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In Living Memory

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My name is Philip Ojomo. 

I have been here for years I think now, in this other plane. I used to try to keep track of days and months and years by counting, but the sky never changes. I know I’m guessing at this point.  I go by entries.

So. Entry 14,582.  And Journal number 2.

I did not used to keep a journal, but the old book I found so faded it was nearly blank is now too full of my writing for me to continue to use it. It took me fourteen trials to find this new one, so I have very much missed writing in those days in between. I don’t know what it is about this place that made it seem so necessary that I start writing things down. I was disoriented and shaky at first, but it can’t have been more than a week after arriving here that I began to scribble things down on pieces of cloth I found, using charcoal from a fire bin.  Maybe there is something in the air. It is eternally dark, but never the deep black of true night—that darkness lingers at the edge, just past what you can see, but changes when you approach and get close to it. The atmosphere is always heavy with smoke and fog, and the fires do not cut through it yet can be seen at great distances.  There is something in the air to remind you that you are already dead, and nothing you do can change. 

It makes you want to chronicle. To put something down on paper to try and make it immortal. I think maybe it is a feeble attempt at some kind of life in this world. If I can’t have my own life anymore, then maybe I can give one to my memory. It’s something at least. I reread my entries and am sometimes comforted by them. Perhaps that is silly. They are never good, because nothing that happens here is good, and also because I am not a good writer. They do not promise me new hope, and show only how wrong I have been and how far I must still have to go, and yet, it is proof I have done this before. Time has passed, I have kept going. That is something, even if it does not feel like it.  It is something and I have proven it with words.

It’s not much. But anything in this place is a miracle.

I wish I could still think of things worth recording, but I can’t. What could I say I have not already told myself many times? Today I chased the same souls I always chase.  I don’t know what sins they committed in life to face me as their reaper, and I don’t want to.  I don’t even know if they are truly the same group of undying phantoms, made to look young, almost like children, or if each day the people are new and the appearances merely remain the same as part of my payment.  Either way, each day is the same.  I dig my blade into their backs and chests and cut them down. I pick them up as they struggle feebly or weakly bleed out, and I hang them on hooks for the whispering voice of the great Spirit. No one escaped me.  I have gotten better at this.  The past few times I have done this not one has made it out.

It does not feel like an achievement.

I used to think I would never get used to this. To hunting, to killing. I always remind myself that this is payment, this is not normal life. I have become the reaper for this Spirit to repay my debt, for the innocent souls I took.  I hunt like I hunted Azarov, I let my hatred fuel me, my anger. I will cut down all people like him, I will rain down punishment. It is fair. I used to say that whole thing to myself a lot, to try and make it easier for me. Things like I just said too, about not wanting to know what they did to deserve me. I thought doing that would make it easier for me to kill them, and I would suffer less.  I thought when I started that it would always burn me inside when I heard them run and scream, or tore one away from another they were trying to rescue from a hook.  I really did. But now I think I have become numb to it, which is much worse.

I used to try and record details too. Things I saw, markings in the buildings, anything that stayed the same in the ever-changing terrain. Hoping for some kind of change or significance. Even though the Spirit gives me commands and instructions, teaches me new tricks, sometimes even offers rewards, I still know so little about this place.  It tells me that it is none of my concern, that I should respect it, and I guess it is right.  I have paid the price for disrespect before.  I didn’t really know what pain was before I came here.  Recording details used to make me feel like maybe I was learning, in a way that I would be forgiven for, but it is harder and harder to care about that now. I should not give up though, I should think of something I can read tomorrow which is particular enough to bring a memory back.

Okay. Let me think.  All I can think of is an unpleasant memory, but I guess it is something.

The redhaired girl almost escaped me today. She turned and ducked right between my legs when I was upon her and I overswung. I was so surprised that I stumbled forwards a few steps and crashed into a wall before giving chase, and for a second it felt like tag or hide and seek. I remembered a girl I knew in class doing that once when we were very little.  It made me sick. I wish I could feel nothing. We were in the shed, and the droplets of blood from the gash on her back I’d carved refused to soak into the broken pallet in the doorway. They just glistened, then vanished, like everything in this artificial realm. They were much more red than the pallet chunks. A real color. Everything here is so muted.

Maybe someday I will look back and find this comforting.

 


 

 

Dwight, Dwight don’t do it. He’s too close. Claudette turned to try once more to see where the Wraith had gone, and the motion sent waves of pain shooting up her neck and down her arm. She bit down on her lip to keep from crying out. Claudette had been hooked thousands of times, but it’s impossible to grow used to the sensation of being impaled, of hanging, all  your body weight tearing down on your collarbone, the metal slicing through the flesh, the weight on the wound, the way the pit of your stomach sinks when you feel the blood seeping down your chest and watch red blossom through your clothes and feel yourself dying.

She was scared, she was always scared during trials, but there were parts of that you could get used to and learn how to bear. Pain was different. She’d gotten tougher, but it still burned. It still made her stomach drop and filled her with panic.

And now she was scared for Dwight. He was edging along boxes, trying to make it to her, but he was already bleeding badly himself. A deep cut on his shoulder.

What was worse was that she couldn’t point, give him some idea where the Wraith had gone, because then it would know she saw a friend. Not that she knew where to point even if she could. He’d gone invisible and taken off, but it had been seconds ago. Dwight hadn’t given him enough time to move on, but he didn’t know that. The Wraith had stayed close after hooking her for a few seconds, watching from the hill for signs of the others. Dwight had been too far away to hear him disappear a few seconds ago.

The worst part was the guilt, was that as much as she wanted him to run, she also wanted to be rescued. She tried so hard to care for the others and protect them, and she knew this was selfish, bad. She was so scared, and it hurt, and the memory of what it felt like to be skewered by the Entity was banging against her skull. 

She was dreading struggling against the monster that imprisoned them here, worried about her friends, five generators to go and without her to help them. She didn’t want to die again. And seeing how ready he was to risk himself to save her, it filled her with hope and happiness even though she knew she should want him as far away from her as possible. It made her feel guilty to be happy about this, but she couldn’t help it. There was a reason he was a good leader, and it was that he always tried to be there for the rest of them, even when it was stupid.  Maybe especially when it was stupid.

They were never alone with him around.

Dwight broke cover and ran up the hill in a mad dash. Claudette looked around frantically for signs of the Wraith reappearing, but saw nothing. It wasn’t until his arms were lifting her off the hook that they heard the bell toll from behind the hook and saw the monster’s form burn into existence.

She grabbed Dwight’s arm and ran.

Their feet dug into the soft earth as they sprinted frantically, trying to do anything they could to lose the monster behind them. Claudette slid over the top of a pallet and ducked past another, close to a maze of crushed cars they might lose him in. Behind her, she heard Dwight scream and the thud of a pallet falling.

Claudette spun on her heel and saw the Wraith shaking its head in pain, and Dwight crawling away from a fallen pallet, blood oozing from his back.

She knew she couldn’t make it, but Claudette ran.

Dwight did his best to wave her off, trying to get her to hide, but she kept going, skidding to a stop on her knees beside him. She tore off a strip of gauze from her medical kit and tried to stop the bleeding. She heard the telltale crack of the Wraith breaking the pallet between them and knew she was out of time.

Her instinct was to run, but there was something stronger than instinct. She kept trying to stop the bleeding.

Dwight tried to shove her off of him, but she felt in her chest the way she’d felt when she’d seen him coming for her, even though she knew she shouldn’t want him to, and she knew somewhere deep down he must feel the same. Nobody wanted to die alone, nobody wanted to be abandoned. He’d been on a hook before, for too long. If she left him he was dead. She couldn’t save him, but she could stay.

Claudette threw herself between Dwight and the Wraith and looked up into its face as it raised its blade.

It stopped, mid-swing, and just stared at her, like it had frozen, or was a robot someone had flipped the off switch on.

For a few horrifying seconds they just stared at each other.

“Claudette, just go!”

That broke her out of her tableau. “No,” Claudette replied, whispering out of instinct because the Wraith was so close now it couldn’t possibly matter.  Without breaking eye contact with the figure towering over her, Claudette stopped the bleeding and pulled Dwight back a few feet.  It still didn’t move, except its glowing white eyes, which followed her.

“What are you doing?” Dwight asked in an equally hushed tone as she pulled him into a half sitting position and tore off a strip of gauze to wrap around his shoulder. He looked up at the Wraith then too.

Slowly, the big monster lowered its blade. It just stood there, still staring, then blinked and took one small step backwards.

“What is it doing?” Dwight asked, more confused.

Claudette was trying to keep her eyes on the Wraith while bandaging Dwight, which was easier said than done. With a second pair of eyes on the monster, she glanced down to get a better look at the gash on his back.  “I don’t know. It didn’t hit me and kind of froze up.”

“Why?” She could tell Dwight was thinking a million miles an hour, trying to formulate something that made sense. “For fun? It thinks we’re that beaten?”

They did have five generators to go.

Claudette didn’t reply. She kept bandaging, then pulled Dwight painfully to his feet.  “Let’s get out of here before it changes its mind.”

He nodded, still staring at the monster which was staring back. Claudette had to tap him on the shoulder to actually get him to come.

 

They backed away until the Wraith was out of sight. It never once moved to follow them.  They found and fixed two generators together quickly as somewhere out in the junkyard their companions set off another.  They bumped into Meg at the fourth, and Jake at their last generator.

“What happened?” Meg asked as she slowed her sprinting towards the exit so the others could keep up. “Wraith grabbed Dwight and Jake back to back, then you, and I haven’t so much as heard him since.”

“Yeah,” Claudette replied, breathing much harder than Meg had to, “He sort of let us go.”

Jake looked over at them with the clearest “What?” expression, but said nothing.

“I don’t know,” Dwight answered for her, “It’s like he broke or something. He stopped moving.”

Meg quit running.  “Where is he? I wanna see.”

Jake gave her a disbelieving look and walked the last few feet to the exit gates and flipped the switch to open them.

“You want to go back there?” Claudette asked.

“Yeah, I want to see it,” Meg said again. She gave the gates a glance. “After those are open.”

“Well, it is the most unusual thing that’s happened in a long time. Could be important,” Jake conceded as the doors slid open. He turned around to face the others. “Okay, let’s go.” He pointed at Meg. “But if you get hooked because we went sightseeing, I’m leaving you.”

He didn’t mean it. 

“Buddy, I’d leave you in the dust. No offense, but you all run like 60 year old men,” Meg replied, already heading off. She stopped. “Oh, right. I don’t know where we’re going. Claudette?”

Claudette nodded and motioned the others to follow.

 

It didn’t take them long to find him again, because he hadn’t moved at all. He was standing there, by a broken pallet and some crushed cars, staring at nothing.

The four survivors leaned out past a row of nearby cars and watched. He didn’t seem to see them.

“Woah, you guys really did break him,” Meg observed.  “Cool.”

“Can they break? I always thought they were alive—like people,” Claudette responded, “Do you think..?”

It looked up at them and all four jumped and dove back behind the stack of crushed cars.

“Is it coming?” Claudette asked, back pressed against the wall.

“I didn’t see,” replied Dwight.

Jake stuck his head out and looked.  “It’s not,” Jake called back quietly. “It’s just looking at me.”

They all slid half out from behind the cars again. Jake was right. The Wraith stood looking at them.  It turned its head ever so slightly as the others slid into view.

“What did you do to it?” Jake asked, looking up the stack to Claudette and Dwight.

“Nothing,” Dwight replied.  “It stopped on its own.  I mean, I guess I hit it with a pallet.  But not any better than before.  I’ve hit him like,” he actually estimated in his head for a few seconds, “12,000 times give or take.”

“It kept coming for us after that, and then it just didn’t.” Claudette was watching it carefully, trying to see any potential wounds from this distance.  She hadn’t even thought that the pallet might have messed up its head until Dwight suggested it just now. “It was ready to hit me, we were both on the ground, and then it stopped and just stood there, and then when I moved Dwight away it took a step back and kept watching us, and it’s still standing there.”

“Should we get a closer look?”

They all looked at Jake. He just returned the incredulousness with a What? gesture.

“What if he kills us all?” Meg asked. “Weren’t you the one who didn’t want to come at all?”

“Yeah, but I hadn’t seen him yet. I want to get out of here. C’mon, we’ve all died before—what’s one more?”  Jake stood up and turned to face them. They looked uncertain.

“Well,” Dwight conceded, “this could be big. If we found a way to long-term stun them or something. ..But we shouldn’t all go, I’ll do it.”

“Why you?” asked Claudette, worried. “I’ll go.”

“No offence, but you’re half-blind. I’m fast, I should go. Or Jake,” Meg added.

Jake was already gone.

“Ah, dammit,” Meg looked out past the edge of the cars. He was slowly creeping towards the Wraith. As he got closer to it, it watched, then slowly took a step forward and raised its weapon. Jake stopped. It took another step towards him, then another, steadily moving faster. He started to back up.

“Jake, run!” Claudette screamed. He turned to look at her.  As he did, the Wraith lunged at him and swung, missing by a huge margin. Jake took the hint and booked it back towards the others.

As soon as he reached them they took off as one, making a B-line for the waiting exit. As they ran, Dwight looked over his shoulder and saw the Wraith slow down and then finally stop and watch them flee.

He kept running, and the four of them passed together into the waiting temporary safety of the campfire.

Chapter Text

Philip Ojomo. Entry  14,583

I am afraid.

