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UNKNOWN Drabbles

Chapter Text

“Who are you?”

The words rip the watery smile from the Puppeteer’s face. How could he not remember? They forged a friendship during the initial trip through the zones then a team in setting things right. All but two had survived the wicked machinations of the mad vulpine; endured psychological terrors all alone. By the sounds of battle outside of the chamber, Seneca was now preoccupied by The Judge and The Batter.

The door was still open. It was a blessing when they came back to the room that Seneca’s massive form occupied and found their comrade gone, but there was no telling when it would shut.

“I’m…”

They say their name.

He says nothing. Then:

“I’m sorry, mon ami. I have never seen you before and I certainly would have remembered a face like yours.”

The controller of strings and life tries to remember what could have made their dear friend forget. He seemed just fine before he was left alone – a stupid, stupid, stupid mistake – so chances are they missed whatever happened. Yet, could there have been a clue as to what happened earlier on in the quest?

His voice snaps them out of their musings.

“I don’t recognize this place… Where are we?”

A wet chuckle echoes throughout the room. Two names are called out.

“Get out of there, quickly!” shouts The Judge.

The Player turns, grabbing onto their friend and charging towards the exit. Two seconds later, the door slams shut with a bang of finality.

“No.” Legs shaking, they continue to move forward. “No no no no no nononono!” They let go of the merchant and charge at the door, bashing their fists against it, but the act makes no difference. Green arcs of electricity dance through the air. A chill slides down the Player’s spine. Turning back to their companion, the Puppeteer says only a few words:

“I’m sorry, Zacharie…”

There is nothing but searing agony until darkness claims them.

Chapter Text

>This book looks interesting. Would you like to read it?

>Yes
No

Once upon a time, there was a greedy merchant. He had few friends but many customers and he strove to make them all happy. One day, an evil monster cast a spell upon him.

“You’re so corrupt,” it said, “I want you to see how pure everyone else is on the inside.” Sword in hand, he slaughtered enemy and friend alike. Unable to stop himself from slashing them all to bits, unable to scream out loud or shout at them to run, the merchant could only cry out in his own mind as one by one they fell.

When all that lay around him was dead, dying, or decaying, his knees gave out and he knelt on the ground, blade abandoned by his side.

“Oh, it looks like they were all the same on the inside,” said the creature, “Just as putrid and rotten as you.”

Hand trembling, the merchant took up his blade again. In one deft movement the creature was beheaded, leaving one alone on a pile of corpses.

>The book ends here.

Chapter Text

The Puppeteer wearily eyed the next open door. They were emotionally and mentally exhausted from the last five rooms they had been forced to enter; a marathon of torment from worrying about a crash to being subjected to the most brutal thing ever created. Phantom aches from the energy chamber still throbbed, making the Puppeteer wince as the terrible memory surfaced.

They inhaled a breath of air, pushing aside distractions – Zacharie, Batter, Judge, Observer, pain painpain agony - and steadying their nerves for whatever came next. They needed to get back to the others, wherever they were. Hopefully they were doing better. Maybe they were all together already, waiting.

Exhale. Three illusions left. The end was near.

They walked forward, first at a brisk yet stiff march then abruptly stopped in front of the unblocked door. What could be worse? Seneca had limits yet what he accomplished within those limits was terrifying.

Would it be worth looking for another way out? Carefully, methodically, the Player circled the room, slowly sliding both hands up and down the walls. After several minutes of this, the Player stumbled when one hand went through part of the wall, finding no resistance. They waved both hands through the strange area. It was as if a hologram or projection was placed there to keep up the illusion of entrapment. Tentatively, they put one foot through the false wall then another. And another. They walked another six feet before turning around to check how far they had gone.

The hidden doorway was a fair distance away. They hadn’t been held back by some other force, going nowhere. Whether it was a glitch or a legitimate way out, this was their big break!

A smile spread over the Puppeteer’s face, thoughts of their allies coming to the fore of their mind. Spinning on their heel, they took off and left the rooms of torment behind.

The cramped passageway did not last long. One moment they were wandering through the dark with not a glimmer of light and the next a broad, lit hallway opened up to them. Walls on either side stretched in front of them before breaking off into opposite directions at a three-way intersection.

The controller released a breath they didn’t even know they were holding. No Seneca. No scribbles on the floor. Unsure of where these halls would take them, but not caring, they walked quickly to the intersection.

But someone had beaten them there.

A familiar Elsen slowly made his way across their vision, seemingly preoccupied as he made his way down the right passage.

“Bandit?!” the Puppeteer cried in disbelief. The merchant jumped, turning to them. His one eye widened as they stepped closer.

“They say they’re gonna take me to a room. I don’t know where that is. But it can’t be good!”

