Here is what you dream: burning sulfur, singeing your nose hair. Your heart slamming in your ears, beating wildly in your chest in 4/4 time. A feeling of urgency, sweat on your palms. The stench of gasoline, green fire against your neck, barking dogs. Snarling teeth, Searing pain. Choking, drowning, something hot bubbling from your lips. Bright red blood.
The images are abstract, like a mosaic taken from your memories, broken and put back together in a way that doesn’t make sense. The wrong order, upside down. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope, but all you can see is a hand and a leg belonging to two different people.
You toss and you turn and sleep poorly, wake up, go back to sleep, and do it all over again.
Despite the bad dreams, you spend most of your spare time sleeping. Between commissions, work, gigs and the people in between, you don’t get a lot of free time.
What you do get, you covet, and not even the psionic next door blowing a fuse again is enough to disturb you. There are upsides to this (being asleep, not having to deal with shit, pretending to be dead), but there are also downsides; when you sleep, you dream. And when you dream, there are the nightmares again.
Maybe you’re depressed, you think, dozing on the couch again. You watch your hand rest on the carpet, trace the callouses of your palm, think it’d make sense if you had a way to hide them. Maybe you’re a masochist. Maybe you’re in love with your own sadness.
Someone kicks you in the head.
You’re not an animal, you have a fucking bed, go sleep in it.
“You’re not the boss of me,” you think, but you jolt upright on the floor with a headache like you got hit by a freight train.
Your name is Dirk Strider, but people you like call you "bro", because that's what you are. A bro. You're the epitome of cool, the chillest of dudes, and you live in a one bedroom apartment on the top floor of an overpriced building in New Houston. You are thirty-two years young, it's Tuesday, July 17th, and you’re soaked in sweat.
It’s Tuesday, July 17th, and you’re soaked in sweat by the time you reach the store where you buy all your fabric. Your poor truck is still in the shop and you've been too busy to work on her, definitely wouldn't let the other kids touch it with a ten foot pole. You could've taken the bus but really, the shop ain't too far from your place, and you didn't know it would get so fucking hot. Oh well. Most of your original product was scrap and discount, but since you raised the price you’ve been able to afford the premium shit, and you browse their selection with a critical eye and a careful hand. You don’t want to get accused of stealing. Again.
You’re a little bit cursed that way, always have been. You used to get yelled at for all sorts of shit, from hijacking cars you just barely walked by, to something as simple as stealing someone else’s gum. Your teenage years were hell, your mid-twenties were worse. You are learning to live in your self-imposed isolation and truth be told, you like it better this way.
You’re not much of a people person.
You spend longer than necessary staring at all the different patterns, neatly wrapped in their cellophane. It’s 105 outside and barely past two, and you are not excited to get back out there. You grab a pack of neon green and Candlenights red, and think about fire again, singeing your arm hair, think about blood damp on the front of your shirt. A headache starts to burn behind your eyes.
You have a feeling it’s gonna be a long fucking day.
You miss the bus (of course), so you take the long way home, past the river and the Maid’s temple, where you can slink along in the minimal amounts of shade provided by tall buildings, a momentary reprieve from the hellish humidity that hugs you like a particularly unwelcome blanket. There are flowers lining the neat stone paths on all sides, blooming despite the summer heat, though their stems are beginning to droop and you know they’ll soon perish in the southern heat.
You consider dipping inside to escape the sun for just a bit longer, wonder if felt is an acceptable gift for the goddess of Life. You’ve always been fond of the old gal, the imagery of her with a mother’s gaze and a soft, humanly crooked smile.
A train of followers, draped in beige and green, pass you in a line like a bunching of amusing trees. The last one holds the door open for you, gives you a smile that is polite, but kind. You’d look like a real jackass to walk away right now, you think.
Still, your feet move you forward on the pavement, and you don’t look back at that lonely follower, and imagine that the heat on your ears is the burn of shame, instead of the sun.
