You are the priestess.
For as long as you remember, you are a priestess. Vessel to an otherworldly, unknowable being. The Ancient Ones. Their voices come to you in echoes and screams and whispers, assailing your mind whenever it pleased them most. You are the vessel, and therefore, you are technically in control, but the perpetual madness in your brain makes you want to follow their every beck and call more often than not.
They command you, build us a cult.
And so you do.
They command you, seek world domination.
And so you do.
Days and days and years and years pass, and you toil at this task. It is no big problem to you. After all, what else are you to do with the endless passage of time? Work at hobbies, make friends, find love? You, as the vessel, are an unimaginably powerful, timeless being. The lives of mortals are like sand sifting in between your splayed-out fingers. A lifetime for them is but a blink to you. One moment you talk to a cultist, the next you speak to the descendant of their descendants.
You are the priestess.
And for the most part, life is simple, oddly enough. You are… content with the way things are, for lack of a better term. You are unsure of what to feel. Feelings are human things and you’re fairly certain you’re the furthest thing from human.
So now, here, in your present, everything is changing.
With you, in the tea room of your home, is a detective. Her name is Amelia H. Watson. She tells you she’s a time traveler. This is of interest, she insists, because she, too, does not age like you do. She says she’s investigating your cult. To see whether or not you’re a threat to humanity or something to that effect. It really shouldn’t matter to you. In the past you’ve disposed of the other detectives way before they even get to talk to you.
But again, in your present, here, everything is changing.
Amelia H. Watson has just had her fill of feeding you oranges. Just a few hours previous, she’d confronted you in the stone temple. You were in the process of disposing of her when she’d slapped you and called you an idiot. But later, hours later, she’s here now, rolling up orange peels and thanking you for your hospitality. She’s making small talk. About the journey to the village. About how she expected the cultists to be half-octopus mutated creatures. About how it had only taken her a few resets of the timeline to finally get the outcome she was looking for. Something to that effect. It’s hard to focus at the moment, you think.
The sharp zest of oranges cuts through your senses. The sting of your cheek radiates. You are somehow, inexplicably, drawn to the detective. A voice, a tiny one, one whose sound you haven’t heard in a long, long time, tells you to keep your eyes on her. Lest you miss a second of her. And you take her in like you take in air. Everything about her, you etch to your memory. Why? You aren’t quite sure yet. But the tiny, tiny voice inside you tells you it’s important. You are inclined to listen.
You should probably get rid of the detective. The chorus of mismatched voices at the back of your mind tell you so. The Ancient Ones, whispers of madness and harbingers of chaos, they command you, the vessel, to heel.
The detective is human, they remind you.
You know that.
Humans bleed so easily, they remind you.
You also know that.
Make the human bleed, they command you.
And you decide, that no, actually, you quite like the way the blue in the detective’s eyes mirrors the vast blue sky. So no, you will not make the human bleed. The voices in your mind are very upset with you. They chide you. Try to control you. For the first time in a long time, you stand your ground. You focus on the sound of the detective’s voice, the tone of it bright, rich, cutting through the endless static in your head. Her voice makes your stomach rumble in a way it has never really rumbled before. Or maybe it has, but you’ve forgotten.
You’ve forgotten a great many things since you’ve become the priestess.
This is something you’ve come to know. To accept. This is part of your life and your destiny as a whole. It’s just the way things are.
The detective reaches out. Very, very lightly touches the back of your hand. She asks, “You okay?”
The touch feels like fire. You realize, that these are feelings you’ve long forgotten in the terrible passage of time.
Your eyes dart down to your hand, to the contact. Words try to form, bubble up from that churning pit you call your stomach, but they are caught at the back of your throat. You inhale sharply instead.
The detective immediately pulls away. No, you realize, you much preferred the heat on your skin. You want to tell the detective that winters are very cold and warmth is such a sacred, sacred thing. But you’re certain she won’t understand what you’re babbling on about.
“Sorry,” says the detective, hushed. She repeats her question. “You okay? You look spaced out there.”
“Winters are very cold,” you state, even though you specifically decided against saying that.
The detective raises an eyebrow. “Yeah?” she asks, confused.
You want to fold into yourself and stop existing. You remember that the word for this feeling is “embarrassment.” You very much dislike this feeling and would like to salvage your dignity somewhat. So you say, trying very hard to keep your voice from breaking, “It would be best for you to stay the night. Outside is very cold.”
The detective blushes. Looks out the window. It’s true – snow is steadily piling on. “Oh, okay,” she says.
Yes, good, you think, proud of how you bounced back. The detective turns to look at you once again. Blue eyes, burning bright. Your heart clenches uncomfortably but you somehow want the feeling to continue. You realize, suddenly, she’s waiting for you to offer a place for her to actually sleep.
You can do this. You’ve taken on lovers in the past. It’s just a thing that you, as the vessel, need. Like food. Like sleep. This, too, is a need you can address and be done with forever.
Blue eyes burn into your soul.
No, you think. I cannot do this. She’s too pretty. Then you berate yourself because that has never stopped you in the past. It also doesn’t make sense. The more attractive the partner, the more motivating the need to satisfy the desire, correct?
You swallow, harder than you think is actually necessary but your throat suddenly feels so dry, and say “We have a guest room. I will have it prepared.”
Her eyes widen. Her blush deepens. She nods. “Ah, yeah,” she goes, chuckling awkwardly. “Of course, of course. A guest room. Thank you.”
