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'Through a Mirror, Darkly'

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          Every day at exactly six o’clock am, Bendy woke up from his slumber.

          Every day, like clockwork, as had been his routine for so many years now.

          Today was no different. One leisurely yawn and stretch, a comical cracking of a spine that may or may not be there, and the devil was up and ready to face whatever mayhem his studio had in store for the day.

          Except, as he threw off the covers and hopped out of his favorite drawer, he noticed that something was different.

          For one, the office space was a mess. Like, a genuine, atrocious mess that he definitely did not recall leaving here the night before he went to sleep, with papers strewn all over the floor, chairs overturned, drawers pulled from their places, ink stains absolutely everywhere, just a mass of disorder he never would have allowed had he been awake, and if this was someone’s idea of a prank, then that someone was definitely getting fired. But as Bendy looked closer, he began to notice . . . other things. Disturbing things.

          Like how the floorboards and the walls were not just strewn with mess, but were also sunken in, rotten in some places, creaking every now and again with sullen and dank disrepair. How the only window was completely boarded up in haphazard array, nails still jutting out from the boards, so tightly packed together that only a faint, feeble ray of light was able to filter through, igniting air that was filled with dust and other refuse that shouldn’t be possible in a well-run establishment. How every picture frame, every piece of memorabilia, was coated in a layer of dust and grime so thick you could barely make it out for what it was. Or how there seemed to be no sound whatsoever save for a constant and pervasive plink plink plink of liquid that seemed to come from everywhere, all the time.

          The unnerving sight immediately put Bendy on edge, a shiver travelling through his ink as he slowly rose up from his resting place.

          “What in blazes . . .?” he muttered, looking from one horrifically dilapidated object to the next, “I know Wally’s got a one track-mind sometime, but this is ridiculous . . .”

          It was like the lackadaisical janitor hadn’t been through in years. Bendy swallowed nervously, not quite liking the anxious chord that thought struck.

          He jumped at the sound of a door slamming shut nearby, and froze stock-still at the sound of running feet stomping by the room he was in. It wasn’t until it faded that it even occurred to him that that had definitely been a person, and he wanted to slap himself in the head for not calling out to them.

          If someone was here, then that meant this was some kinda set up, for sure. Someone who was definitely playin’ a joke on him, and lettin’ the studio pay the price for it.

He almost wanted to laugh a little in relief, wiping a hand over his brow to clean away the ink that had begun to dribble. Jeez, of course this was a set up! What else could this be?

          “A-alright, guys, if this some kinda joke, ya got me! Joey? Sammy!” Bendy called out, walking to the door. Out of habit, he reached up to flick the lights on, only to watch as the hanging fixture flickered erratically before sputtering out into darkness once more, a crack of static sparks flying out from the broken end.

          Bendy frowned, unamused, “ . . . okay, whoever’s responsible for this is gonna be payin outta their own pockets to fix this mess, ya hear me!”

          He pushed the door open, cringing at the old, rusty creak the hinges gave until it ground to a slow, faltering stop.

          The sight beyond made his heart sink.

          The hallways were in no better condition it seemed. Rotting floorboards, dust, the same black stains of ink everywhere, in some cases even flooding the floor, just one mess on top of the other. Whoever did this was lookin’ to lose their life savings, it seemed. Because someone had to have done this. Someone . . .

          Swallowing again, Bendy stepped out into the hall, looking back and forth for any sign of the person he had heard running. But there was only stillness. A stillness that did not match the vigor this studio was supposed to have, the energy of coffee-fueled animators and actors and music directors enthusiastically working toward their next deadline.

          And the silence made Bendy shudder.

          Creeping forward, this time more slowly and cautiously, Bendy turned and began to walk towards the rooms Boris and Alice slept in. They should be here still, they rarely left the studio at night, and he’d like a little back-up to get to the bottom of this nonsense.

          And to help make this place not feel so . . . abandoned.

          But as he walked, he realized that . . . this didn’t seem to be the studio he remembered working in just the day before. It looked similar, but . . . the layout was wrong. Older, less streamlined, without the renovations Joey had made so long ago. But there were still things he saw that didn’t make any sense. Like the pipes running every which way over the ceiling and the walls, significantly more than his studio, all pumping in time to a heartbeat with thick, black ink that oozed like sludge between the metal bindings. And more disturbingly, posters of his old animations were lined along the walls, covered in dust, but still disturbingly visibly. None of the newer ones were up at all, like they should have been. It was like . . . like this place had somehow gotten stuck in the past, and hadn’t left it in literal years.