You consider the irony of a Life temple in a place where things come to die, walking along the wilted flower path. The followers are devote, the sermons (you hear) are usually full up most days. Still, it’s not as big as most, since the Knight is the patron god of New Houston. The flowers can’t possibly survive their intended life span, and the follower count must drop yearly. You’ve heard the temple in Sealight is huge, though. Maybe when you make it large, you’ll send them a truck full of fertilizer. You guess? That’d probably help, right?
You stutter at the edge of the sidewalk three blocks away, feel the pull in your chest like something’s lodged there. An indiscernible feeling of foreboding for what lies ahead.
In contrast to the Maid’s temples, the temples of the Knight are almost impossible to miss. Huge, hulking structures that reach into the sky, steel and marbled granite that leak with crimson banners and blood red rust. The symbol for Time, the ten-pronged gear, sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of the city, and you hesitate there at the intersection, consider taking your usual path a few blocks around it. You pass them every day. You never go in.
A longer life has never been your destiny, anyway.
It’s mid-August the first time you see him, standing in front of the Maid’s temple, staring at you like he’s carved out of stone. At first you think you’re imagining things, a spectre draped in red, posed stock still in the middle of a sea of brown and green. But someone ducks around him and sends the cape behind him billowing, and you know you can’t be dreaming. His hair is pale, pale blonde and when his glasses catch the light, you realize he looks familiar.
He must be a performer, you think, a little hysterical. The Time temple is only a few blocks up, maybe he got lost.
So why is he staring at you?
You look back and think, damn, they really go all out for Time ceremonies, huh?
Someone jostles you, or a car passes, or you blink too long, and then he’s just gone.
And that’s the end of that, you guess.
You don’t think about him until a week later.
You sit uncomfortable on a chair in front of the cigarette cabinet, foot jittering so hard it shakes your entire body.
It’s not your favorite thing, getting called in early (if you can call eleven pm early, which you uniquely can) to have a “talk” with your manager, who carries the morning shift most days.
“Your eyes are scaring the customers,” he explains nervously, the way most carapacians are nervous around you. You can’t blame them, really, when you’re taller than half of them by at least a foot. Explains the chair, anyway.
The bell dings above the door, but he doesn’t even turn his head to check. “You are a very good worker, Mr. Strider,” he says gently, touching your arm after a long hesitation. “It’s just...”
You nod. Here it comes. You’re used to it, and at this point you’re surprised if you last longer than three months anywhere. It’s fine, you can find another job, something that works with your whack-ass sleep schedule and side-work.
But instead, he gives you a little pat. Pat, pat. “Perhaps we should stick you to the night shift for now.”
You’d hug the little fucker if you weren’t afraid you could literally crush him to death. Instead, you give the closest approximation to a smile you possibly can. “Thanks, Mr. Manager. I appreciate it a lot.”
His eyes crinkle up in the corners in a way you are certain means a big smile, and he goes to help the customer, leaving you to stare at the alcohol cabinet for just a minute longer.
Take a shaky breath. Rake a hand down your face. That was close. Too close. It’s not like you’re not used to getting fired, at this point (though you don’t know why, you don’t get it, you didn’t do anything -), but you’re really damn tired of the job hopping.
“Thank you so much!” Mr. Manager says, chipper as always, and you look up to see a kid, staring at you over your manager’s shoulder.
Pale, pale blonde hair hangs over shaded eyes that look right through you. He’s dressed in all red and you know, heartbeat picking up, that it’s him. Your eyes start to burn, and your head feels fuzzy.
He grabs a bag of Doritos and an apple juice off the counter and walks away quick as lightning, turns around the corner of the condiment dispenser, and is gone.
"Huh," you think. That was weird.
There are a pair of sunglasses left behind with a receipt, and you gingerly pick them up. Should you follow him? He has shades, right? Why the fuck did he buy a second pair?
Your manager doesn't seem all that bothered, getting ready to leave, and mystified, you set them next to the liquor cabinet. Just in case he comes back, or.
Or you don't know.
You dream in shades of sepia that night, dream you're lying on your back staring up at dirt-brown clouds that flicker with stars, but they can't be stars, because they're beneath the clouds, because they're moving. Your chest hurts but you can't move to see what's wrong, arms too heavy and fingers long gone numb.
