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in the shape of men

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It was hard to say what exactly went through the fortieth President of the United States' head when a young man just swaggered past the Secret Service. What went through the President's head after that was a burning bullet, followed by the sweet sensation of a fading consciousness. Presumably there were angels singing him to his eternal rest, though it really should have been devils if you asked the people who were screwed over by his policies.

The interesting thing was that President did not die in 1981. No, not even when a rabid fan of an actress shot him in the ribs later on, and certainly not when some jock in a swanky uniform leveled his rifle and casually shot him and his men in the head.

This certainly looked a lot like death. Smoke rose in lazy spirals from the bullet holes, accompanied with bits of blood and brain splattering onto to the floor. There would have been more leakage, except that the heat had neatly cauterised the wound. A spark had lit the President's hair on fire. It was blazing quite merrily, especially since nobody was moving to put it out.

The shooter stepped over the President's body and smirked at the astonished onlookers. Certainly, he was a handsome man with his striking red hair done up in a messy ponytail, but that was probably the last thing on anyone's mind. The oddest thing about him was his midnight black eyes, through which could be seen pinpricks of light viciously shooting downwards.

When he spoke, his words seemed to momentarily burn a trail through the thoughts of those who listened to him. "There's nothing to worry about here, friends," he said, "because they're not dead! Death just ain't a thing, is that right, Mr. President?" He turned to the corpses and gestured at them to come on, stand up, flicking his hands up.

And the President sat up and struggled to his feet.

"That's the spirit," said the shooter, and he clapped the President on the back. "How d'you feel now you know death's let go of you, sir?"

The onlookers watched the dead man attempt to find the words. He coughed, spluttered, and said, "For the first time we have risen, and I see we are being consumed."

The shooter gestured for the President to continue.

There was more coughing. "Further... f-further consensus has proven that over half of all Americans still hate. Eaten whole by void. The emptiness. The sadness. The blackness. The darkness."

The shooter nodded. "I'll just leave you to it, then!" He saluted the watching crowd, turned around and walked away.

Nobody dared grab him. Nobody stopped him as he crossed the road and left this context entirely. This was not a crime scene, because there had been no crime committed. The ultimate crime was death, but nobody needed to accept death. Thus, there was nothing to worry about!

And Coriander Hasp was quite pleased with himself. He slung Ritho, the Rifle, onto his back after he gave her a pat and a "good job!". It was always important to compliment your friends when they helped you out.

These beautiful, tainted mortals always reacted the same way to dying - all "oh nooooo my head is on fire and everything is so hot and I am dead x_x". Sometimes they begged for mercy. Sometimes they strode towards that finality with a boring yet admirable stoic-ity. But, some part of them must've been willing to know the truth, because they always came back when he told them to. He rather thought that mortals should just be pulling themselves from their graves by their bootstraps!

Alas, it was up to Coriander to encourage them.

He whistled to himself as he walked into an alleyway, and abruptly stopped as another man with falling star eyes stepped out of the shadows in front of him. Genseric Dace leaned back against the wall, his staff in one hand, his book in the other, looking to all the world as if he had just been interrupted by Coriander rather than the other way around.

He shook his head sadly. "Oh, Coriander, what have you done to that poor man's mind?"

"All I did was to open his mind up to possibilities, Genseric! 'Sides, you're one to give me guff 'bout messin' with mortal minds."

"I would hazard a guess that poor Mr. President will find himself quite haunted by the events of today. Perhaps he will recover, suppressing the events of today in nightmares and shadows, forgetting the glimpse into the truth of this world. But, will there be a part of him that forever doubts? I wonder how it will make himself known." A shadowy claw reached over and flipped the page of Genseric's book.

Reaching over, Coriander grabbed the cover and slammed the book shut. The claw withdrew just in time, though it quickly made a motion that could have been flipping Coriander off. "Stop pretendin' you know what's gonna happen," he said with a huff, before grinning again. "You saw what happened, right? Hah, he looked great with his hair all aflame like that!"

