ALL CHARACTERS AND EVENTS IN THIS FAN FICTION — EVEN THOSE BASED ON FICTIONAL PEOPLE — ARE ENTIRELY MADE-UP. ALL DANTE REFERENCES ARE RESEARCHED… POORLY. THE FOLLOWING STORY CONTAINS LEWD SEXUAL HUMOR AND DUE TO ITS LONG INTROSPECTIVE MONOLOGUES IT SHOULD NOT BE READ BY ANYONE. _|_|_|
"I find then a law that, when I would do good, evil is present within me." - Romans 7:21
I can still remember the day I realized that my older brother was my guardian angel. I think I'll always remember that day.
Mysterion had been saving me for longer than I can remember—sometimes from fights and scary situations, sometimes from our parents' intoxicated anger and blows, sometimes just from a bad dream. I was four, I think, when it started. I can't remember how it started, because it felt like he had always been there, but I can remember when I found out.
It was in Salt Lake. I was ten. The only girls I knew at my boarding school were still Jenny and Amanda Harrison, and the adjustment to being in a new town with new people was hard. All I wanted to do was talk to my brother, but I didn't want him to have to use up all his phone minutes, so I turned to praying. After all, Mysterion had told me that he was my guardian angel, and that I could call on him whenever I needed to.
The first time he didn't come, I told myself he was just having trouble finding me. I had moved away. Even guardian angels needed directions, I thought. Or maybe, I started to realize after the second time, they were tied to certain towns or states. Like ghosts. After the third time, my crying woke up my roommate, so I went for a walk to find Amanda. We stayed up talking in the dorm hallway, and she was the first person other than Kenny that I ever told about how Mysterion would visit me, and how he promised to always be there.
"Mysterion is a busy guy, though," Amanda said to comfort me that night. "The League does all kinds of cool things."
"I guess," I said. "But whatever he is, if he's a superhero or an angel, couldn't he come visit me? I miss him. He always knew what to say to make me feel better."
"Well…" Amanda said, patting my shoulder, "maybe part of what angels do is help people until they know that they can fly on their own."
That helped me for a little while, and I recalled what Amanda had said on my next phone call to Kenny a couple weeks later. "Do you think that's true, Kenny?" I asked him, curled up on my bed against the wall. "Do you think my angel knows that I can fly on my own? I don't know if I'm ready."
"Well, sis," Kenny said, "I definitely believe in you. That's all you've gotta do, right? Whether you believe in your guardian angel or in yourself, the faith's still there. Just believe. How's school? Are you making friends?"
"I'm scared," I told him. "What if I made a mistake?"
Kenny paused, then asked, "Karen, are you safe?"
"I'm safe," I said. "I'm just lost. I wish you could be here. Or Mysterion."
"Hey," Kenny said calmly, "I am, okay? I'm with you. I'm not standing right there, Karen, but I'm with you. I'll always be with you. I'm cheering you on. You're my little sister, and you are gonna do some amazing things. It's okay to be scared. It's okay to feel a little lost. You'll find your way, I know you will. And I know that Mysterion believes you can, too."
"Okay," I said.
And when the conversation was over, when I put down my cell phone and hugged my pillow to my chest and stared at the slim grey shadows on the opposite wall, that was when I figured it out. That was when I knew that Kenny's words were the same as Mysterion's. That something was tying him to South Park still, something that I couldn't yet understand; so many things he wanted to save me from. Helping me move to a different town was my brother's best means of protecting me—from our neglectful parents, from all the horrible things that went on in our hometown, from the nightmares that were biding their time.
So I had to believe. In Kenny, in Mysterion, and in myself.
I did well in school, and wrote Kenny letters. I texted him to keep his minutes down, and lived every day knowing that my angel was looking out for me from far away.
And when the time came, when the opportunity arose, I became that for him.
For nearly five years, now, I had been the Guardian Angel. I had done my duties in the Shadow League. I had done everything I could to help and defend my brother and my town. I had taken my faith and multiplied it, with the goal of spreading light to anyone who needed a little hope.
– – –
But in Hell, hope is scarce. Hell is where angels go when they fall.
No sooner had I entered Damien's Carnival than I had been teleported away from one of the only other people in the League I felt I could look up to almost as much as my brother. I had felt confident going in, knowing that I was with the Human Kite.
During the years of reacclimating to South Park, I started trusting Kyle pretty much right away, since he was one of Kenny's best friends. When I started dating Ike, I respected Kyle even more, and felt like I had gained another older brother in some way. (A better one than Kevin had ever been.) Every time I visited the Broflovski house and he was home, Kyle would greet me with a smile and ask me how my day was going and genuinely mean it. He wasn't the kind of person who constantly teased his younger brother about his dating life; he was just as protective of Ike as Kenny was of me, and I liked that. So I felt safe knowing that he and I were going into the Carnival together.
But then everything was red, and then everything was dark, and I was alone.
I had been surrounded in a thick red mist, and when it cleared, the rivers were gone, the Human Kite was gone, Disarray was gone, and I was standing… seemingly nowhere. There were no lights around me, but I could see my own hands. I was standing in darkness, in some kind of void. Somewhere inevitably Between.
"Kite?" I called out into the darkness. "Where are you? Hello?"
I heard something rush past me, but it definitely wasn't him. "Anyone?" I tried. Holding onto hope, I asked, "Mysterion? Hello?" Even if he wasn't there, maybe he could hear me through the wire.
Just then, dozens and dozens of sets of white eyes opened up in the darkness, all around me. I gasped and gathered up my slingshot. Fitting three marbles from the pouch full of flash bombs to the baskets, I aimed toward the thicket of eyes and fired.
For a moment, there was a bright flash, but when it died down, it was just me and the darkness again; the eyes were gone. No visible adversaries, no visible path. No way out, it seemed.
"So," a voice said from everywhere around me. Damien. "The Angel joins the fight. I simply can't have you getting in my way, little girl."
"What do you want?" I asked the darkness, my left hand hovering over my utility belt to grab another weaponized marble to load into my slingshot.
"Oh, I should think that much is obvious," Damien answered. "But let's have a talk about that word, little Angel. Want. What do I want, you ask. It just so happens that I want what I need. And I am going to take what I need, do you understand?"
"What do you need, then?" I amended.
In front of me, two red eyes opened in the darkness, and Damien's voice was dangerously close to my ears when he answered, "Your brother."
Just then, great flashes of light emerged from everywhere around me in sickening fluorescent neons, and I was standing back on Carnival grounds. Before me was a massive structure that looked like a UFO—a long, wide disc that could have been either a ride or a building, I couldn't quite tell. A short stepladder led up to the door in the front of it, the door far too elaborate for a hokey carnival ride, with iron scrollwork around the edges. Above the door was a large black sign with white lettering: VI. The Devil's Wheel.
"Devil's Wheel?" I read off aloud, in case anyone could hear me.
"Guardian Angel!" Gary Harrison said through the wire. "There you are. Your feed was static for a while."
"Hi," I said, only a little relieved. It was nice talking to any member of the Harrison family, but my guard was up after my altercation with Damien in the darkness. "I found my Carnival attraction. Kite and I got separated, I'm not completely sure how I got here."
"Let's see," Gary said. "You have the sixth ticket, Angel. The Sixth Circle of Hell is Heresy."
My heart skipped and sank.
Have faith. Have faith how? How, when the son of the Devil himself was calling me a heretic?
Damien was forcing me to fall. Whatever was inside that structure in front of me… it wasn't going to be easy.
"Okay, Elder Harrison," I said, "talk to me. What can I do?"
"Is there anything at all you can see around you?"
"It's a building that says Devil's Wheel, but that's all," I confirmed. "At first, there was darkness, there were these… eyes, like the shadows were watching me, but now I can see more of the Carnival."
"Hmm," Gary said. "You very well could have passed Between. Please be careful." He paused as I climbed the ladder to the door, but just as I was about to look for a place in which to insert my ticket, Gary asked, "What about red mist?"
"I've heard some feedback about that," he said. "The smoke that's coming from Alhazred's Lamp. It could be distorting space and time, and the way all of you are moving throughout the Carnival grounds."