Stop sleeping on the fucking floor, dude. C'mon, what's so scary about one little bedroom?
"It's not my room," you think, or say, or don't, and you and shoot upright choking on spit, hands scrambling for purchase on the still cool floor. Something bumps against your fingers and you flinch where no one can see, acknowledge you're being ridiculous, and squint half-asleep at a pair of brown-toned sunglasses barebmillimeters away.
You're pretty sure you left those at the convenience store, but what do you know? Maybe you had shoved them in your pocket without thinking when you grabbed your keys. Whatever, you'll take them back with you tonight.
You stand, groaning as your back pops in seven uncomfortable places. You're not old, far from it, but sometimes your bones creak and ache and you feel like you've inhabited this skin for a long, long time.
You are tired, beyond tired, two days after returning the sunglasses to their home at the convenience store. You haven't slept in a hot minute and you're definitely taking it out on the engine, which despite your best efforts will not quite jump to life. You don't know why. Just bad luck, you guess. Go figure. The lights in the garage sting at your tired eyes and you wish, you do, for any appropriate eyewear, but you know it won't possibly survive the absolutely beat down it would take on a busy day at the shop.
You finally make some progress around seven pm, get the truck started long enough for it to cough a little smoke, which is a helluva improvement, before taking a break. You probably need a nap, honestly, but you'll settle for some coffee and an aspirin.
Wow, you sound like an old fucking woman.
You're not technically allowed in the back office, since you're not an actual employee, but you've been here long enough that they never stop you, never have, even when you were working under the table. You turn the lights off and flop into the overstuffed rolling chair, wheel over to the desk so you can lay your head on your arms for awhile.
The dreams have been getting worse. You want to say maybe they're not, maybe they're not that bad, you never remember everything anyway, maybe you're not processing trauma properly and your brain is coping by ripping you to shreds in your sleep. It hasn't always been like this, you think. But it's been so long you can't really remember what it was like before.
You roll your head so that you can press your eyes harder into your arm and drum your fingers against the table. You can't sleep here. Well you could. They'd think you were weird (most people do) when they came back in the morning and you were still here, since you promised to lock up and be out by ten (gig, tonight, and then work again, tomorrow). But you think the big guy would get it. You were one of his best workers, once. Ugh. Maybe you should ditch the side jobs and come back, after all.
You drag yourself up with too much effort, exhaustion heavy on your slanting shoulders. You should go home. Get a couple'a hours, or setup tonight will be hell. You lock the office back up, grab your keys and cigs from the front seat, and leave through the side door so you can stand next to the fans a little bit longer while you finish off a smoke.
You find them when you grope around for your lighter, and dragging a pair of sunglasses out of your ass pocket has never felt more like a magic trick. What the actual fuck.
Maybe you - maybe you found them in the office, maybe they're an old pair you didn't remember leaving in your pants. The lenses are sepia and shiny new and you think you know what? Fuck it. You're not a curious person (not anymore, no reason to be, really, not anymore), and you don't have time for magic, or not magic, or whatever this is. Free glasses. Fine. Whatever.
Gods, you're so fucking tired.
This is stupid. You look stupid.
It’s all you can think, looking in the bathroom mirror. They don’t match your face, and you think you look kind of like a douchebag. Rounded glasses don’t suit you.
But despite this, despite the ugly sepia tone, the tacky gold rims, and how WRONG it feels, your vision has never been better. Your walk to work is almost pleasant in comparison to the past. It's like the world's come into focus, everything is crystal clear, and you do not squint in the glaring sun. You never realized how bright New Houston was without them, and you think your eyes might just pass as brown like this. That's. Certainly something, you guess.
A toe at your temple, nudging your brow.
Wake up, you forgot the pay the electricity bill, idiot.
C’mon, Bro, I’m dying in here. Wake up!
You jolt upright with a migraine like you’ve been kicked in the head by a horse and think you should lay off the adderall for a little while. Maybe just lay off the night gig thing for awhile, in general. It’s not that you don’t deserve a proper prescription (you desperately, desperately do), but goddamn, you think it might legitimately be fucking with your head.
