The Tower. (February of 2020)

[TW: Mild violence, abusive relationships, delusions, deteriorating mental state, drowning, Real Sad Dandy Hours. As always, if anything occurs in specifically Italics, it takes place exclusively in the internal.]

I was within the Tower Bridge in London with no memory of having gotten there.

That in itself wasn’t odd. Especially when I was stressed, my inworld had a way of dropping me into random areas. I’ve woken up in bloody Budapest before. But there seemed to be something innately off about my surroundings. That, and I was on top of one of the stairwells that led to the walkway, instead of being somewhere it made sense to be. Like hanging out with Calisto, or at a bar with Ethniu. I was alone and it felt wrong.

I was about ready to turn into my crow when I heard singing, echoing through the tower. It was high-pitched and faintly accented. It wasn’t a song I’d heard before, but one that was incredibly familiar to me. Because I was the one who wrote it.

“Before his fairy tale even began, he was lost in the Thames with the souls of the damned.”

That sounded like Hemachandra’s voice.

The hairs were standing on the back of my neck. I envied the times where it would take me about three business days to detect danger, but now, it seemed all around. For all the good that instinct did me.

I didn’t even know anything had hit me until I was sprawling down the stairs. I reached for one of the poles of the banister and my shoulder felt damn-near yanked out of place. My first instinct was to climb to my feet, but I ended up immediately regretting that decision, as the next unseen blow to me had me tumbling over the goddamned banister and crashing onto the stairs below, jarring my entire skeleton.

The wind was thoroughly knocked out of me. It felt like I’d gotten hit by a car. I heard something ping off of the metallic steps. I felt for my pendant– my blue and gold watch pendant that I always thought was somehow attached to my heart in some spiritual way, but at the time, it was under the shoe of Hemachandra.

Fuck.

She was standing at the bottom of the stairs, as if she had been patiently waiting for be done with my painful landing.

My eyes darted for something to use as a weapon, because I am a rubbish protagonist that never actually preps for these sorts of things. Usually, my cane was my go-to, but I didn’t have that on me. In a pinch, I could steal souls, but I imagined trying to steal her would be like downloading a fucking virus, considering.

“I’ve been worried about you,” she said. “Have you been dreaming lately?”

“What?” I was eyeing my clock in her hand. I didn’t even like most people touching it, much less holding it.

She turned the watch over in her hand thoughtfully. “Your symbol should’ve been an hourglass instead of a pocketwatch. When’s the last time you’ve dreamed?”

I stared at her. I honestly would’ve been more at ease if she were still attacking me. Then I could at least see if my hands made their way around her neck in the struggle and the sheer adrenaline, boosted by elemental abilities, could end this quickly.

She looked at me. Her eyes were black as pitch. She was smiling and I found it viscerally revolting. “You know how that’s how it starts. You can’t remember hours, then full days or weeks and suddenly–… well, you fade a lot more quickly when you’re a memory, rather than a story. That’s what happened to her, at least.”

Nebula.

Suddenly, I understood. I’d remembered reading in Nebula’s old journal, how she talked about how days were starting to blur, or how she found she couldn’t dream anymore, and sometimes how she felt like she was haunting her life more than living it. Did that mean–? “I’m not Neb.” How did she know about Neb? Granted, I’m a little more famous. I’m Phisoxa’s beloved abomination and I’d caused the death of Anifayre, someone insanely powerful and famous, just a couple of years before. But hardly anyone even knew who Nebula was, much less what her last months were like.

Hemachandra was walking away from me, exiting the tower and walking, without even a glance back, out to see the river. I lurched after her, eyes fixed on my watch. Hemachandra had taken to spinning it around by its chain. The breeze off of the river greeted me, smelling somewhat briny. “Certainly not. You’re the anti-thesis and you boast about it endlessly. But you weren’t built to last either, are you?”

‘I need to exist.’ That was the line from Zeitstuck, wasn’t it? The story that centered on the very same River Thames that yawned out before me in the early dawn light.

