D̷̢̧̛̝̜̱̺̦̫͎͈̲̍̃͋̉̓̆̽́̆̑̒́̉͛̓͆̇̅̀̈́̈́̇́̓̑̐̓̇́͐͂̎̑̚͘͝͝í̸̧̧̤̤͓̝͍̫̹̟̳̖̙̜̼̱̦̘̠͓̠̼̤̯̘̲̞͍̈́̀̈͒̇͂̋̋̊̓́̅̀͂̆̍̊̿͘̕ͅͅv̵̢̛̭͖̮͙͇͖͓͓͚̜̱͖̬͚͖̮̭̜̞͇̰͔̮̬͑͂̏̏̆͐̓̐̉̆͑͐̈̔̄̀̐̈́͋͠e̶̡̧̢̨̢̨̛̛̥̤̺͈̣̼̤̘͚̠̫̙̙͚̻̲͓͎̞̭̯̭͚̣̳͕̞͈̪̞̩̮̝̣̗̞̩͎̅̀̐͛̔̅̓̓̉͌̃̎̈́̅̋͆̂͋̓̕͜͠͝ͅͅͅr̵̢̨̡̢̧̢̨̻͕̞̫̘̣͔͖͔͕̥̖̬̫̖̹̲̦̯̻̮͍̻̯͕̤͍̩̘̝̈́̍͜s̶̢̥̫̺̹̪̙̰̖̩̘̭̜͉͎̳̪̼̪̣͎͇̤̍̍̑͋͗͂̉̑̄̂̓̈̓́̽̚͝i̸̠͂̀̈́̀͌f̴̧̡̧̛̲̬̦͓̻͉͖̩̬̳̼͎̱͕̖̰̝̭̩͍͖̝̼̘̱̱͚͉̺̼͍̦͈̪̪̻͙͉͍͓̮̮̫̟̰͚͎̞̤́̀͊̆̀̀̈̉̂͊͗͆͌͛͋̉́̍͌̄̊͐̍̌̃͋͘͠ï̷̧̡̢̡̞͕̲̙̟͕̗̱̭͈͙̮̩̹̣͈̭͚̗̞̙̖̦͈͇̬̪̗͓̖̮͓͎̫̺̰̭̱͑̋̔͂̓̄̉͊́̓͊́͊̊͋̊͊̀͐͘͘͘͜c̵̯͍͍̞̠͕̠̯̙̞͎͇̮͍͈͓̹̤̻̲̝̼̣̒̅̓́͋̿͝ͅa̵̡̡̧̢̧̧̨̨̧̛̝͎̲͇̭͍̦̫͚̺͉̖̦͚͉̳̞͎̦͖͕̖͉̰̮̩̗̤̥͈͕͎̱̺̰̥͇̹̭̫̓͒̔̓̄̉̓̐͑͛̒̄̒͑͂͆̓̅͛͐̓͐̍̿̈́͋̇̓̈́́̈̒̅̃̒̑́̂̾͊̾̕͘̚͘̚̕͝͝͝ͅṱ̶̈́͌́̓͛̽̈́̇̏̑͋̌̋́̏̒̕͘͠͠͠͠i̴̢̛͉̭͕̗̮͉̳̳͚͙͇̪̝̻͓̜̞̗̝̗̖̖̰̤̘̗̹̦̺͔̳̝̥̮͔̰͎̎͗̋̈̎̈́̓̎̋̈́͋͆̏̈́̊͗̓̓͐͌͆̊̆̈́̈́̏̄͐̍̓̋̎͊̾̈́͑̕̚͠͠͝ͅö̶̡̧̖͚̼̪̻̪͙̲̤̞̰͇͔̦̯͔̞̤̭̳̱͉̺̥̲̹̀͝ͅͅn̴̨̧̢̧̧̛̫̳̠̞̮͓͍̙͍̣̯̲̪͉̺̱̖̫̘̰̭̪̘͔͓̩̥̰͛͗̀̃̎̂̀͊͐̋͊̏̈́̎̔̐̈́͗̈͒̃͗̒̊̂͛͂̏̌̅̏̽͛̆̈̎̎͋̀̅̊̀̃̕̚͜͝͝͝ͅ ̴̨̡̨̧̛̰̤̖̖̫͇̠̺̯͓͙̮̫̩̞͖̰̞̻̘͇̳̮͕̦̝̰̠͚̘͎̩̺̣̪͍̻̺̋̈́̿͑̈́̎́͑̕͜͜ͅͅͅ1̸̡̡̠̩̺͈̼̳̠̭̯̺͓͉̟͇̣͚̞̭͎̜̺̻͈̝̬̗͕̖̼̺̗͙̩̲̠̥̞͔̾̿̄͂̿̿͛̋̍̾̉̈́̀̾̃̔̐̄̓̅̈́̑̊̅̔̍̇̂̅̇̀͘̕̕͘͝͝9̶̡̢̢̨̛̱͎̤̪̠̜̪̱̻̗̲͔̜̠̫̗̤̥͇͇̰̻̹͎̖̥̳͙̘̳́̿̈́̾́̇͂̋͂̌̅̂̈̀̂̿̋̄̎̉̋͑̍͌̈̀̈́͋̑͛̑̂͐̎̂̅͛͛́̿̑͌̿̉̋͌̑̀͘̚͘͜ͅͅ.̷̢̢̧̨̭̼̥̰͚͕̻͖̩͈͈͎͈͉͎̩̭̗̙͔̎͂̓̓̾̏̌̿̔̒͌̄̐̆̓͒͐͐̍̕1̵̢̢̨̢̲̮̠͓̦̮̫̦̯͙̺̗̖͉̗̹͓̤̗̥̫̘͖̘̰̥͉̪͓̭̮̤̤͖̝̺̦͎̗̌̇̏̀͂̋̕͜8̴̨̜͕̮̥͉̞̟̦̖̭̃̎̈̈́̅͒̃͒͋́̅͗͌͌̇̈́͆̐̓̎̊͗̉͜͜͝

.

