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A Ceaseless Slumber

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   The air was stale, not a wind stirred, and silence covered the lands like a heavy woolen blanket. Empty buildings sat menacingly, like festering corpses whose dark windows were gaping mouths perpetually frozen in a scream. Clouds hung heavily over the earth below, forcing down shadows that turned the usually lime green Zone into a morose emerald color. There didn’t seem to be a presence of life for miles, except for one sauntering figure.

   It was a man who appeared to have an indifferent air about him, and spared no expression of concern towards the peculiar desolation of the place. He wore strange garments akin to that of baseball attire; matching white pants and jersey, a black baseball cap sat on his head of cropped brunette hair, and a wooden bat hung loosely from his grip, completing the look. Despite this humane look, stoic black irises peered out from beneath the cap.

   Behind him levitated three large white fluorescent rings of equal shape and size, conscious entities that worked as allies for the walking man. They made no sounds but a faint buzzing, lost under the crunch of the man’s moving feet over the thick grass.

 

   He was the Batter, and he was on a mission.

 

   The Zone’s bareness was partially on his account, however, not completely so. The Batter had one job, and that was to purify the demons and specters that plagued the world with the help of the three ringed Add-Ons, Alpha, Omega, and Epsilon, and his trusty bat. And the evil beings had had a nest within that Zone, putting the Batter to vigorous work. But only a whim told him he’d been there before, via the bland prickling at the back of his mind.

   Out of fear and endangerment, the denizens of Zone 1, Elsen, had fled into hiding, or worse, manifested their fears into the whole of their being, becoming a demon themselves. But to the Batter less Elsen in the region meant less of them erupting into their tormented Burnt forms. Besides, the Elsen were nothing to the Batter, simply aides or foes in his ultimate quest.

 

   Every step led the Batter deeper into the city of Damien, and he turned his nose up to the air to confirm the light scent of smoke. He was nearing a wide staircase that penetrated through the earth on a small peninsula of the area. His feet moved down the stairs without caution, the Batter’s dark eyes did not glance down to watch his step, confident in his movement.

   Closer to the bottom of the steps, the Batter could pick up on the now stronger smell of the smoke; he was in the mines. The dim light of a nearby torch confirmed his thoughts; he had been there once, and he knew it, but it was absurd to store previous endeavors to his memory. Yet, he knew there was sentiment in the stuffy smelly shafts. Wasn’t this where his first battle against the impurities of this lieu had taken place? He believed so.

 

   Another strange detail to the area was that it gave Batter an emotion, something his mind did not often convey. It was irritation. Zone 2 and Zone 3 had been purified, their walls now smooth and clean with absence of color, and hollow of life beyond the strange entity of the secretary. But Zone 1, even though it was the first one put beneath the Batter’s duty, was not yet pure.

   The Batter mentally scoffed at every dirty crevice and rocky texture in the contaminated mine. He wanted to cleanse the Zone more than anything. And once he did that, the nothingness would open up, and he would have to get to the harder part of his quest.

 

   The sudden crumble of rock stirred Batter from his thoughts. The obnoxious sound had echoed from around the corner of the shaft he was currently in. He picked up his pace, but only slightly, and reassured the grip around his bat.

   Upon rounding the wall, the Batter found that there was not a softly dancing torch in sight, merely creeping darkness. He sighed and without a word to them, his three Add-Ons enhanced their misty glow, just enough so that the man could see what was several feet before him.

 

   He walked silently, his bat now held out before him, and his eyes scanning the area attentively. The Batter’s eyes darted to a clumsy movement in the darkness before him, and he stopped in his tracks.

   “You can not run, fiend,” Batter spoke ceremoniously. He was greeted in reply by a wheeze. “The tirade you bring ends here,” he continued.

   Suddenly the creature hurdled out from the shadows, its rather large frame stumbling towards the Batter. Yet without so much as an inhale, the man simply stepped aside and fixated himself into a powerful stance. Whilst the ghoul recovered from ramming right into a wall, Batter waited patiently for guidance.

 

   This guidance came from the Puppeteer, an enigmatic entity that steered the Batter through the world. They did not speak, and they had no physical form, but Batter could always feel their presence via a slight tingle that slithered through his brain. The numb feeling came with messages that conducted him to his next action; the Puppeteer’s decisions were always on par as far as the Batter could see, for he had never lost a battle.

 

   But this time there was no tingle, no vague fogginess to take over his mind and command him, no spiritual force controlling his limbs. Without the Puppeteer’s instruction, the Batter was disoriented. Where they not here a moment ago? Had they not guided him to this very mine?

   As the ghoul began to wake from its daze, the Batter lightly felt something cold and uncomfortable coil in his gut and buzz in his head. It was another emotion, one he could not pinpoint for he had never experienced it before; he didn’t like it.

   The beast turned its head towards the lost man, a cloud of dust flying from its mouth with every breath. It was then, whilst looking into evil and soulless eyes, that Batter realized where he’d seen the emotion boiling within him at that moment. The ghoul hissed and lurched forward, reaching out with its massive hands. They clapped and sent a puff of dust into Batter’s face. The Add-Ons quickly surrounded the creature and sent dazzling rays of light into its ragged body, causing it to screech in pain.

   Meanwhile, the Batter stumbled backwards, his eyes shut tight instinctively, and his nails dug into the bat’s handle. The feeling grew; fear, it was fear, he’d seen it in the eyes of the Elsen many times before. But fear was an emotion for the weak, he told himself. Batter knew he could fight off this creature without any assistance, Puppeteer or not.

   With this new mindset, he returned to his stance, and despite the blurriness, gazed into the ghoul with all his might, busy with tossing the three rings to the ground. This creature would be easy to purify, after all, it came to this low-maintenance Zone to thrive out of all of them.

   

   The Batter ran straight towards the ghoul, and it prepared to swipe at him, but not before the man easily slipped to the right and back of it. The ghoul whipped around, but Batter had already curved around its lanky body. With a powerful leap into the air, he raised his bat above his head and cracked it down upon the beast’s skull.

   It bellowed a horrible and scratchy cry before tumbling over, its head split clean open. The black blood that poured from its body quickly changed to ash, as did the rest of its body, before disappearing before Batter’s very own eyes.

 

   The Batter sighed to himself, partially in relief. He knew that he’d been making a big deal out of nothing. So what if the Puppeteer was not there? He could handle it. Perhaps he’d even succeed more quickly as well without all the sudden contemplations of their choices.

   Maybe the Puppeteer’s absence was a good thing.

   

   

Chapter Text

    The Batter’s original thought of the Puppeteer’s absence as a good thing vanished quickly. As he looked down one of the dark mineshafts he realized he had not the slightest idea of where to go. Of course he knew what he was supposed to accomplish, but it was merely action and endgame that he was aware of, not the journey towards it.

    His memory was only stored with vital information, and that’s all that was possible. For example, he comprehended the attacks he demanded his Add-Ons to do, he could count the credits in his pocket, and he could even understand the language of the Puppeteer’s faint messages and indications. But what he could not remember was what items he had on him unless he checked for himself, the common knowledge of the Zones, simple shortcuts, nor even the native spectres and creatures of an area. It had always been the Puppeteer’s job to recall silly details like that.

    The Batter felt no shame in not being well informed, but he did find irritation’s prickly claws scratching at his thoughts. But c’est la vie, he would not complete his objective standing around in dirty mines.

 

    Every footstep of the Batter’s echoed through the dark chasm around him. The Add-Ons were on his flank, illuminating the oncoming blackness while humming like bees. However, no more faces revealed themselves beyond the shadows.

    The Batter could not understand, surely more than just a vile January dwelled in that quarry. Blurry recollections of bulbous white creatures and bodiless heads previously haunting the area opposed the idea. And even if it had been the last creature throughout the mines, perhaps even Damien, possibly the whole of Zone 1, the shafts would have faded into a pure white.

   

Clearly the job was not done.

 

    The Batter simply could not understand the situation. Had he not eliminated Dedan? Certainly after defeating Japhet and Enoch as well, with their respective Zones now purified, one might have thought Zone 1 would have been as well. It made absolutely no sense.

    As he came across a ladder that would lead him towards the farms of Damien, these thoughts rapidly toiled in his mind. They moved so quickly it made him nauseous, it was a foreign feeling to be so absorbed all at once. The Batter was so unaccustomed to such complex and reflective thinking. Once again, it was another thing that he had depended on the Puppeteer for. He physically scowled at the concept; being dependent made him appear weak.

    Suddenly a familiar laugh pulled the Batter from his train of thought. It had the infamous edge of sounding like a taunt, he only knew, or could remember for that matter, of one person who had such a laugh. He climbed quickly.

 

    The Batter hauled himself over the edge of the ladder after finally reaching the top and out into the lighter air. His eyes steadily adjusted to the sudden light whilst he focused on finding the source of the chuckle. Perhaps its owner had answers that he greatly required.

    Again it rang out, echoing impeccably through the lifeless landscape. The Batter turned his attention towards an old barn, one he thought he might have fought spectres in before. Without so much as a second thought he ambled along towards it, his Add-Ons always following closely behind.

   

    The Batter looked up at the ramshackle green barn he had been acquainted with a long time ago before pushing open the wide door. Upon stepping in he saw several cows lazing around the barn, flicking their tails and mooing softly. Perhaps he had to kill the cows too, the Batter thought. Maybe all lifeforms had to be eradicated, cows were not any cleaner than the ghouls he saw on a weekly basis. Probably impure creatures as well, who knew?

    Once more the laugh could be heard, much closer this time around. It seemed to have radiated from beneath the barn’s floorboards. Taking a onceover at the barn, the Batter recollected that there was a stairway in the far left corner. He treaded along the barn, having to go around a cow once or twice, until he came across a descending set of steps.

    His feet tentatively went down the staircase, he was now fully aware that without the Puppeteer he was all on his own, and now was not the time to be reckless.

    Upon reaching the bottom he found the room’s side lined with boulders. He thought that he might have moved them once to get to the next room. However, he was silently grateful nonetheless now that he didn’t have to waste time on a puzzle to continue on. The Batter walked across the floor space towards a door that faced him. He had no doubt that the laughter had come from behind it.

    With his left hand, the one free of the bat, he turned the knob and opened the door.

 

    Sitting behind a hastily put together desk was the reliable merchant, Zacharie. Resting on his face, as always, was a thick white mask, a caricature of a frog’s face. The painted amphibian scowl was playful and strange, capable of drawing the eyes of any passerby. But somehow it had slightly grown on the Batter, and he preferred it over the Judge guise. Not that he would ever let his own Puppeteer know that, and definitely not Zacharie for that matter.

    “You took a while,” Zacharie commented, his tone as ribbing and calculated as ever.

    The Batter made no reply, but crossed his arms defensively, the bat hanging loosely in his grip. He glared into the merchant’s eyes with copious suspicion.

    “I’m talking to you, Batter. After all, there’s no one else in the room, or in your head either, correct?” The words hit the Batter like a boulder. But of course Zacharie knew, the sly man knew every secret of the universe from Zone 0 to the void.

    “What has happened to them?” The Batter demanded, his tone icy and composed. He took a few steps forward, until he was looming over the desk and a seated Zacharie.

    “By ‘them’ I’m guessing you mean your guide right? Or as Judge has so plainly said, ‘the Puppeteer’.” Zacharie leaned forward, his painted eyes gazing right back up into the Batter’s. “You must feel lost, and I’m guessing you need help?”

    “Why else would I be here? And I’m fairly certain that you’re the one who called me here,” he replied a bit contentiously. He received a laugh in return, and felt himself grow irate at the idea that Zacharie may not have been so helpful after all. “Everything suddenly is not going according to plan and all you can do is make fun of me?”

    “Of course not, amigo. It’s a bit more complex than that. You see, you’re different already.”

    The Batter did not understand the odd statement. He didn’t feel different and he didn’t think he looked any different either. He felt the same way as he always did, despite the mysterious and inconvenient circumstances. He especially still hated the word “amigo”, that was for sure. What did it even mean anyway? What odd tongue was Zacharie speaking in? Was he possibly mocking the Batter?

    “Oh just look at you,” Zacharie said, pulling the Batter back into reality. “It must be odd to have a brain of your own for the first time. What’s it feel like, Batter? Ideas and thoughts flying and out of your brain, like cars on a highway - oh wait, you don’t know what that is,” he said quickly, addressing the obvious confusion the other’s face.

    “You don’t make any sense to me,” the Batter said bluntly.

    “Of course I don’t, you’ve been so busy playing the puppet putting on the show that you forgot that there’s so much more.” The merchant chuckled again, causing the Batter’s eyes to squint in aggravation. “Ah yes, look at that! This small conversation has pulled the most expressions from you than I have ever seen before. It’s peculiar what happens to those who are snapped out of control, isn’t it?”

    The Batter suddenly tossed his bat to the floor and slammed his hands on the desk, which groaned at the sudden force. “Stop joking around.” His black eyes glistened like onyx jewels, peering sharply down at Zacharie.

    “Hm, you seem to be fond of negative emotions. Specifically anger. Do you like anger? Do you like the fire that boils in the pit of your stomach, or the haze in your head that’s happening not because you’re empty like a ragdoll, but because you’re aware, because you know?” Zacharie said, unfazed by the Batter’s death glare.

    Meanwhile the Batter was gritting his teeth. In a sense, Zacharie was right, he did feel unusual “flames” throughout his body. They made him lash out, want to hurt, want to kill. It was so unfamiliar, he did not know how to react. Naturally, he did not like the parts of anger that made him feel offended and helpless, but he did enjoy the aspect of wrath enveloped by it. It made him feel like he was on top of everything, that all would crumble before him.

    “You do,” Zacharie continued quietly. He brought his hands to the top of the desk, folding one gently over the other. “I am not trying to evoke anger from you, I’m simply testing out the ‘new’ Batter. It just so happens that this is the first reaction I get; I suppose I should have expected it.”

    “‘New’?” The Batter questioned, much calmer now.

    “It’s a pain to explain everything, but naturally this is my job if the story is to progress. Let me begin, Batter, by saying that this is the start of a new chapter.” Zacharie watched him as he slowly lifted his hands from the desk and once more crossed them over his chest. The Batter expectantly looked over at the merchant, encouraging him to continue. “Your Puppeteer is gone. And so your quest is essentially futile without their help.”