          “Boris?” Bendy said, voice dropping just a tad, yet unsure why he felt the need to not shout, “Alice? Anybody?”

           Only creaking wood and dripping pipes answered him.

          Toons had no concept of hot or cold, yet Bendy found himself wrapping his arms around his torso like a sudden chill had come over him. Something wasn’t just ‘different’ anymore, it felt like. Something was wrong.

          Bendy turned a corner, only to nearly jump out of his skin when he came face to face with a cardboard cut-out of himself, the likes of which he hadn’t seen in years. He stared at it for a few moments, patting a hand over his heart before giving a wry chuckle to the hollow figure in front of him, “J-jeez, got me good there. Where’d ya even come from, huh?”

          It gave no response of course, just a plastic white grin that never changed, staring back ceaselessly with eyes that never blinked. Yeesh, now he remembered why they got rid of these things . . .

Giving the cold cut-out a wide berth, Bendy moved on until he came to the end of the path before him, said end splitting into a T-hallway that delved into further sections of this studio. He carefully looked down either one, not quite sure where he was now. The one on the right led to more twisting hallways, but the one on the left seemed to end in a room. A room without a door, the lights flickering on and off, on and off, one second bright and then the next drowned in dark, unseeable black.

          But there was a figure inside, Bendy could see whenever the lights flickered on. A tall figure, as grayscale as he was, with long, lupine ears that stood out, and Bendy felt his heart lift at the sight.

          “Boris!” he cried, running to the other toon, elated at finally finding a familiar face, even as the flickering lights bloomed into darkness again, “Boy, am I glad to see ya, pal! Can ya believe the state of this place?”

           More steps. The lights flickered on and off again in the span of a second, “Gonna have to have a few words with Wally about this mess, huh? If he wasn’t responsible for it, anyway!”

           Boris hadn’t responded yet. Bendy stepped over the threshold into the dark room, a little puzzled but hey, it was early in the morning and Boris had never been a morning dog, “Hey, Boris ol’ buddy, you still sleepin’ or-,”

           The lights flickered on, and there’s a moment of shocked silence as the scene in front of Bendy is revealed in incandescent clarity.

           And then he screamed.

           Boris, his pal Boris, one of his best and closest friends, is laying strewn across a table straight from a horror movie, wrists and ankles strapped down tight and head lolling to the side, and where his torso should have been was only a gaping hole that looked as if it had been viciously ripped into with surgical precision. His ribs are jutting from the cavity, shining white over disturbingly real monochrome innards that still gleam wetly in the light, eyes glassy and crossed with x’s, but it looked like they’d been cut into, and there’s no breath, there’s no life, Boris is dead in front of him, and how did this happen, how did this happen?!

          Bendy stumbled back, tripping over his own feet and crashing to the floor, unable to tear his eyes away from the horrifically grisly scene in front of him. Ink was running from his brow in rivulets, and he wretched hard, gasping for air that won’t come as his stomach heaved and churned. His eyes are burning, and black droplets splatter across his hands and the floor, and it was all he could just to rise again, to get up and stumble into the hall, clutching at the wall, bent over and heaving into his hand.

          This is a nightmare, it has to be a nightmare, it has to be a nightmare, oh god, oh god- his mind is racing, the image of what he had seen never leaving, turning tortuously inside his head, no matter how many times he tried to tell himself it wasn’t real, it wasn’t real, it wasn’t real-!

          The lights sputtered out behind him, darkness pooling around his ankles, smothering the grisly scene from sight. They did not come back on again.

          He couldn’t bring himself to go back, either. Not in there, not with . . . that. So instead, hand still feebly gripping the wall for support, Bendy stumbled away, stomach roiling with nausea and chest heaving with poorly restrained sobs.

          He fought with himself to think rationally, furiously wiping at his face to restore some modicum of decency to himself. There was no way that could have been Boris. No one . . . no one would ever hurt Boris, everyone liked him too much. It was . . .  a part of this prank. This cruel, mean-spirited prank that was no longer funny and he had half a mind to get Joey to call the cops on whoever was responsible for this. But who would do this? Who? Not anyone from the studio, surely. Sure, pranks had happened before, but never to this scale and never so appallingly malevolent in its set-up or execution. Someone else had to be responsible. A someone who was senselessly cruel, and didn’t seem to care about the trauma they caused. Just thinking about that, it made anger bubble up inside.