D̵̨͉̖͈̹̪̗̞̱̠͎͙̊̒̓̓̂̀̓̒ͅͅr̵̛̳̬̬̩̬͕͕̙͚͛̅̄͘͝ĕ̸͓̮͙̮͉̆̿̏͂̃̀͋̆͂̎͗̽̅̏ȧ̵̛͇̌͐̈͂̉͂̎̃̊̚͠͝m̶̨̫̯̞̟͎̣͇̬̻͈̟̼̭̦͌̂͗̓̒̀̆̃̍͜͝

.

I jerked awake, sitting at my desk.

In front of me the word document stood open, at the end, and I read, about. . . what?

The words made no sense, until something caught, and I remembered.

I was writing a story.

But. . . but it'd felt so real.

I could remember what it felt like to be there. The sight of the bodies. The feeling of flesh parting under my blade. The taste of the death on the air, as blood and viscera were sprayed until they fell like rain.

But. . . it wasn't real?

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜

.

No, I thought, shaking my head. No I couldn't remember. Not really. I'd just thought I had.

Everything I'd seen, from Bakuda's Rampage, to the child sex slaves, to the devastation of Brockton Bay by Leviathan, and everything else, until the horrors were so much that I'd felt like I was almost drowning in them, weren't real. It wasn't real. I'd just thought of it, pictured it, and, like a dream, it was slowly fading.

I'm more fucked up than I thought.

Sighing, I closed the laptop, and stood, moving to go make dinner. I'd started writing the story at the behest of my best friend, Herb. I'd been on a bit of Choose Your Own Adventure kick, and he'd drawn the metaphorical line in the sand, demanding that I do something with all of these, at least a little, as we'd come up with idea after idea for stories, and he had faith in me that I could do something with them.

He'd even helped, not only a sounding board for my ideas, but willing to be a character in them.

We'd had fun, the two of us, trying to make it work. It'd been fun, creating something, with someone who supported me.

But it didn't last.

Herb hadn't turned on me, like I'd had friends do. He hadn't abandoned me, the second I was inconvenient, like my college friends had the day we all graduated. No, I'd had experience with that, was used to that, was prepared for that.

I wasn't prepared for his suicide.

He'd gotten flakier, not showing up when we were supposed to meet, and I asked him if there was anything wrong. He just smiled, and laughed, and told me he just got busy, or had family issues, or was feeling sick, until he ghosted me more often than he was there.

And I got mad, frustrated, demanding to know what his problem was.

I wondered if that was what drove him to it.

I'd turned to my family, no longer having any other friends, and asked what to do. My little brother just shrugged, my father suggested talking to him while not having anything to say when I told my father that I already had, and my mother suggested I give him some space. She reminded me, in that poisonously sweet way she often spoke, that I could be 'a little overbearing' and to 'give him time to figure things out'.

So I did, asking him to contact me when he wanted to actually hang out instead of leaving me to wait, for hours, with no word whatsoever.

Three weeks later, his sister called, and told me he'd overdosed on sleeping pills.

The funeral. . . I . . . there was a funeral, right?

I paused, chopping some vegetable in my apartment kitchen, trying to remember it. There had to have been a funeral, so why couldn't I remember it?

My head hurt, and I looked out the window, into the black mid-afternoon sky, the stars a scattering of hundreds of prismatic dots, each a different color, while the sun burned its normal Purple and Red.

Something about the sight prodded me, as my headache got worse, and I blinked, looking out the window, which seemed to fade, another feeling growi-

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜

.

D̵̨͉̖͈̹̪̗̞̱̠͎͙̊̒̓̓̂̀̓̒ͅͅr̵̛̳̬̬̩̬͕͕̙͚͛̅̄͘͝ĕ̸͓̮͙̮͉̆̿̏͂̃̀͋̆͂̎͗̽̅̏ȧ̵̛͇̌͐̈͂̉͂̎̃̊̚͠͝m̶̨̫̯̞̟͎̣͇̬̻͈̟̼̭̦͌̂͗̓̒̀̆̃̍͜͝

.

What was I doing? Right. The funeral. I tried not to think about it. His family blamed me. I was his friend, after all. I should've seen it coming. Only his sister, one of his sisters, the only one I'd met before, didn't, but her voice was lost amongst the others.

I'd barely made it home that day, and looked to my family for support, and found none. Oh, I received platitudes, but my family. . . was my family.

My mother wanted to be seen as a good person. Seen. She'd offer platitudes, and meaningless words, and then pat herself back and walk away like she'd done something. Or she'd offer ongoing help, do so once, maybe twice, and then suddenly find reasons she couldn't, trying to make everyone else do it because she was so 'busy'.

Growing up, that was dad, when it came to me. Then dad and I, when it came to my little brother. And if we dared say anything against her, the verbal daggers came out, dripping poison, tearing into vulnerabilities as any sense of accomplishment and self-worth were cut down until we gave in like the good little doggies we were. But when I'd come home, I'd discovered she'd given my room to her friend, but she was so kind that I could sleep in the uninsulated basement, in the middle of a New England winter, with a leaky air mattress, and the mice, and the spiders.

