The organ sang its glory to god, and hymns rolled around high-vaulted ceilings, washing against the faces of stern saints hewn from pink marble. Biblical tapestries, thread-worn and colourful, fluttered on a musical breeze made by clusters of towering, tarnished bronze tubes. Polished pews made from old oak sat in patient rows stretched before an altar, lit by candles and decorated with crosses.
Cassie ran her hand against the wood where she sat, feeling glossy veneer give way to rough grain – the product of innumerable worshippers scuffing the varnish and scouring its finish over years and decades.
Her fingers pressed into the cracked leather of the bible held in her hand, and its golden-trimmed pages flexed. The hymn swelled; the sustained, climaxing chord roared and a high-pitched, tinny rattle reverberated where the organ’s towering pipework trembled and shuddered inside the fixings struggling to hold them to century-aged stone. The bible’s cover began to crease under the pressure, turning convex. Cassie squeezed her eyes shut and tasted metal.
Her tongue pressed against the intricate banding clamped around her teeth, compressing upper and lower jaws together and holding them locked to give the underlying fractures time to heal. A slither of pooling saliva spilled over her lip, splashing down the front of her scarlet blouse before she could catch it with an awkward, pressed palm. Pain radiated out across her bruised face from where her hand flexed the scab, breaking it and splitting her lip again.
Cassie fumbled for a handkerchief from her bag and bunched it up against her wet chin.
The air pushed around by the immense power of the organ had hardly stilled when the enormous machine began again, singing new glories and making everything thrum. Cassie tasted more than one kind of metal as she felt the pew beneath shake. The free hand on her thigh began to tremble independent of any vibration, and she clenched the fist tight.
Churches, hell places of worship in general, were uncomfortable for someone like Amber, as she lingered in the back of the sprawling, cavernous space. A promise made in terms full of loopholes about eternal life, a questionable devotion that had done little more than promote violence between zealots.
Admittedly, the redhead never quite saw the appeal of religion.
There was comfort for some no doubt – otherwise the cathedrals would never have been able to reach for the heavens, and despite proclaiming, never really sought to touch God's hand.
Amber spotted Cassie immediately, something about her genuine aura radiated more prominently than those who came for show and social obligation. She came for solace, instead of placating the gossiping tongues…
She was here cause Amber had fucked up again.
She'd let another flowergirl fall.
She couldn't save them all, sure… But even if she could just have saved one…
Soaring choruses and the faint squeal of musical ambition trying to keep up with intent filled the space, the raucousness of sound almost deafening in the same way silence quickly became thick and overwhelming without something to offset it. Virulent, cacophonic white noise.
Prophetic and profound. Fitting almost, for a hurricane coming to make right in the only way she knew how.
In a crescendo that threatened to shake heavy lead candelabras across thick, rich drapes spanning the altar and send them toppling to the stonework below, the organ rattled everyone and everything. A single, ultimate, sustained note. Some of the parishioners winced, bowing their heads and burying their chins in heavy coats to absorb some of the sonic assault. Cassie kept her eyes fixed on the simple cross suspended on iron chains ahead, tracing the ridges of oxidised metal where corrosion had begun to flake and pit the surface.
Satisfied and glorified, valves inside the enormous cluster of brass tubes cycled shut. The bassy rumble, which cavitated the blood like a pump sucking in air; thrashing and twisting and gulping, shrank to nothing in an instant. Silence reigned.
Cassie gingerly pulled the handkerchief away from her lip, dabbing a fingertip in its place and following a trail of drying blood down her chin, around the nape of her neck and onto her dress. Pulling a thick fur coat up from the pew and bunching it in her arms to keep her lower face covered, she waited until the handful of stragglers ahead had cleared away before making her way out and into one of the bathrooms adjoining the transept.
Setting her coat by the side of the basin, Cassie glanced at the splashes of dark across the bright red of her dress, grimacing as best the wiring clamped about her face would allow. Turning in the light, she picked out strips of mottled flesh to either side of her cracked lips that made a rictus, bruised, purple grin. Rummaging in amongst the folds of her coat, Cassie snapped the lid free from an orange plastic tub, tipped a handful of pills into her trembling hand and made short work of downing them.