You peel yourself off the floor (again), and realize your apartment is sweltering.
“Fuck,” you mutter, wiping your face with your shirt.
You forgot to pay the electricity bill again.
You shower in the dark and style your hair the best you can with your phone light before just saying fuck it and wedging a hat over it. You can fix it later. The royal ass-kicking you’re about to give the public utility department schmucks waits for no man.
The bus ride is completely uninteresting. You scoot over to make room for a Jadeblood no doubt on her way home from the East End brooding caverns, and she gives you a smile of thanks and not an ounce of anything else. Just the way you like it.
The verbal lashing will, no doubt, be remembered for years to come. How the fuck are you supposed to keep track if a month has a thirty-first or not? It should be due at the same damn interval. Idiots.
You’re considering switching to automatic payments, credit card security be damned, as you cross the plaza in the morning swelter. You watch your bus leave without you while you brood, and think yeah, okay. Fine.
You can wait for the next one out here, hiding in the tiny glass hut with no sun protection but you’d just rather fucking not.
You weigh your options and come up with two bad ideas. You could go back inside, face the shame of having just made the biggest Texas hullabaloo in all of history, or you can head to the Knight’s Temple across the green.
You’re not really in the mood to be a laughing stock, so you man the fuck up, grit your jaw, and head on over.
This is, if you remember correctly, the oldest Time temple in New Houston. It was built back with the other municipal buildings, so it favors foreign influence over the more modern towering structures throughout most of the city. This one is so old it has marbled statues of the Guardians outside, paint chipping away and revealing the white stone beneath. The humanoid Hephaestus stands before the temple like a soldier, hammer in hand, face set in a grimace. The other, less important deities in Time scripture surround him. The sea serpent Cetus, the tyrant Typheus. You remember some of them from school. Echidna, the mother of monsters, who apparently had a hand in the creation of the universe. You’re not sure if you believe that.
You smooth a hand over the serpentine form of the lion-faced guardian. Yaldabaoth, you remember. God of all monsters. He belonged to the hero of Heart, insomuch as they belonged to anyone. It’s a neat story, you think. An interesting concept, even if it's all made up.
The inside of the building is cool and dark, still relying on the beams of light trickling in from stained glass windows. You tuck your new shades in your shirt collar and wander towards the inner chamber, listen to the echo of your footsteps and the hushed whispers of the devout, further down the halls.
You’ve been inside a Time hall before, back when you were little. It had been raining, you think, and you had gotten lost taking the bus for the first time. You ended up on the opposite side of town, in the small hive collective where most of Odessa’s troll population lived. The temple stood out because of its shape, tall but rounded, unlike anything you’d ever seen before. You remember hunkering under a pew, remember mosaics of crystalline glass, and music like bells. An adolescent troll had found you, her horns curved like a ram’s, her lips painted like cherries. Her eyes, specked dark wine red on pavement grey, shone in the light, reflected something that made her feel like a dream.
“You’re lost,” she had said, simple as anything, and when she reached out her hand, you took it. You don’t remember going home. You don’t remember a lot of things from those days.
This is, however, your first time in a temple of the Knight, and while the red banners are familiar, the depictions of oozing lava, of broken metal and shattered glass, are not.
This is a violent place, you think, looking at a wall mosaic. You trace a finger over the cool stone and think hot metal, the sound of creaking gears, heat rising from the ground like you’ve never felt before. Shirt sticking to your skin, the taste of copper on your tongue.
You shudder, suddenly burning hot and freezing cold all at once, and step away from the walls. A small group of consorts waddle past and you think of crocodiles emblazoned in amber. A wave of nausea rolls over you that you can’t explain.
“It’s wild, isn’t it?” a voice says just to your left, and you do flinch this time, full body, hand twitching like you’re reaching for a weapon you don’t have.
And there’s no mistaking it this time, the kid from before. He’s older than you thought, seeing him this close now, jaw rounded but not with babyfat, long and rail thin the same way you probably were at his age. Whatever his age is. It’s hard to tell with those giant sunglasses covering his stupid face. He kinda looks like a douchebag. Quite the pair the two of you make.
