None Forward & Two, Two, Two Steps Back - Chapter 2 - faedemon (2024)

Chapter Text

The Universe releases Loop.

Dormont’s time ticks forward, unensorcelled by sugar.

One hundred and twenty-one loops after the wish was made, it has been finished. The Universe, sated, has lifted its gaze. Relaxed its jaw. Let you wriggle free from between its unfathomable teeth.

Loop’s hands are still on you. At some point, they’d grabbed onto your upper arms, and even though their grip has slackened you can feel the thud-pulse memory of them squeezing. You are breathing shallowly. If Loop had lungs, you think they would be, too. Instead they shudder, sparking apart. Solid but barely. Space and starlight still, even without the Universe’s attention.

You did not get a fun new skill with that memory. Only the promise.

You will always remember this.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Out. Inhale. Exhale. You’re doing it but not right. Do it like Siffrin does. But are you Siffrin, still?

You’re sliding. No sensations feel correct. The bark of the root you sit on doesn’t feel rough enough. The breeze won’t hit your skin right. You can’t press your soles into the dirt firmly enough. You keep thinking: Time is passing. Time is passing. Time is passing.

What have you done this loop? Talked to Odile? No—no, you rewound that. You’ve… you brushed off Mirabelle again; stole her sleepover idea and winked a shield into her. You shooed Isabeau away from the Favor Tree. Did you do anything else? What did you say to them? Does it matter, now that it’s over, now that it’s done?

“Stardust. Stardust. Siffrin.”

Loop shakes you until you stop sliding.

You look them in the eye.

Loop is wide-eyed, but no longer sparking. They’re squeezing you again. The pressure is good, grounding. You remember their squeeze on your throat, attention-holding, insistent, intimate, and for a moment forget that it can never happen again.

“It’s over,” they say. It’s almost a question. They know, but don’t believe it.

“It’s over,” you confirm. You know. You know. Stars, you know.

Loop’s eyes dart between your own. If they still had a mouth, you know they’d be opening and closing it, wanting to speak with nothing coherent to say. It’s what you’re doing. Looking at each other, Loop leaning into your space and holding onto you—you raise your hands to hold them back—you two are a perfect mirror. Identical in all ways but the most important.

Like a lunatic, you laugh. Maybe sob. You say: “We’ve gotta answer the question now, huh?”

Confused, they lean closer, brows furrowing.

You ask: “After the loops, what will we do?”

A beat passes.

Then Loop’s hands jerk and loosen like they want to pull away, but you don’t let them. You will not let them.

They glare.

“No, what will I do?” Loop says bitterly. “You’re still Siffrin. They’re yours! You can be the one who escorts the Kid home, or you could follow your Fighter or Researcher back to Jouvente or Ka Bue, if you have the guts.” They lean forward to shove your foreheads together, a sensation completely unlike the bonk of two skulls meeting, indescribable. Light if it were a magnet and skin its polar twin. A gas giant if you could hold it in your palms. Disturbing. Intangible. Warm. “I’m the one with no place in this world, stardust. You’re just too dense to answer the question.”

Against them, you shake your head, feeling their light reach for you.

“I can’t,” you deny. “I can’t stay with them. After everything that’s happened, after I’ve changed so much, overnight, it’s not possible.”

“Tell them,” Loop says, a growl.

“They wouldn’t believe me.”

“You’re a mess. They would. Tell them.”

“They wouldn’t understand!”

Loop finally escapes your grip, but instead of pulling away, they grab you by the collar and tug you closer, a threat. Desperately, like murder, the echo of strangulation, they say: “So, what, you’re just going to give them up? After we did all of this for them?”

Without the scent of sugar following you, emanating from you, the hands that folded the wish—without that, all feels bleakly empty. Stale. You are reminded viciously of the fact that, in the King’s frozen paradise, pollen does not drift through the air. Aromas do not rise from floral blooms. Wind hardly blows. Even here in Dormont, a pocket of movement in a still country, you cannot smell the creek. The beautiful one’s cooking. The meadow’s lively grass. No—all is muted. All is stifled. How vivid it is possible for your sense of smell to be would not even be a memory to you, if you did not know so very well the scent, the acrid scent, the vivid scent, the cloying, concentrated, nauseating scent of burnt sugar.

But it’s gone now.

All is bleakly empty. Smells and sounds and sights alike, the world seeming to have lost something vital. Because you have lost something vital. Something intangible.

All your allies—Mirabelle, Odile, Isabeau, Bonnie—are right there! In Dormont! Not a minute’s walk away! But what you have lost is not actually them, but what had lain between you. The bridge that crossed the gap. The small capacity you had for opening your mouth.

It was a fantasy. That idea that you could break the loops and return to them as the Siffrin-of-before—it was a dream.

And you have woken.

You feel like all your organs are seizing. You are bleak. Muted. Stifled. You couldn’t possibly explain it to your allies; you can’t even explain it to Loop. You can’t do this. You’ve already lost them forever.

“I’m not giving them up,” you say weakly. You try to find the words. Any words. “I’ve already… there’s nothing to give up anymore.”

Loop looks at you like you’re insane.

“Don’t you get it?” you plead. “I’m you now.”

You break eye contact, looking anywhere else, helpless. You lean into the end now that it’s come.

Angrily, Loop lurches forward and shoves you so you both fall backward, tumbling over your root and onto the grass behind it. The Favor Tree’s low branches, old and leaf-filled and creeping with the King’s stillness, hide you both. Loop pins you to the ground. Sparking again. So easy to provoke, just like you. This time you weren’t even trying.

When they speak again, there’s a waver to their voice, and for their lack of vocal cords or a throat to choke up, it must all be emotion.

“You’re not,” they say. “You still look like us. You’re still Siffrin. They will never look at you and see a stranger like they would me.”

You shake your head. “But I’m not their Siffrin anymore. I’m different. We’re so far apart—”

“At least they’ll still recognize you!”


You shout at them. You feel fraught. You don’t know how to explain it! You want Loop to understand, you need them to, they’re the only one who can—they should know—it’s over! It’s ended! When you weren’t looking, it had slipped away from you! You will never get it back!

