rivulets and drops, cooled him. A rain he’d loved. Had? Past tense? He didn’t feel anything right now. Like he wasn’t going to feel anything ever again.
Please put that down, he thought, in a quiet, small voice. The voice of someone else.
Bereave did not speak. There were no words.
Only the sensation of their hands digging into the meat and it sloughing and squelching and tearing and twisting and ruining him and killing him and ruining him and killing and ruining and killing and ruin-
-Mortie ripped his hand off his pearl.
His chest burned. He was breathing too hard. That was a stupid realization but whatever. He thumped his chest with a fist well-practiced and gulped down a full lungful of air.
No thoughts. Just sensations.
The quiet buzzing in the room deafened all senses, all perceptions. His eyes, unfocused, blinked and contracted and squinted. The smell of dust permeated him, and he shook his head - not unlike a cat waking up after a too-long nap.
Though it wasn’t really a nap.
At least he was here, again. And not there. Probably.
Experimentally, he opened and closed his fist, watching his fingers, feeling the skin pull when he held it too tightly.
He let out a soft exhale, and said, in a hoarse voice: “Mortie.”
Right. That’s his name. Mortie. Everyone calls him that, everyone knows him by it. He’s Mortie. Simple as that. Mortie. That’s him. Yup. Mortie. A great name if he said so, himself.
He leaned back, steadying his breathing. He was still in the same dreary, forgotten room in some back hallway of Theta’s sprawling structure. The fading wallpaper and peeling floors and the gray window sat, stout and sure, senseless and inert.
Some ancient bedroom or study or nursery, whose purpose had long been lost. His favorite place. His most similar place? But his mind couldn’t wander. Couldn’t question.
He glanced down. The pearl sat in front of him, as quiet as ever. Waiting. Expectantly. Patronizingly.
It’s just me, he thought, and pointed at it. Just me. Nothing to be scared of. Just memories. Just memories to remember.
That was the point of memories. To remember.
It said, though he knew it was mostly just himself talking to himself, ‘you still haven’t let yourself remember any further.’
Is it really a ‘let’.
Like a machine gun: ‘You’re the only one to blame for this. You’re the one who can’t even honor his memory. Ease his suffering. Empathize with what he suffered for. Know what he went through. You’re too weak. It is your fault, you know.
‘He’d be rolling in his grave right now. He hates you. He would have rather died than become you. You can’t even last a second of what he went through.
‘You’re nothing. You’re nothing to him. You’re nothing to anyone.’
He picked up the pearl and lobbed it through the window.
The glass shattered, and it sailed through the air in a pretty arc. Hit the side of another building, cracked it. Fell to the ground, in full breadth of Theta’s nonstop rain, and he was suddenly aware of being cold and wet despite his dry and warm body.
He knew that, he thought, and then pointed at the pearl, knew that fucking, he didn’t, it’s hard, okay. He’s been trying.
Whatever. Didn’t matter. Fuck you. He pointed again. God fucking fuck you you fucking stupid fucking HE DIDN’T REMEMBER ENOUGH WORDS it didn’t MATTER FUCK YOU.
He reached to pick up one of the half-rotted tables, lobbed it too. One of the legs stuck itself in the wall. He just screamed at it, something desperate and aching, a noise, a howl.
Nooooo not right now. He put his hands on either side of his head and looked up, to the ceiling. Ah Genesis, descend from the heavens and smite me. Undo the fucking. Witchcraft your circle put on me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me before Vuaria-
Vuaria’s hands landed on his shoulders instead. He wanted to hiss and swing around, bite, like, teeth into flesh, into, smell the blood taste it and then get shot and killed like a rabid animal. Put down.
Big funeral, very sad. Everyone sniffling in black, Vuaria looking on in satisfied remorse, thinking, thank Genesis he’s dead thank Genesis he’s dead thank Genesis he’s dead. But it’d be really funny if Kolo crashed the party and resurrected him again.
A fucking gain.
But right now? Pathetically, he’d - he’s - just stood there, shaking.
Vuaria stared at the broken window in worn comprehension. He paced over to it, and reached out a hand lit with magic. The pearl lifted.
Nooooooooooooooooooooo Mortie thought to himself. Curled up on the floor and covered his head. Nope. Not today. No more. Stop. Don’t. Not near me right nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn-
-ow. He lifted his head. The pearl was within reach, still hovering above Vuaria’s hand, wrapped in teleportation. It was almost the size of Vuaria’s head, highlighting his tired expression next to it.
If he didn’t know Vuaria better, he’d say it was exasperated. But it wasn’t. It was just tired, like Vuaria always was. Tired and concerned and worried. For him.
Guilt twisted up a knot. “Sorry,” he said, like that helped.
Vuaria didn’t say anything for a long minute. Mortie shrunk further. He knew this was painful. It hurt him, too, but not in the deep and twisted and fucked-up way it hurt Vuaria.
Not just his. Tantrums, or breakdowns - that was the nicer word to call them. But also the fact that - well, they never stopped. He never got better. He would never get better.
The spite in him wanted to chide Vuaria. Was it worth it? Was your weakness of the heart when sobbing to Kolo worth the eons of pain since, watching this vestige waste away?
Watching it pervert and ruin the memory of the man you loved? Watching it act so similar in brief moments, a true mirror, let you have a glimmer of hope - and then snap back to an insanity it can’t be fixed from? Watching it suffer and sob every minute of its painful, pathetic life? And know it’s your fault?
It’s your fault. It’s your fault. IT’S YOUR FAULT.
But that was just the leftover corruption talking.
“Mortie,” Vuaria said, again, voice low. “You don’t have to apologize. Did anything... happen?”
“Nothing,” he said, shifting to sit up. It was less embarrassing this way. He rubbed the back of his neck. Hell, he’d danced around this a lot of times. It didn’t need to be hard. Just pull out a simple- “Just got a little worked up, eh. Heheh.”
Vuaria tucked the pearl under his arm. Uh-oh. He wasn’t buying it. “Well.” he started, in his patient tone, “Why don’t you come back with me to the office, then? There’s been a new survey brought in.”
Redirecting him. Giving him busywork. The kind he felt obligated to - no, no, that’s unkind. The kind of busywork he liked doing. That distracted him. Ah, stars. Vuaria was too good at this manipulation shit.
“Alright,” Mortie said. “What sector?”
“North-northwest.” Vuaria offered a hand. Mortie gripped it as he stood. “Past the second river. Do you remember its name?”
“Not a clue.”
“Well.” Vuaria offered a very small smile. “It’s in the survey documents. You’ll see it there.”
He stepped forwards, and his free arm snaked around Mortie’s waist. Pulled him close. Almost too close. Almost too intimate.
Part of Mortie wanted to scream and writhe. I’m not him. I’m not him! You don’t love me, you love him!
But he just grinned. Grinned his stupid, sharp grin, and leaned into it, and let Vuaria distract him mumbling in his monotone about the survey, arm snug around his waist.
It was okay if Vuaria gripped him a little too tight. Held that pearl a little too far away from him.
He didn’t really want to remember, anyways.