“I’m alive out of spite. In fact, I made a deal that I would live every second that someone wanted me to die, so that I remain immortal.” I may have spent more time thinking about that quip than I did my next move. It was odd. This was clearly the enemy, but she had set the precedent of talking and for some reason, I was following it. Even though she had controlled whatever force had tossed me down the stairs like a defective slinky.

“I’m sure you’ll keep telling yourself that.” She let go of my watch pendant with a motion so casual that it almost looked accidental. My physical heart dropped at the same time my metaphorical one did. “Don’t look at me like that. Maybe the next one will keep your name.”

I leapt from the bridge.

I’d underestimated how high up the bridge was. And the fact that it was still fucking February. The cold absolutely hit me like a brick wall. I fought against the shock as I flailed around for my damned watch. I’d hit right where the splash was, I know I did. I was going to need to come up for air soon but the desperation to find that watch overtook all other needs. It may not have been my actual heart, but it was connected to it somehow and I didn’t want to risk the cursed shit that was liable to happen if this thing ended up buried in the goddamned Thames.

By the time my armed snagged my necklace chain, I was convulsively swallowing to prevent myself from gasping in lungfuls of water. There were a few minutes wherein I played tug of war with Thames and fought to the surface three or four times before Vex, sensing my panic from miles away, dipped her huge hellhound snout into the water to pull me out like she’d won a game of fetch. I wish I could tell you that I survived via my usual brand of sheer hubris, but no, my hellhound mom had my half-drowned body in her huge jaws like a chew toy.

One thorough scolding and some very urgent warming up later, I sat with a cup of tea cupped in my hands as I recounted the tale to the Chaotics Queen, Aluciel. Ritual was also around, hovering to hear the details.

Ritual sort of reminded me of Zara, which I would write off to my mind copying if I hadn’t met Ritual years before I ever knew Zara. She was achingly beautiful and seemingly sweet, but had a nasty habit of suggesting that some people are too crazy to live and should be executed. She’d not only voted against Sumire, but myself a couple of years ago.

And, I’m not one to hold a grudge, but…

“She just talked with you?” Queen Aluciel summed up with a raised eyebrow. “She didn’t try to kill you, she… threw your necklace in the river?”

“You forget the part where she also bulldozed me down a large flight of stairs. And I almost drowned.” See, a lot of people idealize my inworld and express envy that I have that to ‘escape to.’ And most times, it’s very much a reflection of what I’m going through on the surface.

“Xanthe, did she push you into or did you jump?” It wasn’t that Aluciel couldn’t recall that detail. She knew, and she was just proving a point.

“That, ah–”

That’s when Ritual piped up. I could feel myself reining myself in pre-emptively. “I just find it interesting that she was talking to you like she was worried about you and just banged you up to get your attention. And when Sumire ran into her, we practically had to scrape him off the forest floor. He’s still recovering.”

I stared at her. “Weren’t you the one who voted for him to be put down like a rabid pitbull?”

Ritual narrowed her eyes. “That was over four hundred years ago, Xanthe.”

“I’ll go ahead and hold that grudge for him,” I said coldly. I was fidgeting with my clock pendant and winced when my fingers brushed across its bare face. Its protective casing must’ve been lost in the Thames, which was one more part of me lost in the Thames than I was comfortable with.

Aluciel was already motioning for Ritual to leave the room, but the girl hovered. “So, he’s lying in bandages while Chandra sought you out for a conversation.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Trust me, if it was between this conversation and critical condition, then I know which one I’d pick.” I winced subtly. There I was, worried about a friend, and showing it by being a dick. I was at least comforted by the fact that Sumire probably would’ve laughed. He ended up fine, by the way.

“Out,” Aluciel told Ritual tersely, a few minutes too late, I thought. Once the wispy, small woman had exited the room, Aluciel looked to me. “Why is she seeking you out?”

I shrugged. Phisoxa’s heir? I have a part of my soul that’s worth its weight in gold if one would harvest it? Good way to fuck with Vex, the literal princess of Atlantis? “I think she’s just fucking with me. She tells me I’m going to die and all that. Like Neb did. Maybe she doesn’t even think it’s worth taking me out.” I didn’t mention the previous conversation, wherein Hemachandra thought we were terribly alike. That wouldn’t bode well for me, no matter how true.