    Before he could speak another word, the Batter broke in. “It is not,” he said sourly. “My job is to purify the Zones and-”

    “Yes, yes, I’m aware,” Zacharie cut him short. “But now you are stuck and don’t know what to do. And in addition to this lack of instruction, you’re alone. The strings have been cut from your limbs, and now you are left with nothing but your mind.” He cocked his head ever so slightly. “You see, this little no show is allowing for you to grow. You’re becoming more self-aware, more thoughtful. And this allows room for emotions. You’ve already got anger and confusion under your belt, but soon you’ll receive joy, love, awe, empathy, guilt, envy, fear-”

    “No, I don’t like it. I don’t want it,” the Batter snarled.

    But Zacharie simply went on. “Abandonment, embarrassment, revulsion, vulnerability, grief, and oh so many more.” He leaned back in his chair. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t want what’s happening. This is it. Your mission has been forcibly put off for the time being, that is until you can master these new feelings. You’ll have to learn about the Zones, understand the people, and solve puzzles all on your own now. You have to go solo.”

    The Batter’s eyes flickered to the ground, contemplating the words. Why did the events have to turn this way, making everything become so much harder. It would all take increasingly longer as well. The situation was just too hard to take in, reality was wrapping itself around the Batter’s rib cage, he felt light and heavy all at once. “How can I get back on track when I don’t even know one Zone from the next without the Puppeteer’s eyes?” When he spoke, the words were bland and empty, like the numbness of one’s heart after defeat.

    “Ah yes,” Zacharie began. “Well since the they are no longer taking up so much space with you, there is much more room in your head. Plentiful with storage for new knowledge. You’ll be starting from square one, while you’re on your little quest pause anyway. It shouldn’t be too hard. Then again your job isn’t mine so what would I know?”

    When the idea of having to put a hold on his divine responsibility and ultimately his own purpose in order to sit down and struggle with learning the basic knowledge of the world reached the Batter, he felt as though everything was out of reach from him. He spun around from Zacharie and faced the Add-Ons who’d he almost forgotten about. At least they would help him, or at least accompany him on this new wretched side-mission.

    Questions still plagued the Batter’s mind, however. Where was the Puppeteer? Why did they leave? Would they come back? Why didn’t he have the ability to learn before? How long would it take until he was ready to continue his quest towards purification? Where was he even supposed to start?

    But only one question, now much more unimportant in the light of recent events, was able to escape from his lips. “Why isn’t this Zone purified?” He asked as he turned back around.

    Zacharie intertwined his fingers and rested his chin upon them before emitting a laugh that made the Batter physically cringe. “Amigo, didn’t you know? Dedan’s death was pointless. You were brought to this Zone to kill the true guardian.”

    “Who?” Was all the Batter could say. Curiosity nipping at his mind even though it was not like he could take any action at the moment.

    Zacharie shifted in his seat. He dragged his hands back down into his lap. He only spoke one word. "Me."

 

Chapter Text

     The Batter blinked his eyes wide open in bewilderment. “You? How are you this Zone’s guardian? It’s doesn’t make sense.”

     Zacharie nodded in acknowledgement. “It’s true that it may come across as absurd that I’m the guardian, but I’m not lying. I have no reason to. It’d only be a matter of time before you, I mean the Puppeteer, would’ve figured it out.”

     Slowly the Batter leaned down and picked up the bat he had previously tossed aside, his eyes trained on the man seated before him the entire time. “You know that I must purify you then. And you look relatively weak, so it shall be quick and easy.” He positioned his body into a challenging stance.

     However, the Batter was caught off guard by Zacharie’s sudden chuckle. “You’ll do no such thing, sorry to tell you, Batter.”

     “And why not?” He lifted the bat over his shoulder.

     “Because you can’t,” the merchant simply replied. “My appearance deceives you, I am no weakling. Even if I am a mortal man, this does not contain my strength. You don’t have the ability to defeat me at the moment. Whether you want to purify me or not, you’re not prepared. Earlier on, you may have been able to, but now you’re incapable of doing so due to recent events.”

     “I don’t care,” the Batter said, his Add-Ons flying behind him, ready to aide in case of battle. “I must eliminate all malignance.”

     Once more Zacharie laughed, it sounded harsh, but the Batter did not notice. “Conscious or not, you are still an idiot. Besides the point of you actually not being stronger than me, you’ve seem to have forgotten one crucial detail.” The man rose from his seat and leaned forward on the desk with his elbows. “You need me,” he said, his voice low and cheeky.

     He rose up from the desk and walked around it, forcing the Batter to walk backwards. The two stood face to mask. Zacharie went on. “My merchandise is your lifeline. One day your clothes will wear, your bat will crack, and you will be holding on by merely a thread. You won't last a day without me. Killing me now would only be killing yourself.”

     The Batter looked threateningly at the masked man. Yet, he knew he was right, and so he reluctantly lowered his bat. “This Zone will eventually be purified, and that is also the day that you must be destroyed.”

     Zacharie nodded.“Fair enough, but be aware that you are the one who must decide when to do so. I won’t jump in and say the moment that will be most appropriate to kill me.” He turned his back to the Batter and walked back behind the desk. He leaned down and quickly lifted up a thick knapsack that had been hidden behind it. “Now come along, Batter. We’ve got things to do and a brain to fill.” Zacharie had completely switched gears and it left the Batter dizzy.

     “You want me to come with you?” He asked, dumbfounded.

     “Of course, why do you think I just stated so. I will be your temporary guide, your eyes and ears of the Zones.” Zacharie pulled the knapsack over his shoulders, doing a little hop to lift it higher over his back.

     “I am supposed to one day purify you, and yet you wish to help me? Why assist your future executioner?”

     “Being a guardian isn’t all that I am. I have a much bigger job than that, Batter.”

     “Alright,” the Batter said slowly, still confused.

     “Then let’s go, daylight is wasting.” With that Zacharie hastily slipped out of the room, leaving a puzzled Batter behind.

 

     “Zacharie, where are we going?” The Batter asked, long after he had caught up. The two and the three Add-Ons had earlier been walking through the barren fields of Damien. The Batter later noticed the land begin to thin and soon there was an ocean to the left and right of them. There was hardly anything to be seen in the distance beneath the pink expanse of sky.

     “I’m surprised you can remember my name,” he chortled. “And to Alma, to answer your question.”

     “The Meat Fountains?”

     “Precisely,” Zacharie replied. “Meat is the sustenance I require to live and actually need at the moment. That and water, but liquid plastic does suffice. It tastes rather artificial if you asks me. It would actually kill the average man but I have been gifted with abnormalities that allow me to adapt and survive to your world,” he said nonchalantly. “

     The Batter strolled quietly in thought for a moment. He had never heard of water, it must have been native to wherever the odd man had come from. Where was Zacharie from anyway? He did not look like the fellow Elsen, but then again he was a guardian. The only guardian who had ever even faintly resembled one of the strange, pale, little men was Enoch. “You are very weird,” the Batter said aloud.

     “Oh that’s not very nice to say,” Zacharie replied, not sounding offended at all but rather amused. “But I suppose you’re right. Humans are not indigenous to any lieu in this universe.” He was silent for a moment. To the Batter’s surprise his head unexpectedly jerked up. “Ah yes, there’s the train.”

     The Batter looked to where he thought Zacharie’s eyes were staring and did in fact see a small train station. The gray metal of the carriage glinted in the evening light, sitting alone on the tracks. He found himself surprised to see it. “I thought this place was only accessible after going through the post office.”

     “Not if you know the shortcuts, amigo.” Zacharie jerked his head to a looming green building in the distance. “See, there’s the post office.”

     “But I can’t recall there being any shortcuts to the train station plateau before,” the Batter testified.

     “You also couldn’t tell left from right without your Puppeteer. You just didn’t notice it. Alright now, walk faster, we’re almost there.”

     The Batter had a feeling that Zacharie was not telling him something, but he put that thought aside as they neared the train. Zacharie boarded it first, motioning for the Batter to hop on as well. They both settled comfortably into the seats, the only two on board. But the Batter could not help but twist around to look out one of the foggy windows. His eyes widened beneath the brim of his cap at what he saw. The path they had just come from but only a few minutes before had vanished.

 

     The ride had been fast and silent. As soon as the two left the train they headed towards a sole door in a wall of lime green that encased the train station. Zacharie opened it to reveal an indigo colored gatehouse. Guarding an archway across from the entrance was a single Elsen.

     The Batter followed Zacharie to the Elsen, surely a new one since he had eradicated the last once it had turned into a Burnt. “Hello there,” Zacharie said collectedly.

     Apparently the Elsen had not noticed when they came in, for he jumped up at the sound of a vocalization. “Oh my!” He exclaimed before grasping at his chest. “Well, uh,” he panted, desperately clutching at straws to gain composure. “I...uh… I don’t have the right to… uh… let anyone pass…” He paused for a moment in order to sigh. “Un-unless they can… answer some questions…”

     The Batter could vaguely recall what was supposed to happen next. They would have to look at a cluster of flyers on the wall and put together the puzzle of the Elsen’s questions. And that’s when the cowardly creature would erupt into a Burnt and initiate a battle.

     “Oh that won’t be necessary,” Zacharie said to the Batter’s surprise as well as the Elsen's, the hint of a smile in his voice. “I am the merchant, Zacharie, if you need a name.”

     The Elsen looked perturbed before his face lit up with recognition. “Oh yes! The uh… the merchant… yes they told me about you. They said to let you in.” The Elsen’s attention finally turned towards the Batter. “But… I… I’m not so sure about him. He doesn’t look very… friendly,” he murmured.

     “Oh yes, most definitely excessively blunt and rude,” Zacharie admitted. The Elsen trembled beneath the shadow of the Batter, who grunted in confirmation, which made the tiny man look as though he were about to faint. “But,” he continued. “My friend here has agreed not to be naughty. He won’t be trouble, I can promise you that.”

     “I… don’t know.”

     “Come on,” he had switched into a mode of manipulation like a true merchant. “No one will get hurt, and after all, no one has to know that you let him in.”

     A few more seconds of silence passed before a response came. “I suppose…” Then the Elsen hesitantly shuffled from the archway to let the two through. He gave a long exhale and bowed his head, waiting for them to pass. Zacharie gave a quick “thank you” and they were on their way into the heart of Alma.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

     The scent of meat hung heavy in the air, more suffocating than the sooty coal of Damien. Every wind carried the metallic aroma, unofficially welcoming one to the Meat Fountains of Alma.

     The reservoir was brimming with the liquified meat. A natural resource that sprouted in geysers and cascaded from the walls. Thin lime-colored pathways navigated through the grisly sea. To the side of the pathways were multiple towering buildings, which housed many laborious and burdened Elsen.

 

     Zacharie and the Batter maneuvered through the fountains, ignoring the anxious Elsen who gawked at the two alarming foreigners. They walked in silence towards the edge of a pathway, nothing but a crimson stretch beyond.

     There embedded in the wall lining the path was a sign shaped like the figure of a walking man. Without a word, Zacharie approached it and punched it with one of his square fists. A slight whirring sound occurred, which followed with a cylinder column of light beaming down a bird-shaped raft, a pedalo.

     Zacharie faced the Batter and gestured his hand out towards the pedalo. “Please, you first, amigo.” The Batter simply scoffed in reply but compliantly slid into the transport.

     “Where are we going now?” The Batter asked as Zacharie got in and sat beside him.

     “A pathway where I won’t fall in when I bottle up some of this edible substance. Wouldn’t want to meat such a foul end,” he said with a laugh.

     The Batter glared fiercely at Zacharie before rolling his eyes. It seemed that he was not very fond of puns.

 

     The journey was serene and quiet, save for the gentle lapping of red waves that the pedalo sailed through without falter. Surrounding the floating raft Zacharie and the Batter crew currently resided in was the bustling civilization of Alma’s Elsen to the east, and nothing but an intimidating and grim open sea in every other direction. The vastness spread so far that all one’s eye could see in the distance was an inky black on the surface, portraying a warning sign to all who would dare to drift from the docks of Alma and into the domain of the monsters. Anyone who had gone so far had never come back.

     However, more intelligent beings knew of simple facts such as this. In actuality, horrid creatures and beasts existed everywhere, even in the hearts of some. There was no escape from the darkness that haunted this world, it was condemned to corruption. The truth of this only made the Batter troubled, for outside of his current instance were endless lands in need of his purification.

     The movement of the Batter’s thoughts drowned out all the sounds around him, so he did not hear when Zacharie called him. His eyes were still trained on the sinister ocean, not deep enough to hold all the sins of the planet’s dwellers, and its basin not large enough to hold the bodies of the damned.

     A voice suddenly broke through. The Batter spun his head around to face Zacharie. “Batter! That is the sixth time I’ve had to repeat myself. We are here, please do not daydream any longer. I know that it’s a newer experience for you but we have certain tasks to be completed.” He had already stepped out of the pedalo. “Now come on, I won’t wait any longer.”

     The Batter sighed, stood up, and stepped up onto the landing pier where the masked man waited. Now empty and alone, the pedalo bobbed lazily on the gentle current whilst the two walked with three ringed shadows into a different section of Alma.

 

     This time was different, the Batter noticed. There was not a single Elsen in sight, not an eerie groan of theirs to be heard for miles. He looked up at the housing dorms, and yet there was not a single flicker of a passing figure through the windows either. This area of Alma appeared as an utter ghost town.

     “The Elsen are all busy at work,” Zacharie said, as though he had been reading the Batter’s mind. “If anything it’s all the more convenient for us without them in the way.” A thick quiet passed before his cap-wearing customer looked over at him suspiciously. “What?” Zacharie asked innocently.

     “You are a guardian,” the Batter huffed matter-of-factly and then turned his head forward to look at the path before them.

     “Well of course I am, didn’t I tell you that recently?”

     Without turning his head the Batter’s eyes squinted over at the merchant. “You act like one,” he said plainly.

     Had he not been wearing the mask, the Batter might have seen the eyebrow raise Zacharie produced. “And what exactly does a guardian act like, Batter?”

     The man’s onyx pupils darted ahead one last time, his mouth speaking while he steadily walked forward. “The other guardians shared a lack of care about the Elsen. They are supposed to be your creations, and yet you treat them like objects whilst speaking about them like a burden.”

     Zacharie seemed to be thinking about the Batter’s statement for a moment before contributing a comment of his own. “I suppose so, but where as I may belittle them like objects, you dispose of them like objects. It’s unfortunate to say my amigo, but you’re only a pot calling the kettle black.”

     The conversation ended, but that could not stop the Batter from thinking about his past behavior towards the Zone inhabitants.