“I thought you were dead!” Accusation, misery, and relief mixed together in those five words. An acquaintance and a foe; a friendly face and a possible roadblock.

He said their name and approached. “What are you doing here?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. The last time I saw you, you were surrounded by some Seneca clones and acting like bait to get the Batter killed!”

Silence, stuffy and tense, settled between the two.  One a victim of vicious illusions – it couldn’t be an illusion it was too real - and the other a traitor.

“…I’m so sorry. It probably doesn’t mean much now, but I never wanted things to end up this way.”

The Puppeteer bit their lip and shook their head. This could be resolved at a later time. “Where does this hall go?”

Bandit slouched and gave a half-hearted chuckle. “These halls go where I go. They’re how I travel around so quickly. If you hurry you might be able to reunite with your friends before Seneca notices you’re gone.” He turned and pointed down the left passage. “Go straight down this hallway. It will take you to the others.”

The Player flashed him a smile and said, “Thanks! See you later!” With that, they raced off down the indicated passage, leaving the Elsen to watch their shrinking back.

It wasn’t long before the Puppeteer came across a flight of stairs heading upwards. The lighting was poorer here, forcing the Player to squint their eyes as they climbed. The first landing was nothing but a small square where the stairs branched off to the left. Halfway up, they slowed their pace and peered at where the stairs stopped. Once again, a brighter hallway was presented to them, although this one had doors lining both sides. Instead of trying them all, the controller merely passed them all up. They had learned from Clueless, thank you very much.

It was strange. Only half of the hall was lit up. The other was cast in shadows. Looking closer it seemed that there was a door on the far side.

The ground gave out beneath them. The floor flew past their sight – half of it folded neatly downwards – as they plummeted. A startled scream escaped from the Puppeteer as the blue light above dimmed, their voice reverberating off the sides of the shaft and filling their ears with the sounds of their own panicked cries.

Crunch!

Splurt.

“Oof!”

The Player groaned and blinked. In the span of two seconds they quickly realized their situation. The remains of some hapless beings had broken their fall. Blood was soaking into their clothes – if any of it was their own, they didn’t have time to check. Finally, the room was occupied. Not by Seneca clones or their friends, but abominations. The Puppeteer could see the distorted forms of the Batter, Zacharie, and even Charlotte surrounding them. The cacophony of shrieks that the creatures made was unbearable.

And they were all looking at the one who had crashed into their room. The Player got to their feet, looking on in horror as the warped mockeries of their companions shambled forth, screeching in agony.

There was no choice. The Puppeteer struck the nearest monster in the face – I’m so sorry – and kicked another in the stomach – I don’t want to hurt you you’re in so much pain and I can’t help you – while keeping an eye for the way out. After almost a full minute of fending off and killing the misshapen creatures, the Player finally spotted it: a door. It was three meters away and the Seneca-made travesties weren’t letting up.

A Zacharie with no legs grabbed their ankle and gurgled. It was the same thing they all seemed to be saying, but the Player couldn’t make out what it was the pitiful creatures were trying to say.

Using what energy they had left – damn that Bandit, why?! – they kicked the hand away and pushed through the cluster of deformities, ducking, dodging, punching, and kicking when need be. The adrenaline was draining from their body. They had precious seconds before the injuries they sustained came back to bite them. One fake Batter was shoved into the floating Zacharie – the only floating Zacharie that never seemed to be too far away. Feeling something small slice into their back, the Player ignored the fake Charlotte that was trying to make a scratching post out of their body and rammed past the last few monstrosities.

They grasped the doorknob, a tired yet thankful grin on their face, and gave it a twist.

It would not budge.

“Come on, come on!” the Player whined, tugging at the knob and willing it to turn. No matter how hard they tried though, the door would not open. Gasping for air, they turned back to the room full of failures and cried out as an eyeless Charlotte dug her claws into their thigh, dragging down six straight red lines.

Through pure adrenaline and determination the Puppeteer had gotten to the exit, however, it was not enough. Their luck had run out and all too soon the creatures broke their bones and eviscerated them, one dying scream not being missed amongst the pained cries of the twisted beings.

Chapter Text

Lying on the floor, Zack could only stare at the orange blindfold wrapped around the head of his friend. The rude cat-man had left, the monster was gone, and no one had entered the room in what seemed like hours. It was only him and a crumpled, bloody body in the all too quiet space.

Why did the cat-man make them sleep for so long? He didn’t even apologize for hurting them! After the fight was over, he nudged them with his foot and said “About time”. He said good-bye, leaving Zack there to try waking them up. But they wouldn’t. They just wouldn’t no matter how hard he yelled or how quietly he pleaded or gently he patted their face and arms.