I may have made a terrible mistake.

I have always thought—believed—that these souls I hunt, I hunt rightly. The Spirit showed me its power, explained this place, its purpose—my purpose.  It gave me the sickle to cut them down, from the bones of the man I killed as a first step to undoing everything I had been tricked into doing. I must be losing my mind, I can’t be wrong.  I can hear the Spirit even now, whispering to me that it was not wrong, asking me why I hesitated today, condemning me, reminding me of my duty, I hear too many things to argue with and I know it must be right, but.

The girl today. The small one who reminds me the most of myself, often wears an apron. She looked up into my face today and when I looked back I saw myself. I saw the way I felt when Azarov sliced a man’s throat not ten feet away from me, and I realized how I’d been used, what he’d really done. Looking at a monster. I have seen them look scared, and focused, and relieved, but never anything like this. She looked into my face and she was angry, and hurt, and not only against me but righteously so.  I don’t understand, I don’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to do.

I froze up, I let them go—all four.  I must have stood there for a solid fifteen minutes, trying to think, trying to understand anything. I doubt I will ever forget this encounter, but for the sake of chronicling, I had caught her and she had been unhooked by the boy with glasses. I chased them both and downed him. She came back to try and save him, even though she must have known it was impossible. I guess now that I think about it, that isn’t such uncommon behavior for them. They are often good to each other, I simply never cared. Gods, I didn’t even think about it. Why? Why did I not?

She stayed with him and looked me in the eye when I would have killed her.

I didn’t know they had names. I never thought to care.

They do, hers is Claudette, and whatever life they lead outside of these endless trials, the boy who rescued her knew her well enough to know it, and to tell her to leave him and save herself.

They never talk around me, not even to communicate. They must know I would hear them. It has been so long since I have heard anyone talk.

How am I supposed to go on?

They came back to stare at me, after I thought they had left.  One of them started to get close, and I was afraid he might try to talk to me, so I chased him off. I didn’t know what else to do.

Maybe I should have tried to talk to him.

But I can’t, can I?  This is all wrong, it doesn’t matter how they act or if they have names, or what they look like and feel.  The gods have seen who they are and declared this punishment, I am the reaper.  I.

Shit, I don’t know.

They look like kids. What could kids who act like this have possibly done to deserve to be killed by me, again and again, forever?

If this is right, how could she look at me like that?

 


 

 

“No offense,” Feng said, reaching out to warm her hands by the campfire, “but it seems like you are overthinking this.”

“I’m not,” Dwight shot back, a little more snappy than he intended. He ran his fingers through his hair nervously and took a seat.

He’d been pacing around the campfire for almost an hour. They were all there right now. Quentin, Kate, David, and Feng had been out on another trial when they arrived, but Nea, Ace, and Laurie had been waiting, so Dwight had had to tell the story twice. Now the whole group was breaking together, trying to figure out how to respond to the Wraith.

“I dunno,” Nea commented, her mouth full of some mush Claudette had made out of plants in the forest which tasted sort of like oatmeal.  “It’s at least interesting.”

“Okay, sure,” Feng rejoined, “but you want to intentionally put yourself in danger next time you see the Wraith just to figure out what is going on with it? Be glad you got an easy trial. If you go in expecting it to happen again, you’re gonna get wrecked.”

“It’s not that simple,” Meg groaned from where she was lying on the ground, ballcap pulled over her eyes. She had been trying to sleep, but nobody would shut up. “It’s not so much that we care what’s going on with the Wraith, but more like if we could figure out how to do it again, that’d be fly as hell.”

Jake nodded, then went back to whittling a long stick into something like a spear point using a sharp rock he’d found.

“No, I get what you mean—you think because Dwight hit it on the head, and it shut down for a while, maybe that means he hit some weak spot we never found before,” Feng replied, “But come on, we have done this so many times. Do you really think we wouldn’t have seen this before? Probably just a fluke,” Feng sad. “I mean, he sounds like he basically glitched for about ten minutes.”

“Didn’t follow me,” Jake commented without looking up. The others turned to look at him. “When we ran off,” he added.

“Yes, exactly,” Dwight said, pointing at Jake. “If it was like he just kind of broke for a second, then why did he stop chasing us out?”

“Well, that could be because it was futile,” Nea replied, still eating, “but I like where your head’s at. What exactly do you want to try?”

“If we get close enough to talk to him, that’s close enough for him to kill us,” Claudette added thoughtfully.

“We could leave notes,” Kate suggested. “Something for him to find? If we left stuff on the generators he’d be sure to see it.”

“You really want to try and make friends with one of these things?” Laurie had been quiet for a long time now, tapping her fingers nervously on her knees. Whatever she’d been thinking through, she’d thought it.  She looked around the campfire now. “One of the things that has been hunting us, and killing us, I mean, are you out of your mind? It’s a monster. It’s killed you Dwight, how many times? People—things like that? They don’t change, they don’t always have reasons for why they act like they act, and any time you try to show them mercy or compassion, they just use it against you.”

None of them really knew what Laurie’s life had been like before she came here, but something about what she said made Quentin look pained.

“I’m not talking about making friends. I just want to know why it acted like that, in case we can use it,” Dwight said slowly.

“I mean, after Feng shut down your weak spot theory, I did kind of think this was operation befriend the monster,” Nea interjected, taking another bite of her porridge, “but maybe that’s just me, go on.”

“It’s not that,” Dwight replied, exhausted, “It’s not either. We don’t know what it is yet, and that’s the point.  Look, I know we don’t have much to go on, I know this is crazy, and it sucks, but, look around.”

He gestured to the group before him and they did. At each other, worn faces, new scars. At the terrain, the trees, the fire, the smoky sky.

Dwight stood up again and turned to face the semicircle. “We’ve all been through this hell what, 10,000 times? And nothing—nothing has ever changed.”

That hit home.

“Until now,” Dwight finished.  He looked around at them. 

It was funny, when all this had started, they’d been more like accomplices than anything. Enemy of my enemy is my friend. But now?  Now things had changed.  He’d never really been part of any club or group growing up. An only child, he’d not even been that close to his family.  So, he didn’t have much to compare it too.  He imagined it was a little like family, if his Aunts and Uncles hadn’t been stretched out across the country.  Maybe what cousins were like.  Didn’t really matter what it was.  He’d become leader back when he first ran into Jake, Claudette, and Meg mostly because no one had objected, and he was pretty damn good at surviving. That might have always been his only real skill. It hadn’t been because they trusted him, or believed in him, or because he really wanted to protect them—well, he did, but like, in the way you would tell a person in a grocery store parking lot to watch out because a stray cart was about to hit them. Not for any real reason. It was weird, but in a way, he felt like he’d not been a real person before all this. Like even though he was pretty sure they were all dead already, he’d never been alive before this endless hell loop had started. He liked being a leader; he liked being there for people. It felt real.

“We all want to get out of here alive, and together,” Dwight continued after a few seconds of silence, “and is the first really new thing we’ve seen—it’s weird, and different, and definitely dangerous, and maybe nothing, and yes,” he looked at Feng and Laurie, “probably stupid. But getting really fucked up in a couple of trials sounds well worth it to me if it means even a small chance we could have a real shot out of here. Isn’t that what you all think too? What you want? A chance, any chance?”

They looked at him, and at each other. Quentin pushed off the tree he was leaning against and faced Dwight.

“Okay, so what do you want us to do?”

 


 

Ah, damn it, it had to be me.  Feng Min took a deep breath. She could hear the heartbeat radius near her—the aura of fear all the monsters exuded. She let go of the wires she was trying to hotwire and slowly backed away from her generator, keeping her head down.  Just keep cool, keep slow, get out.

She slid behind a nearby brick wall and waited. It only took another two seconds for the Killer to appear around the corner, towering over her generator. It was the Trapper. Of course it was. He flipped his blade expertly in his hand as he looked around for signs of who’d been on the nearly repaired generator. She watched as he raised a gigantic booted foot and brought it crashing down on all her hard work.  As he did, a generator somewhere to their right went off, and the Trapper took off towards it with the steady pace of something that knew it was about to kill.

Bitch.

She especially disliked him. His stupid ass grin on his stupid ass mask. He thought he was some real hot shit.

Well, at least my competitive spirit is alive and well, Feng thought, sliding back out from behind the wall and creeping back to her generator. She heard a scream in the distance.  It sounded like Jake.  Run, buddy.

Something bumped her shoulder in a friendly manner. If she hadn’t been so used to Nea pulling that dumb crap at this point she would have screamed on instinct. Now getting tapped on the shoulder in intense situations de-stressed her, like some pavlovian reverse of what should be.

Feng turned and gave the red-flannel clad girl a nod. Nea winked, and started adjusting gears on the gen.  They head Jake’s voice again, and Nea looked at Feng and winced. Feng nodded. 

Poor fool. 

Jake and David were both really good target focuses.  Nea and Meg too.  God bless the four of them, they often took Killer focus in rounds.  Jake and Nea had played rock, paper, scissors on their way in and Jake had lost.

Their gen lit up, and Nea booked it away, crouched and silent.

I really, really need to learn that, Feng thought, following as quickly as she could while crouched. Nea had been teaching her in between trials, but she was still so much slower. Damn video games. You made me so smart and good at fixing things, but look what you did to my quads. 

Ahead she saw Nea stop and hold up a hand. She stopped too. Nea carefully skirted a bear trap almost completely invisible in the weeds, pointedly motioning to it before moving on. Feng followed suit, careful to avoid the deathtrap.

It wasn’t long before they were on another gen together, working silently. They heard  Jake’s voice fade in the distance. Crafty bastard got away. Nice, Feng thought, smiling to herself. She and Nea were about to light up their second gen when another gen far, far to the north came on. It couldn’t have been more than three seconds later when, even at what must have been a great distance, they heard Kate scream in pain. Feng fought the urge to flinch sympathetically. Nea glanced towards where they’d heard Kate and bit her lip, then re-focused on the gen.

It only took about thirty seconds for them to see Kate up on a hook, struggling.

Sorry, Kate, Feng thought, looking at her figure in the distance. She and Nea lit up their gen.

Nea indicated Kate with her head, asking if they should try to save her. Before Feng could reply, they saw Jake crest the hill in the distance and pull her off the hook. Nea nodded at Feng and they kept going towards the nearest generator, trying to keep their heads down. They weren’t even halfway to the generator when they heard Kate shout again and saw the entity descending from the sky to take her. Both of them shuddered involuntarily as they watched the monstrous talons pulling her husk up into the sky.

One down. Three to go.

This also meant the Trapper might be roaming gens again, not chasing Jake. They’d lost sight of him.

Feng almost bumped into Nea, who had stopped moving. She was still looking up at where Kate’s body had vanished. Feng tapped her on the shoulder and she nodded, and both girls kept going.

They were almost on the gen when, in the distance, the two of them saw Jake and the Trapper appear on the upper ledge of one of the buildings, uncomfortably close. Jake was still nursing a wound on his back but it wasn’t slowing him down much. He vaulted over a windowsill, and then leapt off the upper ledge. Both of them watched silently as Jake hit the ground with a pained grunt, rolled with the force, and came up running despite the nearly twenty-foot fall.

As the Trapper leapt down after him, Nea carefully pulled herself over a windowsill, eyes on Jake and the Killer. The second she touched the ground Feng heard an all-too familiar shriek and the snap of meatal tearing into bone as the beartrap snapped tight on Nea’s leg.

Oh no, no, no, no.

Throwing caution to the wind, Feng stood up and ran to Nea, skirting the side of the brick wall, just barely missing a bear trap herself. As she rounded the corner, she looked towards the house and saw the Trapper turn away from Jake and start heading for them. She had seconds.

Feng reached Nea’s side and saw the mess of steel teeth and gored flesh. One of the metal prongs was embedded in the bone. Blood was oozing from the raw chunks of flesh which hung limply where they’d been torn, and Nea was struggling desperately to force the jaws open with her fingertips, already slick with her own blood.

Feng helped her as they heard the audible terror given off by the Trapper approaching. Slicing one of her own fingers open on the sharp, rust covered metal, she tugged as hard as she could and heard the mechanism give. Nea managed to snatch her foot out of the trap just before it shut again. Feng grabbed her arm and pulled her up as the Trapper rounded the corner.

They ran, Nea doing her best to keep up on a mangled leg, vaulting over windows and ducking behind walls, trying to dodge and weave. They hit a brick wall and Nea went left, Feng went right. She looked over her shoulder and saw the Trapper turn after Nea—of course he would, she was easy prey.

Beneath her, Feng felt the crack of metal colliding with bone and yelled in pain as she went down.

Everything throbbed and she was already woozy with blood loss as she picked herself up off the dirt and desperately tried to open the jaws digging through her calf, severing flesh and muscle alike, and letting tiny chunks of both drip down the sides of her leg along with the bright red blood.

No, no, no. Feng tried to pry the beartrap open—so much harder than it had been when it was around someone else’s leg. She’d been in these things hundreds of times, but she was still fighting the urge to vomit at the sight of a bodypart her old brain knew would never fully recover despite the way her new brain knew, in this place, it would.

She saw him coming, the Trapper, slow and deliberate. He knew she was screwed.

Grinning fucking asshole!