I glanced around. "No," I told him. "No red mist. I saw red eyes, and… and there were red lights, but… wait." I thought back to Disarray on the docks. "Yes. Red mist. General Disarray conjured up something, I think. Red smoke that separated me from the Human Kite. Have you heard from him? Is he okay?"
"Just focus on what's in front of you for now," Gary advised. "These Carnival attractions are wearing on everyone individually, but I have faith that all of you are strong enough to make it out. Kite… Kite will be fine."
"Why did you hesitate?"
"He'll be fine."
Something about the way Gary spoke made me believe him, and I had faith that I knew Kyle well enough to know that he wouldn't give the Devil an inch. "How about Red Serge?" I asked. I felt like I hadn't had a good, relaxing talk with Ike in ages.
Ike took the League so seriously, and I loved him for that. But he could get in over his head. Timmy and I both knew that, and we kept things pretty even between the three of us while the others were out of town at their schools. With this mission, though, I knew that Ike was seeing it as his way to prove himself to Kenny and the other older members of the team. But he didn't have to. He really didn't have to. He was valuable, and it wasn't just his hacking skills. I just hoped he hadn't let himself get carried away now that he was here on Carnival grounds.
"Red Serge is all right," Gary told me. I heaved a sigh of relief. "But please, Angel. You're a beacon in this League. Mysterion is counting on you. Don't forget to take care of yourself. I'm looking at Wilcox's painting of Heresy right now, and it shows a fallen angel. I want you to concentrate on looking up."
"Okay," I said, steeling myself. "I think I can do that."
In front of me, a small slot opened up in the door. Carefully, I took out my Carnival ticket and inserted it into the slot. The door let out a few groaning, clunking noises, like dusty old gears grinding together again for the first time in decades, and then slowly heaved open.
There was nothing on the other side, only more darkness.
"Elder Harrison?" I said.
"Right here, Angel," he answered.
"I'm at a door, and I don't… I don't see anything behind it," I said. "Is there any sort of uniformity to the others' rides so far?"
"Well, darkness, certainly," Gary said. "But others have made it out. You can, too. Just keep moving."
"Okay," I said, and stepped inside. Into nothingness.
My footsteps echoed, but I could sense that I was somewhere narrow, leading me only one way forward into whatever lay inside that building.
"Remember," Gary said, "in the Bible, angels are soldiers. They're warriors of Heavenly Father. They may be keepers of the Light, but they are formidable. You don't need to be the Word of Heaven, Angel. Just be the Word of what you believe in. What do you believe in?"
I took a deep breath, and stepped forward, further into the darkness. I took out a flash bomb from my belt and fitted it to the center basket in my slingshot. "I believe in luck," I said, tightening my grip on my weapon. "I believe in positive circumstance. I believe that humanity has the potential for good, and that we don't have to carry our Hells around inside us."
"Keep going," Gary encouraged me.
I kept walking forward, straightening my back. "I believe in love in all its forms," I said, feeling stronger with each proclamation. "I believe that teamwork can accomplish anything." Shouting now, I finished, "I believe in the League. And I believe in Mysterion!"
And with that, I shot the flash bomb upward, illuminating all that was in front of and around me.
The building I was in became flooded in the pale light from the flash, but it didn't die down. Instead, the light seemed to have fixed itself into the formless ceiling, and flickered as the room came into view.
The entire room was the ride. I'd seen this sort of thing before: the room itself was a wheel, with a large turret in the center and soft red pads along the walls. Each of the pads was an inversion of the GSM symbol, a red background with the dots in black. The floor was black as well, until once again, many sets of eyes opened up.
I backed up against the wall and fitted a lead weight ball into my slingshot. I wasn't sure what could cut through the shadows, but at least now I had a visual on where they were, and what might affect them.
Little imp-like creatures rose up from the floor… the same sorts of sentient shadows that animated the false bodies of Tenorman's cloned Ginger army. They let out high-pitched, nearly whispering laughs, and stacked on top of one another creating two pyramids on either side of the center turret in the room. And sitting on top of the turret was Damien Thorn.
He had his legs and arms crossed, and he scowled down at me, red eyes glowing. "Well done, little girl," he said. I aimed my slingshot at him and was prepared to fire. "But do you believe in yourself? Do you really believe you can stop me?"
"I saved my brother from eternal death once," I snapped. "I'm prepared to do it again and again for the rest of my life. That's what a Guardian Angel does. She looks after the people who need her."
"Your brother should have punched his card into Hell for the last time years ago," Damien growled. The shadow imps on either side of him began to move, unstacking their pyramids and forming more of a solid wall. Very slowly, they started walking… one wall forward, one wall back. As they moved, so too did the room. The only thing that remained stationary was the turret upon which Damien sat. I had to keep adjusting my footing to keep my eyes on him. "If I have to bury you to get my hands on him, I will."
"What do you want with him?!" I shouted.
"I need someone to walk the Between. I need a Reaper who can traverse the pockets of life and death. R'lyeh's absence in this world could open up so many opportunities for me, and its influence on the Spaces Between may yet give me access to the very Void from which the Shadow came. Do you really think I'm not going to leap at such a gift?" Damien grinned, showing inhumanly sharp teeth. "My father has gotten old and disorganized. I'm here to bring the darkness back. And I need the Shadow to assist me."
"He'll never help you," I said, shooting the lead ball at Damien.
He ducked out of the way and snarled. The imps began to pick up their pace just a little, and I began walking against the rotation of the room to keep my eyes on Damien. "He will if I have the right leverage," Damien said. "Enjoy the ride."
He snapped his fingers, and a spark of flame lit in his hands and then engulfed him. When the flame evaporated, he was gone.
Grinding hurdy-gurdy music began playing, to the tune of Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)." Some of the imps began humming along, and broke formation from their wall—or, rather, fan blades—in order to encroach on me.
The shadow imps were solid enough that I could punch a few out of the way, but some of them passed right through me, leaving me chilled as they did. Still, I had to fight. As best I could, I fitted marbles of all weights and kinds into my slingshot to try to break up the shadowy walls, but the imps only laughed and reformed, moving faster and faster until I was running against the centrifugal force of the Devil's Wheel, the shadows passing through me as I did.
Constantly being affected by those shadow creatures was starting to make me feel ill, and I tripped and was thrown back against one of the padded mats that lined the wall. Gravity held me there; I couldn't move my arms or legs, and the imps kept on running and humming and laughing and I could not see a way out.
"Please," I said into my wire. "Elder Harrison, please, give me some kind of hope. Something. Anything. I'm trapped, I can't… I-I can't…"
"You can," was his answer. "You're the League's Angel. You have to believe that you can."
"Can what?" I asked, doubting myself. Which was exactly what Damien wanted me to do.
Don't just try, Karen, do, Mysterion used to say to me when I was little.
"Find hope," Gary counseled me. "If there's darkness where you are, make light. If there's doubt where you are, create hope."
The Wheel was spinning faster. My stomach churned and I was having trouble breathing. Even so, I tried to move my right hand to my hip for my slingshot. I had to do something. I had to try anything.
"You're the Guardian Angel," Gary went on. "Think about what it is you're protecting. You can do this."
I let out a yell and forced my hand to my utility belt, but the first thing I touched on was not my slingshot but my pistol. I didn't carry many bullets… the pistol was usually a last resort weapon… but I could try one shot.
I closed my hand around the gun and turned my attention on the center turret. There had to be a way to make the room stop, there had to be some way to outshine the shadows.
The Wheel spun me around it, but I could plainly see, with each rotation, a switch in the middle of the turret. If I could turn off the ride, I could figure out a way off of it and out to find the others. There was also the very real possibility that I would miss; that the bullet would bounce right back and hit me. But if the ride kept spinning, odds seemed more likely that it would sail off elsewhere.
I could barely move, so I had to try.
Fighting against the force of the spinning ride, I managed to work my other hand to the pistol as well, and, with great effort, hold my arms out in front of me. I counted how many seconds it took to pass back around to the side of the turret with the switch, and paced my breathing to the turns as best I could.
Then, just as I was making a turn, I pulled the trigger and the bullet hit the switch, forcing the ride to come to an abrupt halt.
