Chapter 15

After that rewind, nothing was ever really the same again for Charmcaster. Bad luck seemed to follow her like a vengeful ghost. When her would-be victims didn't remember outright, they just somehow knew; it took her four loops more before she figured out what had happened. It started with a tape, and it was ending with a tape, and she could appreciate the thematic appropriateness of it. Gwendolyn's vengeance trailed along after her, a recorded message of damning revelations that clung with lamprey-like fervor and sucked the lifeblood out of every little thing she tried to do. Ben always got to it before she saw it, sometimes the older one, sometimes the younger. She had no magic to break the spell that kept the tape travelling along with her, even destroying it didn't make a difference. If she did a rewind, it was right there with her, waiting to be found and listened to. The times she ended up in universes with multiples of herself were even worse, as Gwendolyn's tape started multiplying too. And those times were coming more and more often. Arriving in the middle of a small army of clones stopped being the exception and started being the norm. More often, she popped into the middle of a fight involving aliens or superheroes or the police and came close to dying right there. Her only luck, her only luck was that she managed to survive by the skin of her teeth each time... to rewind onward to an ever more chaotic and maddening new reality. She never died again, never figured out how she'd survived that one time she did die, but it got to the point where she wondered if maybe dying would actually be better. Better than failing constantly. If death would actually stick instead of just catapulting her into the next universe. She wasn't nearly desperate enough to try, though. She still had her pride!

Pride was the only thing Charmcaster had left eventually, and no one was more aware of that than her. Failure after failure, no matter how she planned or schemed or tried her hardest. A thousand opportunities to kill off the Tennysons, a thousand wasted chances. Each rewind multiplied the targets, and each time she failed. If the Tennysons didn't screw her up, it was Kevin. If not Kevin, then that huge green alien with the tentacles, or some other random yahoo sucked into the scenario at random. If not any of them, then the police. If not the police, well, there were always plenty of sneaking backstabbing Charmcasters to ruin her day.

It was the other Charmcasters that were the part she really decided she hated. Not just found inconvenient or got annoyed at or wished they'd die already, but really, seriously hated. She hated them simply because their multitude of actions and behaviors forced her to think about herself in ways she never ever wanted to do. To fight against them, she had to ask herself what she would be thinking and feeling in their situations. And she didn't like that at all. Not one bit. Not when their situations ran the whole freaking gamut from 'I'm a psycho with an axe, hahah!' to 'I want to befriend the Tennysons and help everyone get along!' Telling herself over and over that they weren't her didn't work, not when they had just as good evidence as she did to prove that they were the original who'd started the whole mess. If there even was such a thing as an original. The whole concept of who or what had started it was quickly becoming irrelevant. It just was, a great swirling morass of complicated details that worked together to push her into the dust. They were all aspects of her, even the parts she didn't want to admit to. Especially the parts she didn't want to admit to.

The Coalition wasn't the only organized faction anymore. Some of the Charmcasters formed a rival gang calling themselves World's End. They figured that there was no way to resolve this whole mess, so they might as well just drive everything further into chaos and revel in the pointlessness of it. Then those two main groups splintered and the splinters splintered, until Charmcaster had to worry about any given double being, not just a double agent, but a quadruple agent or worse. She went along with whoever seemed most likely to kill her at the time, which kept her safe. Mostly. There were a few close calls. But there were always close calls, no matter how cautious she was. And at this point, she realized that no amount of caution could keep her truly absolutely secure. Like covering herself with her arms during a hailstorm, there was only so much she could do. The enemies were too many. The lies, the multiple fronts, the fighting. All too much for one poor depowered witch to deal with.

There was no more casual befriending of the Tennysons. Or anyone else. No, Gwendolyn's message on tape saw to it that Charmcaster was on the run all the time, except when she was with other Charmcasters. And even then she could hardly trust her fellows. Just the ability to relax became something imaginary, a far off dream of the past she could never go back to. She'd wanted the Omnitrix and all the rest of the power she could get her hands on because she wanted to be able to do whatever she wanted without any worries, but now she found herself always doing only what was necessary to survive, like a hunted animal, and she was worried constantly.

She didn't want to keep rewinding, it only made things worse, but she didn't know what else to do! There wasn't any other way to fix things except to rewind and hope that the next time would go better. But it never went better, and while the rewinds made the stress on her body not so bad, the strain on her mind was unbearable. Once, in the heat of the moment, she even threw away her pride, the absolutely only thing she had left to cling to, and surrendered to Ben, begging for mercy. That universe's Ben had tried to kill her anyway, and after that she never surrendered to anyone unless there was no other way out of a corner. Life was no longer a game nor even a power struggle, but a chase along a labyrinth with electrocuting walls and a minotaur charging right behind. To stop and think about it all, to really think about everything she'd gone to, would have broken her. So she didn't think. She didn't stop. She just kept on surviving and doing whatever she had to, and even if it never made anything better, at least she was alive to rewind, again and again. She would say whatever anyone wanted to hear, and wait for a chance to run away or kill them. Because everyone was the enemy, now. Everyone.

