Chapter 1: A Curious Girl (Under Glass)
If the house looked unlived in, a little cold and dusty and bleakly bright, that’s because it was. The furniture, the bizarre old statues were mostly the same, treated some twenty years with the same gentle neglect, and the effect was half-mausoleum, half-museum: a vast and sterile cairn waiting for insubstantial scholars to riffle through couch cushions or absentee mourners to leave flowers on counters.
Impossible to part with, the old house throttled Rose like an albatross, a physical manifestation of the lost past, so many locked doors. In her kindest assessment, it was quite like a military base, made first for training and then a jump-off to a wider world; sentiment made as much sense as calling an orange-doored storage unit ‘home’. Yet, tapping her heels against the tile and running fingers along the marble, Rose did feel a sense of the present in the old house, diffusing like fading daylight through the lavender shades. Just no future.
Tucked in the kitchen-desk recess, the old-school answering machine —voicemail was inadequate for the sheer number of calls she ignored— blinked like a motion sensor warning away a visitor too close to a gallery’s exhibits. It chronicled encroachment; thirty-seven different intrusions, about four for each week she was gone. She considered the likelihood any of it would matter, index finger applying half-pressure to the erase button, but was distracted by a steady drip from the water dispenser in the refrigerator door. The fix: stop it up with a paper towel. After, she ignored the quiet beeps and plugged in her laptop, ten days dead, to coax it back to life.
Rose hadn’t minded the brief seclusion, traveling completely untethered, but in the meantime it looked like John had something that just could not wait, and of course made this known incessantly.
EB: hey rose!
EB: you’ve got mail!
EB: no really, check your messages.
EB: you’re in for a treat!
EB: rose, where are you?
EB: seriously, return the call.
EB: this could be huge!
EB: dude, don’t make me look like an asshole.
EB: i went out on a limb for you here.
EB: so just check your voicemail, would you please??
The time stamps showed he’d been patient enough; it must have nearly killed him. Well, let him wait a while longer, she smirked.
Rose microwaved her huge cup of airport coffee and thumbed through her latest notebooks, all covered in green linen and tied shut with leather thongs. These were filled with interviews with Ethiopian blacksmiths, all canvassed in a quest to trace an interesting regional lycanthropy, thought to be hereditary between master and apprentice. No biting, no blood transmission, only the tradesmen were implicated. Fascinating.
Africa itself was endlessly interesting to Rose, and she found the weather and the landscape, the endless robin’s egg sky, enlivening, a sauna for the soul. Not the villages, though, the children with murky eyes and basket-bellies; those were much worse than any were-hyenas could be. Kids, no matter what the circumstance, were still hard to look at and she recoiled from their company hot-cheeked and layering ice over embarrassment whenever she couldn’t avoid them to start.
She didn’t give it much thought. Some things seemed too simple to warrant excessive introspection. Or maybe too hard.
John’s exhortations did pique her interest, not least because she didn’t think his Dethphone made calls out, and eventually she laid aside the clipped observations in the notebooks and listened to the messages. Until number thirty-four, there was nothing interesting or notable: just some lecture opportunities from New York’s main skeptics’ club, a “journalist” with the newly rebooted Weekly World News, reminders for overdue library books scattered though cities across the Eastern Seaboard.
But when the first the unusual caller, a light and emotionless female voice, identified herself as the Mordhaus operator, Rose was more confused than ever. The next two were different men, young and strong tenors, the second much more nervous sounding; they said they were representing the Dethklok’s business office, both claiming to be the personal assistant to the CFO. None gave any concrete information at all, besides the same 800 number.
The final voice, terse and salty like an exasperated prep-school headmaster with bad allergies, she recognized from Sunday morning talk shows. John mentioned him often, with an apostle’s giddiness, though there was very little gravitas over the phone line to justify it. The business manager finally gave her some details: it seemed her “expertise” was sought to “consult” on a “special project”. Well, that was illuminating. When he listed the same number, she jotted it down on the back of an envelope. A personal contact from the brains behind John’s operation seemed to necessitate some follow up.
tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering elusiveBarbarian [EB]
TT: I’ve taken your tenderly-proffered advice, but, strangely enough, excessive badgering by five different cryptic messengers has failed to convince me to care about whatever this is.
TT: Perhaps you’d like to take another crack at it, before I push this incident from my mind altogether.
EB: god rose!
EB: i told you not to call me that!
EB: you’re gonna get me in trouble!
TT: My apologies, Male Human of My Acquaintance.
EB: so, what do you want to know?
TT: Any information at all would be an improvement.
TT: These calls sound like attempts to collect a debt, though I’m certain Dethklok is not among my creditors.
TT: I would probably be kidnapped and partially disemboweled right now if they were.
EB: hahaha! no comment!
TT: So what do these cohorts of yours want?
EB: for you to come to mordhaus and use your grimdark spooky brainpower to help out with the new album!
EB: i don’t know the details.
EB: but it’s going to be a looooot of money...
EB: and a lot of fun!
TT: I don’t know. This actually sounds like a waste of my time, and perhaps theirs.
TT: My talents aren’t exactly suited for music production.
TT: Why not offer up Dave as the sacrificial mix-master to the gods of your careerist maneuverings?
EB: are you serious?
EB: dave is not metal.
EB: and this doesn’t help my career at all.
EB: maybe I’m just doing you a solid, you ever think of that?
EB: maybe I just thought it would be cool for you to meet the band.
EB: and maybe, just maybe, I was excited that we’d get to hang out!
TT: You don’t sound very certain about any of those assertions.
EB: rose, come on.
TT: If it doesn’t gain you standing if I acquiesce, will it go badly for you if I refuse?
EB: hahahaha, gotcha!
TT: Well, I’m glad you’re amused. I was afraid you were typing with splinters under your nails already.
EB: come on, where do you think i work, walmart?
EB: the big boss will probably never listen to me again but its totally ok if you say no.
EB: just call them and tell them, alright?
TT: I suppose there’s no reason to be impolite.
EB: it would have been really cool if you’d come though.
TT: Yes, well. I’m not sure if it’s a good fit.
EB: yeah, yeah.
EB: i’d tell you to think about it, but i know you already are.
TT: Oh? What makes you think this holds any allure at all for me?
EB: you’d never pass up a chance to bore people about the weird stuff you like.
TT: Ha ha! Your persuasion tactics could use some work, and your putdowns aren’t terribly subtle.
EB: i wasn’t putting you down, and it’s not my job to persuade you.
EB: in fact, today it is my job to drive master wartooth to his guitar lesson.
TT: You really are just living the high life of demonic luxury, aren’t you?
EB: you know it!
EB: i gotta go though.
EB: see you soon!
elusiveBarbarian [EB] ceased pestering tentacleTherapist [TT]
He was infuriating with all his far-flung assumptions and his stupidly shallow perceptions and his being right all the time. Of course Rose was considering what this kind of opportunity could yield her, and the monetary compensation wasn’t the least attractive aspect. Maybe it would be enough that she could start investing for her long-term term dream project: an endowment for an occult research institution. She’d even toyed with the idea of calling it Miskatonic University, ironically of course.
Sorting through all the possibilities, shifting each thought into pro and con columns, she climbed the stairs and entered the little study she’d used as depository for all her notes and pilfered books. The accumulation was quicker than her organizing, and every horizontal surface looked like part of a jagged mountain range of paper and covered cardboard. She settled to the floor, cross-legged in a tiny space between the knee-high piles and the tall bookshelf by the window; on its bottom shelf rested a clutch of stout black Moleskines, the laborious fruit of her Dethklok research.
Each was filled with prim scarlet lettering --it seemed more suitable than lavender-- detailing every pertinent thing, ever minute tidbit she could find: aggregations of reviews for each album, lists of possible influences for important songs (with citations to chapbooks and other journals elsewhere in the room), interviews with fans and vendors. All in all, it was an impressive undertaking, explicating more than just the music, but the very essence of the band. It gave her no small pleasure to know that she was probably the foremost living Dethklok scholar, and her thorough research, combined with an unparalleled professionalism, was what elevated her to that status.
Nowhere in the notebooks would you find the unpalatable gushing that littered even the more thoughtful corners of the internet and, even more sadly, riddled the academic papers. There were whole Metal Studies departments at prestigious schools that were nothing by infinite recursions of fannish squeals, lacking all sense of propriety and detachment; the entire enterprise was full of senseless fawning, and she was once thrown out of an entirely unrelated class for using the word “circle-jerk” to describe it. It took years to let that bitter event (tantamount, she felt, to watching the study of the world’s most vital artform drift into sad irrelevance) recede from her memory and allow herself to actually listen to the music. Of course, that was only after the troll.
The troll and its summoning, an event Rose termed “The Espoo Incident”, were at the heart of her renewed fascination with the musical forces focused on the dark and abhorrent. Its existence was scrubbed from all mainstream media, replaced with a cover story that painted the band and the immense loss of life in an innocent, even trivial, light. A testament, perhaps, to the business manager’s spindoctor prowess, though there was a fine tradition of intelligent overseers hiding away the darkest eldritch truths from the masses.
Just as there was a rich history of clear-sighted truth-seekers getting to the bottom of such obfuscations. Rose had sifted through the planted accounts and arrived at the truth, or at least close enough to touch it, by relentlessly gathering through-the-cracks facts and personal accounts-- most importantly, an eye-witness, a Helsinki girl she found accidentally in a Frankfurt hostel, who described the beast with wide eyes and trembling hands. The only thing missing from her comprehensive report was the monster’s name and the song that called it, which had to be pretty brutal.
It galled her that even after pouring over an authentic copy of a Scandinavian book of Necronomic spells, she couldn’t grasp those last pieces. Her archive remained incomplete. It was goddamned ridiculous how many different lake trolls there were in Finland.
