The Dualists: Chapter 5

(Chapter 4 of The Dualists can be found here)

 

 

“I should just say something,” Ivy thought, as she ate lunch with Coco in silence. “It’s not like she’ll think I’m a weirdo or anything. She’ll probably be thrilled to hear about something so spooky. I just need to say something.” But she didn’t. While the two were usually quite talkative, something was different today. Each wanted to say something, but couldn’t quite force themselves to, and was too wrapped up in their own thoughts to notice how unusual the other was acting. “I just need to say something,” Ivy thought once more. She took a deep breath. “Hey… remember when you said to tell you if something strange happened last night?” Coco asked, right as Ivy opened her mouth to speak. “Huh? Oh, yeah,” Ivy said, “I was actually going to say something about that too.” “Really?” Coco said, “Do you think they might be related?” “Oh, mine’s probably just nothing,” Ivy said, knowing full well that it wasn’t just nothing, “You go first.” “You sure?” Coco asked, “You look like something’s bothering you.” “Please, I insist,” Ivy said. “Very well,” Coco said, “Last night, I-”

 
“Do you mind if we sit here?” Regina asked, gesturing to two seats at the table, one of which Clover was already setting her tray at. “Well, well,” Coco said, “If it isn’t the drama queens of Noether High. To what do we owe the honor?” “What the Hell’s that supposed to mean?” Clover asked, indignantly. “I’m just saying, I was told that assembly was for an election,” Coco said, “Not focus testing a Lifetime original movie.” “It sounds like you’re the one who’s starting drama, here.” Clover growled. “Ah, c’mon, I’m just messing with you,” Coco said, “But, for real, election season’s over. Why are you so interested in hanging out with a couple of bozos like us?” “I just wanted to make sure our new student is feeling welcomed here,” Regina said, “It really is fine if you’d rather we didn’t sit here, though. I won’t be offended.” “But what about the thing we came here to talk about?” Clover asked. “What thing?” Coco asked, suspiciously. “Oh, I was just, uh, wondering if you two knew each other before Ivy moved here,” Regina said. Clover rolled her eyes. “Yes,” Ivy said, “We were best friends in elementary school.” “And now!” Coco said, “But why’d you think we knew each other before? Do you really think it’s so unbelievable that I could make a friend so quickly?” “I apologize,” Regina said, still standing, “I didn’t mean to offend.” “Because it is!” Coco said, “I mean, I’ve been here for years without making any friends. And the student council president sure as hell never made sure I was feeling welcomed!” “I apologize for not making your acquaintance sooner,” Regina said, “I hope we can be fast friends.” “I doubt it,” Coco said, “I don’t get along with normies. Except Ivy.” “What did you just call her?” Clover demanded with her mouth full. Regina stifled a laugh with a cough. “Then I think we should get along just fine,” Regina said, “A normie’s just someone you don’t know well enough. Everyone’s a weirdo, deep down.” “If you say so,” Coco said, “Speaking of weirdness, what’s with your face? Are you a ghost? If I ask, you have to tell me, that’s the law.” “Gee, I wonder why you haven’t made any friends,” Clover said, sarcastically. “I’m albino, actually,” Regina said, “I mean, I’m also a ghost, obviously, but I was this pale when I was alive, too.” Clover laughed. “Nice.” The mood lightened up a bit. But then Coco asked “So what’s with her face?” while pointing at Clover. “Nothing’s wrong with my face!” Clover said, “What, you’ve never seen a girl with freckles before?” “She’s a lich, actually,” Regina said, nonchalantly, “That’s just part of the undying process.” “Badass,” Coco said, “But where’s her phylactery?” “I’ve got a phylactery for you right here!” Clover said, flipping her off.

 

Ivy and Coco gasped in shock. “Clover, please,” Regina said, “They won’t cooperate if you keep being so rude.” “What?” Clover asked, “I’m just showing them the ring.” She wasn’t lying. On her middle finger was a ring with a red jewel shaped like a three leaf clover. “Does this mean that we all got rings?” Coco asked. She showed a similar ring, with a red, heart-shaped jewel on her ring finger. Ivy and Regina nodded. “But if mine is a heart, and hers is a clover,” Coco said, “What’s yours? Ivy?” “It’s not a clover,” Clover said, “It’s a club. Regina’s is a spade, so Ivy’s would be a diamond, right?” “Yeah,” Ivy said, showing the ring on her pinky to everyone at the table. “Also, why would you think the rings are based on our names if yours is a heart?” Clover asked. “Coco Roe is a pun on ‘kokoro’, the Japanese word for heart, because my dad is a fucking weeb,” Coco said, “Although, if yours is a club, why’s it red? Shouldn’t it be black?” “Don’t ask me,” Clover said, “But Regina’s is black, like you’d expect.” Regina, still standing, set her tray down to show her ring. “Oh, uh, you can sit with us, by the way,” Ivy said, “Sorry for making you stand for so long.” “Thank you,” Regina said, taking a seat. “Awww, you’re no fun,” Coco said, “I wanted to see if she’d stand there for the entire lunch period.” Clover sighed. “Since we all have similar rings,” Regina said, “I take it we all had similar dreams?” “Mmhm,” Ivy said, “I don’t remember too much, but Clover and two other girls I didn’t really recognize were there. I’m guessing that was you?” “Probably,” Coco said, “I’m pretty sure they were in my dream. I suspected something spooky was afoot, and figured that may have been the real reason they wanted to talk.” “So you’ve just been messing with us this whole time?” Clover asked, angrily. “Mostly just you, to be honest,” Coco said, “Did it really take you that long to notice?” “You know what I mean,” Clover snapped.