My brother was only not a user because being a user took effort. If he wanted to do something, he'd do it, but he expected others to help him out of any trouble he found himself in, and the number of times he'd helped me without me making him do so were. . . I. . . I actually couldn't remember him doing so once. If you told him something was expected of him, he'd do it, often in the laziest, most lackluster way possible, so that he 'technically' did it and you couldn't get mad at him. It was something he learned from our mother, who, as long as no one whose opinion she cared about would find out, did the exact same thing. But actual kindness? Being our mother's favorite seemed to have removed any of that from him.

My father cared, but arrogantly. The man would decide what needed to be done, without talking to anyone, do it, and anything less than complete praise and thankfulness was met with ill-hidden anger and offense. He'd wake me up when he felt I was oversleeping, talk at me about how doing what I was doing wasn't going to solve my depression, and leave. Or he'd suddenly declare that exercise made you feel better, so drag me out for a walk around the block, talking about his work, nod to himself when we were done, and head off to do something else. He. . . he cared, he was just kind of a dick about it.

And my extended family? My parents were, somehow, the best of them.

That just left me. In my apartment now. With no one to turn to. No one to lean on.

Alone.

I had my savings, and did odd jobs, but. . . if I died, would anyone care?

I considered the knife I was chopping the vegetables with.

My father would, in his own way.

My mother might, but she would certainly make a production of it even if she didn't really.

My brother. . . maybe?

I lifted the edge of the blade, putting it to the flesh of my arm. It would be easy. So easy. And then everything would be over.

Ṋ̸̏ȯ̶̳̟.̸̬̂

I thought. Herb wouldn't want me to. Or. . . would he? No, he wouldn't, the man was always talking about how he did dumb things sometimes, while liking the fact that I tried not to. I wouldn't today.

Sighing, I looked out at the black midafternoon sky, once more thinking about the sight, and why it was so familiar. I felt a tug, like my arms were bound, as I could almost make out Flesh, Bone, Blood, & Viscer-

.

S̷̢̡̛̖̤̘͔͚͖̪̲̯̳̹͇͊̑͒̽́̀̆͒͂̋̑̉̽͐̑̕͠ļ̷̦̺̫͇̹̿̉͂̌̉̒͌̿̽̓̈͌̅̓̃̉͑͊͠ͅę̴̻̥̮̹̮̝͇͉̫͉̗̝̰̹̥̫̰̼̹̭͎̍̿̔̿̒͑͛͋͝ȩ̵̬̝̘̯̦̫̹̥̗͉̳̲̬̓̆͌̈́͗͝͝ͅp̵̱̩̦̣̾̋̌͊͂̓̈͋͗

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜

.

D̵̨͉̖͈̹̪̗̞̱̠͎͙̊̒̓̓̂̀̓̒ͅͅr̵̛̳̬̬̩̬͕͕̙͚͛̅̄͘͝ĕ̸͓̮͙̮͉̆̿̏͂̃̀͋̆͂̎͗̽̅̏ȧ̵̛͇̌͐̈͂̉͂̎̃̊̚͠͝m̶̨̫̯̞̟͎̣͇̬̻͈̟̼̭̦͌̂͗̓̒̀̆̃̍͜͝

.

I jerked awake, at my desk in my classroom, and looked around at my students, all of whom were finishing up their assignment. What was I doing?

Right, I was teaching. It'd been a few years, but I'd finally gotten that teaching job, only to discover it. . . wasn't what I thought it was. I could remember my own school years, remember my time student teaching. It hadn't been sunshine and rainbows, but I'd been able to reach some of them. I'd been able to help peel back the veil of the world and help them actually understand, just a little more, and, in so doing, allowed them to comprehend what caused their problems, and fix them.

But now?

Now I might've as well been talking to a room full of roombas.

No, roombas actually did their work.

Looking out over the students, my eyes almost slid over them, their names escaping me. They mattered that little. No matter what I did, what I tried, nothing worked, and I was also hamstringed by the administration, unable to try anything really unique. My coworkers also. . . existed. I'd hoped to make friends, but they already had friends, thank you very much, and I wasn't one of them.

The bell rang, and I wished my students a good weekend, but they didn't so much as look at me.

. . . What am I doing? I wondered. I could've gotten a STEM degree, but had wanted to teach to help people. Yeah, there were evil people out there, but most of the world's problems came from other not understanding what they were doing, how they affected others, and why the problems they faced happened in the first place. I'd finally gotten what I wanted, only to have the taste of victory crumble to ash in my mouth.

But that wasn't all, I'd even gotten a girlfriend!

She was. . . okay.

Tall, dark brown hair, large eyes, and with a thin-lipped but wide mouth that looked nice when she smiled, which was. . . rarely. She looked a bit like a grown-up Taylor, actually, though I'd made sure not to make the comparison to girl I'd thought up, had, in many ways, dreamed about, back when I still wrote. However, she didn't have that other, girl's heart. The fictional girl's heart, I had to remind myself. She had her friends, but her friends were very much her friends, while I still had no one.

At least she got along with my mother, which I was told was important by both women.

Walking out, I looked into the clear black sky of the early afternoon, at the multicolored constellations that seemed to sing with Possibility, and wished I had some of that myself. I cast my gaze towards the burning Purple & Red sun, a vast Sea of Flame with dozens of other colors hidden inside it, and wished for more.