Feng desperately struggled, renewed by spite. The machine started to give way. The Trapper closed the distance in one large stride and drove his blade through her gut, pinning her to the ground.  She bit her tongue to keep from crying out, because she knew that was what he wanted. She looked up into his big, grinning eyes and could tell he recognized her. He was happy, grinning himself beneath the mask as he twisted the knife. Her intestines tore, letting stomach acid leak where the metal cleaver ripped them apart.  She bit through her tongue and felt the blood start to run down her cheek. He twisted the blade again and she heard something in her back tear and she couldn’t hold it back anymore.

Feng let out what should have been a shriek, but came out as a pained gurgle as she choked on her own blood.

He leaned in close to her face, applying more pressure to the blade. Somewhere past him, she saw Jake trying to get close. Nea was knocking something over, trying to draw him away. Idiots. Big sweet dummies. Didn’t they know that sometimes you have a match you can’t win. Sometimes you aren’t good enough. To keep going. To live.

She looked at them, Jake was getting close. Nea was digging desperately though a chest, probably hoping for a flashlight.

No, you don’t know, do you? Sometimes you just lose and get fucked and that’s it. There isn’t always a good end no matter how much you want it, you, Feng looked up into the big grinning mask of blood and teeth and smirking pride she hated above all, ah fuck it.  She spat a mouthful of blood into his face.

Nea and Jake watched as the Trapper pulled his blade back out of Feng and brought it down in the middle of her skull.

 

“Shit.” Jake was breathing hard, but quiet, back pressed against a stone wall as he bandaged Nea’s leg. They’d lost him, but the Trapper was close. They could hear him. Jake held his breath as the sound of a heartbeat got intensely loud; he saw Nea do the same.

He kept passing, though. In a few seconds he was away. Jake saw him come into view far to the left as his terror abated.

“Fourth time in a row he’s just straight killed her,” Jake viewed, face unreadable.

“He’s pissed,” Nea said, voice low. She looked hardened. For a second she glanced back in the direction of Feng’s body.  “She keeps kicking his ass with the gens. He only gets anybody every other or so now.”

“She should quit pissing him off so much,” Jake said, tying the gauze and straightening. “It makes it impossible for me to do my job.”

Nea was still looking toward where Feng had fallen. After a second she slowly turned her head back towards Jake. “Pretty badass though.”

He looked at her for a second, and she grinned. The smile died after a moment and she looked grim again.

“Okay, come on, one gen left.” Nea started forward, crouched

“Sure thing,” Jake replied, watching her take a few steps.

When he didn’t follow, she paused to look back at him. He just shook his head as if forgetting something and crouched to join her.

One generator later, they both slipped through the hatch.

Chapter Text

It’s been I think about two days since the Wraith let us go. We still haven’t run into him again. It’s been nothing but bad trials for us. We keep getting Shape, Nightmare, and Trapper back to back, and those three have it out specifically for Quentin, Laurie and Feng.  Laurie’s almost never making it out.  The rest of us tend to do okay if the Shape spends the whole time chasing her, but it’s still miserable. On top of that, sometimes he saves her for last and chases after everyone but her. He’s scary. Feng pointed out that as silent as he is, he breathes like Darth Vader, so that helps, but he’s still deadly. Way too mobile. If he gets Laurie early or comes after the rest of us first, we usually all go down. She’s trying to teach us to stab him with sharp pieces of wood or rock while being carried around, but it’s harder than it sounds.

Feng keeps going up against the Trapper—it has to be on purpose at this point. I think he hates her as much as she hates him. He loves hurting people even more than killing them; he’s one of the nastiest ones.  Worse, he keeps killing people instead of hooking them. This is new—it’s not the first time, but it’s happening more and more.  I’m really worried. He only seems to do it once per trial, but he keeps on targeting just Feng, over and over and over.  Feng’s resilient and strong and really smart, and also competitive, but she’s getting worn down by this grind. I think it’s been almost a solid month of the Trapper personally having it out for her.

I can tell Nea is worried too. She doesn’t say it, but she keeps trying to be nice and joke with Feng, get her to teach her generator tips, and in exchange training her how to move faster while sneaking. I think it’s working—I hope it is. She’ll laugh every so often when Nea tells a really good joke and seem almost okay again, but it never lasts long.

I think Quentin is doing a little better. He actually prefers being in trials with the Nightmare over other people being there without him. I think it’s because he feels kind of responsible, as ridiculous as that is. He’s been doing his best, and somehow he starts every trial acting like he’s going to win, even after all the times he’s died. It’s been really good for us to have him join the group. He gives the rest of us hope.

I don’t know what to do for Laurie. She’s solitary. I’ve seen David trying to get her to trade self-defense tips to get her to socialize, but it isn’t working. I wish I was better at this, I wish I knew how to help. All I’m good at is fixing cuts, not making people feel better.

I’m sorry, future reader, that this entry probably won’t help you much.  I know that usually I journal to record helpful tips about plants and strategy, and anything else I can think of that might someday help someone else.  I’m sorry I keep doing this instead. More and more lately I think I’ve just been journaling for the sake of journaling.  It helps.  I don’t know why, but it does.  It’s like talking out loud to yourself while you garden to work stuff out, except that I can’t really do that here, because I’m always either with people, or alone in a trial, and in the later it’d be too dangerous, and in the former I’d be too embarrassed.

In helpful news for the day, I’ve figured out that there are several groupings of Amaranth nearby.  It looks a little bit like wheat, corn, or corral. I’m including a drawing to help specify. It comes in purple when blooming, but may appear orange or yellow-green at times during ripening.

The seeds rest in the tassel (the part which looks like a flower). Usually shaking the tassel will make a few seeds fall.  To collect the seeds, cut the tassels from the plant (purple-red when ripe) and put them in a cloth container (you can use a shirt) and shake to free the seeds. Alternatively, if you've got something like a bucket, you can put the tassels there and rub the seeds free with your fingers.  These seeds can be crushed and used like wheat to make meals and flour.  I've found that they make a pretty good oatmeal base.  Good luck, and keep your head up.  There’s always a way to get through it together.

-Claudette Morel

Chapter Text

Autohaven, the gas station too. Jake thought, adjusting his eyes to the terrain that he’d just materialized in.  Maybe he’s finally back.

Jake crouched and started walking. Favored terrain didn’t always mean favored enemy. He’d been stabbed by the Pig here before one too many times.

It took him a minute of crawling past junk to see a gen through one of the gas station’s windows. Okay, not too shabby.

He slipped up to the window and turned to scan his field of vision before standing up to climb in—always paid to be safe.  Coast was clear.

As Jake started to climb in the window, he suddenly had the elevation to see through the opposite window into the autoyard, and he stopped with one leg through and barely grabbed the edge of the windowsill in time to keep from losing his balance and pitching out backwards.  Not thirty yards away the Wraith was standing on one of the hills, unmoving, in clear line of sight.

Jake froze wedged up in the window. The Wraith wasn’t facing him or turned away—he was in its periphery.  Ah shit. Be cool, be super cool.

He waited in the window for a few seconds, holding his breath. When it didn’t seem to notice him, Jake ever so slowly lowered himself inside the gas station.  Still nothing.

Jake edged towards the far window, careful and slow, and stuck his head out, trying to see what the Wraith was looking at.  It was holding its sickle in both hands like someone might hold a ruler or an armful of firewood.  It didn’t seem to be looking at anything.  After a moment it turned and looked behind itself, out over the yard, then back at the exit gate it had been staring past before.  After taking its glance around, the Wraith did something Jake had never seen one of the monsters do before: it very slowly crossed one leg in front of the other and folded in on itself, lowering until it was sitting cross-legged on the ground, weapon in its lap.

Whooo boy. Guess we did break him. Huh, Jake observed. He hoped through the window and strolled over to the hill. He looked up at the Wraith’s back for a few seconds, then circled around to the front and stood at the base of the little hill.

As soon as the Wraith saw Jake standing at the base of the hill it looked up at him, almost startled, and pulled itself back to its feet.

Interesting. Jake took a cautious step up onto the path, and then looked up at the Wraith to see how it would react. It blinked and took a step back.  No shit, woah, Jake thought, taking another step and looking up again to see if it would work a second time. It did. The Wraith took another step back. Quit acting afraid of me, Jake thought as he took two more steps, You’re a big monster, what do you think I’m gonna do?

It backed up one more step and found itself at the edge of the hill.

That’s what long legs get you, Jake thought to himself, you forgot how to take small steps after chasing us around too much.

The Wraith turned its head a little to look over its shoulder, then it looked back at Jake. It took a step forward and raised its sickle at him like it was going to hit him.

Nice try buddy, but you should have led with a bluff if you wanted that to work. Jake made eye contact and took another step up the hill—a big one this time.

The Wraith swung the sickle in his direction menacingly and took another step forward.

Hmmmmm.  Jake took another two steps. He looked up at it again.

It looked incredulous. How dare he keep coming to bother it?  It took another swing at him, lung this time, just narrowly missing.

Jake called the bluff and didn’t more or flinch as the metal whistled harmlessly past his nose, just barely nicking it. The Wraith blinked at him again and clenched the fist that wasn’t wrapped around its blade.

“I’m Jake,” said Jake, not moving as tiny drops of blood slipped down the cut on his nose.

The Wraith said nothing, it just looked at him. If he hadn’t known better, Jake could have sworn it looked panicked. 

Jake tilted his head and looked the Wraith up and down.  “So,” he asked, looking it in the face again, “what happened to you?”

It took a sudden step forward and shoved him backwards over the side of the hill. Completely unprepared, Jake pinwheeled and slammed onto the ground ten feel below on his back.

Ow.

He lay there for a second looking up, and saw the Wraith lean over the edge of the hill and look down at him, an indescribable expression on its face as they made eye contact.

Three generators lit up at the same time and the Wraith turned to look back out at the cars. When he looked back over the edge of the hill, Jake was gone. The Wraith blinked and turned in a circle to look, but he’d vanished completely. Even with its tracking skills, there was nothing to see.

Maybe I should not have done that, Phillip thought slowly, looking back over the edge of the hill. I panicked.

He was pretty sure the boy had been fine, though. He sat back down on the hill and tried to slow his breathing again.  He had had a long time to plan what he’d do the next time he saw the souls in a trial, but it had all gone out the window the second the trial started. He’d been so determined to go back to the way things had been.  The Spirit had spoken to him, reassuring him, challenging him, condemning his lapse in judgement. He could see through its eyes, feel its desire to hunt them.  It reminded him of their bargain, of his debt, of his own desire for revenge.  He was hunting those who had earned it, and he knew it, he believed it.  But the second he’d been back in the junkyard he’d seen the face of that man in the trunk in his head, and the look on the girl’s face when he’d been about to kill her, and the way the boy with glasses had gripped her wrist, trying to force her to run while his blood pooled around him and soaked through his white shirt.  Phillip had worn a shirt like that when he worked here.

It was too much, it hurt to think.

Even now, he could hear the Spirit whispering, hissing, angry. “Go, kill them, are you not the reaper? You let them walk free? Do you know what you bring on yourself, the kinds of monstrous humans you are allowing to escape? Coward, weak, Wraith. A worthless killer, you only hunt the innocent for Azarov? You lose your taste for vengeance, for justice? Miserable creature, are you so wretched as to fail even at this?”

The words had a bite to them, venom in each syllable, and they hurt his head. Every time the voice spoke it was like taking a blow. He could feel the fury in the Iska mounting.

I can’t, Phillip thought. I can’t, I’m sorry. I don’t know why.

This only made it more furious. He held his head in his hands as the pounding continued.  He heard another generator go off, and then another. He was vaguely aware, past the screaming of the Spirit and the pain, of the sound of an exit gate opening.

He looked up when he heard footsteps. He didn’t want to appear weak in front of them.  Phillip pulled himself to his feet as the group of four rounded the corner and took off for the gate right in front of him.

Smart of them to open the other gate before coming here, Phillip thought absently. He wished they would leave him alone.

It was the boy from earlier, the older man in the grey suit, the man who liked to fight, and the girl from his last trial—Claudette. The one in the suit pulled the switch on the gate in front of the hill, and the Wraith watched them. He thought he should probably chase them off, because if he didn’t they might try to talk to him again. Why was he so afraid of that? 

The boy—Jake—was talking with the other three too quietly to be heard, but he kept looking at Phillip.

He could hear the Spirit screaming in his head, too much to comprehend. Philip resisted the urge to grab his head this time. He tried to face the pain. Suddenly, the jumble of words and hatred became crystal clear and Philip felt something slam into his body like he’d been hit by a car.

“GO,” screamed the Spirit, “DO NOT LET THEM MOCK YOU, LOOK.”

A wave off pain washed over Phillip, crushing him, and his vision changed. A sheen of red-purple light descended on everything, and the forms grew sharper, details shifted. He saw black pits glowing beneath the skin on the people before him where their hearts should be, like they had voids in their chests. The terrain was darker, more shadowy, and he involuntarily took a step back.  Somehow the figures who had looked entirely mundane to him a moment ago looked threatening, and horrible. Smirking, planning, malicious. He tried to shake his head to clear his vision but it didn’t change. Everything was vaguely covered in a red-purple tint with the new light, and as he looked around, he saw blood begin to leak out of the piles of crushed cars around him. Phillip felt his breath catch and his pulse quicken. There were voices then, too, and wavy figures—half ghosts, fading in and out of the light.  “See them truly,” hissed the Spirit, “do not be fooled weak Reaper. Take up your blade and fulfill your promise; you are death for me. Prove it, or give in.”

Phillip looked at the four people beneath him. He could hear the gate about to open. One of them looked up at him, a sickening grin across his face.