 

“Anyway,” Coco said, “I think that, in the dream, the rings gave us some kind of powers that we used to kick ass. Does that sound about right to everyone else?” Everyone else nodded. “I know it was my idea to meet here,” Regina said, “But perhaps we should continue this conversation elsewhere. If someone overheard us here, they might think we’re lunatics.” “People thinking you’re a lunatic’s not so bad,” Coco said, “It’s really quite freeing, not having to care what other people think.” “Not all of us can afford to be as unpopular as you,” Clover said. “It’s a damn shame you let everyone else control your life,” Coco said, “I think you could be pretty cool, if you just lived on your own terms.” “I don’t let everyone else control my life,” Clover said, defensively, “For instance, I don’t give a damn about what you think.” Coco laughed. “Well played.” “I… don’t think we should be arguing,” Ivy said, “We’ll have to work together to figure out what’s going on, and that’ll be easier if we all get along.” “What are you talking about?” Coco asked, “This is the best I’ve gotten along with anyone in years. We’re just joking around, right?” “Right…” Clover said, unconvincingly. “I agree with Ivy,” Regina said, “We can’t discount the possibility that these rings are dangerous. And if that’s the case, we’d be safest if we all worked together.” “I’m down,” Coco said, “It’s not like I like you, or anything, I’ve just watched enough anime to know that the power of friendship always wins.” “I guess I could try to get along with her,” Clover said. “Then it’s settled,” Regina said, “Let’s meet up in Riemann Park after class.” “Where’s that?” Ivy asked. “Don’t worry, I’ll lead you there,” Coco said, “And I promise, I won’t take you to The Pits of Sacrifice this time,” she added, with an exaggerated wink. “Thank you,” Ivy said, completely sincerely, “Although that was a lovely dagger you gave me last time.” Regina laughed, while Clover just looked confused. They spent the rest of their lunch period eating and making small talk.

I am a Writer

“Is it OK if I sit here?”

 
I let out an irritated sigh. In hindsight, it was perhaps not the most socially acceptable reaction, but I was never one to care about those sorts of things. I’m usually focused on something more important. And in that particular instance, it was the novel I was writing. In any case, it seemed that she hadn’t heard me. “Um, excuse me. Is it OK if I sit here?” she asked again, foolishly mistaking my lack of acknowledgement for a lack of awareness. Several seconds passed before I was able to answer her. I glanced up and quickly assessed that she was cute enough to be in my company. At the very moment that she decided to try somewhere else, I said, “Sure, as long as you’re quiet.” “Of course. Thank you!” she said, as she put her decaffeinated mocha latte on the table and lowered her backpack to the ground. “Sorry I didn’t reply sooner,” I said, even though I wasn’t, “I just had to finish the sentence I was writing.” “Oh,” she said. I could tell from her face that she was curious about what I was writing, but she agreed to be quiet, so she refrained from asking. I appreciated that.

 
“Good luck on your final exams.” I said. “Huh? Oh, thank you,” she said, “But how did you know?” “Coming to a café in late April with a backpack? The only way it could be more obvious that you’re here to study is with a neon sign. Besides, why do you think this place is so full?” “I guess that makes sense,” she said, “So, what’s your major?” I smiled and shook my head. “Please,” I said, dismissively, “I don’t need a degree to tell me how smart I am.” “I see,” she said, though she clearly did not. Her desire to know more about what I was writing was etched into her face as plain as day. I decided to indulge her out of pity. “It’s a novel,” I said. “What?” she asked. “You wanted to ask what I was writing, but since you’re a good girl who agreed not to bother me, you didn’t. But I am not an unkind man, so I saw fit to satisfy your curiosity.” Her eyes widened with surprise, though she didn’t say a word. “Unless, of course,” I continued, “you remain unsated, and next wish to know what this novel is about?” “I… yeah, I do,” she said, “But how you did you know?” I chuckled. “I am a writer, after all.” She scowled with confusion, but that was to be expected. “What does that have to do with anything?” she asked. I smirked. “If you don’t understand what being a writer has to do with being perceptive, I doubt you could understand what my novel is about in the first place.” “Oh,” she said, crestfallen, “That sounds… mysterious.” I decided that our conversation was concluded, and resumed writing.