Trembling, you go on: “For how long, Loop? How long will they have to look at me to see that I’ve changed? I walk different, I know things I shouldn’t, can suddenly do craft I’ve never done before, I’ve forgotten the last blinding place we went before we got to Dormont! I barely—I barely remember anything about them at all, besides their lines!” You hate tears. They’re so messy. The tear duct that doesn’t work anymore aches. Humiliating. “They’ll see. I’m not who I was an hour ago. And I can’t—I can’t explain it to them. I can’t. I can’t.”

Loop kneels over you, their hands fisted in your collar, doing the light equivalent of grinding their teeth, shimmering so bright, so angry.

“You have to,” they say, low. “You have to, stardust.”

“I can’t.”

“Then what was all this for?”

Piercing craft slices a chunk of hair off next to your ear. It gouges into the dirt around you. Without a blade to focus their craft, without the willingness to hold it back at all, Loop is an accident waiting to happen. You get it. You think you’re one that did.

Staring, waiting for an answer, Loop shakes with rage. Silence rings. The Favor Tree swishes in the breeze, unrepentant, scentless.

You can’t say anything.

And in your silence, the fever pitch of Loop’s anger passes. Their face crumples. They collapse down onto you, and above, the same terrible sunlight as ever filters through the leaves.

You cover your eye to block it out.

Into the fabric of your cloak, Loop chokes out: “I can never have them back. You could. You could, and you’re giving them up.”

“I can’t have them. I can’t do it.”

Loop doesn’t respond. But you know they’re listening.

“If we could switch places, if I never existed at all, would you be able to endure it? Catching back up with them after the loops? Being with them again, after everything, and they were touched by none of it?”

“I want to,” they say into your chest. “I want them back.”

Please understand. In your head you’re begging. Please, please. “But could you?”

A moment passes.

And Loop says, terribly, thick with emotion: “No.”

It takes you both a shuddering while to uncurl from each other.

At some point Loop had put their hands on your throat. You let them. They did not squeeze. At some point they took those hands away, and slumped down onto the grass beside you, clutching the edges of your cloak; anything. You were both disappointed. You want to do all this over. You want to never start again.

The sun is high in the sky. Time is passing.

“So,” they say bitterly beside you. “What will you do, then, traitor?”

You don’t react to the jab. You’re busy reviewing your old scripts: the no-memory blank slate, that purposeless ghost of before-the-journey. Half-here. “What we did before, I guess. Travel. Don’t look back.”

“Where to?”

“Mwudu, maybe. Or back to Poteria.” Far from Vaugarde. The island. Ka Bue.

Loop fists their hands in your cloak. You recognize it, them; what is surely plaguing their mind. To save them from that spiral, you say: “And you’re coming with me. Right?”

Loop relaxes. And then tenses again.

“Sure, if the Universe doesn’t strike me down when it remembers I’m still here.”

“Doubt it, if it hasn’t already.”

Loop’s eyes skate away from you. “I could disappear at any moment.”


They bark a laugh. “Like I have any control over what the Universe does to me.”

“Just—don’t.” They cannot leave you, too.

You roll onto your side and reach for them, taking up the hands that had been playing with your cloak, dragging Loop over the grass, closer. Your mirror. Your other self. Your guide. You.

Just holding them isn’t enough. You tug away only long enough to rip off your gloves and reach back again, grabbing on to space-and-starlight with bare hands. It feels disconcertingly like skin, and not like skin at all. You hold on tight, tight, tight.

“We can travel together. Anywhere we want,” you say, because you cannot say the other things. Don’t leave me. You’re the only one who could possibly understand. If I leave Dormont alone, I’ll kill myself for good. Keep reflecting me. Keep guiding me. I can’t lose everyone. I can’t move forward without you there; I don’t remember how.

Loop recognizes it, you. What plagues you.

“Sure, stardust,” they say, distant, but clutching you back, pressing stars into skin. “Anywhere we want.”

Grief crashes around you. You can’t stop thinking it. Loop must be thinking it, too. It’s over. It’s over, it’s over, it’s over. We lost. We didn’t get what we wished for. We, in fact, ran as far away from it as we could. Stupid Siffrin. Sick Siffrin. You made everything worse for yourself!!! If you had sat back and taken it, the ending, maybe you could still have followed one of them home after the journey! But instead you have opened a chasm too wide for anyone to cross!!!

You and Loop hold on to each other. Tight, tight, tight.

Time is passing.

… You still have to defeat the King and do your bows. Your allies will die in the House without you.

It’s not that you have to get up right away. The King can wait until tomorrow—but should you waste today under the tree with Loop? Should you do anything in Dormont? Chat with the townspeople? Help your allies?

What’s the right choice? What are your stage directions?

“It’s getting late,” Loop mumbles.

You’re silent for a moment. Then you breathe out: “I don’t know what to do.”

“Kill the King.”

Loop is asking for it, so you untangle a hand and smack their shoulder. “Other than that.”

“You should probably pick up the bomb part by the field. You don’t need it, but it’ll make things go faster.”


I don’t know, stardust, okay? I don’t know what you should do. If you were going to be a good little story piece, you’d make this last run-through perfect. You’d go hang out with each of your friends and then you’d all triumphantly make your way through the House and kill the King together. But instead you’re giving up!” Loop digs their fingers into you, as if they want to pierce, but don’t have the nails to do so. “So I don’t know. Do anything. Whatever will make the ending hurt the least.”


Yeah. Okay.

Time is passing. Whatever. You settle more firmly into the grass with Loop and hold on to them. Feel your pulse beat where your fingers interlock; feel the star-thrum of them next to you, identical. Indescribable. A star come shimmering down to Dormont. You.

“… So, what are you going to do?”

You’ve experienced it all already. You’ve memorized it. And even if you reenact it all, even if you try to rearticulate every sordid detail—it will not mean to them what it means to you.

“Nothing,” you say. “I’ll go to the Clocktower when it gets late.”


Silence falls between you. Like those times you would come and sit and breathe under the Favor Tree with them, neither of you speak. Instead you listen to the breeze ruffle leaves, and the birds—what few of them have dodged the curse—sing. In the distance, the clamor of Dormont’s bustling party preparation wends its way to you. Time is passing. Finally. Terrifyingly.

A long while later, you ask: “Do you want to come with us tomorrow?”

Loop jerks. “What?”

“To kill the King. Last chance.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Sure you could. You should. You should come throw a bomb at him with me.”

“And how would you explain me to your party?”

You shrug. “Change God sent you to help?”

“As if the Researcher would accept that.”

