When next I attempted to communicate with Astertis, there was suddenly no trace of her in my head. A part of me began to worry that her bodyswap technique had successfully placed her in Cass’s body, though a thorough examination of my friend revealed all was as it had been. As for Josa, he had no idea about anything going on behind the veil, so we decided it best not to stir the pot. Nonetheless, I couldn’t hide my growing irritation and needed to do something about it.

The local tavern was a great place to take the edge off. I found myself returning night after night, effectively blowing my pay on what amounted to little more than a few short-lived elations. After the fourth such occurrence, Cass took it upon herself to tag along, insisting that I had cast aside all vestiges of moderation. Despite my protests, she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“What will it be, ladies?” asked the tavern’s host.

“Two beers and a backroom table please,” answered Cass. With a nod, the man escorted us between the crowds, an aroma of tobacco hanging visibly in the dim candlelight. We removed our coats and took our seats, Cass stretching her arms over her head. “So before you ask, I want you to know that the archives were empty.”

“What if we copied the reference serials of the ones you found originally? Couldn’t we seek out other libraries in the region?”

“You misunderstood me, Audrey. The archives were empty, as in completely gone.”

The sudden sharpness of her words made me flinch. “Excuse me?”

“There’s no longer any evidence that those records existed. A sweep of the Guild Index reveals the same serial numbers yet a completely different series of volumes. Perhaps the most perplexing issue is these placeholders look as genuine as any other official document. If we were to juxtapose the two data sets, who could truly say which one was the forgery?”

“Hold on. If that’s the case, then could the Ishtarte cult story be just another ruse?”

“Though it isn’t at all likely, I cannot deny the plausibility of such a thing. Astertis would have needed advance knowledge of my intentions to browse the archives – something I told you essentially on a whim. Had the records been altered, she still would have needed a physical proxy in order to do the swap. If we take that into account, then it would make far more sense for the switch to have been done later, which implies they were in fact the real deal. Even so…”

“Jeez, all of this is making my head hurt. Where are the damn drinks?” I waved to the host, who was gradually making his way over. “One of these days, I swear…”

“So sorry about the wait, ladies; here we are!” The man set down each on a thatch coaster before bowing and leaving us to our discussion. Out the corner of my eye, I could see a few curious glances cast our way, but the tavern was thankfully far too noisy for anyone to really intrude upon our conversation.

“Enough about that,” sighed Cass between mouthfuls of frothy liquid. “Were you able to turn up anything on your end?”

“The local academies offered up even less, sadly to say. Of course on my way out, an old professor of mine did raise the suggestion of inviting me into the Clerical Order. That makes… fourteen attempts now? Obviously not all of them were from her, but you get the idea.”

“You know, if they’re going to twist your arm like that, the very least you could do is to humor them, right? When all else fails, just finding information on that wind spell would prove beyond a doubt that everything Astertis said was true. Isn’t that alone worth the cost of admission?”

“The answer is still no, Cass. I’m not joining the Order.”

“Why not, though!? Think of what’s at stake here!”

“Cass, do you what aversion therapy is?”

“It’s a behavioral conditioning technique, right?”

“Yeah, and it’s a punishment for those who break conduct during initiation.”

“Wait, seriously?”

I traced a finger around the rim of my glass, a chill arcing its way down my spine. “If you want to go three months without being able to do… that… then be my guest. I sincerely doubt that even Elder Theory would be able to deconstruct that kind of seal.”

“That’s taking celibacy to an altogether different level… Okay then, time for Plan B.” She took another sip of her beer and I did the same. When she was finished, she cleared her throat and leaned in closer. “Rumor has it some of us in Vayne aren’t above accepting protection money from their targets.”

“…You can’t be serious. Wait, you tell me you didn’t!”

“Shh! Not so loud! There has been a job or two where things didn’t pan out as intended. I didn’t ask for money so much as for information. You’d be surprised just how far such a transaction can be manipulated.”

“Does this mean you have, like, actual informants?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Admittedly, some of them aren’t the brightest, and some only put up with me because they think it will increase their chances of getting a night in with me. If there’s anything I’ve learned from our line of work, it’s to never underestimate the power of the male gaze.”

“You know what, Cass? Sometimes I really worry about you.”

“Oh, my eccentricities are adorable and you know it.” She leaned back in her seat. “Besides, I really don’t see you coming up with anything better at the moment, so don’t be a hater, you know?”

“Actually, I did a bit of soul searching yesterday and came to the realization that if I really wanted to fact-check the plausibility of her memories, I could just as easily plug them into the World Cipher. So for what it’s worth, I might head back home a while.”

Had Cass been taking a drink at that moment, she very well might have done a spit-take. Much the same, however, the sound of her hands hitting the table and our glasses clinking certainly turned a few heads. “Have you lost your damned mind!? You really think the Capital is going to let you just walk in there and have a day of it!?”

“You don’t have to shout either, you know! All I’m saying is that Granddad used to spoil me rotten as a child, so there’s no reason he wouldn’t volunteer himself to be my proxy.”

“Did you even stop to think about what will happen when he sees his ex-wife’s memories being transcribed into the cipher matrix?”

“There isn’t anything saying that a proxy has to be allowed in the room during the process.”

“Audrey, be realistic!” She downed the last of her glass, her other hand gesturing to the host for one more. “This kind of procedure could take several days to fully accomplish. Do you really think that your grandfather won’t – at one point or another – wonder what series of traumatic events has afflicted his darling princess?”

“You know, you use the weirdest analogies.”

“Just answer the question, dammit!”

“Okay, I get it!” I finished my glass just as the host returned with two more. Once he was out of earshot, I continued. “Obviously if he finds out, he’s going to try and protect me from the truth. Worst-case alternative would be to impose an astral link on him instead and to search for the answers that way. It turns out Astertis was good for something other than just pissing me off.”