You wonder why this is her reaction. Did you say something weird? You really hope you didn’t say anything weird. And then you realize you’d just completely missed your opportunity to ask her to sleep with you. You can’t really help it – you imagine her, without any clothes on, pinned under you, her skin glowing under the moonlight.
Your chest clenches way too hard. Your breath is caught in your lungs. Your face feels like it’s actually burning. You think you’re going to actually die.
“I… I’m not intruding or anything, right?” the detective asks, blushing furiously.
“N-no, of course not,” you manage.
A small, fledgling part of you wants you to kiss her. You stifle that desire, even though you’ve most definitely kissed other people in the past. You’re convinced that kissing Amelia H. Watson will be too intense an experience. You will probably have a heart attack. A stroke. Both at once.
The detective smiles at you. The way her lips curve is so soft, and the way her eyes sparkle reminds you of the stars in the sky.
You can’t look away.
You are a cultist.
For as long as you remember, the priestess is more reminiscent a god than she is a village leader. There, in the shrine. There, in the room with the many sliding doors and the hardwood floors. There, reading from her ancient tome. The priestess, calm and steadfast, listening to the woes of the common folk.
You have been told, by your parents and their parents before them, that the priestess stands tall among you all. More powerful. Wiser. Smarter. A being that is simply greater than any mortal to ever step foot in the village.
It is then, thus, her right to be as cruel as she is just. From atop the hill upon which she sees all, you cannot deny the lurch in your stomach, the chill on the small of your spine. You fear her, and at times you worry that it is fear that motivates your love for her rather than love being the thing that fuels your fear of her. It’s complicated, you think.
For as long as you remember, it has always been that way.
And so, when you see what’s happening now, to the priestess, to the village, it does not pass your notice.
“Pluto,” goes a fellow cultist, pulling you from your thoughts, “they’re here again.”
Jei, to your side, tries to subtly gesture toward the pathway cutting through the fields. On your other side is Eonia, her head down, doing her best to hide how she’s also looking toward them. You’re in the middle of field duty, again, as it is your month’s job assignment. In between bouts of stepping through the snow and digging, the three of you huddle close, warming your hands, exchanging rumors.
And there, again, the priestess and her new detective “friend,” walking around the frozen-over fields bordering the village’s territory. Your forage what you could from the barren landscape, as the two seem to converse animatedly by the roadside.
It’s not like you’re eavesdropping on purpose, of course, but the affairs of the priestess are of incredible importance to you. It’s so you can better cater to her needs. So you can better serve the village. It’s an action driven by the fear fueled by love. Or the other way around. It’s complicated, you remind yourself. It’s definitely not eavesdropping, no.
You hear, but you’re definitely not actively listening in, as the detective says, “Ina, show me more of the village, please?”
You watch, but you’re definitely not actively observing, as the detective reaches out with her hand.
The priestess looks to Miss Watson’s hand. Looks around to check if anyone is present to see. Your group quickly looks down, you all do your best to look incredibly immersed in the task of digging random holes into the snow. When the coast seems clear, you all slowly look back at the two.
The priestess reaches out, gently holds hands with the detective. Miss Watson grins brightly. To you, the sight looks a little like the sun rising past the horizon after a long winter’s night.
The detective tugs the priestess along. “Let’s go!” she says, excitedly. The two run off, to see more things, to talk about more things, to spend more time together.
Your group takes a moment to silently look at each other. To process what had just taken place. You wonder, briefly, how would things have played out in the past? How would things be in the stories of your parents and their parents before them?
To be quite frank, it’s not like the priestess has not taken on a lover before. It was never a closely guarded secret either. Sometimes, visitors to the village catch the priestess’s fancy. In the past it was never so hard to see, never so hard to detect. The glint in the priestess’s eye is easy to catch, like moonlight reflecting off of the calm ocean surface.
“Hey,” goes Jei, as she rubs her hands together furiously. “Did you guys see that?”
“I mean, yeah,” says Eonia. Her breaths come out as small puffs of white clouds as she exhales onto her hands.
You mirror the movements of your companions. The cold bites into your flesh. But somehow, somehow, the sight you had just witnessed imbues you with a warmth that reaches your very bones. “The priestess,” you start, but are unsure if you should continue with your line of thought. At the back of your mind, you think about fear fueling love or love motivating fear.
“Go on,” says Jei.
“Well,” you say, and you wonder how displeased your ancestors might be for you even having such thoughts.
“It’s just us here,” says Eonia.
“The priestess is acting differently this time,” you state. “Before… before she wouldn’t really try to hide it if she wanted to take on a lover, right?”
Jei nods furiously. “Yeah!” she goes, excited. “Did you know that head chef Fox was spared for failing to bring oranges to the tea room in time? She even got gifted oranges.”
“Oh, I heard about that,” adds Eonia. “Fox says the priestess has been humming lately. She seems… happier.”
You try to compare this version of the priestess against the version that lives on in the stories of your parents and their parents before them. The three of you stand around, out in the biting winter cold, staring at each other as one, vital realization sinks in.
The priestess was becoming human.
You are the priestess.
Your mind is an endless void, occupied by countless voices that demand you to follow their every beck and call. For the most part, it’s easy – after all, what else will you do with the incomprehensible powers contained in the vessel you call your body? Having goals to focus on helps with the unending passage of time. Lately, though, you’ve noticed that you want to do things your way, for once.
At first, the Ancient Ones recoiled at every disobedience. But in a battle of wills, the incomprehensible powers trapped in your body have quickly come to the realization that you are way harder headed than they could have ever anticipated. They bother you with their trivial concerns less now, which you like, because you’d really rather enjoy the rest of the winter in the quiet company of the detective. She’s funny, you think, and quick-witted. There’s a light dusting of freckles on her cheeks and whenever she looks at you if feels like thunder at the base of your ribs but you relish the feeling. It makes the winter feel more alive than it ever has in centuries past.