That makes you grin. “No, she wouldn’t. Mirabelle either. But who cares? They’ll accept the help if you’re nice about it, and then we’ll be too busy with the House. And afterward we can just… leave.” Drift away. Another thought occurs to you. “I wonder what the King would think of you, actually. How would he react if a piece of the Universe itself challenged him?”

Loop’s eyes widen at that. “You’ve never tried that before, stardust; you shouldn’t take your chances with a new variable now. No,” they say. “I never want to go back in that House again.”

Lingeringly, you look at them. The Siffrin who didn’t make it. Siffrin alone. If you were first, you would have given up too. You did give up. Just differently.

“I’ll come find you after the King’s dead,” you promise. “We’ll head off. So get us some supplies, will you?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Loop says: “We don’t need to leave immediately. You should stay for Dormont’s weird party.” In a smaller voice: “Say goodbye.”


It is over. The Universe has called for a so-terrible encore, a last laugh, one final chance for you to act your heart out and deliver every line perfectly—but it is over. There is no deviation from the script you can make now that will save the show. At this point, all you can do is play the part that you’ve rehearsed, and wait for the tomatoes.

Once the play ends, the curtain falls. The actors leave the stage. Your stage is Dormont. You are an actor. You are going to walk away as soon as you are able.

Loop is kidding themself if they think it would be remotely endurable to stay for the party. Stay? Listen to your allies elaborate on their plans to leave you? Talk around the one-twenty-one-shaped lump in your throat? Answer the question four more times over than you already have, when you can barely look at it, still? After the loops journey, what will you do?

What you are going to do is grieve. And you have two options: grieve apart, or grieve while they’re right there, looking at you, holding questions you can never answer, all parties helpless, empty.

It’s obvious which option will be easier to bear.

“Where should I meet you?” you ask, ignoring Loop entirely.

“… You know where I’ll be, stardust.”

The Favor Tree’s canopy swishes in the breeze, sending scatterings of dappled light down upon you both, early summer-perfect.

Yes. You do.

It’s stargazing time when you finally let go of Loop, stand up and pull your gloves back on, brush the bugs off your cloak. Before you go, they settle back onto their usual tree root and wave to you, like always. Routine. You’re grateful for it. If they didn’t, you might crack in two.

Dormont is lit warmly in the darkening eve. Little lanterns dangle by doorways. Many candles flicker at the Change God’s base. The paths are visible, if dim, and impeccably kept. So considerate, Vaugardians, making travel this easy even just between houses!

You’ve never stuck around in Dormont proper long enough to see who lamplights in the evenings. Or, at least, you’ve never taken notice of it. Who does, you wonder? Do all the townsfolk light their own lamps individually? Who stewards the candles? Was it meant to be a Housemaiden’s duty, once—and, if it was, who has taken up that duty in their absence?

You could have had answers to these questions if you ever thought to ask them. If Loop weren’t there, physically turning your head for you, making you look at it, you could have had forever in this space. Years. Learning everything about every person here, and forgetting it.

Ah. But if Loop weren’t there, you would have been Loop, wouldn’t you?

You’re pathetic. You Siffrins give up so easily.

Before going on, you step up to the collection of Change Gods, big and medium and small, all wearing such different faces, all—as you have learned from Mirabelle, as you hope you do not forget—hand-crafted. So personal. Without vocal cords to explain themselves to you.

You kneel down to your favorite. You “pray” to the “Change God.”

You make it simple: speed, speed, speed.

The faster you are, you think as the Universe glances your way (as the barest hint of burnt sugar, nauseating, arises), the faster you’ll get through tomorrow. The sooner you’ll be able to walk away from this dead life of yours: this weight which you have dragged and dragged and dragged forward, and which you now look back at and see in all its crumbling, decomposing truth.

You stand back from the statues.

Dormont lies still, content as a large cat. The fishing one has packed their things and left the stream. The tutorial kid, too, has scarpered. The fellow from Poteria lingers outside, talking—hm!—lowly with the daydreaming one near the water. Are they friends, you wonder?

Too late to find out!

East of town, you find the path deserted. The sheep have been penned in for the night. The kids are all gone, and for a moment a pang of longing shoots through you—the talented artist’s little portrait of you and your allies will never be made. Your hand twitches toward your dagger—ah, but it’s useless, now.

Down near the fields, you murmur change and let yourself into the storage shed. It’s unlit, disconcertingly shadowed, and dusty enough to make you scrunch your nose against a sneeze. Muscle memory helps you pat around on the barrels to find the envelope, placed here just as ever, conveniently waiting, sealed with heart-shaped wax. Claude’s work, you hypothesize, remembering the stationery on which that gooey love note in the Head Housemaiden’s office was written—though why Mirabelle’s roommate left a bomb part all the way out here in Dormont, you have no idea. Maybe Claude is forgetful like you.

Once the shed door is closed and you hear it lock reassuringly behind you, there is nothing left but the path to the Clocktower. There are no souvenirs you can collect. No children to gift you drawings and leaves, no Mirabelle to hand you her thoughtful note, no florist to generously offer a bloom. The boulangerie, closed now, has certainly sold or put away their every pain au chocolat and croissant. In your pockets alone are your silver coin and the bomb part, a thing inescapable and a thing useful, and as such once you leave Dormont tomorrow evening you will again be merely what entered it. A person and a coin. No more.

You hop the broken bridge.

Up ahead is the Clocktower. Your allies are usually waiting outside for you, chatting, but it’s later than normal tonight. They might have gone in already. Bonnie may be cooking, or even finishing up and setting the table. Samosas with potato, without cheese. After, Mirabelle will call for everyone’s attention and give you all the chance to back out. No one will take it. A three-fifths group hug will occur. In bed, Isabeau will try and fail to tell you what you have never heard. And you will try, and fail, to sleep.

… The exterior of the Clocktower is deserted when you get there. It is too late. They had gone on without you.


You walk in, and slide.

Curtains open on THE HOUSE, scene one.

You may have forgotten again what the words are for those things that lie in the armory, but your body knows the House.

As you lead your allies forward, the buzz of their chatter only noise to your ear, your steps are confident. Practiced. You know these floors-and-walls: you know their shape, their curve, which corners hide sadnesses; sliding your hand up the pillar in the Death Corridor is familiar, almost sensual as you find the notch and press the switch inside. The boulder that thunders down behind you is expected, rote. For a split second its crash evokes splatter—and then you’re moving again, sliding forward, gliding toward the next goal, a ghost in the House like all those other echoes of you that—hm!—seem not to be appearing anymore.