“Audrey… would you really go so far?”

“What other choice do I have?”

“I understand,” sighed Cass. “In that case, why don’t I accompany you? While I wouldn’t be allowed in the Cipher, I would at least be able to browse the registry while I wait.”

“That actually does sound a bit nice, but is Kiene really going to be okay with giving us both paid time off? Also, what of Josa? You two haven’t been able to spend any time alone since he returned.”

“Oh, that old stick-in-the-mud still owes us time for that one job we did back in the summer. You know the one.” She was right, of course; I did know the one. I shivered once more, impulsively reaching for my glass and gulping it down.

“As for Josa, I’m almost positive that if he truly suspected us to be naked in a hotel room, bodies contorted around each other, his manhood would outperform that of a stallion.”

I ended up spitting all over my side of the table. “What is wrong with you!?”

“You know you love me, Audrey. Here, let me help you.” She pulled out a handkerchief and helped wipe up the mess I made. “All that I want out of this is for you to have confidence that you aren’t facing this alone. With all of this going on, you’ve not been able to really clear your head, and frankly I was a bit worried.”

“Cass, I don’t really know what to say to that but… Thank you.”

“That’s what friends are for.” We finished our drinks and made our way from the tavern. The night was cold, and I was thankful for the roaring fire I’d left burning in my apartment. I grabbed a few more logs on my way inside, checked the vents one last time, and crawled into bed. In no time at all, the alcohol had me knocked clean out.

I found myself transported – back into that classroom, back into that traumatic memory. It played out from start to finish, and as soon as it was over, I could hear that familiar voice calling out to me. “Is it true what they say, when they say that bitter medicine tastes better the second time you drink it, my dear granddaughter?”

“I wouldn’t know, for fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

“So it seems you are learning. Forgive my absence these past few days, Audrey. There was an errand to be dealt with, and it ran a little longer than expected.”

“Funny way of saying the incident with the archives was your handiwork. So how did you do it? Last I checked this entire ordeal started because you lacked a body of your own, or was that too a fabrication?”

“I can assure you that no ruse was in play. I cashed in a favor, nothing more. Although, I would sacrifice far more if it meant assuring the success and well-being of my dearest granddaughter.”

“As if I’m going to believe that shit – more importantly, how are you able to interface with others while trapped inside my head?”

“Audrey, Audrey, Audrey… didn’t they teach you anything here?” She walked across the dreamspace, drawing images on a chalkboard.” Let us say that you used an astral link to escape your body. Now, if your body were to be moved while you were outside of it, how would you return to it?”

I hesitated. “If the mind and body are connected, then wouldn’t breaking the projection return you to your body on its own? I mean, I don’t really get it otherwise…”

Astertis drew a line on the chalkboard, connecting a round cloud with a figure of a human. “Consider this to be an astral link in its purest sense. You can move about in tangible space as much as you like and always return to the body your soul is bonded to. There are a few limitations such as needing to sustain your body, but having your body taken out from under you isn’t something to worry about… most of the time.”

Then riddle me this: how were you able to push me out of my body in the first place? Hell; how was it that I ended up inside Cass when she isn’t even remotely related to me?”

“Oh, how lovely! Since we’re in a classroom setting, why don’t we turn this into a mock exam?” The woman drew two more humans and two more ball-shaped clouds. She labelled two of them with an A and one with a B. She then copied this drawing on the other side of the chalkboard; only this time, two lines were marked with a B. “Please explain to the class the mechanism outlined in this diagram, Miss Songbird.”

“Tch…” These games of hers were really beginning to piss me off, though as I stared between the two scenarios, I began to understand the method to her madness. “Are you telling me that my soul became identical to Cass’s own?”

“Full marks! Valedictorian! You make me so proud, Audrey!”

“Oh, for fuck sake!”

“You were responsible for all of it, you know.”


She began to smile from ear to ear. “It was Cass who opened herself to that causality in the first place. The ritual she had initiated was one to duplicate a person’s astral link. She would have succeeded too, had it not been for the interference of someone with the same link.”

“Then the reason I became bound to her…”

“Correct again! The reason you became her spiritual bosom buddy is because for just a brief moment, Cass Wintermare became Cassdrey Winterbird! Winterbird? Songmare? You get the idea.”

I found myself falling to my knees under the weight of this new information. So Cass’s astral link mirrored my own, allowing me to reside in her. However, if my astral link were to mirror Cass’s instead…

“You must be wondering, ‘Could I be locked out of my body?’ It turns out the answer might surprise you…”

“Just stop!” I shouted. “Get out of my head and leave my body alone! You can have it when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”

The woman’s smile quickly faded. “If you truly wanted that outcome, I could arrange it effortlessly. The sooner you open yourself to my reason, the sooner all of this will become second nature.”

“I will never be like you, you fucking witch!”

“Seriously, is that the best you can do?” Astertis chuckled before drawing something else on the chalkboard. “Allow me to probe into some of your deeply held beliefs. Enlighten me, what is the reality of the dormant self?”

A wave of nausea gripped me from head to toe, sweat pouring down me. “Just shut up…”

“What does it mean to truly pursue one’s ambitions? What is transcendence? How does one achieve their truest form, their truest potential?”

“I said SHUT UP!” Suddenly, my eyes were open and I had returned to my own bed. My chest was pounding, my arms and legs having gone numb from the anxiety.

“Oh dear, it would seem our time is up! I won’t be joining you again for quite a while, so please enjoy your trip to the Old Capital! Say hello to Audrano for me!” With a final, sadistic laugh, she faded from my head and disappeared.



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