        Still, he needed to find someone. He needed to find anyone, because his nerves were shot and no matter how much he consoled himself with the idea that this was all still a cruel joke, the image of Boris strapped to a table with his insides ripped out would not leave.

        “At this point, I don’t get what Joey’s plan is for this company.”

        Bendy’s head snapped up, eyes widening when he heard the achingly familiar voice up ahead, hardly daring to hope, but hoping nonetheless, “. . . Wally?”

        “So first, Joey installs this ink Machine over our heads. Then it begins to leak. Three times last month, we couldn’t even get out of our department because the ink had flooded the stairwell.”

        “Sammy?” Bendy tried again, picking up his pace, to where the voices were coming from.

        “It may only be my second month working for Joey Drew, but I can already tell I’m going to love it here!”

        “Susie . . .? Come on, you guys, answer me!” Please answer me . . .

         He came to another room, the door half-hanging off its hinges, into a space that was old, choked with dust and in disrepair, but familiar all the same. The music room. The room where people sang and instruments played, never a dull moment to be had. Alice’s and Susie’s and Sammy’s and Norman’s department.

         And it looks similar. The old projector in the overhead booth, the chairs arranged in neat rows, the conductor’s stand, the instruments laying here and there . . . but Bendy found his steps faltering. Because no one was inside the room. No one except the old, whirring cassette players laid out in every chair, where the voices of his friends and coworkers repeated phrases ad nauseum. Words that made no sense to him.

        “Every day the same strange thing happens, I’ll be up here in my booth, the band will be swingin’, and suddenly Sammy Lawrence just comes marching in and shuts the whole thing down!” Norman.

        “. . . I can’t find my stupid keys. It’s like they vanished into thin air or something!” Wally.

         “Alice and I, we are going places!” Susie.

         “What is going on?” Bendy whispered, creeping forward to the canned apparitions that had played on his hopes, feeling both crushed and deeply unsettled. He knew these people. They’d never have been a part of this hoax, right?

         He took another step forward, the floor creaking beneath his foot, and right then, ever single cassette player present stopped.

         Bendy froze, feeling another uneasy shiver run down his spine as the silence rolled heavily over him. He became so deeply aware of how quiet the room suddenly was, descending like an oppressive shroud over the usually lively music room.

         He glanced around, feeling leagues more unsafe than he had before, when there’s a soft click, and a lonely cassette player half hidden in the shadows began to play its message.

         “He appears from the shadows to rain his sweet blessings upon me. The figure of ink that shines in the darkness. I see you, my savior. I pray you hear me.”

          Bendy stared, “. . . Sammy?”

          “Those old songs, yes, I still sing them. For I know you are coming to save me. And I will be swept into your final loving embrace.”

          No . . . no, Sammy would never talk like this. Never. It was so upsettingly unlike the ornery music director he knew that Bendy could believe some faker with a similar voice had made a recording just to freak him out. Hell, it may even be the guy responsible for this mess!

          “But love requires sacrifice,” the cassette player droned on in that disturbingly reverent tone, “Can I get an amen?”

           Click. The player fell silent.

           But words still played, right behind him, “I said, can I get an amen?

           Bendy spun around, stumbling back into the chairs when he saw the figure behind him, looming over the toon like a dark and malicious specter. At first, Bendy thought it was a human. Until he saw the ink running from their body in place of flesh, a sight he had seen before, had hoped he would never see again. And where their face should have been, Bendy’s own cut-out mask had been affixed, grinning down at him in a cold mockery of joy.

          “W-who-?”

          “My Lord,” the person said in quiet veneration, and Bendy felt another shiver as he recognized Sammy’s voice. But no, this couldn’t be Sammy, Sammy would never call him that!

          “I have awaited this day for so long, My Lord. To be graced by your presence is . . . most enlightening. Most wonderful!

           The man with Sammy’s voice moved closer to him, reaching out with an ink-stained hand, and Bendy backed away, snapping, “H-hey, back off ya nut! I dunno who you think ya are, but I ain’t no ‘lord’!”

