Ænema

I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t
Welcome any change, my friend.

— Tool, “Ænema”

It was raining when he arrived, of course. A dark day, worse than what he’d left behind in Glastonbury. Marius scowled at the sky, and the dirty rain that fell from it, spattering like mud on his face. With an idle flick of the wrist he produced a hat that almost certainly hadn’t been there before. The ashen rain soaked into his hat and coat as he trudged along the empty streets. Approaching his first stop, he winced, finding it still hard to focus on.

A ragged, slowly shifting warp in space stood in place of Ground Zero. The old Seattle chantry. Before that, his fortress against the apocalypse. Like a flower that had been picked apart and put back together wrong, what was left of it bent and twisted in impossible angles, defying gravity and physics. It hurt to look at. Still, Marius tried, looking for the one thing he wanted to see.

A glimpse of a gear…

His spatial sense was awake, screaming a warning as he moved closer, as close as he dared. Even the rain fell at odd angles there. Did it even land on the ruined chantry-house, or did the outbreak of Paradox repel it? Marius thought he could see a piece of it — a grave marker, decorated with brass gears and the sigil of the Sons of Ether. Stretching his hand out to it, almost instantly, by instinct, he jerked it back. Touching that broken space…

It must have been a bad way to go, he thought. His gaze fell to the ground, but his will probed the Paradox-stricken space. We’ll fix it, if this ever ends. Marius never lost track of time, but he did let it pass. Until…

A soft scuffling noise amidst the drizzling rain, and he turned. Just enough noise to get his attention, deliberate. His eyebrow perked up in curiosity.

“I was about to come look for you,” he said. It was Rebecca Bates, the Euthanatos he’d come to find. Not Becca or Becky or Becks: Rebecca, with the not-so-subtle aura of unsettling decay, the cold eyes of a killer. It had been all the more surprising to hear that Rebecca had not come with the others from Seattle to Glastonbury. After all, they were kindred spirits, of a sort.

“Marius,” said Rebecca, as if she was testing the word, sounding it out. “Has it always been that? When did that happen? And the eyes…”

His gaze grew intense. “That’s new, but the name isn’t. Are you forgetting things?” People he’d been relatively friendly with were forgetting things about them, forgetting him and Morgaine altogether.

“I haven’t, but I bet the others have,” she said. Rebecca grinned, showing her teeth. Marius scowled back. He couldn’t recall ever seeing her smile. He knew enough of her history to know why. He palmed his showstone, another sly bit of prestidigitation, focusing his will on her. The power was obvious, shining like anti-light, like her mind was sucked away, and in its place…

“What have you done with her? Do you think this sending protects you?” Marius demanded now, bristling. They didn’t have that many real enemies left now, and he knew that smile. Morgaine would be up in arms, were she here — if anything, her instinctive hatred of the Black Man was greater than his.

Rebecca, still smiling, at least covered her teeth, settling into a bit of a slouch. None of it suited her. “In the time it takes you to find me, I can leave this one a hollow shell…or we can talk. I’m not here to kill her, or to fight you.”

“Yet,” Marius snorted out.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Rebecca’s voice intoned almost plaintively.

“Yes, it does,” he shot back, rotes on the tip of his tongue, plotting strategies for defending against the Nephandus’ expected attack, for using this possession to find and destroy him.

“Trust me, if we come to fight you, you won’t mistake it for anything else,” the Black Man in Rebecca said. “Things have changed, and we need to talk.”

“Speak your piece and then get out of her.” Marius refused to relax, to back down. He was busy imagining ways to use his knives.

Rebecca straightened, looking as if she might begin to pace, but perhaps that was too human a gesture. Her tone and cadence changed, losing some of her…his…affectations. It reminded Marius of conversations with Nadia. “The two of you have changed. It is what we had hoped for. We have the power now to set things right. You should be remembering…things, from before. What do you know of that time? The wars we fought? Why we fought them?”

A hint of exasperation crept into Marius’ voice. “You want to tell me about it? I wasn’t even reborn yesterday. You are not the one I would go to for history lessons.” In Morgaine’s mind, she seemed to have likened the Black Man to Satan, the Father of Lies. Marius didn’t have quite that medieval a mindset, but still.

“Yes, I can see it. The eyes.” Rebecca nodded. “Not every word is a lie, not every gesture a trap. The truth is my best ally, here. You are more than capable of testing what I say. So test it.”