"That's torture, Coriander. Torture and harassment. I don't make fun of your hair, do I?"

Frowning, Coriander ran a hand through his hair. "Nothing's wrong with my hair," he said. "What's wrong with my hair?"

"Absolutely nothing." Genseric closed his night filled eyes. He had the uncanny ability to look quite at peace anywhere, from the most war-torn fields to this alleyway.

"What's wrong with my hair, Genseric?!"

It was quite a beatific look on Genseric's face. "You do know that beauty and vanity and hair are all unnecessary distractions from a deeper truth, right?"

Coriander stared at Genseric before crossing his arms. "We don't have to take 'em out first," he said, and there was a flicker in the air as something imperceptible happened. "Anyway, I feel completely and utterly at ease with my level of physical attractiveness and nothing you can say can make me feel otherwise."

Genseric's eyes flicked open with a mild but languid shock. "Did you just enchant yourself with Listening to yourself so that you can feel better about yourself."

"You can't prove anythin', okay?"

The shadowy hand proceeded to place itself on Genseric's forehead for a few moments, before turning around and patting Coriander on the shoulder. "You don't need to do that," Genseric murmured.

A shiver ran through Coriander, but he refused to let himself be perturbed by Genseric's sudden refusal to continue with the bantering. "I totally did," he said, and then hissed in a sharp intake of breath as the shadow gently brushed against his cheek. It quickly withdrew, leaving behind the tantalizing ghost of a sensation.

Genseric pushed himself off the wall, catching his staff with his shadow and tucking his book under one arm. "Come with me," he said.

There was a little laugh. "Y'know, I was hopin' to stay around. See the repercussions. Betcha the Power of Economics is gonna show up, and I've got such a trap for them-"

"Come with me," Genseric repeated. "It's been a while since I took you to the city. Whatever happens here can't be that interesting." And he reached out to gently touch Coriander's cheek, where the shadow had touched. Coriander drew back, almost automatically.

He'd like to say no. He wants to say no. It's just another step of Genseric's plan and it doesn't mean anything, and Coriander has his own interesting little schemes going on. He doesn't have to depend on Genseric all the time, or be with him forever, tied together by what feels like friendship.

He says yes.

-><-

It is a confusing matter to speak of the mortal that precedes the Excrucian's arrival in reality. In one fashion, you could say that there is no mortal there, that there is only a mortal-shaped gate through which the enemy of the world will extend themselves through. Or perhaps the mortal is the only true thing, whose emotions- whose rage, terror, fear, despair broke the world around them and tore themselves out of reality to become a world devouring monster.

There is a young man who lives in a wild, free land. To his family, the most important words of this land are the ones that allow them to arm themselves against any threats that might come upon them. To the man, these words are important, yes, important enough to learn the way of the pistol, but not more important than himself.

The man wishes to be heard. He is not eloquent or verbose, but there is fire in what he says. At his best, he is a trickster, a prankster prone to undermining good, honest work. At his worst, he is a firebrand, nettling others into ill-thought out deeds. Too often does he come to blows with those around him as they disregard his words. They think him too young and they think him too ill educated.

He leaves.

He finds a friend. Another young man who will listen, who will encourage his words, who will gleefully go along with his plans. They have fun as they wreck what small part of the world they can together. Two drifters, floating through the world together. Two lost souls, alone.

The other man will always listen, and that is the problem because he wants to please his friend. The other man does riskier things, more daring things. Hurts people. Hurts his friend, who never wanted this, who always just wanted someone to listen and not to leave like this.

The dream is over. They can't carry on, not like this.

The building in which they are taking shelter is dry, too dry. It catches fire easily. The authorities are outside, and they will shoot to kill.

The other man panics.

