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My eyes opened.
How long had I been asleep? An hour? A year? A minute? The ceiling blurred before my eyes, intangible and dreamlike. My limbs were solid lead, bolted to the floor with huge iron screws. I told them to move. They protested.
I screamed at my arms and they rose like dead things, waving wildly in the air above my head. Move, I told them, and they responded sluggishly. They didn't feel like my arms. I tried again.
Gunfire from the lobby, and hot panic flooded into my body. I sat up. Huge, heavy objects seemed to go sliding around in my head. I wrapped my arms around a seatback and threw myself against it for support. My face was pressed into the coarse red fabric- no one ever got down close and examined things anymore, my mind yammered insanely. Stale popcorn, bodysweat, old damp. My muscles flexed. I stood.
The world tilted under me. I stumbled left into a bank of seats, bounced off, and skidded to my knees on the carpeted aisle. Enough! I screamed and pushed at the ground. It pushed back. I staggered forward under pure panicked momentum toward the lobby curtains, so far away in my eyes- a million miles, a billion, it didn't matter. My eyelids were slipping shut, even as I fell/ran. Everything was screaming at me to leave it alone, let it sleep, let it be- but I couldn't, wouldn't, all because of...
I burst through the curtain, got tangled in the midst of the fabric, and went down. A pepper-blast of gunfire hit the walls around me, but it was halfhearted, not really directed at me or anything else at all. I forced my head to raise itself.
She was there. My angel in black, my Magdalena, my Mistress: She stood in the center of her circle like a queen before her subjects. Her subjects- ugly, brutish men and women with faces like angry cows- clustered in a loose semicircle around her, guns raised in blocky, white-knuckled hands that shook with fear. They were afraid. Even from where I lay I could see that they were afraid.
And well that they should be.
Morphine was not the pale, pained creature I had come to know during my time at the Royal Theater. She was a goddess, conjured into flesh for these last few moments, for the singular purpose of teaching these stupid, ugly people how to be afraid. She stood, head held high, in the center of the semicircle. She stood, arms lifted, eyes cast up to the darkness of space somwehere beyond these flimsy walls. She was smiling. She was beautiful.
Around her there blew a whirlwind of force, a palpable thing, a living thing- powerful enough to keep the invaders at bay, clinging to each other for support. It whipped about her dress, twisting it around her pale, imperious form until she stood like a column of unruly black fabric- pale white arms raised to the heavens. And still the windstorm increased, ripping and tearing at the clothes of the invaders, throwing the debris of the theater into a wild dance, and filling all the world with a colossal roar like the end of everything. Time. Space. Everything.
The windows exploded.
The shattered glass was sucked immediately into the vortex- the lethal shards moving at thousands of miles per hour in the center of the maelstrom- and spit back out again in a multifaceted cyclone of cutting edges. The invaders screamed and howled as they were sliced to ribbons by the tornado of glass and metal- and blood now, red as any red curtain. Blood in gallons, bright and hot against the hot blowing glass, and now the maelstrom was real, it was fabric, it was texture, bright crimson and angry. It was a god, come to avenge the sins of a thousand thousand years. It was...
When I dared raise my head again, it was over. The invaders were gone, their remains strewn about the lobby entrance in a single swath of cloth and bone and meat. Blood covered the carpeting, the walls, the ceiling, and the skeletal remains of the doorway. Several mangled hunks of metal huddled in the corner, looking nothing at all like the guns they had once been.
I lowered my head.
She was right. I could not cry.
I crawled forward on all fours until I bumped into something large and fleshy. I opened my eyes. The body in front of me was whole and intact- except for the head, which had been stripped nearly to the bone by some unknown force. Cross's work, then. Not Morphine's. I didn't bother wondering where the wizard had gotten to. At that moment, I simply didn't care.
There was...something else.
I felt sick, deeply sick, infected by something that I could never properly purge from my system, never wash from my body, no matter how hard I might scratch at it. I felt as though I had been raped, somehow, by the universe. Raped and left for dead in some shitty back-alley in the middle of nowhere- left to rot or starve or eat garbage for the rest of my days, it mattered not. I felt...
Morphine had taken everything I had to give her. My dignity, my loyalty, my...
I looked down at the lifeless, grinning corpse at my knees. It looked back at me, dead and wet and sickly-sweet warm- a body still full of blood not yet grown cold. I bent down to drink, and as I did, it occurred to me that Morphine had, even after death, managed to take one last thing from me...
I saw them. Even as I stood up- the coppery tang still on my lips- I saw them. I should have suspected. The world is a sick, sadistic place, and just when you think you've been through everything you can handle, and the world cannot not possibly throw anything else at you for fear of driving you mad...that's when the real fun begins.
I saw Parish first. Parish. The bastard. The coward had fled from Morphine's wrath, even as his comerades were screaming their last in the bowels of the theater. He had fled and met up with the others, coming as they were on the heels of his followers. The others.
These were different from the dead and dying that lay strewn about the Royal Theater. Their faces were different, as was their garb- all robes, all around, colored a singular gray-black, as though they had all been mass-produced in some factory and given out at once- and maybe they had, for all I knew. Every last one of them wore the robes, and their pale, pasty faces peered out from the hoods with identical expressions. Mania. Zealotry.
Somewhere behind David Parish, in the thick of the pack, was a man with a voice like fingernails scraping down the inside of my mind. I could feel him. He was watching me. His eyes bored into me.
I smiled. I do not imagine that it was a pleasant smile. It felt monstrous and strange on my face. I had been busy, and my hunger had driven me to four separate bodies, feeding and feeding until I was utterly gorged with blood, and filled with such a terrible vitality that I felt I must surely go mad or explode or...
I stared at the new, interesting invaders, so much like the old, boring invaders. Same guns. Same flesh. Same fragile bodies. I grinned again.
Come on, then, I whispered to them. Come to me. I am ready. I am hungry. I am the monster you have been waiting for your entire lives. Come to me.
And they came.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.