An Imago of Rust and Crimson
Arc 1 – Chrysalis
Madness. It's a funny word, isn't it?
Well, no. Not really. It's not a laughing matter. Perhaps that's why we make jokes about it. It scares us. It scares us profoundly. Every last thing about us, our us-ness, is in our heads, and to have your head not working like it's meant to means – in a way – you're not really you. But you feel like you're you. So you're not you, and you are you, all at the same time. Can the 'you' you think you are be a different person from the 'you' everyone else thinks you are? Of course it can, but we don't like to think about that sort of thing. It calls into question who you are.
That's what scares us. The idea that our mind might not be our own, that we can be changed and tweaked by some chemicals going wrong. It's the sickness of our times; the thing that's taken the place of smallpox and cholera and gangrene. Perhaps it was inevitable. As soon as diseases became things which could be seen and cured, we had to find a new monster which couldn't be seen and couldn't be fought. What we're scared of, as people, as a society – it's pretty telling, isn't it? You can read a lot about us as a people from our fears.
Are we all just insects, blindly squirming through life? Will we all die tomorrow when an Endbringer shows up? Who's the person thinking this? Who's the person reading this? Hell, who's the person writing this?
And when you're talking about questions of identity, you can't help but bring up names. I used to wonder why superheroes and supervillains alike went around with their monikers. Most of them do it because it's something that's done, because they think it'll give them safety against someone who isn't trying that hard, because everyone else does it.
Some of them, of course, know why. Names have power. Names define the self. Names define how we're thought of.
Well, my name, from a certain point of view, is Taylor Hebert. And if you ask everyone else, I went mad.
The first sign that something strange was going on was at the school gates. I was always wary when approaching them, because that was a favoured place for certain people I really didn't want to see to lurk. I always tried to arrive in a crowd, or otherwise get in just before classes start.
I swallowed deeply. So, here it was. Another day of school. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
There was just one thing which was making me pause here. I had spent a lot of time hanging around the entrance to the school, and yesterday there hadn't been a fancy pair of wrought-iron gates. The school certainly didn't have the budget for that kind of thing. They looked like they belonged on some fancy private school, or an old churchyard, or something like that. And they clearly weren't something new. The paint had flaked off them almost entirely, exposing black iron flecked with rust.
I shivered, and looked up at the slate-grey sky. Could I have just missed the gates? In all the time I was here? It hardly seemed likely. But I ran my hand over the gates, feeling the cold metal under my hands, its roughness, and I was sure they were real. They didn't feel like they were some kind of fantasy. They were just… gates. Made of rusty iron.
I mean, technically it could have been some supervillain ploy, but I was fairly sure that there was no villain called 'Gatemaster' who went around installing gates in high schools. At the very least, he'd have hit the news. I'd probably have heard of him. Or her.
Maybe I could just… not go to school today. No. It wasn't the gates which were freaking me out. That was just a displacement activity. I had a real and pressing reason not to go to school, and it wasn't some silly iron gates I couldn't remember. Maybe they just hadn't registered, I thought to myself. After all, who really pays attention to gates? They'd just had them fitted over the winter holidays. The reasons why I might want to just skive off lay inside the building, not outside. No, I'd get in worse trouble if I didn't go in. My dad would find out, and I'd have to explain things to him – and I really didn't want to do that. And they'd just take it as a sign that they were winning. If I didn't stick it out, things would just get worse for me.
The unpleasant feeling of cold sweat beading against my forehead, I swallowed and darted through these strange gates. First day back after winter vacation, and I was already waiting with bated breath until spring break.
The corridors were so very lonely. I felt far away from everyone else in them, as if miles rather than feet separated me from them. It was if an unseen bubble was forming around me, people just drifting out of my way. Everyone else had others talking to them, people glad to see them again after the holidays. Not me. I mean, things hadn't been so bad just before the holidays, but it had been the loneliness then which had been getting to me, and it was the loneliness which got me now. Most of the others just ignored me. I didn't mind that so much. It's not like you expect a sweeping ovation when walking down the corridors. But there were a few people I knew, a few people I had used to know more closely, and at best their gazes swept over me, almost like they were ashamed to look at me.
Maybe I was just projecting, hoping that they were feeling ashamed. I'd like to think that would have felt ashamed if someone I had used to be on normal speaking terms with was now someone I treated like… well, like how I got treated.
But that was better than the looks the others gave me. No sign of those three, but some of their hangers-ons caught my eye as I made my way through the corridors, and in their eyes lurked a certain dark giggling malevolence which made me feel deeply worried.
Checking my watch, I saw that I had plenty of time before I had to get in, and it was a bad idea to arrive too early. I'd just end up sitting there with no one to talk to. I decided to go to the toilets. I had a book in my bag, so I could just read in there for a while.
The girl's toilets were a mess. Worse than usual, I 's a public school, so they're hardly the Hilton, but three of the lights in the ceiling were broken, and someone had scrawled all over the mirrors in lipstick. The term had only just started. We were probably going to get some kind of talk as a school about the need to 'treat school property properly'. That'd what we'd got the last time the bathrooms were vandalised in a major way, and this was worse.
I shook my head at the meaningless wavy lines on the mirror – grumbling a little at the fact that the school would of course be far more worried about lipstick on a mirror than more important things – and went into one of the cubicles which was still lit. Putting my bag down and lowering the seat to sit on the closed cover, I got out a book. I didn't open it though, instead staring at the cover.
This wasn't the book I'd packed this morning. I thought I'd picked up… no, this did look familiar. 'Fereydun's Foe' – I thought I'd seen it on my dad's shelves at some point. It looked kind of like some of the self-help books he read; you know, 'how to stay calm and get what you want from negotiations' and that sort of thing. I turned it over, and looked at the back – the standard mass-produced approval ratings. 'Five out of five stars', 'cathartic', and all the other things which someone paid to say what the published wanted might say.