Phillip raised his sickle and leapt down from the hill.

It took the four below him a second to realize what was happening. He swung and caught the one in the grey suit across the chest, the force of the blow knocking him against the still closed doors.

Phillip spun on his heel and caught the fighter deep in his left shoulder as he turned at the sound of his friend’s scream, and just as fast turned the blade on the girl. She raised an arm to try and shield herself, and the teeth of his sickle sliced deep into her forearm by the wrist and she feel backwards onto the ground.

In one fluid motion, Phillip turned the blade on the boy called Jake, who fell flat to avoid the swing and rolled, coming back up just out of reach and facing him, hands up palm out and body taught like he was trying to decide between fleeing and waiting to see what the Wraith would do next.  The other three bolted, and as Jake saw them take off behind the Wraith, he turned and ran too. Phillip’s sickle caught him in the back as he leapt over a ledge.

The dash to the far exit was intense. Phillip felt something stronger and more sharp than adrenaline in his system, it was like his blood had become gasoline, burning him inside and propelling him forward.  He leapt over windowsills at a speed he’d never known, like he was the wind itself. The four in front of him were frantic, tearing for the open exit blindly, throwing down obstacles and leaping low fences in a panic. His vision kept flickering, disorienting him, and then refocusing him on the figures ahead—outlining them for him as if their rotting souls glowed. He closed the distance between himself and the slowest of the pack, the one in the grey suit, and swung. The girl was suddenly between him and the older man, and her blindingly ember-glowing form took the blow in the chest and went down.

Phillip heard a crackle from something deep in his head and kept running, furious like he hadn’t been in months at the thought of losing his prey, but he tripped and pitched forward, stumbling. He looked behind himself and saw the girl had grabbed his ankle as he passed. His anger became irrational and for a second it was like he couldn’t see at all as it bubbled. Overflowing with rage, he let out a yell which sounded feral and monstrous and pulled himself up and kept going. The other three had reached the exit but hesitated—they often were reluctant to leave without their whole group—pride—pettiness. The anger and hatred in his body were burying him deep beneath them, fighting for release. He could hear the ghosts around him whispering his name, accusations, calling for pity, mercy, justice. Blood leaking from the stacks of crushed cars made the entire ground like a slick red mirror. His sensations were all heightened and delayed and muffled at the same time—the only things that were clear were the outlines of the humans in front of him.

He lashed out blindly at one, the boy, catching him in the chest. One of the other men caught him and dragged him past the boundary back towards the campfire, leaving the Wraith unable to pursue them.  He screamed and lunged, trying to chase after, only to be met by the Entity’s black stakes cutting him off and barring his way the like a prison door. He reached an arm through and swung as they ran, overwhelmed with his rage at losing them.

He heard a faint whisper in the air and remembered the girl then. He turned and looked for her. She had crawled towards the exit on her own; she was only about fifteen feet away from the gate’s entrance. He walked slowly towards her and saw her look up at him as he approached.

He saw that she was trembling as he stood over her and looked down. He couldn’t make out her expression through the haze. His anger made any other emotion impossible past itself. The girl raised a shaky hand up towards him and he heard her speak, muffled as all sound was.

“Please,” her voice was faint, as if he was hearing her from underwater. “Please don’t.”

Phillip twitched. He tried to reach down to pick her up but his body wouldn’t move. A shudder ran down his whole frame and he tried again. He looked at his unresponsive arms and noticed they were shaking.

He reached again for her but again his arms refused. He realized he was trying not to reach for her. Everything was so confusing and the red-purple glow got stronger. Phillip’s head ached. His vision flickered and for a second the familiar blue tint was over the world and the ground wasn’t slick with blood, and he could see that the girl on the ground before him was crying silently, shaking in fear.

Phillip looked at his hands. There were covered in blood.

Something hit the inside of his skull like a brick and the world was purple-red again, and he couldn’t see her so well. Everything was blurry and the rage inside him was taking over again. He heard a distorted half-choked sob come from her.

Phillip closed his eyes and fell to his knees, trying to shut it all out. He flung his blade off somewhere to his left and gripped his head with both hands. The pounding was deafening.

What did I do?

Phillip reached out with his right hand until he could feel a low wall of crushed car cubes he’d been vaguely aware of. He gripped the structure firmly and rammed his head into it, again and again and again until he felt the blood running down his forehead, and the pain outside his skull was sharp enough to drown out the screaming inside it.

His breath ragged and short, Phillip let go of the row of car parts and fell forward, catching himself with one hand, using it to support his weight.

It was quiet.

Somewhere to his left, he heard a quiet sound like a whimper.

He’d forgotten the girl.

Phillip started to open his eyes and a wave of fear washed over him. No, don’t! came his thoughts in a panic, You’ll lose control again!

Very slowly, Phillip half crawled towards the sound, propping himself up with one arm and feeling for her with the other blindly. His cold fingers felt the thick slick warm of fresh blood and traced it back to an arm. He felt her skin flinch the second his reached it, and she tried to pull away.

Very slowly, eyes still shut tight, Phillip balanced himself on his knees. He held up one hand palm out, hoping to in some small way reassure her. His other hand followed the arm up to her shoulder and down her back until he found her waist. She let out a little cry and he felt her weakly trying to crawl away. She was never going to make it. His memory served him well, and he knew from over a thousand trials that she had less than a minute before she bled out. Phillip moved his legs up and crouched over Claudette. Doing his best to work quickly blind without hurting her worse, he wrapped his arms around her waist and hoisted her into the air, carrying her awkwardly—like a rug. He could feel her legs kick weakly at his for a second as she was lifted off the ground. The poor thing was already almost dead. She wasn’t going to be a problem.

The blood from his forehead was dripping down his chest now. Probably getting on her, Phillip thought, feeling for some illogical reason especially terrible about that in particular. He shifted her weight over to his left arm and clutched her tightly to his chest—easy enough a load to bear with one arm, and used the other to blindly feel his way towards the exit. It was slow, choppy going, and he knew she didn’t have long, but he was too afraid to open his eyes. He felt immense relief wash over him as his fingers found the steel of the exit gate’s frame and he carried her past it.  He kept going until his fingers were met by the cold black spikes he knew barred him from the campfire. Phillip realized the body in his arms had stopped struggling and felt the pit of his stomach drop.

Phillip slowly turned his head to the side, listening for sounds of life. He was rewarded with faint, shallow breathing. Thank gods.

Gently as he could, Phillip adjusted his weight for better leverage, then tossed Claudette past the barrier. He heard her body hit the ground outside with a quiet thud.

He knew she would be fine. They healed instantly after making it out. And yet, he waited, needing confirmation. Phillip was still too afraid to open his eyes, but he stayed put, unmoving, waiting for the sound of her regaining her feet and running away back to the temporary safety of her campfire.

The sound didn’t come.

Phillip swallowed. The urge to open his eyes was almost as strong as the fear keeping them shut. He kept listening, straining, but there was nothing.

“Thank you.”

The voice was close—he hadn’t heard her stand or breathe—he’d forgotten how quiet she could be, but when she spoke the girl couldn’t have been more than a few inches past the barrier.

For some reason, the gratitude stung more than anything Phillip had been hit by that day. His breath caught in his throat and he felt something unfamiliar catch in his chest, burning and aching. It took him a second to realize his body was trying to cry.  It had been so long that it had forgotten how.

Something touched his face and he jerked back on instinct.

“You’re hurt too,” came the voice. Around him, Phillip felt the change in the terrain. He could tell the world of the trial was about to disappear and he would be back in the woods alone in a moment.  “Here.”

Something brushed against his hand, and Phillip pulled back out of her reach.

“Please, take it.”  She sounded genuinely concerned. That hurt far too much.

He didn’t want it, he didn’t want her help or her pity, or her forgiveness, he didn’t deserve it. It was unbearable.

But somewhere much deeper he did, he did want it. He needed it. He was afraid—he was so afraid that if he didn’t take it she would never offer it again, and he would never be anything like okay. Be anything but the thing he’d been a few minutes ago, the thing that scared him. Maybe he was already too lost.

Without his permission, his shaking hand reached out on its own and turned over, palm up. He felt the softness of a cloth between his fingers.

Then everything disappeared.

Phillip felt grass beneath his feet and the call of birds. He closed his fist around the cloth.  A roll of gauze.

 


 

 

“Oh damn,” Meg said, looking up as David, Jake, and Ace burned into existence as one, shouting over eachother and mid an incomprehensible jumble of sentences. “The hell happened to you?”

“We left Claudette,” Jake replied.

“The Wraith was pulling off some weird act—he almost killed all four of us,” Ace added, doubled over and breathing hard.

“Wait, what?” Dwight stood up. “What happened?”

“He sat down damn near the whole match an’ then jumped us all like ah madman at the gate,” replied David. “Fkn nearly chopped Ace in half n threw him into a wall.”

“What happened to Claudette,” asked Dwight, concern and agitation fighting for primary emotion.

“Wraith got her,” Jake replied, looking angry, “she’ll probably be along soon.”

Ace sat down on the grass and rubbed his forehead.  “Fool girl took a hit for me, I shoulda gone back.”

“We tried,” Jake replied, voice cold and level, “if we’d kept going he’d have just killed all four of us.”

“So, the whole thing was an act?” Meg asked. “I mean, with the Wraith?”

“I guess,” Jake replied, plopping down on a log near Ace and tearing out a handful of dirt and chucking it mindlessly into the campfire. “He was acting weird right up until we opened the exit gates, and then he went feral on us again—but more and worse than normal. Like the fucking Hillbilly or something.” The ‘fucking’ was punctuated by another angry handful of nothing thrown into the fire.

“God,” Kate exhaled slowly.  She leaned over and put a sympathetic hand on Ace’s shoulder.

Dwight sat back down and ran his fingers through his hair. Agitation had won. Shit, shit, shit. I really thought we had something.

Claudette burned back into reality and everyone turned to look at her, her three previous companions some combination of pained, concerned, and guilty.

She beamed at them.

Meg glanced from Claudette to Jake, to Ace, to David.  “Uh?”

Dwight looked up in surprise. “Claudette?”

Claudette ran past the campfire and threw herself at Jake and Ace, putting an arm around each and pulling them into a death-grip hug. Ace stared at Claudette and Jake gave the others a startled look like they might know what to do about this.  Claudette let go of them after a second and turned towards David and the others, almost laughing. “You guys are never gonna believe this!”

“Yeah, like shit, probably not,” Nea replied, ending the astounded silence that followed her proclamation, “but go off.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, Philip.”

The voice echoed around the basement, disappointed but readied—taut like a drawn bowstring. 

Philip had materialized in a basement. Between trials, they usually went to the woods—him and the other hunters.  They didn’t interact much, and none of them had been placed together, but they could often see each other in the distance, stalking around their territory. Generally, there would be a house of some kind for them in the woods, and it would have a basement. Philip didn’t know what anyone else’s dwelling looked like. His was a hollowed-out husk of what looked and felt like the old garage at Autohaven. The place he had worked sometimes, fixing up cars.  It offered little protection, but there were no storms here so it hardly mattered. 

He could tell it was his basement, but he could also tell something was wrong as soon as he’d appeared there.

Eyes still closed and blood still slowly running down his face, Philip walked up the steps to leave and his open palm felt cool concrete blocking his way.

A shudder ran down his spine. Slowly, Philip opened his eyes.  The stairway had been blocked off, cool concrete, like the upstairs had never even been.

He felt fear pool in the pit of his stomach. He wondered if this was how his victims had felt the times they’d been rushing up the stairs only to see him waiting at the top. Trapped. In the basement.

His vision had returned to normal at least, and the fury and hatred that had been boiling over moments ago were just memories, but his left hand was still wrapped around a roll of gauze. He looked down at it and blinked. All this time. All this time, and this is what it took for me to be able to see.

His right hand let go of the wall and clenched until his fingernails dug into his palm.

Philip sat down on the steps and slowly wrapped his head with the bandage and tied it.  Then, he waited. Looking at the blood on his hands and what was left of the roll of gauze. 

 

It wasn’t long. “Oh, Philip,” came the whisper in the air, “What have you done?”

Philip stood up, suddenly acutely aware that he did not have his sickle. Not that it would have mattered anyway.

“I’m done,” Philip said to the ceiling, where a black fog was starting to gather.  “No more of this. I won’t hunt them.”

“You do not seek justice? You would give up your soul, your chance to undo the debts you owe for the innocents you have slain, for these wicked mortals? Spit in the face of mercy, of purpose, vengeance, all that you have been given?” It asked, silky and smooth. The words became corporeal in the air and wrapped around his throat like wafts of smoke as thick as rope, and Philip shoved the fog aside with his hand.

“What did you do to me?” He took a step forward, then another, eye still on the thing in the ceiling. “I lost control.”

“You embraced your calling and it gave you power,” replied the voice. “I did nothing but give you the power to do that to yourself.”

“Embrace my calling?” Philip took an incredulous step into the room, towards the center of the black cloud above him. “My calling to hunt these—these children? What could they have done to deserve this—me? Why won’t you tell me? What are you hiding?”

“It is not your place to know them,” hissed back the voice.

“Then it is not my place to kill them,” he said, taking another step into the room, voice stronger this time.

“It is your duty to obey!” the whispers snapped. “Not to question!”

“No,” he almost shouted it this time. “It is my duty to do what is right.”

“You know what will happen to you?”