This invitation, perhaps, was a chance to remedy her ignorance, Rose reasoned, but she worried the cost, the strain on her objectivity might prove too much. As much as the smooth, empty pages gnawed at her, as she wanted a definitive record and frankly just to know, she didn’t aspire to be the Jane Goodall of metal, traipsing through the deep jungle of absurdity that enveloped the whole scene, with Dethklok at its dark heart.
Yes, it was a dangerous prospect, but exhilarating, and her mental tally kept zeroing out. She ran her thumbnail over the corners of the paper, fanning them out like a flipbook while she bit her lip, so deep in thought and totally unsure she hardly heard the phone ring, and nearly missed catching it before it died out.
Maybe Ofdensen was all that John made him out to be; he certainly had excellent timing, Rose conceded as she lowered the receiver back on the tines. She was so surprised, flustered even, when she answered the call that, without thinking clearly, she agreed to discuss the finer points of the proposal in person. When he offered to send a “hatredcopter” to retrieve her in the morning, she felt strongly, but without knowing how, that she had seriously fucked up somewhere.
“May I offer you some brandy? Cigar?”
His motion towards the humidor and crystal decanter on the corner of the desk was economical, calculated to look off-hand and casual. He’s trying to be charming, Rose thought, quirking an eyebrow at the offerings.
“No, thank you. I don’t partake of either before lunch.”
“Ah.” His face shifted from the slight smile he’d worn since she arrived, settled into a hard line parallel to the deep crease in his relaxed brow. Immediately, Rose reassessed: this is no practiced snake oil salesman, just a slightly overwrought, naturally nervous professional. She recrossed her legs smoothly, carefully; her eyes never left his face, searching for any downward glance, any increase in tension around his mouth. If he was as awkward as he seemed, maybe she could get what she wanted without giving up anything in return.
He did look, but had no reaction, no tick or tell to accompany it. Disappointing. He spoke again after the slightest of pauses, “Well, to business then. Your reputation for this, ah, sort of thing is excellent; Dethklok is very excited to work with you.”
She frowned slightly. “My reputation? I thought I was here under the auspices of our mutual connection, my friend, your employee, not the general buzz my work has created. Which is admittedly and purposefully minimal.”
“Of course,” he replied, his voice neutral, casual, if a little patronizing. His posture in the high leather chair, angled and confident, hands tented before him said one thing: he was underestimating her. Rose was beginning to get irritated already. “Number 1025 first brought you to our attention, though, ah, the band had been thinking about bringing someone of your qualifications and skills on board for some time. We naturally looked into your work --quite impressive-- to attempt to verify some of the, uh, claims 1025 made.”
“Oh? What was their nature?”
“Ha! Well, he spoke very highly of both your knowledge of the arcane and, ah, your personal expertise in the use of dark arts. He mentioned a joint adventure some years ago. That you were a student of eldritch gods. Something about tentacles.”
Fucking Egbert. He resisted most when the four friends’ agreed to never, ever mention the game, the Medium, any of it to anyone else, with the subtext that they would limit its discussion even among themselves. But always, he picked and picked at it and now was spilling secrets like a cracked mug. Only some sort of miracle kept his loose-lipped idiocy from landing them all in an institution. It took all her poise not to bring both of her palms to her forehead; instead, she smiled softly and, she hoped, winsomely.
“You believed him, Mr. Ofdensen? You bought this tale of black magic from beyond the stars and the teen girl who wields it?” She let her mouth slide into a grin, motioning to her demure purple blouse and floral skirt with two open palms. “Do you think I’m a witch, sir?”
He smiled a little in return, but his hazel eyes were uncreased and chilly, April frost touching a reawakening patch of mud and grass.
“Certainly not, Ms. Lalonde. Naturally, I take such stories with a grain of salt.” The smile was gone, and the manager shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Looking to a far corner of the large office, suddenly a million miles away, he twisted away from Rose slightly.
“Though, I must admit, I’ve been with Dethklok for, ah, a number of years. In that time I’ve heard similar and seen worse. Terrible accidents; brutal, unexplainable things.” He gave her a split-second side-eye look. “True horrors.”
Now, she thought smugly, when he was vulnerable in this grim reverie, was the time to prod. “Like the troll in Finland?”
It was a mistake. Ofdensen turned back to her, stare contracted and focused on her face with steely precision. A dangerous look, raw violence, something buried even underneath; she was a threat now, and would have to be very careful if she was to make it out of this room.
“What do you know about the Espoo Incident?”
The common appellation displaced her fear, and she released her breath and ventured a wan smile. “Only that it happened. And even that I have kept to myself, as a matter of...professional courtesy.” He relaxed again, leaning back and regarding her levelly, once again disinterested and blank. Thank god.
“Uh-huh. Well. I appreciate your, ah, discretion. It’s a very good quality to have when you work with Dethklok.”
Now it was her turn to fidget uneasily. “I have to admit, I came here unprepared to accept your offer. Any offer.”
When he raised his eyebrows, it made his forehead look like a set of Venetian blinds; next to his all-business look, this resigned incredulity was probably his most common expression.
“So there’s, ah, no point in even beginning negotiations? Strange. Why did you even take the meeting?” He sounded more long-suffering than cross, already resigned that he was, perhaps, conversing with another typical idiot.
“I’m an old-fashioned girl, Mr. Ofdensen: when a man sends a helicopter to pick you up, it’s good manners to humor him.”
He chuckled. Another opening, perhaps.
“Besides, who would refuse an opportunity to visit Mordhaus? The architecture alone was worth a trip.”
Palms on the deep burl oak desktop, he pushed back his chair and stood. Damn, she thought, miscalculated again; she was losing him.
“You’ll certainly have to have a tour before you go. The grounds are quite stunning this time of year; and of course some of the furnishings are quite old and might be of interest to you. There’s the stables, the great hall, the library. I don’t get down there often, but I’m told it’s, ah, worth seeing.”
Reaching into the top drawer, Ofdensen removed a rectangular slip and pushed it to her side of the desk.
“Though I respect your position, I would be, ah, remiss if I didn’t at least try to make you reconsider.”
It was a check of course, and probably a generous one at that: of course he would think that was her game. Rose reached slowly and grasped it gingerly, an act of cautious interest. It was all about subtlety, now.
The surprise on her face was genuine, an unbelievable sum already made out in her name, and it worked in her favor. She could already smell the must of ancient tomes, feel ripples of leather spines under her fingers, but he would think that the money was the turning-point. She was happy to let him.
“Charles —may I call you Charles?— I think we can come to an arrangement after all.” Rose tried on her most mercenary leer, and was met with that business-like smirk. Good, he thinks he’s won; now she can press. “Though, I will have some conditions.”
“I, ah, have no problem with that. What will you need?”
“I’m not... entirely sure yet. I’d like some time to get my bearings, a trial period, if you will,” she said, careful to sound detached and unconcerned. He regarded her with an equally bland look.
“Alright. How about we go and meet the boys. They’re very eager to get started.”
She walked to the office door and stood aside, waiting with stiff posture while he opened it for her. In the hall, he made a tsking noise and apologized: he would have to make a call before they went down, if she wouldn’t mind waiting a moment.
Turning back to his desk with a curt nod, he moved quickly and Rose already sensed a change in his demeanor, plasticity replacing the previous awkwardness in his stride, and as she watched him pick up the phone, his face changed. His eyes looked brighter, and his mouth arced into a different smile, more brittle and wolfish and entirely too self-satisfied. Oh, this was not good.
But before she could fully interrogate what this change could mean, her mind bucked and was overthrown. Something, someone, was touching her, a single finger trailing a long diagonal line across the small of her back. She shivered and turned towards its source, too late, nothing there. Like the shoulder-tapping prank John played sometimes and only Jade fell for.
Down the hall, already ten feet away, two masked men strode confidently away from her. On the right, there was a dwarf with what appeared to be a jockstrap outside his pants and the other, tall and lean, moved with a lanky strut. When he looked back at her over his shoulder, she couldn’t see his eyes, couldn’t make out if they were a familiar electric blue, but she could see in the set of his shoulders, how he moved his arms: he was loose and laughing, grinning with his whole body.
No, not enough to tell, but enough to set her pulse thudding in her throat. Her stomach felt like a brick. When the manager returned an second later —"They’re ready for us in the rec room," he said, frowning and watching her blush with narrowed eyes— she coughed lightly before she could answer, not entirely trusting her voice.
“Please,” she said softly, “lead the way.”
Chapter 2: Super Bass
"Hers was a mind built for austerity, for reflection, and she appreciated a place made for the same. Her thoughts wandered to the damp broken abbeys of Scotland she explored the year before, right about when John had gone crazy in his way and led them both smack into the garish excess Mordhaus reveled in."
Oh hi. I can't even describe how hard this was for me to power through: I've never taken this long to write anything, but I'm pretty happy with it. I hope y'all are too.
The rumbling scream, reverberating off the sword-and-shield decorations along the hallway, was an unexpected break in the bleary and monotonous —if somewhat phoned-in-feeling— sensory onslaught Mordhaus presented to Rose. There was no bulb over 40 watts, every architectural edge like an atomic knife, the red and black uniformity a grating Saw cliche. As she walked further into what she’d held as the Mecca of metal, she met only a slick and soulless performance of darkness, hollow and deliberate. She sighed with disappointment.
As she followed the prim manager through twisting corridors she couldn’t retrace, she remained alert and unimpressed, truthfully a little perplexed; she strained to trace how exactly she ended up falling down this particularly dank and deep rabbit hole. It felt like the journey to the center of the Earth's worst music video; the hoarse shouting coming from behind the high, ornate doors only punctuated her feeling of total disengagement with what she’d hoped to find: the last, true bastion of metal.