Tears ran down Zack’s face again. He was alone, just like before.

His sight drifted from the pale face to the rest of the floor. There was nothing that could help either of them.

“Hmm?” Something glinted in the light. He tilted his head to get a better look. There, only a few feet away was the rude cat-man’s sword. Zack looked at his friend then back to the sword. He eased himself up and made his way to the blade. It was almost entirely coated in red. Even now he could imagine his friend, arms crossed over their chest as they refused to fight back against the cat-man.

“Please stop!”

“Just die!”

They tried dodging, but the cat-man was faster.

“You’re my friend!”

“Don’t you dare lie to me!!”

They tried staying behind the crates, continuing to talk to the cat-man.

“Listen to me! Please!”

But he jumped over the obstacles. There had been a very loud scream right after that.

“I don’t want to hurt you!”

“Too bad!”

“Zacharie!”

Something very small and already strained broke inside of Zack.

He returned to his friend’s side, sword in hand, and pushed them onto their back.

“It’s going to be okay, amigo.” He patted their head and raised the weapon.

Schick.

Schlick.

Little by little, Zack carefully cut a rough circle into his friend’s face. He removed the blindfold, cut around the eyes – although one was nicked; he winced – and traced their lips in jagged lines. One ear was chopped in half so he decided to keep it and the other one, too.

When he was done, Zack pressed his friend’s face to his own and wrapped the blindfold around his head to prevent the loose skin from falling.

“There. Better…amigo?”

Silence greeted him.

“We go…togat-togatha- …to…gehth… To…geh…ter.”

With a sad smile, Zack left the room.

He would give it back after they woke up.

Chapter Text

“What happened to him?”

“His sprite glitched.”

“I am not an equine, Zack. I will not give in to your constant demands and purposefully allow you to treat me as such.”

“…However, I believe the player would indulge you if so inquired them.”

“Sorry, Judge. I only give piggy back rides.”

“…”

“Your betrayal is noted, dear player.”

+++++

It’s Christmas and tiny Zack gets into his present the day before. He looks up, eyes watering more than usual and says that he’s sorry.

Player sighs, hugs him, and says, “I’m not mad Zack. …Merry Christmas.”

+++++

Tiny Zack’s birthday comes up. He doesn’t even know it’s coming, and having learned from last time, the player waits until the actual day to spring this on him.

There is no cake (“I am not giving him sugar, not after seeing Zone 3”), but he gets some (somewhat stained) pieces of paper and a broken pencil. It’s all that could be found in the desolate Zones, but he smiles anyway.

He gives the Player a picture of them.

It’s mostly scribbles, and his handwriting isn’t neat, but it’s the best thing the player has received in a while.

(The last best thing was the memory of finding tiny Zack and Judge sleeping next to each other.)

Tiny Zack wants to know where the cat-man is. The player tells them that he’s very far away and can’t be reached.

Tiny Zack hopes he comes back.

+++++

Tiny Zack sitting on the player’s shoulder. Because he was uncomfortable with touching their shoulder before, he sits on some cloth that acts as a cushion. It was awkward at first, and the height was scary, but he knows the player won’t let him fall.

+++++

Zack is a year and a half and he’s sick. The player doesn’t know what happened to him. There shouldn’t be any kind of virus or bug anymore.

Day after day, Zack lies down in his bed, shivering, coughing, and refusing to eat more than a bit of soup a day.

While checking up on him one day, the player pulls up the covers and pauses. There, next to his head, is dried blood.

They check him over, finding no injuries around his head.

He coughs and his hand is suddenly red.

Tiny Zack is dying, and the player can’t do anything to help him.

Talking with Judge isn’t relaxing how it always is. The two of them try to figure out the problem. After a few hours, the player thinks he’s hit the nail on the head.

Zack was a clone, a failed one at that, created by Seneca. His face is supposed to be a mask, his tongue is too long, and his eyes are mismatched. Seneca didn’t know how a human was supposed to be put together.

So Zack wasn’t put together well.

So the stomach ache he often got was probably something to worry about.

So it was very likely that his insides, like his outsides, weren’t complete or not arranged right or missing something.

The Judge calls it a cruel miracle that he’s lived this long and the Player can’t help but agree.

Tiny Zack is a year and a half old and he won’t live to see his second birthday.

For three days the player tries making Zack smile, telling jokes, recounting adventures, and telling him everything that they can about “the cat-man”.

For three nights the Player sobs themselves to sleep.

On the fourth, they sit down and cry for a long, long time.

Tiny Zack has passed and Zone 0 has never seemed emptier.