Philip felt the room grow colder as the Spirit spoke, its words making the atmosphere heavy and thick around him. He felt a chill down his spine and shivered. His breath fogged and crystalized as tendrils of icy black smoke drifted past. He turned his head to look at them.

“If you choose to defy your own god? Understand me, Wraith,” the dark mist spoke, curling around the air above him, “If you disobey you will be abandoned. Another reaper will take your place, and you shall pay for the lives you have taken with your body and your soul, torn apart piece by piece, forever. This is already your second chance. You will not be given a third.”

Philip looked down at his blood-stained hands, at the depleted roll of gauze.  He looked back up.

“When I worked at Autohaven, I never questioned things, you know?”

Philip started to walk slowly as he spoke, and the darkness in the ceiling crept after him, watching, waiting, listening.

“I didn’t,” he continued.  “I knew something didn’t add up, that there were drugs being sold, things stolen maybe. I knew. But I just wanted to get by. To live.”

He ran his hand down one of the hooks hanging from the ceiling, pausing to look at it with an unreadable expression. “I wanted a roof and food, and to sometimes get to go home and do some little thing that made all of that surviving worthwhile. I wanted to be able to go to a theater some weekends, or get a drink more expensive than a beer—maybe a whole bottle to take home.” His fingers closed around the hook. “I wanted to play some music and just listen for a whole hour with no consequence, or maybe read a book. I was okay surviving.”

Philip tucked the gauze into a little pocked on the inside of his cloak and looked back up at the Entity above him.

“So I never asked. I did what I was told; I was good at it.  So many people died because I was not paying attention. Because one man was evil, and another stupid.  And I have done it again. ‘The Oblivious Executioner.’ No more.” Philip leveraged his weight and tore the hook from its resting place, spinning it until it was leveled at the thing in the ceiling. “You were never my god,” Philip said coldly, watching the Entity, “No more lies! You are not my god—you are no god at all. You are some kind of demon. Admit it.”

He waited, tense and ready, watching the ceiling for movement. “Admit it!” he shouted again into the silence.

For a few more seconds there was nothing but silence. Then, laughter. Slow, and steady, and horrible.

“Oh, well done, Wraith,” came the voice, which up until this moment had never been something one could use personal adjectives to describe. It was suddenly almost individual. Haughty, bored, pleased.

Philip kept the hook at the ready, trying to see the entire ceiling at once and failing.

“Come now,” it said reproachfully, the laughter still in its voice, “did you really think this was the first time you’d figured it out?”  

Philip stopped. Don’t listen, don’t trust it.

“Mmmmm, you do. But you have before. Oh Philip, many times,” it was very pleased now, taunting. “Benedict, Alex,” it paused, enjoying the last one, “Vigo?”

He didn’t. He didn’t have any face to put to a name. He didn’t have any memory of people other than the ones he’d been chasing since he got here. He felt a panic seep in and tried to fight it off. No. No, it’s lying. It’s a demon, don’t listen. Stay focused.

The darkness above him laughed again, a horrible hissing sound that echoed and came from everywhere at once.  “Ah, poor Wraith. Again and again you fail, and become my reaper. None the wiser. Ah, Wraith.  Although, I admit you did remember one thing this time.”

Philip felt his breath catch as it paused.

“I was the one who called you my ‘Oblivious Executioner.’” The smile in its voice was audible. “Fancy that.”

Philip grabbed a loose stone from the floor and hurled it at the shadow above him. It laughed again as the stone harmlessly pinged off and fell back to the floor.

“No, Philip. You will not face me. You will never face me.  But I tire of dealing with you and your challenges. I want you to remember this punishment you are about to receive, the payment for questioning your god, the great Spirit who guides you. I want you to keep that caution and pain and let it burn away another piece of Philip and build another piece of Wraith.  The rest of it though, I think you’ll have to forget again.”

Philip lunged at the ceiling, leaping high enough that his hook slashed into the darkness above him and caught on something. The metal locked around one of the talons the demon had, and Philip bore down with all his weight, trying to tear it open, but the limbs were harder to the touch than steel. Another of the beast’s metallic limbs descended from the ceiling and closed around his waist as he hung there, struggling with it. It was a slow creature, but strong. Philip managed to pull himself out of its grasp once, and it reached for him a second time, puncturing his side with its talon and tugging him backwards. He lost his grip on the hook and the beast flung him at the wall.

He slammed into the concrete and hit the floor below already fighting to regain his feet. As he did, the thing above him started to fade out.

“Come back! You haven’t beaten me,” he shouted at the vanishing darkness above.

“Oh, Wraith. I beat you a long time ago,” came the whisper, back in its familiar voice. The same involuntary shudder wracked Philip’s body, and he took a step back instinctively, as if his brain was trying to warn him of something.

The wall his hand was braced against started to leak, and Philip jumped. He leaned to look and saw it was some black material—oil, the wrong color, but he immediately knew the smell. The leak suddenly exploded out, covering him, and Philip stumbled backwards, coughing and trying to get it out of his eyes.

All around the room then, leaks began across the concrete as one, dripping and then gushing oil. Philip backed up towards the stairs as the liquid crept towards his feet. The rush of oil built, and Philip’s back hit the wall blocking the stairs. The oil kept coming, until he was up to his knees in it, then his chest, then struggling to swim in it and keep his head above the black pool.

He struggled through the thick liquid up to the ceiling, and realized with a horrible feeling in his chest that it would be seconds before there was no more ceiling, no more air. He pressed his head against the roof, keeping his mouth above the black pool as long as possible, and took one final breath before there was nothing but oil and darkness all around him.

Philip held his breath as long as he could, knowing that the nightmare of oxygen-deprived burning in his lungs would get so much worse if he inhaled the mess around him. It was burning his eyes, even though they were shut tightly, mixing with the blood leaking out of his side, seeping through the bandage to the cut on his forehead, Finally, he couldn’t take it any more. He felt woozy and sick and the pressure in his lungs felt like it was going to explode, tearing and burning and begging for oxygen, and Philip gasped for breath.

The rush of inhaled oil caught in his throat and filled his lungs, making them heavy and clogged and his brain only try harder to breathe again, and again, gasping in more and more oil, choking and trying to cough and vomit and get it out, all while gasping for breath and choking on more and more of the oil. He gagged and his body heaved, trying to save itself, but it was in him now, seeping into his intestines, lodged in his lungs, the pain was unimaginable. His lungs burned and shot stabs of pain across his chest with each unintentional gasping breath. He kept fighting for air, the fear and desperation renewed with each mouthful of oil he choked on until suddenly he was on his hands and knees surrounded by air again and the oil was draining away from the floor as he coughed and coughed and gasped for air that couldn’t get in past the oil lodged in his lungs. His body convulsed, desperately trying to rid itself of the black fluid—the pain of being able to see the room again, to feel the air, but with his lungs too full of liquid to save him, he felt like his chest would burst.

He tried to drag himself onto his hands and knees, but he didn’t have the strength. His body shook, wracked with coughing and gagging and gasping for life. He fell on his side and convulsed, trying again and again and again to puke up the oil but nothing would come up. He could feel himself fading out and tried desperately again to make it to his knees, somehow propping himself up on one elbow, blurry, burning eyes vaguely aware of the pool of black oil he was lying in. Then, across from him, he saw the flicker of something burning into existence. He realized it was a burn barrel, like he’d seen so many times during trials, and then he felt his heart stop as it made sense.

He could have sword he saw the flames licking at the top of the barrel grin.

The flames caught the oil still clinging to the walls and in less than a second the whole room was ablaze. The burning light flickered towards him, licking up oil in its path, and Philip tried desperately to stand but he only made it to his knees before he was engulfed in flames.

He screamed as he felt his skin burn, and the flames were inside him then, burning him from the inside out. He pitched and fell onto the floor, crashing into things, reeling, trying to do anything, anything to stop the burning. His could smell his organs burning. He screamed again and again, hands desperately grasping the pole the hooks hung from, and suddenly he remembered death and with some desperate hope at ending the pain he began ramming his head into the pole again and again and again, and blood and fire mixed until he heard something in the back of skull crack like glass, and immediately everything went black.

 

 

Philip woke up in the basement. He didn’t remember having slept. He started to move, but a wave of pain washed over him, stopping him cold.

He took a few shallow breaths to calm his heart and tried to see what was wrong. His skin burned when he held his hand up to the faint moonlight falling down the steps to see it. He couldn’t remember what had happened. He’d done something—he’d done something the Spirit had warned him against, broken a rule.

He could see burns cascading down his arms, his skin brittle like tree bark. He tried to sit up and he couldn’t. The pain caused him to fall backwards onto the cool concrete and lay there, breathing hard. He didn’t remember how he’d been burned. He thought with a sinking feeling that flashlights had been painful before, now they were bound to be excruciating. What had he done so wrong?

He remembered then—he’d let one of the souls go. It had begged him for mercy and he’d hesitated, believing it. The Spirit had been there, warning him, telling him it was lying to him, and he’d ignored it. He’d paused to consider on his own, and the human had thanked him and then suddenly hit him in the head with a rock and bolted, slipping out the exit before he could catch up. He tried to remember which human it had been—the one with glasses? The boy. And they’d all escaped him while he was preoccupied.  Idiot.

Philip tried again to sit, and then gave up. It hurt too much to even try. Every inch of skin felt raw and even his chest ached with pain.  The smallest movement sent ripples of agony up and down his body. There was no way he was going to move like this. He would just have to wait until the burning stopped, and the Spirit saw fit to give him another chance. He was lucky it was forgiving; he remembered it had been very angry, and not even because he’d let them go and failed his job as Reaper, but because he had decided he knew better than it. Questioned one of his own Gods. He knew he’d failed it—given in to pride and betrayed its kindness towards him.  He couldn’t remember exactly what it had done to him after the trial, but he remembered oil, and fire, and not being able to breathe, and the scent of his skin burning. And still, here he was, alive. It was giving him another chance at his soul, again. Philip didn’t know why, but he was grateful.  He would do well, do better. Not let it down again.

He lay on the ground and stared at the hooks on the ceiling, cold and burning at the same time. His body ached, his head ached, and he couldn’t even reach over five feet to grab his sickle from where it lay without feeling like his skin would crack and turn to dust. Worse, there was a deep thudding pain in his chest he couldn’t place. Like something inside him was rotting. A deep heaviness. Maybe that was disappointment—maybe he was disappointed with himself. He should be. Stupid, Wraith, stupid.

Philip closed his eyes and tried to control the pain. I should have listened. They always disappoint and hurt you. Nothing good ever comes from trusting anyone.

Chapter Text

“Wraith.” The words whispered softly through the room, cutting through the pounding ache in Philip’s head that had been making it too blindly painful to think. It had been right on the threshold of unbearable.

As the Spirit’s voice came, so did relief. Like cold water on a burn. Philip let out a ragged, shaky breath. Thank you. The comfort was overwhelming.

“Yes,” he answered, trying to stand. His skin was still raw and red from the burns, and he stumbled trying to make it to his feet and fell, cracking open a cut on his knee. The sensitive skin screamed in agony at the sensation, but Philip kept quiet, focusing all his will on rising again to meet the spirit properly. Its voice had stopped and the thudding in his head was coming back and he couldn’t face that yet.

Philip gripped the wall with a hand and pulled himself to his feet through the tearing sensation along his fingertips and palm, steadying himself against the boards of the basement wall as best he could. “I am here,” he answered again, praying for its voice to respond and drive out the waves of pain banging against his skull, if only for a few seconds.

“Good,” came the voice’s calm reply, and Philip closed his eyes in relief as the pain in his head ebbed again. “I have need of you.”

Usually he would have bowed, but Philip knew if he tried he would fall, so he gave a slow nod instead, hoping that was alright.

“You have recovered?” It asked, its voice again bringing relief.

Philip shook his head. “Not entirely. But I can walk.” He wondered if he really could, and for how long. But he was determined to try.

There was a hiss and a whisper in the air, and the cloud of dark smoke hovering at the edges of his sight formed solid above him and descended, plumes of it billowing around him until the fog was so deep he couldn’t see his arms at his side or the wall under his palm. The air was cool and calming, and as the dense cloud met his skin an indescribable ripple of relief passed through his body as the burning in his skin stopped, and the constant pain he’d been bearing for more hours than he knew faded until it was merely a sharp pang and a dull ache, not the almost unbearable fury of hot coals eating away at nerve endings.

Philip let out a breath which misted in the air, like the curse in his skin was leaving his body, and looked up at the darkness on the ceiling. He could take a knee now, and he did, head bowed low.

“Thank you.” He kept his eyes shut. “I do not deserve it.”

The air around him grew less dense and the cloud removed back to the ceiling above.  “I am confident you will not fail me again,” the Spirit replied, voice echoing softly along the walls, each syllable lessening the pain in Philip’s skull.

“No,” Philip said, shaking his head and still not looking up.

“I am sorry you were in need of this,” the voice said softly, somehow both reassuring and overwhelmingly fearful at the same time, “It gives me no pleasure to see you hurt. You did this to yourself, choosing to let the spirits walk free, to let those wrongs never be burned away. I told you it was a trick and you would not listen. You betrayed my trust, Philip.”

That hurt, but it was right, and Philip didn’t know what to say so he said nothing.

“I had no choice but to purify you to cleanse your soul,” continued the Spirit gently, “it was the only way to give you another chance.”