Aluciel glanced out the window, at Andrew Lengston’s perfect, pristine rose garden, then back at me. “You’ve never been one to be favoured by public opinion.”

“Cheers. Love you too, Queenie.” I used to call Alcaeus ‘Kingy.’ The former Chaotics monarch liked it about as much as Aluciel did.

She gave me a leveling look. “Of course, being as new to the throne as I am, I don’t have the influence or experience to defend you, should it come to that. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I was already climbing to my feet, trying not to wince as I pulled on my jacket. “Someone defending me? You’d have to remind me of what that even looks like.”

I couldn’t help but see the looks I was afforded as I walked through the mansion. Distrustful, speculating, staring at me as though I were a danger. Sometimes the inworld is a mirror.

And it wasn’t going to get lighter on either side.

The next time I was on the surface, I realised that my watch pendant was missing its protective casing. Also, part of the three had rubbed off, just as it had in the inworld. I remember staring at it for a long while before putting it into my jewelry box.

As above, so below.

In other news, this was to be my first, and as it turns out, my only Valentine’s day that I were to spend with a romantic partner. I was actually pretty excited.

Kaspar and their variety of partners usually had pre-standing plans by the time I even realised there was a holiday in the month of February. And April made up a dead friend who died tragically on Valentine’s day and refused to treat the holiday with anything but vitriol, which was exceedingly symbolic of her idea of romance. But hell, a Valentine’s day where I could actually spend it with someone I was in love with? The holiday itself may have been a Hallmark scam, but I was fucking stoked.

Granted, the inworld felt ominous and the intervention was haunting me in ways I didn’t expect to sink so far into my psyche. I was second-guessing everything I said, wondering if it was being used as fodder for another four-on-one gangbang on my self-esteem. And I was also wondering how Hemachandra played into it, or why the entity we all had sworn we saw suddenly turned into a figment of just my imagination.

And Arkady’s lie about me? What the fuck was that about?

Once I felt more like myself, I definitely made it clear that via screenshots that his assertion that I didn’t even ask about him or show concern when he made it known he was ‘randomly anxious’ was bullshit.

“I didn’t remember at the time,” Arkady texted back. “But yes, you’re right, you did ask, and I forgot.”

“Well, I’m glad you remember now, but you told a different story to everyone else in that intervention.”

I wanted him to clear me, in at least that regard. As publicly as he had unintentionally lied about me. I could practically feel the torches and pitchforks forming in the hands of the mob in this world and that adjacent.

Arkady texted me back. “I really wish you would stop calling it an intervention.”

I laid my phone down. I knew I was going to argue with him and, fuck, we were going to have Valentine’s day to look forward to. If I could just hold my tongue and not be a dick for like two days, that would be lovely.

It was the day before the holiday. Arkady and I were seated on the couch, just peacefully scrolling on our phones, when I caught sight of his tattoo. Both his and mine were visible.

Black and white, two animals, on both of our left arms. His was an Ouroboros– a symbol that had followed him through life, at first as a painting in his mother’s house, and something that had entranced him.

Mine was a white crow; a symbol of life beyond death.

All before we’d ever known each other.

“When did you get your tattoo? Like, the date?” I asked, curiously.

“Um…” He thought about it, pursing his lips. “December… 9th, I think? Yeah. 2017.”

I blinked. “Are you serious?” I was grinning. I checked my phone calendar just to be certain, but it all matched up. “You got yours twelve days after I got mine. The same distance between our birthdays. I remember because mine ended up being delayed, and the next available appointment just happened to be Phisoxa’s birthday.”

Tattoos: November 27th and December 9th.

Birthdays: November 5th and November 17th.

We’ve always been twelve days apart.

