"Today is a blessed day!" Though Rose is turned away, she can see the Seeress raise her arms before the gathered crowd. "Our commitment to life is renewed this day! This day we bring another into our fold, who will peer into the abyss unflinching and commit herself to stemming the flow of darkness into this world!"
The crowd below cheers. They haven't had a ceremony like this in a long time, at least not recently enough for Rose to remember it. The priesthood had grown thin, taking fewer and fewer supplicants with fewer of those supplicants making it through the trials... It doesn't take a genius to understand that the people are hungry for this spectacle.
She knows how lucky she is to be standing here. She knows how badly the common folk need this. She knows how important her talents will be in holding back the eldritch terrors that have threatened the hearts of mankind since the dawn of time.
She knows, but her heart is still burdened with regret.
The Seeress continues her convocation. The crowd responds just as expected, cheering when appropriate, responding to the scripted calls. Rose has memorized the ritual and can chart its progress based solely on the rise and fall of the crowd's rumbling. First is the history of their order and a declaration of their mission (though how anyone can escape learning this piece of dogma, Rose cannot fathom). This is followed by a further enumeration of the trappings of her office: forsaking all kin but those in the priesthood, sacrificing the pleasures of flesh for the greater good, devoting her life to the purification of man.
The opening act draws to a close. There's a rattling sort of finality to the breath Rose draws in through clenched teeth. She turns, holding her hands firmly in front of her and traces the runes at her feet with the toe of her slipper.
It doesn’t take Rose long to find them once the ceremony is complete - or more accurately, it doesn’t take them long to find her. While she finds herself swarmed with thankful citizens, bowing and praising her, her friends have nothing on their minds but reaching her, and she hears John and Jade’s voice calling out her name.
Rose can’t help a quick pang of jealousy. Perhaps if she hadn’t been chosen, she would have been linking arms with them too.
“Rose!” Jade shouts again, and she untangles herself from the boys to trap Rose in a tight hug. She presses close, close enough that Rose can feel every curve of her body, and she echoes the warnings of the priestesses to herself - do not partake in pleasures of the flesh.
She takes a deep steadying breath before hugging back. “There you three are,” she says lightly. “I was scared for a moment that you’d missed the invitation.”
“Like we ever would!” says John, laughing, catching both her and Jade in his strong arms and squeezing. “We wouldn’t miss this for the world. Plus, we missed you.”
For her part, she does not miss how his hand is tighter on Jade’s shoulder, or how he turns his face briefly into her dark hair. “I missed all of you, too. It was a rather... intense experience.”
“But you’re done now, right?” Jade asks, pulling back just a little to get a good look at her. Dave tries to surreptitiously lean against them, but can’t quite hide that his hands are actually not in his pockets. “So you’ll be off living in the temple here from now on.”
“Yes,” Rose responds, just barely biting back “unfortunately” - the temple is a good half day’s travel from her hometown.
“Will we still be able to see you?” This comes from Dave, who gets pulled into the group hug by both John and Jade. He puts one arm around Rose; the other stays in John’s pocket. “Like, there aren’t any more rules against it like there was while you were training?”
“You can see me. I will be busy, but visitors are more than welcome.” A pause. “And there is nothing stopping us from writing one another, either.”
“Then we will definitely write!” Jade says. “And we’ll try to come and visit you sometimes, too. As often as possible!”
Her fingers are twined through Rose’s and she stands on tiptoe, darts in-
and stops herself bare inches from Rose’s lips, carefully readjusts to peck her cheek instead. John kisses her forehead; Dave, her other cheek. She breathes them in each time, chest heavy and tight. For this, she blames the necklace weighing her shoulders down.
“We’ll visit soon!” John promises, grinning wide and offering his hand to shake on it. Rose reaches into his sleeve and takes out the joke-coin he was going to slip into her palm, and he drops another kiss on her forehead, hurried and wet.
Jade squeezes her hand and chucks her chin (a little too hard, Rose thinks). “You better write us as soon as possible. Or else!”
Dave has been keeping up a steady stream of reassurances the entire time, heavily interspersed with ruminations on priesthood, and cuts in with, “-are we actually sure this position’s for real, I mean, deep-sea tentacles in outer-space, come on.”
At this, Rose smiles. “I’m glad I’m not alone in the fervent hope that we will soon be meeting again. Thank you, Dave.”
He looks at his feet and says, “Any time.”
The crowd is dispersing, citizens heading back to distant homes or rooms booked in town for the evening.
They look back and wave. Jade blows a kiss, and after a moment, Dave follows suit. It takes a few seconds of elbowing and two hair ruffles before John gives in, and she lifts a hand in response. It is proper, appropriate. Finally, they turn away and begin walking again. When they think they’re out of sight, they try to kiss each other while walking, miss, and Jade laughs uproariously about it. Dave nuzzles against Jade, and she strokes John’s face with her other hand.