You could do this with your eye closed. The sadnesses on floor one, so brittle—and it is only the original floor one sadnesses, you notice, all in their proper place—are almost like pets. Fragile. Easy to dance around and slice apart. If you bother to focus enough on that memory, you can make them scatter like prey animals. Odile looks at you sharply at that.

You could do this with your eye closed. You could tune out entirely, slide forward until you’re all the way at the King.

But you don’t. Not quite.

Because this is it. The encore, the final loop, the last time you’ll walk this House. The King’s House. This place which, every loop, early on, Mirabelle comments on. Whose jagged unfamiliarity she points out: how the King warped it, rearranged its rooms, made a puzzle of its floorplans. The King has made the House unrecognizable, like you.

But this is the House you know.

This is the House you have memorized. These are the floors-and-walls that have become your entire life, these are the doors whose keys you have held, the spaces whose sadnesses you have sliced apart, whose souvenirs you have collected. This is where time has halted and recursed and recursed. This is all you are.

And when you get to the end, when Mirabelle rends the King apart, when you pave the way for her to do it—it will be gone.

The House will uncorrupt itself. It will become again the shining thing that Mirabelle loved. And it will be unrecognizable to you.

This is it!!! For the first time in your wretched life, you remember everything. Every word. Every step and second. All these floors-and-walls, perfectly, forever, because recursion has taught it to you, just the same as holding air. You could do this. With your eye closed.

And when the curtain falls, it will be useless!!!


Each key very politely rests right where you remember they belong. Loop, nice Loop, helpful Loop, makes them glitter—a reminder you don’t need, but a comfort all the same. Loop is here. They are watching. Waiting for the curtain to fall.

Circle. Egg. Broken egg.

You don’t pick up the bell pendant or draw a card. You don’t look at the places where the Universe would un- and re-ravel. Someone else can fix that continuity.

You finish the first floor with a flourish; the first boss is a pushover.

You cut it apart.

Curtains open on THE HOUSE, scene two.

At the first snack time, while Bonnie prepares food slightly apart from you all, Odile takes out her coin and flips it. You can see it now: the malformed wish she attached to it, directionless, knowing this little silver thing is its object, unsure what to make it do. As it sails through the air (flip flip flip flip flip…) the little not-wish fails to cling on. It dissipates. And the coin lands, randomly, on tails.

“… Huh. I lost,” Odile says.

Isa grins. “Yay! What do I win?”

“The sweet taste of victory and nothing else.”

“I don’t even get congrats? Wow m’dame… I thought we were friends…”

“We’re not friends. We’re associates.”

“Not companions?”

“Colleagues. Allies, at best.”

Just the same as the first time.

You know now that they are teasing each other. Joking. That Odile’s feelings for you all are more profound than she likes to say, that she is reticent, like you are. It is clear, after everything, that all this time there was an unspoken closeness amongst you all, which everyone except you understood and did not have to voice. And you weren’t part of it.

Too late, now.

When you usher everyone on into the second floor proper, it takes no time at all to reach the Head Housemaiden’s office for your first key, because you take the left path to avoid the frozen Housemaiden and don’t bother to linger in the garden room. They would ask questions if you skipped the room entirely—with the House so upended, it’s impossible to know which door may or may not be useful—so to appease your actors, you poke a quick head in. Plants, plants, no doors. Yes, sure, we’ll come back if we find we’re missing a key, you agree—but you won’t be missing a key, and you won’t come back.

There will be no more garden room therapy. You’ve already met your touch quota for this loop, and anyway none of them react to your brushes or pokes anymore. And anyway, correcting their assumption about your comfort with touch is pointless, now. Really, the fact that they thought you didn’t like it is a testament to how little they knew the you-of-before. And how much less they could possibly know the you-of-now.


Rock. Paper. Scissors. (And Crying, too.)

There are two ways to trap yourself on the second floor, both of which you’ve done, once out of idiocy and the other out of curiosity. Each time, it was your fault, or choice. Each time, your allies followed your lead, trusting you implicitly. Even in their little age-versus-beauty confrontation, you were and are always the one who holds the star crest. It’s always up to you.

You lead. They follow.

Again and again and again you led them back to the start and they, hollow, followed. Again and again and again you reached curtains and called for another rehearsal. It was you who made the wish. It was you who chose to look away from it. It was you who stood out in the center of a rickety bridge and jumped, and kept jumping, until the planks snapped beneath you. And they, on the other side, blindfolded, have been ever prepared to step out onto nothing.

They trust you. But they do not know you.

And now it. Is. Too. Late.

You do not pick up a crumpled poem or a bonding earring or a broken doll or a shard of glass.

Pockets light, you put the last second-floor key in the lock, and step forward to meet the bosses.

When one kills its other and takes, you do not think of Loop.

Instead you step forward.

And cut.

Curtains open on THE HOUSE, scene three.

In the body crafting room, after collecting the angry key, on the way around the table towards the door, you catch sight of the book on body craft.

You’ve thought about it. You have had all the time in the world—of course you’ve thought about it. With all the loops you’ve gone through, you could have read this book cover-to-cover and over again, could have practiced, could have curled your fingers around the art. Proper body craft, you know, takes more than two-ish days to enact—but for someone with terrible eternity in their hands, a few innovations in the field might have been within reach.

But you never did end up trying. Just thought about it. About your body. About Loop’s.

While your allies are occupied with a conversation, you sweep your cloak over the edge of the table, obscuring the book just long enough to swipe it, unnoticed.

This is the one souvenir you will take.

Besides, of course, the second bomb part from Claude’s armoire.

Later, when you get to Mirabelle’s statue of the Change God and feel the keyknife fall weighty into your waiting palms, you stare down at the blunt blade, brows furrowed. It takes the full moment until you are beamed to the start of the floor to remember: ah. Those things in the armory whose names you’ve forgotten again. One of them was a tool for sharpening.

As your allies balk and thank the Change God for their boon, you grip the handle of the keyknife, trying not to shake. It’s fine. You don’t need the knifekey. You can get everyone through the final battle easily without it. It’s fine.

You step forward and slice.

The hair falls away. The keyknife shatters.

