Before the Change, there were spiders in the corners of the Panopticon. They had been there for years, perhaps even decades; webs built when it was nothing more than a long-discarded ruin, glistening silver cities the only life in that dusty place.
Now, there’s a spider in the corner of the Panopticon. Her name is Annabelle Cane, and she’s only been here for a few hours. Her eight black eyes stare out of the windows at the new world.
“What a wonderful mess,” she murmurs, voice undercut by the sound of chittering.
Sitting in the chair behind her, the man who was once the head of the Magnus Institute lets out a disparaging laugh. He watches her, but while she stands in the Eye’s pupil, his gaze cannot touch her on any level but the physical. It must be very frustrating for him. What a pity.
Annabelle turns to look at him, leaning against the glass behind her.
The man in the chair is not quite Jonah Magnus, and he’s not quite Elias Bouchard. It is, perhaps, his true form, his soul exposed to the world in a mingling of all the lives he’s led. He has kept what he wishes to keep, and abandoned the rest. Annabelle understands; there’s a reason she still makes the effort to bleach her hair, even after all these years.
It does make the matter of names a tad complex, though.
“You know, we’ve never been introduced,” she informs him, pleasant. “What do I call you?”
To a casual observer, he would seem utterly unworried, but Annabelle is practiced enough to note the tinge of unease wrinkling the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. He swallows, mouth working silently as he considers his answer. It must be exhausting to overthink so much.
If he gives the name he prefers, then perhaps she’ll use the other one; but if he gives the name he would prefer to discard, perhaps then she’ll accept what he tells her. In his eyes, it’s all a matter of how far she’ll manage to predict him — how invested is she in his discomfort?
Annabelle smiles at him, amiable and approachable. Take all the time you need, that smile says. After all, it doesn’t really matter what choice he makes; Annabelle will do as she pleases.
“Elias,” he says at last. How interesting.
“Elias it is,” Annabelle agrees, watching the faintest flicker of surprise cross his face. She almost considers being insulted by his incredulity, but she’s long beyond that sort of thing now.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Ms. Cane?”
“Oh, please, call me Annabelle.”
The conversation stalls for a moment; she won’t answer his question until he returns the politeness she gave him in respecting his chosen name. He would like to keep her at a distance — but given everything, they ought to be treating each other as old friends.
“Annabelle,” Elias allows, inclining his head. “Why are you here?”
“I wanted to thank you. Or, the Mother wants to thank you, and those two things are close enough to being the same, in my experience. Isn’t it funny how some of our gods have more of a mind than others? I’d guess that the Web — and the Eye, and the Spiral — have the closest to human thought patterns. We’re so interlinked with the concept of consciousness, after all.”
Elias looks at her, one silver eyebrow raised in perfect poised disdain. “What does the Web want to thank me for?”
Annabelle sighs. Since the Change, there’s been no one to engage in a good bit of philosophy with her: Oliver is always so fatalistic, Martin keeps hanging up the phone, and Jon… well, perhaps she’ll be able to talk philosophy with him soon, though he’ll doubtless get frustrated.
“You’ve been very cooperative,” she informs Elias, laughing as his expression sours.
“You gave your blessing,” he hedges, lips pursed. “Hardly the most watertight communication.”
“Our blessing? Oh, you mean Jon. If you want to see him that way, I guess you can, although he’s far more than that. You know how some spiders mimic ants?”
Elias’ expression turns to one of genuine worry, and Annabelle pushes on before he can examine her words too closely.
“It was a stroke of genius, speaking the invocation through his mouth. I quite literally couldn’t have done it better myself. And now here you are, sitting at the center of your web, looking down at all of the unlucky morsels scrabbling to get free of a trap that they can’t comprehend.”
Now the realisation is creeping into that silk-grey gaze. The portrait on the wall of the Institute shows a man with pale eyes, but the difference is there, if you know to look for it.
She wonders how many spiders made their home in Jonah Magnus’ body over the years.
“The Mother appreciates your manipulations,” Annabelle concludes, her mouth continuing on without her say-so, “and she always rewards those of her children who have done well.”
Elias is silent — a rarity, as she understands. His hands curl and uncurl as though he’s itching for a weapon. Idly, she imagines those long delicate fingers plucking at strings of web, control resonating through the world he thinks he rules. He seems like the type to play an instrument.
“Why?” he asks at last, the faintest thread of uncertainty pitching his voice higher.
“Why not?” she replies, because he’s not the only one who can be infuriatingly vague.
He’s silent again. Annabelle smiles at him, fluttering the lashes of her eight dark eyes. When she waves for him to approach her, there are spiders crawling across her fingertips.
Elias doesn’t take to being puppeted with grace; his movements are jerky as he stands and walks towards the window. He’s struggling against it, but the Watcher’s power can do nothing to free him. Poor thing. Perhaps one day he’ll learn to own the control that the Mother has over him. Annabelle certainly has; she pulls it off with a dancer’s elegance.
Her hand reaches out and turns Elias’ head like a doll’s. Together, they look out of the window at the path that the Archivist is picking across the shifting domains of this nightmare world.
“You have plans for him,” Elias says, flat. He’s addressing the Mother, not Annabelle.
“What do you possibly have to gain from this?”
“Fear.” Far away, Jon exchanges a joke with Martin. They don’t look scared — but then, they’re not the ones who need to be. “There’s always more work to do. Oliver is a sweetheart, but we don’t want Terminus ending this beautiful world of ours.”
Ours, she says, and watches Elias’ lips curl in disgust.
“This ritual wasn’t done for the Web,” he snaps, his voice tight with disapproval.
“It wasn’t for the Watcher, either,” Annabelle reminds him. “You’re not the devotee sort, whatever god you happen to be serving. What difference does it make if it was the Spider pulling your strings?”
Gaze locked on the Archivist, Elias doesn’t reply.
“It’s like you told Jon.” She lowers her voice, an approximation of gentleness that neither of them believe. “You didn’t want this, but you chose it. Just as he did. Just as I did.”
Annabelle runs crawling fingers down his back, resisting the urge to pluck loose all the tension in his muscles. That sort of thing isn’t a part of the game they’re playing — not yet, at any rate.
“None of us chose this,” Elias says at last. How interesting; there’s a shred of vulnerability to his voice, and she can’t tell if it’s real, or if he’s simply performing what he thinks she wants to hear.
Humming in neutrality, Annabelle’s fingers skitter upwards, coming to rest on his cheekbone. He doesn’t shiver, although she can feel the intention of it below her touch. He chose this more than most do — not many are so lucky as to have the knowledge of what they’re committing to.
Idly, she considers kissing him. He’s already entangled in the Mother’s strings, but Annabelle can’t help but desire a more personal form of control. One of her spiders, crawling from her tongue to his… well, it would be just the thing to seal their unwitting alliance.
“Don’t,” Elias says, sharper this time.
Annabelle grins, running her tongue over her teeth.
“Alright,” she agrees, all innocence. “Can I use your phone? I have to make a call.”