 

     “Ah, there it is,” Zacharie announced. He was talking about a wide, enclosed, stone column in the middle of a large green plateau just ahead of them.

     “I thought we were going to a meat fountain,” the Batter commented.

     “This is one, just more domesticated and without the actual fountain aspect.”

     “So, just meat?”

     “Just meat,” Zacharie confirmed.

     “Is it within that structure?” The Batter asked.

     “Yes, come look.” Zacharie walked towards the gray structure, suggesting that the Batter do the same.

     The two stood before the monumental figure, and Zacharie started to explain. “This is the communal meat containment stash. The personal portion for the denizens of this sector.” He kneeled down, pulled the knapsack from off of his back and commenced to fish through it. “I have always felt that northern Alma’s meat quality tasted better. And thus I gather from this general area.”

     Zacharie finally found what he was looking for, an exceedingly long, clear carafe with a cork lid. His face lifted and seemed to be gazing upon the surface of the containment unit. He nodded at the sight of a silver protrusion from the stone, invisible at a distance. It was a nozzle with an attached handle.

     The merchant grasped the cork top with with his fingers and pulled it with a stark pop. He lifted the carafe beneath the nozzle and gently turned the handle with his other hand. Slowly at first, a thin crimson stream trickled down into the vial’s body. It sped up and soon large chunks of meat were falling in the growing liquid collection of the bottle.

     When the carafe was filled to the top Zacharie hummed with satisfaction and replaced the cork onto the bottle, then ceased the meat flow from the nozzle. He carefully settled it into a large pocket in his knapsack before putting it on once again.

     “Now what?” The Batter asked, bored by the affair.

     “We are going to stay here for the night. I don’t think you do, but I require sleep.”

     “Stay where?”

     “Within one of the housing units. Not only do I have connections where we shall not be rejected, but I believe that the Elsen are too afraid to oust us anyway,” he said as he stood up. His head flicked upwards towards the sky. “I believe we should be going soon anyway, the evening is upon us and a hoard of the natives will be returning from work.”

     He turned to the right. “We won’t be going far, just down a pathway from here.” Zacharie started moving around the stone column, his voice still audible but slightly muffled.”It’s over here on the opposite side of the entrance from whence we came. Don’t be slow, now, come along.”

     The Batter moved steadily, curving around the massive storage unit with the Add-Ons in tow and walking towards Zacharie, who was already heading onto the path. He jogged slightly to catch up; he was getting annoyed at constantly being left behind. The merchant certainly appeared to be an impatient man. The Batter did not know how long he would be able to put up with this.

 

     Every part of Alma looked the same, its trails always lined with meat streams, which flowed down from surrounding walls. Every building shared the same lonely stance, seemingly empty of all its tenants. It was all very bland and very green.

     Soon Zacharie turned a sharp left, and up towards one of the buildings. “This one,” he said decidedly. “There are not many residents in this one. So we shall not be concerning many Elsen in our stay.”

     His hand reached out and turned the knob, the door easily swung open. “They don’t lock their doors,” the Batter said, more as a fact than a question.

     “Indeed,” replied Zacharie as he stepped inside. “Not the smartest creatures, but I’m sure Alma is safer than most towns.” He looked down two hallways absentmindedly, before selecting to walk down the one on the right. “Or they’d like to think so.”

     He stopped at the last door at the end of the hallway, and poked his head in after he opened it just a bit. “None live here, this is the one in which we will stay.”

     The Batter followed him in and saw nothing impressive about the room. An open chest, clear of contents, a long shelf, and a bunk bed pushed into the corner of the opposite wall. His Add-Ons took to a corner of the room and laid themselves gracefully onto the floor where their illumination dimmed as they settled into their "sleep mode".

     The Batter went and leaned against the bunk bed’s ladder, watching Zacharie carefully. The masked man was currently occupied with settling his possessions into the empty chest.

     He lifted out the carafe from earlier and pulled off the top. Zacharie seemed as though he were about to lift his mask before he realized the Batter standing quietly in the corner. “Batter, would you mind turning around?” His hand suspended in the air, just below his chin.

     “Why don’t you like showing your face?” The Batter questioned, primarily in defiance and partially in curiosity.

     Zacharie placed the carafe next to him on the ground. “Because there dwells the most impure flaw, a scourge so strong it forced me to hide my face and may torture the eyes of your own,” he said monotonously, almost with a practiced meticulousness. “Now please, turn around,” there was a hidden bitterness to his words, but the Batter did not miss it this time.

     Not wanting to deal with the ugly side of Zacharie, the Batter did as he was told. His eyes trailed indolently along the austere wall, but his ears listened attentively. The sound of glass scraping against the floor could be heard, Zacharie picking up the bottle. Then the muffled sound of paper sliding against hair.

     The Batter knew if he turned around he would catch Zacharie without the mask. He wished to know what imperfection the merchant held, one so evil that it pushed the waggish fellow to hide behind that false face and could apparently harm even onlookers. But he knew that he could do no such thing as even peek, for he had no idea how Zacharie would react. An unseen anger was always the most threatening.

     “You can turn around again,” Zacharie finally said. The Batter turned to see the man getting to his feet and stuffing the carafe back into the chest. “All I had to do was take a quick snack. We’ve been moving quite actively today.” He looked over his shoulder. “But you do not feel hunger, correct?”

     “No,” the Batter answered. “Nor the urge to sleep.”

     Zacharie nodded. “That is to be expected from such an oddity as yourself. After all you were made for one purpose and one purpose only.” He moved towards the bottom bunk and sat down upon it. “And a pernicious tool has no use for the mediocrity of such casual living.” He leaned back and lifted his feet onto the bed. Scooting his body to the side, he laid his still masked head upon the pillow.

     “Are you going to sleep now?” The Batter inquired.

     “Yes,” Zacharie replied. “It won’t be long, only several hours. I would not recommend that you leave. You are still is a trance of disorientation and I also do not wish to wake up and hear the screaming of Elsen in the distance.” He rolled over to face the wall. “Find a way to entertain yourself in the meantime.” He said no more.

 

     The Batter waited patiently until he thought Zacharie might have been sleeping. Just to ensure so, he crept over to the bottom bunk and listened, only to hear the soft breaths of slumber. The Batter continued to look down upon the sleeping human.

     He could kill him, right here, while he slept. He could smash his brains in with a simple swing of his bat. Probably strangle him with ease. But the Batter knew that he could do no such thing. For he truly did need Zacharie. Killing him would only create a struggle for resources, and thus an extra task to his already tedious duty.

     With a deep sigh, the Batter walked away from the sleeping merchant and towards the closed chest. He sat on it, holding his right hand beneath his chin. He raised his free left hand towards his head and took off his baseball cap. He tossed it to the side and leaned against the wall.

     He had no idea where he was going with Zacharie, or exactly how he would teach him the lessons of the world. Although, he did notice that his new memory was pretty useful in the sense that he knew the current location and could remember everything Zacharie had told him up to that point. Perhaps it was not so bad to be alone with his thoughts, it allowed for more important information to be recorded in his brain.Yet he would not have to do so if the Puppeteer was there in the first place.

     The Puppeteer was a lost cause. A solid day had past and was at its edge of bleeding into night and still not a single tingle of their presence. The Batter had accepted that maybe they would never return, and although it would provide more of a strife for him, he felt rather indifferent about it. The Puppeteer may have become useless, but the Batter still had his own job to attend to.

     He continued to contemplate the turbulence of the situation and its aspects when he realized something that made his blood run cold.

     He could not move.

     The Batter’s eyes were frozen on the still hand that held his chin. His limbs seemed petrified, and his feet rooted to the floor. The gentle heaves of his breathing had gone still, and to anyone else he might have appeared to be a statue.

     The state of his mind, however, was frantic with movement. A violent flurry of why couldn't he move? He tried with all the effort in his body to blink, to twitch his fingers, to tap his foot, anything. But nothing proved to occur.

     The Batter did not understand what was happening or why. His ears strained for the sounds of Zacharie with the thought that this was perhaps his doing, but he was merely greeted by the same mellow snores from before. This seemed to disprove the Batter’s previous speculation, neither could he work as an aid in his current conflict. In addition to this, the Add-Ons were still in repose as far as he was concerned. He could not even open his mouth to call out to them for any sort of assistance.

     He was still trying to move his body when his eyesight began to lighten. The view of his hand began to progress into a much softer color as well as everything surrounding it. The frozen condition of his eyelids suddenly diminished and he could feel them begin to droop. His buzzing mind slowed to a daze. When his vision faded to white he could only think of was where was help when you truly needed it?

 

 

Chapter Text

     The foggy white that had cloaked over the Batter’s vision and mind soon vanished. But when his eyes once more adjusted to the light, he found that he was definitely not in the room where he had previously been.

     Although his body could still not move, as proven by how hard he tried to rise from the ground he laid on to no avail, his eyes were now in his control. They darted around as they took in the surroundings, trying to piece together an explanation as to how he could have gotten to such a location.

     It was reaching dusk as the sky’s dim mauve light above told him. Beneath him he could feel dirt, damp and cool, its smell rich and earthy. All around him stately and exotic trees blew softly in the whispering evening winds. Their gnarled branches formed a barricade, the thicket wrapped around him with little view beyond the dark foliage. Dead and dry leaves were piled like corpses around the tree trunks, murdered by a progressing chill and the threat of an oncoming winter.

     Being uncomfortably stuck on his back irritated him and made him helpless at the given moment, but the Batter did not sense anyone or anything else nearby. Assured of no foes or not, he was still trapped. Unable to move and utterly lost, the Batter was angry.

     He thought it ridiculous to be in such a predicament. They were his limbs, why could he not move them? And where was he, anyway? It was a forest the Batter was not familiar with at all, and its plant-life seemed rather foreign and bizarre. If he had been transported, why of all places was it in this odd-

     The Batter’s thoughts were interrupted by the sudden jerk upward of his own body. He was in a sitting position, one that he had not willed himself to do. Something was controlling him.

     He felt a tingle in the back of his head.

     Rather it was someone. The Puppeteer had returned.

     A small wave of what the Batter refused to label as relief washed over him. He knew that his situation would be solved now that he was in good care.

     His hands moved off to the sides of him and planted themselves flat on the ground, they then proceeded to steadily push up. The Batter was now in a crouching position, his feet resting on the forest floor. His hands pulled in towards his sides and his legs uncoiled until he was standing straight up.

     The Batter’s eyes watched the manipulation of his body, his legs walking towards a narrow opening between the wall of foliage. They moved with a mind of their own, as though they had walked through this area thousands of times before.

     For a long while he was simply carried through nothing more than open wilderness. In that time he had let his mind wander from the task at hand. He found it considerably odd that the Puppeteer had not shown up until now, but he supposed that they worked in mysterious ways. Their possession over the Batter was sealed with a confidence formulated from their timeless sagacity and the accuracy in their conviction. He was assured by their presence, and found that he could ease his mind into simple leisure. Something he had not had the ability to do ever since he began thinking for himself. Naturally, upon the Puppeteer’s appearance thoughts did not disappear from the Batter’s head as easily as they had started. Even though everything was being done for him, the gears of his brain kept turning even at that moment. It seemed as though the action of cognition would not leave him anytime soon; a long term side-effect of the Puppeteer’s absence, no matter how short it really was.

     The Batter shifted back into focus once he found that his body had stopped before a hard black road whose material he could not identify. His foot lifted without hesitation and onto it, beginning down the lonely path lined with forest. His eyes continued to gaze below himself as he walked, curiously analyzing the matter. What could it have possibly been? Dyed stone? Rusted metal? Tinted plastic? Solidified Burnt fluids? The Batter greatly wanted to lean down and just touch the road, for perhaps it would help him figure out what object it was made of. However, he could do no such thing as his mind yearned to do one thing but his body did another.

     Soon he grew bored of looking down and lifted his eyes to see the most peculiar assembly of buildings. The closer he got, the more he could see, such as that it appeared to be a small town. Its architecture was the most varied and colorful than he had ever seen before. Houses were big and small, there were also complexes like the Elsen lived in. They came in ivory, alabaster, rosewood, and more, the shingled roofs differing from garnet to umber.  This vibrant town had been built by whatever tenants were domiciled to the land.

     The Batter watched the town look as though it were getting bigger as he approached it. Before long he was taking his first steps through the village, and he himself was enveloped by the colors. He was even more mystified by what he saw upon entering.

     He finally got first glance at the dwellers of the unusual place, they themselves equally so. The first one he saw was a tall creature, its flesh swarthy and body aged. It appeared to be a male, and he sat on the porch of his home with a small paper tube in his hand venting a thin smoke. Despite the Batter’s interest, his legs kept going, yet it was not long before he caught sight of another one of these beings.

     This one was a female, and she was very small. She sat crossed on a bench next to a flowering bush of a house down the road from the older one. Beside her was small lamp, and in her little hands a book. Strands of brunette hair fell onto her rosy face, but she was too preoccupied with reading to remove them. The door of the house suddenly swung open, and an older female walked out. She too had long brown hair, but pulled back into a ponytail. Her lips opened and she spoke in a language the Batter did not understand. The small one seemed to grasp it, however, and it proved itself to be a request for her to return inside. She awkwardly gathered her book and lamp in one arm and followed the older female back inside.

     The Batter did not see another one of these creatures since night was falling, but he could not think of how much he looked like them. They had roundish heads, bodies and limbs not so freakishly long, cranial hair, small mouths, circular eyes, and much more in common with him. He put his brain to use and thought about Zacharie’s characteristics and found that he seemed to match these people despite his mask. They must have been humans too, he thought. But the Batter knew that it was more logical to figure that they were of Zacharie’s people instead of his own. For after all, he was no mere human, he was an entity crafted to be a savior, not a follower of the average lifestyle.

     That also led the Batter to realize that he was in the human world, how he got there in the first place, he did not know. He did have to admit though, that it showed to be a rather peaceful land, for he had yet to confront any impure beasts. But, the Batter would purify the place if he had the chance nonetheless, it did not exactly fit into the pristine and clean format he desired.

     The Puppeteer continued to steer the Batter through sprawling roads despite the sapphire that continued to creep into the sky. The still figures of nature and buildings in the dark passed like a slideshow of pictures, each getting their own moment to be stared at before the Batter would pass and could not look at them again. He had just begun to drift into a state of ennui when he found himself lead onto a dirt path that branched off from the main road.