The winter days are passing and most winters are a quiet affair. A time for silence and stillness and rest. But lately, this has not been the case for you. You feel restless. More and more restless with each passing day.
You look up from your tome to watch the detective smoke outside. She stands some distance away, illuminated by torchlight, plumes of smoke rising to the sky above. Something inside you aches when you realize you’ve been staring for far too long. As if she feels your gaze on her, she turns to look at you. She smiles, the tip of her cigarette glowing orange in between her lips. She waves at you.
You feel like your insides will shatter if she so much as speaks too much to you.
You wonder if these feelings are bad.
The voices at the back of your mind politely request you to be rid of the detective. Turn away and close your heart to everything that Amelia H. Watson is, they beseech.
That’s a silly request, you think.
There’s no escaping the sun, you think.
There’s a chorus of sighing in the endless void you call your mind. To any other being, it would, perhaps, be quite the maddening sound. But to you it sounds like the annoying nagging of a parent. At least stop eating so many snacks, goes the Ancient Ones.
You push away the snack bowl in front of you. That much, you can do.
You look up, at the detective, still smiling and waving. You smile and wave back. The feeling it brings you is so pleasant. So warm. Like a small engine purring away in your rib cage. You decide you like acting this way. Smiling is something you want to do more.
You test this out when a cultist arrives with a cup of freshly brewed tea. You recall, vaguely, that the head chef’s name is Fox. You’d recently spared her, you recall. So you say, “Thank you,” and smile softly.
Fox’s eyes widen. She looks like she’s about to pass out. But she steadies herself. Nods furiously, a smile finding its way to her lips too. She bows, several times too many, and leaves the room, smiling as if the greatest thing in the universe just happened.
Yeah, you think, smiling is nice.
You are a cultist.
More specifically, you are a dog. Inexplicably, you understand human speech and all the nuance involved in understanding human interaction. Don’t sweat the details, okay. You’re ruining the vibe by thinking about it too hard. You are a dog. Go with it.
For most of your life, you’ve lived in the mountains surrounding the village. That ended yesterday, apparently, when the priestess herself happened upon you, picked you up by the scruff of your neck, and decided you now belong to her.
“The detective likes dogs, right?” she had said. “She’d like you, right?”
You hope, for the sake of your own ego, that this “detective” or whatever it is likes you. You find yourself quite the charming specimen.
Whatever past, present, or future you had for yourself matters little now.
You are a cultist now.
The priestess cradles you in her arms and brings you to your new home. You are not used to the sensation of being carried but you quickly acclimate to your new life. Being carried is nice, you think. It’s an afternoon of bathing (this experience was not enjoyable) and being fed (this experience was enjoyable) later that you are, finally, presented to the detective.
A woman with short hair bends over to pet you. She scratches behind your ears, under your chin. It feels quite pleasant. You get the impression that the woman knows how to handle creatures of your kind.
“Oh my gosh,” she says, excited, “cute! What’s its name?
You notice how the priestess freezes. How her eyes widen. How she seems to realize, suddenly, that she actually failed to provide you a name.
All afternoon, in between the activities of bathing and feeding, the priestess struggled to choose one grey bandanna over the other. It was narrowed down to kind-of grey and quite-very-much grey. Actually, you remember that you struggle with determining colors very well. It’s supposed to be some variant of “purple,” but it looks grey to you. You’re pretty sure it’s grey.
“Uh,” goes the priestess. “The dog’s name is… Shiba Dog.”
“Oh,” says the woman. “Really?”
“Yes,” declares the priestess, with conviction this time.
And so your name is now Shiba Dog.
“That’s a weird name for a dog,” she says. You agree, but your personal opinions matter little now. “Anyway, I’m Amelia Watson. Hello Shiba Dog!”
You bark, happy, because that is your name. You also appreciate that the woman somehow deemed it necessary to introduce herself to you. Amelia Watson. A good name, you think. Certainly a step up from “Shiba Dog.” So you wag your tail. Spin around. You bark three more times, for good measure. Amelia giggles as she continues to pet you. Amelia is nice, you think. Like the priestess. You like them both very much.
You see it in the priestess’s eyes. Something about your general existence has pleased her. This is good, you suppose, because you are a dog.
You are the priestess.
You are relaxing in the tea room, taking in the quiet solitude of the winter night. Amelia Watson, the detective that occupies most of your thoughts as of late, looks out the window, a small smile on her lips.
“It’s a full moon,” she muses.
You look outside. The moon is quite full. It looks very yellow, very large. The glow of it reflects off of the snow quite beautifully. “Yes,” you say.
A few beats pass and you turn to look at the detective when you notice that she’s being oddly quiet. You see her staring quite intensely at you. This is startling, and you feel, as usual, a heat on your skin, a quickening of your heartbeat.
“Hey Ina,” she says, the words careful, measured, “do you know what happens past this point?”
This is confusing. “What do you mean?” you ask.
“I’ll be honest,” she clarifies, “I’ve never actually made it past this point.” There’s a weight in her words that makes you feel like this moment is incredibly important.
“You mean… the time travel loops?”
“Yes. This is new territory to me.”
You let that sink in. “How did the other loops go?” you ask, because you are curious. Reflecting on the actions you’d taken in the past few weeks, you don’t really see yourself treating the detective in any other way. Why would she feel the need to re-do things?