The young man tries to calm him down. You're not listening. You're not listening to me. We can still escape. We can still leave. We can go somewhere, we can be something, I need you, I need you-

The other man stands up. You did this to me, he says. You brought us into this mess, you and your fucking horrible ideas. I blame you, I blame you. He takes out his gun.

Listen to me!

And the other man does.

We can still get out of this. We'll escape. Even if we die, it'll be okay- death isn't really a thing. We'll get out of this alive. We'll be free, soon.

The young man is babbling now, but the other man doesn't lower his gun. The other man is still listening, though, which gives the young man enough time to shoot his friend in the heart.

They say, of Those Who Listen to Coriander Hasp, that...
... they feel his words like a fire in their head.
... they ain’t dead.
... they ain’t bound by possibility, really, neither.
... that they get all full of inspiration and bad ideas.

And they probably shouldn’t have listened, in the end.

-><-

The city of Genseric's making are bridges strewn in the darkness with ropes of shimmering golden light. Those that he recruits for his armies live there, or perhaps they are inducted into his service and forced to tread and mend the golden bridges. Cause and effect does tend to not follow in the proper order in the Lands Beyond Creation.

How are there bridges, here, when bridges are a construct of the Lie that is Reality? Perhaps Genseric liked them.

It had been a while since Coriander had come here. As he walked, he made sure not to hold onto the ropes that served as railings. That would show weakness, or perhaps a fear of the abyss that lay beyond, and neither of those things were anything Coriander possessed.

This was quite possibly a terrible idea because safety is very, very important, kids, and not everyone can be a stylish creature of void and falling stars.

Genseric walked in front of him. Coriander watched him, noted how he strode with the air of a conqueror stalking his prey with his staff held up high. Honestly, Coriander himself would admit to some measure of vanity, but Genseric had him beat in terms of ego. The other Excrucian was always full of a powerful certainty that bled into everything he did, and Coriander hated that.

Of course, Genseric was a dear friend. The two of them were, to use common mortal parlance, thick as thieves, but underlying that friendship was a level of distrust that undercut every relationship that a Excrucian Deceiver could have. It was in their name, for Harumaph's sake! They lied to the world, they lied to each other, they lied to themselves-

And here was a hut. It wasn't Genseric's own home, but just one of many buildings that could serve as one in a pinch. It had been woven out of the golden ropes that shone with a distinctly starry light, and it bent and swayed as the two Deceivers stepped in.

"Do you remember the first time I brought you here?" Genseric asked.

Coriander forced out a smile in front of gritted teeth. "How could I forget?" His hand moved to Ritho, clutching at the cool familiar metal that had been with him for so long.

As if he didn't notice, Genseric placed the staff by the door, the book on the table, and moved to sit down-

only to find Coriander forcefully pushing him against the wall, Ritho jabbed next to his neck. The heat from the rifle's muzzle clawed at the ropes of the wall and smoke coiled up from the resulting hole.

"What are we doing here, exactly?" Eyes narrowed, teeth clenched, Coriander wasn't really intending on any serious damage, but he was still so frustrated.

Genseric looked him straight in the eyes, falling stars to falling stars. His voice still cool and controlled, he said, "I just wanted to listen to you, old friend."

"You think I'd believe that? You, willingly puttin' yourself in my power?" He let out a bark of laughter.

Genseric's shadow drew itself up into a claw, and Coriander watched it, expecting it to swipe at him or to grab Genseric's staff or book, to push him away or something. Instead, it wrapped itself around Coriander's waist and pulled him-

closer to Genseric.

The hand Coriander was using to steady Ritho lost its grip, but he still managed to hold onto the rifle as his arm fell to his side. He could feel Ritho heating up even more in response.

"I'm listening," Genseric breathed into Coriander's ear.

His arm was embracing Coriander in a lopsided, half-shadow half-arm embrace. Through this, Coriander could feel Genseric shivering. Genseric was making himself vulnerable, but in that annoyingly certain way that meant that he still had control over the situation, that he had engineered this entire thing.