Arkady was staring at our tattoos pensively. I honestly couldn’t tell what he was feeling. But I felt a relief and warmth that was nothing but reassuring. “Chandra, in the other plane? She keeps taunting me. Telling me how she and I are more twin souls than you and I are. But when I see shit like this, I…”

Arkady’s fingers laced with mine. “She’s a dumbass if she thinks that.”

I nodded and smiled. Things have been rough lately, but Valentine’s day was coming up. If I let my bullshit ruin that, then… Hell, there’d be no hope for me.

That night, we had a round of ‘family wrestling’? I was hesitant to even write about this because I thought it might have been a weird fever dream I had. We were drunk and/or high and listening to music. There was a galaxy lamp running and we just decided to just… hold wrestling matches in the living room. I think it was March’s idea, but I’m not entirely certain.

The first match, though, was between Arkady and March. If this was, indeed, just an excuse March to try to beat up Arkady, it did not work on his favour. I loved watching his superior speed and grace best March’s brute strength. I participated once and actually had a lot of fun– of course, I would only wrestle Arkady. It was funny, neither of us actually let up and there was no clear winner. Just two stubborn Scorpios taking turns being an unstoppable force and an immovable object.

I’m sure that’s not symbolic of anything.

“You’re actually stronger than I thought,” Arkady gasped afterward.

I remember beaming at that. I was doubtlessly one of the physically weakest in my inworld and the fact that Hemachandra batted me around like a cat toy definitely bruised my ego, but hearing that helped.

I also remember that March and Ash figured it their turn to wrestle and it quickly turned into March just pinning Ash down in a quite sexual manner and Ash writhing under him. They eventually started hissing and speaking in a language I’m sure they thought was Fae.

It’s exactly as funny as you think it is.

“[Ash],” Arkady said warningly. They stopped and we decided that maybe it was time to put an end to throwing us around a room when we were all intoxicated.

Then it was Valentine’s day.

Ash, the things you love doing are on the couch and stoned off your gourd and/or anyone you can get your hands on. You can’t even take care of your pets, how are you going to run a whole farm? Come on now.

I think I had the day off, that day. I was at a sushi place downtown, writing, when I saw the post above. I tried to shove down the crackling anxiety within me.

But no! Today would be a good time!!

It was going to be a good time, damn it!! I ignored the obvious vaguepost aimed at me and continued to write until my chariot arrived.

Ash, March, and Arkady all picked me up. We were going to go to the conservatory.

The conservatory excursion was nothing but pleasant. I spent a lot of it mostly being everyone’s photographer, even feeling charitable enough to give March some glamour shots. (Correction: I went back in my photo gallery and found that I only managed a total of one. It was a very valiant effort on my part, though, considering I don’t possess his selfie-editing skills.) We walked through heated and humid rooms full of beautiful plants, turtles, doves, and tiny waterfalls. It was if atmosphere was wrapping its leafy tendrils around me and giving me the hug I so fucking needed.

Conceal, don’t feel. Conceal, don’t feel.

After the conservatory, the four of us went to The Spirit Room. See, they have this drink there that’s on the menu as, ‘Feeling lucky?’ The bartender hands you a stack of Tarot cards and tells you to cut the deck. Whichever card is revealed, he’ll make a drink for you based on it. Which, honestly, 10/10 gimmick. It doesn’t hurt that Jake is also very good at Tarot.

I wasn’t well-versed in Tarot at the time, but we had fun chatting with the bartender. We told them we were a polycule out for Valentine’s Day, who was dating whom. I wish I could tell you what the other three drew. But goddamn if my ass didn’t draw the fucking Tower.

For those unfamiliar with Tarot, the Tower is pretty much one of the most daunting cards you’re ever going to get. It basically says, ‘Everything in your life is about to fall apart. It’s going to get ugly, and you’re going to break in new and exciting ways!’

“Oof,” Arkady murmured, staring at my card. His hand squeezed my shoulder. “I think you’re in for it.” It was a tone that was attempting to be teasing, but held too much weight for whimsy to take off.

My face was carefully blank. Haven’t I been in for it already?

Two years later, I’m mopping the floors at the same bar, gathering information for this very blog. “Hey, Jake. You remember when myself and the polycule came and we all had Tarot drinks when we came for Valentine’s Day?”