You move to meet the final floor boss.

And, again, for the last time, you cut.

Curtains open on THE HOUSE, finale.

You slide through the final snack break and keep sliding, pausing only long enough to wrench the secret ingredient from Claude’s frozen grip, to shove the whole lot at Isabeau and watch him make a bomb. It in hand, you slide: into the throne room and right through the King’s opening lines, barely conscious of what you reply to him, of your allies’ battle cries, of how you move and stage direct. You slide right into the sheer routine of this fight. It is easy; you weren’t lying to yourself when you said you didn’t need tonics, or the knifekey. You don’t.

It is utterly, utterly easy. You dart in and craft paper, dart back out and encourage the jackpot to build, speed up your friends and give your turn away and call for Mirabelle’s shield when you need it. You throw a bomb and feel the floor shake. The King calls forth a vision of the future, and you survive.

You do not give him the chance to call forth another.

He falters.

In the end, eventually, the same as ever, the King bends.

You say your line.

The others repeat after you.

And from amongst you, the last voice to raise, Mirabelle, Savior of Vaugarde, falsely attributed Chosen of the Change God, steps forward and raises her arms and calls DISAPPEAR!!!! for the last time.

You, Odile, Isabeau, Bonnie, Mirabelle. Disappear, disappear, disappear, disappear, disappear.

You know a lot about wish craft. The ritual matters as much as the intent and the intent makes the ritual. Repetition builds intent; repetition is ritual. It’s about what number feels right. For these months, this journey, it’s been the five of you. Five months. Five orbs. Five members. Five words, one by one, all but the first knowing not what they’re doing, only that it is right.

Five wishes. No—five voices, overlapping, making the same wish.

The Universe has not looked away from the King since he first wished Vaugarde still. The King’s intent, his rage, his grief, had coalesced to such a fever pitch that the Universe could not but listen—at his behest, it has obediently watched, spreading its silky influence over the country; this man, alone, has wished so hard and so deep and so damningly that Vaugarde acquiesced and froze in place. No wonder the Universe’s gaze is so steady. He demands attention. He’s enrapturing.

But he has already gotten what he wanted.

Unopposed, holding hostage a country unfamiliar with your practices, your birthright, the King has built himself an easy throne to sit on. Waiting for your party’s approach, he has sat back and lazed, preserving passively the portrait he’d so ardently wanted to keep, the second home that lovingly held him and his island-shaped loss. He got what he wanted. You and your allies are but ants that dodged his hand.

He got what he wanted.

But you have not.

He has wished, and you know that wish, that grief, those wide and terrible holes which pockmark you, that vacuum of self you were and are and are still learning how to sidestep, those memories you have lost and keep losing—you know what it is to have found, to have been found, to have staggered along helpless and empty and lonely and scared and to have been picked up, your chin lifted, and shown so brightly a path forward—you know what it is to have loved!—and to have been so scared of losing! You were nothing, you were empty, you were hollow! YOU WERE NOT A PERSON BEFORE THEM! And then they were there, and they loved you, but more than that they were anchors. They taught you who you were. It was in their company that you found out you like to crack jokes, and tease, and lead, to be sure that all those behind you cannot be hurt by what they don’t see. They taught you personhood. They taught you joy. They taught you again, patiently, easily, all those things you must have learned in your first fifteen-or-twenty—who knows!—years of life, those which were obliterated. It was with them that you grew up again!!! They are your family! They are yours! And you want to keep them so much, to preserve them, to freeze them, to hold them forever and forever and forever and forever SO THEY CANNOT LEAVE YOU AGAIN!


Because you’re different. Because you already did, and it didn’t work. Because it would be cruel. Because you cannot be the King in a different suit. Because you have taken each of your family members lovingly in hand and have squeezed without knowing you were squeezing. Because you cannot explain it to them. You will not explain it to them. You will not spend the rest of your wretched life opening your closed mouth, trying and failing to explain the things you cannot remember and the things you always will. You are not willing to build again the bridge that crosses that gap. For the third time. The bridge of your youth is lost in fog and the bridge of your journey is broken by your own hand, and you cannot do it again. You will not. You cannot endure it.

You know wish craft. And the King’s wish is enormous, its edges easy to reach.

The King’s wish is enormous. And thin as paper.

You know this wish. You know this grief. You have felt it. You have made your own wish in hopes of filling the hole it left.

And so you know such a wish is useless.

Five people on a long journey. Five pairs of hands claiming orbs. Five denials, in the Clocktower, when offered the chance to flee. Choice of duty, to represent yourself.

When the King attempts to justify his goals, five voices cry out in opposition. Long-held conviction, spoken to the object, to make a link between you and what you’re wishing to.

A knife’s quick gouge through cracks in armor. A book’s blow. A fist’s reverberating impact. A frying pan’s smack. A rapier’s pierce. One, two, three, four, five. Contact with the object to tether the link between you and the wish.

You repeat your wish five times.


From the King, the Universe finally shifts its gaze. All attention lands on Mirabelle, Savior of Vaugarde, Favorite of the Change God (even if not its chosen), final voice of the wish.

Burnt sugar rises.

And. He. Dis. A. Ppears.

The smell of wish craft dissipates. Time craft releases its claws. Vaugarde’s time ticks forward, unensorcelled by sugar. The Universe averts its gaze once more.

Dormont’s House shudders, shifts, and returns to rights. It is again the shining thing Mirabelle loves.

The five of you clap and cheer and sob, each stage direction followed to the letter. When Mirabelle races forward to reach the unfrozen Head Housemaiden, you four stragglers follow behind, amused, shaky with relief. This is, without doubt, your best performance.

The last scene awaits.

The Head Housemaiden and Mirabelle speak. Even though this is the last time you’ll hear it, you can’t keep yourself from sliding through it. The Head Housemaiden’s is not a voice you want to hear more than you have to. And she talks. For so long. Every loop.

The Head Housemaiden and Mirabelle finish speaking.

Your family’s actors split off to their positions in the final tableau.

This is the default ending. Nothing significant has changed, and so you know to the inflection what each of their lines will be. You could walk up to all of your allies in turn and match them word-for-word—until, of course, they recoil from your strangeness and fail to speak. Hah. The Head Housemaiden always turns you away until you have talked to each of your allies, but what is the point? In this scene, at least, you have learned everything about them you could possibly learn. There is nothing more for you here. You have exhausted your allies’ potential. It’s over.