Chapter Text

Living in Zone 0 isn’t as bad as it could be. It’s a stable Zone, independent of anyone’s influence save the Judge’s, and it’s easy enough to convert the puzzle rooms for more practical purposes. Yet, every other day the Player leaves and comes back enough food to last a few days. Zacharie doesn’t know what’s going on until one day he follows them across the Nothingness. To his horror and dismay, he discovers how they have been getting food: it’s all canned. Freshly canned. It’s sick, it’s wrong, and he can’t stand it. All couples had arguments, but not like this. Soon enough, the time for words ends and weapons are drawn.

He hates this. He hates everything about this. The canning process, the innocents slaughtered, the rotting corpse of a far-too-curious Judge, what they’ve become…

But he loves them.

To win might kill them.

But he needs them.

He hopes that this isn’t them.

He hopes that he is still in the illusion because that would be so much easier to handle than if it were reality. Because he wouldn’t be fighting the only person who mattered, driven crazy by eating from the sugar stores in Zone 0’s basement.

Heart heavy, the battle begins.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, the Player thought, they should have known better than to even attempt fighting against the Falses. The door was right behind them and only one failed creation was waiting on the other side, but the cries of pain were too much to ignore. Just like the False Batter before, they couldn’t stand to see the disfigured creatures in agony. These beings attacked each other in confusion, though more than a few were cognizant enough to focus their strikes on the fresh meat that had waltz into the room.

Grabbing an eyeless Charlotte by the scruff, the Puppeteer threw it across the head of a False Zacharie. A Batter twitched and spasmed on the floor before it was crushed underfoot by another Zacharie duplicate. The pitiful thing tripped, giving the Player a full view of the floating Zacharie that never seemed to do much other than hover around menacingly most of the time. Oh, but it could fight alright. The Player flexed their fingers and punched another Batter – the sixth one so far? The seventh? – doing their best to ignore the gouges on their right arm where the odd, well, odder Zach had clawed them. It wasn’t really working, but there was no other choice. There was no way to heal the injury since all of the tickets had been used up, leaving little else to do except to pretend that they were unleashing a battle cry with nearly every attack. It was better than contemplating what would happen if they didn’t get a break in the fighting soon.

An arm clutched their shoulder. With only a panicked glance at the shrieking form of a Batter, they elbowed the creature in the neck. Green tears on black; two Charlottes crept closer. Another Zacharie was punched and it stumbled back into two Batters. All three sort-of-look-likes went down, screeching the entire way. One Charlotte was between the legs of a Zacharie who was scratching his eyes out while the other walked over the pile of dead corpses already three feet high next to the Player. A hand grabbed the Puppeteer’s ankle; they stepped on it with their free foot. The floating Zacharie got closer; they took a step back, minding the hoarse sounds coming from the floor beside them.

The Player screamed as something sharp pierced their leg. Looking down, they saw a Charlotte. The other two were still in sight when the one climbing the dead bodies leapt and sunk its claws into their back. Ripping the cats off of their person, the Player threw them as far as they were able. They’d had enough of this room. It was time to go before the situation got any worse.

The floating Zacharie was moving towards them – oh no no no – run run run run.

In between one second and the next, they found themselves falling. The only thing they could think of was the Batter lying on the floor, struggling to breathe, before the air was knocked out of their lungs, leaving them stunned for a second. Back on the floor, they scrambled away as the strange Zacharie clone glided over. It was silent and for the whole time that the Player had been in the room, it had never looked away from them.

Arms crossed over their chest and legs poised to kick up, the Puppeteer watched as the clone ripped into their limbs. Calves burned, strips of flesh from their forearms were torn away, and one more voice was added to the deafening chaos. Finished, the replica retreated back into the mass of failures.

That was final. They had to leave immediately. Having blurry vision didn’t matter too much for the time being. It was the wounds that were worrying, right after the imitations that threatened the Puppeteer’s very life. They knew the general direction of where the door was. So they went, one foot in front of the other, pushing back the need to stay and rest. Doing so would welcome death.

The time between sitting on the floor and clutching the door knob was a haze of staggering, pain, punching, a single kick that probably broke something’s jaw, yelling, and breathing.

Slamming the door behind them, the Puppeteer took a breath and coughed. Every intake of air made their lungs burn. A list of priorities ran through their mind as the adrenaline rush began to fade. First things first: find the Bandit, buy a Luck Ticket. Buy ten Luck Tickets. Buy every last Luck Ticket the elsen had then find Zacharie – the real Zacharie. Find him, hug him, and finish the mission.

“Pa……pa…”

They froze. Reevaluation of priorities: Run, find Bandit, buy Luck Tickets and a weapon. They turned and hobbled away from the approaching clone. There was an exit around there somewhere, they just had to find it.

