Saturday, January 13, 2018

Chapter 118: Time Dilation



Dysen greets Acheron with a big smile shortly after sunrise. "It's our last day in China, and yesterday was terrible, so let's make sure we do something fun."



"Alright," Acheron says, not reacting to the arm clamped around his shoulders. He allows himself to be led to the kitchen, where Carlos is making omelettes for breakfast again.

Dysen wants to pretend Acheron's thousand yard stare is about the vampires—even Orazia agreed informing authorities about the way they escaped the underground tunnels could end poorly—but he knows it's never anything so simple with Acheron.




'Something fun' turns out to be swimming in the river.



Swimmin' with the fishes.



Orazia has better things to do. Like watch butterflies.



Just a nice sunset picture. Ceth never goes anywhere without her guitar.



The day flies by quickly enough. The family's last stop is a souvenir shop.

Acheron lifts his gaze from the floor for a moment. "I don't want any of this overpriced junk, Mom."

"You've barely looked around yet."



Then it's back to Starlight Shores, where work, school and chores have been waiting for them.



"I missed you, Nicholas! ♪"



Emmy shows no interest in her master's return.




The cats are happy to see their family, though.



Maggie and Moby have a pet house under the stairs.

The contractor finished building it while the family was in Shang Simla.



"The cat gets a new room before us!" Dysen observes, keeping up the pretense that he's still annoyed he has to share a room with Acheron.

"I think Maggie is pregnant," Acheron says.



"Aw, babykitties!" Lela is most excited about this development.



Acheron is more like squicked out. "Why would you even want to do that?"

"The cat is only following her natural instinct," Kay replies.

"That is disgusting."

"As you say."

"Do cats have predestined cat reproduction too?"

"Oh, no. The feline subroutine is separate from the process you human-types are governed by."

"Subroutine?! Define that."



Kay pauses, realizing a mistake has been made. "...The part of Kir's spell that traps your spirits does not do the same for other animals."

Acheron's glare intensifies. "I don't get you. Any of you."

He's felt messed up since a vision in China planted a seed of doubt in his mind about... about... he isn't sure what the implications are, exactly. He's just certain there are implications.



Sure, the nature of reality and consciousness has been called into question, but Acheron has far more pressing concerns. More immediately pressing concerns, anyway. The season is about to change. "This happens, and then... this happens... why didn't I notice before?"





Acheron hasn't had this particular vision in a while.



Foxglove's fingers are cold. They trace curiously along the edge of his left ear as Acheron stares, wide-eyed, at a fixed empty point in space.

"Cute little round human ears," she says. "You don't fool me."

Behind her a lamp crashes to the floor as her assignment partner struggles to subdue Dysen, who growls and snaps his teeth loudly. The noise of threads tearing masks the softer sound from flesh splitting when the werewolf's claws shred through several clothing layers and find skin.

Foxglove grows annoyed with Acheron's silence. "Don't be upset. Be happy. You're an error in an otherwise perfect system, but we're going to correct you."



He knows this place. The plush carpet, the old ornate tiling, the carefully chosen rugs and tapestries. It's the big house his mother grew up in.

Magic binds prevent Acheron from moving, from jumping up to shout how this isn't right, he shouldn't be here, he already chose not to be here...

"What is this even about!" Dysen yells.



Foxglove stands up straight and snaps around. "Would you stop... playing... with your food?!"



Both men stop moving. The werewolf because magic forces him to, the vampire out of a brief flash of fear. Hunger overrides logic, though. After the pause he pokes his teeth into Dysen's shoulder, shooting Foxglove a rather contrary look. It's been too long since a proper feeding.

He's one of the handful of vampiric agents denied access to stale collected blood, or the far more sanitary plasma fruit. For better or worse, getting it fresh gives their natural powers a considerable boost.

"I don't know why we keep you stupid inefficient things around!" Foxglove complains. "Doesn't he have enough holes in his clothes without you making more?!" She doesn't approve of the pre-torn clothes fashions. "Go for the throat!"

The vampire regains some composure as he forces Dysen to the ground. "So impatient," he chides Foxglove. "I like to make them a bit angry, first. It gets their adrenaline flowing. Enhances the taste."