Ofdensen, a silent guide until now, motioned to two closest black-hooded figures who heaved them open by great metal rings. As they spilled light into the hallway, she thought she was maybe looking at a fifteen year old boy’s version of heaven: a cavernous down-market Dave and Buster’s, porn splayed across infinite, punctured flatscreens, with some spikey furniture tossed around. The tableau failed to impress: just tacky as all hell.
In the center, three (...possibly naked? Rose made a point to not look down into the water, after that first involuntary peek) rock stars reclined in a hot tub. One’s mouth was unhinged like a snake’s and emitting the horrible noise six inches of black lacquered wood couldn’t block; another was clearly arguing with him, tense and twisted-faced, nearly apoplectic with frustration; and the third was serenely playing an electric guitar underwater, as one does, obviously.
The final two band members were on the fringes of the room, the limp-haired brunette guitarist playing Centipede on an ancient game cabinet. But what really drew Rose’s eye was the bassist, Murderface, she’d know him anywhere, stabbing the loveseat he lounged on with an ornamental blade and a sour expression. Questions of manners entirely put aside, she couldn’t help but stare. Which page of the Necronomicon summoned that dog-faced monstrosity?
“Nat’an, come on, Nat’an…”
“—oooooooooooooo! They can’t! They don’t have strong enough neck muscles! I read it on the Interneeeet!”
“Ohhh well that settles it!”
“It’s true. They don’ts have the strong musk-less,” Toki chimed in.
“Muzz-gulls,” Skwisgaar corrected his Norwegian counterpart.
The drummer had turned the same color as his skullet: “Muscles! MUSCLES!”
“Charles!” The singer was the first to notice their entrance, but didn’t seem to see her standing a step behind the manager. Maybe he had vision like a T-Rex: if she was perfectly still for long enough, she could still extricate herself from this mess unobserved. “You have to settle this: can dogs look up?”
“Ah, you know, I’m not sure. I’ll put the research team on it. Guys—“
“Oh look, sshomeshing the robot doeshhn’t know,” Murderface shouted from the far side of the room, smug and snarling. “Beep beep boop. Why don’tsh you go update your programing and—“
“William, I said I’d look into it.” Hearing the strain in Ofdensen’s voice was gratifying; Rose couldn’t suppress a wicked smirk, or the flickering thought of what the straight-laced man was like when he lost his temper.
“Guise!” Pickles had calmed down a bit, sipping long and hard on a bendy straw emerging from a hurricane glass, complete with little paper umbrella. Surreal. “Ah course they can! Howdya think they beg for Snausages an’ shit?”
“They put peanut butter in their mouths. That’s how they get them to sit on their hind legs.”
“Do ya even know how stoopid that is? That is ta stoopidest thing you have ever said. The stoopidest.”
“Hey! Leaves Nathans alone, he’s sensitives about his stupid,” Toki interjected.
Enough, Rose thought, closing her eyes and shaking her head a little; it was already exhausting to be in the presence of “greatness”. If she didn’t speak up she could be here all goddamned day, overlooked and useless in this maelstrom of idiocy. “Well, I think it really depends on what you consider ‘up’. Canines have a wide range of motion, but most don’t ever look directly above them.”
Ten eyes snapped to her, wide and disbelieving like she herself was a dog talking or, worse, eying the chandeliers. She felt too conspicuous; her speech broke the spell that kept her an overlooked false-shadow, the lightest-colored thing in the room but, somehow, the least noticeable. Uncomfortable under their scrutiny, she made a point to hold her posture a little straighter, her body a battle ax, jutting shoulder sharp and tracing a hard line to the bend of her knees.
After a good minute of mute gawking, all eyes flicking between each other and then back to her, it was the ringleader who finally spoke.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Fucking Ofdensen. Rose still could not believe he bolted like that, spitting the briefest introduction possible while the guys talked over him about twenty different things. He’d tossed an ass-covering bon mot —“For the record, I tried.”— over his shoulder and ducked out the big doors that slammed shut with booming finality. She stood then, alone before the beastly heroes of her research and shaking a little under frosty-calm composure, trying to levelly stare these five fierce-eyed drunks down.
This was going to be unpleasant.
The shaking, the nervous quakes in her stomach: it could be just the uncertainty of the situation, Christ knows that she would have some serious, tedious explaining to do in the manager’s inadequate wake. Or: was she buzzing under her skin with a more common star-struck energy; she was faced finally with her longtime subjects, the pitch-black musical storm surge whose destructive power she’d studied so long from afar? She was so close now, too close to maintain her rigorous observations; there was no chance when face to face with them to keep scientifically aloof.
Rose steeled herself, crossed her arms: as much as she hated the idea, as a scientist and a person, she’d have to talk to them.
“As Mr. Ofdensen said, I’m Rose Lalonde and I am an occult researcher, of sorts. You’ve retained me to help tap into the... greater darkness and harness it for your next record, I believe?” She twisted it into a question, quirking an eyebrow at the hot tub trio. If there was any target to talk sense to, that was probably it. What was it that actually did want her to do? That hadn’t become much clearer since her arrival, and all her nebulous talk with Ofdensen only added to her disquiet.
She began to speak again, white-knuckled grip on her composure, raising her shoulders up and drawing a deep breath through flared nostrils. Rose was nearly knocked dead with the rank fumes of elk farts and industrial waste pipes.
Murderface had his unfortunate mug hovered licking distance from hers, beady watering eyes scanning her up and down; his solid-packed paunch touched her hip and as he opened his mouth, she retched a little, tasting liverwurst and fungus toenail clippings and tobacco spit by proxy.
“It ishh shho nishh to meet you, Rohshhh,” he slavered onto her blouse, each fleck of spittle landing on her light collar the color of beef jerky. “I washh ecshhpecthing a witshh to be covered in wartshh, not shho young and gorgeeoishhh.”
“I am not a witch,” she retorted immediately through clenched jaws. Behind the triangular head, Nathan was rolling his eyes and looking abashed. Did he not believe her? She wasn’t even sure why she cared, but her body tensed.
“Murderface, don’t. Come on, don’t do that.”
The bassist’s hands, all wiggling duck-bill fingers fully primed for tweaking, had come level with her breasts before Rose reacted, part instinct and part indignation. Instantly, her right hand slipped between the silky skirt and leather handbag, a taupe messengerbag large enough to hold large books with a long thin compartment custom-sewn along its rigid side seam. Her wrist flicked upwards, a Thorn of Oglogoth (potent as a blunt wet stick, but how would they know that) left its sheath and pressed into the offending pimpled windpipe.
“For every finger you lay on me, you will be repaid one thousandfold by merciless fists fucking your tearducts. Do you understand me.”
Murderface was a still as a statue, and the room was hushed, save for an under-breath “Wowee!” Her assailant skittered back, muttering apologies and the occasional gendered slur; glad though she was that her threat had worked, she had traded important metaphorical breathing room for physical. A lamentable lapse of control would make bigger headaches later: she’d have a hell of a time convincing them she couldn’t really do magic after this Godsforsaken scene.
The violent outburst broke the collaborative ice like an Arctic ship, and they got down to “business” quickly. But after five minutes of quietly hashing out schedules— it seemed they only worked the forty-five minute window nestled post-hangover and pre-drunk, with ample exceptions for trauma-induced personal days— Rose withdrew from the chamber, feeling like she had again made a series of missteps. She knew she had to go down to the studio tomorrow at two, but she was not one iota closer to understanding what the fuck she was actually doing here.
If she had just jabbed the bassist with the needle, or if she had stood firm in the original negotiation... there was no point dwelling on the foregone possibilities. All that was left was to push through, make the least worst of it, or, if really did prove too much, beg off politely, return the check she, admittedly, was exuberant to cash, and call a cab home.
As she stepped back into the hallway’s swaddling dimness, a squeeky, anonymous voice filtering through one of the servants’ masks told her that the Lord Ofdensen (Rose’s attempt to suppress a snort: not entirely successful) had retired to his office for many afternoon meetings and could not be disturbed until later on; these faceless automatons, unnerving like hidden, fanged cameras, would take her directly to her quarters.
For the second time in an hour, Rose was led away, mutely following down the long labyrinthine halls, trying to get a sufficiently lucid grip on her present situation. There were a lot of good plays and poor mistakes. But the only description that seemed to encompass the net situation was totally fucked.
Setting-sun patches moved grid by grid across the grouted stone floor, their pointed shapes made by the south-facing Gothic arched windows. As Rose watched, still and seated on a fairly comfortable mattress, they changed from pale hands peaked in prayer to copper spearheads to curved and irregular tongues of bright, flat fire. In the glowing red hour before twilight proper, the light blended with the thick carpet, a scarlet that matched the old world hanging tapestries and the elegantly embroidered brocade of the bedspread.
It was a richly appointed guest room, probably one of the better ones, but with her shoes kicked off and stockinged soles pressed against the cool bare ground, wrapped in an unbroken silence, it felt like a novice’s cell in an ancient nunnery, crafted for contemplation. Hers was a mind built for austerity, for reflection, and she appreciated a place made for the same. Her thoughts wandered to the damp broken abbeys of Scotland she explored the year before, right about when John had gone feral and led them both smack into the garish excess Mordhaus reveled in.
Pointless, she knew, to retrace those steps, to think about what she could have said or done to steer him away, to sidestep sitting and waiting in this strange cloister-mousetrap somehow. But her head tripped along those lines anyways, gathering the thread of how he’d been heading here so long, and how he’d been pulling along her by the hand. This was his story, not hers, she just knew it; this room, death-shroud still and drifting into darkness, wasn’t on her path. A personal utopos.
And yet, and yet, and yet, she mouthed voicelessly as she stood and crossed to the windows. A wispy stretch of clouds affixed itself above the jagged horizon of fir trees, lit up by the sun that settled beyond the tree tops. Straight out the windows, to the south in the murky dusk, daylight’s lingering grip lit the spread of grounds and outbuildings that crawled for miles, sometimes darting with tiny greyscale canids; it looked like a beautiful cat covered in visible fleas. Her forehead nearly pressed to the glass, she listened for their dusky calls, keening howls of forgotten language that drew them close to each other then repelled.