Crates. Nothing but crates surrounding them. The False Zacharie had not only frightened them into that horrible room but it was blocking the only route to the exit. An exit to torture, an exit to their friends, an exit to healing. They swallowed thickly. Weaponless and defenseless, they had to somehow escape this last replica. Or make it leave. It certainly had more brains than the other Falses.

“I’m not your papa! Stay back!” they commanded, ending with a coughing fit. Covered in blood, it was impossible to tell which was from the pitiful failures and which was their own, or if a wound was shallow or deep. It was something to figure out later.

The fake Zacharie trudged towards the Player, saying the same syllable over and over again. They slid one foot backward, preparing to push past the False.

Or they would have, had they not slipped and fell in the puddle of blood that had gathered beneath them. Their head bashed the side of a crate, eliciting a yelp from the Puppeteer. One hand pressed against their skull, they blinked repeatedly to try clearing their vision. The sound of a body landing next to them drew their attention. Sitting next to them was the replica, reaching out with one hand towards their arm.

“No, don’t-!”

The Player screamed in anguish as the replica put far too much pressure on their injury. Searing pain shot up their arm as they attempted to wrench their limb away.

“Let go! Please, let go!” the Puppeteer shouted. The clone only tilted its head and said,

“Pa…pa…?” It didn’t seem to know what to do about the sobbing person next to him. Slowly, it moved its other arm to wrap around the player’s middle. “Pa…pa…” It snuggled in closer, lying next to them.

As much as they tried, the Player could not squirm out of the creature’s grip. Neither the tears nor the pain would stop. Sorrow overcame them as they realized the consequences of their predicament.

What must have been minutes, maybe hours, passed and their body steadily became numb.

“Zach…‘rie. ‘M Sor…ry….”

It would be a full day before anyone found their body, cradled by a False Zacharie murmuring: “Pa…pa…”

Chapter Text

It was sheer insanity. They had tried every combination possible of saving Ghost Batter and dooming Ghost Batter, cutting wires and reading notes, disliking Zacharie to loving him, and still they hadn’t hit the magic ending. The one where everybody lived and Batter moved on instead of being stuck in purgatory.

The Puppeteer hit their head against the wall in a steady rhythm. Bandit had been left behind during the illusion and now they were outside of the energy chamber trap, still in the main area actually, being none-too-gently prodded by Seneca to walk into it.

“Why don’t you enter? You will never see your friends again if you stand around and do nothing.”

“Cold feet already? It seems you’re not as good a puppeteer as I thought, and my opinion of you was not high to begin with.”

“Zacharie is waiting for you, you know. He’s right inside…bleeding to death. Ih ih ih.”

“Can you hear me, Puppeteer? Hey! Listen to me when I am talking to you!”

“Have you gone deaf, Puppeteer? Or are you trying to crack your skull open to atone for your past mistakes? Ih ih ih. If that’s the case, you’re not trying hard enough.”

 “… You’re not going to stop anytime soon, are you? Such a shame. You’ve come all this way, destroyed all of the Zones and their Guardians, help killed a wife and her child, a creator and his creation, and you can’t even handle a little pressure when you’re all alone.”

While attempting, and failing, to ignore Seneca’s taunts, they had shortened down the list of variables to the only ones that made sense, and they were still stuck. Save Ghost Batter, leave the wires well enough alone – they never did anything good – and then give the right response to Seneca when prompted about their relationship with the ex-merchant. Hating Zacharie obviously wasn’t the answer because he wound up despising them with every fiber of his being and to top it all off Charlotte would be missing; “sort of” liking or really liking him got him killed via idiot ball; and being hot under the collar for him ended with Charlotte still dying when all was said and done. There was no way to win!

“Ih ih ih,” the now far-too-familiar voice of a fox reverberated around the hub, “So it seems you’re already broken. Too bad, I was really looking forward to this one!”

Oh what the Puppeteer wouldn’t do to be able to hit that smug snake in the face with a baseball bat. Give that already pinched face a makeover, Batter Style. A few hits over the head would be an improvement on that bean-faced maniac.

The Puppeteer stopped bashing their forehead, rewound their thoughts, and played them again.

Over the head.

Over Seneca’s head.

Somewhere he couldn’t reach.

Somewhere he had no power, no control over, but the Puppeteer did.

Little by little a grin stretched across their face. Oh yes. It could work. It could work really well. They only needed a plan.

Sitting down, the Puppeteer closed their eyes and thought.

Ten minutes later they opened their eyes, stood up, and entered the next illusion.

+++++

The Player flexed their fingers as they entered the “improve” room. Seneca’s ramblings bounced off the walls, but they paid no heed. They had only one chance to get this part right in a tight time frame. Technically they had many chances, but getting it the first try would be nice.