Something about the way it spoke reminded Philip of the first time it had spoken to him. Azarov, the skull still in his bloody hand. His heart thudding in his chest as pain and fury and helplessness and determination and regret fought for control in his pounding head, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Walking past rows of cars, imagining he saw blood leaking from all of them, wondering how many bodies were in trunks, how many he had overlooked and killed, what to do now?

Back then he’d been overwhelmed with fury and hatred and done what needed to be done, and as he walked away the anger had lingered but he had also become afraid. Afraid because he knew he had nowhere to go, and after what he’d just done, not much longer to live, and once he was dead, having taken innocent lives even unintentionally, he didn’t know what would happen to his soul. In desperation he prayed to his gods, never expecting a miracle, but they had come. Answered. The Spirit had offered him a second chance. Offered hope.

“I am grateful,” Philip replied, still on one knee. “And I am sorry. I was wrong.”

“Good,” replied the Spirit, “Come then. A trial awaits you.”

Philip stood, still a little unsteady, but the soreness was manageable now. Just pain. As he waited a few seconds in silence, the incredible stabbing pain in the back of his head began to return, and he wished it would speak again and end the blinding thudding, if only for a moment.

“I shall warn you,” it finally continued, relief washing over Philip as the pain again stopped for a few seconds, “They will remember your weakness and try to use it against you again, now that they have seen you falter. You will not fail me again, Wraith?”

Philip shook his head.

“Good,” said the dark cloud, starting to fade out, “because I have something special for you.”

 


 

 

C’mon and breathe girl. You just breathe and keep quiet.

Kate Denson looked out over the side of the tree she had her back pressed up against, towards the generator. She hadn’t even heard a heartbeat, or the Shape’s heavy breathing. There was no grass moving, no invisible frame gliding past, and yet she was sure, very sure that whoever it was, was close. As she watched, waited, nothing happened. Six seconds, and still.

I was wrong? No—I coulda sworn. I know that someone was there, coming this way. I’m sure of it.

She was usually right. She had almost developed a sixth-sense for Killers in her time in the trials.  Finally, her straining eyes caught movement. She couldn’t be sure in that flicker if it had been a movement in the grass caused by the Pig, the Wraith or the Nightmare. She could didn’t hear singing, but she was far enough away that it was possible she was just out of range for that horrible misuse of a sorry excuse for music the Nightmare brought with him. Kate kept her eyes on the generator, waiting for something to kick it.

But nothing did. She squinted, intently focused. The Killer had to have seen the lights flashing, heard the sound of a generator well underway. Had they heard someone else and moved on?

She didn’t hear it get behind her. There was no warning, no tell. No fair, practiced way to protect herself. It wasn’t until the crack of metal colliding with her shoulder sent waves of pain across her back, throwing her forward, that she even knew to run.

And she did.

 

Across the map, Claudette looked up from the generator she and David were working on.

“What’s wrong,” he mouthed, too cautious of being heard to actually speak out loud.

“Kate’s hurt,” she whispered, knowing the Killer was too far away to hear, going after Kate. She could sense her, far off to the left. They’d all developed abilities since coming here, and that was one of hers. She could feel it every time one of her friends was hurt or killed. Sense their exact presence, anywhere on the trial grounds.

David followed Claudette’s gaze off to the left and nodded. “I’ll go’n see to it,” he said, moving to a crouch and starting off in the direction she’d pointed. “You got this covered.”

“No, wait!” She reached out and grabbed his wrist, speaking much louder than she’d meant to, although it still wasn’t loud enough to even be called normal volume. Something bad was happening and she could sense it.

David paused and looked down at her, his expression changing when he saw the horrified look on her face. “What is it?”

Claudette said nothing as she watched the far away figure she knew was Kate, well beyond what she could actually see, as she felt Kate’s body thrown to the ground and dragged backwards through the tall weeds surrounding the hills around the barge. Something came down on Kate’s back, swinging again and again and again, beating the life out of her, hacking her apart like firewood.

It sent a shiver through Claudette, wincing with each swing, unable to look away.

David had his hands on her shoulders now. He was saying her name.

Claudette looked into his face, trying to register. “She’s dead,” she whispered after a second, still trying to come all the way back from the secondhand experience.

An awful feeling of dread had set over her and she didn’t know why. It wasn’t the first time a Killer had killed one of her friends during a trial. She’d been killed herself. And it had been happening to Feng a lot recently. Still, even with the Trapper’s recent spree, it wasn’t a common occurrence. She’d only been killed six times by a Killer in her time here, out of the thousands of trials she’d been in. Only six.  But she would never, ever forget those six. She couldn’t forget them. They haunted her in her sleep more than any amount of being sacrificed ever could have.

There was something different about dying that way, and they all knew it.  Being sacrificed was awful. The fear, the struggle, being impaled on the end of a pike the size of your abdomen and feeling it suck something out of you, like you were being slowly peeled away—there was no downplaying the horror of that. But this was different.  There was something just very, very slightly reassuring about knowing the way you would die in a trial. That you’d be stabbed, grabbed, and hooked.  It was a little light in the form of knowledge and routine, which gave them hope.  They knew about how long you could be on a hook before being killed, about how long it took someone to bleed out on the ground, the odds of struggling free.  It was a horrible hellscape on repeat, but at least there were rules and they knew them and sometimes they made it out.  It was a challenge they knew the boundaries of going in.  A familiar pattern you could study and learn to combat, even if just in small ways.

Being killed was different.  Claudette remembered the first time, several hundred trials in, when she’d been flung to the ground by the Pig. She remembered seeing the thing over her going for her throat and being so scared and confused because this wasn’t how things were supposed to be. And she’d caught the knife in her hand, trying to save herself. The pain had shot down her arm as the blade tore apart the tendons in her hand, and just as fast the blade turned and flicked across her throat and a white-hot pain flashed through her and she’d known her throat had been slit open. She remembered feeling the life spill down her chest as her throat tried to breathe through parts of its body that it no longer had, and the sharp pain told her she was dead for far too long before death really took her.

She still woke up clutching her throat, terrified, sure she was really dead this time.

But she was that this time, that wasn’t why the dread was spilling over her body. She knew why, but she wouldn’t look it in the eyes. She couldn’t. She wasn’t willing to.

No, there’s no way. It’s got to be something else. I’m not. It’s… And Kate. God, Kate. Kate.

The name echoed around in her head. David shook her, and she looked up into his face.

“Come on, we’re about done with the gen. Let’s finish ‘er up before it comes,” came his voice, barely audible.

He’s worried about me, she thought vaguely, following him the half-step back to the gen.

Together they set back to work. David kept looking over his shoulder and past Claudette for any sign of danger. But for her, it took all she had just to focus on the wires and not let them spark under her fingertips. She was trying to think and not to think at the same time. No, no, no, no, no. You’re imagining it. You’re just scared. Please, please, please be safe, Nea, be safe. Please be safe out there.

It only took a few seconds to finish the gen, and as it went off Claudette stared at it for a second, and David had to run back and grab her by the shoulder to get her to follow him to the next one.

“What is it,” he whispered, almost inaudible, as the two rushed together deeper into the marsh, towards a gen.

Claudette just shook her head. He wanted to ask again, but he didn’t risk speaking this time. He just gave her a look, asking.  She shook her head again and mouthed “Nothing” as they reached the next gen.

The two set back to work in silence, the eerie atmosphere that always set over a trial after a Mori seeping around them and settling into the blanks, the dust, the creaking of the old boats. David paused every so often to look at her. He hadn’t ever seen her rattled like this. She was usually about the most dependable in the group, and here she was, kneeling by a generator with her hands shaking.

A heartbeat kicked in as whatever was out in the swamp got closer, and Claudette let out a huge sigh of relief. She almost looked like she might cry. David let go of the gears he’d been adjusting and slipped towards a fallen tree near them. This time Claudette followed him right away, a little color coming back into her face.

Behind their hulking log, they couldn’t see past the plank walls to their generator. Just the shadow of something and red glow that came with the Killers.

It did not kick the gen.

Too suddenly, the heartbeat was gone. It couldn’t have possibly walked out of range, but there had been no sound of a bell.

Claudette and David traded looks. She saw him mouth “Pig?”

She started to nod, then didn’t. She just bit her lip.

“What?” he mouthed. “What is it?”

“Don’t think so,” she mouthed back, shaking her head, the old grim expression coming back.

“Wraith then?” he mouthed, making a little motion like he was using the bell clapper it carried.

Claudette shook her head.

They waited another second, and then slipped back to their generator. It only took another two seconds for Claudette’s head to snap up as she suddenly sensed Nea all the way across the marsh from them. David followed her look, knowing by now it meant probably someone was injured.

“Nea?” he mouthed. She nodded.

Her fingers stayed on the gen, but she was watching Nea run. She was fast, really fast. Come on, you can do it, come on. If anyone can outrun him.

She didn’t. Nea took another hit in the back and fell.

Claudette’s hands stopped moving as she sensed Nea’s body dragged backwards, kicking and flailing, and something sharp was brought down on her back. Stabbed, and stabbed, and stabbed, and stabbed, Nea’s body jerking and fighting for escape at each cut until the life was carved out of her and she went still.

David was watching her face. “Dead?” he mouthed. She nodded.

It was very quiet then. The birds near them had settled, and the generator was still in the early stages of repair. The wind whispered through the weeds and made the planks holding up the building husks and old boats creak and sway.

It was cold. Just a little. Claudette thought with a pang that this was the kind of weather that she used to love. Just a little bit of child in the air, a promise that fall was coming and then Christmas, and things would be good.

But those were things that weren’t coming. They would never come again.

She tapped David on the shoulder and pointed to a generator in the distance. The Killer knew they’d been at this one already, he’d be back. David nodded and they slid off to their new target, moving like shadows past trees and the skeletons of old boats.

When they reached their new generator, Claudette kept looking at David as her fingers twisted around the wires, wondering if she should say something, warn him, or if that would be worse, if it would help, if it would make too much noise. But she couldn’t, because she didn’t want to make a guess, because she didn’t know and guessing might make it real. It couldn’t be real.

He met her eyes and mouthed “Who?”

She shrugged and kept going, the chill in the air settling around them both like a bowstring being drawn taught before a kill.

“Not Pig, not Wraith?” he mouthed again.

They did make the most sense, but she shook her head again. No, I know it’s not the Pig, and it can’t be the Wraith. Not after last time.

“Someone new?” she mouthed back, hoping in some horrible way that she was right. New could be learned, adjusted to.

In the distance, birds flew from the barge in a little black cloud. Good, that meant the Killer was there.

She tried to look at the generator and not think about Kate and Nea. They would be back at the fire by now, they would be okay.

No. They won’t. They’d be like her. They’d be waking up forever from nightmares where they’d been dragged along the ground and chopped up, cold sweat, deep fear, feeling betrayed because even their own sleep was against them. They’d be a little bit more broken, and lost, and worn down, and she couldn’t help them. She didn’t know how.

How could anyone do that to them? Claudette wondered. She didn’t understand. She had never understood the Killers. No pity, no hesitation. No chance to save them. No second thoughts. She kept her eyes on the gen.

David looked up and met her gaze as they were finishing the gen, seconds from lighting it up, and his face immediately changed.

Claudette didn’t have time to register the emotion as horror or to hear David’s shout as he jumped up before she was being dragged backwards off the gen and lifted into the air.

No.

She hadn’t heard him coming. No bell, no heartbeat, nothing. But she recognized the dark brown skin and scarred patches on the arm that slung her over a shoulder.

No, but why?

She forgot to struggle. The flashlight at David’s hip was up in his hand now, and in the Wraith’s face. He lunged forward at David, nearly catching him in the chest even through the blindness of the flashlight beam before he let go of her as he reflexively went to cover his eyes.

The warning sound of a heartbeat pounding furiously flooded the space around them, and Claudette hit the ground hard and pulled herself to her knees, frozen in an emotion she didn’t know the name of but that wasn’t fear.

“Go!” David shouted.

But she hesitated, eyes big and on the Wraith. Praying for something to change. He shook his head and blinked and turned to look at her, sitting there on the ground staring up at him. She tried to crawl backwards then, but only made it half a foot before hitting a wall. The Wraith never had expressions on his face, not really, but looking up into his glowing white eyes there was no doubt in her mind that he was going to kill her.

“No,” she whispered up at him, “You can’t. Don’t go back, please.”

He raised an arm. The sickle caught the moonlight and sparkled.

Claudette raised her arms to cover her head, and through them she saw David dive in between the two of them, catching the three weapon prongs deep in his right shoulder.

“Run!” He shouted again, grabbing her sweater with his left hand and shoving her away.

And this time she did. She ran. Claudette stumbled and dragged herself up and over a windowsill, looking over shoulder to see David take off in the other direction, clutching his shoulder, the Wraith right on his heels. She landed on the other side of the ledge and kept going, faster and faster and completely at random. Claudette fled through the weeds with more speed than she knew she had, dodging and weaving in a blind panic until finally sliding to a stop behind some boxes, breathing hard and shaking.

This can’t be happening, I don’t understand. No. No, no. Why—why after last time? I know he was different, I know he let me go. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand, I don’t believe it. He’s never done it, so why now? It can’t be right. He.

But she had known. She’s known it was him the whole time.

She’d known it as soon as she’d seen Kate dragged backwards through the weeds.

There had only been one Mori she had never seen, and it had been the Wraith’s.