I fell to the ground, and the shadow imps flew off in all directions. Coughing, I picked myself up onto unsteady feet and shakily held out the gun again, not knowing what to expect.
For the moment, I was alone, but for the sound of something slithering behind and all around me. And then, Damien's voice: "You certainly are persistent, aren't you?"
"If you think I am," I said into the doubtfully empty broken ride, "just wait till you have to deal with my brother."
"Oh, my dear, I have," said Damien. He appeared in a burst of flame again, several feet in front of me, a sour expression on his face, his red eyes both piercing hot and horribly cold. "I have been dealing with Kenneth McCormick for years, now. I've seen him pass easily through Hell, seen him bypass us entirely for R'lyeh, watched him navigate Purgatory. But I haven't been the only one watching, oh, no. There are eyes everywhere, dear Guardian Angel." And, once again, the eyes of the sentient shadows opened up along every wall of the room. I tried to calm my breath and keep my focus on Damien as he continued. "He just had to go and be a hero," Damien snarled. "What a mess. A mess I've taken upon myself to clean up." He stamped on the floor of the ride and shouted down at it, "That's right, Dad! I've got this under control!"
"Doesn't seem like it," I observed.
Damien hissed and picked his head back up, flames rising around his hair almost like a halo as he did. And that sight… that brief glimpse of a halo… that told me just how unsteady Damien was. Not that he had a lick of good in him himself, no. I just understood a little more of what was going on.
Where there was evil, there was good to counteract it. Where there were sins, there were virtues. We had been so focused on Hell, none of us had really raised the question of where Heaven and Purgatory fit into all of this. And in that moment, in seeing Damien quite nearly come unhinged when I insulted him, I began to piece the rest of the cosmic puzzle together.
"Why do you want Kenny so badly?" I demanded.
"I told you," Damien snapped, "I need his talents."
"Why now?" I asked. "Why not wait till his final death?"
"I don't have that kind of time," Damien scoffed. "The Spaces Between are open now. I need to act as quickly as I can. I am not a patient man."
"Clearly," I said, hoping my wire was on so Gary could hear all of this. "So what exactly is your plan? Are you using this Carnival to, what, kill him? Is that seriously your plan? Just… kill Kenny? You bastard, that isn't going to work."
"Shut up, little girl," Damien demanded. "I'm getting tired of you."
"What, because I'm right? Why go through all this trouble with the Carnival at all? Why not just kill him?" I shouted, raising up my gun again. "It's because he's not actually going to Hell, isn't it?"
Through my earpiece, I heard a gasp. Good. Elder Harrison would know what to do, what to tell Mysterion if I didn't find him first.
Damien's red eyes widened, and I knew I was right.
"Kenny McCormick sacrificed himself in the Gate of R'lyeh to save everyone on this planet from eternal madness and chaos," I said as evenly as I could while staring the Devil's son in the eyes. Damien took a step toward me, kicking up sparks when his foot hit the floor. "You're damn right, he's a hero. And you're desperate. You don't just want to take him onto your side, you're stealing him!"
"Kenny McCormick!" Damien shouted, taking another flaming step toward me. I backed up as he advanced. He threw his hands up in dramatic mock defeat, then continued pacing toward me, seeming to burn up patches of the floor as he walked. "I am so sick and tired of hearing him lauded Upstairs. You'd think they've already practically canonized him! He saves humankind once and gets all the archangels in a buzz. Please. As if they can wipe his curse-addled slate clean. But everyone can fall, little girl. Every single soul. His sacrifice won't matter once I'm through with him, and with all of you."
"That's what this Carnival is," I deduced, keeping my gun trained on him. "Sins. You're walking us through the perfect obstacle course for damnation, aren't you? You're forcing it on Kenny, you're forcing Hell on everyone."
"Your League is only the beginning," Damien hissed. "I do plan to expand Hell's reach, and expand I will. You will fall, Angel. And so will that damned brother of yours. Let him sin, let him grieve, let him be crushed under the weight of what he truly is. He will belong to Hell, and it begins now."
He snapped his fingers and disappeared in a burst of flame again. The imps slinked out of the walls and slithered together and stacked one on the other until I was looking up… up…
Every set of eyes closed and the room was filled with a massive black serpent.
From everywhere and nowhere came a hissing voice: "The Shadow descends from the Void of space. The Shadow devours the flow of time. The Shadow has been. The Shadow shall be. The Shadow is Death. The Shadow is Existence. Concealed in Shadow lies the Void that ends all Light."
The great black serpent opened its mouth and began to come down on me, ready to swallow me. In a panic, I screamed and fired into its throat.
The room went pitch black again, and the imps' whispering laughter echoed in the darkness for a moment until the shadows began to reform underneath the pale, flickering light from the top of the Wheel.
I had never seen the Shadow. The others had. I had only ever known my brother; I had only ever known Mysterion. I had only ever known the silhouette of my own dear guardian angel.
So I fell to my knees when that silhouette appeared before me as the light turned red. Not Kenny… not my brother… but a being in the shape of him. No details, only shadows, only shadows… only shadows.
I dropped my gun and felt tears stream from my eyes. I cupped my hands over my mouth and felt paralyzed.
The shadowy figure appeared to be wearing Mysterion's cape and hood, but still, no features. And from his back oozed a set of enormous, terrifying wings. Everything a shadow. Everything. Nothing. That was not my brother.
A tendril of shadow shot out from the thing's cape and lifted up my white pistol.
"For all have sinned," the whispering, hissing voice came from all around, "and fall short of the glory of God."
"Kenny, no," I heard myself say.
The shadow… no… the Shadow lifted the gun with the tendril and aimed it at me.
"NO!" I screamed.
Eyes opened up where his should have been, but they were only hollow white pits in the inky void that made up the rest of him. I scrambled back, but the Shadow reached out and tripped me, turning me once again to look at him. It. That thing that was pretending to be my older brother.
It wasn't. I had to tell myself that it wasn't.
Don't just try, Karen, do.
I lunged forward and wrestled my gun from the Shadow, then aimed it at those hollow white eyes, prepared to fire.
Above me, there was a bolt of flame, and I looked up to find Damien once again sitting on the top of the turret as the grinding, horrible music faded in again. "Some curses never die, my dear," he said bitterly. "This is only a taste of what's to come. Could you do it, Angel? Could you pull that little trigger?"
I gasped and turned back to look at the Shadow. At the silhouette that should have been Mysterion.
Eyes opened up throughout the form and it split apart into dozens of those little imps. That's all it had been all along. Long enough to distract me.
"NO!" I cried out again.
The scorched floor crumbled and opened up under me.
I screamed and clawed for something to hold onto, but there was nothing left. All I could do was fall.
I could smell ash; I could taste iron. I hit something hard on my back and struggled to breathe. When I sat up, I looked down to find that I'd landed on something somehow both hard and soft. Red padding, again…
Inside a wooden box.
I'd landed in a coffin.
I cried out in alarm and began to scramble out, but I was shoved back by what felt like a burst of wind. Damien jumped down into the pit after me and covered my mouth with one cold hand, shoving me down into the pine box.
"Your brother," he said, "and his curse, and the Shadow, and the Void are mine. It's all mine. Don't you see? It all circles back to Hell. All one endless, everlasting circle, and I intend to build. Every grave, every bit of bone, every bit of ash. It's all mine." He grinned, showing off his sharp teeth. "See you soon."
I screamed into his hand and bit it, trying to get him off me. Shadows surrounded him, and he just laughed.
"Now we are one in everlasting peace," Damien said, quoting along to the Radiohead song that was still playing in the far distance.
And he slammed the cover down over me.
"No!" I shouted. I pounded on the coffin lid to try to get it to budge. On the other side, I heard the turning of a key in a lock. "No! NO!"
I punched and clawed and kicked but the lid had been fastened tightly over me.
"Let me out!" I screamed. "Let me out! Mysterion! Kenny! KENNY! Gary?! Ike? Someone? Please… Mysterion, please…"
I choked on a sob, and tried to regulate my breathing. I had to conserve air. That was my primary goal if I was going to survive this.