Something happened whenever they stood on a specific section of the floor in this room. Their fight or flight instincts kicked into gear and they always, without fail, ended up darting away and into a fight with a bunch of Falses plus Shitai.

Setting the blame on anyone or anything would be drastically breaking the fourth wall. Besides that was Zacharie’s shtick.

Standing just to the side of the trapped area, they pulled out their sword and aimed at an empty spot across the room. The Puppeteer flung their blade then quickly moved two feet to their right.

“Pa…”

At that moment a shrill scream split the air. Stumbling out from the shadows, the False Zacharie fell to the side. Blood poured down its leg where the sword had sliced through as it clutched a crate to keep itself upright. At that moment, the Puppeteer gained control over their limbs again. There was no time to celebrate their success, however. Rushing towards the clone, they grabbed their sword again from off the ground.

“I’m sorry, little fella,” they whispered. Several slashes later, the figure lay crumpled on the ground. The Puppeteer knelt down beside it, flipped the body onto its stomach, and slid their blade down the back of the bloody shirt’s collar. They cut through the material, going relatively straight down to the bottom, and repeated the action again near the other shoulder blade. Afterwards, they sheathed the weapon and laid out the ragged cloth a little ways from the body.

Now came the tricky part.

Dabbing their hands in the clone’s puddle of blood, they returned to the fabric. Methodically, they began pressing their fingers down onto the white cloth, leaving bright, red marks behind. Curves were difficult until they decided to curl their digits and connect the lines. Eventually letters, then words, began to form.

‘Save Charlo’

Darn, they ran out of space.

‘tte before’

There was simply too much blood soaked into the bottom. The last words had to count.

‘kill Seneca’

That finished, they gave the message a once-over before storing it in their inventory.

It was about then that the alarms went off.

So much for not being caught.

+++++

Blood-crusted hands on the controls and Zack along for the ride, the Puppeteer readied themselves for the final test. The energy zapper’s wires had been left alone, a code was memorized in case things took a turn for the worst, and Ghost Batter was waiting down the hallway. Vulpine Nature blared in their ears as Zacharie, the Judge, and Zackry took on evil incarnate in its ultimate form. The moment that they were allowed to give Zacharie an order, they went into the Objects menu and searched through the items.

Luck tickets, Silver flesh, Joker, Belial’s meat, Libra-orb (oops), Key – aha!

‘Bloody cloth.’

‘A cloth with a message in blood on it.’

A confirmation noise then…

Nothing.

Yet the stamina bars had frozen.

After a beat, Zacharie spoke up. “What is this?”

“It seems to be a scrap of material,” said the Judge, “Whoever possessed this was in very poor condition, indeed.”

“There’s a message written on it,” said the former merchant. “‘Save Charlo…tte before kill Seneca’?”

“I assume that the Puppeteer either discovered this message or created it themselves. By the look on their face, I believe it to be the latter.”

The battlefield rumbled. “Stop prattling about that filthy rag and fight me!” screamed Seneca.

The Judge continued, “Zacharie, if the Puppeteer went through so much tribulation to give us this message, we should at least heed them.”

“Why?” asked Zacharie, “We can find Charlotte after Seneca is dead!”

“Charlotte has not come back yet, and if Seneca is executed, this realm shall collapse with her in it.”

Zacharie was silent.

Then the stamina bars began refilling and the Puppeteer’s face fell.

Their last bid had failed.

The rest of the battle was a blur, their body going through the motions of defeating Seneca and healing party members when necessary. When the battle was over and the Judge had been forced to leave, they stepped forward to stop Zacharie from sacrificing himself.

They cared about him.

“You pressed buttons in a strategic manner. I fought. That splatter sound you hear when I take damage? That’s an injury. That’s pain. It hurts a lot.”

Really, they did.

“I said, that’s none of your business!”

“I’ll do what I have to!”

“Even if it means getting you out of my way first!”

But there were only so many times one could face a companion, an ally, a friend in a vicious battle - one-sided with strength, one-sided with barbed words - before the whole experience brought forth only numbness.

“Just let me be! I’m so sick of you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you so much…”

It still hurt though, just not as much as it used to.

“Don’t you understand how much I despise your presence? You are the worst puppeteer I’ve ever had!”

As a final effort to fix things, they brought out the torn shirt again. Remember Charlotte. Remember the last one who represented a murdered child.

All it got them was a heavy gash to the side and more of the same hatred.

“I hate you! I never want to see you ever again for the rest of my life! Let me kill you! Let me kill you so I won’t have to look at your ugly mug ever again!! I’ll throw you in there with me and let him eat you!! He’ll can you, put you on a shelf, and label you as animal feed!”