The Head Housmaiden always turns you away if you speak to her first—but would she, actually, now? Your wish is no longer in play, and that was what she was reacting to. Could you wrap this up early? Skip forward in the script?

… Do you want to?

This is. The last time.

It’s over.

By the stairs, Odile is putting herself to rights, taking a breather alone. Against the banister, Bonnie is leaning, up on their tippy-toes, in shocked disbelief. On the bench, Mirabelle shakes and tries not to fall apart. And near the east wall, Isabeau stands, thinking. About your victory. And about you.

These are their closing lines. Their last spotlights before curtains. These are the last impressions they’ll make on the audience, before the end. Will you deny them this? Just because you’re sick of the show?

But… it isn’t, actually, is it? The end.

Time ticks forward, unensorcelled by sugar. You have plans for the future. After the loops, after the journey—you are in the after now—you are going to go meet up with Loop and get out of here. And your allies have plans, too.

Isabeau’s going back to Jouvente to become a clothing designer. Bonnie’s going home to Bambouche to reunite with their sister. Odile might keep poking around Vaugarde, or return to Ka Bue. Mirabelle is sticking around in Dormont, with plans to—

No. This is the default ending. She doesn’t have plans to shake up the House of Change with her thoughts on relationships—at least, not yet. You have no doubt she’ll get around to the thought soon enough.

Your allies’ lines here are not the last things they’ll ever say.

They’re just the last you’ve ever heard.

The end has come and gone. The lines being repeated now are only echoes; the Universe righting itself, reestablishing continuity, as it does.

You have no stage directions. You have no script. You could do anything. Turn and sprint out of the House right now without another word to any of them, grab Loop and escape Dormont from the Favor Tree, not even taking any of the well-maintained roads. You could scream. Cry. You could kill yourself. Bonnie has leftover pineapple in their pocket. You stand not twenty feet from an open third-story balcony. Your dagger hangs trustily at your hip. You could do anything.

You don’t even have to speak to the Head Housemaiden.

And you don’t want to. Ever. Again.

So you don’t.

Turning away from her, you walk over and sit on the unoccupied bench, as far away from your allies as you can be without them wondering if you’re leaving the room. You breathe in, and out. And you raise one hand, Y-shaped, to your ear, and call Loop.

[… Congratulations, stardust.]

“Woop woop,” you mutter, voice low enough not to be heard by the room at large.

[So! Are you going to gallivant off with the Fighter? Perhaps escort the Kid back home?]


You ignore the questions and say: “Did you get us supplies?”

Loop is silent for a moment. When their voice comes through the craft connection, it’s performatively cheery.

[You know, Dormont gets completely frozen maybe an hour after you all leave in the morning? It’s soooooo boring here, waiting for you all to die, or win! But useful. I could just walk into the shop and take whatever I wanted. I got us some tonics, and a traveling bag, too, and a tent. And myself a bedroll, since I’m not sharing yours, teehee!]

You feel like you’re going to throw up.

“So you stole everything,” you say flatly. That isn’t why you’re nauseous.

[What, like my single silver coin is going to pay for even one tonic? Please. They would’ve given us everything for free, anyway, if you walked in after beating the King and asked for some help. Oh, Savior of Vaugarde, anything for you~!]

“Gross.” You can’t deny it, but it still feels wrong. Not wrong enough to ask them to give it all back, however. “Did you get us food?”

[… Oops.]


[I don’t eat!!! You can’t blame me for this.]

“Are you sure about that, though? What kind of fuel do you run on? You seem a little small for nuclear fusion.”

Loop is silent.

“… I picked up the book on body craft, you know. From the third floor.”

More silence.

“Maybe we could… so you don’t have to worry. About fusing helium.”

[Shut up, stardust.]

You shut up.

[I’ll get us food, alright? So get yourself together and get over here!!! I want to dig through our clothes before we leave and find a good outfit.]

“You had no problem being naked this whole time though?”

[Stardust, you are literally the only person who has ever seen me like this. Of course I didn’t care. You’re me.]

You snort. Yeah, that makes sense, actually. When you first met Loop, their nudity didn’t even register.

“See you soon, Loop.”

[… I’ll be here.]

They hang up.

How’s that for new dialogue?

When you look back up at the room at large, you see that, without you following your stage directions usual routine, the tableau has changed: Odile, collected, has stepped forward to address the Head Housemaiden. Isabeau has moved over and sat down next to Mirabelle on the bench, speaking with her softly. And Bonnie is marching towards you.

“Heyfrin,” they say when they reach you, a determined expression on their little face.

Ah. You’ve missed your window for a clean exit.

Your nausea rises.

“Hi, Bonnie.”

“So… we did it? It’s over?”

It really, really is.

“Yep. King’s gone.”

It’s objectively true, and they know it. But they don’t look convinced.

“But are you sure?” Bonnie asks.

“I’m sure.”

“Are you super duper sure?”

You. Are. Going. To. Throw. Up.

“I am super, duper, duper sure.”

“Whoa. That’s an extra duper.”

“It sure is.”

“Frin,” Bonnie says bravely, “I’m sor—”

Absolutely not!!! Whatever that is, absolutely not!

You speak over them. “Hey, Bonbon, what are you planning for dinner tonight?”

The kid stands, mouth open, a little shocked that you cut them off. You don’t remember well, but you don’t think you’ve ever cut them off before, at least not like that. It was dismissive. It was—it was meant to be dismissive. Because you want to discourage them. Because you cannot listen to, cannot handle, whatever it is they were about to say.

Bonnie swallows. You don’t look at the clear hurt on their face, that they work through, and then shove away.

“… I dunno. I thought we would eat at the party. I didn’t plan anything.”

“Ah, you’re right. I totally forgot about that!” you say in your cheeriest Sieve Siffrin voice.

Bonnie stares at you. They’ve always been perceptive. And they may not know exactly what you’re doing, but they can tell that there’s something.

Still. They’re young yet, so they don’t know how to address it.

“Stupid Frin,” they mutter. And walk away.

The tableau has shifted again. Bonnie scuttles over to a now-free Odile. Isabeau is grinning, talking to the Head Housemaiden. And Mirabelle smiles when she makes eye contact with you.