The sudden knock, three steady bangs on the steel-braced door, startled her and she couldn’t croak out “enter” before it was already swinging loudly inward. It closed heavily behind a tall Klokateer, his powerfully built arms bare, stretching out of his black t-shirt ripped at the shoulder seam, and ending in thick-knuckled fists clasping handles on flower-patterned luggage.
“I’ve brought your bags, milady,” spoke the intruder. The last word encased in a hiccup of laughter: in a flash of recognition, Rose knew the voice. She stood gaping before answering, incredulous.
“Ugh, Rose!” The masked man groaned, his whole body dipping from the ankles up in a gesture of frustration. “How many times do I have to tell you, no names?”
Her lips curved in an involuntary, wondering smile. This John/not-John was a lot to take in: point-hooded head, wide sloping shoulders and muscular torso forming a V to slender waist, long and strong legs, all covered in black and posed with a confidence she did not recognize. The giant rusty hammer hung at his hip was new, too.
“Dude, the proper nomenclature is Number 1025, though most people just call me Haze,” he said, smiling again— she could hear his grin and her mind’s eye filled in the rest from countless memories, a laughing chimera of his past faces. Some that she’d seen, had known as well as her own face in a mirror, but had never come to be. The shiver she felt in the hall slid along her again; the hair on her arms stood half-mast.
Practicality shook through her, dislodging her more visceral feelings with worry. “How did you get my things? Did you go to my house?”
“Personally? No, I didn’t,” he replied, setting the luggage down and fluffing the dark down on his left forearm with his right hand. “I sent two of my guys; it was pretty lucky that you hadn’t unpacked.”
“Maybe for “your guys”, but not for me; those packed clothes aren’t clean.” She couldn’t get over the change in his posture, the difference between the boy she saw last on a Mexican Spring Break that the man before her, bashful as ever but near sucking the oxygen from the room: “If it wasn’t you, personally, who was in my house, then?”
“I can take them down to the laundry. The Big Boss has a state-of-the-art dry cleaner on Basement 3.”
Setting down one bag, his left hand, large and long fingered and thick, ran along the back of his neck; it touched but didn’t ruffle the shiny black material that laid there between skin and skin. It was a motion she knew from the first and welcomed for its completeness, it’s totality of John, well before it dawn on her that her friend from text, from the game they played as children, now had an adult’s body complete with its own language. His right hand, though, dropped the other bag more heavily and came to rest on the head of the hammer at his hip, gripping it in a reassuring loop and pushing up the handle up and back with its force.
“I sent some guys. Promise they didn’t poke around too much.”
His bashfulness fell away, standing straighter now and looking at her, or rather aiming the slits in his mask at her face. She could make out some blue, Hawaiian Punch unreal blue that was hard to look at straight on; that blue, she remembered it, from years ago or maybe from some dream.
“Well, that’s nice, at least,” she replied, trying to split the friendspace and professional distance his fighting-stance cultivated. “It was good of your ‘Big Boss’ to put me in your safe keeping; I appreciate his thoughtfulness.”
His laugh was short, acidic, echoing a cynicism she’d never heard: “Oh, that wasn’t him. He didn’t give it a second thought, I bet.”
Rose’s brows scrunched; that laugh was a new sound and bore a new train of inquiry. Who exactly was in charge here?
“Well, it’s some coincidence then for you to show up in my room, dropping off my bags that you ordered unnamed others to retrieve. How do you get minions, anyhow? I thought that this was a top-down organization?”
“Sure,” he said, shrugging, then letting his hands again fall limp at his side. “There’s a couple dudes who listen to me. I just sent them.”
“But if Ofdensen didn’t have a hand in it, how did you come to deal with me and my bags at all?”
He chuckled, a deep-throated sound completely unlike anything she thought he could make. “Oh, just inside baseball. It’s nothing,” he waved away with an hammered hand.
Her eyes narrowed; his evasion underlined the point. It became very important, very quickly, to know. “Why are you the official Lalonde liaison, though?”
The foot-large space between them hummed electric, buzzing with the sound of his evasion and her insistence, wet and sizzling. Her mouth was dry.
He didn’t speak for a long time; his hand traveled to the hammerhead again, thumb running across the most dangerous flat. With it in his grip, he stood straighter, seemed more fixed and self-confident than she’d ever known him to stand. God, how she wished she could see his face. His voice was stormy yet striving for neutrality, lightning flashes so distant they promised no thunder.
“It’s nothing,” he added, finger flicking the blunt edge faster. “But are you really asking, Rose?” he said quietly.
Things she hear: warning, the desperate call of his syntax rubbing against the bass tones he’d given her; but also the pleading echo that she imagined aching with a need for recognition— well, she could make a good case to herself for plowing forward and let it damn the near-inhuman growl John’s voice had adopted sometime in the last year. It was the echo of past pain, and she was afraid of no ghosts.
“Yes,” she said, all her bravery marshaled into a single syllable..
“Two knees and a hand.”
“What?” It was out of her mouth before she could think, before she could begin to prcess his answer or understand the aching boomboomboom of an inexplicably heavy heartbeat she felt tight just below her navel. The reverberations of it running up her body, lodging themselves in her throat; she could taste the adrenaline on the back of her palate.
“You don’t get what you want without fighting for it here, Rose,” he added, completing the picture in a way that made you want to strike him.
Swallowing the skunkish taste down again, clenching her stomach against it, she closed the few feet between them with two steps. Her gaze traveled from his charged eyes, steady and bright, challenging, to (no lingering on his stomach, carved in relief against the cloth, no, not even an instant) the hammer. It was rusty, yes, but was the dull red-orange mottled with something thicker and raised against the steel, a sanguine red still sticky and spreading across his stroking finger, a crimson that would swell and grow along her jaw if he would raise his hand to her and pull her...
Close-touching distance from him, she full-stopped, body and mind and collapsed her attention to his eyes. Still a little breathy, she gave voice to the only coherent sentence left in her head.
“Are you for real, right now?”
His laughter like a shove, his eyes squeezed shut as he threw his head back. It jolted her, black sound made of a new frequency that disrupted the lingering ripples in her muscles she (tried, tried so hard but) couldn’t tamp down. It was cold and familiar, this laugh, a template missing mirth but full of hidden venom.
“No, Rose. Just a big joke! Nothing nefarious at all. God, you’re so gullible!”
Hand still grazing the metal at his side, he leveled his stare back at her. She saw a detonation there, something deep and wicked churning underneath; her eyes slunk away to the carpet beside them. Chewing the inside of her cheek until it smarted, she waited for her tremor to subside before opening her mouth again. He cut her off, unhammered hand raised like a crossing guard.
“You don’t like it here much, do you? It is a little much.” The last spoken like unassailable fact, impassive. It made her angry. “Maybe you should do your thing and get out, huh?”
Her eyes met his again, flashing with temper and treading water in his depths. The fuck he should tell her what to do. “Yeah? And what is my thing exactly? What’d you tell them, John?”
“Just the truth.”
No baleful looks now, no sheepish neck-rubbing or any other childish indication of remorse. The stare-down was more than uncomfortable; neck inclined and cramping, she felt her stomach tighten again, tasting bile and smelling oak. Trembling, her hands made fists.
“Oh? That I am a sorceress who will summon Flthulu and his grimdark horde to write their songs for them? I’m the golden cow from beyond the astral plane?” She paused to gauge his non-reaction. “How could you, John?”
Nothing, just his crackling, thousand forks of lightning look boring back into her. “Be mad if you want,” he replied, “but it’s not a big deal. Do some of your woegothic hocus-pocus and you can go home with your fat stacks. Pretend you never came. Or fill up a few more notebooks first, who cares? Nothing’s holding you here, and you can tell whatever story you want.”
It stung, wasp-points shooting from his teeth: did he really think her a mercenary or a charlatan? A spectator on a day pass while he delved down into the tortured depths (as if; Mordhaus was the Disneyland of darkness) of this terrible place? Was he trying to pull cred on her?
Her bag and its wand were too far to back him up like she had done the bassist before, but his contempt made her wish it wasn’t such an empty, foregone gesture, at any rate.
“You know I can’t.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
She sighed and turned to the windows, framing the waxing moon and spreading its wan light where the sterile sun’s comfort once lay.
“Can you call the wind, John? Do you still fly around and get the shit stabbed out of you and survive anyhow?” She let the bitterness rise and hang on the moon’s pointed end. “It’s almost sad, how you still think it’s real.”
“No, that's different,” he rasped, sotto voce, lines of his hood shifting with his head’s shaking. “The game didn’t make you who you are.”
“You think that’s ‘who I am’? Really? Even if that were so, would you have me give in, John? To that evil, again?” she spat, then softened. “It’s over; you should just let it go.”
”Never thought you hated it all so much.”
Their eyes locked, silently striving against each other, to convince or cajole; unwilling to let him win, she glanced away in a strategic retreat. This close, she could smell him, the deep musk of masculine flesh tempered with myrrh and decaying leaves in early winter. His shoulders lifted and fell in a casual Gallic motion, palms facing up and spreading away from them both. Rose braced for a hug that didn’t come, and tried to not feel too cheated when the promise drifted away.
“Okay,” he said amiably, a bit too brightly. After a beat: “Oh! Lord Ofdensen is ready for you, by the way. I’ll take you to his office.”
“Fine. But only if you tell me how to get back on my own after.”
As he turned from her, the ridges of his shoulder blades set the black sail of his back rippling; he opened the door ahead of her.