I felt for a weak spot, but found none. My gun was gone. I heard static coming from my wire. I was alone in that darkness, but I had to believe there was some way out. There still had to be something I could do. Even now, even buried alive, beaten down by threats from the Devil's son, I had to look for hope.
I closed my eyes and thought back to the ride, thought back on everything Damien had said. Thought about those sentient shadows, about the vision they'd forced me to see, about the words they'd forced me to hear.
And then I remembered: Damien had certainly not intended it, but maybe he'd given me a way out. Gary had asked me what I believed in. Damien had pointed out that I had not listed myself.
This was it. This was a test. Nobody could hear me; nobody was coming. I had to believe in myself.
I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and listened to the rhythm of my heartbeat.
– – –
"I spy with my little eye, something bright white and fucking obnoxious," I said into the Goddamn nothing. "Oh, hey! It's fucking everything! How about that."
Nobody answered. Again. My eyes hurt. It was like staring into a billion cameras with the flashes turned on, and even when I shut my eyes, I couldn't really escape it. But I kept walking into it as if that would make any Goddamn difference.
Doors opened up sometimes while I was walking. Sometimes the iPad would let out a little ping and I'd try to mess with it to see if it might be actually fucking helpful, but of course it wasn't. It let out a ping again after I shouted at the big white void, and I groaned and took it out. Nothing.
"Goddamn fucking Canadian piece of crap," I grumbled at the tablet. I tossed it as far as I could throw, and it fell without a sound to what I guess was the floor.
Fed up, I sat down where I was and stared at the iPad several feet in front of me. I couldn't throw super great, but I wasn't the worst. At that. At anything. I wasn't the worst. Right? No.
I folded my arms and just glared at the iPad. "Do something," I said to it. The iPad didn't do anything. "Make some noise again or some shit. Send out a message. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. I don't fucking know where I am."
I kept staring at the tablet and staring at the tablet, and after a few minutes of it not doing anything, I let out a yell and covered my face with my hands. I stared at the inside of my palms for a while, just trying to look at anything that wasn't the blinding light coming from everywhere the fuck else.
Another dumb thing about Ike's iPad—it had stopped showing me what time it was. I felt pretty clever when I figured that I could at least keep track of how long I'd been in the white room, but now it just showed zeroes.
I wasn't hungry, and nobody was coming, and everything was bullshit. I'd never get to punch Scott Tenorman's smugass little face if I couldn't get out. I'd never get to claw Damien Thorn's eyes out or save my mom or even just ask her what the fuck if I couldn't get out. I couldn't prove to Mysterion and the rest of them that I was essential if I was trapped.
I groaned and lay down on my back and stared up at the bright white nothing. "This is fucking stupid!" I shouted, aiming the words at Damien and Scott.
The tablet let out three pings. It hadn't done that before.
I flipped over onto my stomach and stared at the iPad again. It didn't do anything else. But it had just made a sound three times, not just one. Right?
I looked around, and of course Goddamn nobody was there, and got up and walked over to the tablet. It didn't do anything else. No other sounds.
Doubting anything had changed, I picked up the tablet and flipped it over so I could look at the screen.
Instead of zeroes, there were four 3s where the time should have been.
"Three?" I said to the iPad. "What the fuck does that mean?"
Around me, the sound of a door creaking open again. I picked my head up and looked over to the right, where another opening had appeared. I stared down at the tablet, then at the door, then at the tablet, then at the door, then at the tablet. "Welp. Fuck this," I said, and just went ahead and walked toward the door.
I went through it, and: "Oh, surprise, surprise! A whole fucking ton of shitassballs NOTHING," I hollered at the room. "At least put a fucking plant in one of these rooms!" I shouted at the bright white ceiling or sky or what the hell ever. "Scott! You suck at decorating! Hey! I'm calling you a shitty designer! Your Carnival fucking sucks!"
He didn't say anything. Go figure.
The tablet showed zeroes again.
So I just kept walking. I wasn't tired. That sucked.
After an hour or fifty, the tablet pinged again. Just once. I looked at the screen, and now the time showed four 1s. Which could have just been 11:11, but it didn't say AM or PM, and it didn't have a colon (heh… colon). Just four 1s. That's it.
"What the fuck does this mean?" I demanded, shaking the tablet.
I swiped at the screen but it wouldn't unlock. "Ike, your tablet's broken!" I shouted into the wire. "Get in here and fix it!"
Nothing from the wire, not even static.
An eternity later, the tablet pinged four times. The screen:four 4s.
Then five times. Four 5s. Two doors opened up.
Then two pings. Four 2s.
"Whaaaaat the fuuuuuuck," I groaned. I'd walked into so many different blank white rooms at that point. It felt like I'd been in there for about two or three days. No sleep, no food, no people, no rest from the blinding stupid light.
Three. One. Four. Five. Two.
"Three, one, four, five, two?" I said to the iPad. It didn't ping or say anything. "The fuck does that mean, three-one-four-five-two?" I swiped the screen again. "Turn on so I can use your fucking calculator!" I shouted. Nothing.
I heaved an aggravated sigh. "I gotta do fucking everything," I complained. Even math.
Three and one is four and four is eight and five is nine and two is eleven.
"Eleven?" I said. The iPad didn't respond. "Eleven whats? No? Not eleven? I can't multiply those, that's too many numbers."
Three, one, four, five, two.
Another door opened, and I walked through.
"Three, one, four, five, two," I muttered to myself going into the next ungodly fucking blank fucking white blinding Goddamn room. "Three, one, four, five, two." I kept walking. "Eleven rooms? Is that how many rooms I've Goddamn walked through?" It felt like more. It definitely was more. I'd gone into at least like twenty by now.
"Three, one, four, five, two."
The iPad pinged again, then let out six loud, blaring sounds, like an alarm.
"Fuck!" I shouted, and hurled the iPad across the room. It let out six alarm bursts again. It had landed face up, and the screen was flashing bright red.
It let out another six alarm bursts.
When I walked over and picked it up, the time didn't have four 6s, but three.
"Three, one, four, five, two… six?"
If this was a riddle, I was not gonna solve it. Not alone. And I hated to admit that. Everyone in the League had a thing they were good at. Riddles were… well, riddles were…
Riddles were Chaos's thing.
Mine was more brute strength and coercion. Chaos was the riddle guy.
"Butters, I'm so seriously, if you're doing this somehow, I will drop kick you to fucking China," I warned into the iPad.
Why would the six be different?
Three, one, four, five, two. Six.
Was I supposed to add them? Subtract? Divide? What was the point?
"Fuck thiiiiiiis," I complained, and sat down again.
After another eternity, I poked at the iPad, which was showing zeroes again. It had pinged once a couple of times after the siren blares, but no changes in the time.
"Butters," I tried again. "Butters, this is a riddle and you know I suck at riddles, so get in here and solve this stupid Goddamn thing."
That was lame. That was really, really lame. Why was I asking for his help? Why the fuck was I asking for his help after what he did to me in that Lion pit? It was basically his fault my mom had gotten kidnapped.
Who did he think he was?
Who did he actually think he was?
He'd sworn off Chaos, and, yeah, something had seemed to be missing there once Chaos was gone. Not that I'd ever admit it, but I had missed him. Chaos. Marjorine was too nice all the time, and Harmony was just even nicer. Butters had a kind of, I dunno, skewed sort of manipulative quality that he couldn't hide in any other side of himself. Sure, Marj was still good at traps and whatever, but the sheer cunning of Chaos was missing.
I missed being neck and neck with that conniving asshole. When he was around, sometimes being in the League still felt like a game. Like a challenge. When Chaos was gone, the challenge was gone. The struggle was gone.
I'd wanted him back, but not at the expense of me being humiliated.
"Three," I mumbled at the tablet, "one, four, five, two. Six."
I couldn't figure it out.
I was stuck, and no one was coming.
Maybe they didn't need me after all.
– – –
The tablet pinged seven times.
– – –
It was... interesting... to look at the world through this helmet again.