           The man was not deterred, moving closer and closer, “My Lord, I knew you would hear this humble sheep’s prayers. I have spread your gospel most faithfully, I have preached your unholy name to all who would hear! And now, you have come to deliver me!”

           “I said back off!” Bendy yelled, grabbing at the nearest thing he could find and brandishing it as a weapon. A banjo.

           The man paused then, but if Bendy had hoped it was in fear, he was soon disappointed, for the strange loon suddenly dropped to his knees, spreading himself prostrate across the floor at the toon’s feet, “My Lord, free me from this prison of my own body! I beg you, Ink Demon, grace me with your mercy!”

           Ink had begun to run down his brow again, and Bendy didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t a fighter, and this guy was a few cards short of a deck, so who knows what would set him off. But on top of everything else he had seen, all of this was making his stomach twist in knots.

            “I-I . . . I ain’t-!”

            Something cold and slimy gripped his ankle, and Bendy’s eye shot to the floor behind him. Only to balk in utter horror at the sight of a ghoulish black face that stared back up at him with hollow, empty eyes, body an amalgamated mass of ink that oozed between the cracks in the floor, its viscous hand clutching desperately at his ankle.

           Nearby, a cassette player whirred to life, and the distorted voice of Norman Polk gurgled through the static, “Save us, My Lord. Save us, please.”

           Another hand grabbed at his elbow as another of those creatures rose from the ground, keening as if in great pain. Another click, another broken voice, another echo in the form of Wally Franks, “Have mercy on us, My Lord! Have mercy!”

           A third rose in front of him, choking on a sobbing cry, pitched with despair as Susie Campbell wailed at him through the speakers, “Don’t abandon us again! Please help us, My Lord!”

           Wailing, screaming, pleading, begging, pulling at his clothes, his arms, his legs, pulling him under with the weight of their misery, and in that moment, there’s a flash of very sudden, very painful clarity for Bendy;

           This. Was not. A joke.

           Jokes didn’t summon apparitions out of nothing. Jokes didn’t turn his friends into monsters. Jokes didn’t make horrors like this so viscerally alive. And if it wasn’t a joke . . . then what was left except for it to be real?

          A pair of cold, cold hands grasped his face, forcing his horrified gaze up to stare into a hollow mask with cutout eyes and a stained grin, and Sammy Lawrence breathed solemnly into his face, a reverent and pleading whisper that somehow eclipsed all other sound in the room,

          “Save us.”

          It’s a snap decision on Bendy’s part, fueled by the jolt of pure terror that suddenly electrifies his core, zapping life into his petrified limbs, and with a cry, Bendy swung his arm around and clocked the masked man square in the face with the flat side of the banjo. There’s a loud, strident ping as the strings snap and Lawrence is set sprawling from the blow, just as the hands around him suddenly vanish, the monsters spreading apart like a flock of startled birds. Bendy waited on nothing. As soon as he’s free, he was running.

          The chilling wails of the ink creatures chase after his heels, and the sound cemented the reality around him that this was real, this was happening, this wasn’t just a joke anymore! And that’s more horrifying than anything, even as he blitzed around corner after corner, running so fast the world around him was a blur, and mind racing no less quickly.

         What had happened? What had happened?

         But there is no answer here. No reason for why his coworkers are suddenly monsters, why the studio is in the state it’s in, why Boris is . . . oh god, Boris-!

         He slid on his feet to a stop, bracing a shoulder against the wall and sucking in lungfuls of air until the hammering of his heart stopped. But even as it slowed, the hiccup that worked its way up could not be stopped, just like the whimper that followed it.

         He’s trembling, and it’s from more than just exhaustion. Because now, he thinks he’s in very real danger. Because now, he’s very genuinely afraid.

        “Joey . . .?” he called out, as if the mere act would somehow magic the man into existence, would bring him here and make it seem not so impossibly bad. But no one came. No one . . .

         Was he really all alone here?

         The thought was enough to nearly send his already frazzled mind into another panic, because he’s at a very genuine and terrifying loss for what to do. There were monsters crawling around, there was a madman who had Sammy’s voice chasing him, Joey was nowhere to be found, and Boris was . . . Boris was . . .

         He choked, feeling his stomach flip, and the the room seemed to spin on itself. He bent forward again, fighting back the urge to vomit, but feeling tears burn anew in his eyes. If this was real . . . oh god . . .