With an audible groan of pain, she got as close to the running tap as she could and lapped at the water; unable to widen her lips enough to get anything more than a trickle.
At a distance didn't seem far enough to stay out of the blast radius of guilt. Consequences coming to fruition and playing out before her, usually she'd be the one having to deal with the fallout … Grin and bear it, cause she'd wrought it upon herself.
However seeing someone else deal with her poor decision making – it only seemed to solidify her thoughts on what had to be done. How many ways goodbye and good luck could take the form of almost nothing at all.
Amber had said from day one that Cassie would be better off without her influence, however she never really expected to have the visual representation of such things laid so bare for her in a house of worship.
Amber swallowed hard, although whether it was the osmotic backwash of religion – or the bile fuelled by regret and determination to do anything else but set another person's world alight – was yet to be seen. Gently, she leaned in the doorway. Unable to find words that were anything less than insignificant and morose. A mere fragment of what she wanted to express without the sincerity to deliver it.
What she would never do though, musing silently as the flickers of a half smile curled at the edge of Amber's lip, was apologize.
That alone would be the greatest insult of all.
“ Are you …” Cassie rasped, the words a little slurred by the prison scaffolding inside her mouth. “Are you …”
She leaned over the sink, immaculately painted fingernails curling in tight against shining porcelain. Looking up at her own reflection, watching a string of drool spill free and make a rope joining the drain with her chin, she cut it free with a flicker of her tongue and tried again.
“Are you … Going to say something?”
Casie listened to the silence and her answer, turning the tap off and watching the saliva circle in the draining water. It made a frothy, pink ribbon; striped in washed-out blood.
“I don’t remember it,” She said eventually. “The docks …” Her hand strayed up to caress the staples holding the wound in her scalp closed, courtesy of a hard right that’d knocked her senseless and down to the rain-slicked concrete. “Comes in waves, like flashes …”
Her eyes squeezed shut. She shuddered, biceps trembling with the effort of holding even her slight frame up over the sink. For a while – a few seconds – Cassie was somewhere else. Some composite of a waking dreamscape, equal parts half-remembered and fantastical; jarring pseudo-memories made of painful colours and mad shapes, where her concussed mind simply opened wide and poured gibberish in to fill the blurred gaps.
She tilted her chin up, eyes slowly fluttering open again. “Do you remember the cat?”
Cassie nodded at her own reflection, taking comfort from its dumb agreement. “Yes, I remember the cat. It was grey …”
Her fist clenched, slamming down against the basin. She leaned into the mirror, scrutinising it. Searching her own face. “No!” She snapped, tapping a red fingernail on the glass. “It wasn’t grey. Brown? Black?”
She nodded again, and her reflection concurred. “Black. The cat was black …”
“You gave me the phone, told me to go. I did. I found Mac, then, I … I …”
A frost-white mask, marred with a radial crack reaching out to eight irregular points leered over, cut out around bright blue eyes that saw right through her.
Cassie shook her head and grimaced, holding the stapled line of scar tissue hidden by carefully combed blonde hair. “She didn’t have a face …”
The downpour pooled in her eyes, making it hard to see. The other woman stooped down and wiped the rainwater, tears and blood away with a latex glove. It felt warm against the chill of the concrete underneath. “Are you ready for the Rapture?” She asked. “Suffering is so very good for the soul …”
Interrogating the face staring back, Cassie pursed her cracked lips. “Did she? Did that happen? Or …”
Straightening up, Cassie turned on her heels – pointed and glossy red and inappropriate for someone convalescing – towards Amber. Remember what she told you in the rain. Fumbling with the buttons, Cassie shrugged off her cardigan and let it swing down to graze the tiles, still hanging on by a single sleeve turned inside out around her wrist. Tell the story of your life made a mosaic on your skin …
The glove on her neck had been so warm. So gentle. She turned side-on, presenting Amber with the twisted mass of scar tissue running up her arm and out across her shoulder, cutting a dimpled crescent moon snug tight against the nape of her neck. “You’ve seen this before.”