Fuck him, he wanted to make Genseric beg for his life. He wanted to make the smug bastard listen. He whipped Ritho up, grabbed the muzzle with his other hand and pressed the steel against Genseric's throat. "No, you're not," he said. "You're fucking with me."

Genseric let out a wheezing laugh as the heated metal pressed against his skin, burning him.

Maybe if he pressed it harder, Genseric would finally shut up.

Ritho was not pleased with this situation, judging by the clicking sounds she was making. Coriander pulled Ritho out of his other hand and pressed the muzzle against Genseric's throat. He watched the motion of the breaths that Genseric was taking, though he didn't fool himself that this was hurting Genseric at all. Breathing, life, death, all was an illusion, and by all standards, the two of them were immortal.

This was still satisfying, however.

The shadow claw shifted, and belatedly Coriander realised that it was undoing his buttons on his military coat. Genseric's other hand was working at his buttons, and soon enough, both the shirt and the coat had been recklessly tossed to the other side of the room. His chest felt cool and still in the unchanging endlessness of whatever passed for an atmosphere.

Fuck, he would love to do the same to Genseric, tear that cape and jacket off, but his hands were busy with Ritho. She would never forgive him if he left her out of this.

"Maybe I should shoot," he said. It took him a second to realise that Genseric was definitely looking at his chest. Hey, it's hard to see where someone is looking when instead of an iris or a sclera, they just have a falling night sky. With a smirk, he said, "So y'think I'm hot, huh?"

"Hotheaded, more like," Genseric grunted.

The shadow claw was working at his pants now, but Coriander did not think this was fair. "Why don'cha get your own shirt off, first? Cause, you see, I'm the one with the fuckin' gun here," he growled. "I could shoot at any time. In fact, you should just get everything off."

"Do you think I'm not aware of this?" But Genseric complied, surprisingly fast. And soon, he was completely unclothed as he lay against the wall of the rope hut.

Coriander moved Ritho down, from the side of Genseric's neck to his sternum, leaving behind a trail of steam and burns. "Should I mark ya with my name, so that everyone'll know what happened to the great Genseric Dace?" he said. "Or maybe I'll just shoot your cock off."

The shadow claw grabbed onto Ritho and pushed her away. "You know I'll just heal," Genseric said.

"Sure." Coriander pushed back, and with a burst of strength, he managed to jab the muzzle closer to Genseric's face. A flash of inspiration came to him. "Lick her."

It was hard to tell, but Genseric was rolling his eyes.

"She's feelin' left out, okay? Otherwise I'll just jam her into you and shut you the hell up."

Genseric grabbed the gun's barrel with his other hand and brought it closer to his mouth. Slowly, lazily, as if this wasn't the world's hottest popsicle stick, he dragged his tongue up the muzzle, up the barrel, before his other hand grabbed the barrel too. With three limbs against Coriander's two, Genseric managed to wrestle the gun away from himself and towards Coriander, pushing it onto Coriander's chest- specifically, in front of his heart.

"Go on." Coriander let go and threw his hands up in a mock version of surrender. "Shoot me with my own fuckin' gun."

"That's not good enough for you." Surprisingly, he could talk with a burned tongue. Could nothing shut him up? Genseric let go of the rifle with his hands, holding it just with his shadow. He looked at it with an oddly incurious glance, though he turned it this way and that. Finally, he said, "Now that I have the gun, might I make the same request of you? Take your clothes off."

Grumbling all the way, though secretly pleased, Coriander was soon unclothed as well. He crouched next to the still laying down Genseric. "Can I have Ritho back? She doesn't like you."

"Not yet." The shadow claw emerged and began to trace the lines of Coriander's jaw, before zipping down to a much lower area. It traced the lines of his inner thigh, drawing a line from his leg to his crotch to his cock, cradling it, stroking it, sending waves of pleasure up Coriander's body.