Foxglove frowns with obvious confusion, but the vampire has no shame, grasping its squirming 'food' by the thighs and obviously pissing it off with the bizarre fondling that follows. Foxglove has never had to try to upset anyone; it just happens naturally. So what's happening now truly mystifies her.

The sound of a zipper unzipping makes Acheron feel nauseous.



The fangs sink in deeply, causing a gush of blood that spreads down Dysen's shirts and onto the carpet. The vampire drinks contentedly from the source, needing less pressure to hold down its arms as the moments tick by. Soon, there's no resistance at all.



Foxglove becomes uncomfortable enough to turn away, flitting back to hover above Acheron. "We'll get you a new dog," she promises.

"Everybody wants to recruit me," Acheron mumbles, voice shaky.

Foxglove's smile is almost gentle. "Don't cry..."



"I'm not supposed to be here!" Acheron screams.




"It's okay, Acheron." Claire holds his wrist this time, not the other way around. "I'll help you, if you just find me."



"This isn't right..." Acheron blinks, causing tears to roll down his cheeks. He looks around at the green leaves, takes a deep breath of warm air. "Where am I..."



"This is where you wanted to be. To focus on the problem at hand."

"You're not here to help me, you're here to kill me. So you're not you."



She pulls him into a kiss, somehow. "I'm a future me... a construct you have kept with you."



"That's creepy," he protests, jerking out of her grasp.

"I'm a memory. I'm part of you."



The summery breeze is too hot. Acheron spins around, feeling for the first time in one of these visions that he is himself, that he has some measure of control over the movements his body makes. Could he run away if he felt like it? No... I didn't snap myself here just to run away.

"I understand some of these things can happen based on my choices... but I don't understand this one. Vampires and concentrated sunlight, fine, that makes sense... but I would have never thought to change the weather if I hadn't had a vision showing me I could. This is a predestination paradox."



"It's not a paradox. It's no different from the code on Cayenne's cell. You try everything."

"The cell lock has an obvious input device finite number of possible combinations," Acheron argues. "Reality's possibilities are closer to infinite."



"You have infinite time," Claire tells him. "If you want it."

"That's not possible. I'm going to snap out of this any minute."



"Time dilation is a thing, but time travel isn't," Carlos gives his professional opinion.



"I can only go forward." Chet offers a small shrug of her shoulders. "Time is not a dimension one can travel through. Even Kir doesn't really reset time. He just rearranges all the matter in our universe."



"Oh, you say that like it ain't no thing," Acheron mocks. "And you really want to cross this person?"

"Kir isn't a person."

"Well I'm sure he thinks the same about you."



 "Literally a ghost in a machine," Acheron hears himself say.

"I'm sorry, Admin," another voice cries, "I'm so sorry."



"Acheron!" Dysen cries out, "Snap out of it!"





Acheron blinks back tears. He didn't need a reminder about why he can't stay with his family... but he may have needed the extra resolve for what he's going to do next.









________________________________________________
Etc.: That moment when you find yourself writing about a teenager shaming a cat for its life choices.

I wasn't sure for a while whether or not I would include the scene with Foxglove, but in the end I felt it was important to show an example of why Acheron wants to keep the more vulnerable members of his family at arms' length.

On a gameplay note, travel fixed Orazia's motives glitch. Now she can get positive moodlets from filling her fun meter. She can finally be happy! Just in time for me to have to move her out.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Chapter 117: Fight Me



Dysen jams several fingers in his mouth, but can't take back the embarrassing scream that just tore out of his throat. Meanwhile the vampire moves in a blur around him, toying with its prey.



 Whoosh! Now he's over here!



"Little thieves in my house, eh?"

Dysen whimpers.



The vampire straightens up its posture. "Oh, sorry, I am sorry. I will turn down the fear-inducing psychic thing a bit. I don't want you like, to pee in the your pants. I always hate when that happen. So disgusting."

Dysen takes a step back. This guy may be dressed like he comes from Shang Simla, but the accent is all wrong, and the syntax is clumsy.