“What,” you say, even though you feel like you shouldn’t. What you should do is walk away. Walk away, your brain says. Your heart throbs in your ears. Walk away.
He raises an eyebrow, thicker and darker than you thought it would be, and gestures around himself. “This. All this. The walls, the statues. Hell, even the fucking floor. It’s ridiculous.” He’s got the ghost of an accent clinging to the corners of his words, like he’s been away from home too long, but you’d recognize a traditional Texan drawl from a mile away.
He’s also not entirely wrong. You look down at the hall, iron red granite, and think about running blood. Gods, this whole place feels like a fucking tomb.
“You can say that again,” he says around a sigh, and you carefully do not mention how you don’t remember speaking.
You want to ask him if he’s following you. You want to ask why he looks so familiar. But the way you can’t quite see around his shades, how he holds himself away from you so that even reaching out, you wouldn’t quite touch, you get the impression you aren’t welcome.
So instead you say, “I think I’d prefer less red. Reminds me too much of blood.”
His hums, regards the mosaic. Abstract lava flows from pipes into an ocean of orange and yellow, scattered metal framework littering the background like an oil rig. “It doesn’t feel like it happened this way,” he says to you. “Like this is our idea of what things looked like on. On Earth. Or something.” He hesitated. You’re intrigued.
You don’t remember all the scriptures (or any, really) but each patron god and their following have their own ideas about how life started here. You’re not going to argue semantics with some college kid. “I don’t really remember much about any of that,” you admit. “But it feels hells of blasphemous to denounce ancient scripture while we’re standing in a God’s house.”
“I don’t really think it’s his house,” the kid snorts, but his mouth curls up at the corners. “But you’re probably right.”
You turn away from the hallway and keep walking, ignore the shadows that sit on your shoulders like a weighted blanket. The main chamber takes up most of the interior, with high, vaulted ceilings and more stained glass than you know what to do with. The Knight of Time stands behind an alter in shattered panels, harsh lines of red and a sword that gleams silver and gold. His hair is stark white, his eyes shadowed in dark blues and blacks in the glass. You glance at the kid again. They really do go all out here.
Silence passes between the two of you, but you don’t feel pressured to speak. It’s like you’re waiting for him, patient, quiet. Something familiar, something foreign. You have been alone for a long, long time. “Does it ever scare you?” you ask after a beat, voice low, words from between your lips like wind between leaves.
“Lots of things scare me,” he replies, wry but honest. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
You look at him, bare-eyed, open as you can be. Your arms are getting cold, your fingers going numb. You can’t remember how long the two of you have been standing here, how long you’ve been alone. “Serving a god of death,” you say, watch the corner of his mouth tick down. “Celebrating something that eventually culminates in the end of all Life.”
He turns away from you and for a moment, you can almost see around the side of his glasses, get a brief idea of pale eyelashes and the thin skin on his cheeks. “I don’t really think about it that way,” he mumbles, and you get the idea that you made him uncomfortable.
“Sorry,” you offer, but you don’t feel like it’s true.
"What do you believe?" he asks, and you stare long enough that he elaborates. "Like, there's a shitton of scriptures 'n shit. Dozen and some odd gods to pick from, everyone I've ever met seems to have their own flavor. What's yours?"
That causes you pause. You followed your parents to church as long as they made you, but after meeting... After ninth grade you stopped. You don't really remember why. "Nothing," you say, and mean it. Tack on, "None of them, I guess."
He tilts his head at you, looks curious, looks cautious, like you're a thing to behold, but not touch. "That's kinda sad, don'tcha think? Not believing in anything."
Air stutters heavy out your nose, and you fight a smile. "Just cuz I don't ascribe to antiquated lore of an earth reborn just for us or whatever doesn't mean I don't believe in shit, kid."
"But you don't, really," he says.
"But maybe I don't, really," you agree, and standing there beside him, your chest begins to ache, and your eyes begin to burn.