Felt like I was more.

A sensation almost like flying spread through me, as I-

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜

.

D̵̨͉̖͈̹̪̗̞̱̠͎͙̊̒̓̓̂̀̓̒ͅͅr̵̛̳̬̬̩̬͕͕̙͚͛̅̄͘͝ĕ̸͓̮͙̮͉̆̿̏͂̃̀͋̆͂̎͗̽̅̏ȧ̵̛͇̌͐̈͂̉͂̎̃̊̚͠͝m̶̨̫̯̞̟͎̣͇̬̻͈̟̼̭̦͌̂͗̓̒̀̆̃̍͜͝

.

As I did nothing.

As I always did nothing.

As everything I did amounted to nothing.

My girlfriend didn't want kids, and the kids I worked with didn't want anything from me either. I was collecting a paycheck, and an okay one, when you counted in all the extra work of planning lessons and grading papers into the 'worked hours' equation, but I was just a bureaucratic babysitter, every attempt failing, and when I died, the system would churn onwards, and I'd be forgotten.

Getting into my car, I started the drive home, which took me up through a mountain, one stretch of road a lovely vista overlooking a sheer drop, as the sun set, and I felt tired.

All it would take would be a twist of the wheel, I thought. It'd look like an accident.

I didn't want to, but my hands seemed to move on their own, and the car hit the railing at speed, bursting through the thin metal with ease, as the car started to drop. T̴̜̍h̶̙̃ȅ̵̪̗̍r̷̪͚̅e̶̫͗͝.̶̙͓̌͠ ̶̪̣͝D̶̘͔̀͝o̴͚̯̅̏n̵͈͈̈́͠e̷̳̮̍̈.̴̻̒̀ ̸̩̙͂͘Ř̴̠̽ͅe̵͇̠̎͝s̶̜̥̽t̸͒͜. I thought. It was done, the decision made, all I'd have to do was sit and watch the sunset, only. . . that didn't sound like me. This didn't feel like me, and I struggled, my flesh seeming to bruise as my hands and arms turned red and purple, the same color as the sun, and ropes of Flesh, Blood, Bone, & Viscera chained my hands to the wheel, chained me to the car as it started to drop.

Twisting, I felt something give as power seemed to fill me, and I pulled against the bindings.

Ń̷̛͎͕o̴̧̧̬̠̪̼͛̿͒̀̔͠.̷̹̟̘̳̳͓̇

I screamed, straining, as I felt the tendrils of power start to snap, and I-

.

S̷̢̡̛̖̤̘͔͚͖̪̲̯̳̹͇͊̑͒̽́̀̆͒͂̋̑̉̽͐̑̕͠ļ̷̦̺̫͇̹̿̉͂̌̉̒͌̿̽̓̈͌̅̓̃̉͑͊͠ͅę̴̻̥̮̹̮̝͇͉̫͉̗̝̰̹̥̫̰̼̹̭͎̍̿̔̿̒͑͛͋͝ȩ̵̬̝̘̯̦̫̹̥̗͉̳̲̬̓̆͌̈́͗͝͝ͅp̵̱̩̦̣̾̋̌͊͂̓̈͋͗!

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜!

.

D̵̨͉̖͈̹̪̗̞̱̠͎͙̊̒̓̓̂̀̓̒ͅͅr̵̛̳̬̬̩̬͕͕̙͚͛̅̄͘͝ĕ̸͓̮͙̮͉̆̿̏͂̃̀͋̆͂̎͗̽̅̏ȧ̵̛͇̌͐̈͂̉͂̎̃̊̚͠͝m̶̨̫̯̞̟͎̣͇̬̻͈̟̼̭̦͌̂͗̓̒̀̆̃̍͜͝!

.

I jerked awake, heart pounding, head throbbing.

Lying in bed, I felt like death, drained in every way.

Blearily, I stumbled to my feet in my new apartment, almost falling into the shower, hoping the warm water would help.

It didn't.

But given what'd happened, I hadn't expected that.

I hadn't seen it coming, but when was that new?

The irony almost made me laugh.

Almost.

I'd heard stories, of course, but when one of my students accused me of raping her, I'd been shocked, as the police attacked me, breaking my nose and beating me before they shoved me in the back of a cop car. I was a 'dirty pedophile', informed I was lucky they hadn't shot me then and there, when they'd without identifying themselves, jumped me, and I'd defended myself.

She was one of the types that never did her work. Theoretically attractive, if you could overlook the child's age, her attitude, her stupidity, her laziness, and her lack of anything approaching a positive non-physical trait.

The girl had been failing my class, and tried to offer me sex to improve her grade. I, not being a piece of shit, had turned her down, and offered her extra credit work instead.

She took exception to that.

It didn't matter that I didn't do it. Didn't matter that I couldn't've done it, as I'd been working late, and the school's cameras had seen me leave thirty seconds before I was supposedly at her house, twenty minutes away. Didn't matter that the girl had literally tried something similar before.

No. I was male, and, as I learned, white, so the school, despite having exculpatory evidence, had promptly fired me for 'ethics violations'. Then came jail, where I was attacked more, my guilt already assumed. I had even been denied medical attention, so a cast wouldn't make me look sympathetic to the judge.

Then came the trial, where no one would touch the case, until I sent myself into debt, as my lawyer, a blonde woman who seemed to hate me, had to be harassed into doing her job. The school didn't want to turn over the tapes, claiming they were deleted, and it was only when I threatened to fire her, and stop paying her, that my lawyer got the judge to legally demand them, at which point it was turned over.