"So you is a real werewolf cub, yes?" the vampire continues. "And here, I is thinking the werewolf traps not actually work. But they do! You drawn straight to the coins, you picking up the coins. Wow! See, my wife, Jingfei, is saying 'Nikolai, go check the old dragon tunnels, there is probably squirrel or something in there again'. So I go, totally bummed out I have to do boring thing..."



"...and WHOOOAH, is a real werewolf! What a twist! Wow!"

Dysen continues shivering, not sure how to snap out of it.



"...Wow?" Nikolai probes for a response.

Dysen finds his voice enough to say: "Y-yeah. Hey."



"So, um, yes, kindly tell me how yous got in here, and then I can drink all of your blood."

"That... that seems a little harsh," Dysen answers, backing up as he stalls for time.

"Well, would love not have to resort to killing you, but you know how is. I let you go, you tell humans about secret vampire tunnels under their city, then shit get bad. So. Best to feast on your delicious blood now and get it over with."



Defensive magic, defensive magic, Acheron concentrates, don't kill anyone!



Acheron feels the rough impact of his shoulders hitting the wall before the rest of his body does, before his brain can even register that Nikolai has turned towards him.

"Awww, such an adorable baby mage! Did you think I not noticing you?"

Acheron can't speak, with the vampire's thick arm firmly crushing against his throat. This isn't like any of the times he fought someone in a nightmare. This isn't even like that time he threw a potion at Torian Rook. Those times he knew what he was doing, knew what they would do. Or at least he thought he knew what he was doing. Maybe he never did know...

"Why you not affected by my psychic aura? Hm? Strange. You should be, like, curl up crying right now. Not trying to sneaks up on me with your little spells." The vampire frowns quizzically, as if expecting an answer, even as he chokes the air away from his victim.



Nikolai lets Acheron drop to the floor so he can turn and punch the other teen in the face. "The sneaking up on me trick didn't work for your friend, but you thought it work for you? This is sad, this is why I usually not eat childrens. Too sad."



The supernatural strength that allowed Dysen to push heavy stone statues aside earlier fails him as he struggles against an adult vampire. The fingers snaking around his neck are almost tentative, as Nikolai feels out the blood vessels pulsing frantically beneath his steely grip.



Nikolai lifts the boy up without any sign of strain. Dysen's legs kick wildly, striking areas that would cause a human extreme discomfort, but seem to have no affect on this bloodthirsty predator.

"I always wonder what werewolf taste like," Nikolai says, grinning with his fangs bared.



Tink. The faint sound of thin metal dropped on a hardwood floor causes Nikolai to pause and cast a wary glance at the mostly-unconscious mage at his feet.

The robot toy must have slid out of the kid's left hand.

As Nikolai is looking at it, it changes shape, back into the jade dragon it was before.



And then it's a teacup! With a fairy design?

Or is it just a butterfly?

Either way, Nikolai is distracted enough to toss Dysen aside so he can confiscate this new object of interest, carrying it away and muttering to himself in a language Dysen doesn't recognize.

Dysen rubs his neck, breathing in panicked gasps though finding himself mostly undamaged.



With Nikolai oddly distracted, Dysen scrambles over to Acheron. He tries pinching, he tries cussing, he tries grabbing the blond hair puff and yanking. Nothing. No response. Acheron does not move. A worrisome fresh bruise across his throat continues to darken.

"Wakeupwakeupwakup!" Dysen pleads through clenched teeth.



Acheron fights to regain some control over his muscles, but they won't budge. The rough sensation of the floor against his arm and face fades in and out of perception.

"I can't teach just anyone to heal like I do," Cayenne's voice, small and pitiful, reaches Acheron's thoughts instead. "I think you owe it to yourself to find out why you're different."



"Take the last train to Clarksville, and I'll meet you at the station," the girl Claire speaks with her adult voice, soft and slow and deliberate, "you can be there by four-thirty—"

"What?" Acheron's grip on her wrist tightens. 

"'Cause I'm leaving in the morning and I must see you again..."

"Clarksville doesn't exist. It's just a song."

Claire smiles. The air is summery warm, the trees are full green. "'Till the morning brings my train and I must go..."

"Don't do this."

"And I don't know if I'm ever coming home."

"I'll see you again," he promises. 