She acquired a severe phobia of mirrors, especially when it was dark. Whenever she moved around and saw one out of the corner of her eye, she thought it was a doppelganger and became terrified for an instant before she realized what it was and forced herself to calm down. Not relax. She could never relax anymore. But she could be calm. She could be in control. What else was there left to be, if not dead or crazy?

The first time she killed another Charmcaster, it was an accident. She felt horrible about it and had nightmares for a few days afterwards. The second time was on purpose, and she almost enjoyed bashing the girl's brains in. Killing yourself without actually killing yourself was amusingly cathartic. After that, any remaining restraints or rules of courtesy or respect for her fellow Charmcasters just evaporated away. There wasn't any point to it anymore. If she got soft, she'd lose. She didn't want to lose. Every rewind she thought to herself that it couldn't possibly get worse, but it did, and the worse it got, the worse she had to stick with the game. That younger her so long ago that had been horrified and disbelieving at the thought of one Charmcaster torturing another Charmcaster to death seemed pathetically naive now. As the path for survival squeezed tighter and tighter, narrow and razor-sharp, her remaining qualms and squeamishness were torn away, unneeded baggage she could no longer afford to keep with her.

Why couldn't she ever WIN?

It wasn't fair!

Except maybe, maybe, a little voice whispered in the back of her mind, maybe it WAS fair.

Charmcaster had never in her whole life given a damn about other people. Why should the universe or whatever sadistic gods controlled it give a damn about her? Having put herself in a situation where she was free to merrily do whatever she wanted to the point of self-destruction, was it really anything other than poetic justice that she was now unable to do anything but self-destruct?

And she realized, bitterly and without the slightest bit of joy or relief or satisfaction at the revelation, that this was, in the end, all her fault. It was all her, every last bit of it. Everything went wrong because things could never go right, not the way she was living, not while she continued to be who she was. It'd been ignorable before the whole rewind plan had started because she hadn't really dove in headfirst with her whole philosophy of self-fulfillment. There'd been plenty of reasons to restrain herself, even if restraint only meant as little as not becoming a predatory killer constantly on the run from everyone that wasn't her. Gwendolyn's sabotaging tape was actually redundant. Charmcaster took her own personal hell with her wherever she went, and no matter what happened, it never turned out right.

She had literally dug her own grave, and now it was time to lie down in it.

Under the gloomy grip of such an epiphany, Charmcaster could barely muster the energy to struggle anymore. But the fear of death was just still a little bit stronger than the fear of whatever the next rewind held, so she kept on going. Until one day a rewind brought her to something that seemed like heaven compared to what she'd become accustomed to. There were birds, and trees, and no one was around. No one was trying to kill her. No one was yelling at her or ordering her around. She was in the middle of nowhere, with no one to judge her except for the apathetic black shiny eyes of squirrels. An ant scampered over her foot and then off, intent on some personal task only its anty brain knew.

In its quiet simplicity, the scene was so beautiful that Charmcaster almost cried.

Still, she kept tense and alert, waiting, watching. There could be a trap. It could all be a setup. At any moment someone would come barreling through those trees and try to kill or arrest her. But as moment after moment ticked by, she was forced to acknowledge that nothing was going to happen. Probably.

At her feet were some very familiar old artifacts, containers of mystic energy that she'd put to good... or, well, at least powerful... use at one time. And, of course, there was the tape. The Winnie the Pooh tape, waiting to be used. Looking as harmless and inoffensively tantalizing as the apple of knowledge in Eden. One hand flew down to her pouch immediately, tracing the outline of the tape she carried with her... it was still there. The rewind had brought her back to the very start again, before she'd even cast any of the spells. The only difference was she had a second already functioning tape this time.