     It winded down through a thin brush of hollowed trees and meager shrubbery. At the end of it the Batter found himself parked before a very large home, its entire two stories spread out on the land it sat upon. The exterior of the home was a crisp white paneling, an equal distance between each large sash window. A black trim lined every aspect of the house, even accentuating the detailed wraparound porch. Matching the trim was the scalloped shingle roofing, the chef-d'oeuvre being the steep, pointed roof that sat upon an octagon shaped plateau.

     Regardless of its beauty, the house troubled the Batter with its asymmetrical shape, as well as the small fissures crawling through the surface, and the vines that sneaked up the side of it. He thought that despite all the charm of the human world, none of it could be as perfect as the Zones that had transformed beneath his touch.

     The Batter realized that his body was back under his control upon absentmindedly flexing his fingers. Although he did appreciate having a free will once more, he did not know what to do with it in the slightest. He decided to follow the best course that would lead to the next phase of action, doing so by advancing towards the dark paneled front door. The gradual appliance of his weight to the old porch caused it to emit a slight squeak in greeting. He hoped that he was doing the correct thing.

     The Batter moved his hand towards the door knob and found it surprisingly unlocked. The door easily swung open and in he stepped.

 

     The interior of the house seemed much newer in comparison to the exterior. Within the parlor was several square white couches with matching ottomans, a looming grandfather clock, and a rickety rocking chair stuffed into the corner, looking very out of place. There was also a clear coffee table with a white vase holding a small bouquet of baby’s breath that sat before a black stone fireplace. Just above it laid a thick white cross, absent of details or design. The Batter walked quietly upon the ebony floorboards as he continued to look around the checkered home. He traveled through an adjoining hallway and peeked through several doors. He found only a moderately sized kitchen that led into a modest and plain dining room, a storage closet, a bathroom, and a compact room that the Batter presumed was supposed to be a library, although there were only several books sitting on one of the many shelves.

     On the other side of the hallway was an elegant staircase, its iron handrail curved into many designs all the way down to the base of each step. The Batter cautiously climbed it, aware that it held an older appearance than the furniture and might actually be an original feature of the outdated home.

     Upon reaching the top he found himself in another hallway. He immediately froze when he realized there was a sound coming from one of the rooms; snoring. There was someone else in the house.

     He tiptoed to the door that seemed to hold the source and placed his hand onto the doorknob. He was prepared to open it, but sighed in annoyance when he learned that it was locked. The Batter tried again, this time slightly wiggling his hand, but to no avail. With another huff, he moved on to the other rooms.

     He found an additional bathroom, a completely empty room that might have served as a bedroom once, and what looked like a study. The baroque styled office was complete with a heavy wooden desk piled with papers, and multiple shelves and filing cabinets. The area seemed to be cloaked in a small layer of dust. The Batter decided that he would go back and dig around the study later, but there was still one more room that had yet to be checked.

     It was another bedroom, with a much more messy setup then the rest of the house, but this room was not unoccupied. Sitting in a plush chair in the corner was a small boy, crouched over, and cradling his head. A lamp standing over the child highlighted his visible features, such as long strands of black hair that curled at the ends spilled over his hands, and halted from their source to the nape of his neck. His breathing was dainty and soft, muffled beneath his palms.

     The Batter slowly walked forward. “Hello,” he began.

     He received no reply.

     “Human,” he tried again, sounding more guarded.

     The boy did not budge.

     A little suspicious, the Batter moved closer to the child. As expected, there was still no reaction. Carefully, he placed his hand onto the boy’s arm, but to the Batter’s disbelief, his arm merely passed through.

     It was a figment.

     Had everything the Batter had seen so far been a figment? A fabrication of his new imagination? He just could not belief it to be true. Had he not walked with echoed steps on the ground before him? Had he not heard the whistles of the passing breeze? Had he not felt the stroke of crispy leaves on his skin? Had he not touched the clumps of dirt that adhered him to the forest bed? Had it all been just some elaborate illusion?

     Just then the child raised his head and looked almost as though he were eying the Batter, had his eyes not been staring right through.

     But the Batter did not see his eyes. He did not see the boy’s face at all, for that matter.

     For he was wearing a mask.

Chapter Text

     The Batter instantly knew who the child was, but he could not seem to figure out why he was here. His realization, however, was too slow to keep up with the change of the moment, and within the blink of an eye the sole light flickered out.

     A suffocating darkness encased the room, but the Batter could still hear the soft breaths of the young Zacharie. He took a step forward with his hands reaching outwards, trying to find the place where the boy had been. But the Batter rather fell down to his own bewilderment. He did not even land on the chair he was sure that Zacharie had been sitting on. Where was it anyway?

     After patting around on the ground that seemed absolutely barren now, trying to find some sort of tangible matter, he awkwardly pulled himself back to his feet. The Batter was bubbling with agitation. He remembered there being miscellaneous items cluttered about the room, but when he had fallen, he had only met hard wooden floor. Could he have been in another room now?

     He was relying greatly on his ears, which had previously been tracking the respiration of the human child. Yet, as the Batter focused on listening to his surroundings, he found that he could no longer hear Zacharie or any other sort of sound. The silence was heavy, not a single exception beyond the steady sound of blood pounding in the Batter’s ears.

     His mind was turning with ideas of what exactly could be going on. It was so foreign and strange to see Zacharie here, not only that, but as a mere child. And the fact that he could not actually touch or interact with him probably had some relation to that. The Batter figured he was in a new plane, one of the past or perhaps of memory, but how so he did not know.

     A shrill scream ripped through the silence, causing the Batter to jump into a defensive stance. He was about to whip his bat over his shoulder as usual, ready to strike, when he realized he was weaponless. Nevertheless, he carefully strided to where he thought he had heard the sound come from.

     Another piercing cry rang out, and it even temporarily stunned the Batter who walked through complete darkness. But he was nearer now, for it had appeared louder.

     The Batter veered closer to the right, from where the sound had come from, and soon his hand was gliding along a wall. He did not know how large the room was, but he hoped the end of it would come soon.

     Once more the wail sounded, but now just beyond the wall and the Batter knew it. He moved forward a little more quickly until he felt the wall dip. His hands glided down it until he felt what seemed to be a door knob.

     He rapidly opened the door, his head silently hissing at the sudden influx of light coming from a row of wall lamps. The Batter poked his head forward and saw a thin staircase. He did not recall ever going down stairs. Before heading on up the steps, the Batter took one last look back in the room.

     Now lit up by the light that leaked in through the open door, he saw that it was a completely empty basement lined with ugly, peeling, green walls. It most definitely was not the bedroom that the Batter had been in a few minutes before. How he got there, he did not know just like many other things, but a scream that played again pulled him from his thoughts and encouraged him to run to its source.

     He went up the stairs as fast as he could, and upon reaching the top he found nothing but a latched cellar door, to which he eagerly pushed up against. Looking ancient, it easily opened against the Batter’s unearthly strength.

     Head above the opening, the Batter had expected to pop out into the outdoors, as where most cellar doors were placed. Rather he discovered himself to be in the kitchen from the very doors he had not noticed before.

     Wasting no time, though, he sped out of the kitchen and into the parlor, where a noisy little row of sobs were emitted. The sight he was met with was not a pretty one.

     Cornered in on the sofa was the small, trembling Zacharie, his hands clutching at his masked face. Red marks were sprinkled in large blotches along his bare arms, a few yellow bruises settled in between. A tall figure leaned over before him, a belt loosely wrapped around his fist. The older man had a long face and sunken in beady eyes, neither quite as noticeable as his gnashing teeth that hissed with anger.

     Neither of them noticed him, so the Batter knew that there was nothing he could do anyway. Both of them were just figments, right? Nevertheless a dark and heavy feeling danced on his heartstrings as he helplessly watched.

     Spit flew from the man’s mouth as he continued to berate the cowering boy. “-keep getting these fucking calls! It’s fucking ridiculous! Why can’t you just be a normal kid instead of a little shit?”

     The child did not reply.

     “Answer me asshole!” The man uncoiled the belt from his hand almost expertly, and whipped it at Zacharie, earning him a small shriek. But the child did not cease his silence other than that.

     “Not only have I got to raise a damn moron, you’re a mute too! A fucking burden’s what you are!” Once again he struck out at the boy several times before lowering his arm. He then slid his long hand down his face. “Now get out of here, you brat. I don’t want to see your face for the rest of the night.”

     Without a word or hesitation, Zacharie scurried off of the the couch and bolted towards the stairs. The still standing man shook his head in disapproval. “What a weird fucking kid,” he muttered.

     The Batter continued to stare at the adult male, watching him settle into one of the white couches. He pulled an envelope into his lap and read it with obvious unwillingness. As he shuffled through the contents, his mouth spewed strings of profanity, a “Zacharie” thrown in every once in a while.

     He had thought it illogical at first, but the Batter realized that he seemed to recognize the vituperative human. The details of the man became increasingly familiar; the narrowed and aggressive stance of his expression, the prominence and largeness of his jaw that held those ugly teeth, and the overwhelming and broad set of his figure.

     Slowly the pieces fit themselves together.

     The Batter’s eyes widened as he shook his head, refusing to face the facts. The man that sat comfortably before him wasn’t… This callous man that appeared to have played a role in Zacharie’s life could not be…

     The lights began to flicker once more, but the man, the horrible humanized entity of Dedan, still reading quite surly, did not happen to notice or care. Soon the darkness overcame all in the Batter’s eyes.

Chapter Text

     The Batter’s heavy eyelids peeled open to the blurry image of a figure shaking his shoulders. He groaned in reply, every part of him sluggish and lethargic, definitely not up to the currently imposing force. His eyes gradually shifted into focus, and he saw Zacharie as the one before him.

     “Zacharie?” The Batter slurred inquisitively.

     “Yes, yes, of course it’s me you imbecile. Now get up.” He said as he persisted on rocking the other to the Batter’s discontent.

     “Alright, stop,” the Batter lightly pushed Zacharie backwards, disgruntled and grouchy.

     Zacharie wiped his hands on his pants, seemingly troubled for having to touch the Batter. “You lied to me,” he said calmly as he turned around and headed towards the chest.

     “What do you mean?” The Batter said, stretching his arms above his head in an attempt to cure the slack feeling in them. He felt a little better, but a dull numbness was still present in his body.

     “You were sleeping,” Zacharie said as he shuffled through the trunk’s contents. “If I recall, Batter, you said you do not sleep.”

     The Batter was perplexed himself, and he did not know how to express such an anomaly to the man that had been the star of his sleeping consciousness. “I don’t,” he simply replied. “I’ve never experienced slumber before.” He rolled his shoulder, it was still a tad stiff. “Frankly, I do not like it either.”

     The merchant finally turned around from the chest. “So, did you dream?” His words were even and composed, but the Batter was able to catch the slightest raise in pitch towards the end of the question. Zacharie was curious.

     “Dream?” The Batter asked, unfamiliar with the word.

      Dream, it sounded soft, sweet and light like a cloud on his tongue. The way his lips had pried open and touched at the end, delivering it like a gift from the crevices of his teeth and with an echo that bounded from the roof of his mouth. The Batter swore he had never said or heard the word before that moment, but something about it, just an air surrounding the utterance, felt soothing. But comfort meant leisure, leisure meant weakness, and weakness meant downfall. The Batter had never hated a word so quickly in his entire existence.

     “A dream, not to be confused with an unrealistic goal, is the mental imagery and sensations projected in your head while you sleep, typically fictional. Did you feel as though you were watching a story unfold before your eyes?”

     Now the Batter had a name to label the strange events that had happened in his mind. But it still made little to no sense as to why the matter of the dream was solely around Zacharie, holding no relevance to his own life. It also did not explain why the merchant had been at the end of the violent hands of a humanized Dedan. Nor why the Batter was forced into the elaborate and unaccustomed unconsciousness in the first place.

     There were so many unanswered questions, so many things that the Batter wanted to ask Zacharie about. But instead, to his own surprise, he merely said, “Yes.”

     The Batter’s eyes followed Zacharie as he sat down on the bottom bunk. “You’ve piqued my interest, what did your dream consist of?”

     For a reason unknown, the Batter thought it unwise to mention the merchant’s role, so instead he gave as vague a description as possible. “I awoke in a forest, from which I walked to a very colorful town. Its denizens were odd and looked rather like you, possibly your people. I discovered an old house, which I explored. That was all.”

     At first, the human gave no reply, but a few seconds later he gave a very slow nod of his head. “I see.” Zacharie’s head turned to the side away from the Batter, but he continued to speak. “My intuition is telling me that the Puppeteer had a part to play in this. After all, how would a hyperphysical brute such as yourself suddenly commit an automatic action never done before?”

     The Batter’s eyebrows had furrowed at the word “brute”, but nonetheless he went on, masking the fact that he was bothered. “You’re not wrong,” he admitted. “I felt the Puppeteer’s presence in my dream, and for a while they were controlling me. But once we came across the house, they stopped and left all will to myself.”

     Zacharie faced the Batter once more. “What did the house look like?” He asked, his voice clear with interest.

     “I can’t remember,” he lied, his face completely straight.

     “Oh,” the merchant sighed in disappointment. He stood up from the bunk. “Yes, your memory is still being broken in, it would seem plausible as to why you wouldn’t recall something as simple as a dream.” He seemed to speak the words more to himself than to the Batter.

     Zacharie returned back to the chest and lifted his knapsack out of it. “We’ll be leaving,” he announced. He nodded his head over to the still “sleeping” Add-Ons. “You might want to prepare them.”

     The Batter nodded, and rose from his seat and moved over to the large translucent rings that laid in the corner of the room in compliance. “Up,” his order was fairly straightforward, but then again, the Batter was a straightforward man.

     One by one, the Add-Ons lit up into a glowing white and lifted themselves from the floor. With remarkable synchronized movements, they quickly flew around the Batter and arranged themselves around his flank. The Batter watched them move with a quiet fondness; he figured it was now his new hyper awareness that pointed this out, but he realized he had never appreciated them as much as he should have.  

     Zacharie had been watching too, but only in anticipation to leave. He looked over at the Batter and gave a stiff nod before pulling the door open and advancing through the hallway. His pious companion and fellow Add-Ons never far behind.

     Going back from where they came, it was rather the same dull green and red scheme. More Elsen were out, however, since it was morning, but the Batter easily overlooked their not so intimidating scowls. His mind was in another place, back in the colorful world, Zacharie’s world.