She just hadn’t been able to face it, because it would mean she’d been wrong. It would mean that the Wraith was no different than before, no different from every other monster here, and losing that hope she’d been given. Something so good, the possibilities, the future. The only real hope she’d had since this whole thing started. And losing it like this.

She looked for David, and sensed him, a little way off up and to the left, still running. As she watched, he took a hit from the side and went down.

No.

Claudette stood up and started to run. She hadn’t been wrong, and she knew it. He’d been confused, and he’d hurt them, but he’d taken pity on her—he’d saved her. That had been real. It hadn’t been a lie. It was true. She wouldn’t give up, she couldn’t. She had to get there, she had to stop him. She’d done it before—she had to do it again.

In her desperation she tripped over some mangled tree roots and fell, cutting open her knee. She scrambled back up and tore through the marsh floor, scattering birds, desperately running for the form on the ground she was only yards away from now. She sensed David thrown onto the ground and dragged backwards and as she tore around the corner of the old barge she saw him for real, hands grabbing at the dirt and rocks, trying to struggle against the Wraith as it towered over him, dragging him back by an ankle as blood drained out cuts on his shoulder and side.

“Wait!” she screamed, still running, as fast as she could. It looked up at her, but it didn’t stop. It let go of David’s foot and moved to his side and raised its sickle.

“Please,” Claudette called out, making it the last five feet as the Wraith raised his hand and coming to a stop standing over David and between him and the Wraith, inches from the towering man with her palms up. “Please you don’t want to do this—don’t you remember me?” She was crying. She didn’t realize it until she heard it in her voice and she wondered how long it had been happening.

His sickle arced, no hesitation, and dug deep into her gut, knocking Claudette backwards and to the ground.

Her vision went fuzzy and black and red, and then she heard David yell as the sickle dug into his back and she could see again.

“No!” she screamed, trying to crawl towards him. “Please, please stop! Don’t!” another swing and the blade came down on David again, faster and more ferocious than last time “Please, please I’m begging you, don’t hurt him, he’s my friend, please,” she was crying in earnest now, as the blade came down again, sending some of David’s blood onto her face. She heard him scream.  “We’re friends, you let me go and I gave you a roll of gauze for your head, don’t you remember, please, please stop, can’t you see that you’re killing him?”

The sickle swung down again, and this time David didn’t scream.

The Wraith brought the blade up calmly and flicked the fresh blood off with a fingertip.

On the ground in front of him, Claudette’s shoulders shook as sobs wracked her body. She pulled herself over to David’s lifeless form and buried her head in his shirt.

She was only there in the comfort of still-warm that felt like him and life for a second before fingers wrapped around her ankle and dragged her off of him, throwing her to the ground. She tried to hold on to David, but couldn’t. She looked up at the Wraith over her shoulder as he raised his blade and felt the tears still running down her cheeks, silent now.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered up at him. “I thought you were good.”

He brought the sickle down deep into her back and she screamed and screamed and knew she would never forget what it felt like to be hacked apart.

Chapter Text

 

Claudette pitched forward as she burned into existence by the campfire, suddenly on her feet again. The group in front of her (clearly mid conversation) stopped to turn and face her as she materialized, their faces varying levels of worried and grim.

David left off speaking with Dwight to rush the few steps between him and her and catch her as she stumbled. She fell into his jacket and buried her face there, still shaking.

“Shhh, ’s all right,” he whispered, holding onto her and gently patting her back.

 “David, I’m,” she choked out between the sobs she was trying to keep down, voice barely audible, “I’m so sorry.”

“Not yer fault,” he replied. “Did what ya could.”

She stayed in the coat for a few seconds and then let go of David and looked up at the rest of the group. He kept his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him and thought that he always seemed so strong to her, but right now he looked worried and worn down. On him, that heaviness seemed wrong. Even here. It made her miserable with guilt.

When she turned her attention back to the others, Dwight was waiting, watching her with concern and choked back questions. “Hey,” he said as she looked in his direction. “You gonna be okay?”

Claudette nodded. She followed his nervous look over to the others. Ace and Quentin were sitting by Kate, who was on the ground on her stomach, and using one of the logs by the campfire as an armrest. She gave Claudette a weak smile and a little one-handed wave at the wrist.

Meg and Laurie were between that group and the next, sharing a log—both leaning forward on their knees. Laurie was picking at a piece of wood in her hands, and Meg was looking up at Dwight and Claudette.

Past them, Nea was using the third log as a backrest, knees pulled up to her chest, and staring at the glowing coals in the fire. Jake and Feng were nearby, on opposite ends of the log. They looked over at Claudette as she looked at them, but Nea didn’t.

The fire crackled and everyone thought hard, not wanting to be the first to speak.

“So,” Meg said after about three seconds of the heavy silence hanging in the air, “Wraith.”

Dwight gave her a look.

“Moris?” Meg asked, ignoring him.

“Yeah. He did. I know he did, but…” Claudette said slowly, glancing at David, and then her other two trial mates. “I just…don’t understand it,” she finished, turning back to Meg.

Meg raised an eyebrow.

“I-I do know what I saw before—I’m not crazy,” Claudette hurried to add, “he let me go last time—and I thought—I think—he was sorry, but then this time, it was like he was a completely different person.” She lost a little of her energy and hesitated, the memory of being cut apart still fresh, and begging at every turn to be replayed in her head.

Dwight was watching her intently.

“Well,” Nea commented after a second, not looking up from the fire, “guess we were wrong about him.”

“…Do you think the whole thing was some kind of plan?” Quentin asked hesitantly.

Claudette shook her head. “I don’t—I just—"

“Then what?” asked Laurie, glancing over. “You think he was just in a weird mood? Does anything else even make sense?”

“—It sounded like what happened with Ace and you and me,” Jake cut in, “but worse. Similar though.”

Claudette nodded.

“Like he was glitching before,” Feng added. “That’s what it sounds like.”

“He’s not a robot,” Ace said, giving her a disbelieving look, “that’s a weirder idea. A lot weirder. Pretty sure he can’t glitch.”

“Does it matter?” Kate asked, her soft voice sounding a little more shaky than usual. They looked at her. She crossed her arms over the log and rested her chin on them. “I mean, we know he’s back to killin’ people. Maybe worse than before. Ain’t that kinda all that we need to be carin’ about?”

Dwight looked at Claudette, then Kate, and ran his fingers through his hair. “It would be good to understand as much as possible,” he said slowly, like he was working it out as he went, “but we need to go back to being careful around him. Or people will just keep, uh,” he gestured to the group at large and the recent trial participants, “this.”

“I think—” Claudette stopped and let the words trail off as the others turned to her. “I,” she said, giving it another attempt and suddenly unable. She had known what she wanted to say, but she second thoughts were creeping in as she saw the exhaustion and worry on her friends’ faces.

“What?” David asked.

“The Wraith,” Claudette tried again, “I know, I know what he just did—but I don’t. I don’t believe it. That it’s that simple. Not after what I saw before. You all were there,” she looked at Dwight, and Meg, and Jake, “that first time. I’m not sure we should just—”

“You still want to try.” Nia finally broke her gaze off the glowing embers and looked at Claudette. “You want to try to talk to him. Even after this.” She didn’t sound angry, or  condemning, or anything like that. She just sounded spent.

Claudette gave a hesitant nod.

“Are you crazy?” David asked, turning her to face him. “After waht jus’ happened in that trial?” He saw her expression and grabbed her shoulders. “No, ya know tha’s suicide. Y’ll end up dead, again’n again, ‘n I won’ have that. You hear?”

She felt worse, looking up at into David’s eyes. Hunted, running too long off of adrenaline and false hopes.

Dwight was watching her carefully, trying to calculate something quickly in his head. She caught him watching and bit her lip, suddenly afraid. She looked over at the others—at Nea, and Kate—at Feng, and Laurie, Quentin. Everyone who already had it more than hard enough.

I can’t do this to them. I can’t. I won’t hurt them.

“You know that even if you figured out something eventually, it would probably take a long, long time, and it would suck. Every second of it,” Dwight said, almost like he was thinking aloud.

He’s right. He’s right and I can’t make them do it. This is all wrong. I won’t do it.

“What’s there to learn?” Laurie asked, angry. “Don’t play into what they want!” The outburst surprised Claudette, and when Laurie saw the look on her face she softened her tone a little. “Listen, they’re all monsters. They’re strong, and unstoppable, and they cannot be reasoned with, or changed. They’re…they’re just bad,” her expression was pleading, like she was trying to talk Claudette out of jumping off a roof and this was her last chance.

Claudette looked over at Nea. She had gone back to staring into the fire, her gaze fixed on the coals, unblinking. Feng was watching her, looking concerned and completely unsure what to do about it.

The group went silent again. The whispering of the trees filled the space and a chill came into the air around them, even this close to the campfire.

“Maybe…” Quentin said after a seconds, “Maybe we could…”

“—No,” Claudette cut in, shaking her head. The cold breeze made her realize her face was still wet with tears, so she did her best to try it off with the sleeve of her sweater, feeling suddenly exposed and embarrassed and unsure of herself and all alone in the middle of them. “I’m sorry, you’re right. We’d just keep getting killed like this. Probably not learn anything anyway.” She swallowed, and tried to look more composed.

David looked relieved. Ace nodded. Laurie almost looked happy for a second.

“You sure?” Jake asked, speaking up for the first time. He was watching her thoughtfully.

She nodded again, afraid that if she spoke her voice might give her away.

“Okay. Everybody, just get some rest then,” Dwight said, moving over and putting a hand on Claudette’s shoulder. “It’s been another real bad day for us all. I’m going to get some plants.” He turned to Claudette. “Come with, or do you want rest?”

“I’ll come with you,” she answered, grateful for the excuse to get away from everyone and how she felt and do something useful.

Dwight nodded.

“You need a third?” Quentin asked, standing up.

“No,” Dwight said, waving him off. “We’re good.”

Quentin hesitated, looked at them both, and then sat down slowly. He looked contemplative.

“Okay,” Dwight said, turning back to Claudette, “lead the way.”

 


 

 

I know the forest really well by now. I know it better than Dwight, maybe better than anyone else here does. Well, except for Jake. Sometimes he reminds me of reading about the Rangers in Lord of the Rings, the way he disappears into the forest and always seems to find his way—even here. I think he finds it more peaceful alone in the darkness. I remember kind of thinking that the first time I met him, and watched him fixing a generator opposite me in silence. We were in the woods, and even the birds that always screamed to give me away seemed calm and accepting of his presence. I never forget I’m stuck here, especially in trials, but I think maybe sometimes he does. He’ll go in deeper in the forest around the campfire than I will, and sometimes he’s gone for hours. I usually stay pretty close to the camp. We’ve never been attacked, just wandering around, but it’s still scary out there. Sometimes I’ve heard them—the same Killers we see in the trials. I’ve heard the Nurse shriek, or the Huntress sing. Heard a chainsaw kick on in the distance. I know they’re out there, and I think there are rules about how far we’re supposed to go. I can feel it in my bones every time I look out into the horizon. There are things out there waiting.

A couple of times, I’ve asked Jake to take me with him into the woods. He didn’t want to—I mean he didn’t say it, but he looked at me like I was trying to steal his lunch or something. Probably he just didn’t think I could keep up, which I guess is fair because I never can. Each time he takes me out with him into the woods, I’ll find some really exciting patch of new plants I didn’t expect to see out here in this kind of forest, and every single time I get distracted by it and lose him in the trees. He always comes back for me though—usually hours late, which really scared me the first time. Although, there was one time I waited for a little bit and then thought I should just try to find my way back on my own, and I did—which I was really proud of. When Jake finally got back to the camp himself several hours after I found my way there, he was so relieved to see me he just lay down in the grass for fifteen minutes.

Usually though, it’s several hours of waiting in the dark for Jake to show up, while everything makes spooky forest sounds that were sort of nice before I was all alone. Jake never, ever notices he’s losing me in the woods either. Every time I get him to agree to take me on a hike, I promise myself that this is the time I’m going to really pay attention and not lose him, and every time I do this I still end up alone in the middle of nowhere by a really cool bunch of moss, or sprig of pale flowers, or patch of fascinating brush. Oh—though there was this one time pretty recently where I managed to keep up with Jake for I think a couple of hours. That’s what it felt like it. I was really proud of myself, because he’d been walking fast non-stop through brambles and rocks and I was still right behind him. Anyway, we were way deeper in the woods than I’d ever been before, and we’d been walking in silence for a long time, when Jake glanced over his shoulder, saw me still right there behind him, and almost jumped out of his skin. Th big jerk thought he’d lost me hours ago. I couldn’t believe it. It almost made me think he’s been doing this on purpose. I know that’s silly though, and he wouldn’t do that, but I still like to think I gave him a pretty hard time for that one—called him the mean dad from Hansel and Gretel the whole way back.

Still, Jake does always come back for me after he ditches. Eventually. I’ve always managed to get a lot of plants by the time he does too—so many I keep having to ask him to help me haul them back to camp because it’s more than I can carry. And, after the first time when he whined like a baby the whole walk back, he hasn’t ever given me grief about it. Well, sometimes he’ll give me this big dramatic disbelieving stare when he appears out of nowhere to see me holding out what he says looks like “massive armloads of weeds and junk,” but he still helps me carry them. Of course, that’s probably because after that first trip I finally talked him into helping me carry plants back from, I used the weeds and junk to make hot cakes.  He eats hot cakes like he was a lumberjack.