Idly I flicked through it – eyes raised at some of the diagrams within – and then put it back in my bag. Drat. I must have picked up the wrong one. Just about in line with today. I'd probably forget where my locker was next or something. I was distracted, nervous, feeling strange sensations of déjà vu. Things were fine. Everything had been better since mid-November or so.
But why did I feel sick, nervous, and anxious? Was it just paranoia and nerves? Well, come to think of it, the noise of the water in the pipes did sound a lot like whispering. It was just a faint susurration at the edge of hearing, but with no one else going into these toilets – probably because of the broken light and vandalism – it was all I could hear, beside my own breath.
And here I was, creeping myself out. Shaking my head, I left the cubicle, and stared at myself in the mirror, adjusting my glasses. The lipstick on the mirrors made it hard to find an untouched area to see my whole face in, but I managed it in the end. The poor light cast long shadows over my face, and made me look even paler than usual.
I turned on the taps, to splash some cold water on my face and wake myself up. The water which came out, however, was freezing cold and flecked with rust. I yelped, flinching away. There was no way cold water should be that cold. It was like having liquid ice cubes poured over my hands. Great. So the toilets were just a mess and what now? Had the boiler blown or something? What the hell had happened here over the holidays? Had there been some kind of accident? Had a disgruntled student triggered, and decided to go and mess the place up?
Actually, if that was the case, the school authorities would probably be getting on my case. I mean, look at me. 'The quiet sort', 'a loner', 'few friends'. All I'd need to be is male, and I'd be hitting too many of the stereotypes for 'school blaster' for anyone to be comfortable.
I yelped again when one of the remaining lights overhead in the bathroom blew. Wide-eyed I stared back at my reflection, shrouded by the layer of lipstick between it and me. This… this wasn't funny. Whatever was going on. I shouldn't be in here. Maybe I was being set up and people were just waiting outside to catch me red-handed. I dried my rust-flecked hands on my jeans, and left as fast as I could. I was just going to grab the things from my locker and go.
No one was waiting for me outside the bathroom, to point the finger of blame. But that was not reassuring, because no one was in the corridor at all. And that wasn't right at all, because when I checked my watch, classes wouldn't start for almost quarter of an hour. The corridor should have been just as packed as it had been when I went into the toilets. Hell, I'd only been in there for maybe five minutes, if that. Probably less.
But there was no one here. Had… had people been evacuated? No, that wasn't right. There was no fire alarm. Maybe I was running late? No, I checked my watch again, and it was working. I laughed to myself, a bitter note in the sound. I had been feeling alone as I walked through the halls and now I actually was alone. It wasn't an improvement.
Where was everyone?
I took deep breaths, trying to stop myself worrying. Maybe… yeah, my watch must have been wrong. Which meant I was late. Which meant I had to head straight to the lockers to grab my stuff, and apologise for being late on the first day back. If only I'd had a phone, it'd have been up to date, but as things were going this morning, I'd probably have left it in my room even if I had one.
My feet beat against the dark tiles of the corridors. They sounded almost as loud as my heart.
And I managed to keep on lying to myself until I was right at the locker room. Because if I was to be quite honest, I was lying to myself. Even if classes had started, then I would have been able to hear people. I would have been able to see people, in the classrooms I quite deliberately avoided looking in. I ignored that I climbed down more flights of stairs than existed in the school to get to the locker room, and I ignored that all the paint was missing from the walls, leaving bare concrete and the exposed steel bones of the structure.
It was only when I stepped into the locker-room itself, which was somehow in this place it should not have been, that I realised that I was just shambling through routine. Trying to control my breath and avoid hyperventilating, I crammed my fist into my mouth and whimpered into it. No, no, no. This didn't make sense. What was I doing here? Everyone mysteriously vanishing? The way the familiar corridors and ceilings of the school were all unfamiliar? No, something was happening which really should not be – whether I was ill, or some kind of cape-related phenomenon was going on, or some other stranger thing, I didn't know.
The floor was wet, ice-slick. Someone had split red juice all over the floor. It was cranberry, by the smell of it. And it was almost cold enough in here that it could be ice. My guess in the toilets must have been right. The boilers for the radiators of this bit of the school must not be working. The ventilation ducts were spewing cold air into the locker room in vast cyclic blasts, beating pulses which left me shivering.
I heard a noise behind me, and turned. What I saw defied explanation.
There were three of them and yet there were one. Three faces; Sophia Hess, Emma Barnes and Madison Clements and yet they were mere extrusions of something horrible.
I screamed and I kicked and I wept. All was for nothing. I was weedy, weak, worthless. Dark-skinned Sophia, eyes black and irisless grinned as she bent my arms behind my back, one knee to my kidneys enough to knock all breath out of me. Emma's red hair was a blaze, too bright for my dimming vision, and she tore off my satchel, throwing it to the ground. And Madison, her 'cute' yellow cardigan strangely out-of-place in the pain-filled world I was now living in, was waiting by a heavy iron door, holding it open for her syzygy-selves. For me.
Still, I fought against the three-faced monster which grabbed for me. Laughter was the only response I got to my screams.
It did nothing. The knife-scent of rust and iron and vileness wafting from the cell-locker tore its way through my nose as I was dragged towards it. And unceremoniously, I was forced inside, pain stabbing into my front and sides from the contents of the jail. The grinding of the bolts to my prison being dragged into place echoed for a long time, until after the laughter had faded.
That's when the nails started to dig into my flesh, red-hot daggers within me. That's when the tiny things began to crawl over my skin, wet little wriggling insects sullying me with their touch. And that's when the voices started.