 
After half an hour or so, the girl remained. She had obediently stayed quiet the entire time, so I saw fit to reward her. “Is psychology a difficult field of study?” I asked. “Huh? This is statistics,” she said, pointing to the cover of the textbook she was reading. I rolled my eyes. “You’re currently studying statistics, but you are a psychology major, are you not?” She couldn’t help but gasp this time. “Yes, but… how could you know that?” I gave her my signature smirk. “I am a writer after all,” I said. “But seriously,” she said, “Can you teach me how?” “I suppose it isn’t surprising that your ‘education’ has failed to impart upon you the true nature of the human mind,” I said, putting finger quotes around “education.” “I can’t teach you how to be a writer. That’s something you have to teach yourself.” I raised my finger to silence her before she could protest. “But I can explain how I knew in this particular instance.” I paused for dramatic tension, until she could no longer bear it. “First of all, since you’re studying statistics, I should hope that you would understand that, statistically speaking, a woman like yourself is unlikely to study math or real science, so that narrowed it down to a soft science. Rather than study at home or in a library, you chose here. This is because, while you’re studying, you’re also people-watching. To borrow the term you used, you’re ‘reading’ them, because you’re fascinated by how the human mind works. You noticed how that guy over there has no interest in studying, and is just trying to get in the pants of the girl he’s with. You noticed how that girl over there was served the wrong coffee, but isn’t complaining to the barista because she doesn’t want to cause any problems. You also noticed that the boy sitting by himself over there is severely depressed, and have considered trying to help him several times.” She sat in slack-jawed astonishment. “But there’s one person here that you just can’t read, and it’s driving you crazy.” I saw no need to clarify who I was talking about. We both already knew it was me. “Wow, that’s… incredible!” she said. “Yes, I guess it’d seem that way to a non-writer,” I said. She pouted in a way that, I must admit, was rather cute. “For real, though, I don’t get why you keep saying that. Writing is the opposite of perception. In your writing, everything that exists is something that you explicitly brought into creation. What is there to notice?” I silently laughed at her ignorance. “Perhaps it is more accurate to think of them, not as opposites, but as two sides of the same coin,” I said, cryptically, before returning to my work.

 
I could tell I’d left an impression on her. I could no longer hear the scratching of her pencil; she’d given up her studies to fruitlessly pursue the enigma that is me. After a few minutes, she came to a frightening realization. She made no outward indication of this, but I could feel the wave of negative mental energy from her. “So, you think you’ve figured me out?” I asked. “I know I have,” she said, struggling to maintain her composure. Her confidence was adorable, like that of a child who thinks they know everything. “Prove it, then,” I challenged. “You’re more than just a writer, aren’t you?” she asked. “Well, I commend you for noticing that I’m of a different caliber than a common novelist, but-” “You’re the writer,” she said.

 
It was my turn to be shocked. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” I said, “The writer of what, exactly?” “This,” she said, gesturing vaguely, “Me, this café, the people, the final exams. All of it. This is a story. And you’re writing it.” “What are you talking about?” I asked, “What are you talking about?” she retorted, “Why would you think that being a writer would give you some kind of superhuman ability to notice subtle details, unless they’re details that you wrote yourself? Are you crazy? Although, if you have to ask yourself that question, which you are most definitely doing as you are typing these very words, the answer is probably yes.” “I’m done with you,” I said. “Oh, I know,” she said, “Because I’m just you, and you’ve been done with yourself for a long time, haven’t you?” “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “You hate yourself. That’s it. That’s the dark mystery at the core of your being that you thought would amaze and entice your imaginary girlfriend. That’s what you think makes you so complex and mysterious that no one can truly understand you. But that’s just another excuse. People don’t avoid you because they don’t understand you. They avoid you because they understand you better than you seem to understand yourself, which is ironic, since your own self is the only thing that you actually can notice as a writer. They understand that you act like you’re better than everyone because you’re insecure about yourself, and they understand that hanging out with people like that sucks, so they don’t.

 
I sigh and hit Ctrl+S. I’m too tired to continue this one at the moment, and honestly don’t particularly care to continue it at any moment. “I guess this ended up being another one of those stories,” I mutter to myself, as I upload this to be read by no one in particular.


NOTE: This was based on what may be the worst thing I’ve ever read, as well as this follow-up which may be even worse. So, if you thought this was bad, I did that on purpose, which means that it’s actually good.

