(Xhaxhollari and I worked together on this one– it seemed the easiest way to tell the story that neither of us fully remember. This entire dialogue and the stories discussed within it took place in the inworld. TW: Horror themes, existentialism, murder, suicide, death, grief, terror, apocalypse, gaslighting, memory issues. This blog also contains screenshots of severe verbal abuse and blackmail from ‘April’ to myself. To those just tuning in, ‘April’ is the codename of my worst abuser. ‘Kieran’ is the codename to the twin that she made up and replaced herself with in order to transition and to fool Xhax and I into thinking they were two separate people.)
“What do you remember?” It’s a question we traded amongst ourselves during that bleak, nebulous, fever dream of a battle.
“What do you remember?”
The two of us have grown accustomed to the fact that someone else will usually remember what one didn’t. But simple questions like, ‘When did this take place?’ were hard to answer. Sometime between October of 2015 and January of 2016, is the best we can come up with.
“I definitely remember Oscar Wilde’s birthday,” I recalled. “I wasn’t there much at that point, though. I was trying to play nice with [April] until Wandyr was born.” I chewed on my lip. “I remember I broke up with her the day that David Bowie died. Just a coincidence. But I can’t remember much before or after.”
“What do you know?”
The question hung between us. I sort of thought like I was being chastised. “That things got apocalyptic for a while. And that it was basically a massacre–… but not all one event.” I paused. “Kaspar died. So did Prosper. Sound and JaK. I think Aberle was close to it. We were playing the ‘long game’ and losing people left and right.” I realised that I used ‘we.’ “You were there. I mean. You’re always there, but I knew you were.”
Xhaxhollari nodded. “I will never let you know more than you’re able. But thanks to [Ash], much of this was leaked to you before I deemed it safe.”
I raised my eyebrows and nodded emphatically. We were in my clocktower. It wasn’t ideal for my feeling comfortable. After months of trying to trick my mind to give me a proper home, it still looked more like the nest of a Victorian magpie more than it did a home– sparsely furnished, but there were two armchairs facing each other near a bookshelf. My therapist had suggested I spend more time in this area of my inworld to feel more like I had a welcome and safe place within it. I wasn’t certain it was working. “What am I allowed to know, then?”
Apocalyptic was an understatement. I wondered, then, how it seemed that the walls had ears and that April and the combined inworld were always two steps ahead of us. Once Xanthe had reached the decision to break up with April, everything grew so much worse. I hadn’t even thought it could.
The constant arguments, the hopelessness, the every moment of joy and expression being squashed someone insisting on taking it badly. One poorly-worded statement would end up as a near murder or suicide attempt. I apologize for the vagueness. It’s a necessity.
Our days were a blur of fear, watching our phone for updates, and doing the bare minimum to survive. As before, I was mostly on the outside with Xanthe dealing on everything from the inside. I knew, vaguely, that the inworld situation was getting worse— A lot of yelling and tears and blood and gore, usually with Xanthe desperately pulling strings right in the middle of it.
The tide of the battle changed when Kaspar died.
“How did it happen?” Xanthe asked, staring at me as they clutched their drink in their hand. “I was told that it did– nothing more.”
I stared at them for a long time before I told them. I would’ve much rather they hadn’t known this in the first place, but the knowledge was too solid. I could sooner move a mountain.
Koji and Prosper had been having a fight. Prosper was known in the inworld as the ‘Viscount of Poison’– it was his element, his specialty, a skill of his that sometimes slipped past his control.
It was much like any other crisis at first. Prosper began having a mental breakdown in response to Koji’s request for… you know, support; everyone around him came down with symptoms of poisoning– the laboured breathing, the rashes, the weakness, sometimes coughing up blood.
“Very Hollywood.” Xanthe interrupted. “Coughing up blood and falling over. No one ever wants to think about people sweating and cramping and vomiting to death.”
I nodded. “You evacuated everyone you saw around. Koji was very close to a fatal poisoning and you were focused on saving him. And as the smoke cleared, so to speak, Marie raised an alarm in the room after she went to check on Kaspar in the next room. No one realised that they had been in range.”
Xanthe looked stricken. “Marie found Kaspar?” Marie was Kaspar’s longest standing partner and a lifelong friend before that. Her devotion to Kaspar bordered on worship even on the best of days. “Fuck.”
“Then you rushed in. I think you must’ve recognized the tone of Marie’s voice from down the hall and realized something was terribly wrong.” Xanthe was the second to see Kaspar. On the floor of Dominic’s library, veins a purple spider’s web underneath their pale Slavic skin, fingers gnarled and locked in a pose of agony, hauntingly still. There were books in various states of reveal and dishevelment around them, as if they had tried to reach out for a line of books and taken them down as they fell.