"So you really are Acheron!" Gysael laughs at him. "Fight me, then."

It doesn't matter what Acheron says to try to dissuade her.

If she shows up here, she's not leaving alive.

Loki didn't tend to recruit the most reasonable people.



Below the mountain is a long stretch of shallow sea.

Does it qualify as a lagoon, he wonders?



It doesn't matter now. This cycle is ending.



Everything blurs back together in the end.



ArE yOu okAy? The sounds echo bizarrely.



Acheron makes a pained noise as he sits up. His right hand paws clumsily at his crushed throat.



Dysen should be impressed Acheron managed to sit up and heal his internal injuries with a single touch, but Dysen's priorities are more far-reaching at the moment.



"These nightmares... are getting weirder."

"We have to get out of here!" Dysen whispers.

"Vampires are too fast," Acheron mumbles.

"Just get the fuck up right now!"



They can't outrun a vampire, but the boys run anyway.



After enough twisting passageways, they stop to catch their breath. Either they've temporarily lost Nikolai, or he wasn't chasing them to begin with.



"What... what is..." Acheron pants, "what is it with you and getting killed by vampires anyway?"

"What are you talking about?" Dysen growls.

"It's... it's kind of your thing."

"This is only the second one I've seen!"

"Third," Acheron corrects.



"He... he had some kind of fear field or some shit?! It was ridiculous! I can't believe I wussed out like that! I should have jabbed my claws right in his stupid eyes!"

"Calm down... I need you to stay—"



"...Never mind," Acheron sighs wearily.




For once, the young mage's inclination is to call for help. However... "I can't get a signal."

"...going to tear his fangs out if he comes in here..." Dysen's rant carries on like background music while Acheron contemplates their situation.




Blissfully unaware of any drama going on, Orazia spends most of her vacation time in the Shang Simla book shop.




Trying to telepathically reach out to Orazia or even Carlos or Milo is impossible, what with all the magic interference surrounding them. Acheron has never encountered anything quite like this. It's almost like something is already trying to communicate with him, drowning out all other voices, but all he's getting is static.

That robot thing, he remembers. Why did he pick it up? This weird feeling wasn't there before he picked it up.




"Use the Force, Acheron!" Dysen mocks.

"Keep pointing those claws at me, and I'm reverting you to your normal form," Acheron warns.

"Fight me!"

"We're not going to die of exsanguination down here, you know."

"Then why did we even run?"

"Because there are worse things than dying."






If Ceth knew her son was in trouble, she'd be freaking out, but she has no idea, so she's enjoying the attention she's getting from random fans of her music. Ceth is famous, after all!






Zhan Su is quite the charmer.






Dysen feels more cooperative once he's reverted to his non-clawed form, but he's also indignant about it. "Stupid Acheron... stupid magic... I could push this easier if I were wolfed out right now!"

(Dysen is a telepath, too, but his range is really short so he can't call for help.)



Stupid magic.



Stupid fire.

"Oh, HELL no." Dysen turns away from the sight of more flames.

"You were so eager to stick your hands in weird holes before," Acheron snickers.

"That was the me of several hours ago. I hate that guy now."

Acheron reluctantly shoves his hand in the hole, but there is no switch in there. "I think we have to go through the fire," he says.

"Pretty sure I am flammable," Dysen points out.



"Time for some more 'stupid magic', I guess."



Acheron has encased his body in a temperature stabilizing spell.

It is very uncomfortable, and very temporary, but it works.



You don't have to look so smug about it, kid.



Unfortunately, crossing the fire traps just brings the pair to a wall lined with more holes.



"A one, a two..." and they both stick their hands in.

"The joke I made earlier is making me oddly uncomfortable now," Dysen whines.



"I don't even know what you're talking about," Acheron says.

Dysen rolls his eyes. "Go down the mysterious stairs, I thought. It'll be fun, I thought!"

Click. Their efforts unlock a door.



 Oh, and deadly spiders.



More locked doors, more obvious traps, more walls of fire, more statues to push.

"So what do you think this place is?" Dysen asks. "I know you're going to say you don't know, but the silence is killing me."