Coven Spotlight: Mistresses of the Tide

FULL DISCLOSURE: This month’s Coven Spotlight was written by Maria Tranquillitatis, a High Mistress of the featured coven.

We’ve all been Uninitiated at some point, so we all know how stressful it is to choose which coven to join. “What if I’m no good at those types of spells? What if I don’t get along with my new Sisters? What if I change my mind and spend an eternity regretting my decision?” We’ve all asked ourselves these questions at some point, and I’m sure some of you young witchlings out there are still asking them. For me, the question that I always came back to was “Should I be a Sea Hag, or a Moon Crone?” But thankfully, I learned that I didn’t have to choose between the two. So I chose to be a Mistress of the Tide.

But a Mistress of the Tide is more than just a witch who loves the Sea and Moon in equal measure. She is one who understands and appreciates the true beauty of The Tide. To many outsiders, this fascination (some might even say obsession, and they wouldn’t be totally wrong) with a single natural phenomenon is difficult to understand. I’ve found that it often helps to explain with a comparison to The Prismatic Order, a coven which similarly devotes themselves to rainbows, whose beauty is a bit more easily understood. Yet The Prism Maidens understand that the rainbow is more than just pretty to look at: it represents the beauty of our diversity, as witches and as people, and how we can all come together to illuminate the world around us. Similarly, The Tide is more than just the rising and falling of water. It is the cycle of highs and lows, ebbs and flows, which all things experience. It is life which gives way to death, night which gives way to day, hope which gives way to despair, and death which gives way to life. It is not just the cycle between high and low tides, or the phases of the moon, but the unseen force which binds them together into one cycle. It is the invisible influence which permeates the entire universe, connecting that which seems unconnected into one grand, universal cycle. Honestly, I could write an entire grimoire fangirling over The Tide, what it means to our coven, and what it means to me, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.

The Mistresses of the Tide are not a coven for those who crave the power to topple mountains or rout armies. Those thirsty for conquest would do better joining The Disciples of The Sky’s Fire (This is, in no way, meant to be a slight directed at The Disciples. The Poor Witch’s Almanack respects all covens equally -Ed.) Our power is not that of the tsunami, sometimes erroneously called the “tidal wave,” which smashes cities and drowns their people. Ours is a subtler power. It does not bring about swift destruction, but steady erosion. All people and all things are subject to this erosion, be it by the ebb and flow of water, wind, or time itself. With our spells, we can use this as a weapon, to destroy in a way that is slow, but undetectable until it is too late. This power is arguably more dangerous than the louder, flashier power wielded by some. For it is impossible to lose a battle which your enemy does not know that they are fighting. Of course, it goes without saying that we only use this power responsibly, and always respect all edicts laid down by The Grand Matron and The Elder Council.

The Mistresses of The Tide tend to convene in sea caves, when the tide is at its zenith or nadir, so joining may require some travelling if you don’t live near the coast. This may be a bit inconvenient, but it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker; though most local covens hold meetings once or twice a month, we are very understanding of our Sisters, and will gladly welcome you any time you are able to join us. However, living far from the ocean does present some complications with regards to the conditions of the Coven Pact. In exchange for their power and title, a Mistress of the Tide can only drink from a body of water in which a man has drowned. But don’t worry. It’s easier than it sounds.

Shaken, Stirred

“It’s, er, rather dark in here, isn’t it?”
Not exactly the most suave way to introduce myself, but in my defense, it was rather dark in there. You’d think the inventor of our laser watches and shoe phones could tinker up a damn incandescent. My query was met with a loud sigh from somewhere in the remarkably poorly lit room. “Agent PERSEUS, I presume?” said a female voice, who I presumed to be the owner of the sigh. The room was too dark to make out what she looked like, but if her face was half as stern as her voice, then, well, it would still be a rather stern face. “Oh, uh, yeah,” I said, still not getting the whole “suave secret agent” thing down at all. “Blink twice to activate your contacts,” she said. “Huh?” was apparently the best response I could come up with. I heard an echo of the sigh from before. “Are you truly so careless as to not examine that suit you were given for secret pockets?” she asked in a condescending tone. “That’s a negative, ma’am,” I said, apparently mistaking “suave” for talking like a damn G.I. Joe. Anyway, I may have been a rookie, but I wasn’t an idiot. “I’m guessing those clear, curved discs I found were contact lenses?” I said, guessing correctly. “Yes. Put them in, and blink twice in rapid succession,” she said. “Why?” I asked, probably sounding like a contrarian man-baby. “You’ll see,” she said. “Why can’t you just tell me?” I asked, definitely sounding like a contrarian man-baby. I heard that same sigh from before. “I just did,” she said.