“Sure, I’ll give you the Mordhaus whole tour if you want, Rose,” he said, voice light and opaque. She swore she could hear a dark, braying entreaty concealed underneath, something knowing and beckoning. All through the meeting, she tried to parse it, find what it really meant. But after, in the end, she accepted the mimeograph and headphones and took the goddamned tour.
“I did nahct toucshhh her, I did NAHHHHT!” the bassist shouted across the desk of his manager as Rose stepped gingerly through the office threshold. Fuck, this guy again.
“Milady,” whispered the voice at her back, chuckling and fading away before she could turn to hurl at him a mouthful of cursing. Good that John found this insanity amusing; she imagined Murderface’s existence was a joke that someone should be in on, rather than the butt of.
He rushed at her immediately, hands held out in an alien “we-come-in-peace” gesture that still put him again only nanometers from her nipples. They retreated into her flesh a little, to compensate for his proximity.
“Rostshhh! I’m shhho glad you’re hhthere! I whant to aplogishhh for earlierh...”
“Yes,” the businessman interjected, probably before the musician could cop a feel or otherwise mutilate the heartfelt amends he was offering, “William deeply regrets his behavior towards you this afternoon and hopes it won’t affect your business relationship with the band on this very crucial project.”
Now, now was the time to just break it off; Murderface’s natural awfulness —as well as offalness, holy Christfucking Baal, he smelled like an abattoir— was the perfect escape route. But as she thought of the cool depths of the library, the sterile warmth of her room, the rolling laughter that still echoed in her mind as it disappeared down the corridor, she responded softly, even kindly, “It’s fine. But if I could speak with Mr. Ofdensen privately.”
The squat, filthy little man walked through the door, mumbling something about nerds, and Rose was left with the suit, fingers again steepled and touching his lips.
“I’ll be ready to stipulate the remaining clauses of my contract in the morning,” she said evenly while she took her earlier seat in the leather chair beside the cheap-looking wrought iron lamp.
“For now, I only know one condition for my rider.”
“Whatever you’d, uh, like, Ms. Lalonde.”
“William Murderface may not speak when we are in the same room. I find him disgusting and while I am around him he may not talk, lest it irrevocably hurt furture record sales.” Her manicure pricked the leather of the armchair, waiting to claw and scratch for her first boon, but when Ofdensen’s face broke into a genuine smile, sunny and boyish, she grinned in reply despite her fighting stance.
“Oh, yes, of course. Yes, Ms. Lalonde, I think we will get along quite well, you and I. You might even find yourself accompanying me to some of our, uh, business meetings.”
Her grin, an unexpected, wild thing, shrank to cautiousness as Rose strained (and failed) to hear the easy rhythm of heavy work boots in the hall. Yes, this may be a wash after all, she reasoned, white teeth flashing again betwixt parted lips, listing to one side in an open and laughing smirk.
Chapter 3: Wicked Wisdom
"She feels their tongues in the instant she feels their teeth: hot lapping moisture, the rough side of an emery board, wrapped in chinchilla-coat comfort built from their faces’ fur."
This chapter holds the image that kicked this whole AU off: it's all been leading to this place. "We were always headed here. All the signposts are still visible. They are not receding, but we can't retrace our steps."
A golden sliver of sun, bright and contained in thick wavering lines, ran underneath the heavy overcast thunderclouds; it looked like daybreak, blurred and smudged beneath the storm rolled out on strong winds, though it was nearly midday. Rose marveled at it, how much like the real thing this odd meteorological simulacrum seemed. It was a second chance at a lovely start, the first already lost in lightning and whipping rain. All it needed to begin again was a witness who knew the difference, to make and break the likeness.
Rose had ridden the storm out in the depths of the library. Buried in the stacks and insulated by the cathedral calm of the cavernous reading room, she hardly noticed it, lit another taper in the darkening room, the candles set on the long heavy tables like in the rough keeps of old ale-sotted kings. She too feasted here, reveling in the old words, some rhymed like hymns, some that broke off in jagged ink where knotted hands fell lifeless. Each line, each dark-spelled stanza aching with ancient power was given new life, transferred to her archive-quality acid free paper in her steady, reverent script.
Each day since that first, the one when she couldn’t properly think let alone thumb patiently through a card catalogue —Mordhaus had grudges against both Congress and Dewey, working on its own nearly incomprehensible code— each day in the hours she was left to her own devices, she paced the echoing spaces between hugely high shelves. Her fingers traced along their spines, stirring up dust, that redolent incense of crinkled paper and creaking leather. With enough time, she could find everything she could ever want in the spaces between those covers.
And god knows she’s had enough time. Dethklok was a pack of lazy asshole layabouts, as promised. But there was a “creative team” meeting at noon, before recording supposedly started and inched along for a few hours before grinding to a halt and devolving into shouting and drinking and whatever else Rose didn’t care to stick around for.
**Walking down the northernmost hallway, she watched the sky through the windows, the light-line growing slowly, like gravity’s infinitesimal movements eventually wrenching a blanket off a bed’s rounded edge. Navigating Mordhaus had gotten easier, with languid exploration and John’s help, and it became her habit to walk only along the edges of the building, where outward-facing glass gave her a chance to see something beside the dim bowels of the place. Rose felt cramped and caged, hadn’t left these walls in weeks, and when she found a sliding door to a short terrace, unthinking, she grinned and slipped out.
Fresh air, finally, humid and cool. Before her, the wet wild heath called, blistering into color, spring phlox and aster, and her feet found their way into the dew. She thought only of emptying her thoughts and how her long skirt stuck to the upturned brambles on which she tread lightly, her shoes hardly more substantial than slippers, each step bending branches but breaking none.
(“What does she think she’s doing?” huffed Ofdensen, ten stories above, staring from his office window at the slight feminine body carving through the field. “She’ll be killed.”
“Oh god,” breathed John, allowing himself the liberty of an instant’s fear before shaking himself to action. He was halfway to the door, ready to sprint down the stairs as soon as no one would see: “I’ll retrieve her, my lord.”
The manager sighed, pouring himself an early brandy, two fingers; he waited for the howling, and did not wait long.)
She heard them—the pet wolves, never actually tamed, that John had warned her lived in the east woods and fed on the flesh of dearly departed cogs to the Klok—only a little before she saw them.
In all truth, she had thought them a grim joke: surely no one, not even those for whom the macabre show of brutality was bread and butter and mother’s milk, would actually keep a wild pack, death itself wrapped in discrete lupine packages, in their fucking front yard.
Of course, John had mentioned them, off-hand and inflectionless, in the same breath as the chef’s-kitchen and the self-kitchen and the pyre-room; what would make her think that it was more or less believable, more or less actual, than any other bizarre feature of the sprawling compound? It all seems so shrouded in a dark joke that nothing was real, least of all any real danger.
Yet when the first full howl, starting deep and rising, rising to a high piercing falsetto, struck her ears like a boxing-blow, she remembered herself: here her preservation drive meant holding no preconceptions, to never be surprised. Here, where all black things were possible; the cold-horror-shimmy ripping up her spine meet halfway to the mirthless laugh barreling down it before releasing her limbs to a marrow-deep shudder.
The sensation passed—one she’d known before, before the worst was to come in memory long suppressed, best vocalized as you fucking idiot, what did you expect— and she could see them, barely, darting before her. They eluded her full view, just grey-black blurs, even as she whipped her head around looking, hair clinging to her spit-moistened lips.
Breathing deep, deep as she could will her lungs to fill, she stopped her trek out into the scrubland, and feigning nonchalance against the ever tightening loop of baying, bent to pick some wildflowers. Periwinkle, red, cornflower blue deepening to true blue, blue is the color of my true love’s eyes: no, she was getting away from herself, losing herself in the harrowing cries echoing off the pine trees and enclosing on her as she stooped and plucked, pretending to be unafraid.
When the first wolf came into view —as a true wolf, as a ruddy-dusky body, all sinew and fur— she couldn’t hold back the gasp. Its mouth was red-stained, old crimson spread along the length of its smile. It had eyes that watched her with a darting, frightening intelligence. And before long, it was joined by its brothers, circling, sometimes stopping to point a beacon of sound to the still-threatening clouds.
Nothing else to do, Rose stood still, stiff and sending non-threatening thoughts down to her hands, her toes. She let the little bouquet hang loose, teetering towards the ground; the wolves doubled in number and moved in.
A shout, human and indistinct, in the distance? If it was real, it warped into the bark and growl harmony rising louder and louder to the sky, echoes packed down and bouncing in a register she couldn’t make out. She could smell them before she can feel them, roving, pressing against her legs.
Earthy musk, like the library but in practicum, no room for hypotheticals in their deep familial scent, woods with a touch of rose water and dense jasmine. Most of all, they smelled like the rain, pummeling down on deep glades speckled with mushrooms. Their thick fur curled around and left shards of itself clinging against her clothes, circling, circling dizzily and forcing the smell up to her nostrils that clenched with fear then loosened in uncaring resignation.
Let them come, she thinks, moving slowly, foggy and brushing hair and dew drops off her legs: let them devour me, if they can.
But the fur, the fur slides along the butts of her hands. She turned her palms outward to feel the silky tips of their raw animal hair; so much like fine ends of thousand-strand yarn, wandering along her outstretched arms, prickling along her calves through her thin skirt. Ignoring any barriers cloth might try to present: nothing could hold against them, pressing in, no use, no use. They are everywhere around her, taking shortcuts through her, wheeling and countless as the stars.
Rose held her breath and she turned her palms up, elbows crooked acutely, practicing a martyr’s pose, submission. Maybe it would be enough for them, maybe any offering would be enough.
(He runs down the last flight, from terrace to turf, hurtling himself against the wind, ‘til he comes tripping to a stop. She’s in front of him, not twenty paces away, but encased in feral flesh, spinning and collapsing in for the kill. Grey water-silk skirt billowing, bleeding into the earth, lavender sweater contrasting clouds but blending with the wildflowers, he’s hardly be sure she is she and not an illusion of the heath, colors imagined and inverted.)