When they finally struck Zacharie down to zero, having endured every last thing he had spewed, they spoke the words they had spoken at least a handful of times before -There are always ways better than mindlessly killing yourself. It’s okay. You’re okay. - and waited for the Judge to enter.

Although the sight they were greeted with was a bit more than they had bargained for.

“I’m sorry for worrying everybody,” said the small, gray cat. “I faked my death so he would leave me alone long enough to escape.”

“Charlotte!” shouted the Puppeteer, not caring in the least that tears were already threatening to fall.

The Judge purred. Somehow his grin seemed wider than usual. “I utilized what little time I had to seek her out. You may express gratitude towards the resourceful Bandit for providing us with a quicker return route.”

The Puppeteer’s smile reached ear-to-ear. There was nothing they could think of to say for the situation as an unintentional chuckle escaped. A brief snicker turned into full blown laughter as the Player found themselves on the floor, very loudly expressing their merriment as streams of tears ran down their face.

After a while, a slightly concerned tone dragged them out of their fit of mirth. “Puppeteer, are you feeling alright?” They nodded at Zacharie’s question. Looking around the area, they could see no sign of Seneca. No doubt the Judge had taken care of him.

“Heh. Alright,” they said, still grinning. “Let’s end this.”

The Batter would be passing on, true, but everyone else was alive.

And really, that’s all they ever wanted.

Chapter Text

If death was supposed to be sweet relief, the Puppeteer wanted to hear none of it. Sitting amid the save files, they blankly stared at the portrait of Zackry’s face. It stared back at them eleven times, oblivious to the future.

But they had seen the future. Over and over again the sights and sounds played through their head. August meeting, September greeting, October warning, November relaxation, December decisions, January celebrations, February isolation, March anxieties, April deterioration, May dizziness, June…

As far as they were concerned, death was monstrous. Death had to be stopped. If not ceased, then it had to be allowed to continue unabated.

What was the answer? It lingered in the air for acceptance or denial or further contemplation. After everything that had happened, it couldn’t just end like this. They slammed a fist into the ground. It couldn’t! Not after what Seneca had done to him. Not after being found, alone, wondering if the next person he met would hit him. Not after experiencing the joys of Halloween and one occasion being referred to as “Tiny Zack”.

A world in which he was accepted.

A world in which Seneca was supposed to be gone.

A world in which he was a troublemaker.

A world in which he was reliable.

A world where so much could happen, good or bad, but it was his home. He had a life. How was it right to let him go like this?

Life wasn’t fair. Was there anything they could do for him?

They didn’t want him gone. Not like this.

Hands rested at their side. A shuddering breath was released. They could give up, accepting the horrible truth or denying it; or keep going and hope that next time there would be a thread of light to follow; or stop and create a world in which he was still alive, but…

Would it be any better? The world in which he resided was screwed up. Would there ever be a chance for pure happiness unhampered by dark reality? For him to live a decent life?

How could they save him from something they didn’t know how to fix?

These thoughts followed each other in an endless rain of rejection and numbness. And it would go on long into the night.

Chapter Text

Father, am I useful?
I knew you wouldn’t lie
It must have been real awful
If you had to go hide

Can Big Zach come with us?
He’s nice like Puppeteer
Promise, make no more fuss
We go real far from here

“Father, Zack be perfect?
Zack make you very proud
Thought Zackry was reject
Sorry, Zackry too loud.”

I ask my Father no more
Do what you will with me.
Behind me, shuts the big door
I lay down happily

Father laughs and smiles
He seems very content
My Father turns a dial
And into dreams I’m sent

Chapter Text

Life had a funny way of messing with people. The Puppeteer would have disagreed if their attention was not currently focused on the shuffling form of Zacharie, making his way towards them. Black liquid leaked from his eyes and mouth. Little gray clouds of smoke floated about his head and more burst from his mouth every time he coughed. It was as if he was a Burnt himself, though none of his limbs were blackened and elongated, and his head was not enlarged nor distorted.

The Guide had said that this creature wasn’t what it appeared to be, but who else could it be?

Zacharie stumbled forward, one hand outstretched as he gurgled between cries of pain.

Quite suddenly, the battle commands were open to the Puppeteer.

“He’s attacking me…” they muttered, taking a step back. “Why is he attacking me…?”

“It’s called a Trap, you ignorant swine,” echoed the Guide’s voice, as if it should be obvious as to what they and the Batter were facing. In the back of their mind, the Puppeteer noted that their old companion had been quiet. Well, quieter than usual. He hadn’t said a thing since he pulled the switch. It was something to look into when there was time.

“They spawn from mutated secretaries…”  Oh, right. The Guide was talking. “No secret where those came from.” A spike of anger and guilt shot through the Puppeteer, barely smothering a spark of indignation. How dare this Guide? It was how the world was designed. It was how the game was supposed to go. How could they have done anything differently, to deviate from the rails? How could they have left the story without seeing it through?