Xanthe cleared their throat. “Prosper was one of April’s people originally, you know. A character that, when upset, would poison everything around him. Freud would surely like a word about that.” Xanthe wanted me to laugh, I knew. Get us both on a tangent of mocking April. Maybe then wed skip over the worst details of what happened with Kaspar– but Aberle and I were tired of carrying this ourselves.
“You crouched down next to them. You repeated their name, with an understandable urgency. You felt along their arms for limpness or stiffness. You were… afraid to touch them at first, as if Kaspar might be offended. You were looking for a pulse, but by that time, Kaspar had been dead for… About a half hour, I’d guess? They’d grown cold.” There was usually some period in these crises, even after the heart had stopped, where a panicked crowd would do anything from chest compression to straight-up necromancy to pull off a miraculous revival. The only other time the situation had seemed this far gone, JaK was floating face-down in the river. There would be no miraculous revival in this world. “Then, disturbingly, you kept repeating apologies over and over. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I’m sorry, please just fix it.'”
Xanthe bit their lip. We both knew that the apology wasn’t a mourning confession for Kaspar, but instead a meek, ingrained string of pleading towards April or anyone who was listening for her. Xanthe still has that reaction. There was a long pause. “You ever see that anime, Higurashi? With that scene where that kid is being stabbed to death by the friend who had lost the plot that season and the friend is just shouting ‘I’m sorry’? And if they said a thousand ‘I’m sorry’s, the murder would stop and it could still be salvaged? April watched that show. I wouldn’t be surprised if she used that for inspiration for her weird apology thing she always did.”
“I’d bet on it,” I sighed. “A crowd had gathered by that time. Marie was asking what could be done– if Prosper should be brought to justice. She was alternating between sobbing and raging and you finally snapped, ‘It’s not his fault, god fucking damn it!’ You were pulling at your hair like you tend to.” At this, Xanthe dropped their hand from their head. “You were rambling, as if you were trying to undo it by sheer bargaining. You even decided to out your fondness for them by saying, ‘I haven’t even kissed them yet.'”
“Tch.” Xanthe shook their head. “And what, [April] didn’t believe me?”
“It wasn’t [April.]”
Xanthe furrowed their brow and looked at me. Their lips parted to ask a question, but none came out.
“[Kieran] basically confronted me afterwards, with a ‘What the fuck was that?’ He was startled. He thought I had done it.”
“Then who the fuck–”
“The inworld. The system itself. I ask myself why often. I have theories.” I took a breath. “Sometimes, I wonder if the system wanted to punish you. You’d made the decision to break up with [April] and she knew.”
Xanthe snorted. “Wonder why.”
Yes, yes, now knowing that Kieran and April were on in the same, it was obvious. Hindsight’s a bitch.
I lifted my palms in defense. “There’s only so many times I can self-flagellate for that.”
Xanthe squinted at me. “Once more, for luck.”
I sighed and chose to continue my earlier tangent. “I don’t think it was a punishment, though. It may have been to spare everyone from more needless suffering. Or… to motivate you. You’re Phisoxa’s line. Having Kaspar meant having something to lose, something to care about, something to keep you human. Honestly, I think this is why you’re on the hyper-romantic side.” (Xanthe had been feeling self-conscious with that attribute for a while.) “It keeps you soothed. It gives you more romanticism to cling to. It’s how you bring your whimsical world into spaces with too much misery in them. But the system didn’t need you soothed, sane, or happy. It needed you unhinged and ready to burn shit to the ground.”
Xanthe let out a laugh, despite themself. “Damn. All this time I knew Kaspar had died, I blamed [April.] I can’t say I’m wracked with guilt about that.”
“It is her fault. Just not her decision. She stressed the entire system out so much that the inworld was essentially eating itself.” As sophisticated as the inworld seemed, it was remarkably like a feral pet. “You ran off after that. Out of the back door and I just couldn’t find you. I thought that you’d hanged yourself in the woods or something.”
Xanthe started to ask a question. I knew what they were going to ask. ‘Why didn’t I?’ then appeared to have thought better of it. “What did I do?”