The metal around my face meant I could only see the world through a certain perspective, mainly straight ahead, the rest was blocked off. The last time I'd seen the world like this, it was a dreadful thing. I'd had extreme tunnel vision, and I couldn't see what was desperately trying to get my attention in the periphery – my friends, my sanity. Now, however, it was empowering. I blocked out any doubts or misgivings, so I could focus, like concentrating on the path through a shrouded forest. It was a positive thing, although I still had to be careful. I had to be sure to glance up every once in a while, to check for approaching threats, or that the path wasn't leading me to a place I really didn't want to go. I needed a balance.
So, really, nothing had changed much.
Whether I was Harmony or Chaos, I still sought balance.
And that was what I was aiming for, ultimately, something between the good and the bad, just... right.
Isn't that all anyone could hope for, realistically?
Don't get me wrong, I wasn't settling for anything. Balance doesn't come easily. You have to fight for it. And I intended to.
I wanted to reclaim this part of my past and move it out of such limitations. I knew it wouldn't be simple. I wasn't the only one who had some pretty strong associations with Chaos's helmet. Still, I wanted to try. I had to. I had to find out...
Could Professor Chaos be on the side of the heroes?
Marpesia, for one, seemed to need some convincing on that front. As the two of us walked side by side through the gates of the Carnival, I caught her glancing at me more than once. I could just make out narrowed eyes under her own helm.
We'd just come to the forking of two rivers when she finally addressed the elephant in the room. "Sooooo..."
I would have laughed if not for the gravity of our mission. "What?"
I stopped walking and turned to face her. She halted and mirrored my stance.
I steeled myself before starting this overdue conversation, knowing that I had to sound as firm in my convictions as I felt, without being dismissive of any of my friend's feelings. I clenched my gloved hands into easy but resolute fists and said, "Yes, Chaos. It's something that I need to do."
"I trust you," she said immediately. "I want you to know that right away. I do."
I breathed a partial sigh of relief I hadn't been conscious of holding. Though I knew there was more still to be said. "But you don't think you can work alongside me now?"
"It's not that."
"I just want to make sure you're okay."
Of course, Wendy's first thought would be to my well-being. I say it a lot, but the fact remained that this girl had been my single greatest friend in the whole of my messy, complicated life. I was darn lucky to have her.
She continued, "Since you chose this, we haven't really had a chance to talk. So, are you? Are you okay?"
I smiled. "Yeah. I am. Honestly, for the first time in a long time I feel..." Marpesia remained silent, letting me find the words. "Well, I haven't exactly figured it out, but I know I'm on the right path."
She smiled, too. Then she reached out her hand for mine. I offered it to her, and she gave it a solid squeeze before letting go. "I'm glad. But you've got to promise me something."
She lowered her head, so she was looking up at me from just under the edge of her helm. With an accompanying little smile, she said, "No going crazy on me this time."
I had to laugh. I knew she was nothing but serious in that command, and that if, God forbid, somehow it did happen, she'd beat my butt into the next century like the hero she was. But I also knew that she was trying to show her support in her own way. And it couldn't have made me happier to know I had her on my side.
I had admittedly questioned my sanity a couple times since making this choice. I mean, could I really keep trying to redeem myself if I took what, in many ways, seemed like a huge step backwards? I told myself I'd find a way. Re-navigating Chaos without evil intent was still new, and I'd need to feel it out for a little while to get the hang of it. I didn't know how long a grace period I was going to get from the other League members. The fact that they were giving me a chance at all was amazing. And this wasn't some whim. I had come to a substantial realization that I had to put into action: I couldn't cut out Chaos the same way I couldn't remove Marjorine when I'd been at my lowest. I couldn't just be a piece of myself; I had to encompass the whole.
For my continued sanity, I had to explore what that meant.
And I knew at least I was taking Chaos back.
No matter what anyone else said. This was my choice, and I'd be damned if anyone tried to tell me I couldn't. Reclaiming Chaos was something I was doing for me, that's all.
This wasn't all about me, though. With that in mind, I asked my friend, "How are you doing?"
She shrugged. "Well, the League's traveling to a hellscape again. Which is, you know, horrible. But I'm glad that, this time, I get to walk in with you by my side."
God love that girl for her concern, but I hoped she knew just how important she was to others as well. "Likewise," I said.
We kept traveling along the rightmost bank of one of the rivers, with no reason in mind other than observation. Marpesia checked in with the part of our team still stationed outside, but there was so much static on the line it was hard to decipher how they responded. I scanned the sky around us, trying to locate what could be causing the interference. There were some clouds, but not enough to affect the signal. I saw some tall structures, but neither were from the way we came, so they shouldn't have caused the interference either. The most obvious one was the volcano looming in the near distance, which illuminated the Carnival in a red glow. I thought I could make out another structure, one just to the right of the volcano, and, thus, bathed in red as well. It was cylindrical in shape, and quite tall. It reminded me of something that set off distant warning bells in my head.
I turned to ask Marpesia if she was getting the same vibes from it, only to find she wasn't there.
She wasn't necessarily missing, but my entire surroundings were now obscured. In the few minutes I'd been looking up, mist had rolled in at ground level. Red mist. I called my teammate's name, but received no response, even when I called louder. That was when I started to worry. I walked toward where I thought I'd last seen Marpesia, but she wasn't there. My scanning of the sky had caused me to already turn around several times, and I realized I couldn't be sure which direction I now faced. I looked back up to orient myself by the volcano, but the mist continued to rise. It now surrounded me so thickly that all I could make out were the few uncovered stars far above me.
I was reminded of a mist from years ago, one that crawled and that I had a hand in summoning. I intentionally took in a big gulp of air, then let it out over eight long counts. A trick I'd learned to help calm anxious thoughts. This wasn't the same. This mist had none of the same feeling the Crawling Chaos had possessed. I willed myself to accept this truth.
I would not be sent into a panic attack by what I was pretty sure was a demonic parlor trick.
Reassured, I considered the cons of walking in any haphazard direction. However, with surprising quickness, the red mist blew away, like an invisible fan had just turned on. I knew immediately that even though I hadn't walked far from where I'd lost sight of Marpesia, I had traveled to an entirely different part of the Carnival. This was confirmed when I turned and found myself staring up at the structure I had noticed before. Seeing it up close, I was able to confirm my earlier fear.
It was a tower.
"Oh, ha ha," I mocked whatever ringleader was taunting me, trying to assuage my fears with humor. "Couldn't come up with something a bit more original?"
No one responded, of course, so I examined the structure. I had been right; it was tall, insanely so. The platform at the top was high enough to overlook the volcano. The whole thing was comprised of grey scaffolding, so I could see stairs rising back and forth on the inside, while a slide wrapped around the outside, creating seven spirals. Letters over the front entrance identified it as a Helter Skelter. I'd never seen one before, but I vaguely recalled looking up an old Beatles song and learning the origins of the title. Overall, it looked incomplete, like a work in progress. It was then I noticed a little wooden sign stuck in the dirt before it, like some silly thing out of an old cartoon. It read, "Please pardon our dust as we continue to build a better tomorrow!"
Better for whom? I wondered.
Under the Helter Skelter sign was the Roman numeral VII, made of metal and affixed to the scaffolding. The letters loomed above, casting their own shadow on the ground against the pervasive red glow from the volcano. Signaling, abrasively, that this was meant for me.
The whole thing was Disarray's idea. Had to be. That little asshole had allied himself with the son of the Devil, crawled out of Hell, and invited me specifically into what he must have been sure was my own waking nightmare. In a way, it was. The Tower haunted me, always had. I'd gone on trying to ignore it, to keep the past in the past. However, I was moving beyond that. My past did not define me. I did. Every step I was taking in these boots was with the very purposeful intent of forging a new path.
That had been on my mind before we'd left on this mission. While still at the Tenth Circle, I'd gone upstairs to the Goths' private residence. There, I'd asked the eldest Goth as politely as I could to do a Tarot reading for me. Years ago, his explanation of the Tower card had spurned me on a pretty definite path to R'lyeh. This time, I thought, maybe, a new reading might set me straight, so to speak.
He was less than thrilled about the idea.
After a little coaxing... badgering... he finally relented.
"Well, I'm not doing a full reading, cause one, I don't feel like it, and two, no, so here." After telling me to remove my 'dirty poseur' gloves, he shoved the cards into my hands. "Shuffle the deck a bit. And do not bend or rip any of my cards."