She looks away. “Sometimes I make jokes and you don’t laugh and it’s so awkward I need a do over,” she states, chuckling to herself.
You cannot fully explain it, but something tells you she’s trying to get you to forget the topic. Your gut tells you to hold on and explore it to its conclusion. Why is she trying to elude you now? And suddenly, a hunch, popping into your mind. Your eyes go wide and your lungs expand with air.
“You’re afraid of something,” you state, matter-of-factly. You see, almost imperceptibly, how the detective stiffens. How she fiddles with the knot of her tie. How she swallows a little too hard. You wonder how you know this, but you’re pleased that you’re right.
She says nothing. She stares at the wall behind you, as if the words to say in reply were written on them.
“You’re also lying,” you say. “We’ve had this conversation many times now. You keep going back in time. Why?”
Ame looks down. Guilty. “I’m sorry,” she says, under her breath. “I know you hate liars.” You can hear the sincerity in her tone.
“Why lie?” you ask.
Ame laughs, a little too bitterly for your liking. There’s a profound sadness in her eyes and it hurts you to look at them. “You’re becoming quite the detective yourself, priestess.”
The detective rubs at the back of her neck nervously. She asks, her voice barely above a whisper, “Do you think your heart remembers?”
The detective blushes a furious shade of red. “Um,” she goes, grimacing. “How are you, uh, finding immortality? Got any fun stories?”
“We can talk about the nuances of being unbound by time and the relation it has to history some other time. For now,” you say, deeply invested in the topic the detective was trying to dodge. “For now, tell me what you mean by the heart remembering?”
Amelia Watson steels herself. Looks away. Reaches out for her cup of tea and drains it in one go. She clears her throat. Rolls her shoulders. “Okay,” she says, finally. “Before anything, I owe you an apology.”
“The uh, the consequences of my decisions are… unheard of. It’s simply nothing I’ve never experienced before.”
You nod. “Whether or not I’ll forgive you remains to be heavily dependent on what you’re about to tell me, but, please, continue.”
Ame nods back. “W-well… Y’see… This… this is just an open and shut case. It’s pretty apparent.”
“You, the cultists, this village. After I first intervene, the trajectory your cult takes changes. Apparently, all I needed to do to stop your cult from dooming humanity or from you succumbing to madness was just feeding you a handful of oranges. Pretty fucking amazing, now that I think about it.”
You’re not quite sure about that being “pretty fucking amazing,” but you let that slide, for now. “Elaborate further, please?”
“I was just supposed to investigate. In the future, your cult was going to grow in power and enslave humanity in a… bad way. You lose yourself completely to the Ancient Ones and become little more than a glorified messenger through which the will of the eldritch beings bound to you funnel their commands. It’s… not nice.”
Maybe it’s in the way Ame presses her lips into a fine line. Or how she looks away. Or how she scratches at the tip of her nose, her eyes, clearly trying to conceal tears forming at the corners of her eyes.
“You originally meet me much later down the timeline,” you say, out loud, the realization heavy in the pit of your stomach.
“Were we close?”
Ame hesitates. “Very.”
“Did we have children?”
Ame hesitates longer. “We just started trying.”
There’s enough unsaid that the implications feel like a bloom of fire in your veins. Like chains pulling at your heart. Like lead in your lungs. “I see,” you say. At the back of your mind, an emerging thought you try to stifle – you strongly dislike this version of yourself.
“I was… I just needed to fix things, you now?”
You wait for her to continue, because you’re struggling to keep up with everything yourself. You let the words sit in the air, thick, weighted, too difficult to breathe in.
“It was hard,” she says. “I… lingered in that timeline for far too long. I tried to fix it. Believe me Ina, I did. It’s just… It’s just after all the loops and all the decisions and all the possibilities… it was… it was just too late.”
There’s a hoarse desperation to her voice. You nod, because the chains wrapped around your still-beating heart yank at it and practically compel you to agree. You’re not sure why, but you believe her, fully and completely.
“I… I had to say goodbye. To… us. So I could go back to the beginning and make things right. A small sacrifice for humanity and whatever, right?” She waves a hand dismissively. Looks at the far distance. Sighs. You realize that the decision wasn’t just hers. If it was up to her, she’d have probably let humanity burn for all she cares.
“Oh,” you go, because you realize that she had to let go because of you. Because you made her save humanity. How very noble. A sickening thought claws its way up the back of your throat. You imagine yourself, a different version of yourself, holding onto the detective passionately, speaking in soft whispers and tones and promises of love eternal. The thought tastes like bile. You hate it. You hate that version of yourself. You wonder why.
“Ina?” says Ame.
You shake your head. “Sorry,” you say, “I thought of something weird.”
She looks oddly hopeful. “Yeah?”
“I just… wondered what that version of myself is like.”
“Honestly? Just like how you are.” She pauses. “I guess this is why… all of this is happening right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“After I… after things are fixed,” and Ame steels herself. Sits up a little straighter. “After things are fixed I’m supposed to part ways with you.”
“Why?” Ame echoes, as if the answer were blindingly obvious.
“Yes,” you repeat. “Why?”
“B-because,” she says, doubling down. “I might cause the timeline to go bad again.”
A feeling at the back of your mind. Your heart aches differently. “You’re lying again,” you say.
“Fine,” says Ame, her shoulders relax. She sighs deeply. “It’s… I’m… Well, it’s not entirely a lie. Just half the truth. I think I might be part of the problem. But at the same time… I’m… I’m afraid of having to say goodbye to us again. Once was enough.”