Of course she walks over. And invites herself to sit down on the bench beside you, seeming more calm than she was earlier, alone. You bet Isabeau did it with her again. Breathe with me. Like Sif does! They don’t need you even for that.

“Siffrin… we did it!!!”

“We sure did.”

“Ahh—it’s been so long! Five whole months since I first set out!” It’s been a lot longer than that for you. “And almost that long since I first met you all! I… I don’t think I could’ve done this journey alone, without you all. I’m really, truly glad you came with me.”

Mirabelle’s hands twitch, like she wants to reach for you. But she doesn’t.

“Of course, Mira,” you say, because it’s true. Of course you were with her. Of course you stuck around for the journey. You love them.

But you are done with it now.

“Siffrin… I know you’ll probably get back to traveling soon. But!!! Even though it’s been so long, I feel like I’ve barely gotten to know you, if that makes sense? And I wish we had more time! So I—I was wondering, I mean, I wanted to ask—”


“I am pretty excited to get back on the road,” you lie say, cutting off wherever she was going with that. “I met a friend in Dormont yesterday I’m going to travel with. We’re not sure where we’ll go yet, but that’s part of the fun, right?”

The second you began speaking over her, Mirabelle cut herself off with a squeak, stilling. And then, as you talked, she leaned, ever so slightly, away from you.

“O–oh… right! Yes, of course, you’d been traveling before we met, of course you’d be, ah. Eager to get back to it.” She smiles, strained. “Who’s… who’s your friend? One of the villagers? Someone I know?”

You shake your head, swallowing back bile. Your stomach churns.

“No, it’s an old friend. They’re not from Dormont, they just… happened to be here when we arrived. I was catching up with them yesterday.”

“So that’s… why you came back so late…?”

You. Smile. And do not throw up. “Yep!”

She looks at you for a moment. And then smiles, shakily, back.

“Well!” she says with mustered cheer. “I hope you both have a wonderful new journey together! Be safe, have fun, and… don’t be afraid to stop by Dormont, if you come back this way. I’d love to see you again and hear all about your travels.”

“Sure, Mira,” you lie say.

When Mirabelle stands up and moves away from you, it’s Isabeau who catches your eye next.

Hahaha. No.

The Universe saw fit that you should never hear what your defender has to say to you, and so you do not want to hear it. There is no future in what will come out of his mouth.

“Hey, Sif, I—” Isa calls out to you.

You cut him off. “Hey Isa! I’m gonna head into Dormont to check out the party.”

Isabeau’s steps as he heads toward you stutter. His eyes narrow. Your whole blinding party is too perceptive. Of course, of course he sees your evasion for what it is. Quickly, though, Isabeau’s expression smooths back out and he keeps approaching.

“Sounds like a plan. Once we wrap up here we can all head down together. Have you talked to the Head Housemaiden yet?”

You grit your teeth. “No, I want to go now, actually. I’m starving!”

You wonder if Loop gets hungry, or if their lack of mouth equates to lack of hunger. Hmm. Starving. Haha.

… Not your best work.

You aren’t actually hungry, for once. You haven’t been hungry since yesterday, since your wish was shred. And now all that fills you is nausea.

Isabeau quirks a brow. “Too hungry to wait? I’m sure Bonbon has something in their pockets that can tide you over for a bit longer.” He stands next to you, his tall frame just slightly looming. He is doing it on purpose. “Besides, I had something I wanted to—”


Wayyyy too hungry to wait,” you say with a wink, and start walking. “You all can meet me there.”

The fact that you’re actively walking away while Isabeau tries to speak to you tips him over into genuine irritation. Not an emotion you see on him often! At least, not one that he projects outward. But he projects it now, and as you retreat, he reaches out and is bold enough to actually grab your arm to prevent you from leaving.


What an excellent excuse.

You startle genuinely and performatively yelp, whipping your head back around, tugging on the arm in his grip. You are strong enough, now, to rip yourself away from him entirely—but you don’t. You jerk once, weakly, while everyone else in the room has time to turn and get a good look.

Isabeau’s face shifts from annoyance to guilt. His grip slackens. Not that you need it to.

You do rip your arm away this time.

And, for some blinding reason, you don’t immediately make your way out the door. So you’re still there, still standing, still looking at them all, when Odile speaks.

“Is everything okay, you two?”

Isabeau opens his mouth. You cannot let him control how this exchange goes.

“Peachy!” you say brightly before he can respond, straightening. “I just wanted to head down to Dormont and Isa was trying to catch me before I left.”

Odile looks at you for a beat longer than normal before she speaks again.

“I see,” she says. “Well, I’m glad he did. I also had something to say before we all headed out.”

What? Odile has something to say? What could she possibly want to bring up?

You weren’t suspicious. You were perfect. You said all your lines acted your part responded to all stimuli just like the Siffrin-of-before would have. Right? What else would she have to say to you that’s so important?

Everyone turns to Odile. Her declaration has, very effectively, drawn everyone’s attention. Under everyone’s scrutiny, she pauses for a moment, seeming… embarrassed?

“I—well.” She pauses, adjusting her hold on her book. “I had planned on saying this in relative privacy, but I suppose now is as good a time as any. I… I have enjoyed, immensely, the time I’ve spent with you all.”


“These past months… I never expected to get caught up in a journey like this, let alone add something like ‘Savior of Vaugarde’ to my resume. But I have. And I wouldn’t change it for anything. This has been one of… well, perhaps not the best experiences of my life, but one of the most significant. I’m closer to all of you than I think I’ve ever been to anyone.”

No. No.

“I wasn’t sure I’d work up the courage to ask, but now that we’re here, at the end of everything, I will. I’m going to miss every one of you. And if anyone is willing, I would like to keep traveling together, to put off saying good-bye for a while longer.” She huffs a sigh, smiling, gaze turned downward. “It would be nice to travel together without worrying about the King, wouldn’t it?”




They’re all talking.

“Oh, Odile!!! What a lovely thing to say! I feel the same way—”

“Yeah, I… I definitely have connections with you all that I don’t think I have with anyone—”

“Dile! Yes! You have to come to Bambouche to meet Nille—”

They’re all talking. They’re all smiling. They’re all saying yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. This doesn’t have to be the end quite yet.



You. Slide.

“Siffrin? What do you think?” Odile asks you.

Everyone turns to look at you.

You have no idea what’s on your face.