I did as instructed, then handed them back when he reached for them.
"And voilà," he said emotionlessly as he simply removed the top card and held it face up. "The Wheel of Fortune."
Thrilled that it was an entirely different card, I asked, "Is that good?"
With an immense groan, the Goth explained, "There's four main spokes on the wheel," and he pointed to a spot on each side as he went through them, "past, present, future, and death. And no, before you ask, not death as in 'oh, no, I'm gonna die, argh,' it's just another part of the cycle."
"So, what does it mean put together?"
"A reversal of fortune, destiny, sometimes second chances." He lit up a cigarette and took a drag. "It's change, basically. This card is full of energy," he said, and tapped it, "but it's just that, plain energy, neutral. You have to decide what to do with it. Or adapt to whatever's coming your way."
"What, like, 'use your powers for good or evil' type thing?"
"Tch, yeah," said the Goth, rolling his eyes, "if those were actually the only two options and you were a character in a superhero movie—oh wait. Yeah, okay, I'm done. There's your super basic reading. Enjoy your field trip to Hell, or whatever."
Undeterred by his quick dismissal, I was beyond thrilled with my results. I'd conceptualized Harmony as an agent of change, and just because I wasn't using her name right now didn't mean I couldn't still operate with those intentions. The rest seemed wonderfully fitting to me. A reversal of fortune? Second chances? That was exactly what I hoped to get out of my decision to reclaim a previously shunned part of myself. I made a mental promise to let those assurances guide me as I allowed Chaos to explore new ground.
Maybe I should get Tarot readings done more often. I was definitely a believer at this point.
It was an intimidating prospect, though. Chaos had so much history attached to him. Could I really shake all that off? Take whatever energy the universe gave me and use it to my advantage? I knew from watching so many kickass people around me – basically everyone in the League – that it was possible, but it was a bitch of a fight. Did I have enough strength to get through it? And was it possible to win?
It didn't matter. The point was, I was ready to fight. And I had a long and, I considered, honorable list of what I was fighting for: my friends, the town, my right to be myself, my right to a second chance, to save the world from being turned into a literal Hell on Earth.
I was ready to fight any motherfucker who tried to stop me.
With an exasperated sigh for the constraints of my former branding but bolstered by the idea that I could write my own future, I marched straight toward that damn tower.
I didn't get far, although it wasn't anything I could help. Before me was another river, encircling the tower like a moat. The banks were about ten feet apart; substantial enough to be a problem.
The fun part was what flowed within its banks: lava.
Obviously, I wouldn't be swimming across.
It seemed that option was painfully obvious to the Ringleaders, as well, as there were two raised bridges on either side of where I stood. I walked closer to the one on my left to better examine it. Each bridge was metal, and both sides stuck up in the air like they were waiting for some infernal rowboat to pass through. To the right of each bridge was a signpost. At the top was a small square box with a vertical slit centered on it. I pulled out the coin Disarray had given me from my pants pocket. No doubt all I had to do to lower the bridge was insert the coin. The intention was obvious.
Like hell I was going to play their games.
I glanced at the sign underneath the coin slot at the bridge on the left. It showed the silhouette of a head wearing a nurse's cap.
This bridge was meant for Agent Harmony.
To check my suspicions, I walked to the other bridge. This one showed the silhouette of Professor Chaos's helmet.
The Ringleaders were definitely paying attention, that was for sure. Disarray had said at the docks to use this coin to cross "when the bridges are built." At the time, I didn't think he meant literally, but Damien and his followers weren't exactly subtle. Disarray hadn't called Chaos out specifically, but he certainly hinted that I'd be welcome. They wanted me to cement my choice by going over the appropriate bridge.
Well, screw that. I didn't even try use the coin. I didn't want to take either of their intended paths. I was going to make my own Goddamn bridge.
Pocketing the coin, I turned my back on the setup. There was a stack of construction materials nearby, which could prove useful. I went over and took inventory: some of the piled wood planks were quite long, probably about twelve feet.
I started to move them in a row on the ground. I grabbed some rope from the pile as well to secure them together. It didn't matter if my makeshift bridge lasted longer than it took me to get across. If it burned before I was done with whatever crap awaited me in the Helter Skelter, I'd just find another way. Honestly, my plan was to bring that fucking tower down, send it crumbling to dust as quick as I could. Worse came to worse, I could use the resulting debris to get back over.
Once I got four of the beams tied together, I moved it closer to the riverbank. Then I hefted it up so the long side rose high above me. It wasn't a wide traverse, but if I used any more beams, I would've had a difficult time lifting it. I took my time aiming. There were more boards in the pile, so I could make this attempt multiple times if needed, but I wanted to get this right on the first try.
Call it stubbornness.
I knew a certain someone who wouldn't hesitate to call me stupid for this unnecessary feat, who'd hypocritically rag on me for being so obstinate. But I also knew the corner of his mouth would be cocked up in a grin while he said it.
I was grinning as I let the boards drop strategically across the burning river.
The far edge landed perfectly on the other side.
The lava looked like it was flowing pretty evenly, no bubbles or anything, so I figured the chances of it suddenly sweeping over the top of the beams and taking me out were slim. Unless something supernatural made that happen, which I supposed wasn't out of the realm of possibility with these Ringleaders.
Oh well, I just had to take that chance.
I took a deep, bracing breath. I could do this. I could defeat whatever the Devil threw at me.
Because I'd already been through Hell.
And guess what? I'd beaten it.
I tested the boards with my boot. They seemed like they'd hold. My only other concern was that my weight might cause the beams to bend once I reached the unsupported middle, but there was only way to test that theory. I started to make my way across, slowly.
And then I was across. No bending, no breaking. The lava continued to flow along under my untouched beams. No big deal.
I'd beaten their first little game.
Too bad that meant I didn't get a free pass on the stairs. The tower ride was huge, and it was a long climb to the top. I took my time, trying to conserve my energy. There was no telling what I'd meet at the top, so I had to be ready. The physical exertion was probably a tactic to set me at a disadvantage.
Or maybe these guys were just really bad constructionists.
As I climbed, I thought back to what I'd heard over the radio, days ago: "Control demands disorder. You can rebuild." They had already built a new tower. But I was going to take it down. Screw my troubled past, this was my second chance and I'd take full advantage of it. I built my own bridge. I was making my future what I wanted it to be.
It was like I told Eric in the hallway of the Goth's place: we had to fight back. We couldn't just let them corral us to their insane whims or shove us in boxes.
That's why I originally created Chaos – to fight back against those that had tried to control me. He was who I needed to be right now, in his purest form. Nothing but a force of nature. I'd reverse the fortune I'd been given and mount a full assault on the ones who wanted to take away that balance.
I was the only one allowed to cause Chaos around here.
And here was quite the location. The stairs ended abruptly and simply opened onto the floor of the grey metal roof. Turrets lined the perimeter, which was about the size of a high school classroom. In a horrible moment of anticlimactic revelation, no thing or person awaited me at the top. Obviously, I kept up my guard. I scanned the space for any trip wires, trap doors, or other mechanisms that might set something off. Finding none of that, I walked slowly toward the nearest side and looked over. I was level with the middle of the volcano. A stream of lava sluggishly dripped down its rocky surface to make up the river surrounding the tower. It circled around and dropped suddenly into a pit, much smaller than the one in which the Coon and I had battled the Lion, but also much, much deeper. I raised my gaze, about to get a better lay of the land, but then heard a nasally voice behind me.
"Hello there, Professor."
I whipped around. There was my former partner, General Disarray. He held a tall metal staff that ended in a round top above his head. His black hood was pulled back, putting his scarred face was on display. It really was hard to look at. Not the disfiguration itself, but what it represented. He was still a boy, having never aged physically beyond his twelve years of life. I felt a pang of loss for my childhood teammate, but no pity. He had chosen the way of ultimate destruction, and it had manifested in his features.
"Disarray," I spat.
"Enjoy that bit of exercise?"
"Well, we wouldn't want you to be too comfortable, would we? We are shaping a new Hell, after all. Comfort isn't exactly in the mission statement."