“You speak as if it’s a guarantee that things will be the same. I am different from that other me. Things will be different.” You imagine yourself scoffing at that inferior, weaker version of yourself. You will do a far finer job of caring for the detective. That version of you didn’t deserve an ounce of Ame’s time.
Ame raises an eyebrow, confused. “Wait, are you like, weirdly mad at the future version of yourself?”
“Yes.” You speak without thinking. Your words are fueled by pure, undiluted impulses swirling in your stomach. “It’s not hard to please you. I can do so much better.” You imagine yourself doing things that make the detective happy. Like showing her the mountain ranges that surround the village. Like gathering more soft animals for her to pet. Like showering her in an endless amount of attention and affection. The last thought makes your ribs dig painfully into your lungs. You ache for it. Crave it.
Ame blinks. She seems at a loss for words. You realize what you’ve just said. You blush a furious shade of red.
“Anyway,” you say, “why are you repeating this loop a lot then?”
“Oh. Uh.” Ame searches for the words. “Because I can’t let go. Every time I just want… I just want to spend at least one more day with you.”
The words swirl in your head. Echoing, echoing. “So,” you say, slowly. “What is it about the heart remembering?”
“Every time… Every time I repeat the loop, you seem to change a little bit each time. You grow softer. Kinder. Your relationship with the cultists changes a bit each time. Not to, uh, brag or anything, but you develop feelings for me… um… faster with each loop.”
You look at the floor very intently. You were quite convinced you were being very discreet about your feelings.
“No Ina,” says Ame, as if reaching into your thoughts and reading them. “You’re not very discreet about it.”
You close your eyes. You imagine the other version of yourself, peppering the detective with soft kisses while she squeals in your arms. It makes you irrationally upset. Because the detective is yours. You open your eyes again. Ame is looking at you with such affection that you feel like you’re about to melt on the spot.
“Trust me Ame,” you say. “Let’s cross the invisible line you drew in the sands of time.”
Ame blinks. Breaks into laughter. “Fine,” she says. “I mean, I can always just reset the timeline but I can’t reset my emotions. I’ll have you be liable for what happens past this point, okay?”
You nod, and your detective smiles so brightly at you it reminds you of the sun as it rises across the sky.
You are a cultist.
You are, again, a dog. Shiba Dog. Your wear your name with pride.
You’re outside the priestess’s home, outside the dog house the cultists built for you. Sprawled out on top of your roof is Min, a black cat with mismatched eyes. Beside you are Shai and Maki, fellow dogs. The priestess has taken to collecting more pets ever since she found you. Something about you being soft to the touch and pleasing to the detective. It doesn’t really matter, you think. You’re all cultists now.
All of you are in a meeting. But you lack the ability to speak human words and communicate language. Also, one of your meeting attendants is an actual cat. So the communication thing isn’t really working out. It’s mostly just dogs barking. Dogs barking and hoping that the points are getting across.
You are, to the best of your ability, trying to communicate how you have noticed, as of late, the longing glances the priestess casts toward the detective. You think they should just declare undying love to one another already. That’s a human thing, right? Undying love and declarations of it.
To your side, Maki is barking. You think (or more accurately, would like to believe) that these are barks of approval. Shai is also barking. Also barks of approval, you decide. You twirl in place, as if to cement the point. The two mirror you. Shai twirls twice. The three of you stare at one another, barking and tails wagging. On the roof, Min stretches, yawns.
From inside the priestess’s house, two cultists emerge, marching toward your home. Pandur and Kero, you recall. They feed you and bathe you and take you on walks. You like them one third of the time. Only when they feed you.
“Okay, okay,” goes Pandur. She squats down near your group. “Why are we all loud today this time? Hm? Want attention?”
No. You bark this response. You continue on to elaborate on how you think the priestess and the detective should hold hands and be together forever. The other dogs to your side are barking too. Their approval, you think.
“Very loud today,” says Kero. They scoop Min into their arms. The cat curls and resumes sleeping. “At least you don’t bark,” they tell the cat.
Pandur reaches out to pet all three of you, at intervals. “Okay, okay, settle down now. Here’s attention. Here’s pets. Please stop barking. The priestess seems to be okay with it but I’m not.”
“Speaking of,” says Kero. They stroke Min gently. “The priestess is being weird lately.”
Pandur hums. She scratches you behind the ear. “Yeah. Seems like she’s struggling with talking to the detective lately.” Yes! You agree! You wag your tail. “Oh,” goes Pandur. “You like that, Shiba Dog? Good Shiba Dog. No more weird wailing barks, okay?”
That is largely dependent on the circumstances of a relationship you have no business butting your face into, but you digress.
“The priestess has changed a lot,” muses Kero. “She’s not like this in the stories.”
“She seems… happier now. Nicer,” says Pandur.
“Things are better like this, I think,” says Kero. They smile softly as they cup Min’s face. Min purrs, presses into the touch.
“I think so too,” says Pandur. She scratches Maki’s belly.
You are inclined to agree. Living in the mountains kind of sucked, actually. It’s good that the priestess changed and decided that you are now her property. You bark out your approval.
“Yes, yes Shiba Dog,” goes Pandur sarcastically, reaching out to scratch under your chin. “Your opinions are valued and they have been heard.” You wag your tail.
Your ears perk up. You hear the approach of two sets of footsteps. You look to see the detective approaching, the priestess following not too far behind. “Hello,” goes the detective.
“Hello,” go Kero and Pandur, in unison.
As if on cue, the dogs resume barking at the priestess and the detective.