She feels their tongues in the instant she feels their teeth: hot lapping moisture, the rough side of an emery board, wrapped in chinchilla-coat comfort built from their faces’ fur. The little nips —no more than a puppy would give, sharp excitement— break blood from her knuckles down from where tooth met tooth, Rose hardly felt them; her hands rotated out, parallel to the light, dawn-but-not still rising and warming her face, she stilled herself against the bites and thinks of shih tzus, of golden retrievers. These evolutionary links, these impossibly long bridges between wolf and woman, would win their trust.
Impossible to know what, but something works, and for every half-hearted bite, she receives two laps to clean the wounds. Emboldened, fear a distant landmark, she flexes her fingers in the scruff of one of the beasts; it whines appreciatively, like a dog begging for more petting, stopped before it was satisfied. Her fist raises another whiff of wolf-smell, now more beastly, sweat-in-tangles, earth filtered through the hot mammalian flesh.
She breathed in deep and released it all as a sigh, fingers on fire with loaned heat.
(Close enough now to be sure she is Rose, transplanted: no native curiosity, in reality a strange bloom sprung up on a foreign bulb and pinned here amongst these wide predators’ grins; he extends his arm. He doesn’t breathe, unsheathes the hammer he thinks means a safe passage for them both.
One hand on the hard grip, new splinters wedge into old callouses, and the other stretching, reaching for her.)
Rough tongues traversing from fingertip to heart of her palm, Rose cocked her head and gave into the sensation, her eyes closed, ears stopped up, broke off from all sensation except her nerves jangling like a suspension bridge in the wind. Discomfort was a forgotten— but a pinch, a strong five-finger grip an inch above her elbow joint brought her back to herself. “Rose”, she heard, urgent and worried and more real than the tooth-and-tongue dreamscape she’d conjured from the mouths of the pack.
When she turned her head, she saw only black, black like the alpha male, aloof and pacing and mourning the moon cloaked overhead, with a piercing blue leaping from its center: “John,” she breathed, certain, sure. Her smile, cast to him over her shoulder like roasted bones, as wide as his eyes were deep.
“Rose, we should go in now.”
She nodded, turning; he was right, this blood magic, this small sympathetic sacrifice, her noontime new-sun spell has it limits, and here was the exit she hadn’t the prescience to plan. Looping an arm in his, his grip a wandering pressure from elbow to wrist, she let him lead her back to the stairs, back to the relative safety of stone. She let one hand dangle, bore up a while by a wet nose still worshiping. The pack receded, disappointed like children called to supper and running home.
(The piercing blue of his eye, cast sidelong and preserving its full weight, bore into her while the olive-clad Gears marked with a rusty cross at the forehead piped liquid stitches and bandaged her hands.
“Look, John,” she barked, lightheaded and laughing, “We’re in a heavy metal MASH reunion. Which one is Hot Lips, do you think?”
“Don’t… try to talk, Rose. You’re obviously out of it.”
He spoke tentatively, confused at her loopy little smile. But the chilly appraisal in his gaze was at odds with his mouth; roving, scanning like the animals she left outside, she could tell he was looking for something deeper than lacerations, a shift the blood loss wouldn’t explain.)
She was fine, it was nothing, she’d get needle-pricked more by trying to patch a hole in a blouse than by winning over the yard-wolves, but there was no talking to John now. He sent her to bed—channeling the firm paternal care he was raised with— put a big, burly black-hooded woman at her door to keep watch. After pacing indignantly a while, trying to bribe and cajole and even threaten her jailer (“Sugarpuss, you must be dizzy if you think you’re half as scary as he is.”), eventually Rose lay down for a nap, resigned to the obtrusive concern holding her in place.
When she dreamed, it was of four swift, callous-padded feet and a razor snout leading her to a mountain top, where the biggest wolf who ever lived, dark as space and bright like Derse, beckoned the moon down to meet them.
The band hadn’t even noticed she had been gone. Perhaps they didn’t show for practice yesterday either; they came at the recording room with a fresh concentration, their bickering toothless and definitely more productive than usual Maybe the time off should be credited.
This extra focus shortened the session—an industry term, but an apt one since she felt more like a counselor than a producer, than anything, grabbing their childish impotent or backsliding rage and twisting it into usable shapes, growls and precise movements of arms and fingers—and Rose found herself with some additional early evening, again alone. She briefly considered what to do, where she could go, what small escapes she could make, before walking listlessly to library as usual.
It was too big to ever be empty: always a handful of Klokateers milling about and shuffling texts. Some haphazardly tossing books into carts or knapsacks, others caressed them like children, librarian-cogs Rose recognized but never spoke to, even if she was lost and looking for a title for hours. What would she say to them, these amped-in Jeromites wandering soundlessly alone or in pairs? It’d be like travelling to a foreign country and asking for a nuanced restaurant review in English, an insurmountable language barrier rendering her rude.
Settled down into a high-backed wood and leather chair, Rose took up an oddly bound set of documents—the original police files on the metal-related church arsons that sprung up in the early 1990’s. It was interesting enough, maybe providing some much-needed context for the Fair-Day riddle Toki Wartooth presented, and her mastery of Norwegian was coming along quickly. She liked the book’s dryness, its insistence on facts and data, concreteness she could brick herself in with.
Still, her attention wandered and her thoughts were impossible to pin down, slipping like frogs squeezed too tightly in the fists of curious schoolboys, leaping away. When she felt John (yes, she could feel him now, a buoyant energy bound in each step, long before she could make out the tangible signs, hammer-gait-laughing air, that marked him as him) approach and take the seat nearest her, she smiled, happy for the distraction.
“Back hitting the books, huh?” he said, voice quieter than a standard library hush, a little more solemn and probing. So, it was a test, a game. Battleship, Guess Who. Yet Rose could still hear the smile, see his white teeth flashing and crowning like whitecap waves in her head; she nodded, close-lipped and pretending to read.
“I’m glad you’re feeling more like yourself. Varla said you gave her some trouble yesterday, though.”
“I thought you didn’t have names anymore, John,” she hummed in response, kittenish: she’d caught him in this little heresy and it felt like winning.
“Eh,” he shrugged, shifting his hammer’s handle and propping his boots on the long table. “We’re friends. Old habits die hard, you know?”
“Indeed.” Then silence, she flipping pages, he picking dirt from his cuticles. After a time, he coughed.
“What are you looking for, here in the library?”
“Oh, nothing really.”
He laughed, deep and soft like sable: “Oh! What are you finding, then?” There’s a probing quality, gentle, gloved hands prodding swollen tonsils. Is he scared of me? she wondered, worried and tamping it down.
Still teasing, but tense, John sat up again; his heels clunked against the stone floor. “Jesus, Mary and Marduk, Rose. Cryptic answers and secret suicide missions. You really are getting all spooky on me.”
Closing the book, Rose met his eyes for the first time: bright blue like daylight savings, an August-afternoon blue, fenced in by short-night lashes. She closed hers, defensive. “I thought that’s what you told me to do? For the greater good of the music and the whole world?”
“Yeah, well, maybe. You’ve got more than one dark setting, for sure.” Under the surface cracking with good humor, he sounded stern, wise and weirding; an odd tone for him. It made her stammer soundlessly, mouth working around the words, never quite finding the right retort.
“I was looking,” she settled on, kicking herself a little for the non sequitur, “for more information on the troll-summoning song. I would love to hear it, or at least know the lyrics.”
“Yeah, you’re not going to find that in the library. The Big Boss has all that top-secret shit locked away somewhere.” He laughed again and stood, stretching his long arms behind his back, his spine and shoulders releasing musical cracks. “Go ask him for it, he’ll probably give it to you. See if he’s got ‘Blood Ocean’ on VHS, while you’re at it.”
“What’s ‘Blood Ocean’?”
“It’s the movie Dethklok made last year. It’s supposed to be so awesomely bad Ofdensen started the Gulf oil spill to keep people from seeing it. But I know there’s a copy here somewhere.”
Rose grinned. Same as it ever was. “Fair enough. But…VHS?”
“Hey, the rec room isn’t exactly a funding priority.”
“One day,” she tested, her turn to poke at his limits. “One day, you’ll have to show me, take me down into the dangerous depths of your living quarters.”
No dice, her missile a miss. Just his same rough chuckle, holding her at arm’s length. “Nope! MRSA is nobody’s friend, Rose. Speaking of, have you eaten?”
She shook her head and set down the book. It would wait there for her until tomorrow, untouched, like so many others she’d left sitting. The library didn’t lend, it just remembered.
“Come on then, let’s get some grub!”
Exiting the giant doors and heading in to the center of the Haus, John walked like he led her, though she was keeping pace, shoulder to shoulder. She knew the way, could get there on her own, but it felt… right with him beside her, even though he thought he was out in front.
Chapter 4: Teeth
Maybe he was scared of her. A joking thought, a screaming one...She cursed his flashing eyes in the null space of his veil, hating everything it hid.
Sorry for the forever-type wait: this has been the hardest thing to write because I just couldn't get it right. This still doesn't feel like it should, but it's close enough, and I'm glad to have it done in serviceable shape. Thank y'all for your support and patience and awesomeness.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Rose couldn’t tell if her job was getting easier or harder. After nearly a month at Mordhaus—she’s started marking time by the moon, gazing at it through her uncurtained windows before slipping to sleep and meeting it again, always full, in dreams—she and the band had established a report, something out of those inspirational movies with the dead-end ragamuffin teens and the teacher they grudgingly come to respect.