The trial dragged on, until I was finally found innocent of the crime, though nothing would happen to my accuser, and I was found guilty of 'attacking the arresting officer', my sentence being the months I d already spent in jail. I'd studied enough to know that, if I'd actually done what they were accusing me of, the sentence should be longer, but was told to just shut up and take the 'slap on the wrist'.

And now I was a 'free man'.

And one that was completely alone.

My girlfriend had broken up with me, and had told her friends all sorts of lies, though refused to repeat them in court as evidence against me, so small mercies.

I was outright told I'd never be hired as a teacher again, because of my 'record', despite being found innocent of the crime I was accused of.

Even my family had abandoned me, my mother making a show of 'not knowing how things went wrong', and forcing my father to choose between me, and herself and my little brother. He'd apologized, saying I was older, and my little brother needed the help more. My little brother? I hadn't heard from since I was arrested. And my extended family wouldn't return my calls.

I was several hundred thousand in dept, with no way to pay it off, and a leper in all but name.

Because I tried to do the right thing.

I staggered out of the shower, drying myself off, and putting on clothes I'd gotten from a thrift store, trying to make my meagre savings last. My thoughts were sluggish, pained, in a way that scraped against my very soul.

Why is it so hard to think? I wondered, only to have my mind supply the answer that I was still drunk, but running my tongue across the roof of my mouth, there wasn't the distinctive feeling of numbed sensation that I got when I was intoxicated. Instead all I felt was tired, cloying at me, making every movement a chore.

Slumping down on the mattress, which laid on the bare floor of my shitty apartment, the only one I could rent after a search of my name ended any application in an instant, I shuddered. I wanted to cry, had before, but there was nothing left. I was done, so tired, so tired, and I just wanted it to all be over.

A bit of metal glinted beside my bed, and turned to look at the pistol. A 1911, a gift from my father, back when I'd turned twenty-one. It'd been 'seized' by the cops as 'evidence', and only returned to me months after the trial was over. Some things, like the cash I'd had in the apartment, had never been returned, and I was told never would be.

Rolling over, I picked it up, and held it above my head as I laid there. I should've driven off the cliff, I thought, nothing but pain and suffering having followed it. I almost remembered doing just that, but it was faint, like my memories of an Earth Bet that never was.

Not that the original existed either, but that hadn't felt as. . . real.

I remembered where I stopped writing, as clearly as if it just happened. Remembered how I'd felt the same, as I did now. Where every step forward was two more back, and nothing ever got better.

Except. . . it had. Not by a lot, but I had people that cared about me there, in their own ways. People that hadn't abandoned me. I had Herb. I had Taylor.

But now? Now I had nothing.

So why shouldn't I be nothing.

"Nowhere to go but ó̷͇u̶̼͠t̴͖͖̀,̶͈͂̔" I mused, as I turned the loaded gun over, starting to point it at myself, but paused. What?

For a moment, the world had. . . flickered. The dingy walls of my apartment had vanished, showing the mid-day sky, black, studded with multicolored stars, with the Purple & Red sun burning brightly before me. Below me.

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜

.

I was just imagining things. All I wanted was ó̷͇u̶̼͠t̴͖͖̀.

Again, that flicker, of the black mid-day sky.

Only. . . wasn't the sky blue?

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜

.

No, no it wasn't. And it wouldn't matter in a second, anyways. The sense of being drained was worse now, and I could barely hold up the gun.

Fine. Whatever. Not like I was going to do this cleanly anyways.

My hand dropped to the mattress, but I turned it, pointing the barrel towards the side of my head. I haven't seen my life coming. Why should I see my death? I joked, laughing weakly.

All it would take was a single pull, a few pounds of pressure, a twitch, and it would be over.

And I wanted it to be over.

Ń̷̛͎͕o̴̧̧̬̠̪̼͛̿͒̀̔͠.̷̹̟̘̳̳͓̇

The thought came, unbidden.

Ń̷̛͎͕o̴̧̧̬̠̪̼͛̿͒̀̔͠.̷̹̟̘̳̳͓̇

N. . . No. No, I thought, some part of me rebelling against that. I'd lost so much, when I hadn't done anything to deserve it. I felt myself teetering on the brink, ready to fall one final time, into true oblivion.

I could finally rest.

.

S̷̢̡̛̖̤̘͔͚͖̪̲̯̳̹͇͊̑͒̽́̀̆͒͂̋̑̉̽͐̑̕͠ļ̷̦̺̫͇̹̿̉͂̌̉̒͌̿̽̓̈͌̅̓̃̉͑͊͠ͅę̴̻̥̮̹̮̝͇͉̫͉̗̝̰̹̥̫̰̼̹̭͎̍̿̔̿̒͑͛͋͝ȩ̵̬̝̘̯̦̫̹̥̗͉̳̲̬̓̆͌̈́͗͝͝ͅp̵̱̩̦̣̾̋̌͊͂̓̈͋͗

.

Ń̷̛͎͕o̴̧̧̬̠̪̼͛̿͒̀̔͠.̷̹̟̘̳̳͓̇

Not like this! I thought, trying to stand, but I was so weak, I couldn't make it, tendrils of Flesh, Blood, Bone, & Viscera wrapped around me, pulling me down.