         Thud thud thud!

         Footsteps. Loud, heavy ones, ones that were barreling closer with every passing second. Bendy was on his feet immediately, adrenaline surging, half-afraid that that demented Sammy is following him. But he’s still too tired to run, so instead, he gripped the banjo he had closer and held it up at the ready.

         Closer. Bendy’s fingers tightened, creeping closer to the edge where the two hallways met.

         Closer still, right around the corner. His shoulders bunched in preparation to swing.

         A figure bolted around the corner, stained dark with ink, and Bendy didn’t hesitate. With one swing, the underside of his improvised weapon smacked hard into the underside of the other’s chin, and the figure went down hard.

         Panting, Bendy backed away, just about to bolt to safety, when the figure groaned.

         It’s another familiar voice. A very cared for and trusted voice. And when he looked closer, Bendy saw that the ink on their body wasn’t oozing from their skin, because they had skin. Normal, human skin! And darker hair, streaked with grey, clothes suited to their broad body, and Bendy can hardly believe it, but the joy that radiated through him when he saw their face made him dizzy with relief.

         “Henry!”

         The man groaned again, and Bendy felt a flash of guilt at the sight of the man’s already bruising chin. Yikes, that . . . that was gonna leave a mark.

         “H-hey, sorry Henry, I thought . . . I thought you were one of those things . . .” Bendy said, and he was genuinely apologetic as he came to the animator’s side, “No hard feelings, yeah?”

         He reached down to help the old man up, bracing his hand against the other’s shoulder to act as leverage. But at the feel of hands on him, Henry started upright, faster than Bendy had ever seen him move before, and the man’s face snapped to him.

         Dark eyes met his own, and Bendy smiled, that same relief spilling over onto his face, so strong it made tears bead at the corners of his eyes.

         It lasts for only a moment, because that’s when a strong hand suddenly slammed into his chest and sent him sprawling to the floor, banjo flying off to the side and leaving him winded. Wincing, Bendy used his arms to push himself up, eyes searching for Henry, confused and lost.

         He’s not sure if he felt better when he found him, because the old man is glaring at him from where he stood, brandishing an axe his way, its silver edge streaked with black.

         “H-Henry . . .?” Bendy started, shocked, alarmed, not understanding why the person he trusted most aside from Joey himself was looking at him with such cold, angry eyes, why did he look so angry at him?

         “Stay away from me,” the man growled, and it’s so sharp and unfriendly that it left Bendy nearly speechless.

         “W-wha . . . H-Henry, i-its me!” Bendy tried again, but a paranoid fear was starting to sink in, making the ink run down his face again as he slowly clambered to his feet, “Y-ya know me, right?”

         “Hard to forget the guy who’s trying to kill me,” was Henry’s curt and cutting response, never once lowering the axe even a fraction. It was like . . . like the man didn’t even know who he was.

         That realization cut deeper than any axe blade could, it seemed, and Bendy stared at him in desperation, “What? N-no, no, I’d never do somethin’ like that! Henry, please, tell me ya remember me! The real me! Ya know I wouldn’t do that!”

          Henry’s eyes narrowed, disbelieving. But the axe blade dropped just the tiniest inch, “Hm . . . and how would I know that? Everything else in this place has tried to kill me.”

          Bendy’s eyes widened, and he took a slow step forward, “C-come on, don’t pull a guy over like that. Please, we . . . we worked together! For years! Ya can’t-ya can’t tell me that ya don’t remember!”

          Even as he said it, Bendy searched for any trace of recognition in the man’s face, any sign that Henry had just bumped his head and needed a little speech to get the memory juices flowing again . . . but the only thing he sees is that same wary distrust, that mark of a man who no longer believed in the face-value of things, no matter how honest it might be. It’s so . . . wrong. Just like everything else in this horrible place is.

          And Henry was already backing away from him, “Sorry, but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

          “H-hey, no, wait! Please, just, hold on a sec, okay?” Bendy pleaded, a sudden rush of fear percolating through his ink at the thought of being abandoned, “I . . . I don’t know what’s going on, alright? B-but I swear, I’m on your side!”

          Henry stared at him, and while he’s still wary, Bendy can tell he’s at least listening, “Really? You don’t know what’s happening?”