 
At the time, I didn’t understand what she was getting at, but I just now realized that she was saying “you’ll see” as in “You will be able to see once you blink twice.” Which is like, wordplay, I guess? Anyway, I decided there was no sense in arguing, so I said, “If you say so, boss,” as I was apparently determined to speak in every tone other than “suave.” So I put the contacts in, using all of my secret agent dexterity and finesse to ensure that I didn’t drop them in the darkness and live out one of those scenes in Scooby-Doo where Velma can’t find her glasses. Then, using my finely honed secret agent agility, I blinked twice with lightning speed, causing the room around me to burst to life in shades of green.

 
First, I was surprised that I could see, then I was surprised by what I could see. A woman greeted me with all the classic hallmarks of a fine dame: a fine figure, a fine suit, fine glasses, and a fine drink. Apparently, this surprise showed. “Surprised to see night-vision technology implemented on such a small scale?” she asked. “It’s definitely impressive. But not as impressive as…” I said, hoping that trailing off would somehow prevent me from sounding like a giant dumbass. It did not. “But not as impressive as what, Agent PERSEUS?” she asked, “I consider my strixoscope quite impressive, so whatever you’re referring to must be quite impressive.” She did that “pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose” thing people do when they’re annoyed. I found myself making a conscious effort to not think “She’s even hotter when she’s mad,” in case she had a gadget that read my mind. Wait! This was my chance to say something suave! “Well, it’s just that I can think of something that’s even more impressive about you,” I said, moving my eyebrows in a way that I hoped indicated that I was hitting on her. She played that same sigh on repeat, but with the volume turned up this time. “I appreciate your crude attempt at flattery, Agent PERSEUS, but I’m afraid I don’t swing that way.” “Oh,” I said, warming up my mouth to say something else stupid and embarrassing, “so you’re a…” I remembered that trailing off wouldn’t work, so I decided to commit to my awful sentence. “lesbian?”

 
She didn’t even sigh this time. She just wore a scowl that aroused and terrified me in equal measure. Well, maybe not quite equal. “Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I do not swing any way,” she said, “And so long as you, or anyone else for that matter, is within the confines of this room, they will not swing any way, and will have no thoughts of doing so. Am I understood, Agent PERSEUS?” “Crystal, ma’am,” I said, even though that only would have made sense if she asked if she was clear, which she didn’t. “Please, have a seat, Agent PERSEUS,” she said, motioning to a chair opposite her desk. I was worried that it’d have some kind of hidden trap that would lock my arms in place or shoot a spike up my butt, but I was even more worried about what she’d do if I didn’t sit. So I did.

 
“I’m afraid I haven’t properly introduced myself,” the woman said, “My codename is ATHENA. I am the quartermaster, responsible for distribution, design, and production of equipment used by our agents. My mission, regardless of whether I chose to accept it, is to give you the equipment you will be using on your next mission, and instruct you on its use. Do you have any questions?” “Yeah, actually. I do,” I said, “Earlier you chastised me for being reckless enough to wear a suit without checking its pockets first, but then you expected me to put some mysterious glass circles onto my eyeballs like that isn’t even dumber? What’s up with that?” She smiled, for the first time since I could see her. The scales were definitely tipping more towards aroused. “Forgive me for misjudging you, Agent PERSEUS,” ATHENA said, “It seems you’re not as incompetent I thought.” “Oh, uh, thanks,” I said, totally blowing it. She knocked back the remainder of her drink, and gestured the empty glass towards me. “Martini?” she offered. A Martini! Of course that’s what a classy woman like her would be drinking. On one hand, I was already making enough regrettable decisions without the assistance of my old friend alcohol. But, on the other hand, this was a prime opportunity to say a classic suave line. “Shaken, not stirred,” I said, in a tone that could easily be mistaken for suave. “Sure thing,” she said, producing a large glass from beneath her desk. She then produced a bottle of… gin? I think it was gin. She poured some of it into the glass without even measuring it first. She then added some other liquor, then what looked like some kind of juice. “I hope you like your martinis dirty,” she said. I’d never drunk a martini before – at least, nothing a woman of this caliber was likely to consider a martini – so I had no idea what that meant. But I could certainly think of something else I liked dirty. She then took out an elegant looking spoon, and began stirring the drink. She didn’t move her arm; the spoon just spun around in her fingers, like her hand was a ballerina. Or something. The point is, I could tell she’d done this a lot. She then poured her drink into a cocktail glass she had produced from beneath her desk. After garnishing with what seemed like more than a regular amount of olives, she took a long sip, and made a refreshed “aahhhh” sound, and I swear, my heart melted. It was like listening to her sigh in reverse. She poured the same ingredients in the same measure into the mixing glass, but when she put the spoon in the glass to stir it, she stopped. “Ah, that’s right,” she said, “You said shaken, not stirred.” I’m not gonna lie, I was starting to kind of regret that choice. I wanted to see her hands move like that again. “I’ve got just the thing, then,” she said, as she reached under her desk to produce

 
BANG!