No, I thought, pulling deep. I would be free. I was getting

Ò̵̧̧͚̘͕̪̏̈̔͆̽̈͊͛̏͌̕͘Ų̸̳͎̼́̽̽̎̾̀̑̒͑T̶̛̛̬͖̤̥̙̈̈́̾̊̿̆̂̂͜͝͝ͅ!̴̨̲̦̱̱̭̣̻̺͕̐͋ͅ

The world splintered, my apartment evaporating like the mirage it was, and I found myself above my Sea of Flame, but it was smaller, diminished.

Long tendrils of Flesh, Blood, Bone, & Viscera reached down from an unmeasurable distance, like the parasitic vines they were, as ITERATION dug deep into the core of my power, siphoning it off to function.

I was held, bound to the largest root, as it tried to drain my Sea of Flame, smaller roots pierced my pseudo-flesh, wriggling tendrils deep inside of me, even as they tried to make me

.

S̷̢̡̛̖̤̘͔͚͖̪̲̯̳̹͇͊̑͒̽́̀̆͒͂̋̑̉̽͐̑̕͠ļ̷̦̺̫͇̹̿̉͂̌̉̒͌̿̽̓̈͌̅̓̃̉͑͊͠ͅę̴̻̥̮̹̮̝͇͉̫͉̗̝̰̹̥̫̰̼̹̭͎̍̿̔̿̒͑͛͋͝ȩ̵̬̝̘̯̦̫̹̥̗͉̳̲̬̓̆͌̈́͗͝͝ͅp̵̱̩̦̣̾̋̌͊͂̓̈͋͗!

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜!

.

D̵̨͉̖͈̹̪̗̞̱̠͎͙̊̒̓̓̂̀̓̒ͅͅr̵̛̳̬̬̩̬͕͕̙͚͛̅̄͘͝ĕ̸͓̮͙̮͉̆̿̏͂̃̀͋̆͂̎͗̽̅̏ȧ̵̛͇̌͐̈͂̉͂̎̃̊̚͠͝m̶̨̫̯̞̟͎̣͇̬̻͈̟̼̭̦͌̂͗̓̒̀̆̃̍͜͝!

.

But my eyes Burned with Power Sight, as I saw what it was trying to do, and I reached out to the nearest sucking tentacle with my mind.

This was my source, and here was the seat of my power.

With a wrench I ripped out the parasitic root, Purple & Red Flame lashing out to tear it asunder, and hurled the torn Shardflesh back into the void from whence it came, even as the tendrils in me writhed in agony.

.

S̶͈̬͚͎̘̣̣͔͈͐̽t̵͓̠͉̯̫̭͓͍͈̯̖̼͍̞̔̈̈́̎̉͆̏́̐͛͑̕̕͜ơ̴̡̡̻̫͖͔̤̯̻̤̯̙̽́̀̈́͌͒̋̓̄̓̚͠p̶̛͚͍͒̽͑͑͋͂̊͗͆͋͠͠!̸̡̟͗̐͆̀ͅ

.

D̵̨͉̖͈̹̪̗̞̱̠͎͙̊̒̓̓̂̀̓̒ͅͅr̵̛̳̬̬̩̬͕͕̙͚͛̅̄͘͝ĕ̸͓̮͙̮͉̆̿̏͂̃̀͋̆͂̎͗̽̅̏ȧ̵̛͇̌͐̈͂̉͂̎̃̊̚͠͝m̶̨̫̯̞̟͎̣͇̬̻͈̟̼̭̦͌̂͗̓̒̀̆̃̍͜͝!

.

P̴̛̛͈̲̐̍͑̑͛͋a̷̡͇͇̼̎̃̈́̈́ṛ̴̤̖̮̤͎̤̐̏̂̿̿̀l̶̙̬̖͙͚̈͑̕ę̶̭̤̘̤̱̺̯̔͛̀̓͒̚͝ỳ̵̛̫̰̤̇̆̈́̆͋̀!̶̰͈͓͍̺̱͗͑

.

Oh I've had enough of your Ḍ̷̡̨͇͔̾̀́͠r̸̘̃̈́ḛ̷̖̒̅͂͋a̷͍͔̓̌̀͊̄m̷̯͍̦͑̐s̵̨̰̗̠͑!̶ I snarled back, digging my unreal hands, stained Purple & Red from working with my Sea, into the Shardflesh surrounding me.

.

Ņ̶̜̂̚͘o̶̢̭̖̱̪̮͍͋͛̔̇!̷̢̯̖̹̑͗ ̴͕̮̥̽̈́D̶͓͓̭͕̒̐̔̾̎͘̕r̷̲͓̮͈̣̠̫̟̂̅̈̐̇̏ę̸̲̲͙̄̈́͒̀͆a̵̼̝̠̮͙͂̂̉̌̿͘m̸̨̨̱̙̗̮̯̑̒s̷͖̼̤̞̜͂̋̑̿̚͘͠!̶͍̩͕̊̿́

.

It yelled, carrying with it a wealth of information, and I understood.

ITERATION had tried formless nightmares, the kind it used on Hosts, but I'd nearly torn my way out in seconds, so it'd tried something else. It couldn't kill me, but I could kill myself. I wouldn't die, not really, but if I thought I was dead ITERATION could pull from me in peace while I slept.

Now that it realized that wouldn't work either, it offered a better deal.

I Saw how it crafted its dreams, and saw how to craft them myself, with it serving as the necessary intermediary. They wouldn't be nightmares, to paralyze with fear, or to drive me to death, but true dreams.

I could live a life where Echidna died and we won against Scion. I could forget what had happened, and start this adventure all over again. Earth Bet could be what I thought it was, Herb could be who I thought he was, Taylor could've just happened to be a few years older, it would be perfect. Or I could do something entirely different, live out a life where I'd never come to Earth Bet, but things just, for once, went right at home.