"A maze for people to tire themselves out and die in?" Acheron shrugs, eyelids drooping. "I haven't noticed any way for someone to be watching us, but that doesn't mean we're not being watched. Someone might be getting a kick out of our stupidity."

"If we die, we turn into ghosts, and they don't get any blood."

"Okay then. Maybe... it's a labyrinth. We could be making our way towards some contained evil beast."

Dysen pauses to think about it for a moment. "I guess a Minotaur would be worse than a vampire."

"Alternately, this place could be intended to keep a magic artifact safe."

Dysen recalls the teacup that came out of nowhere. "Right then."

"I may need to sit down..." Acheron murmurs.

"Oh no. You're not passing out on me again."



They come across a room with a deep pool of water. "This I can do," Dysen announces, placing one foot on the well's edge and preparing to dive right in.

Acheron stares at the water. The surface ripples. "I'm not sure about this..."



"There are no other doors left to try, and I'm probably a better swimmer," Dysen reasons.

"It could be full of flesh eating bacteria. Let me at least cast a purification spell."



Splash!

"...Orrr you could just dive right in."

"It's fine!" Dysen says. "So much better than fire."

"Great."

"Stay put. I'll only be a second."



Dysen vanishes under the opaque water.

"Leave me all alone up here, and go off by yourself. That seems wise." Acheron looks around, frowning, but he is indeed all alone, with nobody to witness him talking to himself.



Dysen was a worried for a minute there, but finally the underwater tunnel ends.



"....Annnnd there's more fire in this room. Fuck me."

No one is here to hear Dysen talking to himself either.




At least this pressure plate doesn't care which person stands on it.



Dysen still has to go back for Acheron, though.

Acheron really hated the swimming part.

He plops down to catch his breath. "Five more minutes."

Dysen folds his arms impatiently. "What about those things that are worse than death?"

"What about that fire you told to nope off?"

"Okay so we're both useless." Dysen walks off, leaving Acheron slumped over the side of the well.



Water and fairy dust.




"Alright! I'm up!" Acheron yells.



Acheron studies the book titles on a shelf, but they all seem mundane, all in universal simlish. The Warlock of Palladia, Raymundo the Dragon, Avoiding the Downward Spiral, 101 Ways to Be Vague, How To Fix It When News Breaks, The Mummy in Love... "Remember the vampire accused us of being thieves in his house?"

"Yeah?"

"This area is starting to look more... livable. House-like."

Dysen understands. They could be headed towards the vampire, not away from it. "Well, we found that room with book cases before. That one didn't mean anything. Probably. So maybe this one is safe too."



Onward!



Go!



Go!



Go?



Okay this is getting silly.



 Worst vacation ever.



But not for Ceth!



Fairuza and Orazia bugged out of here a long time ago.



 Deng Wang is not happy about this particular use of the hot springs hot tub.






One moment the coast was clear, and the next moment, bam, lady-vamp is standing there.

And she has a request: "Would you please stop tramping water through the halls?"



 Dysen steps in front of Acheron, not that it would do any good. "Well maybe if there were doors instead of pools of water...!"



In a motion so quick Dysen doesn't even catch it, Jingfei drops a huge polished ruby on the floor between their feet. "Take it," she commands.



Dysen hears the clatter, even if he didn't see the movement.

He stares at the plumbob gem, then at the vampire. "What?!"



Her eyes narrow. "You did not come for the tetromino?"

"NO!" Dysen shouts. "I don't even know what that is!"

She is not impressed by the raised voice. "That makes two of us I suppose. It has stayed in the innocuous shape of a jade dragon since it was left here by the ancients, but now, it responds to you." Her eyes flick briefly to Acheron. "Or him. Probably him. You're just a werewolf."

"Thanks?"

"The writings warned someone may come for the artifact one day. And here you are."

Dysen's expression twists in confusion. "...As long as you don't hurt us..."

"The doors of its prison opened for you," she elaborates. "You didn't even need Phlegethon's dust to get past the fire traps."

Acheron's fists clench at the mention of the dust.

Dysen glances at the gem again. "Uh. Does it do something?"

"Other than change itself? Probably. Now that it is active, it is too dangerous to keep here. Take it. Leave in peace, and do not smite us with your incredible powers."