“Uh-huh, and you drew the Tower?” Gods, he was quick with that one. I can only imagine how we looked, that day. A polycule of four– two of which had only recently moved from out of state, with limited connections to the city outside of said polycule. And one of us draws the fucking Tower on Valentine’s day, of all days. That would’ve been burned into my brain, too.

I laughed and sipped at my after-work drink. Some sort of gin and soda in a can. It had the Popeye-spinach effect that I needed to haul the barmats outside to be hosed down. “I didn’t know shit about Tarot, mate. You couldn’t have warned a dandy?”

Jake laughed– a booming sound that tended to echo off the crowded walls. “Would you have listened?”

“Well, ah–”

“Uh-huh, see? You had to find out for yourself, didn’t you?”

I did. A plastic eyeball rolled out from one of the wells as I swept. “Fuck. I wish I could go back in time and had seen the look on your face.”

“Now that you know me better?” he asked. I imagine it was quite the sight. I’m sure he made the drink out of one of those thin, tall glasses that used to be a prayer candle. I’m sure it had Mezcal or Scotch in it, something that burned all the way down. I imagined his eyebrows were raised the entire time as he shook the tins, wondering to himself when the hammer was going to fall. “When only two of you were actually talking to me and the other two looked vaguely displeased at an outsider speaking to you, I’m like, ‘This won’t end well.’”

I always did wonder why Jake offered me a glass of champagne on the house that day. He might have thought I needed it. Arkady and I were having fun talking to him, though. The other two seemed, well, just a bit quiet.

Myself with the champagne.

As planned, we all went back to the house. We were to finish off the evening by enjoying dinner as a family and watching a film.

“Just so you know,” Arkady told me, gently. “I do plan to be intimate with a gear tonight.” ‘Gear’ was his nickname for me. “But I would like to be intimate with a leaf, first.” Leaf was, of course, Ash.

I couldn’t stop the blush from blooming.

Oh.

I could give a fuck about sex, I really could. Pun intended. What I really craved was forgiveness and reassurance in physical form. A hug, but rated X.

But gods, the fact that he was making time for just me?

Maybe Valentine’s day was all it cracked up to be.

The other three tended to be indecisive when it came to film choices, so I gathered three to choose from. I honestly sort of forget the other two, but one was Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. That’s what we voted for.

I thought it was a great choice to end the evening. Gods know Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr had quite the romantic/sexual tension on-screen as Holmes and Watson. Plus, this film had Stephen Fry as Mycroft! What wasn’t there to love?

Well. Uh.

I hadn’t watched this film for a while.

And see, both Ash and March were allegedly Romani in heritage. I say ‘allegedly’ because they both lied about a lot, but something like that is hard to prove or disprove. March lied about having an entire dead twin and Ash lied about being the Unseelie Fae King. Hate to fake-claim ethnicity, but let’s be real, here: everything’s up for questioning.

Well, Romani have a feature in this particular film and not the most politically correct of representation. G-slurs and even a generalized comment about the race having a ‘smell.’

There was a welling terror that I kept desperately trying to push down. I chose wrong, I ruined this, I ruined everything, I poison everything I touch, I’m crazy, I’ll be punished for this, I–

“I don’t appreciate the insult to my people,” March hissed into Ash’s ear. His tone was full of resentment, as if I had chosen this and let us all vote for it specifically to hurt him. He stalked upstairs and that felt like its own condemnation.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

The film ended. I couldn’t even remember the end of it. My head was already dense and swirling with dread. I don’t think I even felt surprised when Arkady said that he wouldn’t be down for our plans for later. “I’m sorry, I feel just kind of… randomly anxious, for some reason,” he said.

Randomly anxious.

Randomly anxious.