Her own hands folded demurely into themselves, Rose watches them disappear. She lifts her head and shields her eyes, straining to catch one last glimpse, but they are gone, have been for the past five minutes at least. She exhales, and begins the walk back to the temple, alone.
Rose’s new life does not leave much time for herself, but somehow she still thinks of them, reminded in small, unavoidable ways that make her heart heavy; gemstones that sparkle a bright Jade green, the notes of John’s favorite piano piece carried on a phantom wind, the dark reflection of Dave’s glasses in oblique stone.
In some ways, their letters make it worse. She could pretend, maybe, that all of these thoughts are simply vague traces of paranoia, things her mind has concocted to torment her, if their letters weren’t so happy. She can hear it, when she reads them, the loud bray of John’s laughter, Jade’s giggle. Dave is smirking here, she can tell as the traces the words, she can feel John’s fingers in Jade’s hair, feel the press of Jade’s cheek against Dave’s knee. She never thought, before, about what it would be like to devote her life to an immortal, to an unchanging and unmoving concept while the world whips by without her, but now there is little else she can think about.
When she sits alone, in the early hours of dawn or as the white wax of her candle burns out, Rose cannot help but imagine, with a fixation her rational side might call obsession, their bodies curved and tangled in a twisting bramble she will never be a part of, the twisted sheets that they leave behind and the firelight that warms their evenings. Sometimes, in the afternoon, between meditation and prayers and study, she looks out towards the town and imagines she sees them, hands intertwined, bodies curved like swans’ necks, and the place in their hearts that she had once claimed her own growing smaller and smaller, her name—once tattooed in a place of honor—reduced to smudged lines, ancient and forgotten like the words of her prayers.
The decision isn’t a sudden one, fed on impulse and a lack of judgement. On the contrary, Rose plans for this meticulously, carefully weighing each pro and con.
The cons are numerous, and she’s aware of each one - she’s breaking a sacred vow, she would be ostracized should anybody find the truth, and her favor with the gods will almost certainly be jeopardized. But somehow, it all pales in comparison to one simple fact:
She wants to.
She invites the three of them to visit her, all at once. She tells them where to stay, which dates to come, and ensures her duties are done for the night when she slips out of the temple, unseen by anyone who would think to stop her. Her priestess clothes are neatly folded and laid away; instead, she wears a long plain jacket, unremarkable over dark simple skirts and petticoats, and beneath a simpler black shift.
The first night, when Dave opens the hostel door to her with an exaggerated bow, when Jade takes her hands and draws her over the threshold as John pulls the curtains shut, she touches them like strangers. She runs her thumb beneath John’s lip and takes off Dave’s glasses, brushes Jade’s hair back and looks into all their eyes, trying to see if there is still a space for her, if this was a foolish idea after all, if they really are too far gone.
That first night, they take her hands, and they kiss her palms and cheeks and lips. They fold her jacket over a chair, by the table where the rest of theirs are piled. Her they fold between them, and they show her where she fits. Every bit of her is set alight, like laughter flooding her body, and she comes back for more the next night, and the night after, and the night after.
They leave at the end of the week. The post-script on their next letter has Jade’s cheerful flourish and a tiny drawn wink. ‘So next month?’
At last she is a part of this. The next month, when she comes across Jade out on the path in the crystal evening, she is the one to wrap her arms around her, to hold her, intimate and familiar now. Jade laughs and squeezes her back, not as bone-crushing as John, not so careful as Dave. As she draws back, Rose slides her hands along Jade’s waist, lets them come to rest at her hips.
She reaches up, gently traces the hollow where Jade’s throat meets her jawline, then leans forward and kisses her. Jade’s kiss back is hungry, full of tongue and teeth, and a fierce, giddy elation sweeps through Rose when she remembers that they are here for three more days.
When she pulls away to breathe, Jade relents, save to drop a kiss on the tip of her nose, smiling. Rose smiles back, strokes her cheek. Jade's skin is clammy, cool to the touch, and her eyes are sparkling, feverishly bright.
"I've been waiting for you to do that for so long."
"So have I." Rose's voice catches in her throat. "You have no idea."
Rose catches Jade's hand in her own, only to have it snatched back, slipping from her usually formidable grasp in a slick motion and an after-sensation of ooze. Something in her heart freezes. Something else, hidden deep and dark in some far reach, laughs.
Didn’t you consider there might be a reason it was forbidden?
"Definitely worth it." Jade is saying, eyebrows waggling outrageously. Her laughter is sparkling and jagged.
"I need you to go to the temple and wait for me," Rose interrupts, voice level, expression blank. She adds, "Right now. Do you know where the others are?"
"John said he was going to the hostel."
A list of symptoms is scrolling through Rose's mind, and a list of materials she will need. When she absently rubs her hands together, her palms are dark and sticky. "Okay," she says more urgently. "Go now."
With a quick nod, Jade steps away wearing an exaggerated expression of professionalism. Usually Rose might grin at the sight, but a trail of black follows her steps to the temple, and without looking back, Rose hurries into town.