          “No. I mean, yesterday, everythin’ was normal, and then all of a sudden, here I am, and everythin’s just been turned on its head! Those things, Sammy, and Boris-,” he unintentionally chokes on the last word, feeling sick all over again.

          But something must come through, or Henry must see something on his face, because the furrow in his brow softened just slightly, and the axe dropped just another inch, “. . . Look, I . . . I don’t know if I can trust you. There’s just . . . too much going on.”

          “Then let me prove it!” Bendy pleaded. He doesn’t know who this Henry is, it had become increasingly and upsettingly obvious . . . but it was still Henry.  There had to be something there that was like the kind, reasonable animator Bendy knew and loved. Something, because if there hadn’t been, then the man would have used that axe a long time ago.

          Henry stared at him, and in that instant, he looked so much older than Bendy can ever remember, seeing for the first time how haggard and exhausted he is, shoulders dropping and eyes ringed by dark, heavy bags. How long had he been stuck here . . . ?

          “I-,” whatever the old man would have said, Bendy didn’t get to hear it, because then, a symphony of discordant, gurgling growls resounded down the halls, growls that were steadily getting closer.

          Henry’s gaze snapped behind him, cursing, “Shit!”

          The animator looked back at Bendy, and the toon returned it, just as alarmed but unsure as to what this Henry would do. The old man glanced back at the hallway, looking torn, before finally shaking his head and saying, “Ugh, I’m gonna regret this.”

          Before Bendy could question what he was talking about, the old man was suddenly running in his direction, switching his axe to his other hand and using the free one to grab at the toon’s shoulder, shouting, “Run!

          He didn’t need to be told twice, especially not as he saw the first deformed head of an ink creature slide around the corner. Still, as he turns heel and starts sprinting, he can’t stop the flutter of relief he felt inside that Henry wasn’t going to abandon him.

          The pipes running beside them gurgled, the metal rungs creaking as they ran. Behind them, it sounded like more of those things were gathering, giving chase, screaming all the while. He didn’t know if Henry heard the same things he heard, though; the pleas for salvation, the cries for mercy . . .

          He almost stopped when they rounded a corner and came to a room that was flooded with ink, the rippling black liquid lapping across the ground in waves. Beyond, he could see another door exiting into an adjoining hallway, but to get there, they had to enter the murk.

          Henry only grimaced once before throwing himself to it, the ebony liquid coming up to his thighs before settling, “Come on!”

          Bendy wasn’t keen, but in light of the very real danger behind him, he sucked in a breath and went for it. It felt like forever before the ink finally stopped rising, coming up to his chest, and he was practically swimming after the older man.

          There’s a growl, and Bendy’s eyes snap to the door behind them. One of those things perched there, watching with hollow eyes . . . but it did not leave its spot. All it did was watch. And in a matter of moments, others joined it, clambering at the entryway, hissing and gurgling, but never crossing over.

          “Hey, it ain’t followin’ us!” Bendy said, wary, but a little relieved.

          Henry did not feel the same way, face paling, “That’s not good!”

          Before Bendy can ask why, the ink in front of the older man bubbled.

          There’s a startled shout, and suddenly, Henry vanished beneath the ink, dragged below by something he couldn’t see.

          “Henry!” Bendy shouted, sloughing to where the man had been, pawing desperately at surface, searching, he’s gotta be somewhere, he’s gotta be somewhere! “Hen-!”

          The ink in front of him rose, a figure emerging from its depths. But it’s not Henry.

          It’s impossibly tall, looming over the toon and drowning him in its shadow. Its flesh is made of ink, its limbs are unnaturally long and lanky, and Bendy swallowed at the sight of hands tipped by wickedly sharp, sable claws.

          But that’s not the thing that leaves him speechless. That’s not the thing that leaves him terrified.

          Because the face that leered at him from on high, a face twisted by a crooked grin lined with malice, is familiar to him too.

          Familiar because its him.

          Before he can react, do anything, a hand suddenly grabbed him by the throat, lifting him up from the dark swells below and bringing him practically nose to nose with the eyeless abomination. Bendy coughed, grabbed at the hand holding him and tried to pry the cold, sharp fingers away, but they don’t give an inch. Instead, they only tighten, squeezing his air away and leaving him choking for it, and the thing’s smile seemed to widen.