Something was wrong, though. He didn't seem keyed into what he was saying, like he was bored. And I remembered Disarray was always passionate about whatever cause he undertook. Even if that cause involved people getting killed. Actually, that might've riled him up more. I stayed alert as he continued to talk.
"I see you made it across Phlegethon, the river of pain and nightmares that leads to the depths of Tartarus."
"Wow, thanks for the geography lesson. Are we gonna fight, or what?"
He clicked his tongue twice, and I could see it move through an empty slit in his cheek. "So eager. Don't you know there's a protocol to these things? First there's the acknowledgement of each other, where we say our names as if it were a challenge. Check. Then we're supposed to talk for a bit—"
"What could you possibly want to talk to me about?"
His eyes narrowed. "If you don't interrupt me, I'll tell you." The look he leveled me communicated he wouldn't hesitate to rip me apart if I didn't play nice. Fuck that.
He reverted to that apathetic tone. "We're glad to see you and not that pathetic emotional band-aid you call an Agent."
I hunched my shoulders but tried not to let his jab make me lose focus.
He said, "We need Chaos, you see. He is... or, rather, was... an honorable harbinger of the end of the world. All that work, wasted." He looked down his nose at me, like he was a smug-ass scientist and I was a failed experiment. It made my blood boil. "Chaos was primed to be the catalyst, but you mucked it up with your feelings of—"
My eyes narrowed, and I growled, "I barely survived. You were the reason I sunk so low. You poisoned me with that damned book! You drove me insane!"
"And weren't you just the most willing sacrifice." His tone changed again, each word dripping scathing acid. "You did have potential, you know. You could have been remarkable. We could have been remarkable."
"Oh, spare me the empty supervillain platitudes." This asshole had tried to get me killed. There was no way he honestly still wanted to work together.
A pause. Then, he burst out laughing. "Ha! Yeah, I can't do it. I can't pretend that you were never anything more than a means to an end."
Well, at least that stupid scene was over. "So why are you here lying to me again?" I had to know.
"It wasn't my idea. Master Damien believes he can use you. He thinks Chaos has potential. I know it's a lost cause, but orders are orders." Disarray's sneer told me just what he thought about that tactical arrangement, and that maybe his whole station was a temporary arrangement.
I laced my fingers together and cracked my knuckles. "Don't want to share the job?" I chided. "That's fine. I want nothing to do with your deal with the Devil, Disarray."
Disarray took a few steps closer, and I countered his movements. As we circled one another, he continued, "No, I don't think you're worth it. I told him you're too much of a weakling to handle it. But, he is insistent."
"You can ask him yourself once we're through here." Disarray squared his shoulders and spread his footing into a lowered attack stance.
My fists balled at my sides and I stood firm. "You ready to fight?"
His eyes rolled in their scarred sockets. "This is the Seventh Circle. This is Violence, Chaos. Of course we're going to fucking fight." And with that apt observation, he rushed me.
He struck out with his staff and I feinted to the side, then crouched and kicked low, tripping him. Disarray cursed into the floor but was quickly back on his feet. Using his height to his advantage, he ducked around behind me and whacked me in the ribs with the blunt topper of his staff.
I choked on my breath and while I was recovering, he took the staff into his hands like a baseball bat and swung it into my gut. I recovered quickly enough and grabbed the staff in both hands, but a sonic pulse shot out of it, forcing me back. I skidded against the ground and hit the far edge of the top of the tower, smacking into the wall under one of the turrets.
But I took the fall to my advantage, scouring my enemy for weak points. Disarray rushed back toward me, and I saw in his movements that his only game plan was to strike at will.
Once he'd run close enough, I flipped up one side of my cape to obscure his view. He yelped, and I followed the sound with my fist. As soon as the cape fell out of the way, I punched him square in the face, sending him sprawling backwards. I got back up onto my feet and strode toward him. I picked him up by the hair and tossed him back against one of the far turrets.
I heard a crack as he smacked into it, and saw as he was picking himself up that his right arm had popped out of joint. Disarray glared down at it, said, "Oh, for fuck's sake," then quickly snapped it back into place again. I grimaced at the sound, but I guess I shouldn't have expected less from a Goddamn zombie.
Overhead, I heard thunder rumble. Or perhaps it was the volcano. Nature was growling all around me, wanting me to act.
Disarray let out a yell and lunged again. He took up the staff like a spear and before I could counter he jabbed it into my gut, shooting out another sonic pulse that forced me to the ground. When he was looming over me to deliver another shock, I kneed him in the ribs and punched him to the side.
Upon rising, I squared my shoulders and held my fists resolutely at my sides. I had to admit, this assuredness, this unquestionable confidence, wasn't something I'd felt in a while. I hadn't been Professor Chaos in years, and I'd carried so much baggage against him for so long, that I'd forgotten why I kept him around when I was younger. But really, it all came down to enjoyment.
And I was enjoying kicking my former partner's ass all across that tower.
"You piece of shit!" Disarray snapped.
"You can surrender any time," I challenged.
"Listen," Disarray said, "I wasn't made Charon's apprentice for nothing. I'm here to guide the damned to where they need to go. You belong here in Hell. You belong with us, forging paths for the lowest of the low. This is the new Between. You know you belong in the midst of the violence, Chaos. Embrace it."
But chaos isn't violence. It's a perfectly natural state of the universe. It's constant and ever changing, therefore it can't be wholly good or evil. It just is. Neutral. Like the Wheel of Fortune.
"So what are you going to do?" Disarray said.
Well, first thing was first. I had to get that staff away from him if I had any chance of truly defeating him here.
"You're about to find out."
I rushed him, took a leap, and came down on him with my right elbow, smacking the exposed bones of his cheek.
Disarray howled in pain as he hit the ground. Good, I thought. He deserved it.
I wrenched the staff from his grip. I spun and was about to gloat, just a little bit, but stopped when I saw the satisfied look on his face. He said, "Damien can't replicate Nyarlathotep's gifts, but you can get a taste of what awaits you if you join him."
A storm raged around us, and only then did I process that here, at this height, his staff had a very particular use.
It was a lightning rod.
A streak of white-hot electricity shot down from a rent in the sky, straight to the staff.
And struck me.
My body went rigid, my arms splayed to the sides, causing me to drop the staff, and my eyes flared wide. I didn't feel the electric shock. Just like before, in that other Hell-like dimension, I felt the sheer force of the element, the raw power.
And just like then, it was glorious.
There was a rush through my entire body. I was overflowing. There was so much within me and no place for it to go, so it just kept cycling through me. But I could contain it. It didn't threaten to burst out of me because I was strong enough to hold it all. I couldn't say how, but I inherently knew that. I was strong enough. Then the feeling coalesced in my head. My mind was alight with the churning madness of all that energy. My eyes shot open even more, past their limits, at the feeling.
I'd been hit with a literal power surge.
And it was intoxicating.
I heard Disarray's voice at both my ears, in stereo. "The power, Chaos. Do you remember it?"
My breathing deepened and quickened. Everything about my body was put into hyperdrive. I felt every little sensation at once, and with such force. My lungs were an expanding mushroom cloud, my heart an earthquake. I swore I could feel the intricate forest of nerves underneath my skin. Tickling just under the surface was also the static of a million charged particles happily contained within me. Mine for the taking.
Before, when lightning lit up the sky in R'lyeh, I'd found myself with the ability to control electricity. It sparked from my gloved fingertips and caused such destruction as nightmares are made of. This surge wasn't that. This was a power surge of a different sort, full of a feeling, a raw energy coursing through me, not connected to any ability, just that – energy, power.
The power. I remembered the power I felt in those moments, years ago, when the madness worked through me, when I was its conduit. I remembered the maniacal glee I felt when I could exert some real change to the world that had hurt me so much in the past, when I finally had power over those who had done me violence. I remembered the power of music in my hands corrupting dozens at once.
I remembered the euphoria of driving my parents insane with my own voice.
And I remembered the time Chaos finally had power over an old adversary at the gates of madness.
Oh, I had reveled in that.