The new possibilities jumped into Charmcaster's mind and filled her with a painfully strong, desperate sense of hope. Maybe this would do it. Maybe this would make a difference. If she destroyed the old tape, and used the new one, maybe that would refresh all the magic reality hopping gunk so she wouldn't be immediately doomed to jump into horrible messes. Maybe she could have a few more tries at relatively normal universes and actually win for a change. Just like it had been at first, before things got too screwed up. Or possibly even keep both tapes, have a real advantage over everyone else, and use that to win somehow. It couldn't be likely for this to happen very often, since this was the first time it had ever happened to her after so long and she'd never heard of another Charmcaster having multiple tapes that were really hers instead of stolen from duplicates. Either way it was another chance. Another rewind waiting temptingly on the horizon, all hopes renewed and daring her to take the chance. Maybe there was hope for her after all. Hope for her to stay the same person she'd always been, and still win. To beat them all and prove she was better. That she was still herself. That nothing in the universe, in any universe, could ever make her be anything other than who she was.

That was what she wanted, wasn't it?

Wasn't it?

Hands trembling, she took out her old tape and put it side by side with the new one in a gesture of almost religious reverence. She let her fingertips brush over the artifacts, the reagents that would crumple to dust once the power in them was used.

What did she want?

She had to ask herself that, and she knew with a sinking feeling that in asking it she'd answered. The fact that she'd even thought to ask in the first place meant that something had changed. There was no getting around it. Nothing to do but face it.

She wanted the older Ben to hold her and kiss her again and say those cute dorky sentimental lines that gave her an excuse to tease him. She also wanted to kill him, to really just scream and hit him and stab him and burn him and laugh maniacally over his mutilated corpse. And she wanted to laugh and chatter the days away with the Gwens acting like normal girls together, and she also wanted to strangle them until their self-righteous faces went blue. She wanted to mock their grandfather's cooking right before sitting down to a huge helping of it, and she wanted to watch the two brats fight each other like territorial squabbling cats. She wanted to embarrass Kevin over Gwendolyn and get him to mumble something sour and walk away before his pride got hurt, and she wanted to slit his throat and smile sweetly while he choked on his own blood. She wanted to see the other Charmcasters again, and beg them for forgiveness, and tell them everything would be okay, and give them all hugs. She wanted to kill every Charmcaster she saw and make a mountain with their corpses as a warning to anyone who dared mess with her. She wanted to find her uncle and plead with him for help to fix everything, and plead for him to hold still so she could incinerate him properly. She wanted to be the bad girl and the heroine, the yin and the yang, to have her cake and eat it too.

She wanted a thousand things, half of them at odds with the other half, and many of them self-contradictory.

Every rewind, she got part of what she wanted, but never the whole thing. Because she wanted too many things, and she couldn't have them all. Maybe, maybe she couldn't have any of them.

Two squirrels quarreled noisily over a nut as her eyes lingered on the two tapes. All the possibilities in the world. The same as no possibilities at all, because they might give her different places and times and people to deal with, but they didn't really fix her.

Even if she did win finally, it wouldn't really be winning, would it? Mirrors would still be scary.

At last, there was nothing else to do but laugh. It wasn't the out of control maddened laughter she started to indulge in once things got too much to deal with, but a restrained, sad kind of laughter. The kind of laugh you'd laugh when a slightly retarded child did something that was very stupid but also a little cute in its total cluelessness. The squirrels were startled at the sound, and scampered up to hide in the higher branches. A bird somewhere fluttered its wings in an emphatic kind of way, as if to say, hurry up and do it already.

Smiling the faintest and gentlest of smiles, Charmcaster gripped both tapes firmly in her hands. She gripped them the way she'd remembered Ben doing that one time he'd threatened to break the tape. Thumb in the center, other fingers spread out. She applied pressure until they broke, and to her surprise, she felt nothing at all about it. Thin trails of black spilled out, and she ripped them up into tinier and tinier pieces, shredding them into confetti. Letting the shattered plastic bodies of the tapes fall, she turned her attention to the miscellaneous receptacles of magic energy, stomping the ones that were fragile enough to destroy that way, and forcefully kicking aside the ones that weren't. The mummified skull of an Atlantian thrice-inbred abjured gremlin soared through the air in an arc and plopped neatly into the low hollow of a tree with a soft clunk, and a chipmunk peeked out of the hollow, looking confused.

Charmcaster stood still and straight, and then, for the first time in a long time, she let herself relax, eyes closing, breath softly exhaling. The sounds of little wilderness animals echoed all around her. It occurred to her that she didn't know if the self-inflicted curse that locked her magic and tied her to the Tennysons was still active, or if this universe really was totally the same as the one she remembered, and she realized that she simply didn't care.

"Fast forward," she mumbled to herself, letting out another laugh. Almost a happy one.

She walked off in a random direction, feet dragging over grass and soil as though she'd just run a marathon, eyes sliding over everything without interpreting what they saw or bothering to figure out where she was going.

God, she was so tired.

"We are what we repeatedly do."