    The Batter’s gaze drifted to the human who still evenly walked ahead of him. He could distinctly see the cropped black hairs at the base of his neck, but the wavy hair he had as a child was still apparent as it hung over the edge of the mask that hovered above his forehead. One hand holding onto a knapsack strap, the other one was idly swinging back in forward as his side. The Batter noticed that he had long tan fingers, the nails tinted to a very pale pink and lined with dirt. Several prominent scratches and scars crawled from the edges of his palm and blended into an elaborate mesh-work of labored and worn flesh.

     It seemed unusual that Zacharie had physical flaws like cuts when the Batter could not imagine him enduring any particular sort of struggle. In fact, Zacharie was so admired, he had thought everything was done for him; after all, he was a guardian. But perhaps the merchant had some missions that were too risky and foul to burden the shoulders of others with.

     The Batter smirked to himself, the idea of a crooked Zacharie was amusing. He was always respected for being reliable and useful, so much so that it gave him an air of dignity. When in reality he was a manipulative salesman with too much time on his hands. Zacharie was just the given autocrat, no different from Dedan, Japhet, or Enoch; he was a monster. He needed to be executed just like they had been.

     “Batter?” Zacharie’s voice broke the silence of the physical world and the chains of the Batter’s thoughts.

     “Hm?” He huffed in reply.

     “If you keep walking like that with your head in the clouds, you just might fall into the sea.”

     The Batter did not understand what Zacharie was alluding to until he saw a pedalo dock just before them. Without another word, he followed Zacharie onto the carrier and let his ears buzz with the sounds of lapping waves. The three Add-Ons had quietly hovered tightly together to one side of it, taking up almost no space.

     “Batter,” Zacharie began coolly. “Can you recall where we are currently at?”

     He instantly knew that the merchant was testing him. “The Meat Fountains of Alma, in Zone 1,” he answered effortlessly. “Why exactly?”

     “You’re learning,” there was the hint of a smile in his soft voice.

     The Batter only sighed and turned his head out to the vast red ocean. He was learning, wasn’t he? It felt strange, knowing that a simple location such as this place could not be recorded in his mind before. Had he really been that myopic before? The Batter could not stand to entertain the thought of his previously mindless stance any longer when he noticed something slithering through the sea.

     “There’s something just over there,” the Batter announced, his index finger pointing out to where he had thought he saw the movement.

     “Oh, do not worry about that. There shall be no aquatic ghouls getting in our way,” Zacharie assured confidently.

     “How can you be so certain?” The other challenged. The Batter was always on his toes, watching for the slightest sign of spectre or ghoul. They were aggressive, merciless, and sanguinary things, who never paid heed to who you were as long as you looked like a good meal. The creatures were a bane to all that strived to be pure, and every last one had to be eliminated.

     “As a guardian, even the imbecilic demons of the Zones know that I am not a force to be reckoned with,” Zacharie explained. He reached out and curled his hands around both sides of the pedalo. “Their instincts warn them of a threat greater than they can handle, and so they move on, planning to find food that won't fight back and win.”

     The Batter leaned forward, his elbow settled on his knee and his face in hand. He felt an odd warmth in his chest, but if he could describe it into words, it was not red, it was green. The edges of the feelings blended into an icy chill. “They are such stupid things,” he began. “They know to avoid you, but they take no hesitation in attacking me. For them to think I am a weak opponent and you not is absurd.” He turned his head towards the sea once more. “These beasts underestimate me,” he tsked.

     The Batter was taken aback by a sudden chuckle. He looked back over at Zacharie, but it was useless since he could not see his expression anyway. “You envy the fact that I am a living god overlooked by the monsters, does that not seem silly?” His voice suddenly lowered, sinister. “That’s right, Batter, I am a god, and you are nothing more than a disposable creation. So it would be illogical to think dumb of the fact that these creatures which still hold the complete possibility of overpowering you choose to attack.” He leaned against the back of the pedalo. “You seem to forget that, don’t you? That you are disposable.”

     He pulled his cap more firmly over his head and crossed his arms. The Batter did not know where such a dark spiel had suddenly come from, but he had just seen the cruel aspect of Zacharie he had always been suspicious of. He would not hesitate to use that to his advantage in the future.. “My duty is to purify the Zones. And I will see it through.”

     “You will die,” the masked man claimed. “It doesn’t matter if you purify all the Zones or not, you will die and end just like everything else. The fact that you know this and still plan on doing your ‘sacred’ mission is baffling.”

     “My purpose will be fulfilled, then,” the Batter growled. He knew he was giving in to the other’s taunting, but he could not help himself.

     Zacharie made a breath as though he were preparing to speak again, but did not follow through. Instead, the two sat in the swaying pedalo in complete quiet, but neither seemed to mind.

     “Batter,” Zacharie spoke up, just as they began to approach the next dock.

     He merely grunted in reply.

     “Let’s start our lessons soon, hm?”

     The Batter turned his head towards Zacharie in interest, as well as just in time to see the pedalo bump into the dock. “What do you plan on teaching me?”

     “Just the vital information, everything that you must absolutely know,” he said as he climbed out of the carrier. “But first I must take you to an environment where there shall be no disturbances at all.”

     “Where do you plan on taking me?” The Batter and his Add-Ons also left the pedalo in favor for solid ground.

     They were walking along towards the Meat Fountains of Alma’s entrance, but only with the purpose to exit. “The only area that will be safe for individually you and I, Zone 0.”

Chapter Text

The Batter had made no comment to Zacharie’s statement, and continued to obediently walk beside him. Upon making it back to the gatehouse, the guard Elsen standing next to the door jumped with surprise. Probably a different one, the Batter thought, since it did not seem to remember them. It must have been bizarre to see anything leave Alma, for anyone that ever went in, never came out. They were slaves to the local job field, and so the only thing that left Alma was the empty train or the bottled meat.

But the shivering Elsen did not mention it and continued trying to sink into the wall. The Batter glanced over at him for a split second, causing the Elsen to press himself even harder against the wall, his eyes growing wider in fear. The Batter merely scoffed and turned his head forward again, following Zacharie to the train.

They hopped into the grey carriage, Add-Ons in tow, and made themselves comfortable on a bench, a significant amount of space dividing them. The train then stirred, the sound of shifting gears distant and sharp. It continued to ungracefully jerk forward, and slowly started to move, away from Alma and towards a blurry horizon.

“Batter,” Zacharie said softly, his voice almost lost beneath the plodding squeak and whir of the travelling carriage.

“What,” the Batter spoke uncaringly, his attention aimed towards one of the windows, where he saw nothing but open fields.

“Did you notice anything odd about Alma?”

The Batter’s eyes squinted and he looked over at Zacharie beneath the brim of his cap. “What do you mean?”

Zacharie sighed. “The Elsen, amigo. Back in Damien there were hardly any, but it was business as usual over at Alma.” He tilted his head slowly, beguiling and cat-like. “Let’s exercise your mind for a minute, can you give me a reason as to why there were Elsen at Alma and not in Damien?”

He figured that the merchant could not see it, but the Batter rolled his eyes. He was is no mood to test his mind, but he gave in to Zacharie’s little lesson. “Safety,” he quickly answered.

“And what’s so safe about Alma, hm?” He did not seem to move at all, he looked at the Batter as still as a statue.

“The Elsen have basic survival requirements,” the Batter continued begrudgingly. “Shelter, sustenance, labor to give them purpose.” He crossed his arms and stretched his legs out, feeling the heels of his shoes scrape across the rough texture of the train floor.

Zacharie nodded, seemingly satisfied before settling back into his seat. “You are becoming more aware of what others see, perhaps that will make you-” he did not finish, the sentence drifted off, open-ended. He seemed to have realized something.

The Batter raised his eyebrow, “Make me what?” He demanded.

The merchant crossed his arms as well, but did not immediately answer, suddenly much more interested in the floor. “Nevermind, I was getting ahead of myself.”

“Make me what?” The Batter ordered, his voice forceful but still interested. He had never seen Zacharie deny him information, especially something as paltry as a speculation. He was a merchant, a business doer, he sold information with the slight of his hand and the echo of a chuckle.

“Don’t be so taxing, Batter. It will make you into a caustic man, one that I will have no desire to help,” Zacharie spoke defensively now, despite his attempt to maintain his voice’s usual evenness.

The other’s lips curled slightly at the corners, creating some sort of twisted and devious smile. “I think having my own thoughts is going to make me more powerful than before. Maybe I won't need your help, after all,” he sneered.

Zacharie chuckled harshly, it was bare of any humor. “We’ve been over this before, you need me. You are nothing without me. Those bats and other desirables don't form from thin air, but I suppose you know that.” He folded his hands into his lap. “Give up, you won’t find any solid and logical reason to not utilize me and what I have to offer.”

Slowly the Batter’s smirk transitioned into a murderous scowl, the atmosphere had shifted so quickly. “You are so bent on letting me use you, but I think there’s a hidden motive within you. You’re secretly using me.” He paused for a moment, his arms sliding back to his sides. “Because I give you a purpose. Just like those Elsen are willing to live lives in cowardice and impending impurity for one.”

A feeling of success swelled in the Batter’s chest when Zacharie made no attempt to deny his reasoning. Instead he partially changed the subject. “What do you think of when you see me?” He asked, his voice absent of any underlying emotion. He had said it so casually, and he waited, expecting an answer.

The Batter’s eyes quickly scanned the human, and stopped at the scrutinous stare of his mask. Was this another test? Zacharie was nothing much to him than a key piece in the puzzle to the success of his quest. He made no falter in saying it, either. “You are a required presence for me to move forward with my mission. You provide what I need, and in turn I provide what you need. Nothing more, nothing less.”

At first the other had said nothing besides giving a slow nod. But slowly and oh so quietly, that the Batter might not have heard, Zacharie’s voice drifted through the air. “Perhaps, it will make you a sympathetic person,” he spoke, answering the Batter’s earlier question.

The Batter wanted to say what matter would it be if he was “unethical” in the eyes of Zacharie? Why should he care about what a secretly wicked man had to say? But the Batter found that his lips were sealed; not in the way that his actions like when he was controlled by the Puppeteer and had no will of his own, he just could not find himself able to say it. He turned his body away from Zacharie, so that it faced the back of the carriage.

The Batter did not need to feel pity for others, they were all impure, no one deserved it. No one. But if he was so determined to hold this mindset, why did his heart waver like it was being dragged? Why did his chest feel empty and blue?

The Batter did not want to be sympathetic, he did not have time to mourn or to sacrifice his own blood for the conflict of others. He had a purpose, so what if they lost their own.

The Batter did not want to be sympathetic. Sympathy was wracked with motives of love, underlying with devotion and cherishment. He had never felt love for another and he had never received it, no matter what the Queen had told him long before.

She lied.

The Batter did not want to be sympathetic, because he did not want to love.


The train ride had continued with a stuffy silence, not the usual content one that had filled the gaps of conversation between the Batter and Zacharie when neither had nothing more to say, but an awkward one, brimming with darkness and anger from a certain capped fellow’s direction.

When the train had pulled to a stop, after what seemed like hours, Zacharie got off without another word. The Batter unenthusiastically followed, trying to busy his mind by following the rhythm of the buzzing Add-Ons who trailed right behind.

It was not until he raised his gaze above the ground that the Batter noticed they were back in Damien. But Zacharie kept moving forward, past every empty building, speeding through the hissing breeze and the sharp grass that poked through fissures in the pathway.

They moved onto a small peninsula, where an ominous red cube bobbed lazily on the open air. Wordlessly, Zacharie moved forward and gently placed his hand onto the cube, his head turned towards the Batter, gesturing for the Batter to the same.

In silent obedience, the Batter’s hand placed itself onto the cube too. This was not unfamiliar to him, he had done it multiple times before, it was a form of transportation that stretched across planes of the universe and of the mind.

All around them the light began to melt, blending into each other like a watercolor painting. It flashed before the Batter’s eyelids before fading back into a colorless void, edged with the dizzying splashes of scenery from the Zone he still stood in. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he found himself in an airy dark vacuum.

Little twinklings of celestial dust and debris floated past him, brushing his skin, feather-light and weightless. The misshapen stature of a shadow blocked out the few arbitrary rays of light every time it passed. “Come along,” the owner of the shadow called, Zacharie, his voice greatly distorted echoing into oblivion through the space of no boundary.

The Batter’s feet drifted through the blackness to where he had thought he heard the merchant, and soon he saw his figure standing before a large orb of a whimsical and misty glare. Zacharie looked over towards the capped man, ensuring that he was by his side, before dipping his fingers into the ball of light.

It traveled up his arm and wrapped around his torso before spreading over the rest of his body, encasing him in a delicate and foggy illumination. He looked pointedly over at the Batter, who proceeded to also hold his hand out to the orb, and watched as the light crawled onto him too.

Like dripping ink, the space around them fell, all the random shiny bits and microscopic stars plummeting to the hidden floor. Soon the Batter and Zacharie were falling too, but it was a gentle fall, giving them a delightful feeling of ethereality.

Both closed their eyes, aware that the universe would not disclose its magical transportation secrets to open ones. When the Batter felt his feet touch a harder, more solid ground, he cracked his eyelids open and looked out upon their new surroundings.


Nostalgia filled his body as he recalled the warm yellow setting, a seemingly empty and sole gawky building sat upon a plateau upon the ocean of plastic, just ahead. Zacharie easily walked towards it, the memory of it a permanent groove in his mind.

After gathering his bearings, the Batter ran up beside him, the Add-Ons always quick to keep up. “Where’s the Judge,” he thought aloud, upon remembering Zone 0 to be the home of the unsightly cat.

The merchant slightly jumped in surprise, apparently having forgotten that the Batter was with him. “Pablo,” he began a bit fidgety, “Will make an appearance soon enough,” his voice had progressed into its usual calm.

The Batter nodded, accepting the inadequate response. Soon the two found themselves looking into a dark entrance just at the head of the big yellow building, barely able to be seen before the Add-Ons floated in with their lit up bodies was a ladder leading down into the floor below.

Sliding his feet across the ground, Zacharie headed in first, before looping his fingers around the knapsack and kneeling. He scooted over to the ladder and rested his legs against it. He waved the Batter forward before flipping himself over with a heave to descend into the next room.

The other shuffled forward and lowered himself down onto the ladder, the Add-Ons floating just above his head. He began climbing down, them merely inches above him with each step.

When he was on the floor again, this time a few feet lower, he was greeted by Zacharie. Behind him was a small hallway lined with torches. Wordlessly, in his true fashion, the merchant turned around and began to walk down the hallway.

The Batter followed, he himself being immersed by the warm and haunting glow of the torches. He watched Zacharie pause just at the end of the corridor, standing just before the small expanse of an open room.