It was a role —teacher, band therapist, frustratingly impotent pseudo-witch— that she did not take to easily, but necessity, curiosity and habit had carved a rut through her discomfort, spring runoff through sandstone. Habit especially: in the black notebooks she brought along, eager to fill in the gaps, and the red five-subject spiral that John gave her, she wrote down her professional and personal observations, respectively. Sometimes, she found it too hard to concentrate, forcing her focus into the piercing tip of her pen as she scribbled near-nonsense on legal pads, word association and geometric doodles blue and black in the margins, journaling the gist of what felt too heavy to hold in her mind alone.
a) Pickles: he was easiest to handle, in his way, because he came around first and with a whiskey-warm demeanor. A stumbling drunk careening between quietly amused lucidity and a temper flaring like a refinery torch, he was closest to a reasonable person and to her, a grounding touch for the static she picked up wiggling into their collective.
When clearheaded, he would sit on the couch diagonal to her deep leather wingchair and translate and explain the bizarre particulars of his comrades: a winking, slurring Choragos, the best kind of Shakespearian fool. When he was too drunk, he raved and called everything in sight a douchebag or passed out in contorted positions.
There wasn’t any pattern to it, his random bouts of helpful largesse cut through with completely blotto bullshit and emotional, white-knuckled shouting fits— no telling which Pickles would show up on a given day. But when his drum parts were recorded and he was in good spirits, he’d sit close, muttering off-color punch lines and scalpel-precise cuts at the others. It made her miss her brother, a little.
b) Nathan Explosion: at first, had no use for her. More than the others, he was expecting real sorcery, and hid his disappointment under brusque professionalism. Hunched over the bench of lights and knobs, listening intently to something just out of range for everyone else, it was obvious his passive-aggressive perfectionism came from a deep place, dark but loving.
She engaged him there, telling anecdotes not of her studies but of her impressions of their sources, what it felt like to crawl down into the hollows under the Ziggurat of Ur and brush against the scaled slithering presence of ancient gods hardly remembered.
Later, when she ran across him in the library, straining over a young adult primer of Mesopotamian religious practices, it felt like a win, and their interactions were smoother, slipping into that business-like space he did his best to build at the center of the group.
c) The Scandinavians: another matter entirely, mercurial and disparate twins. Childlike Toki practically bounced off the walls with boredom, entirely uninterested in the creative process. And Skwisgaar, haughtily ignoring her presence, focused only on frets. His precision was bleak and joyless, driving from an anguish that he encased in magma-like scorn.
Unwilling, perhaps unable, to coax or channel that thunderclap that drove his playing, Rose let him be, simply recorded her perceptions, trying hard to disguise her intense dislike. She wasn’t sure what it was, but he rubbed her worse than the stifling air of the building or the disgusting stench of the bassist. In turn, he was especially rude to her, ignoring or mocking her assistance. It was the least tolerable part of her day.
d) Murderface: thankfully, kept the provisions of the contract and his fucking mouth shut.
Once she understood their dynamic, how they bickered and fussed and split along different lines when pronouncing things cool or brutal, she eased into the gaps they left, knew where she was needed. Only rarely did she step between frontman and bassist, or guitarist and guitarist but spanned other fissures effortlessly.
She’d carved out a space there amidst these idiot-savants, watching them work (fondly and often with admiration— there was something happening here)and scratching new notes and offering little platitudes— but never real magic; they stopped asking her for that kind of “help”. John and Offdensen had made sure that they expected too much, more than she could give, though. Every day in the studio’s plush furniture, she waited to be called out, for angry demands of what they really wanted. Yet the sheepish mentions of “real magic” always fizzled and popped before she could even make excuses.
She mostly tried to hold her tongue: the taste of restraint burned her palate, but she never spoke up until it was absolutely necessary. She tried to cling to the clinical language, the forms and archetypes of her myriad disciplines, mostly psychological, never completely effective but still a good mix.
Until the headaches started, not long after the dreams. Then it all got worse.
They left her crippled and ineffective, claustrophobic, unable to even provide her small service they came to rely on. To relieve the weight, she took to chewing aspirin by the handful, to insomniac wandering through Mordhaus like Angela Lansbury, not always finding a mystery but ready to manufacture one from the odd pops and creaks the stones set behind her path. Anything to outpace her own thrumming pulse and feel open again.
Though she felt more at home with the guys, it got harder and harder to actually go to them and start work. At the alarm sound that called her to arms, she felt more and more —especially bad after her walkabout with the wolves— that the recording studio was cursed, shrouded in her bad feeling. Its deep red and black, colors of the back of her eyelids when the migraines kicked up, made Rose uneasy, twitchy in the beds of her nails and along her hairline. Her ears popped when she walked in and her head swam, too much pressure.
She rocked against the deep, physical reaction in the studio, the piece she fought and hated most: her head was so light, she thought she might rise off the chair, the sticky leather on the back of her thighs the only glue to keep her down. It felt like a high altitude glue-trap, waiting for a quick end to the motion sickness, the roiling in her stomach from thinning air.
So she kept still and quiet and fought it off with all her diminishing strength.
Until: “Hey Rose? You maybe wanna jump in here? With some input or something?”
She snapped to the singer’s face, dazed. Standing next to him, Skwisgaar, all-white like exposed bone and as grimly fascinating, was exhaling a long breath through his pursed lips, the most prolonged “pffft” he’d ever given her. Expending maximum effort, she coughed lightly, calm, precise, and hoped it would clear both their throats.
“Yes, of course. What seems to be the issue?”
They exchanged a look, naked confusion and a bit of eyerolling. No way to cover over her zone-out now; it must have been a hell of a row she missed.
“Skwisgaar wants to do this tritone thing in the intro to ‘Brain Hook,’” Explosion explained, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial near-whisper, “you know the one about the mummies and whatever, we talked about it. And you know I just don’t think it really fits the direction of the song. Would you fucking cut that out! Please.”
His head whipped, sending black strands swirling back into his face, to the guitarist who was still sustaining that dismissive exhalation.
“Whys even bother to ask hers? She ams not musician. Dumb dildos lady not know bass clef from buttshole.” He fiddled with his tuning. He won’t even look at me, she thought, prickling hot and embarrassed. Everything pinched and throbbed.
“Whoa there, Skwisgaar, play nice would ya?” Pickles lifted his head off the back of the couch, then clunked back down and snored. No help from that quarter, then.
“Actually, I am a musician, as I’ve explained to you already. Repeatedly,” Rose enunciated carefully, holding shoulders taught like a tightrope walker’s staff. Keep your tone even, balance, balance is key, leaked in to her thoughts between brick-heavy bumps in the space behind her eyes. “For fifteen years, I’ve studied music. I am well-versed in the history, theory and use of the tritone...”
More derisive puffing. Rose’s right eyelid began to vibrate, blurring the smug blonde in half her vision. Suddenly standing, lips pursed; his attitude always grated on her, fussy prim jackass, now turn to a sharp scratching in the back of her head. Rats clawing in a warren.
In the space of her pause, he spat, “Violin. Ams not real music. Is not metal.”
“Really? Really.” She never fights with them, her hands have never coiled like this, aching to strike. “You’ve played with violins before, with a whole orchestra.” (“Ohs, we don’ts talk about that.”: Toki, sotto voce behind her; she’s aware of him for the first now, and she knows, like sonar, like eyes in the back of her head that there were two more people there.) “Was that unmetal?”
“Ja. That was for charity. You knows nothing.”
Skwisgaar sniffed, and turned his head, staring half-lidded at the wall. Flushed and hot, her sharp-manicured nails bit into her palm; she tasted her pulse and heard rapids in her ears. The red room was compressing, gravity constricting tighter in her muscles, held in stress-position stillness.
“Oh, great, now you’ve made her mad.”
Her teeth clenched against the pronouncement—no, not mad, not crazy— she hated it, hated the nascent shout in her throat. She was mortified, crumbling beneath being nearly reduced to hot ears and a harpy-shriek.
(An image: /i>tar-black rain on white stone, blinding rage, falling, falling forever tangled in marionette strings. Rage like a garrote, wounded, windless, falling—)
Stunned by the memory, when she surfaced again Rose shook her head, loose and lolling, eyes opened on the carpet; she would not shut them again.
“I apologize,” she lied. “I overstepped.”
Nathan looked shocked, a stupid look on him with his mouth open like that. She wanted to slap the concern straight off his face.
“Oh yeah, it’s okay, Rose, don’t worry about it, we’ll pick up again tomorrow or whatever. Alright. Yeah.”
Turning towards the door, she saw the other two in the corner of her vision, against the wall, the second guitarist meekly leaning to their left: the manager meddled with his cuff, whispering solemnly in the ear of the masked man, who nodded in voiceless agreement, hand on a weapon at his hip. The overlord and the under, conspiring against her. John watched her with ocean eyes, calm and clear. It froze her deep, all her blood flushing away, anger and hate caught in a glacial pit in her stomach.
Get control, button up, she told herself, as she stalked wordlessly into the hall, her steps fast and heavy. Her whole body shivering in cold fury, fingers frostbite burning. Get a grip, button up, winter wailing against her temples, ice storms and avalanches. Button up.
The heavy bootsteps behind, the cloth brushing against stone: she’d gotten used to being tailed. Except not really. It’d been six days, since the “fight” in the studio and she should be used to it, wanted to be. But how do you accept being guarded like this, followed by a faceless collie like a sheep? A dangerous sheep, it seemed.
At least he was courteous enough to stalk ten paces behind her, lingering outside the bathroom, her bedroom, every single damned room she ducked into, breathing heavy against the wall, trying out new worthless flights. She was leashed to this poltergeist of a man, tugging him along, inescapable.
And the worst of it was that it was her friend, not some random cog. Her shadow was the man formerly known as John who’d morphed into something else, something too bright or too dark, no telling, that she couldn’t look at full on. But he was still her friend.