Cassie turned back towards the mirror, looking for reassurance from her reflection. It nodded. She nodded. Duality in thought and feeling. The Weapon and its Sacrifice. The Alpha and Omega. “At the bar, what were you drinking? It tasted …” She trailed off. Lost for a second. “Revolting. Yes, that’s right. It was awful.”
She tried to smile, but her eyes didn’t follow the gesture and the wire locking kept it compressed tight and pulled out at the edges. Cassie looked down on ridged, twisted skin spread across her shoulder and then back at Amber. “What made these made my faith. Made me a better person.”
She tried to lift a hand up towards her face but the awkward weight of the cardigan hanging against her wrist made her stop halfway. Ignoring the pain lancing through everything, she jerked and whipped her hand until the cardigan dropped to the floor. It hurt so much. Rapturous.
“This …” She rasped, and saliva spilled over her lip, tracking down her chin until it was collected by an obscene ledge made by the scar tissue arcing up from her neck. Cassie gingerly ran a hand carefully along the blotched purple skin, following a smeared smile running almost up to her ear. Suffering is good for the soul. “This …”
“You gave me this,” She said, cradling her jaw. “You made these. Remade my faith.” Made it resplendent.
Cassie took a deep breath. “I’m ready, Miss Ryan. Ready to follow a …”
“Painted?” She glanced back at the mirror. “No …”
A nod. “Yes … I’m ready to follow a Resplendent Hurricane.”
Her fingers closed around the misshapen crucifix hung about her patchwork neck. “He works in mysterious ways – through you.” She works in mysterious ways.
Radiating a level of feigned apathy not experienced since the universe watched man force his way through the stratosphere for the first time, Amber dipped her head with a crooked smile.
"You have a far better memory than I do." Shaking her head in a subtle disbelief, Amber straightened up just enough to impose in such a way that she commanded the small space.
It might have been one of the few things she still had left to control these days. "Still, you tend to put a lot of faith into a lot of things that give you so little in return. I mean I don't wanna stand here and pretend like I don't feel bad considering…"
To say that Amber was 'conditioned' for such things perhaps was a gross understatement and a psychological red flag waved freely. Proudly perhaps. A lifetime of physical abuse created emotional and mental calluses that didn't wear away, the collection of concussions and contusions like a disoriented rainbow of medical horrors.
Still, it was different to the angry masses of scarring that seems to tendril and transverse the otherwise porcelain and pure. Different if only for the fact that Amber continually went back looking for more … An addict looking for their next fix, absolutely sure that this one would be the one to send them tumbling into a self-induced abyss.
"... I dunno. Seems really fucking stupid actually, thinking I could come here and say all the things I wanted to." A weighty pause, the faint drip of a faucet distinctly overt for its lack of influence. A cadence to a conversation that had veered wildly from it's proposed destination. "... Then you look at me like I've done you a favour."
Cassie wasn't the first to invest in the void that Amber had created, persecution via proximity. A void that had been labelled as do not enter and taken as a challenge, never realizing it wasn't about what was inside … But keeping it there. Keeping it from spreading … Growing… That physical manifestation of crippling spite and self-perpetuating cycles of violence.
"Resplendence is the reason I was here, it's not why I sought this … Although that reason sure feels a lot more rational than what I had in mind." Like poorly arranged papers on the deck of a stormcloud, the plans had gone out the window around the time Cassie started her evangelical pursuit of ultimate suffering and in turn … Paradise. "I don't know what you think you see … You saw … I can't make you not believe. I won't try to tear your faith from your hands, cause that's not my place. What I can do though … Is sever the ties that bind, allow your new-found freedom to exist beyond the cryptids deception we've created.”
"Whatever it is that you think you see in me, Ms Mares … I can only assure you only a debilitating misery lies at the end. A light at the end of the tunnel only shines so bright until everyone tries to recreate the magic.”
“No, fuck the magic… Fuck the idea of miracles and rapture, Cassie. Trying to bend the whims of the universe into just the right paper plane, it's not a game for us and it's sure as fuck no place for you to proclaim your willingness with mutually assured sacrifice."