When he strolled up next to him, the Batter saw what the merchant was silently staring at. The room was plain and dull, an orangish-yellow the same color as the exterior of the building. But sitting lonely in the corner was a twitching figure that faced the wall.

Strange and complex mumbles came from the creature, who scratched at the ugly wall while it babbled. The Batter could not clearly identify it, hidden by the shadows that the light of the torches could not reach. Zacharie cleared his throat to gain its attention.

It gave a small jump before whipping around at the speed of light, the Batter instantly recognizing its deformed and protruding teeth. “Oh my, you can not saunter in my abode without proposal and not expect to distress me!” The Judge squeaked.

“Sorry to frighten you, Pablo,” Zacharie apologized.

“It is fine, I can regard that as not being your true intention.” He looked between the two before him suspiciously. “I was actually preparing to pay you both a visit, to see how the Zone’s were performing.” He curled his tail around his legs, trying to regain composure. “So anyway, what affair has delivered you and the Batter to my dwelling?” His eyes flickered over to the capped man as he spoke his name.

“I would like to request your assistance,” Zacharie replied, “On behalf of him,” he gestured to the Batter next to him.

The Judge’s lips curled, revealing more of his jagged teeth. “And what auxiliary matter do you desire for myself to govern?” His voice purred in interest.

“Well,” the merchant began, “I have quite an interesting revelation to share with you.”

“Oh yes, I do love a good tale, please elaborate,” the cat responded.

“Our friend,” Zacharie nodded over at the Batter, who was leaning against a wall defensively, his arms crossed, “has a problem.”

“A problem?”

“Yes, a problem.”

“Does it have any relevance to those spectres?”

“No, no,” the human shook his head. “Not this time, it has to do with the Puppeteer.” He paused. “The Puppeteer has disappeared.”

The Judge’s eyes widened in surprise, “I wonder how that is faring you, Batter.”

He did not reply, Zacharie continued to speak for him. “Not well, he has no basic skills or battle strategy without the Puppeteer. Even stranger, he has been experiencing odd effects like obtaining emotions and the other day he was sleeping.”

The cat emitted a small growl, something akin to a chuckle. “Why, isn’t that just intriguing? And here I anticipated that the Batter would invariably be a superintended and tongueless instrument.” He tilted his head towards Zacharie. “Now please, don’t deny my curiosity and do relate the details of his condition.”

“Pablo, you would not believe how temperamental he is, of all traits in existence that is the one he is the most.”

“I’m right here,” the Batter growled, finally speaking up.

“You are correct!” The Judge mused. “So quick to be upset.”

“I’m also not a new toy for conversation amongst the both of you,” he hissed. The Batter walked towards the two talking bodies. “Now can you help me or not?”

“Hold on,” the Judge intervened. “Zacharie never clarified of how I would be of aid with your sudden positioning. For all that I am aware, I could be conforming to sign a mutual pact on educating you on how to eradicate felines. Some other physical entity in this room besides myself, bear to me an explanation.”

“The Batter will be a student,” Zacharie quickly began to answer. “I need another teacher besides myself to illustrate the ways of our world. What better helper than the cat who sees and hears almost everything these lands have to offer?”

“You flatter me so, but I have previously handed the Batter an abundance in consultation, it was merely my duty. But this is not, I will only agree to your terms of becoming a guide in the sense that there will be an item returned in my favor.” The Judge sat up onto all four legs and peered up at the two figures.

“What could you possibly want?” Zacharie droned.

The cat’s head turned off to the side, but it could not hide his dark somber eyes. “A retribution,” his stare looked back up at Zacharie. “Anything that could restore the gaping memory of my brother.”

The merchant sighed. “That is a great request, Pablo.”

“But I know that you can make it a reality.”

Zacharie was quiet for a moment, deep in thought, similar to the Batter, who was not sure what was happening. Of course he knew that the Judge was alluding to his dead brother, Valerie. But what power could Zacharie possibly have, even as a guardian, to resurrect the departed? Perhaps there was more to this mysterious human than the Batter knew, there had to be.

“Fine, it is a deal. But you must endure the impatience of Batter just as much as I must, and comply with every lesson.”

“Easily can be done, though I can not speak on behalf of the Batter. What of you?”

“I can listen, it isn’t that hard; don’t patronize me,” the Batter muttered.

“Excellent!” The cat’s ragged tail lifted into the air and swayed slowly. “Let us get to work, shall we?”

 

Chapter Text

The three sat in a triangle; two unlikely scholars, comprised of masked man and cat, and one skeptical pupil, armed with a bat. The Batter waited expectantly for the first “lesson”, or what what he saw as an opportunity for the other two to pick his brain and mock his condition. The last thing he desired was to be caught in the boring confines of Zone 0, listening to teachings that held an outline of going over everyday life.

It was the Judge who spoke first. “If I am to assist in cultivating the fruits of your mind, I must at least know what you can already fathom. Please explain to me what your current knowledge consists of.”

“He can still fight, but without a defined strategy,” Zacharie answered for him. “He still has the ability to recognize enemies, which is almost everything as always,” he joked halfheartedly.

The Batter turned a searing glare towards him, but Zacharie continued without falter. “Batter can still utilize tools and apply himself to action.” He looked over at the huffy capped man. “However, anything he relied upon the Puppeteer to demand him to do is not a matter he can conduct himself.”

“Please elucidate what you are adumbrating,” the cat purred.

“He has no ability to keep account of credits, and can only so much recall a location as apparent on the fact that he constantly maintains a look of confusion in his lost little eyes.” The merchant chuckled, “He berates me with ugly expressions towards anything I try to teach him, but I bet you he can’t remember what’s in his own pocket right now.”

The Batter scowled, and squinted his eyes. He could remember, obviously. There were credits in his pocket, or was it a Luck Ticket? No, it had to be an eye, it felt long and squarish. Wait, were eyes in the shape of rectangles?

While the Batter was busy knitting a web of perplexity within his head, frustration was making itself more and more visible on his face. His furrowed eyebrows and sharp scowl, prominent beneath the lines of his forehead, prompted the Judge to laugh. The Batter’s mouth quickly formed into a sneer in the cat’s direction.

With a loud sigh of indignation, the Batter shoved his hand into his back pocket and did not pull out a credit, Luck Ticket, or even an Eye, it was simply a Joker to his chagrin. He angrily shoved it back into his pocket and lifted his hands to his face, letting out a small scream.

“Wow, that’s just pathetic, and sad,” Zacharie said, an onlooker to the scene. When it didn’t stop, Zacharie sighed and quickly intervened with the Batter’s hissy fit. “You are supposed to be an entity of-” He groaned, “-salvation, so stop acting like a child.”

The Batter’s hands slipped from his face and he stood up without another word. Adjusting his hat, he motioned the Add-Ons to follow him before climbing up the nearby ladder, leaving the Judge and Zacharie behind.


“This shall not be an elementary task,” the Judge commented when the Batter was gone from sight.

The human was silent for a few moments before speaking, “But Pablo, you noticed it too, right?”

“Yes, I’ve never seen him in distress before,” the cat rolled its eyes. “But my oh my, he is awfully imbecilic.”

“We certainly have a lot of work to do if we want everything to go smoothly.”

“I cannot understand as to why educating him will hold any value to your plan.”

Zacharie’s attention darted over to the ladder that the Batter had climbed a few moments before. “I need him to do it, to pull the switch. Teaching and training him will help him accept his duty, especially now that the Puppeteer is gone.”

Zacharie felt something nudge his leg and he looked down to see the Judge staring right back up at him. “This is my home too, Zacharie.

The merchant looked away from the cat’s gaze. “It’s been going on too long, Pablo. It’s time to let go, I’m not strong enough anymore. I’m finally going to let everything take its natural course.” He slowly exhaled, “I want to be liberated.”

Chapter Text

A low evening light set upon Zone 0, blanketing the small plateau in a hazy burnt umber. Atop the largest building stood the Batter and the Judge, looking out over the gloomy expanse of sea, brimming with ominous dangers. Where the Judge’s eyes twinkled with a familiarity at the sight, intimate with the view that comforted him in his time of mourning, the Batter looked on with authority, his expression blank and lips taut, a face determined to conquer the plastic waters.

No amount of emotion, change, or education could deter the Batter from his one true goal. He was certain that the cat and the merchant knew this, but they had not made any statements regarding it. To him it was still unfathomable that Zacharie had reached out to him, the very same man that he was designed to destroy. Yet there was no falter in Zacharie’s actions, he continued living like there was no vendetta on his life or target on his back. Although he would never admit it to his face, the Batter saw this as honorable on the human’s part, for despite the Batter’s unruly state, the merchant took no initiative to take the advantage.

“Judge,” the Batter spoke, his voice commanding yet delivered quietly. He saw the cat make no attempt to turn his head towards him, but his ears did perk up, signifying that he was in fact listening. “Did you ever know that Zacharie was a guardian?”

“He never verbally expressed such to me, but he never concealed it either, so of course I’m informed,” the Judge’s attention was still trained on the ocean. “Why the sudden query?”

“When he first greeted me, after I realized that the Puppeteer was gone, he told me that he was a guardian. He knows that it is my job to eliminate vile creatures like him, and yet he went ahead and gave me that information. At first I thought he was just teasing me because he thought I was helpless, but when he expressed that he wanted to help me-” The Batter paused, “-everything just stopped making sense.”

The Judge finally looked over at the Batter, his perpetual smile unreadable. “He is an oddity, for he is a human. You’ve met one other human before, haven’t you?”

A slideshow of images flickered through the Batter’s brain, consisting of his greatest battle before defeating Enoch. Sugar was a strange woman, with a smile eerily similar to the one plastered on the Judge’s face. She had been one of the most complex individuals he had ever seen, one of the most gleeful. Sugar had not fought the Batter in anger, fear, or in requirement, but rather out of amusement. Her skills were impressive and her determination well established, however that did not stop the coming strife of the Batter. Even in death she was graceful as she was playful, her dying words a farewell to Zacharie in whatever relation she had to him.

Thinking back to her now, the Batter felt his chest prickle and his mind flit from memory to memory trying to forget her death. This was a new emotion, and it was one underlying with qualm and the desire to apologize to a dead woman. Maybe Sugar did not have to die.

“Yes,” the Batter replied. “She was a mysterious person, but now that I think about it, I can see similarities between her and Zacharie.”

“Humans are bags of flesh with little sacks in their heads just repleted with intricacy,” the Judge said indifferently. “And yet, Zacharie attempts to dissimulate himself into being one of us.”

“One of us?” The Batter questioned.

“Solely purposed, one job, one goal,” the Judge answered. “He wears a facade of being a merchant, but he sheds in the light of the complex truth.” The cat’s eyes flit over to the horizon. “He is merely mortal, and he abhors that fact.”

“Mortal,” the Batter softly repeated to himself. “Mortals seem to be built on weakness, so why is Zacharie a guardian?”

“What is the hardest creature you’ve ever had to fight?” The Judge shifted the direction of the conversation.

“What?” A perplexed Batter asked.

“Just answer the question.”

He shifted his weight back and forth upon his feet, eyeing the cat suspiciously. Without a doubt it was Sugar, never before had he faced such a strong opponent. “Enoch,” the Batter replied instead; maybe the Judge didn’t know he had killed her.

“I can see through your bluff like looking through glass,” the Judge spoke with a slight snarl; apparently he did know.

“Yes, it was Sugar,” the Batter admitted in a mumble.

“And so,” the cat turned away from the darkening sky and looked up at the capped man before him. “What was so weak about that mortal?” He lifted his paw to his head, scratching just behind one pointy ear. “If anything mortals can be stronger,” the Judge continued. “They have more passion than beings like us ever will.”

The Batter watched as the Judge began to stroll back towards the stairs. “Where are you going?” He asked.

“To bed, night is falling. It would be best if you set yourself into whatever repose you can, you might not spend your time in such easy leisure tomorrow.” With that, the cat began to descend down into the building without so much as a sound.

The Batter sighed and thought he should follow the Judge’s lead. But the setting was so peaceful, and the Batter found more comfort in sitting upon the roof than he would lying about inside. With nothing but the incoming stars as his companion, the Batter watched as nighttime settled upon Zone 0.


 

The Batter never remembered leaving Zone 0, but he certainly was not there anymore. He had opened his eyes to find himself sprawled out in a meadow. He tried to lift his head, in order to look anywhere but at the angry yellow orb that glared from above, but he was unmistakably pinned to the earth. Memories of being in a familiar situation rang throughout his head; was he dreaming again?

Almost as if answering his thoughts, his mind buzzed with a feeling, a presence. His limbs began to move with their own mind as he lifted himself from the soft patch of grass he previously lied upon. His eyes darting around him, the Batter noticed his surroundings not to be a dense forest like before, but only a sliver of nature in a base of civilization.

Colorful houses lined up along a black road of the same unidentifiable material he had seen before. Surely this dream was taking place in the human world, and he could now much more clearly see how colorful it was in the light of daytime.

Careless to the Batter’s fascination, his legs began to move him down the street, down a smaller path alongside the dark road, it was gray and ugly, stained and cracked. He lifted his sights to see more human-caused oddities: multicolored and large metal boxes with slate colored wheels, tall signs with an unreadable language and various symbols, and the occasional howl and cry of some random creature kept within one of the many homes.

Despite the presence of so much life, none of it was human. Whatever neighborhood that the Batter walked through seemed to be absent of Zacharie’s species.

After a few minutes of aimless walking, his eyes caught sight of a spectacular building. The structure of it stood out like a sore thumb, intimidating and marked with age by the cracks sprawling along the arched doorway and decrepit creme colored bricks. Perched near the front of the roof was a short, pointed column, with a cross drawn down the front.

The Batter realized his feet were leading him towards the edifice when he was able to spot more unique details, such as the colorful spectrum of the exterior windows, flaunting the catching light as a rainbow. The lawn was crisply cut, with the path to the main entrance lined by vibrant, pink, round flowers. The premises seemed coordinated from each pane of glass to every chipped stone.

As the Batter was getting closer, his ears caught the sound of a loud and boisterous voice, seeping through the ajar front door. Once his feet began hit the path just before the entrance, the voice’s words could be more clearly heard.

“-not to follow will lead you astray, into a nothingness, whether you’ve sinned or not.”

The Batter made it to the door, his hand quietly pushed the door open wider. It led into one big room, the entirety of the building taken up by rows of pews facing a marble altar. Each of the wooden benches was fully occupied by humans; so this where they had gone, the Batter thought.