How could they have known what their actions would beget?

The Guide kept explaining. “They take the form of whatever they choose. Whatever they think will upset or discourage you.” Zacharie – dead, dead, dead and it was all their fault. “Their goal is to drive you insane. When people go insane, they often commit suicide.” A shiver made its way down the Player’s spine. The pile of bodies several meters behind them - at the bottom of the elevator shaft - suddenly made more sense than it should have. “The Traps get a free meal.”

They gulped. Well, they had faced worse than this before. Still, at level one their only option was to send the Batter in swinging. Ignoring the niggling doubt in the back of their mind that the Guide was telling the truth, the Player concentrated on the Trap, waiting for it to do something else other than cough and shake.

“One more thing,” interjected the unseen Guide. The Player’s shoulders arched for a few seconds while they suppressed a groan. Now what? “Traps are physically immortal.” Their blood froze.

“You decided to tell me this now?!” yelled the Puppeteer, indignation ringing clear.

The Guide continued on, an amused tone in his voice, “The only way to kill one is to ignore it and let it starve.”

“Okay, okay…” the Puppeteer grumbled. An immortal monster. Perfect. They had learned from Enoch about fighting against a force that you had no chance against. Time to scram.

Attack, Competence, Objects –

image
image

Flee.

No. A chill ran down from their spine to their arms. What was this? It had to be a joke, there was just no way –

Dun-nuzz.

Dun-nuzz.

Dun-nuzz. Dun-nuzz. Dun-nuzz. Dun-nuz. Den-nuzz. Den-nuzz. Den-nuzz. Den-nuzz. Den-nuzz. Den-uzz. De-nuzz. De-nuzz. De-nied. De-nied.

A sick joke, a sick joke! What sadistic entity would lock them in an unwinnable battle?!

They were trapped in a room with a thing that wanted to drive them insane!

The Puppeteer took a deep breath, sighing heavily. There was little else to do but to allow their comrade to keep up the assault. Surely there had to be something to stop the fight sooner or later.

Familiar screeching echoed off the walls, yet the Puppeteer could not pin down the source. Perhaps it was the Trap? Part of its method to break its victim. It was disturbing, maybe even somewhat unnerving to hear all the screaming, but it wasn’t enough to break their concentration.

A couple of critical hits slammed into the doppelganger. It gasped and choked in a poor imitation of the merchant.

No mercy.

Another smack reverberated through the room, followed by a bellowing, “Cease!” The Puppeteer jerked their head from one direction to another. The Guide had to be close by for that kind of volume. “Do not fight for any longer!”

They shrugged. “Why no-”

“Are you dumb?”

Frozen for a second in shock. What was with him? “What?”

“Or hard of hearing?”

Grating, grating, grating on their nerves! “No, I -”

“Or are you just completely retarded?”

Rage boiled up and spilled over. “That was uncalled for!” the Puppeteer roared. “I tri-gah!”

A blinding flash of light. When it died down, the fake merchant was gone and in its place was the form of a black, winding ghoul. Red cat-eyes bored into them, locked onto its next meal. A fleeting thought crossed their mind - maybe the Elsen who pushed the Batter down here was feeding it? – then the Guide was speaking again. He was a little quieter this time, but no less angry.

“It has revealed itself. This only occurs when it is provoked.” Oh, well, that could have been avoided, surely. “You made it angry, you ignorant moron.”

The last straw broke. They snarled at the nothingness, at the Guide, at the forsaken Trap. At the stupid room and the boxes and the Elsen bodies. Hands rolled into fists, they shouted back, “It wasn’t my fault!”

“Don’t use excuses-”

“No,” the indignant Puppeteer interrupted, “I tried! I can’t! I literally can’t! It’s grayed out!” They went down the battle options again – Attack, Competences, Objects – and repeatedly chose the one grayed out command.

De-nied. De-nied. De-nied.

“Oh,” came the subdued reply. It was quiet for a moment, save for the ever-present screeching and the Trap’s hissing. The Puppeteer shot a glare at the creature. It wasn’t fazed. Typical. “This isn’t turning out as planned,” the Guide admitted carefully. “It seems this particular Trap caged you before you ever had a chance to escape.” The Puppeteer rolled their eyes. Wonderful. “I have other plans for you, and it does not involve smashing your sword into an immortal being like an idiot.”

“No different from a guide,” they snarked.

A pause. A very ominous pause.

“You’re coming with me,” he announced. “No, not your puppet. You.”  Wait, what? “We’re leaving him behind.”

“No, wait a minute!”

And they were gone.