She waited a moment, watching Marius carefully. He did have his showstone ready, and the Ring of Truth was a simple rote. For Rebecca’s sake, he used it…

“You are the product of a war, waged by the created against their creators. The ones that made this place were betrayed, Marius. Ones like you were the weapons of the betrayers.” Rebecca’s puppeteer spoke through her with renewed conviction, emotion, the likes of which her true self seldom showed. “I am on the side of those who were wronged, who seek vengeance.”

Marius mostly suppressed the grimace. Vengeance had been his Word, once upon a time. Then it became Courage…and now, perhaps it was moot.

“The world has changed. It has become something lesser, shrunken. Weak. This was their chosen path — to make Creation a lesser thing, just to keep some remnant alive. They withdrew. Magic withdrew. But those wronged remain, and we are winning this war. Even now, after all you have done to stop us.”

“The vampire clans are shattered,” Marius scoffed. “The Maeljin that weren’t trapped behind the ghosts’ Gauntlet, we’ve killed. Their plot to shake the earth to pieces failed. I can see where this is going,” he said, nodding skyward. “That’s not going to happen.”

Through Rebecca, the Black Man gave another toothy smile. “So many ways to end this,” she said. “Only one of them has to work. This power you were given is meant to stop us. It is what you are supposed to do. Will you be the tool of these traitors? You still have a choice.”

“Do we? I’m not convinced,” said Marius, though the Black Man’s words rang true.

“I know,” Rebecca told him. “You have been…controlled, before. I know. I saw you. The rage. Was it truly yours?” She smiled.

“You deserve everything I’m going to do to you, and more,” Marius swore. They had met before, on Sojourn Station, out past Pluto. In a wild, Wyld fury, the Marauder, Marius, had torn the Black Man asunder with his bare hands. Of course, that had only been a shell. Again, just there to talk — perhaps to taunt. Then, as now.

“It is freely given, this power,” the Black Man explained. “That is the key. You could join us — set things right. End this, this cycle, this charade, this hollow remnant that was once great. You can defy your makers. You still have a choice.”

Marius gave an impatient nod, his voice nearly a snarl. “Yes, of course. The hard sell. Are you finished, then? Or is it time to renege? Go ahead…try. Take your shot. Wreck her mind. Do you think I wouldn’t, to finish you off? That there’s anything I wouldn’t do? I am what you monsters have made me. It will be the death of you.”

“I think she can hear you,” the Black Man positively crooned. “We will come soon enough.”

Instead of the expected attack, the Nephandus’ presence withdrew. Rebecca blinked, her brow furrowing. Then her face lost its expression. She looked up to the clouds, still spitting dirty rain at them. They were both soaked, of course, but if she was cold, she didn’t let it show. “Marius,” Rebecca said with her usual borderline-indifference. “I had a feeling you might be here.”

He stood across from her, showstone in one hand, a knife in the other. His aura sparkled with Awakened senses, his mind shielded, ready for a battle that now looked like it wasn’t going to happen…at least, not yet. Whatever he really thought of the Black Man’s offer, he wasn’t about to let it show to that bastard just now. “And that’s it? We’ve been here a while, now. Where have you been? Why didn’t you come to Glastonbury with the others?”

Rebecca glanced over her shoulder, looking to the north. “Not all of the Sleepers were ready for that,” she explained. “The Cathayans and I took some to Vancouver. People can’t live here now.”

Marius recalled the settlers from the International District with a frown. Refugees, from Spokane. He couldn’t blame them for not going with the others to Glastonbury. He had tried to kill them, once. Perhaps it left an impression. “I suppose they’re still useful to the Kuei-Jin. And more recently, here? The last few minutes?”

Rebecca shared his frown, or at least a ghost of it, and shook her head.

“All right. We should talk about that. Out of the rain.” He followed as she picked out the nearest house, abandoned, of course, to the layers of ash raining down from Mt. Rainier. Explaining what had just happened to her was bound to be unpleasant. “No offense, but…it’s not safe for you here, alone. Are you going back to Vancouver?”

“No. I don’t have to,” she said, perhaps a little quick about it. It wasn’t much, but Marius didn’t miss it.

“Honestly, your chances with us aren’t much better. Maybe a little.”

“It’s all right. It was different, before. We thought maybe you wouldn’t make it back. But now…”

Marius nodded. “But we did, so I wasn’t about to leave you out here to rot.”

She gave a brusque nod. “It’s appreciated.”

“The others at the Tor will be happy to see you, too. Before we go there, though. About what just happened…”

Ænema

The Last Remaining Light tytalus