          And then it spoke. It spoke like him.

          “Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of the mirror today,” it leaned in closer, and it’s grin is full of dark and vile mirth, even as it brought a clawed hand up and ready to strike, “Didn’t ya pal?

          Then it’s claws came down, and Bendy couldn’t even scream.

          -

          When Bendy woke, it was with a wild cry, throwing himself forward and swinging his fists in an attempt to beat off the thing using his voice.

          But hands grab his own, smaller hands, softer hands, hands that were not the claws that had held him before, and a slightly panicked but familiar voice starts speaking, softly, soothingly, “Bendy, Bendy, it’s okay! Everything’s fine!”

          For a moment, everything is blurry, vague shapes and distorted colors, but he zeroes in on the one who had spoken, and as he focuses, he made out the long, ebony hair and halo of a very familiar person.

          He hardly dared to hope, “ . . . Alice?”

          But the angel was nodding, banishing the shadows that obscured her face, lips breaking into a relieved smile, “Yes! Yes, it’s me! See? Everything’s alright!”

          Another hand appeared on his shoulder, larger and heavier than hers, but when he turned to look, the face he saw then was what made everything truly snap into focus.

          “You feelin’ alright, buddy?” Boris asked him, and the sound filled Bendy with so much relief, so much joy, because Boris was here, he wasn’t dead, he was alive-!

          He doesn’t even really register what he’s doing, but he can’t really bring himself to care as he threw his arms around the wolf’s neck, squeezing like he could vanish at any moment and trying very hard to keep his himself from crying like a baby.

          Boris grunted slightly at the sudden, unexpected contact, but he doesn’t push Bendy away. Instead, he comfortingly patted his back, saying reassuringly, “Hey, it’s okay, buddy. Everything’s okay.”

          He doesn’t pry himself away immediately, instead focusing on how the wolf’s chest is rising and falling like it should, savoring the sound of life that’s there. But as he listened, and as he finally relaxed, he became increasingly aware of the almost overpowering smell of flowers and wood smoke. Lots of wood smoke.

          Coughing slightly, he pulled back, wiping at his face hurriedly to hide any sign of tears. But he kept a hand on Boris’ arm, reluctant to let go completely.

          That’s when another voice spoke up, “Boss? You alright?”

          He glanced up, and his heart lurched in relief when he saw Henry crouch down beside them. Henry, who’s eyes are warm and concerned, not angry, not afraid, his Henry.

          It occurred to him then that now . . . now he was in reality. This was real. And while his head is still tangled with the memories of moments ago, he’s awake and aware enough now to realize that . . . it had just been a dream. A bad, bad dream.

          It’s enough to make a toon sag in on himself with relief.

          “U-uh . . .” he shook his head, and the motion helped clear his thoughts, “I . . . think so?”

          “Are you sure?” Alice probed, and while ordinarily he’d be annoyed, he can’t quite bring himself to feel that way yet.

          Then, a more chipper voice chimed in, “Well, there don’t seem to be any side effects! Thank goodness, I was afraid the incense may have been too much!”

          Bendy looked up, beyond the three around him, and smiled when he saw none other than Joey Drew standing a little ways off. There’s an incense stick in one hand and one of his . . . tomes in the other, but while he’s smiling as he was wont to, there’s an edge of relief to it. When Bendy saw him, the man smiled, “Hello, my devil. Glad to see you up again.”

          “Uh . . . me too?” he said, not quite sure how to respond to that, but glad he is up regardless. He coughed again, that same smell teasing his nostrils, and its only then he realized that the room around, while as he remembered it to be (clean and ordered and right), there are . . . a lot of candles and incense sticks around. Its enough to tease out his natural curiosity, “What uh . . . what happened?”

          At that, Henry rolled his eyes, “Joey got it in his head to experiment with lucid dreaming. But the ‘Joey’ way.”

          “Well, it was fascinating to me!” Joey defended, but he did look a touch more mollified than usual, “I thought just a tiny touch of magic would make it more sensible, easy to translate in the waking world! But, erm, I may have misread a few lines and directed the spell to . . . someone else.”

          The animator and his two toon friends all gave Joey a look he had seen the man be given many times before.

          But Bendy could only feel relief, “A dream, huh? It was just a dream?”

          But what else could it have been? As scary as it had been, none of that stuff could have happened, really happened. But it was so nice to hear someone else say it.