Ṛ̷̚ a̴̡̓ ń̶̦ d̶̹̑ o̶̥̐m̵͖͝ ľ̴̻ y̷̯̿ ̶̮̓ á̴̹ n̴͎͐ x̴̫̐ į̴̒ o̴̧̾ u̴̹̓ s̷̡̋.̶̛̟

The phrase was in my bones, my ventricle system, my pulse, locked in the folds of my brain matter. It was the red alert, blaring the alarm that I’ve fucked up, that I wouldn’t even know in what ways I’ve fucked up until I was walking into a room full of people ready to condemn me. “Can we… try again?” I choked out.

This was me talking, by the way. This is definitely the sort of situation Story would end up fronting in, but I remember my line of thoughts in this. See, I had limited control of time in my inworld. But I didn’t know ‘the other plane’ was my inworld, so maybe I had time powers outside of it. And maybe if I did this entire day over, planned for every thing that could go wrong, maybe I would earn the love I craved.

“Xanthe, what are you saying?” Arkady didn’t understand and I don’t blame him. I could barely communicate what was in my head, but it didn’t stop me from trying, goddamn it.

“We could try… doing it over. I’m sorry, maybe I got my hopes up too much and I wasn’t paying attention. I just need to–… fix it.” I needed him to understand. I would reverse time for him, I would break reality itself, just so today would go alright and I wouldn’t be a fucking burden to him for once. But I was mid panic attack, incoherent. I could vaguely tell that he was also agitated, but I couldn’t comprehend how or what I could do– other than doing everything that day over.

Arkady stared at me. I couldn’t tell what was in his eyes and that scared me more than anything. I could tell I was going off the rails. I was watching myself do so. “I can’t do this,” he said roughly, walking away from me.

I think he went up the stairs then. Maybe. All I know is that I checked my phone and that it was two hours later. “You know how that’s how it starts. You can’t remember hours, then full days or weeks and suddenly–”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. FUCK.

At some point, I remember that I knocked on Arkady’s door. It’d occurred to me that I’d probably triggered him– that in the same conversation that he was refusing sex, that I was insisting that we ‘try.’ We were talking about two entirely different things, but he’d been sexually traumatized a lot like I had.

After all, when you spend six years in a relationship with someone who responds to, “I’m not feeling it” with “Can you channel someone who is?”, you get to feeling that consent is no one’s first priority.

I was told to come in by someone. I can’t remember if it was Arkady or Ash. I opened the door shakily. “Hey, I’m sorry. You… You said that you were ‘randomly anxious’ and that’s what you said before you basically lied about me and I remembered the intervention and–”

“GET OUT.” Arkady was shouting at me. I was stuck by how commonplace this nightmare was getting. I could see only the vague form of him in the dark, pointing at the door. “GET OUT. GET OUT!” He sounded rough and vicious, like the bite of a feral animal after you’ve gotten too close.

And I did. I ran down the stairs, all the way to the bottom of the house. There was a little alcove in the basement, separate from the rest, but not Arkady’s greenlit necromancy room. I curled up in there, shaking all over. I was sobbing again. There were all sorts of confusing, painful thoughts about wanting to reverse time, about my time running out, about ending up like Nebula. That I wish I could tell Arkady about any of this but since my Gaslamp theory had been dismissed as delusion, this could be as well. It’d be thought of as manipulative, and too convenient.

Then one pitiful, superficial thought broke through all the others: This is my first Valentine’s day with a partner and I’m spending it bitterly sobbing in the basement.

Ash wasn’t too far behind. They came down to seek me out. They tried to gently ask what was wrong and I told them about my complex with my brand new trigger phrase. “Well, I think you should talk this over with [Arkady.]” They told me, about as useful as always.

They seemed to either want to convince me to go back up talk to Arkady anyway or pick apart my testimony, but I wasn’t coherent enough for either. All I wanted to do was cry. I wasn’t even prepared to look through my shattered thoughts. They eventually left me alone in that basement, with the unfinished floors and the vague smell of dust and clay.

Once the panic and the fresh pain wore away, I sniffled and wiped my eyes. “I’d rather be in the fucking Thames.”

“Just hang in there, I’ll figure this out.”

I paused. That was not my voice.

Xhaxhollari hadn’t meant to say that out loud. But as desperate as the situation was, a guardian angel might just have to intervene.