A small pause overtook them both before Amber reigned in the pretense she'd silently proclaimed.
"I told you this when we first met … Hurricanes, regardless of their regality and resplendence, don't get to choose which houses get flattened … They don't get the option of feeling any way about whatever pieces can be cobbled in their wake.”
“I'm not something to be aspired to … I'm a storm approaching the end of its tether to being, just another terrible thing masquerading as the facsimile of something better than what I deserve."
Amber shook her head, taking a step towards the smaller woman, although whether reassuring or assertive was left to the imagination.
"I never asked you to follow, but now I wish I had never left the impression of it being an option …"
Cassie held her ground as Amber stepped forward, despite the obvious power imbalance inherent in someone – evident by the bruising on their face – who had just established her lack of physical credentials and was now up against a born fighter.
“I’m not a puppet!” She snapped, aggression seeping into the syllables and giving everything an edge that didn’t belong to the young woman. Or hadn’t, at least, before Atlantic City had taught her such a painful lesson.
Fists bunched, she seethed. “You’re talking to me like I’m a fucking idiot! You’re all taking at me! She’s the only one who listens! I just want … I want to … You … to …”
The bathroom began to spin, and Cassie tried to move her feet to keep up with it and so she spun too. She caught a glance at her reflection as it smeared in the mirror, stretching into bands of colour that blurred together. The desaturation spread, taking definition from the tilework, the walls–
It wasn’t the room. It was her.
Cassie stumbled forward into Amber in mid-pirouette, who caught her effortlessly without so much as a step back to counterbalance.
“She told me you can’t …” Cassie wheezed, struggling. “ … You can’t do this on your own. You need me – I need you. Miracles don’t have to be one-way. This isn’t about bending everything to fit …
A fresh trickle of red seeped from her nose, and she pressed the hilt of her palm up roughly against it. “This is about accepting our place in his design. Your agency, his work …”
Blinking away stars, Cassie forced herself to find Amber’s gaze. “I know how important it is to you,” She said, the great championship millstone-around-the-neck conspicuous by inference. “It’s everything you are. Without it …”
She let the implication hang for a second. “I think she can help you. I think I can help you …”
Thoughtfully, Amber placed her hands at the edges of Cassie's shoulders, steadying the smaller frame as best she could under the circumstances, trying to deflect from that same desperation she'd seen in the mirror before.
"And what if you're wrong … What if we're both wrong. I can't just stand by and have another flower girl on my conscience cause I blindly followed the lead of someone who has had everything but my best interests at heart before!" Amber didn't mean to raise her voice in the confined space, quickly pulling back her tone into something more restrained.
"Listen if your heart commands it, follow if that's what you truly desire… just, just don't put your faith into a suicide booth cause it's masquerading as a confessional."
Amber gripped a little tighter, perhaps hoping that the jolt of something real might penetrate the haze.
"Cassie … the only thing I've ever fought harder for than this big gold anchor wrapped around my throat were the lives of those that she threatened and succeeded in taking … Help isn't always salvation and an outstretched hand could just as easily hold you under as pull you from the ocean's grip." Amber leaned down to eye level, in hopes that there was something still worth salvaging, something that didn't look like the worst of her own reflection.
"If you're going to do this … follow till the ground beneath your feet turns to brimstone and the flames of purgatory fill your lungs, you need to promise me something. No question, just loyalty."
Appealing to her sense of devotion, Amber subtly nodded in hopes that body language and a display of open mindedness might persuade; would reign in a spiraling conversation.
“You’re not in control of this …” Cassie slurred, dropping down to one knee. Her head felt heavy, and she struggled to keep her chin from dipping towards the tiled floor. “None of us are, we’re just pieces on …”
She fell the rest of the way, splaying her hands out on the cold ceramic. “ … On a board.”
Her shoulders shuddered, and Cassie took long rattling breaths. “Different pieces. Different roles. Like a White Knight …”
“ … Or a Pawn,” Cassie continued, pressing a hand against her own chest to underline the role she felt she was here to play. Then she looked up at Amber. “ … Or a Queen.”