          He noticed the look the four of them shared, touched with concern, with worry . . . and with a flush of quiet embarrassment, Bendy held up his hands, “I-uh, I mean of course it was a dream! No way it was real!”

Unfortunately, not everyone looked completely convinced of his words, but good ol’ Henry (his Henry), ever the one to understand when he really did not want to talk about something, reached out and patted a consoling hand against the toon’s shoulder, nodding, “Yeah. Just a dream.”

          “But . . .” Alice started softly, “If you still want to talk about it . . .”

          Bendy immediately shook his head. No, he never wanted to think about it again, “No.”

          He sounded a little too hard then, so he tried to lighten his tone, “I mean, it was just a dream, yeah? Nothin’ real! So, no point in talkin’ about it.”

          Alice still doesn’t look convinced, but Henry gently drew her attention, “Hey, why don’t you go let the others know he’s awake?”

          The angel looked at him for a moment, then nodded. She still gave Bendy one last worrying glance however, even as she left.

          The others . . . Susie, Sammy, everyone.

          (-screaming for salvation, pleading for mercy, praying for an end-)

          Bendy sharply slapped a hand to his head, jarring his thoughts to a stop. No, it was just a dream. His coworkers were fine. Everyone was fine.

          “Everyone’s still here?” he asked, glancing at the two humans in the room and quietly searching for a distraction.

          Setting his incense stick aside, Joey came over then, kneeling down to be more level with the toon, “Well, it is the middle of the day. Prime work hours for all!”

          “The middle of the day?!” Bendy started, eyes widening. No, it could not have been that long! “How long was I asleep?!”

          Henry, Joey, and Boris all gave each other a look, very suspiciously looking like they were avoiding the toon’s gaze. Which wasn’t a good sign.

          “Not . . . too long,” Joey said, shrugging, “A day, at the most. But-!”

          “A day!” Bendy shouted, “I’ve been asleep an entire day!

          Boris reassuringly patted his hand, “It ain’t so bad, Bendy. Everyone made sure to do their part to keep everythin’ runnin’ smooth! You were just, uh . . .”

          “Indisposed,” Henry finished neatly, though it did little to calm Bendy down. Ugh, he was going to have to sort through so much stuff just to make sure nothing had been derailed!

          “Nothing a little magic and smoke didn’t fix!” Joey said, swinging an arm around in victory. But it suddenly and swiftly dropped away, and a more contrite look crossed the older man’s face, a look that very, very rarely ever made an appearance, “Everything else aside, though . . . are you feeling alright, Bendy? Unintended recipient or not, it looked like the dream was . . . quite the lucid one.”

          Privately . . . no, not quite. It was going to take a little time for him to get over it completely, to separate that nightmarish reality from the forefront of his mind to some background slot rarely visited. But Joey looked unusually apologetic, Henry still had that crease in his brow, Boris’ ears were low, and who knows what the rest of the staff were going to say.

          Besides, he wanted to get to work, and if he waxed dramatic on how awful some silly nightmare had been, then they’d never let him get back to it in a timely manner. Work was good.

          “Hey, it was just a dream,” Bendy told them, shrugging, “Nothin’ a bit of colored ink won’t fix, right?”

          “Well,” Joey pursed his lips, glancing at the tome in his hand, “The full translation was ‘window to a second world’, but it made it sound like-oof!”

          Henry dropped a heavy hand on the other’s shoulder, and Bendy may or may not have imagined the older man squeezing said shoulder a little more firmly than needed, “Yeah, just a dream. But if you need some time off . . .”

          “No, I have already taken too much time off!” Bendy said resolutely. He clambered out of his drawer (gosh, how long had he been in there?), quite eager to not be in bed anymore, saying, “So uh, anyone mind fillin’ me in on what I missed?”

          It’s a diversion, and he knows they all know it, but thankfully they oblige him. And thankfully after that, things become a little more normal.

          But if he spent a little more time watching his coworkers than before, no one called him out on it.

          If he checked up on Boris a little more than usual, the wolf took it good-naturedly.

          If he stayed up a little later working alongside Henry, the old man smiled understandingly.

          If he played piano with Joey a little more than usual, his creator would happily play along.

          Just until what he had experienced all became what he tried to tell himself it was since waking; that it was just a bad dream.