I shrugged. “The next time I saw you was weeks later. I’d pretended to be you, to try to stop any worsening crises, which there were many. Any difference in ‘you’ was assumed to be grief. I don’t think I was adept at doing your accent yet. I figured you were gone; and that when [April] figured that out, she might lash out even more, knowing that [Kieran] wanted her to be next. But then, there you were. And you could see me. You started talking to me, saying how you went to Freystadt and you’ve found journals discovering how Phisoxa created you to ‘break this reality’, how you haven’t slept and knew how to see me. You thought you could fix this, by breaking this world down and creating it anew. You compared it to starting a video game over when you got the wrong ending. You also told me that by refusing to sleep, you’d ‘unlocked what sleep keeps caged in [you].’ I think you had the idea from that Creepypasta, ‘Russian Sleep Experiment’?” Xanthe had looked like an absolute maniac. They looked sickly, pale and shaking, rambling and shooting off jokes as if they were firecrackers.
“Sounds like a perfectly reasonable explanation. I don’t know why you were worried,” Xanthe commented dryly.
“The thing is… You suddenly had my understanding of the world. It was like you could see who April still influenced and why. We were sharing the role of gatekeeper– You… could sense catastrophes that happened. And if you didn’t get to them in time, you stole your headmates just before they departed.” I remembered Xanthe crouching over Calisto’s bullet-pierced body, his maroon and powder blue soul swirling in the palm of Xanthe’s hand before the glass frosted over it. Their eyes were glazed over with a calm focus, despite their bloodshot and shadowed appearance. “There, now. Nothing to fear, just your puppet strings snapping off.” I shuddered at the memory.
“So, I was basically like Phisoxa after Dax had run off,” Xanthe surmised.
I shook my head. “Phisoxa was more haphazard. Lashing out like a supernatural disaster. You were… methodical. Who you couldn’t manipulate from [April]’s influence, you stole. Who you didn’t steal, you decided wasn’t worth salvaging– people who the system never grew attached to… I remember at one point, I asked you where Aberle was. And you matter-of-factly said, ‘Probably dead or dying.’ It was eerie.”
“Oh, great, I love how my lover’s death was the opening act, that’s a good sign.” Xanthe was talking faster than usual now, their hand back to pulling at their hair.
“We worked together– you, [Kieran], Aberle, and I.” I continued. “Coordinating I still acted as you and [Kieran] was the only one who ever saw the two of us in the same place. You–… even seemed to know what I was up to, regarding [Kieran.] At one point, you called me a ‘rather angelic Judas’ while thanking me, maybe implying you knew we’d originally meant to replace you.”
“Oh, I was comparing myself to Jesus?” Xanthe laughed. “Good to know I knew and wasn’t cross with you.”
I coughed. Xanthe would later insist that was a laugh. They’re still not convinced. At one point, they asked, “What did [Kieran] even do to help?”
“Make embittered comments and make everyone dying about how sad he is. He actually tried to have his own dying scene a couple of times, but they just never took.” That fact made us both smile. I decided to skip ahead a bit. “In the end, the world looked like a circle of Hell. There was nothing outside of Dominic’s house. The only colours left were black, white, and crimson. The televisions were displaying the names of the fallen–”
“I’ve seen this before!”
I’d had that nightmare for seemingly years. Red lighting can still make me nervous. The bodies of everyone who had died lately, dozens of them, were still on the floor. They weren’t even decaying, just statuesque tributes to everyone I failed to protect, frozen in their moment of tragic departure.
Names of the fallen did flash on the telly. It was static, with that sensory hell of hissing that went along with it, warping as if text itself couldn’t handle the truth of it all. Everyone was gone. Everyone.
It would have been easier if there was just a common enemy. Some sort of Cloverfield monster that picked us off. But no, just the increasing stress of a tortured mind and the system had just started tearing itself apart. Lovers killing lovers, fathers killing their children, people getting caught in the crossfire.
I walked through the house with purpose– seeing everything. A pale hand locked around an empty pill bottle. A parent’s body curled protectively around a child that was no longer moving. I was so terrified– that sort of paralysing terror that only the last survivors of horror movies could relate to. I walked to the attic. I was after April. There was only one thing left that I meant to do.
But I always woke before I opened that door.
“What happened when I got there? I remember hearing her crying behind the door and– nothing.”
“I don’t know. I’d… left, by that point.” Xhaxhollari looked embarrassed to admit it. “There didn’t seem to be anything to go back to.”
“And when you did?”
“It was years later. I was mostly dormant, aside from reaching out to make certain [Kieran] was replacing what was left of [April] and going to contacting you.” Xhaxhollari sipped at his tea, clutching the delicate china with both hands as if it kept him grounded. “I was vaguely aware of someone fronting. I didn’t think it was you. I thought you’d died, in that forsaken realm.”