"My incredible powers," Dysen repeats slowly.

"I'm not taking any chances," Jingfei says, with a roll of her eyes.

Dysen is skeptical. This should be the point where he bolts, but if the vampire plans to catch up to him, there's no point playing that game. He needs to make sure she really intends to let them leave. "That other guy wouldn't let us go because he thought we'd tell others about your secret vampire tunnels."



"Oh, sweet puppy, the humans can't catch us. Even if you were to tell them where we are! No, no. Nikolai just said that because he wanted an excuse to eat you."

"You mean he didn't know the artifact woke up," Acheron interjects, his first words since the new vampire's sudden appearance. "He was going to kill us until he saw that."

"...Perhaps," Jingfei admits. "Please remember our kindness."

Dysen throws up his arms in annoyance.

Acheron grimaces. "You can keep your tetrahedron. I just want a door out."

"You taking the artifact is non-negotiable," the vampire says flatly.



Even as Acheron reaches for the thing, it changes into something else.

Dysen blinks. "Is that Uncle Milo's 'orb of answers'?"



"According to one theory, it tries to be whatever will make it inconspicuous, so it will not fall into the wrong hands," Jingfei says.



"This is pretty conspicuous," Acheron argues. "It just shapeshifted while I was looking at it."

"Well that is your fault. Don't let your subconscious mind turn it into a bomb."

Dysen facepalms. "Is that a thing that can happen?"



As it turns out, there are ways out of the maze that don't involve dive wells.



Dysen and Acheron escape as fast as they possibly can.

Running down a mountain would be a lot easier than climbing up... if it were still daylight.



"C'mon, we're almost not going to make curfew," Dysen worries.

Acheron winds back his arm. "Just hold on a second."

"Are you for real just throwing that thing in the river?"

Dysen's question has barely left his mouth before the tetromino, which has not once today taken the form of a tetromino, plonks into the river and sinks down beneath the swarms of koi fish.



"Yeah! Suck it, destiny!" Acheron laughs a slightly unhinged laugh.

"You're really letting this go to your head," Dysen says.



"This?!" Acheron's arms jerk, as if motioning at something that isn't there. "What is this?! Do you know? Because I don't!"

"Well..." Dysen trails off. He doesn't know the answer. He doesn't even know the question.

"I'll meditate on the subject and go back for it if I need it. Otherwise, you heard her! Dangerous! Everything I so much as look at turns to shit! I think I might be cursed!" The big smile plastered across Acheron's face makes his outburst all the more unsettling.

Dysen fake-smiles right back, teeth bared in a dominance display. "We're alive, okay? We're not eaten. Everything's cool, man. Everything's cool."

"If you want to set your bar that low, sure, everything's great."

"So about that thing you just unleashed on those fish..."

"There you go again! Things are great, then they're not!"

"I don't know anything about artifacts, but maybe you and Orazia could neutralize it if it's dangerous. Instead of just leaving it. I mean, the vampires were afraid of it. And by extension afraid of you. That's weird, right?"

"I don't know what weird is anymore, but you don't understand. The artifact was getting in my head. It was screwing around with my subconscious thoughts. Trying to show them to me. I don't need that in my life!" Acheron takes a deep breath. "It'll go dormant once I'm away from it. I'm pretty sure it's using me as a power source."

"So are we going to tell the others about... the vampires, at least? Because I think they eat people?"

"I don't caaare," Acheron groans.

"You don't care about people being eaten by vampires?"

"I don't care what you do!"

"Okay. Okay! Just making sure you didn't have some vision that says if we open our mouths, someone we know will randomly burst into flames, or whatever."

"We can't go on like this." Acheron sighs dramatically. "You freak out, I try to be the voice of reason, then I freak out, and you try to act like it's not so bad! This Yin and Yang dynamic? It's—"

"It's what family does," Dysen says. "We help each other."



"No. It's inconsistent. It's unhealthy. That's what it is. It's broken."

"Fine." Dysen gives up. "Can we go now?"

"Yes. We can go now."



The boys make it back in time for dinner. They were not even missed.