Her forehead creased and awkwardly, she sat back staring up at the other woman – the fabric of her dress spilling out in a lopsided petal of red hues. “I’m the second flower girl?” She asked, abruptly shifting the topic of a conversation already struggling to stay coherent.
"Now, stay with me here Cassie." Amber followed her all the way towards the floor, trying to create reassurance when there was only uncertainty. "This isn't about who's in control … you want to play your role, you want to follow the leader … Promise me that if this all goes to shit though, if this isn't everything you'd dreamt it would be … What you were told it would be …"
Swallowing hard, trying to maintain a level in her voice that didn't alarm beyond the already spiking adrenaline levels between them.
"You get out. You run and you never speak a word of any of this – promise me that and I'll tell you everything you think you want to know. Flower girls, after all, are a rare breed in a concrete utopia."
Cassie struggled under Amber’s gaze, shrinking back slightly but when she made to look away, something she co̴u̴l̴d̵n’t qu̶it̴e̴ pla̵c̵e kept her eyes locked. Gave her strength when she felt so weak, tired …
“I promise,” She said, eventually. The room stopped spinning. Gathering the fabric of her dress, Cassie unsteadily got back onto her knees. Amber allowed herself the pent up sigh that had burned in her lungs, acquiescing to the question as tactfully as one could possibly manage.
"Not so difficult …" More of a rhetoric, Amber cleared her throat thoughtfully. "There was another flowergirl before … Tended an abandoned garden in a place where nothing would choose to grow – as much dirt on her patterned dress as there was under her fingernails. Running from an existence that didn't belong to her, for reasons she didn't want to understand."
Amber rummaged around at the inside of her jacket, a small pocket otherwise invisible from the outside. From between her fingers, as her hand emerged, a fragile silver chain swung along its length.
Taking Cassie's hand with her free one, Amber placed the chain into Cassie's open palm. A pendant at the centre, the remains of what was once a tiny angel – her face worn away by trembling fingertips searching for salvation and a wing snapped almost carelessly from her back.
"Never did get to learn why this meant so much to her. Sentimentality will get us all killed, no doubt. It's a reminder though; of what has been and what will come. How unexpectedly it all ends ..."
Cassie felt the slight weight to it and with a single finger, pushed it around her cradling palm. The silver was tarnished, dulled to white and the metal dimpled by relentless, incessant abrasion.
“Are not all angels ministering spirits …” She began to mumble, the verse tumbling from her lips. “ … Sent to serve those who will inherit salvation …”
She looked up. “Did you kill her?”
Amber forced a half smile across her lips, unsure if it was sincere or unsettling. "Would you believe me if I said I didn't?" With an almost sheepishness unheard of from the redhead, she shrugged vaguely. "Nothing was ever proven but there was an admission in hindsight… one that brings us to the very conversation we're having now. You aren't her first flower girl, but I hope that you'll be the last … The one that got away perhaps. Lord knows I don't think I could sleep a wink if I let anyone else down at the moment."
Levity had no place here, yet it emerged unwelcome and unhinged. A chuckle in the face of the ultimately macabre and tragic. "Only thing worse than dying alone … Is knowing someone else did ‘cause of you."
“You’re talking about …” Cassie trailed off, and the fingers of her open palm closed around the little angel, squeezing tight. “ … Her.”
She looked about herself, then scowled. Annoyed. She wasn’t some spectre from beyond the veil. Whatever this mysterious woman was, she was most certainly mortal. Wounded. Cassie had seen it when she felt the hard plastic of that prosthetic. “Masque.”
Even the name made her pause again, for a second. “You’ve met her before, when–”
She stopped, blinking in a silence punctuated by running water gargling softly in pipework above her head. Absurdly, it dawned on her in the third rapid-fire conclusion of as many moments. “Her name was Cassie too?”
"Cassiopeia." Small differentiation that meant everything. "Another flower girl named after the stars."
Amber trailed off quietly, the distinctive nature of names … The connections leading back to a masked women with a porcelain face. Deja vu in a sense, Jamais vu in a worse one.
"It's too similar, Cassie, way too close to home that I can't just ignore the feeling in my gut. Whatever promises she made to you … I can only imagine have been spoken one before, well practiced on deaf ears."