Shai takes the initiative. Runs up to the duo. Bites gently on Ame’s hand. Ame looks down, confused, as Shai starts tugging towards the priestess. You go ahead and run up bite and Ina’s hand, pulling towards the detective. Maki continues to bark with fevered passion.
The pair of you make their hands touch. Maki stops barking.
The pair of you separate their hands. Maki resumes barking.
As if finally understanding, Ame gasps, softly, goes “Ohhh,” and pulls her hand away. She goes ahead and pulls Ina’s hand out of your mouth. She holds Ina’s hand. Shows all three of you dogs. You all wag your tails excitedly.
Ame grins, proudly. “Okay, happy now?” she asks.
Pandur and Kero clap.
The detective and priestess immediately look to the cultists silently watching. Ina and Ame look down at their hands, the fingers intertwined. They immediately pull away from each other.
And you resume barking, angry.
You are the priestess.
You jaw hurts from how hard and how often you’ve been clenching it as of late. But you can’t help it. Sometimes you remember that there’s this version of you that exists in a different timeline that gets to hold the detective and kiss the detective and spend all the time in the world with the detective and – ah, there it is again, your jaw, clenched so hard your teeth might shatter.
Jealousy. You’ve come to learn that this feeling is jealousy. You hate it. You hate it a lot.
There’s a chorus of voices in your head. We don’t understand what’s the issue here, goes the Ancient Ones. She’s right there. She seems willing. Let’s just get it over with.
No, you think. It has to be perfect. Or something. You aren’t entirely sure, actually. But you want her and need her and thoughts of her make your head swim and your chest ache. You imagine, again, countless chains wrapped round and round your beating heart, cold steel pressed against the soft flesh.
Fine, go the voices. Just don’t forget to tend to the cult.
Of course, you think. You’d never forget your cult. They seem happier lately, which is good. They’re also very polite and kind to the detective, which is even better. They please you. So you shall strive to improve their lives.
“Ina?” says Ame, knocking at the door of your room and entering. You shove all the papers on your desk off of the surface and they scatter on the ground.
“Sorry,” goes Ame. “I guess I was interrupting?” She looks at one of the papers that settles near her feet. She picks it up. “Oh! Nice drawing of me,” she says, smiling fondly.
Embarrassment, again, making you want to dig a very deep hole and stop existing forever.
“Sorry,” you say, because you don’t know what else to say in this awkward scenario.
“Why are you sorry?” says Ame, giggling. The sound makes you want to gravitate toward her and etch the sound into your brain. Her smile grows wistful. “In the other timeline, too, you drew me all the time. It’s cute.”
Jealousy, again, clawing its way up your torso, an angry, screaming beast.
You imagine that other version of yourself, freely sketching Amelia Watson as she smiles and laughs. You imagine how that other you gets to trace her fingers on the line of Ame’s jaw, draw lines across skin and hold her close. That other version of you probably gets to hold the detective so close she could hear Ame’s heart beating.
“You okay?” asks Ame. You suddenly feel the warmth of her hands on your jaw. As you imagined the alternate version of yourself, Ame has taken the liberty to approach you. “You’re clenching your jaw again. What’s up?”
Without thinking, you wrap your arms around her. You pull her close to you. You need her close to you.
She steps closer, closing the gap between the two of you. She wraps her arms loosely around your neck. She rests her head on your shoulder, her head tilted to look at your face. Her lips are so close. So agonizingly close. She smiles, softly, fondly.
You freeze. Everything about this moment is so perfect and you want it to last forever but also, what happens next? Panic surges into your brain as you stare dumbly at her lips. At her face. You stiffen, scrambling to figure out what to do next.
Ame’s eyes suddenly widen. She jerks, pulls away. The loss of contact is agonizing. Actually, physically painful. You blink several times. Ame rubs nervously at the back of her neck.
“Sorry,” she says, again, “I forgot. I got carried away.”
You want to say “No, it was good, come here again.” You want to say “Forget the other timeline. Just think about me here.” You want to say “Let’s make newer memories. My heart does remember. I need you so bad.”
But instead, you stew in your jealousy because the words you want to say are too heavy to speak.
You are a cultist.
In charge of the security detail. You lean against the wall in the far back of the temple, near the entrance.
At the other end, upon the platform, the priestess sits on her pillow, hands folded neatly over her lap. She speaks softly, calmly, softer and calmer than you could ever remember in your entire life. The changes are welcome you think. You scan the crowd. Everyone seems absolutely enraptured in the priestess’s every word.
Apparently, the topic of the night is: “Interesting topics to discuss with Detective Watson.” Cultists offer their suggestions. The priestess parses through each and every one.
Beside you, Kat hums. “That detective really did something to our priestess, huh Cassandra?” she says quietly.
You nod. “Everyone seems happy about it,” you say. “Well, maybe not Detective Watson and the priestess themselves. They seem to be stuck at the romantic pining stage.”
“They’re much, much older than us,” says Kat. “The tomes say that whenever the priestess took on lovers in the past, it was never more than a passing affair. This is probably the longest she’s ever fixated on a human. It’s probably a lot to take in.”
You let the sentiment hang in the air. It’s true – it’s probably a lot to process for the two. “I wonder if there’s more to it though,” you say.
“There probably is,” says Kat. “But as usual, let’s put our faith in the priestess. As long as she’s happy, we’re happy.”
You see one of your fellow cultists raise her hand. Ji, who has only returned to the village last night.
“Excuse me, priestess?” she goes, the confusion in her voice evident.
“Yes, Ji, what is it?” says the priestess.