I could do anything I wanted, as long as I slept.

Echidna, no, ITERATION, as I could hear no trace of Noelle any longer, would handle Scion. The Warrior would kill it, just as it killed the others when it finally went mad, ITERATION a part of his dead partner that would be cleansed when the broken Cycle drew to its equally broken 'conclusion'.

All I had to do was Sleep.

And Dream.

And be?

Happy.

.

.

.

Could I? I thought, with a bleeding hope.

I didn't want this. I didn't want to be here. I didn't want to do this. I just wanted to have fun, I thought, distantly remembering when I first arrived on Earth Bet, what felt like years ago. I wanted to fight evil, save innocents, be a Hero, and be happy.

Was that too much to ask?

I laughed, unable to cry in this false-body.

Apparently it was.

Yeah, I wanted to be a Hero, and yeah, a lot of them had bad ends but. . . not like this.

Never like this.

It's not my responsibility, I thought to myself. I knew those memories, those Dreams weren't real, but they still felt real, and, ultimately, nothing the people I knew in real life did in there was out of character for them.

That's why I'd believed it.

So dad's 'With great power comes great responsibility' BS? The last few months had shown that to be a steaming pile of shit.

And I wasn't the only one here. There were others, who bore just as much responsibility, and did nothing. Maybe, without me, they'd be forced to grow the fuck up and do something.

But you know they won't.

No, it'd taken Taylor Mind-Controlling everyone to win originally, when the golden apocalypse wasn't enough to get people to pull their heads out of their asses, willing to die, and willing to kill all of those that relied upon them, that supported them, because they couldn't do the jobs they promised they would.

And I'd made no such promises.

.

.

.

But I could feel ITERATION now; I Saw how it worked. It created clones, and gave them certain directives, but they were free agents, automatically created as dark reflections of the source. And even if I managed to negotiate, got ITERATION to leave NBB and the PD alone, I knew Taylor.

She wouldn't let me stay here, sleeping. Even if I explained things, told her I was passing the baton, she'd think I was just Mastered, which, from her point of view, would make sense, and not be entirely wrong, only I'd be willingly so.

No.

I was tired.

So tired.

But I would not leave the few who still cared about me to die.

I was a Hero, and Heroes fell, but. . .

N̴̘̗͒͒o̵͎̪͗̒t̷̡́͜ ̵̗͗Ț̷͠ö̵͈͈́d̶̩̽a̷͓̞̐͠y̴̗͙͌̑.̶̼̻̆̈́

I pulled upon my power, taking direct control of it in a way that I had not before, even as it felt like it burned me, as my ethereal form blazed with Purple & Red Flame. The tendrils still in me turned to ash in an instant, and I wrenched myself free in explosion of tendrils, even as ITERATION shrieked at me,

.

S̷̢̡̛̖̤̘͔͚͖̪̲̯̳̹͇͊̑͒̽́̀̆͒͂̋̑̉̽͐̑̕͠ļ̷̦̺̫͇̹̿̉͂̌̉̒͌̿̽̓̈͌̅̓̃̉͑͊͠ͅę̴̻̥̮̹̮̝͇͉̫͉̗̝̰̹̥̫̰̼̹̭͎̍̿̔̿̒͑͛͋͝ȩ̵̬̝̘̯̦̫̹̥̗͉̳̲̬̓̆͌̈́͗͝͝ͅp̵̱̩̦̣̾̋̌͊͂̓̈͋͗!

.

F̵̡̦̗̖̬̟̫̀͋͒̏͌͆̃̆̄̿̋͜͜ọ̴̡̡̝̹͙̱̮̟̘̻́̑̇̿͌͊͂͋͗̋̀͜͝ͅr̵͈͖̟̖͍͎͋̓ģ̵̛͖̫͔̣͚̲͎̝͎̖͂̈́̊̆̄̌̅͑͛̉̐͜͝ͅé̶̛̫̪̣͖̦̭̫͖̘̜̍̑͛̓̋̅̈͂̕͠͠t̶̺̱̜͚̦͓̝̟̜́̿̔̀͑̽͜!

.

D̵̨͉̖͈̹̪̗̞̱̠͎͙̊̒̓̓̂̀̓̒ͅͅr̵̛̳̬̬̩̬͕͕̙͚͛̅̄͘͝ĕ̸͓̮͙̮͉̆̿̏͂̃̀͋̆͂̎͗̽̅̏ȧ̵̛͇̌͐̈͂̉͂̎̃̊̚͠͝m̶̨̫̯̞̟͎̣͇̬̻͈̟̼̭̦͌̂͗̓̒̀̆̃̍͜͝!

.

Ḑ̷̠͕̬̂͋̈́͝I̶̬͂Ẽ̵̖̲̈́̈́̚͠!̴̳̑̍

I screamed back, my Sea, my Core, erupting outwards, the dozens of Flesh, Blood, Bone, & Viscera tendrils uprooted, shredded, and pushed away, even as I reached up with four pairs of grasping, Flaming hands from my center, took hold of the main node, and pulled.