Then, as quickly as it had hit me, it was gone. Sucked out like I'd entered a vacuum. I dropped to my hands and knees, gasping harshly for air, something to keep me conscious after that overstimulating experience. A harsh clink encouraged me to raise my head. Had my helmet always been so heavy? Disarray stood, smug and unconcerned before me. He held the lightning rod again, and my still sparking brain managed to deduce that he had leached out the energy from me with the staff.
He said, "That's a taste. A glimmer of what the son of the Devil can offer you. Accept his offer, and you can feel that way all the time. I know you, Chaos. I know you enjoy power over others."
No, I told myself, as the residual electricity leaked off of me like steam, I don't want that kind of power. I was fighting for a more balanced world now. That amount of power... that was too much for one person. It would tip the scales too harshly to one side.
But the euphoria I felt…
No, I thought again, trying to regain some control over the living battery my body had become. I'd moved on. Yes, I admit, I felt that way once, I took responsibility for the actions I had committed during that time. I'd done horrible things. I'd tried to make up for them for years now. To the guys, to Clyde and Bebe, to Wendy and Eric... to myself.
Had I made it up to myself? Had I ever tried to do that actively before? I assumed I did; I told myself more than once that I wasn't entirely to blame for the pain I'd caused. And I believed it. But... really... had I given myself a chance to accept my own apology?
Had I really allowed my own soul to heal from the pain it had gone through?
"You're wrong," I said.
Disarray snorted. "Excuse me?" he said doubtfully.
"Power over others isn't chaos," I said. "It's senseless."
"Who fucking cares?" Disarray snapped. He kicked me across the face, sending me sprawling. I caught myself, digging my fingers into the harsh metallic floor best I could. "You Goddamn snivelling idiot, you have potential! Stop waxing poetic and accept what it is you're meant to be! Accept what it is you're capable of! You are madness!"
"No," I snapped. I picked myself up, and slowly drew myself to standing. Disarray snarled and readied his stance yet again. The tip of his staff sparked. "I'm not just one side of a coin, Disarray," I said. "I'm what happens when hot and cold clash. I'm what happens when two ends meet."
"Shut up and just accept this!"
And once again, I said, "No."
Disarray shot a bolt of lightning out at me, and I dodged out of the way.
I had been so sure I had to make it up to others. And I needed to, I did. Nothing about my efforts at healing... at harmony... none of that was invalidated. They were necessary steps in repairing the damage I'd done. But I needed healing, too. I knew there were those who hurt me who would never be sorry, and I'd be a fool to even consider the possibility of an end to those sources of violence. Some people, they'd work to right their wrongs, as I had done, but that still wasn't the full extent of it. I still had one more person to whom I had to make amends.
I needed to forgive myself.
I had carried my own personal hell inside me for years. I lived it every day. Some days were worse than others. But even on the good ones, when I went about my normal routine and lived a life I felt was worthwhile and helpful to others, I still had this thing inside me. This... dark streak that would always be there, that I couldn't escape.
Tears threatened in my eyes. But I blinked, knowing they'd be a hazard in the continued fight, and breathed deep. That was true. I had to accept that yes, there were parts of me that weren't perfect. Parts that gave in, sometimes willingly, to the darkness.
That I would always be just a little bit broken.
But that was me. Everything good within me, and everything that was scarred, too. It was me. And all of me deserved forgiveness.
Most of all from myself.
"I forgive myself," I said aloud.
"WHAT?" Disarray bellowed. "Why?!"
I'd been doing violence to myself every time I denied myself of the truth. I'd done violence to myself when I denied any piece of who I was – the good, the bad – Marjorine, Harmony, Butters, Chaos. It was all me. And every part of me, every bright and beautiful, dark and hideous, terribly joyful and terrifically painful part of me, it all deserved peace.
"Because you were right," I said. "Control demands disorder. It's also the other way around. That's the natural order of things. That's true chaos."
Disarray screamed and shot another bolt of lightning toward me. I dodged, but felt the electricity surge in the air as my body remembered again how intoxicating it had felt in R'lyeh to have command of such power. How ruthlessly I had used it.
But even back then, some part of me resisted. And it wasn't Marpesia who had saved me that time.
It was me.
I had saved myself. I was my own hero. The supervillain had almost taken out the damsel in distress, but then the hero came through in the end. Who was that hero? What part of me played that role?
It didn't matter if it was a named part of me or somewhere in between. I saved me.
I was enough.
And I was enough now.
I was going to kick this guy's ass.
But how to defeat him?
How do you beat someone who's already dead?
I kept dodging his lightning attacks. One of them cracked through a turret and it flew back toward Disarray. He managed to avoid it, cursing, but it sparked an idea in my head.
How do you stop the circle of violence?
You stop fighting.
And move on from there.
I'd forgiven myself, so the internal violence was defeated, but this was very physical violence I still had to deal with. But putting violence on top of violence just increased the negative energy. That wasn't what I wanted to come from my second chance. I wanted to direct the energy toward balance, which meant I had to negate Disarray's destructive energy with my neutral energy.
Violence was a part of chaos, but that's not all it was. Chaos was also random pockets of calm in the midst of it. It was a balance of the two extremes just as much as it was the polar ends. Therefore, with all this violence swirling around me at the top of the tower, from Disarray to the lightning. To end the storm, I needed to be the tranquil eye of it.
I had to not fight back.
With that plan, I kept dodging, knowing now it was the right move. However, I wasn't delusional; I knew I needed to do more to end this fight. Maybe I could use his energy against him?
In between shots, I caught a glimpse beyond the edge of the tower. The portion that looked directly over the pit where the river fed.
It was a macabre plan, maybe, but I felt no qualms. Disarray was already dead. He couldn't die twice (the only one who could do that was still waiting to enter the Carnival, and even he'd rejected that ability). It was the most efficient way to neutralize this fucker. I had my plan.
With a couple more strategic somersaults, I was in position. I'd waited until he attacked to move, intentionally not rushing, to make it look like my only plan was still to avoid.
Disarray shouted, "Come on, you coward, fight me!"
Obviously, I was annoying him.
He was dangerously close to the edge of the tower. I needed to keep him there.
The name of the ride was not lost on me. Helter Skelter. That was chaotic in and of itself. I needed him to strike without abandon. I needed him to be frantic, so that I could be in control.
Disarray struck out a few times, and each time I evaded the hit, I took a step forward, forcing him back. His steps were all over the place. All he wanted to do was get in a hit at this point, and I wasn't even giving him that. So I advanced. And he faltered, and faltered.
"Fight me!" he shouted again.
"No," I said. "I think we're done here."
Disarray looked behind him. He was at the very edge of the tower, and the force of his turn had made him lose his footing.
He spun his head around to look at me once before he completely lost his balance and fell over the edge.
He didn't scream.
I hung back, so all I heard was a satisfying slap and then a hiss. I knew it was Disarray's body dissolving into the bubbling pit. I winced from the sound, but then drew in a long, satisfied breath.
I let the breath out, staring up at the clouds overhead. No merciful rain fell, but I felt a sense of renewal and relief all the same.
And for the first time as Chaos, I felt a sense of closure.
Chaos was mine again. Mine to control, mine to embody.
Mine to rattle the very gates of Hell.
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South Park is -c- Matt Stone & Trey Parker.
Sorry for the unexpected lengthy post-holidays/spring semester lull, but we're back! Chapter 22 won't be far behind. ^^
Fun fact: I got round to looking up the etymology of the name Karen after finishing up her narrative here and plotting out more of what's to come for her, and discovered that it's the Danish short form of Katherine, and Katherine is the name of a saint who was tortured on a spiked wheel in the 4th century. So I guess I chose the right Carnival ride for her, haha. The name could also be a Greek derivative meaning 'pure,' or come from a Coptic word meaning 'my consecration of your name.' Rather angelic, I think. Anyway, I love looking up etymology.
Also, while we're talking names, Leopold was also the name of a saint. Not bad, Stotch. Interestingly enough, there's also a Saint Damian. Huh.
Next chapter, we'll catch up with Wendy and Token, and the League will get just a little closer to the Bullseye. In chapter 23, we'll hear again (finally) from Kenny, and will be back to a rotation of the original four narrators starting in chapter 24.
See you soon! Thank you so much for reading and for your kind, encouraging comments so far!
~Jizena, and Rosie Denn.~
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