Anyone would rush to tell you that alters can’t ‘die.’ But they can split and be unrecognisable, or go dormant. And also– we didn’t know we were a system. Xhaxhollari and I both thought that this was another dimension, another plane, another timeline and that these were real people that were dying, and wouldn’t come back. “Ye of little faith!” I teased, standing up to refill my glass. My inworld stock of booze usually approximately mimicked my outworld– I wanted an Old Fashioned, but I haven’t figured out how to store ice while squatting in the clocktower. I settled for brandy.
“Well. You literally told me that you wouldn’t survive that,” Xhaxhollari clarified.
So, what, I opened the door to the abyss and it just spat me back out? Sounds about right. “Sorry for getting your hopes up.”
Xhaxhollari’s lips pulled up in what I called ‘his pissy smile.’ I think all those years covering my shifts in customer service trained him to smile pleasantly in the face of absolute nuisances. “Aberle told you the rest, I understand.”
I nodded. It could be exhausting, having to consult multiple people on my own history, but this was the name of the game. Aberle had already told me what had happened when I came back to the inworld. That I’d fallen through a mirror, looking like I was about a minute from death, shaking– I’d arrived to a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone was alive again, as if that period of sanity-cracking terror never happened. Apparently, I’d found Kaspar and just wrapped my arms around them and squeezed them as tight as I could, shaking. Aberle said that Kaspar had been about to admonish me for PDA but saw how much of a wreck I was and caught me before I passed out. “You’d snapped out of the icy Tommy Shelby routine. It was like you’d gotten your heart back– well, not in great shape. Your heart nearly gave out, apparently. Erratic rhythms, lack of nourishment, lack of sleep– your cortisol levels were higher than Cecil had ever seen,” Aberle had told me. “And you were freaked the fuck out at first. But you couldn’t understand how you’d seen us all die and we were just… there. So, you just– went with it. I knew what was happening because that’s what happened to me, too. I thought I was going crazy. I was sure everyone had died and that I was one of the only ones left, but. There they were.”
“I was relieved, at first, that you didn’t believe it happened.” Oh, right, Xhaxhollari could usually tell what I was thinking about. “It seemed like a mercy to you– the system doing its job right. But you hadn’t split– you were still damaged by what you’d been through; you just didn’t know what had caused it. I think I knew part of you still remembered when you were reading the Manga, ‘The Innocent.’ It… reminded you of what you thought you’d only dreamt of. And you felt guilty because you couldn’t save the character.”
I nodded. The scene of that little French twink’s execution in front of everyone was brutal. I was too fucked up to really even understand where I was for a day. “It didn’t make sense to me,” I recalled. I was thinking back to a particular scene in Bioshock Infinite. I was always slow at getting through games and had only just come across when Elizabeth brought Chen Lin back to life.
In order to advance in the game, you need to consult with Chen Lin. But of course, since nothing is ever simple, Chen Lin is dead by the time you find him. But Elizabeth, the alternate dimension traveler that she is, finds a timeline wherein he was never killed. The transition from dead to alive isn’t seamless, and the poor codger seemed a bit unhinged by the experience of remembering dying, then being alive. “How would you reconcile that?” Elizabeth had asked Booker.
“I couldn’t… reconcile it.” I said, knowingly referencing the scene I’d fixated on without knowing why. “I had symptoms of straight-up shellshock without this body ever having been to war. I wanted to see a therapist about how I couldn’t get the screaming out of my head from a tragedy I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know why scenes of character death fucked me up.”
Xhaxhollari cleared his throat. “A drawback to memories overwriting themselves. The story’s gone, but the damage isn’t.”
“And now I have the story back.” The story was more valuable than my sanity– at least, the only one of the two still salvageable.
I knew the rest already; that Aberle wasn’t the only one that remembered seeing me like that. Unhinged, stealing souls and abandoning others. And in true Zeitstück fashion, I never bothered to tell anyone what I was doing and let them think me a villain.
The system members who did remember thought that I destroyed an entire plane to get revenge for Kaspar. They thought me selfish, unstable, too powerful to be contained. I’d endure at least a couple of trials over a period of years as to whether it was worth keeping me alive. But no one ever told me that they remembered me like that. It was like a shadow I couldn’t shake.
And this story made even more sense in the context of 2020, watching my life fall down around me, calling Aberle in the middle of the night and saying, ‘Maybe I was supposed to die then. Maybe I fucked up the timeline and that’s why everything is falling apart.’
I even blamed myself for the fucking coronavirus— but I get ahead of myself.
Ash and Arkady would discover this story years afterwards, from Aberle, and reached the conclusion that I had literally erased April from existence as revenge.
Gods, I wish they’d been right.