Not long ago, when she was still weak and addled and ecstatic, he took her down to the kitchen and ordered the grotesquely stitched chef to make a grilled cheese, Gorau Glas and truffle butter. He was swift and sure and kind, and it grounded her. They talked and laughed, retold jokes and stories so old they broke out in giggles before the good parts. She liked that, stories she knew the end to or witnessed the first time; she felt calm, safe and serene with him then, his booming guffaws and dorky snorts echoing down the long halls when he walked her back to her quarters and disappeared back into the parts of Mordhaus she had never seen.
Now, now he was a guard dog and she just an assignment. It wasn’t the surveillance that bothered her, really, this whole fucking building had unblinking eyes turned inward and that was the first hurdle she’d cleared in this job. Maybe she even needed watching. (She smiled to think of it, amused and gratified that her motions and moods were recast as "inevitable calamitous breakdowns" and demanded a witness.) What stung, what made her seethe and simmer rage and doubt was that he was a silent shadow, no noise except staccato steps and accidental noises.
Greeting him like a friend, like the man she knew under the casual habit, she had chatted at him genially at first, making small talk and trying to imagine him beside her not trailing at duty’s length. He never answered, ever. Eventually she fell silent too, heartsick, and looked for ways to escape.
(Until the day before, when she begged him to leave the hammer home: it was so loud, when it clanked accidentally; it ruined the illusion that she was being followed by the stealthiest ninja, the friendliest of ghosts, she said. The truth was she was it scared her, its implications, its potential, that maybe he was not just there to watch. The power it gave him, the sheer force of it. He hadn’t replied. But today, there was no wood scraping noises, no extra bumps in the dark wake of her walking, circles and circles to tire him out and outrun her thoughts.)
Now the whole charade felt incredibly oppressive: that he could just shut it down, lock her out and follow endlessly, ignore her like that. Where was her John, her good-guy friend with his quick humor and easy spirit?
The whisper. He must have been sworn to silence, a secret pact between him and that asshole Ofdensen on the day her new shadow sprung up. There had to be some kind of conspiracy, some unfair extra layer she couldn’t penetrate. Only cheating, a loading of the dice, would turn him against her. It made her feel so low and keyed-up and caged.
And angry. Full of a driving, righteous fury like sleet. Everything hummed; the reverberation of his heels a discord against hers made her walk in loops through the corridors, trying to make a harmony, trying to understand. When she let her mind wander —and what power could she find to restrain it?— she saw the clean-shaved puppeteer she’d grown to resent bitterly leaning into her John, her shrouded friend the translator, the grim boatman. He was her key to both sides of this domain. She remembered his solemn, acquiescent nod. Was it that betraying conspiracy that put her here, chased-rabbit, mind whirling and sinking like silt, wondering if she could ever be certain of him again. She’d unwittingly created a weapon with her caring, only to see it wrenched away and pointed at her throat. Silently, with the click of her heals for a backbeat, she cursed them all in every language she knew.
Every step, every spare breath —she’d picked up the pace, just short of breaking into a run and he kept up, the distance always the same, and she could hear him exhaling now, breathy-steady noises that made her whole spine tremble alive, each vertebra a light socket— rang in her mind, empty bouncing and more and more frantic. Worse, she could smell him, feel him practically. He was so maddeningly close, so familiar and she just wanted to understand. She wanted him to take away this ice-pick-impaled feeling that bloomed in her chest. She just wanted it to stop.
So she stopped. When Rose turned on a heel in a ballerina’s movement to face her silent companion, she had no intentions. She felt compressed, ragged and tired of being prey. There he was now, this rising cumulus cloud with sonorous boots and bare arms and skin and brawn rippling like the Atlantic in July underneath the black. The hallway crackled, static-sharp.
Surprising, he didn’t stop walking immediately, not a true shadow; he kept coming and her pulse sped up with the decreasing space. But he did stop, more than an arm’s length away, a safe distance. Was that orders too? Never get too close, maybe she was deadly now, dangerous and toxic and prowling.
Maybe he was scared of her. A joking thought, a screaming one: him, a fearless acolyte to dark forces, frightened of her. She once called him that or something like it, she remembered, back before he shifted into this salty pillar and was just a young man desperate to make new mistakes. Remembered naming him with a seer’s power she’d stowed down deep. Now he was cloaked in electrical-storm black, and how could she see under all that? She cursed his flashing eyes in the null space of his veil, hating everything it hid.
“Why won't you speak to me? Say something." He crossed his arms, silent.
"Are you going to hide forever?” she taunted, louder than the distance demanded. “Cowering behind your master's orders? Always bowing to their demands, no matter how much it hurts—“ she swallowed sand and shifted tracks just in time— “you?”
His body said everything: a shrug that started low and scaled his whole height. John planted his feet, wide and stable and holding taut through this thighs. Fingers curled in his belt, thumb and hipbone cocked, steady and sure and square to the world. His stomach rippled under the soft —she imagined it soft, washed a thousand times in ash and fall rain to clear away blood and sweat— and her eyes lingered, voracious. The movement dragged her gaze up, to rounded chest and bas-relief clavicles all the way to slow-jerking shoulders, smoke signals rolling up to his neck. He cocked his head to one side, moved his open palm to worry the back of his neck, but let it fall before contact. Instead, he braced himself, parallel and looking back at her levelly. No shame, no excuse: just him, challenge and laughter and raw virility radiating through cloaking darkness and snowy-pale skin.
Face flushed and hands quaking, angry still but her anger alchemized, shifting the longer she stared: it pushed her forward, sudden movement closing the distance. Her feet barely touched the ground, and her hands found the gap at his neck. Her fingertips slid up, three-days’ whiskers prickled tender skin under her nails, up and over his jaw; she peeled his mask back, a strip tease view of his Adam’s apple, his chin, his dusky amaranth lips parted and white teeth behind.
No time to gawk or be surprised at her own boldness— her first footstep made the decision, and everything after that was surrendering to it, everything collapsed to a hunter’s instinct. Her hand gripped the back of his neck, thick animal hair at his nape and soft ridges of fire-singed flesh. She pulled, leverage to bring him down and hoist her up on tiptoes and she kissed him.
Their mouths met half open and with her pressure, pushing and pulling, their lips crushed widening. She could taste him, faint: hard peppermints and pumpkin pie spice and tobacco.
(Does he smoke? She didn’t know that about him. What else was he busy becoming while she was trying too hard not to look?)
The taste and scent and texture, a conspiracy; Rose surged against him, possessive, releasing his neck but searching for new skin between his collar and the bone beneath. The startled and earthy growl in the back of his throat coiled tight below her navel, her body an autoclave. Breaking limits, pulling apart the bricks of herself— dark water scouring and ripping down from the base.
Dividing, crushing and pulling back, she kissed him deeper. Everything was a cascade, perception flowing between senses: his hands curled around her hips, the resistance of his thigh between hers, heat, endless radiation sliding between her fingers and spiraling around her tongue. Eyes shut, everything a circle, dizzy-drunk, dizzy-spun. Breathing hard through her nose and the free corners of her mouth, she could smell his heartbeat in ripples of musk and sweat and teatree.
Neck’s not enough— starved for skin, snaking a hand under his waist, under the black she felt silk over stone and a slope of course hair above his belt buckle. Every muscle linked with their dips and planes, she was proud like a child running a palm on a completed jigsaw puzzle. They were solid and shifting, but just flesh still; shallow red welts rose where palms turned to claws and raced from belly to the small of his back and returning over the dune of his hipbone.
Too much, too many angles and sensations and all of them acute: she pulled away, tugging his lower lip in her teeth as she unbraided their bodies. Clear of him, but close, she wrestled with her her breath, willing evenness and decorum and desperately trying to read his eyes. His mask was flush against the base of his nose, still just half a face.
Lips swollen and moist jackknifed into a smirk —unrecognizable, a harsh shove— and he spoke: “I dunt know what riled ya so, lass, but ya can shift me agin whene’re ya like.”
That uneven brogue, odd and thick in her ears. Oh no, oh fuck, she thought, looking for a sign. No weapon, no badge, his eyes looked darker now. A stranger. Oh fuck.
Taut warmth in her stomach twisted as she ran. She was going to be sick, covered her mouth hard like a tourniquet. The one day he didn’t— her flash of courage blinded her, misplaced need and stupid, stupid vanity— she’d made a huge mistake. Had to get away. She could hear the voice, changed again, calling something unintelligible through pounding embarrassment.
A thick hand on her arm pulled her back from her sprint, wheeling her towards the man. It’d blossom into a bruise, the way he sank into he; she imagined the blue black spreading, covering her whole. No more hot ears and scarlet hives, just midnight skin camoflage, a way to hide.
“—just a joke, Rose, a prank, come back—“
Her fist connected with his eye, biting hard cheekbone and springy-soft hollow above it, all spinning momentum and bitterness. He shouted and wrenched back and fell; she heard his knee thud and watched his shoulder twist, hand set for steadying.
Standing above him, kneeling as he whipped the hood off and cursed and cradled his face, she was confounded, mortified. She was cold: him after all then, but the doubt wriggled in the back of her mind, growing and receding and then ignored and then roaring back. Still wrong, still terrible. Her hand, her head throbbed.
“John?” She whispered, wet mouthed and ready to spit. He lifted his head with great effort, dazed and bleeding a little. Same face as ever. It was the only thing the world not quaking.
His shouts chased down the hall her, her name over and over again growing more faint and hoarse and sad, like tendrils of shadow pulling at her ankles. She ran so hard she snapped a heel and saw stars and could taste bile in the back of her throat. Gasping and lost she sprinted in and out of almost-familiar halls. But she made it to her room before she started sobbing.
Soul-sick, thoughts were vague and unprocessed, only visceral humiliation and loss and deep, deep wretched grief clouded her aching head. A ruined heap on the carpet, everything knotted and aching and sick, Rose wept until she couldn’t feel anything but blank, mirror smooth and empty, and finally let go.