With a hopefully-regretful smile, you shrug, and say: “Actually, I already made plans to go on from here with someone else.”

She just… looks at you.

“Someone else?” Odile says.

Mirabelle pops in with the answer. “Oh, yes, Siffrin was telling me actually—he met an old friend in Dormont yesterday by chance, and made plans with them. That’s why he was out late!”

Odile glances at Mirabelle, and then back to you. “I… see. That’s a shame.” She holds her book closer to her chest. “I don’t suppose you’ll be heading toward Bambouche? That seems like a logical first stop for us. If we’re all traveling in the same direction, we could stick together.”

You make the executive decision, in that moment, to go to Poteria instead of Mwudu. Loop won’t mind. Poterian theater is great.

“We planned on Poteria, actually.” You smile awkwardly.


The Poterian border is in the complete opposite direction of Bambouche.

Mirabelle looks at you, her gaze pinching.

That’s not what you told her five minutes ago.

Everyone shifts awkwardly. The Head Housemaiden watches the situation with curious eyes. Your allies, so recently full of victory, deflate some—everyone’s faces hold the ghost of a grimace—silence stretches and no one knows where to look. It’s hitting them like it hit you: it’s over. And once again, you’re the odd one out.

If you keep standing here, looking at them, you are going to Look At It. And if you look at it, you. Will. Throw. Up.

“Let’s go down and check out the party now, make sure everyone in Dormont is safe!” you say cheerily.

And you turn around and start walking.

And this time, no one reaches out to stop you.

After saying something you don’t really remember about how your friend isn’t good with new people, so hold tight while I go meet them, you make your way to the Favor Tree, the world a blur of noise and triumph and relief. Dormont residents’ hands reach out to touch you as you pass—congratulatory back-pats; thankful, brief clasps of hands over yours; fleeting brushes against your arms—and you greet each one with a bland hero’s smile to appease them. These people will touch you. These ensemble members people real living people these people will touch you.

You make it. To the Favor Tree.

Loop is there. Sitting on their normal tree root. Waiting for you. The same, the same, the same, the same as every time before.

“Heya, stardust,” they say as you walk up. “How can I help you on this wonderful new day?”

That’s. New.

And the newness is what gets you to stop sliding.

And the second you stop sliding, you collapse to the ground between the Favor Tree’s roots, trying to breathe like Siffrin does but it’s impossible, impossible, impossible, because you are not him anymore and you are heaving, body both trying to vomit and trying to suck in as much frantic air as possible; you’re dying, that must be it, you’re dying—!


It’s over!!! The journey is done and the King is defeated and Vaugarde is saved, it’s over; the script says now that all of you will part ways, go back to your own homes or pursuits or families or whatever lonesome, individual thing is there waiting for you! This journey didn’t mean to them what it meant to you, and so they were all supposed to run off and leave you, SO WHAT IS THIS?

You can’t—you can’t—! You cannot even throw up!!! Your body won’t let you! Not even bile comes out!

They all wanted to stay together? They all regretted the journey ending like you did? They all wanted, privately, voicelessly, to say what you had been thinking? I want to stay with them!

They all did? They all felt the same way?

So, if you had just stood there and taken it—if you had shut up at the base of that tree—if you had resigned yourself to the end—if you had—if you hadn’t—?

You could have had what you wanted?

You could have had them, after the journey, for all the time you instead spent in the loops?

You could have had it you could have had them you could have been happy you could have stayed with them you could have you could have you could have if you had just waited just been a good party member just put off thinking about it a little longer just decided not to wish at the blinding, blinding tree—!



You’re laughing.

You’re crumpled in the dirt, at what would be Loop’s feet, if they had not clearly slid off their root onto their knees and reached out to you, grasping onto your upper arms again, calling your name again, trying to pull you out of the mire again. They have done nothing but try to direct you away from every mess you could fall in, but you fell in them all. Every one.

You are laughing.

How ironic. How hilarious. How utterly blinding stupid. You did this to yourself! Every wretched part of it! You recoiled from an obstacle that wasn’t really there and tried to avoid it, and in doing so, you ensured it. Like a rock which waits until you feel safe from it to fall, what you wanted has been dangled in front of you just after you accepted you can never have it.

Loop is confused.

“What? Why are you laughing? Why do you look like that?” Loop holds onto you. Tight, tight, tight. “Stardust, answer me!”

You catch your breath enough to speak, an awful smile pulling at your mouth.

“Odile asked,” you say, interrupting yourself with hysterical, breathy laughs. “Odile asked—hah!—if any of us would want to keep traveling together!!! Now that we’ve beaten the King!”

Loop goes stock-still.

What’s coming out of you now is no longer laughter.

“And you know what everybody said?” you say, sobbing. “Can you guess?”

Beside Loop, resting on the ground, is a surprisingly nice travel bag: a roomy backpack with all sorts of pouches, and outer buckles a bedroll can be attached with, loops to hold umbrellas or tent poles or whatever else you might think to hold with them. The top flap is open and the mouth uncinched, and inside you can see, haphazardly arranged, the necessities Loop had gathered: tonics, travel gear, cooking supplies and wrapped food, too. The tent is in there as well, taking up a bulky space, and two canteens for water. That’s good. You lost yours sometime before the loops began. You’ve been sharing Isabeau’s. Ha ha.

You love them. Isabeau and Mirabelle and Bonnie and Odile. You love them, you love them, you love them. You are defined not by your own edges but by how theirs butt up against you—their solidity forces you, mist-thing, into a shape of your own. But you’ve collapsed now. Your vapor has escaped its container again, and you’ve tried to stuff it back in, make yourself a suit to occupy—but they shuffled too far away from you, or you slipped away from their grip, and now you don’t remember what shape you used to be in. You are different than they made you. You don’t fit in next to them anymore. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, but trying and trying to find that old shape again—that would hurt worse!

It has ended.

And now you know that the end wasn’t inevitable after all.

Ha, ha, ha.

“No,” Loop says, staring at you, their grip on you tightening still. The word isn’t an answer to your question but a denial.

Yes,” you say, heaving, reaching forward to hold onto them. It’s both a rebut of their denial, and the answer.

Your allies, your party members, your family—they are going on without you. They’re drifting further, widening the gap. There’s no future in that journey—not for you.

You’ve ensured it.

None Forward & Two, Two, Two Steps Back - Chapter 2 - faedemon (2024)
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