Fairuza tells Dysen all about her day. "So we started out at the spa, but then Aunt Ceth decided she'd go fishing for men, if you know what I'm sayin', and 'Zia abandoned me to go look at books."

"Where's Acheron?" Ceth asks.

"He's getting a shower. We went on a long hike." Dysen glances at Orazia, but she seems happy enough with her soup, and doesn't notice.

"Up to that awesome dragon cave?" Fairuza perks up.

Dysen smiles awkwardly. "Yeah. I got some pictures of me between the teeth."



"There's my little boy," Ceth scoops Acheron into a hug before he can make it past her to raid the kitchen.



Instead of eating leftover soup, Acheron takes a shot at becoming a juiceoholic, because quality parenting.



Then a random singing lesson.



Go home, Ceth. You're drunk.



Tipsy and tired, Acheron returns to the room he and Dysen were assigned. "I'm sorry I was such a jerk."

"It's... fine," Dysen says. "If you weren't with me today, I'd probably be vampire food."

Not that Acheron did much aside from fail to be sneaky and nearly get killed, but at least he tried.



Acheron's gaze stays on the floor. "I don't want you to get hurt."

"If I'd have gone with Fairuza, we'd both be vampire food."

"Stop saying vampire food. It's undignified." Acheron almost smiles, then goes back and frowning. "You're weird as a kid, you know? Undignified. I feel like I've spent more time with an older version that may or may not even exist. Depending on what happens between now and then."

Dysen shakes his head. "You say stuff like that, but you call me weird?"

"I'm not... anything like older me is either."

"So you never saw the Dragon's Maw in a vision I guess."

"I'm not sure. Maybe I did, and all paths led out of danger, so I didn't try to remember it?"

"Whatever you think, man. Orazia is convinced you saved us once before already."

"Not just once." Acheron cringes. "That time your dad had car trouble and was late for work? My fault. I had to prevent him from chance encountering another mad scientist. And one time I stopped Milo from going to a club, getting triggered into a werewolf and seeing us all forcibly recruited into Supernatural Control. It's one of my earliest memories. Everything felt so out of my control..."

"Why didn't you just stop Fairuza from meeting Rook? Instead of intervening later?"

"Cause and effect isn't always obvious. By the time I knew that happened, it was too late to do much. I feel like we've gone over this before and you just don't listen."

"Sorry."



"We're almost adults. You need to get out of Starlight Shores after your birthday, okay? Too much can go wrong. And I can't always fix it."

"Sure, Acheron."

"I'm leaving too. There's something wrong with me. I'm going to find out what."

"What do you mean? Are you sick? Does this have something to do with how the vampires thought you were special?" Dysen waits for a response, but one doesn't come. "What about Claire? Orazia said you wanted to stay in Starlight Shores until she shows up."

"She shows up a few days before winter." Acheron's look of misery turns to one of confusion. "But the date doesn't match the scenery..."

Dysen tenses. It's now or never. He has to keep Acheron talking. "What date, exactly?"

Distracted by thoughts of summertime, Acheron tells Dysen when Claire is supposed to show up. An exact hour, an exact date. "I could meet her at the train, but there are too many people. She just flees and waits for me to be alone before she tries to kill me."

"That's pretty fucked up, Acheron. She sounds completely evil."

"Just completely brainwashed."

"Evil for religious cult reasons is still evil," Dysen argues.

"Give it time. Eventually you're going to think you're better and smarter than everyone else too."

Dysen flips Acheron off. "I am, but that's different."

"I think I might be evil," Acheron says hesitantly. Before Dysen can protest the absurdity or ask for clarification, Acheron provides that clarification, detailing some of his visions.



Acheron will remember the look of horror on Dysen's face more than he will remember what he did and did not say.



Then at some point he can't keep his eyes open.
















Loki catches the shiny gem Acheron tosses to him.



"So, what is it?" Acheron asks. "I pried it out of a talisman that belonged to Claire."

"It's one of the Setran artifacts," Loki answers.

"Setran as in... Setra? The city near Al Simhara?"