Pushing back to her feet, Amber paced a few steps in the narrow walkway.
"Maybe I'm wrong … Maybe I'm the problem and I'm manifesting my failures on someone new. Maybe this is all gonna be sunshine and rainbows at the end and for once … For fucking once … Someone actually has better intentions than me."
The smooth silver digs into her closed fist. “I remember her, at the dockyards …”
Cassie squeezed her eyes shut for a few seconds. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten up if she hadn’t been there to …”
Words trail off, with no need to finish the obvious. “But …”
“ … She’s broken. I’ve seen her up close and felt – touched – her imperfections. She’s no better or worse than you. What she’s got is a purpose, like we all do. Sounds like she started out on that purpose a long time ago, with you and Cassieopia.”
Hearing her own name in some strange, third-person perspective reference drove the latest, jarring splinter deep into an already intense cognitive dissonance made worse by mental fog and medication. “How long has it been since you first met? Years? You must know something about her motivations.”
Amber paused, contemplating the passage of time. As if such a thing made sense in a church bathroom.
"Shit, I dunno… Five years maybe? Six if I squint and hold my tongue in just the right way perhaps… God, it was all in passing. Connected through other people's threads. We were wisps of smoke trying to clutch onto sand passing through broken fingers."
A different time, a different place. When did everything get so hazy?
"Everything I know is hearsay, is conjecture and words from the mouth of the only person I shouldn't have listened to. Feel like I'm chasing shadows … Or they are chasing me."
Chewing the inside of her lip, Cassie frowns. “I understand my place in all this, I think, but I don’t really understand why you’re letting any of this happen.”
She opens her palm, tracing the silhouette of red skin where the metalwork salvation made an imprint. “You’re the strongest person I think I know – maybe that I’ve ever met. Everything you say about her, I just don’t … Why do you even let her look at you unchallenged?
“Amber Ryan doesn’t suffer fools, or angels, or determined corporate talent managers easily. Why let Masque darken your door at all if you don’t believe in the message or anything about her?”
Rolling her tongue through her cheek, Amber stopped her pacing long enough for the dim light to cast its shadows across her face. Of course, the answer was simple as it always had been … But it was one she'd never been able to bring herself to admit.
"Why indeed… Why do people believe in a God that would allow their people to suffer inhumanely in spite of their devotion. Why does Mother Nature allow us to persist when all we do is destroy everything we've been graced with. Why does the sun rise and the moon fall, why do we commit ourselves to unspoken frameworks of time and space?"
Dropping her head with a distant smile, the small shake of her head dislodged a last part of the thought from the back of her throat.
"... Cause there's this little part of me that wants to be proven wrong. That wants to believe that everything happens for a reason, except I don't want it to be at anyone else's expense. Not anymore. It's not about belief cause Masque knows precisely where I stand, however I can't walk away from the uncertainty … I have to know, I just refuse to let anyone else's blood pay my way."
Locking eyes with Cassie, a small glint of humanity peeked from behind the iron curtain of her eyes.
"Humanity has an innate desire to see their rock bottom – but only a few have the means and willpower to actually get there."
Cassie nodded, awkwardly climbing up to stand. “You think you know where this path is going to take you, but … You still want to see whether you were right in the end. So you’re going to walk it–”
She catches herself. “We’re going to walk it.”
Waving the angel on the end of its clinking chain to cut off the inevitable response, Cassie continued. “You don’t trust Masque, or me. But that’s okay. I don’t need you to trust me, because that’s not your part of all this. It’s mine. I’ll do the trusting. In you, in his plan, in where that path ends up taking us when we finally get to lay down our burdens at the end …
Taking a deep breath, the tension in her face melts away, making violet-coloured bruises shrink a little on either side of her sore mouth.
“I will follow you Miss Ryan,” She says and drapes the angel over her neck, setting it centred. Smoothing the ruffled fabric of her dress, Cassie nods. “I will follow you and we will see if you were right when it all comes to an end.”
Subconsciously, she gently runs a hand over old scars twisting her shoulder up. “Suffering is good for the soul.”