“Um, I’m kinda lost here. Why are we discussing topics for talking to the detective? When are we gonna sacrifice her? Isn’t that the standard operating procedure?”
The air in the room suddenly feels icy cold. Hundreds of eyes immediately focus in on Ji, who now seems to shrink in her seat. “Uh, did I say something wrong?” she manages to squeak.
Alfie, in charge of mountain scouting, quickly raises his hand. “Um, ignore them priestess! Ji only came back last night, she has no idea!” He laughs, awkwardly.
Breeze, beside him, chimes in. “Yeah! Don’t worry priestess, it’s fine!” he says.
The priestess looks like she’s having a stroke, actually. She’s trying to process a million things at once. She just hunches forward, a hand over her chest. You and Kat exchange a worried glance. A deafening silence falls over the temple.
“I mean,” manages the priestess. She clutches at her chest. “You’re right.”
Waves of variants of “No priestess ignore Ji” and “No priestess let’s keep the detective alive” sweep over the crowd. Alfie and Breeze are quietly elbowing Ji. You take the incentive and walk up over to their aisle. Kat follows suit.
You bend over to whisper to Ji. “Listen,” you say. “You kind of missed a lot here. But the priestess is pretty much madly in love with the detective. We can’t kill her. Ever.”
Ji’s eyes are wide. Frantic. Struggling to connect all the dots.
You turn to check on the priestess. She’s gone. You look to Kat, surprised.
“Yeah, she uh, ran out saying she forgot to turn off the lights in her room,” says Kat.
“She went to the detective I think,” offers Alfie.
“She went to the detective,” echoes Breeze.
You secretly hope that the priestess and the detective can finally talk things out tonight.
You are the priestess.
You’re standing in front of Ame’s guest room, hurriedly knocking on the door as if your life depends on it. The fear is irrational. Baseless. But all the same its icy tendrils wrap around your neck and squeeze the air out of you. You knock harder on the door.
After a few beats, Ame opens the door, looking flustered. She’s wearing a loose shirt, loose enough that it bares one of her shoulders through the neck hole. You try your hardest not to stare. She seems to have been roused from sleep, her hair messy, as she rubs her eyes and yawns.
“Ina,” she drawls, and there’s a rough tone to her voice that sends shivers down your spine. “What’s up?”
At the back of your mind, you wonder how it must have been like for that other version of you, waking up to Amelia Watson in her arms every day. You want to bite the door frame. Then punch a wall. Then cry.
“Ina?” repeats Ame when you do nothing but stand there in silence, your fists and jaw clenched. You remember to relax. You open and close your hands, stretching the joints.
“I uh, sorry. It’s nothing, actually. I was… I was just worried.”
There’s a patient smile on Ame’s lips. She gestures for you to enter. “Have a sit, let’s talk about it. I’m all ears.”
You step into her room. Not to be creepy or anything, but the room smells a lot like her and it really seeps into your nostrils. It’s like alcohol, directly into your bloodstream, making you feel drunk to the bone. You want to collapse into her arms and think of nothing but her.
She sits on the guest chair in front of the desk. She crosses her legs and gestures toward the bed next to her. “Have a seat.”
She’s making it incredibly hard for you to focus.
You take a seat on the corner of the bed. “Sorry about this,” you say.
“It’s no problem. So what’s up?”
“I… I just… I wanted to see you.” The admission makes your heart pound. You can almost hear your heartbeat going thump, thump, thump against your ear drums.
There are freckles on her shoulders. They remind you of the cosmos, of the endless expanse of stars above. You want to kiss each and every one. You think of her skin remembering you the same way your heart retains every moment of her. There’s an incredible aching in your ribs and you wonder why, but all you know is that every fiber of your being wants to be in bed with her securely in your arms.
She giggles. The sound makes you feel like you’re going to collapse and die happy. “That’s it Ina? Well, we can talk more if you like. So you feel better.”
You want to talk to her and be with her forever, maybe. But you don’t say that out loud.
“A cultist asked if I’m going to kill you.”
Ame’s eyes go wide. “Oh. Well, are you gonna kill me tonight, Miss Ninomae?”
“No,” you say, standing abruptly. Your hand is clutched over your chest again. It hurts too much to think of the detective being gone. You can’t stand the thought, even for a second. Hell, as it stands you feel like you can’t get enough of her. So to do something as horrible as hurt her? You would never forgive yourself.
Ame smiles softly at you. “I trust you,” she says. “I know you would never.”
You march up closer to her. You, towering over her as she remains seated. “Yes, I would never.” At this distance you can practically count the freckles on her face, her shoulders. You can see each individual eyelash and the lines of bright pink in her blue eyes. It’s so much to take in. Dazzling. You stand there, absolutely enraptured.
You lean forward, her lips are so close, yet so far. The chains around your heart tighten. You can’t take much more of this. You need her, you think. You so desperately need her.
“I think I’m in love with you,” you whisper.
Her eyes are wide. Blue eyes with the most beautiful tinge of pink. The sky just before sunset. “Don’t say that,” she answers, her eyes suddenly clouding with tears.
“I’m in love with you,” you repeat, with conviction. You reach out to cup her face with both your hands. You don’t want her to cry. It hurts you to see her hurting.
You press your lips against hers. The taste is sweet. The sweetest thing you’ve ever tasted. It fills your senses with blinding light and warmth that makes your very toes curl. The chains in your heart tighten more, somehow. You want more of her. Need more of her. But you pull away because your lungs start to burn.
“I love you too,” she whispers.
There, suddenly, the release of chains, the renewed burning of your blood. Her words take root in your ribcage and you feel, because your heart remembers, that you will be hers forever.