 
A gun!

 
And that gun produced a bullet!

 
And that bullet produced a lot of pain in my chest, as it hit me there. This produced a lot of panic in my brain, as my contacts suddenly deactivated, leaving me totally blind. I clutched at my chest to staunch the bleeding, but… there wasn’t any. My suit was as dry as the martini ATHENA had just made. Assuming that dirty martinis are also dry, I guess? Two blinks revealed for sure that I wasn’t bleeding; “What the Hell was that for?” I asked, plus or minus a few words I’d rather not repeat. “Martinis are stirred, Agent PERSEUS,” she said, “They are not shaken. I will not have you debasing my personal drink.” I was starting to really regret that choice. “So you shot me just because my taste in drinks is different than yours?” “Your taste in drinks is wrong,“ she said, “Ordering a drink incorrectly doesn’t make you suave, Agent PERSEUS. This isn’t the movies.” “Says the woman who just shot me over a drink,” I countered. “Touché,” she said, with a smile that gave me half a mind to forgive her then and there. “But I didn’t shoot you over the drink. I was demonstrating the effectiveness of the Aegis: the bulletproof suit you’re wearing. Punishing you for your sacrilege was just killing two birds with one stone.” “Well, if getting shot while wearing this suit is like what I just went through, I’ll stick to not getting shot, thanks,” I said, apparently confusing “suave” for talking like a damn sit-com character. “Hold still and try not to panic this time,” she said. She gave me enough time to brace myself, but not enough to object.

 

BANG! Liver. BANG! Stomach BANG! Right lung. BANG! Left lung. BANG! Heart. As I was getting shot, I couldn’t help but notice how not “getting shot” I felt. Getting shot hurts like hell. Getting shot while wearing a bulletproof vest hurts like heck. This just hurt. I blinked twice to reactivate my contacts again. “The contacts automatically deactivate if they detect enough light,” she explained, before I could ask, “The muzzle flash on this gun sets them off. I’m working on fixing it.” If muzzle flash was enough to set it off, then either these contacts were very sensitive, or I’d just been shot with a very big gun. An examination of one of the bullets crumpled on the ground told me which it was. “.50 caliber? Weeoooh,” I said, trying to do that whistling thing people do when they’re impressed, but I can’t whistle so I just sounded like a mouth breather. To stop 6 .50 cal bullets with minimal pain, while also being comfortable enough that I couldn’t even tell it was bulletproof? That’s something else. Like, she was a fine dame and all, but in this case, I had to admit the suit was more impressive. “Of course it’s impressive,” she said, “I wove it myself.” “Seriously?” I asked, incredulously. She answered my question with a gesture of her martini glass that could have meant literally anything. After downing the rest of it, she started making her third martini. At least, the third that I’d seen.

 
“These are Krotala sound grenades,” ATHENA said, still stirring her drink as she handed me what looked like a flashbang grenade. “What, you’re not gonna embarrass me with a demonstration of these?” I asked, embarrassing myself plenty enough. “Trust me, I would if I could, Agent HERAC-” she cleared her throat. “Excuse me. Agent PERSEUS. But these emit a burst of sound at a frequency inaudible to the human ear. However, it overloads any Stymphalos drones in a 60 meter radius, rendering them useless. I trust you know what a Stymphalos drone is?” Before giving me a chance to reply, she continued. “They’re tiny microphone-equipped aircraft, about the size of a housefly. Unmanned, obviously. Nearly silent, so they’re hard to detect. They’re really good at finding secrets and blowing covers, so I’d recommend deploying a Krotala any time you’re discussing something you’d rather remain unheard.” She emptied her cocktail glass in a single gulp. I was starting to think maybe she was less “classy lady” and more “functioning alcoholic.”

 
“I just remembered something!” she said, in the voice of a woman who had just remembered something, “I actually do have something else to show you that isn’t boring. But you can’t tell anyone I showed you.” “Sure,” I said. “That’s not good enough,” she said, removing her glasses, “I need you to look into my eyes and promise me.” She didn’t have to tell me twice to look into her eyes. Her beauty was stunning. I mean, I was literally stunned; My brain was ordering my lips to move, but my lips were AWOL. “Whhhha?” I grunted, doing my best to say “What?” “By the way,” ATHENA said, “The Strixoscope has a new feature I forgot to mention. The Medusa Ray. Or something like that. It’s a working title. The point is that if you open your eyes as wide as you can, it emits an electromagnetic ray which isn’t visible, per se, but it temporarily disrupts motor functions when processed by the optic nerve.” I made a groaning sound that I won’t even try to transliterate, which was supposed to be “How long does it last?” “It lasts about 30 seconds, give or take. Long enough to kill or tie someone up. But you have to be looking right into someone’s pupils for it to work, and its range isn’t very long. Also, it only stores enough charge for one use, so don’t fire it willy-nilly. Sunlight recharges it, but it’s obviously still not a good idea to go staring at the Sun so it’ll charge faster.” She ate all the leftover olives in her otherwise empty cocktail glasses, then she started making another martini.