Rose arrives at the hostel, bag weighed down by a heavy iron padlock and other materials not typically available in her place of employment. In the distance and still far too close, a hideous blood-pink moon settles improbably on the horizon.
She finds Dave walking leisurely through John's quarters, dressing from a selection of crumpled clothing that must have been discarded in a hurry. He starts when he sees her, hails her with an obnoxious wink and a sincere kiss. The smoky grey twisting under his skin winds a friendly pattern across his torso before he tosses his shirt over his head.
"Looking for Egbert?" he asks, voice muffled in fabric, somehow both staticky and smooth.
"At a guess: you've seen him," Rose says, voice light around the fear settling cold in her stomach. "I need you to go to the temple. Jade should be there already." He shudders as she speaks, and when she looks up, she isn't surprised to see his eyes are filling in, pitch black. She shoves him in the right direction. "Don't wait for us. John and I will be right there."
Dave drifts out the door towards the path in a smokey haze, so Rose eases open John's door and steps inside.
There is something wrong with John's room.
The reality of its dimensions shift in constant flux, with corners twisting as though to suck the lines of the ceiling and floor into some unknown void, and with finite and endless walls curving away in impossible angles. It wasn't even a big room.
And there is John at the center of it.
"Lady," he greets her, crackling with a primordial formality that he could never have pulled off before. There's something wrong with his voice. "You're so hurried."
"John," she gasps, reaching out her hand. "You need to come with me."
"Certainly we will come with you." The room lurches, and her vision spins. John, unbothered, takes a leisurely step towards her, close enough to take her hand, although he doesn't. Something is wrong.
"Now, John! We have to go now!"
"But our-own," and his smile is brilliant and she knows, she knows. The fear in her stomach wriggles in delight, squirming its way up her trachea and her breath catches, sticks, stops, and she knows.
John has been speaking in the festertongues this entire conversation.
It's not enough to keep them in. These people, her friends, her true loves (and their prohibitively powerful eldritch passengers) could no more be held back by these occult displays than her love could be held back by a simple vow of chastity.
But in the end, these precautions are secondary. They will stay, she thinks, for her, because she has asked them to and they have agreed and they have no reason not to. They will stay because the temple is a place of power, she is a place of power, because she holds contact with the gods in her heart and her heart is here. They will stay, at least long enough for her to find a way to fix what she’s done to them.
She will fix this. She will.
She tries everything she can think of- incantations, exorcisms meant for weaker beings. Nothing works.
This time she attempts fill the room with light. Every space not bearing dense networks of makeshift wicks is plated with a scrap of metal burnished to a shine. Mirrors might work better, and certainly the main temple had some to offer, but after the first disastrous attempt to cast the avatars of the darkness from their mortal shells using an object that reflected, repeated, amplified, Rose was careful to work only with dull surfaces.
Her friends seem contented to remain where she has placed them, in the center of the room, at her sides. They wind their limbs and sibilant words around each other and her in twisting loops as casual as they are unavoidable, as affectionate as they are possessive, although they give her thorned necklace a wide berth. The past twelve attempts had, at best, done little to stir them, at worst, only made them more amorous.
The going has been... difficult.
With some of the minor power granted by her studies under the Seeress, she lights every wick in the room at once, dazzling her eyes until she is grateful for the arm (Dave's, perhaps, although it may have been John's) slung across her face that she hadn't yet found the will to move.
Exhausted and blinded, she calls up the final spell, the final song; the room is surrounded by light—but not filled. At her song, water in the air condenses in tiny droplets, light enough not to disturb the flames. The droplets catch and scatter the surrounding light before falling from empty space like a spring shower that has found its way indoors. Eyes squeezed right, what strength and skill she has left, Rose plays the rain for as long as she can.
As the final notes fade away and many candles finally gutter out, for the first time, something has changed. The room, damp with water, wax, and slime, but still too bright to see, is also blessedly silent and she can feel triumph building like laughter or hysteria behind the hinge of her jaw and the roof of her mouth. The room is silent, this thirteenth attempt has succeeded beyond hope, and Rose wants to sob in relief.
But she can barely draw breath. The breathable air in the wax-sealed room has been consumed by the light and there is nothing for her to breathe, nothing for the others to breathe if – now that she has saved them.
She waits and hopes, lungs aching, skull aching, and she peeks at last between her lashes.
Three pairs of sockets full of shadow regard Rose with calm solemnity.
The stillness ends.
The elder gods have little need for oxygen, but her friends were confined by mortal needs, and now they aren't, they're safe, Rose's mind is fuzzy and her throat is burning and her power sizzles and sputters and dies her friends surround her, hold her with soft limbs and grasping thoughts that are shifting gently through the fragile planes of reality and her psyche and she cannot breathe she cannot breathe she may not leave cannot bear to be alone she needs she wants—
The pain recedes, the thorns at her neck become weightless, painless. The darkness is warm and loving and full and she doesn't need to breathe. She will never be alone.