The elf's face twitches into a rueful smile as he looks up from the glittering gem and meets Acheron's eyes instead. "Yes. There is a temple in Setra meant to house the artifacts. When they're all placed in the correct slot, their energy can be channeled by one of the admins to warp reality. Beyond that history gets muddy. Some readings suggest the temple was created to counter the threat of the djinn, others insinuate it was created to prevent the geologic death of the planet." He pauses for dramatic flair, then adds, "Elves think long term."

Acheron frowns, trying to unpack all that. "How can someone with your psychometric abilities not know for certain?"

"Data from that time period exists in several versions. The obvious answer is our ancestors were caught in a temporal war just like we are. Someone stopped the cycles back then, and we had a long time of consistency, before our era began."



"Really? You don't think there's any other possible way to explain the discrepancies?"

"I didn't say that," Loki says breezily.

"Well, what does it want with me?" Acheron motions towards the gem, then lets his hands drop listlessly to his sides. "The witches used it to track people with traces of elvish blood, but it doesn't forge a connection with just any of them. It wanted me, and not my cousins."

"Well you're also precognitive, and your cousins weren't. It's just bad luck, isn't it? The wrong gene expression?"

"If I knew, I wouldn't ask."




"I'm guessing this fragment held a different shape before you took it from the talisman?"

Acheron watches as the gem warps, changing color and shifting from concave to convex polygons for no discernible reason, even into impossible non-Euclidean geometry. "Yes. It was a lot smaller at first."

"I spent several lifetimes trying to find all of these artifacts. Individually they are curiosities, some useful, most not. Together they are much more. I hoped to use their combined power to destroy the grid system. Disrupt the grid, disrupt Kir's spell. Everything is integrated. Maybe it would have worked, but by the time I was successful, I'd lost my mind and tried to use them to... ehhh... wipe out everything alive more or less, so, Chet gave one of the pieces to Lethe. In other words, oblivion, it's gone forever. Not even the cycle resets can bring it back."

Acheron is about to question the 'wipe out everything alive' bit, but then another thought occurs to him. Jasmine. Can she not come back either? "Oh. Shit."

Loki picks up immediately on his discomfort. "Whaaat did you do?"

"Nothing," Acheron answers too quickly. "By the way. Admins?"

"The elven priest caste. Beings of light magic, always out to counter beings of dark magic?" Loki shrugs.

"I see." That makes sense. Elf mages like Loki using elf mage artifacts. Fine.

Loki frowns. "You're actually buying this, aren't you?"

Acheron stares calmly at the older mage. "Why do you play these games?"

"It's not a game."

"Then it's a test? What reaction could you possibly want from me at this point? Do you have some reason not to trust me?"

"Trust? No. No. Concern." Loki's ears swivel towards Acheron; such motions still creep the younger man out. Then he asks, "Where do you think the slang 'sim' came from?"

Acheron grimaces. "Let's see, I believe the etymology is from... the word 'simian'?"

Loki smiles again, this time with teeth showing. "Do you really believe that?"





The lights are off. The room is so quiet, Acheron would swear he hears his heart beating. A pair of hands rises shakily to his facehis own hands, though they feel alien as he watches them tremble, as if they're desperate to do something but can't decide what.



Getting up, putting his weight on his feet, restores some sense of balance and perspective.

Dysen snoozes peacefully, as if nothing odd had happened today.



Acheron throws on a coat and jeans before wandering out into the crisp night air. He rests his arm against a pillar and leans against it. The view of Shang Simla far below is murky and dim; most people are sleeping.



He glances at the fingernails he's been nervously chewing. They've started to bleed.






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Etc.: Tennessee is a fictional place. I've been there.

Phlegethon is another Greek underworld river. Phlegethon has the distinction of being made of FIRE, not water. Dante's Inferno changes things up by describing Phlegethon as a river of boiling blood, in which the souls of violent sinners must stand in the seventh circle of hell. Anyway, Jingfei insinuates Dysen and Acheron could have used the fairy dust to pass through flames unharmed. Good to know.

A tetromino is a four-square polyomino. The "Setran artifacts" incident is referring to my older blog, where Loki gathered up a bunch of MacGuffins and tried to ruin everything. The artifacts tend to look like geometric shapes. So the implication here is those events took place in the distant past.

The distant past of me blogging five years ago. Eek!