They were all fixated in silence on the altar, watching a portly man pace back and forth. He opened his mouth again, the voice from earlier.

“I’ve warned you all, that under my care, and God’s care, you will be led to a path of righteousness, sugared with every delight of life, but on hold of the sin.” He glanced across the seated crowd, not noticing the Batter as he’d suspected he wouldn’t, as no one had in the previous dream. His eyes were wide, to wide for the small head that rested on his conflictingly swollen body.

“But know this, anyone who does not go this way, does not convert, will burn. In fact, none of you are safe yet, those who deviate will all burn. Your parents, your children, you.” He waved his large hands towards the observers. “You have strayed, and God has seen, the demons of life will get you unless you immerse yourselves in His will. The sweetness of His glory is your savior.”

It was then that the Batter realized he had stopped moving, and he too was just watching like everyone else in the room, this is what the Puppeteer had wanted him to see.

“You may ask me what has marked you valid for Hell,” the preacher continued. “Television!” He shouted. “The Internet! Books! Games! If your attention is on anything but the word of the Lord, you have been condemned. You cannot be saved by anything but Him, lest you burn alongside every infidel!” He pumped his fist into the air. “Do not stray, do not take my word for granted, or you shall not be saved.”

The man continued to speak, his aggressive words molesting the Batter’s own ears. He could not help but think that the man was an extremist for whatever dispute he admonished. Sweat was visible dripping down the man’s bald head, his veins popping out as he emphasized the severity of his diatribe.

Yet, from his current position, the Batter saw no one with a visible expression of what he himself felt. He saw many blank faces and eyes filled with sympathetic passion, eating up the man’s words, apparently not wanting to “burn” themselves.

The Batter instantly had felt some sort of hostility towards the corpulent human. Instead of actively cleansing his people, he spit upon them to fix their own lives. He did not act, a real man of God would create change, but all this man did was create an unholy illusion, and cake the dirt onto the already mud covered minds of his listeners. True saving only came through purification.

Whilst the Batter was busy criticizing the man within his head, the sermon had finished and the congregation silently shuffled out. As people walked through him, although to his slight discomfort in not physically being there, the Batter noticed two figures still sitting in the pews. His eyes followed them as they approached the still standing preacher, the larger one pulling on what looked like the rather reluctant smaller one, a child.

The Batter’s feet pulled him closer to the altar and soon enough he felt his own blood run cold. He had gotten a closer look at none other than Enoch, as disgustingly humanized as ever. The Batter didn’t know how he hadn’t noticed it before, but lo’ and behold, there he was speaking in his cleric flesh with another looming and familiar figure. His mind was spinning, why were the two of them here.

“Oh, my fellow brother! How does life fare you, Dedan?” Enoch asked, his thin lips peeling back to reveal his wide and hideous grin.

The taller man smiled himself, his large jaw chattering as he gave a low throaty chuckle. “Not well enough.”

“Perhaps actually investing yourself into prayer instead of falling asleep during my sermons might help you,” Enoch ridiculed.

Dedan raised his hand to the back of his head. “Yeah, sorry Father, to be honest I do fine with praying and shi-, uh stuff, on my own. I just come for him.” He gestured to the child whose wrist he still tightly held onto. The Batter had almost forgotten that he was there too, but he could not see his face since he was turned away from him.

“Zacharie,” the large man cooed, “How are you?”

Zacharie? Was it really him? The Batter could not hear his reply, and figured that Enoch could not either by the displeased look on his face.

To his surprise, the Batter’s feet yanked him forward, until he was a mere foot away from the three others. Close enough to get a good look at them each, the child was in fact Zacharie donning his usual silly mask.

It still made no sense however, why were the three of them gathered like that? Did Zacharie, if that kid really was him, know who they were?

“Son, I cannot hear you with that mask on,” Enoch’s voice broke the Batter from his thoughts. “It also looks quite sinister, why don’t you take it off?”

The small boy said nothing, his attention suddenly shifting to a scuff on one of his shoes. “Zacharie,” Dedan threatened quietly.

“I don’t want to,” Zacharie’s voice was quiet beneath his mask, muffled and shy.

“It looks like a demon’s face, and as you know these kinds of things will not be acceptable in a house of God,” Enoch chastised.

“I’d rather burn in Hell than take my mask off,” he softly challenged.

“Zacharie!” Dedan shouted, although Enoch looked nothing close to surprised. “I don’t think your parents would’ve liked to hear you speak like that to anyone, let alone to Father here.”

“It’s alright, sometimes children have the most paltry sense of values, I hope something good can change this boy’s way.” Enoch leaned down until he was practically putting Zacharie in his shadow. “Lest he make do with the statement he just made.”

“Children are rotten, and this bastard is too stubborn to care. But I’ll get him to take his damn mask off one day, and he’ll learn then,” Dedan vowed.

“Please do not use vulgarity in this place, Dedan, but yes, you’re right, you must encourage him to at least take a step from this rebellious rage of his. Perhaps show him the sweeter side of faith,” Enoch spoke as though Zacharie wasn’t standing right in front of him.

“Yeah, thanks Father, we’ll be going then.”

“No problem here, brother, and please do strive to show this young one the way. I can already see the sin developing in what little is visible of his eyes,” he spoke ominously. “Goodbye Dedan, and you too Zacharie.”

Zacharie, as the Batter had expected said nothing, and was subsequently dragged away by Dedan. This was the last image the Batter saw before his world began to deteriorate into a recognizable blackness.

Chapter Text

The Batter was greeted from his slumber by an unpleasant stiffness in his back and the irritating incandescence of light. As he sat up, he realized he was still on the rooftop from where he had fallen asleep. The Batter was a simple man with simple likes and dislikes, and he soon placed sleep into the latter. It seemed that rest was only problematic, but his body was beginning to become more prone to it, without his own choice of course; the Batter felt as though he were weakening.

 

He noticed that his cap had fallen off sometime in the night before swiftly placing it back onto his head. Afterwards, he achingly pulled himself to his feet and gathered himself back into a regular stride as he approached the stairs to the interior of the building. The Batter saw the Judge and Zacharie sitting on an elongated cube which served as a makeshift bench. Meanwhile, at the other end of the room, the Add-Ons lay in their usual dormant mode.

 

The sight of the masked man reminded the Batter of his new dream; he decided that it might be in his favor to tell Zacharie of the occurrence. He had only made his way halfway across the room when the Judge noticed his presence.

 

“Ah, look who has awakened,” the cat purred, prompting Zacharie to turn his head. “You were not inaccurate in informing me of the Batter’s new patterns, Zacharie. Interesting indeed.”

 

“Well,” the Batter started as soon as he had made it over to the two others, his height made him tower over them. “I have something to say, of which I did not mention the first time I slept.”

 

The Judge’s ears perked up in curiosity, but it was Zacharie who spoke. “Oh really?” He asked, calm beneath his artificial exterior. “What didn’t you tell us?”

 

The Batter looked down on the two watching their faces as he carefully formed his words. “I’ve been experiencing what you call dreams.” He noticed the Judge’s eyes grow more earnest, but there was not much more of a reaction.

 

“Dreams,” the Judge repeated. “And what do these dreams consist of?”

 

The Batter slowly turned his head towards Zacharie and simply lifted a hand, pointing at him. Zacharie was not surprised, or at least did not seem to be, not that anyone could exactly tell.

 

“Me?” Zacharie asked calmly. “So what exactly do your dreams depict of me?”

 

The Batter nudged the edge of his cap. “You are younger in them, a child,” he began. “I believe you live with Dedan, except he looks more like you, like the people of the town the dream takes place in.” His eyes flickered away for a moment before settling on the gap of space between where the Judge and Zacharie sat, recalling the details of the dream.

 

“Even in your youth, you’re wearing that mask. Dedan does not like it, I would even say he despises it. Maybe even despises you.” He paused. “That’s all that happens in the first dream.”

 

Still no immediate reaction. “First dream?” It is the Judge who speaks.

 

“Yes,” the Batter continued. “Last night I experienced another dream, once more it focused on Zacharie.” He lifted his chin upwards so his eyes could gaze at the ceiling. “Dedan was in this one too, but Enoch was present as well. He was still grotesque as one of Zacharie’s people. However, he spoke the word of God rather than proclaim himself as such. Neither did he like your mask, Zacharie, I believe he condemned you for it.” The Batter finally looked back down at the two, but he gazed accusingly in Zacharie’s direction. “What have you done to me to give me these bitter recollections?”

 

The masked man did not shortly reply, prompting the Batter to cross his arms in impatience. “I think,” Zacharie spoke at last, “that this enigma should be solved quickly, as it might hold the secrets to all of the Batter’s misfortunes. As to why these dreams star me is not to my knowledge.” He paused. “Until then, Batter, wake up your Add-Ons, go outside, we must train you if you are to survive at all in this world.”

 

The Batter looked at Zacharie a few moments longer, unsatisfied with the response he was given. Nonetheless, he quickly and quietly walked over to the Add-Ons, who automatically rose in the presence of their master, who followed him down the steps into the stories below.

 

The Judge and Zacharie remained in silence until the Batter’s soft footsteps could no longer be heard. When all seemed clear, the Judge turned his head towards Zacharie. “Disclosing the truth to him is a desideratum, as you know.”

 

“No,” Zacharie snapped back, allowing emotion into his voice. “Telling him in this state would only let his growing morals interfere with the plan.” He lifted his hands to his temples. “If only the Puppeteer were still regularly available.”

 

“You know as well as I,” the Judge hopped off of the bench, “that the Puppeteer is not a feasible prerogative any longer.”

 

“Yes, I know,” Zacharie said slowly. “If only I wasn’t so weak.”

 

The Judge waved his tail. “Now now, you know you have no management of your plight. Particularly not in this macrocosm.” When Zacharie did not return a comment, the Judge continued. “Although I do not concede with your animus nor scheme, I see that this was ultimately and invariably imminent. Your final pursuit at righteousness is a notion I applaud, but to these callow theatrics I do not.”

 

Zacharie laughed bitterly. “You’re calling me childish, and yet you’ve never been more accurate, Pablo. But I do not lament over the fact that I’m childish, however, over that I was never given an opportunity to be anything more. Life is unfair.”

 

The Judge rubbed against Zacharie’s legs in an unspoken act of consolation. When Zacharie looked down at the cat, its eyes were filled with compassion. “Veil your grievances for now, my dear friend, the dolt is waiting.”


When man and cat came outside, they were greeted by the sight of the Batter sitting near the edge of the yellow island, his legs hanging freely above the sea of plastic.

 

“Batter, you’re in hot water,” the Judge shouted from the safety of the inner-land. The Batter turned his head enough to see the two, and although not visible to the other two due to the span of his cap, raised an eyebrow quizzically.

 

Zacharie received the message. “Pablo means that you shouldn't leave your legs out above the plastic like that, unless you’d like a Troquantary to take them for its next meal,” he explained.

 

Slowly, with his eyes still trained on the other two, the Batter lifted his legs and crossed them, no longer suspended above potential harm. “What are we doing?” He then asked, although he turned back to face the endless ocean before him.

 

The Judge and Zacharie walked towards him in unison, albeit Zacharie in much quicker succession and in longer strides. "Not we, you ," Zacharie corrected.

 

The Batter turned around once more and got to his feet, the Add-Ons that had been out of sight only moments before flew to his side. "What do you need me to do?" He picked up the bat that had previously lied on the ground.

 

"Redeem yourself," the Judge purred, strolling forward with his tail flicking side to side in the air.

 

The Batter's grip on the bat tightened. "If redemption means fighting you, it would be too simple."

 

"It's not unfathomable that you'd eradicate a feline like myself, after all, you've done so before," the Judge added coldly, but only Zacharie noticed. He looked down at the cat, his hidden eyes filled with a pity that one could only give about the grievance of a lost loved one. The Judge continued. "However, you at your strongest status would hold a mere fifty percent chance of defeating me, but that's not the premeditation as of the present."

 

"You will not be fighting either of us, in fact," Zacharie elaborated. In the next sentence, the Batter swore he could hear the hint of a smile in Zacharie's voice, "You will be fighting yourself."

 

"Myself?" The Batter echoed, lowering his bat.

 

"Precisely. A duplicate of yourself," the Judge said.

 

"Why myself?" The Batter asked incredulously.

 

"It is simple," Zacharie began. "Your first fight with yourself not only provides us with the knowledge of where we should 'fix' you, but also your progress in comparison to your former glory."

 

The Batter scowled in thought. "Alright," he said finally. "But how exactly is is that I am to battle myself? Or this 'duplicate,' as the Judge mentioned?"

 

"There are certain perks to being a guardian," Zacharie said in a devious tone. "Just watch."

 

Just then the yellow plateau began to rumble, and the Batter struggled to stay on his feet while the Judge and Zacharie looked as calm as ever. A beam of light shot down from the sky to the ground, and a figure began to form into existence.

 

It was quickly that the Batter realized that the figure was none other than himself. "Batter, meet Batter," the cat said, amused.

 

The duplicate Batter marched forward next to Zacharie's side, a bat held stiffly in its hand. "This duplicate's physique and skill set are exactly like yours once were, minus the ability to speak or think abstractly, not that you ever really did so anyway."

 

The Batter glared at Zacharie in regards to his last comment. "So now what?" He said slowly.

 

"Fight," the cat and the merchant said in unison.

 

The Batter had had barely any time to hold out his bat in a defensive maneuver as his mindless clone came rushing forward in attack. The crack of colliding wood echoed through Zone 0 as the two's bats met.

 

The Batter could feel his arms quiver as he fought to maintain his stance. "Why is it so strong?" He said between grit teeth.

 

"I think the real item of debate here is why are you so weak?" Zacharie mocked.

 

The Batter scowled at the comment, and took the opportunity to deliver a blow to the duplicate’s head. It expertly dodged the attack before returning a strike, which the Batter narrowly missed.

 

The Batter dropped to his stomach, escaping another swing to his own head. “This is hardly fair,” he shouted to his spectators.

 

“You never were a man of honor,” Zacharie responded, tauntingly.

 

The Batter had been planning to deliver a sharp bite back when he had to roll away from another of the duplicate’s attacks. He jumped back onto his feet and leaped towards his enemy, from frustrated and fuelled with vague bloodlust. For the first time, the Batter was able to plant a hit on the duplicate, a sloppy but hard smack to its chest. He felt satisfied when he heard the audible crack of bone.

 

Unfortunately for the Batter, the clone simply shook its head before resuming a fighting stance. The Batter was astonished, how had the duplicate so easily bounced back?