Ÿ̶̫̓o̷̧̭̿ư̷̫͉͋ ̷̖̾w̶̺͂́a̷̹̽̾n̴͎͑̇t̶͔̼̽̀e̷͕̋͜d̴̝̳̚ ̴̛̰͙t̸̻͠o̷͍̹͗͝ ̷̯̐̂c̴͇͗̈ó̶̮͒n̷̛͉̱͛s̶̯̜͒u̸͙̞͆͗m̶̟͔͗e̶̝̼̾ ̵͐̅ͅm̷̭̙̽̈́ȇ̷̪͘?̸̙̈ ̵̯͋G̵͓͘ö̸̧́͘l̷̀͠ͅd̴͖̒̀ȩ̵̟̈́n̶̳̓̃ ̵͍̋R̸͉͗̓u̵͚̾l̶͓͓̔̔e̶̡̧̓ ̴̹̠̐̀y̴̳̫͆̂ò̸̧̝ű̴̩͗ ̶̲̖̈̚C̸̟͇̒ŗ̵͆͌y̷̓ͅs̷̱̭̀̏t̶̲̃̓á̵̳̗͝ĺ̸̟̉l̶̛̺i̴͔͊ņ̶̯̾e̷͙͝ͅ ̸̲̒̆P̴̝͓͐͆í̵̤ͅȅ̸͙̣c̴͇̗̐̌é̷̻̱ ̶̳̤̃͒o̸̮̫͗f̶͉͋̿ ̷͎̿̀S̵̞͐̅ḧ̴͈́͠i̷̺̲͠t̶͓̂!̸̖̍

The channels of Power weren't one way, couldn't be one way, any more than pipe could be, and ITERATION had never considered anyone could do the reverse.

I sought to disabuse it of that notion.

I couldn't follow its power back to the False Hosts it'd made of me, no lingering connection allowing me anything so simple as ripping the power back, hopefully making them burn to dust in the process, but I could work with this!

The twisting roots glowed Purple & Red, like a log on a fire that was shot through with embers, as I forced myself down it, through it, just as it had with me, extending my senses outwards along the line as it raced forward with impossible speed.

In a moment, or an eternity, I reached the Shard itself, a crystalline world all its own, dwarfing any of my Major Shards, with dozens of other branches stretching off into the Void, into Hosts it'd captured.

But I was no Host.

Arms of Flame burst forth, reaching into the Crystalline Shardflesh, which splintered under my assault, I latched onto the energy stored within, following the traces my own Flames had left in their passage, and started to D̵̝̈̀͜r̵̞̥̿̒ï̷ͅn̵͔͝k̴̡̩̑.

It was the sweetest tea, the strongest coffee, the richest cream, the most complex liquor, and everything else, a heady, almost intoxicating sensation as I drank the ambrosia of pure power and consumed the energy it had stolen, and, with it, the Shard itself.

Flashes of other lives, of memories not my own, flitted across my mind, as I bit fiery teeth deeper and deeper into the Shard, undeterred. ITERATION had transgressed against me, despite what it might have offered and its life, its soul, was forfeit.

My avatar was only a few hundred feet tall, compared to the planetoid Shard, but I had fucking time, and I was going to enjoy this.

And then, in an instant, the connection was cut, and I was left in the dark, a long tendril of Purple & Red Flame from between my ephemeral shoulder blades, leading back to my Sea of Flame, the only thing in sight.

In an instant, I reeled myself back, to look upon my Core, finding it healed.

Not whole, and not undiminished, but the gaping wounds in my Sea were sealed with the energy I'd taken back, with interest, while above me, the Major Shard of Adaptational Replication had grown, not fully into an ITERATION of my own, but something far greater than even a Major slot could hope to hold.

Does that mean I'll eventually develop an, I don't know, 'Grand' Slot or something? I wondered, but shook my head, refocusing on what was important. ITERATION had cut the link, and that meant that there was nothing stopping the False Hosts from going after me.

I hesitated, just a moment, and Saw Adaptational REPLICATION, looking to see if it could replicate the Dream.

It could not.

Simultaneously relieved and disappointed, for reasons I didn't have time to think about, I stepped I̸n̴ and opened my body's eyes.

All I saw was darkened flesh.

In an instant, I manifested stars, burning my way out and flying up, noticing the silver Healing Fire at the fingertips of my now regrown hand, finishing the job.

All around me were dozens of versions of myself, staring up at me with fear, hate, awe, and jealousy. They were wrong, some with normal, brown eyes, but other prismatic features, one who had dozens of crystals growing from his flesh, one a Lamia who from the waist down had a long sinuous tail of crystals, and others.

They all reached out to me, trying to copy, steal, and suppress my power, but I flexed in that other world, wreathing myself in Flame there, and a third of the False Hosts screamed in pain, those that sought to take my Shards from me. Some of the thieving False Hosts exploded like overfilled balloons, a few in gouts of Purple & Red Flame, while others went off like grenades, but half of those that were left manifested stars of their own, the dead, inactive flesh of the room that once was connected to ITERATION instantly burning from the heat, which started to kill the False Hosts that could not copy Steller Negation as well.

Looking around the chamber, it appeared that they had been massing, to rush the surface as one, just as the Alexandria Clones had.

Good, that will make this simpler, I thought, with a snarl that was meant to be a smile, but failed. At my next thought, though, it made the transition into a grin, though not a happy one. Then it's on to ITERATION.

I̶̛̼͔͋'̴͈̭̆́m̴̱̙̈́̈ ̴̤̈ͅs̴̢͗ẗ̵̞̘́i̶͎͝l̶̠̜͝l̸͕̊̿ ̴͎̩́̚h̷̢̛̜͋u̷̮̹͆n̷͓͓̉g̷̥̰̐͝r̴͕͌̚y̶̖͙̎͝.̷̛̳̐