You are a cultist.
Your name is Amelia H. Watson.
Your wife, Ina’nis Watson, is very late for her cult meeting. You stand beside the bed, fully dressed in your own cultist robes, all intricate embroidery and difficult-to-tie knots, while your wife snoozes away, still in her pajamas. You’d woken up late too, but she’d told you, one hour ago, when you started to make breakfast and tend to your son and all the other chores she was definitely supposed to help you with, that she was definitely awake and that she’d definitely get up and get ready.
At the moment, she’s definitely still asleep.
You move to the other side of the bedroom, open the curtains wide. Bright, warm sunlight pours into the room like a spotlight. “Ina, come on, you said you were gonna get up an hour ago.”
Ina shifts on her side, faces away from the sunlight pouring into the room. She mumbles about the acquisition of a condo just for dogs. This worries you a little, but you’re more focused at the task at hand. You shake her, a little harder.
She blinks her eyes open. “Mhm,” goes your wife. “I’m awake.” She closes her eyes. She is very much not awake.
You move closer to her. Start shaking her body as hard as you can. “Ina!” you shout. “Wake the fuck up!”
“Language, my goodness,” she mumbles, but she still somehow holds on to sleep despite you practically rolling her lithe body around the bed.
“Wake up!” you repeat.
Your bedroom door opens. Standing there is your toddler son, Walter Watson. Dark purple short hair, pointed ears, sky blue eyes. His cultist robes look incredibly cute on him. He struggles to move against the stiff fabric of his robes as he crawls up the bed. He crawls on top of his mother. Ina grunts as Walter’s tiny fists and knees dig into her torso.
Walter begins open-palm slapping Ina on the face. “Mama,” he goes, “mama! Up up time!”
Ina groans. She screws her eyes more shut. She’s somehow gotten better at simply ignoring her entire family’s attempts at waking her.
Walter’s open-palm slaps grow more forceful. More frequent. “Mama! Late now!”
Ina’s eyes snap open at the word “late.” Lying as stiff as a board, her eyes dart to you. You nod. Her eyes dart to Walter. “Uh,” she goes. She clears her throat. “How late is mama?”
Walter looks down at his hands, eyebrows knitted in pure thought and concentration. He holds up two fingers. “This many,” he says.
Under her breath, you hear your wife chant “Please be minutes, please be minutes, please be minutes.”
“This many around mommy’s clock,” Walter finishes, holding up the two fingers higher.
Ina immediately looks at you. There’s a wild animal fear on her face that makes you want to bowl over laughing but you know for a fact that if you so much as chuckle she’s going to make you sleep on the sofa. So instead, you nod, trying to be as calm as possible. You move to scoop Walter into your arms. The moment you do, your wife bolts out of the bed, scrambles into the bathroom.
“Oh no,” goes Walter.
“Oh no,” you echo.
From the bathroom, Ina shouts, “Stall for me!”
So you do. You find yourself upon the platform of the temple, sitting on a floor pillow, about a hundred or so cultists watching you with quiet anticipation. Walter sits on your lap. He yawns. You watch as more than half the room softly gasps at the sight.
“So,” you say, steeling yourself. You’ve been to so many of these meetings but every time you’d kind of just zone out while your wife talks to the cult for about two hours. You’re not sure what to tell the gathering of people that have been patiently waiting for their leader for two whole hours. You’re convinced they all think Ina’s late because the pair of you were up doing raunchy things all night. The tailors will probably start asking if your robes need adjusting. Or ask Walter if he wants a baby sister or a baby brother. The thought alone stresses you out.
“Mommy?” goes Walter. “What were you gonna say?”
“Oh,” you realize. You thought you were saying words out loud. “So,” you say again, to the crowd, with conviction this time. “I’m stalling for my wife.”
“Hello Stalling,” quips your son. “I’m Walter Watson.” He giggles at his joke.
The crowd erupts into a chorus of laughing and cooing. Walter looks up at you, his grin wide and toothy. You kiss him on the forehead, giggling yourself. “Very funny Waltie,” you say, lamenting how much he picks up after your wife.
You feel a hand on your shoulder. You look up to see the shadow of your wife cast on you, as she bends to plant a kiss on your forehead. Her make up is rushed, and more than a little lopsided. You raise an eyebrow, smiling mischievously at her.
“Not a word about it,” she whispers.
You laugh. “Gotcha.”
She takes her seat beside you. Greets the crowd. Apologizes for her lateness. The cultists seem more than willing to forgive. If anything, they seem wildly entertained by the whole affair. For sure, you think, the speculation will populate most of their conversations until the next cult meeting.
In the midst of Ina’s soft speaking, she reaches out to hold your hand. You intertwine your fingers with hers. Walter falls asleep in your lap, leaning against you as he listens to his mama. It’s now that you think about the endless passage of time. Of time loops and the odd hand destiny has dealt you. You think of the goodbyes you left in your past, of the hellos that followed right after.
For as long as you remember, you’re a slave to time. It bends and warps to your will, and in the process, it binds you to endless loops you never escape. The soft, kind voice of your wife cuts through your thoughts. “Right, Ame?” she asks.
You have no idea what she’s talking about but you nod, a small smile on your face. She smiles back at you. Time moves forward, in your mind, inch by inch, past the invisible line you’d long thought you’d live behind for the rest of your miserable existence.
For as long as you remember, you thought these kinds of joys were beyond your grasp. Things your tired, tired hands could never hope to have.
But it’s funny how things change. How now, in your present, things are constantly changing.
You are a cultist.