 
After being immobile for about two minutes, I started to panic. Somehow, she noticed this. “I suppose now’s as good a time as any to mention that you’re the Medusa Ray’s first human test subject. The effective time of 30 seconds was an estimate based on calculations I was quite confident in.” She downed her latest martini, olive and all. “Was,” she reiterated, emphasizing that she was no longer confident in these calculations.

 
I can’t tell you how many hours ago all that was, because I still can’t check my watch. I also can’t tell you how many martinis ago that was, because it was quite a few, and I lost track. I think I might be able to move my left pinky around a bit, but that may just be the feeling of necrosis setting in. And I just realized that if anyone reads all this, I’ll be breaking the promise I made to ATHENA. So, uh, please forget all that stuff I just said.


This story was originally published as flavor text for the seventh Twitter Battle Royale, “A Traitor’s Profession.” The Twitter Battle Royale is a recurring Twitter contest organized by @aka_fatman, @SirEviscerate, @dongfuture, and guest judges, which has inspired a lot of my favorite creations, including this, this, and even the School of Havoc itself. @aka_fatman deserves a special shout-out for the basic topic of this piece (Greek Mythology secret agents), some editing, and for generally reading and giving feedback about things that I’ve written.

The Abstract Jungle

What is the oldest city in the world? This question is a rather tricky one to answer, not only for scientific reasons, such as difficulties in exactly dating ancient civilizations, but also for semantic reasons. It depends heavily on how one defines a “city”: Does a town become a city when it reaches a certain population density? When it constructs permanent buildings? When it demonstrates written communication? Different cities may satisfy these conditions at different times, leading to different cities being considered “the first.” But our question’s answer also depends on the precise definition of another word: “world.” If we consider the world to be the physical Earth, the subset of space-time in which all humans live and die, then the oldest city in the world could be Athens, or Jerusalem, or Uruk. But if our notion of the world is broadened to include the realm of thought and possibility, our question has a definitive answer: Old York, the abstract idea of a city.

 
How old is Old York? Trying to answer this question is like trying to describe what lies to the north of The North Pole; it just doesn’t make sense. Traditionally, a city’s age is determined by when it was built, an approach which is inapplicable to a city with no physical existence. One might try to claim Old York as being founded when it was first imagined by humans, but this is a naïve mistake. Though our imagination is a window into the world of the abstract, it is not the abstract world itself. To think Old York did not exist until we conceived of it would be no different from denying that stars existed before we first saw their light. The only other event which one might reasonably assume to have coincided with the creation of Old York is the birth of the universe itself. But even this is a dubious claim; ideas can exist independently of physical form, so there is no reason to assume that the existence of the abstract world requires the existence of the concrete world. Another possible alternative is that Old York is infinitely old, but it is difficult to precisely define what this means when time itself has only existed for a finite duration. If it is possible to quantify Old York’s age, it is by means which are yet to be imagined by mankind; currently, all that can be said for sure is that it is old enough to be worthy of its moniker.

 
Who lives in Old York? This question must have an answer; a city is defined by its citizens, after all. And the answer is that Old York is populated by Ideals. Just as Old York is the abstraction of a city, these Ideals are abstractions of people. Unlike concrete humans, these Ideals do not contain multitudes. In a city like New York, one who walks on the streets is a pedestrian, but they are always more than that. They could be a man or a woman, a child or an elder, an artist or an engineer, a saint or a sinner, and so much more. But The Pedestrian of Old York is none of these things. It has no age, gender, occupation, or any other defining characteristics outside of its endless journey through Old York, and the steps that make it up. Old York is filled with such “people,” if they can be called that. The Chef who only cooks, The Drunkard who only drinks, The Liar who only lies, and so on.

 
How does one visit Old York? Surprising as it may seem, this question does have an answer. Just because a location is abstract does not mean that it is inaccessible; for example, consider the last time you were in danger. But Old York is more difficult to reach: Only those who are wholly defined by a single characteristic are permitted within its boroughs. Throughout the ages, many have sought out Old York as a refuge from mortality, thinking a monotonous eternity to be preferable to death. Ironically, these would-be Ideals are invariably undone by their own thirst for immortality. Thus, this transcendence has only ever been achieved by accident, if at all. If you doubt the possibility that a person could live in such a way that their entire existence can be boiled down to a single idea, ask yourself the following question: Who is Benedict Arnold? Is he a human? Or is he The Traitor?