 

“What's wrong, Batter?” Zacharie called, clearly seeing the irritation on the capped man’s face. “You always were a stubborn one,” he finished.

 

Zacharie’s distraction nearly cost the Batter his own life when the clone seized the opportunity to try and slam its weapon against the Batter’s neck. While the Batter had been able to get out of the way, he could feel himself getting worn out. He knew he was no match to this powerful caricature of himself.

 

The clone was able to strike once more, this time simply delivering a blow to the Batter’s stomach, which knocked him down and onto his back. Somewhere in his fall, the Batter’s bat had left his grip. The duplicate approached the fallen Batter, tossing its own bat aside.

 

While the Batter was initially caught by surprise with this action, this surprise was soon replaced with a dark and cold feeling as the duplicate wrapped its hands around the Batter’s neck. Its grip slowly tightened, and the Batter’s eyes could only stare up at the body leaning over him, his own body, as he struggled to get smoke into his lungs. The dark, cold feeling intensified, and the Batter could feel it crawl from his neck to the pit of his stomach. Something about this feeling told him that the end was near. All was lost.

 

The Batter closed his eyes and tried to distance himself from the constriction of his throat. When the grip had reached its greatest point, it suddenly vanished.

 

The Batter shot up, coughing harshly. He felt something wet and thick sliding along his clothes. His eyes cracked open to see the same inky blankness that ran through the veins of an Elsen covering his entire person. It was the sticky remains of the duplicate Batter.


The real Batter felt the soft brush of fur against his cheek. He turned his head to the left to face an amused judge. “You poor, pathetic thing.”

Chapter Text

With his throat throbbing and his clothing damp, the Batter struggled to hide his wounded pride. The dark feeling that overtook him only moments before continued to linger with a faded grasp. The Batter could only figure that what he felt was fear, an emotion he had learned in his encounter with the January in Zone 1. Fear was a horrible feeling, he would do anything in his power to not experience it again, he decided.

 

The Batter slowly climbed to his feet, wiping off the black goo that slithered down his torso as the Judge stared up at him from where he lay prior. The cat hissed as a small inky droplet managed to splash onto his fur, and he whipped his tail about impatiently. “Imbecile,” the Judge muttered to himself before shaking his head. “You need to get moving immediately if you require this much reprogramming,” he paused to lick the spot from his fur with a tiny scowl of disgust. “Farewell for now, my commission has been transitorily executed.” With a stretch and another flourish of his tail, the cat turned and began to wander back into the building of Zone 0.

 

“Where are you going!” Shouted the Batter as the cat's tail disappeared into the shadows.

 

“Pablo told me he has business to attend to and thus cannot join us,” Zacharie answered, still gazing idly from the sidelines. The Batter had almost forgotten he was present, and his heart burned again when he recalled the cruel taunts Zacharie had thrown at him in the midst of battle. 

 

The Batter fixed his cap and stared at Zacharie suspiciously. “And where exactly are we going, then?” He elected not to bring it up, perhaps later.

 

“Zone 2.” the merchant replied quickly. “We’re leaving now. Due to the little skill you’ve actually been left with following the Puppeteer’s disappearance, you must be taught at once. ” The Batter watched Zacharie move a few paces in the direction of the red cube that bobbed at the rear of the small island before he quickly ran up beside him, Add-Ons in tow.

 

“Zone 2?” The Batter repeated, ignoring Zacharie’s last comment. “But that Zone is purified, there is nothing left.” He continued to wring his tunic out, tiny slick drops fell like oil behind him as he walked.

 

“Except for the demons that plague the pristine streets that you painted with death and yet dare to call pure,” he quipped without even looking at the Batter. The Batter visibly frowned, but Zacharie continued. “We need to get to the library, one of the greatest sources of knowledge is books. When was the last time you read a book?”

 

The Batter was ready to retort, however, to his chagrin, Zacharie was correct. The Batter was neither illiterate nor unfamiliar to a book, but he had never actually sat down and gone through a full set of pages voluntarily. He could not believe that reading a book was something he had never done before, had the thought of doing so never struck him before? Had the Batter ever encountered free time?

 

“I do not recall,” he answered shyly. His eyes picked up the bright red cube on the path before him, and he strided forward and raised his hand, ready to teleport to the purified Zone.

 

“Wait,” Zacharie spoke softly, jogging up beside him, and the Batter complied, lowering his hand. “Before we go, I would like to tell you not to do anything stupid. I shall handle any conflict we encounter and you will obediently sit by. Do you understand?” Zacharie’s voice rung serious, there was no usual sound of condescension nor playfulness.

 

The Batter did not reply but merely squinted. He watched Zacharie raise his hand to the cube and simply followed. As the world began to fade around him he realized that Zacharie implied he would be protecting the Batter. He quickly swatted the thought away, the idea of this mere person going out of his way to defend the Batter initiated a new warm feeling that he did not feel comfortable with. The world swirled away before he could finish his thought.

 


 

In a few moments the Batter found himself blinded. They had landed at the edge of Zone 2 and all was still as he had left it: wan and desolate. The Batter had little time to reminisce before Zacharie was already on the move again in the direction of the library.

 

“What exactly am I supposed to be learning here?” The Batter asked as the two strolled along the path. “What knowledge are we looking for in those books?” His eyes continued to follow the tall buildings that lined the path, void of all life.

 

“Didn’t I tell you that there is so much left to learn? So much context you need to discover in regards to the very ground you walk on? You are a useless soldier if you do not have knowledge, especially since the Puppeteer is gone,” Zacharie huffed. “The entire time of your mission you have been with someone to guide you, do you even know what you would do if I wasn’t here?” For the first time Zacharie pointed his head towards the Batter. 

 

The Batter was uncomfortably moved, Zacharie had taken a hostile turn as an answer for such a simple question. But Zacharie was correct nonetheless, before coming across another to light the way he had certainly encountered danger and succeeded only with great struggle. The cold feeling returned, but this was not fear, and the Batter thought about who he really was and what he was actually capable of. A useless soldier? Did he really know nothing other than how to kill, and even then not without strategy provided by another? Suddenly he felt gripped by an empty sensation: who was he? Why was he there if there was no one to give him a purpose? The Batter began to understand the Elsen’s work ethic. The Elsen thrived on labor and addictive substance, perhaps the Batter was the same, except his vice was killing and not sugar. But as of late the Batter had no blood on his hands, no purpose. The Batter was too weak to do his mission, thus he had no purpose. No purpose, no reason to exist, no reason to breathe.

 

“Batter!” Zacharie shouted, snapping the other out of his thoughts. In the next instance, the Batter jolted as Zacharie pushed him against a vacant building.

 

“What was that for?” The Batter shouted, standing upright again as his body recovered from the sudden smack against stone. He looked down at his arm and noticed a scrape, there he witnessed his own blood ooze from the cut. It was black and inky, just like the stuff that spewed from monsters and Elsen. The Batter was stunned, he had never seen himself bleed before. He looked up just then, only to see Zacharie’s back turned to him and poised in a rigid stance. “Zacharie?” He asked, much more softly, wiping his arm against his pants.

 

“Quiet, Batter,” he hissed to the Batter’s surprise. The Batter wondered what had suddenly flipped Zacharie’s demeanor.

 

With a slight stumble, the Batter moved to the side to peer around Zacharie’s body. There he could make out the slight outline of a small figure standing directly across from Zacharie. Its horrid flesh peeled from its tiny frame, and its sunken black eyes hauntingly gazed - a Secretary. The humanoid’s head sharply turned towards the Batter. He held his breath as the ugly creature widened its grim mouth and released a deafening screech, prepared to pounce.

 

The Batter got into a stance, bat at the ready, his Add-Ons buzzing behind him, but the attack never came. By the time the tiny creature had shifted its focus to the Batter, the merchant had pulled out a jar holding a thick smoke within it from his large knapsack. He had sent the jar flying in the Secretary’s direction, where it shattered into thousands of pieces. The smoke rose from its container and surrounded the creature, causing it to lash into a frenzy of screams.

 

As the Batter looked on in confusion, Zacharie’s head continued to look around frantically. The Batter discovered what Zacharie was watching out for when he noticed several figures pop up from the darkness. Before he could blink, Zacharie grabbed his wrist and the two were speeding down the path in the direction of the library. The thud of tiny footsteps followed closely behind.

 

“What do they want?” The Batter yelled, still being pulled along. He could not help but think that Zacharie moved quickly for someone burdened with a bag of wares for sell.

 

“They remember you, they’ve come to haunt you,” Zacharie replied, following a bend in the pathway.

 

The Batter dared to look behind him and bore witness to a herd of Secretaries. The creatures were tiny, they did not seem too powerful, he thought, particularly since a simple puff of smoke had been able to take one out. Surely physical violence could be just as effective, and the Batter was waiting to prove himself, this would be a simple start.

 

He jerked free from Zacharies gasp, and moved towards the horde. The Add-Ons flew to the Batter’s side, blending into the white environment with a powerful hum as he held out his bat.

 

“Batter, no!”

 

The Batter could hear emotion unlike he had ever heard in the merchant’s voice before. It distracted him, the chilling grip of Zacharie’s voice captured his mind. He looked back at Zacharie and saw it, the smallest piece of flesh. Zacharie's mask had shifted, revealing a wide dark eye framed by a messy lock of black hair. The Batter could see in Zacharie's eye what he saw in the Elsen before they turned burnt: fear.

 

In that moment, the Batter realized three things: first of all, fear was a popular emotion and gripped all forms of life as far as he could see. Second, there was something very wrong with Zacharie if he should be displaying fear.

 

And third, there was no time to react when the swarm reached him.

Chapter Text

The Batter felt nothing the moment a Secretary launched its nimble body at him. No pain, to his surprise. It had happened so quickly, by the time the Batter had turned his head from Zacharie the horde had reached him. And while the Batter did not react in enough time, Zacharie did.

 

In the moment that the Secretary prepared to latch onto the Batter’s throat, it found its teeth sinking instead into the flesh of Zacharie’s upheld arm. The Batter stood dumbfounded, watching helplessly as Zacharie released a muffled cry beneath his expressionless mask. He had jumped in front of the Batter and taken the attack without a second thought. Another hiss of pain slipped through the mask as another tiny creature bit through its mask and into Zacharie’s leg while he was preoccupied with violently trying to shake the other off of his arm.

 

“Batter!” Zacharie shouted, his low growl dripping with frustration. He turned his head slightly towards the Batter. The latter readied his bat, prepared to run into the fray and help Zacharie. “No, get back!”

 

“What should I do?” The Batter yelled back, torn about not being able to aide the succumbing man. He helplessly watched as three other tiny beasts broke into to the others flesh, their tiny teeth gnashing and ripping. Thin crimson trails had begun to drip down Zacharie’s body, forming a dark puddle on the ground. The Batter could not help but notice that unlike him, Zacharie’s blood was red and lively. From where he was standing he could smell it, and even almost taste the metallic tang.

 

The creatures started to climb Zacharie’s body and pull him to the ground. Six, seven, eight, and the numbers grew as Zacharie was surrounded. One creature directed itself to the broad target of his neck and viciously bit down, inducing a shattering shriek from Zacharie unlike anything the Batter had ever heard before. “Go,” Zacharie screamed as a rain of blood poured from his new wound.

 

The Batter was frozen, completely still as he watched Zacharie’s blood paint the clean ground. Was he watching the guardian die?

 

“Run!” Zacharie screamed again, pulling the Batter from his state. “Get to the library n-” The merchant did not have time to finish his sentence before he was pulled beneath the crowd of tiny bodies.

 

This time the Batter listened immediately, his feet turned in the direction of the library, leaving Zacharie behind as he ran as fast as he could. The Add-Ons zipped alongside him, and he suddenly regretted not sending them to help Zacharie, but there was no time to turn back. He could see the library now, its broad doors lay before him.

 

Once he reached them, he struggled to pull open the handles, but when he could he threw himself into the dark building. He lashed around, pulled the doors shut. The Batter’s eyes blinked in the darkness that soon surrounded him, and he looked over at his Add-Ons, the only source of light in the room. Needless of a command, the three dispersed in a triangle around the Batter’s body, creating a ring of light for him to look in any direction he pleased.

 

The Batter saw little of use in the room, the empty counter offered no help and he thought he could recall that neither of the two branching off rooms were useful. He could just faintly make out a staircase, one he had travelled long ago. He began to move towards it and the Add-Ons followed in perfect synch. The sounds of his quick footsteps were the only sound that echoed throughout the building, bouncing off the walls in the corpse of knowledge he had destroyed personally.

 

The second floor granted passage to rows and rows of books, which he had only previously explored in his last rendezvous through the zone. His fingers brushed over the books, thumbing their spines and faded titles until he came across a book titled “The Toad Kind.” He had encountered it once before, but something about the book seemed different. His fingers felt warmth from the book, and a throb, as though the book were animated.

 

He pulled it from the shelf, nestling his bat beneath his arm so he could skim through the pages. In short, it was a story of toad king who was slew by a masked man. Without a thought in his mind, the Batter recognized this masked man as none other than Zacharie. Suddenly his chest grew cold and his heart beat viciously like it had only moments before. Was the human even alive?

 

The Batter was pulled from his thoughts when his ears picked up the quietest sound, a rhythmic pattern of electronic hums. He whipped his head around, searching for the sound, but the sound led his eyes to the book. He raised to his ear and listened to the steady bleeps, but he noticed the sound began to move faster and faster. Unexpectedly, the book made a robotic hissed, catching the Batter off guard and forcing him to toss the book away from his person. He clutched his chest, still overcoming his surprise, before walking over to the book and tentatively picking it up again.

 

His eyes scanned each page, searching for a way that such sounds could be made, but he found nothing more than paper and ink. The Batter was left uneasy and slowly put the book back onto the shelf, his eyes trained on its placement as he backed away and up the stairs. He entered a hallway, with a window that faced into simple and luminescent white. The Batter turned away from the window, he leaned against a wall and slid down.

 

As the Batter rested his head against the cool plaster, his thoughts turned with what he identified as worry. What was he supposed to do now? He was virtually alone, and his entire mission was incapable of completion without Zacharie. Soon his eyelids turned heavy, and fear returned to the Batter.


He couldn't sleep, not again. He didn’t want to see these fragments of human life, none of which made legible sense to him. What were the point of the dreams anyway? If Zacharie was gone, who could interpret them? The Batter kept up his rebellious thoughts even as his body slackened and his eyes shut.