And then, Genseric, being the complete and utter dick that he was, threw the gun to the other side of the room.

All feelings of pleasure gone, Coriander leaped, just managing to grab her before she hit the ground. He clutched her close to his chest as he sat up and glared at Genseric. "That is extremely rude of you!" he said very loudly.

Genseric gave him his best it's just a gun look.

Coriander stood up, came over to Genseric and shoved Ritho into Genseric's mouth. "Say sorry!" he demanded.

This was met with even more rolling of eyes (which looked like the stars in his eyes temporarily had an orbit). Oh yeah. People can't speak when they have things shoved in their mouth.

Coriander took Ritho back. "You better make up for that," he hissed.

"Oh, I will," Genseric said, before his shadow claw reached up and pulled Coriander onto him. "Why don't I start right now?"

They moved together. Not as one, because there is no unity here, not with the fire of Coriander and the elemental and untroubled nature of Genseric. This was an undoubtedly animal act, an undoubtedly mortal and real act that meant absolutely nothing, but it did not stop Genseric from shaking with pleasure or Coriander from gasping as nothingness moved within nothingness. Genseric's shadow was definitely an interesting addition, scratching and caressing at Coriander's skin.

Ritho was all riled up, demanding to be at the center of all interaction. She did not like Genseric but she was behaving so well, not even "accidentally" going off once.

Genseric fucked like a tease. He was slow, he was gentle, but during the unexpected times, he was vicious and cruel and forceful. There was always the hint that he could be doing more, always the insinuation that this was definitely not enough.

And finally, and finally, after all that was said and done, after they lay together wordlessly and breathlessly-

Coriander pulled his clothes on and made sure Ritho was strapped to his back. He was going to leave. He was never going to talk to Genseric again, that bastard, that tease-

"Do you know why I like you so much?" Genseric asked from the other side of the room. "Why I helped you out at first? Why I've never betrayed you?"

Coriander stopped. Froze. Did not turn around. He said, "Whatever you're gonna say, I'm not gonna believe it. I'm gonna believe that I'm just playing a part in your inscrutable plan, and I'm just gonna walk away."

"I like you."

"That's a lie," Coriander said. "That's what we are." But he turned around, and Genseric was smiling, fondly, gently.

"That's what we are," Genseric repeated. "We're liars. We're fools. We're fighting a delusion larger than ourselves. But that doesn't mean we can't fight it together. Stay with me, Coriander."

He'd like to say no. He wants to say no. It's just another step of Genseric's plan and it doesn't mean anything. He doesn't have to depend on Genseric all the time, or be with him forever, tied together by what feels like a burning, glowing rope in the darkness.

He says...

"Yes."

-><-

The ashes of the wooden shelter still smoke in the dazzling, fractured sunlight. The young man stands over them, tears in his burning eyes, but it wasn't salt water that fell down his cheeks.

He looked at himself and did not understand what he was seeing. Here was a symmetrical thing that had what it once thought were hands, or a mouth, or a head, and it was utterly pointless and ridiculous. It didn't mean anything, not anymore.

It was half-formed, a grotesque mockery of... something.

"Let me help you."

A shadow placed its claw on his shoulder.

The young man turned to see a monster in the shape of a man. Instead of eyes, there were two voids staring into a world where the stars could not hold onto their perches. This was a handsome monster with dark, cropped hair, a stylish military uniform that shimmered a void velvet black, a purple cloak like that which royalty would wear. He held in one hand a staff and the other a book.

"You're having some trouble breaking through," said the monster, "but I can help." The shadow withdrew and reached under the cloak, pulling out a ornate rifle. The muzzle was bright and hot, steam rising from the end. "This is Ritho that is Illicit Love. She's going through something similar to you, and I thought you two could help each other out."

The rifle was pushed into the young man's unresisting hands. He looked down and... understood what the monster meant.

"My name is Genseric Dace," said the monster. "Let's go on a walk."