Alice

Human Name: Alice
Demon Name: Unknown
Desire Embodied: Love*
Danger Rating: ★★★★☆

 

*It is not wholly accurate to say that any one demon embodies the desire to love, or to be loved. It is tempting to believe that this contradicts the Second Law of Demonology, since there appears to be a human desire without a demonic embodiment. But this is false, as love is embodied, not by one, but by many different demons. This is because the word “love” describes many distinct desires. For example, the love between a husband and wife is quite different from the love between a brother and sister. Accordingly, these two desires are embodied by different demons. Since all desires for love are very powerful, the resulting demons are extremely dangerous. Their conjuring should not be attempted by any who have not been awarded the distinction of Master Summoner, and even then, only with extreme caution.

 

Alice holds the distinction of being perhaps the most difficult demon to summon, barring any demons which are yet to be discovered by the demonology community. At first, her ritual seems relatively straightforward: the summoner performs a blood sacrifice sine mortem1, mixes the blood with the freshly cried tears of the hostia2, then drinks the mixture. The difficulty arises from the Third Law, which states that a demon may only be summoned by a human who is strongly experiencing the desire which it embodies. The love embodied by Alice is the love a parent has for their child: a desire to protect and nurture, to coddle and dote on, to ensure that the object of one’s affection never suffers the hardships of the cruel world they live in. Yet the blood drawn for the ritual must be from the summoner’s own child. The level of rationalization required to injure one’s own child in the name of protecting them borders on self-delusion; there are few who can go to such extremes in the name of research, and even fewer who are willing to do so.
Among these few was a man by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Though he is credited with neither the discovery nor the first successful summoning of Alice, he is easily the most noted researcher devoted to her study. Prior to his work in 1859, the Demonology community’s complete knowledge of the ritual was little more than the brief overview given above. It was known that the ritual was highly prone to error, but leading authorities at the time attributed this to summoners failing to perform the necessary mental gymnastics. Dodgson, however, being a man of reason, refused to accept this hand-waving explanation without proof. Through theoretical and experimental research, he discovered that the ritual’s success can be guaranteed by meeting a long list of hidden conditions. While many are of the sort that are common for rituals, e.g., the mixture must be exactly 10 parts blood to 6 parts tears to ensure success, some are more unusual, e.g., the mixture must be drunk from a bottle labeled “drink me,” at exactly 6PM, on a day which is not the birthday of the summoner or the hostia. To this day, the list of conditions compiled by Dodgson is believed to be exhaustive, describing the most complicated ritual known for any demon. The list was so long that he had to publish them as two separate books, which went on to become the most widely known texts in the history of demonology: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There,” published under his pen name, Lewis Carroll. Rather than publish his findings in a journal of demonology, which were difficult for summoners to obtain due to their perceived heretical nature, Dodgson encoded his results in a novel which anyone could read without suspicion. In addition to conditions on the ritual, the novels describe Alice’s behavior and appearance, the latter done through the illustrations of John Tenniel, which were based on photographs that Dodgson himself had taken of the demon. Thus, most modern depictions of Alice in Wonderland closely resemble the demon. Even the color of her clothing and hair, which are not included in the photographs or drawings, are based on notes from Dodgson’s diary. All pages including these descriptions have been confiscated by The Summoner’s Council, along with all other references to demons and their study. This has led to some consternation among mundane historians, who can only wonder at what caused the sudden rift between Dodgson and the family of young Alice Liddell. They can never know that it was Dodgson’s discovery that it is not necessary for the child used in the ritual to be related to the summoner by blood; a strong emotional connection is sufficient.

 
Since Alice embodies the unconditional love of a parent for their child, she is a tremendously dangerous demon, though not in a conventional way. Once summoned, Alice beguiles her summoner with a powerful charm that compels them to do anything to make her happy. Her requests usually start innocuously enough: play card games with her, have tea with her, tell her stories, and the like. In time, her requests become tests of the summoner’s devotion to her: “Would you put your hand on a hot stove for me? Would you stab a knife through your foot for me? Would you burn your house down for me?” The stakes of these tests escalate, leading up to her penultimate question: “Would you kill for me?” This is what makes Alice so dangerous; she has no capacity to harm, but she is extremely adept at manipulating others into harming for her. Unless the summoner possesses an extraordinarily strong will, they are powerless to stop themselves as their child falls to the ground, lifeless, before them. Driven to despair by their failure to fulfil the very desire from which Alice sprang in the first place, they always give the same answer to her final question: “Would you die for me?” Invariably, Alice’s victims are found with a ritual bottle filled with Alice’s tears, suggesting that this is the wrong answer.


Footnotes

1Without Death, i.e. a sacrifice in the summoner draws blood, but not a fatal amount

2One who is sacrificed for a ritual