He’s not the only one who goes into the woods with me though. A lot of the others have once or twice. Still, nobody lives in the woods like Jake does. I think sometimes he’d like it here if it wasn’t for the dying all the time. That must be kind of nice, in a way.

(…)

 


 

 

The wind was picking up as they disappeared further into the woods together, although she knew they wouldn’t go very far. Dwight never did.

The towering trees cast dancing shadows on the grass and pebbles beneath their feet as they went, and the sounds of the forest slowly filled the space between them. The leaves often sounded like whispers here. With it, the noise of the campfire was beginning to fade and be drowned out, though the glow still stood out like a beacon past the shadows. It was never still or completely quiet out here, but it was solitary. And she really appreciated Dwight had thrown her the lifeline. Claudette knew what she had to do, but it scared her. This had all been too hard on everyone, and the guilt made her chest feel heavy. It was her fault that Nea looked like that, that David seemed broken, that Kate was so tired. She’d gotten them all to hope, and then they’d been crushed by it. She’d caused this.  But at the same time, she still believed what she’d seen—she knew something was going on with the Wraith, and she couldn’t just give up on that. He had let her go, and he’d flinched when she’d touched his face, and taken the bandages from when she’d asked him to. He’d tried to be gentle when he picked her up and carried her to the gate. The Wraith had been sorry—she was so sure. Even…Even now. 

But still…the others were right too. They couldn’t just die again and again, trying to talk to the Wraith while believing he was just trying to trick them, hurt them. They might do it, for her, if she asked them to, but it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be the same for them as it was for her. And she wasn’t going to hurt them like that again. So…she was going to have to do it by herself, and Claudette needed to have some time alone in the woods to think.

Well, alone-ish.

Dwight was close behind her, watching the woods. Almost as soon as they were completely out of sight of the fire he put a hand on her shoulder and stopped her. She complied, and turned to face him, a little confused.

“You’re still going to try.”

It wasn’t a question, it was an accusation, and she wasn’t ready for it, so it took her a second to say anything at all.

“I—what? You mean, with the Wraith?” Claudette was not great at lying. “I told you all, no, it’s not worth it.” She tried to boost her skills by not technically saying something untrue.

Dwight let out a sigh. “I get it. You saw him, we didn’t. You really believe you’ve got something there. I’m not gonna stop you.”

Her chest flooded with relief. She hadn’t had a counter-argument ready yet.

“But,” he said, holding up a not-so-fast hand, “I’m not about to let you walk up to him and get hooked or Mori’d again, and again, and again in every single trial.”

“But I—”

“No,” he cut her off, holding the not-so-fast palm out closer to her to stop her. “No buts. It’s not happening. You’re tough when it comes to helping people, but even you can’t handle that much disappointment that many times in a row. You’ll die.” He reconsidered. “Okay, well, no, you won’t. Not really, but you’ll I guess…burn out. And die in an emotional way. And I can’t let you do that, because we need you. So, you can do this, but.

She waited for the condition, it not yet occurring to her to wonder how he was planning to stop her if she didn’t agree.

“I’m going to do it too. We’ll rotate and switch off. Give each other breaks. Maybe every once in a while, we both just live through a trial, no diplomatic attempts. Ok?” He put his hands on his sides reproachfully as he stared her down.

She started crying.

His tough pose broke immediately, and he looked panicked.

“Uh.” Dwight thought desperately, completely blanking on what to do.

Claudette threw herself at him and wrapped her arms around him, pinning him in a hug. He went rigid for a couple seconds, not sure what had happened, and then smiled his half-inch down at her and got one of his pinned arms free at the elbow so he could pat her on the back.

“Thank you,” she whispered, holding tight. “You know you don’t have to do this, right? You’ll get hurt, a lot.”

“Yeah,” Dwight replied, “But I want to know too, and I’m not about to let you kill yourself trying to do everything alone. You know what I always say. ‘you have to succeed--’”

“’—so that I can succeed,’” she finished with him, laughing. Claudette let go of him and looked up, smiling, with tear stains still streaking her face.

“I mean, how bad can it be? I die all the time anyway,” Dwight added.

She laughed and wiped at her face with the arm of her sweater. “You know that saying of yours make you sound kind of selfish, right?” Claudette asked, the kind of near laughter in her voice that only came after you’d been crying hard and someone had thrown you a rope when you really needed it

“That’s the point,” Dwight said, like it was obvious. “You gotta hate your boss a little bit, to drive you to perform. No one would take orders from a nice boss.”

“What?” she asked, moving past him a couple steps towards a patch of dandelions she’d just spotted, the botanist in her taking over automatically. “That’s stupid. Yes they do. I’d work way harder for a nice boss. It’s called loyalty.”

“Really?” he asked, following. “Then why did I go to business school? I learned nothing.”

She laughed again, and he smiled at his friend’s back. Mission accomplished.

“Alright,” he said, kneeling beside her. “So, what are we bringing back today? Oh—oh shoot, I know this one already—those are dandelions!”

“Yeah,” she answered, starting to pick some. “You’re right. The Latin is Taraxacum.”

“Taraxacom,” he said, getting it wrong despite his best efforts. The smile on his face switched out slowly for confusion. “Okay, but why are we getting these? I mean they’re like, little flower weeds, right? You’re saying we can eat this?”

She gave him a look. I’m about to blow your mind, boy. “Yeah,” she was still grinning, almost looking sneaky to Dwight, as if she had a secret. “You can boil it like spinach, or use it as a salad.”

“Huh,” he said thoughtfully.

“Or,” she added, watching his face carefully, “make coffee out of the roots and dandelion wine from the blossoms.”

“Whaaaat-no way! Holy shit?” he asked, “coffee?” He stared at her.

She nodded.

“Alcohol?” he asked.

She nodded again.

“Oh my god,” Dwight said, staring at the weed. “Oh, hell yeah.”

Claudette laughed. It was funny, less than half an hour ago had been one of the worst experiences of her life, and here she was. Happy about dandelions with a friend. She looked over at Dwight, who was greedily going after the flowers.

The funniest things in life can save you, huh?

 


  

(…)

Dwight, on the other hand, almost never goes into the woods. He’ll go if you ask him, or if anyone needs help with something—like he goes with me if I need a hand getting herbs for my medical kit—but we always stay near the edge of the forest. It’s really nice finding plants with him though. Dwight always stays close to me, unlike Mr. Bad Hansel and Gretel. He actually stays really close—like he’s afraid of getting lost out there in the woods alone or something, which is strange because he doesn’t seem as nervous about the sounds and shadows and spooky stuff as I get when I’m out there alone. But anyway, I like going out with him to get plants. I think the big reason for that is that Dwight will ask me about what I’m doing, and why. Just for fun. It’s kind of weird to me, but it’s also nice.

Before I got stuck here, I used to love chatting online about plants. All the people I knew were online friends I met on a botany forum where I would answer questions, and I really loved that. I miss it, too. A lot—not the never hanging out with people in person, the botany stuff. Although I guess both are kind of true. People make me nervous. I always think I’m not going to be good enough, or smart enough to impress them, and they won’t want to keep me around. Botany forums were where that wasn’t a problem, because it was something I was really good at.

I guess here it’s kind of the same, because they can’t get rid of me, and we’re all definitely better off together than alone.

Anyway, Dwight’s kind of the best. I think there’s something about having somebody show genuine interest in what you love and are good at that’s really precious to have in your life. I guess that’s sort of a stupid thing to say and it sounds silly now that I’m looking back and reading it, because it’s so obvious, but I haven’t really thought about it specifically before. I know I miss getting to teach people about how to use plants and take care of them. There is so much, right at anyone’s fingertips, just growing and changing and turning sunlight into new life. You can do so much with it! I’m really grateful that I get to teach some of that again.

Dwight’s a little slow at remembering the names for things but he keeps at it. And even though he basically never knows what I’m talking about, he still asks questions and looks all happy for me when I know what Burdock is and looks like and that you can eat it and that the Latin name is Arctium lappa. It’s goofy, but I like it. In a lot of ways, he’s kind of like a weird dad? Nea told Meg once that we should see if he’ll do the “hi hungry, my name is Dwight” thing if we bait him, but Meg said that’d make him far too powerful and we’d better not.

They’re all big dummies, but I love them.

Anyway, I know I keep just journaling my own stuff instead of advice. I needed to write that last part down, so that if anything happens to me, it stays in the world. I promise the useful advice part is coming up—flip the page over, I’m writing it on the back.  I guarantee what you learn there will be worth the time I made you waste if you read all of this, because we’re going to cover the Dandelion.

 

-Claudette Morel

P.S. If you can, try to find a family out here. There’s something about all the badness in everything here that brings out the best in people. You don’t have to be alone. You already aren’t. No one is. You just need to find them.

Chapter Text

“Hey.”

Nea looked up at Feng.

“Hey yourself,” she replied automatically, like always. Her voice sounded a little hoarse and she coughed and restarted halfway through the “hey”.

Not long after Claudette and Dwight had disappeared into the woods, Kate and David had been dragged right back into a trial, along with Quentin and Jake. Meg had gone running, and Laurie and Ace were both asleep on opposite ends of the campfire across the way from the two of them, and Nea had been drifting in and out, watching the fire.

Feng slid over from on top of the log she sat on to land beside Nea, back up against the log too.

“You doing ok?” Feng asked, glancing at her cautiously from under her bangs.

Nea tried to shake off her slowed reaction time and spacing out and play it cool.  “Yeah, I’ve been Mori’d before. No big deal.”

Feng was quiet for a few seconds. “I don’t know,” she said, looking up at the sky, “I kinda always feel like it sucks, even if it only happened an hour ago. A lot worse than getting hooked.”

The last part was halfway between a question and a statement, inviting Nea to respond, but only if she wanted to.

“Yeah, maybe,” Nea replied, looking at her for real this time. Feng’s deep brown eyes were so different from the bright neons, pinks and blues and purples Nea always chose for tagging. And still, the very first time she’d seen Feng she’d thought they were the prettiest color she’d ever laid eyes on, so dark at first she’d thought they were jet black, but known they weren’t. They were a different color, a new one, somewhere past what she’d thought brown was, one she somehow hadn’t known about before. “How about you?” Nea asked, looking back down at her hands. “It can’t be easy, with the Trapper lately.”

That was unlike her. This was unlike both of them. They never talked about how they were doing, or their feelings under the strain. It was never what she thought would help. She always tried to distract people when she was worried about them—get Claudette to make some food she could compliment her on, talk strategy with Quentin, take self-defense tips from David, trade skill lessons with Feng.  Talking about how you felt, asking someone how they felt, that meant making them remember, and the breaks by the campfire were short enough without brining that shit out of the trials with you.

Of course, maybe it’s just easier. Maybe I’m just a coward when it comes to people, who doesn’t know how to do things right when it comes to them. That’s possible too, Nea considered, flicking a piece of dirt off her torn jeans as she waited for Feng to answer.

“I’m okay,” Feng said in the exact same way Nea had a few seconds away. “I’m used to it.”

Nea looked at her, trying to judge how big the lie was. Feng felt her eyes on her and looked back.  “You sure,” Nea prodded, not sure why, “I mean…I wouldn’t be.”

Feng thought about that, but didn’t say anything. After a few seconds she said simply “It’s shitty.”

Nea waited for her to continue. She did.

“Being here, just all of it.” Feng looked over at her to see what she thought about that.

“Yeah,” Nea agreed, suddenly fighting the urge to laugh. “It’s pretty shit.”

“Yeah,” Feng agreed. They sat there in an awkward silence for a few seconds.

“Does it ever make you want to give up?” Nea asked suddenly. It was a question she’d been wanting to know the answer to for a long time now.

Feng turned her head towards Nea in surprise, and then thought for a few seconds. “…I don’t…really know. What would that even look like? Just standing in a trial, waiting to die? Wouldn’t that be worse—to never make it out?”

Nea nodded, feeling a little relieved. “I think so, yeah.  And you know, sometimes when we all make it out, or even just one of us does, it really pisses those things off. That’s something.”

“True,” Feng replied, following the thread, “I’ve made a lot of hatch escapes while giving someone the finger and it feels really god damn good.”

Nea laughed. Genuine, and deep down.  “Dude, me too. Once I got grabbed because I paused to T-bag.”

Feng grinned. “Gotta live dangerous. That one missed hatch was worth it for all the times you T-bagged and lived.”

They both laughed, and then at almost the same moment they realized that it was something, but it was so small—so insignificant, that petty little piece of vengeance.  In exchange for all the suffering, every single day, and the smiles faded and Nea choked down what had been going to be another bout of laughter. They sobered up painfully together, and by the time the smiles had worn off they were no longer meeting each other’s eyes.

“Do you think he’ll ever stop?” Feng asked after a few seconds, staring into the fire like Nea had been.

She knew Feng meant the Trapper. There was no need to ask.  “Maybe. He’s got to get bored,” Nea suggested, hoping it was true. “Or run out of favor with the Entity when it comes to not sticking us on hooks for it.”

She expected Feng to answer, but the shorter girl didn’t. Nea looked at her again, trying to see why. She couldn’t be sure, this close to the fire and the way it made the light flicker, but she thought Feng’s eyes were glistening a little too much—reflecting too much light back. She swallowed, hard, worry deep down in her stomach, afraid of something she didn’t even understand fully.

“Hey, do you remember how we met?” Nea asked, keeping her eyes on Feng.

Feng blinked and shook her head without looking. “Uh, I think so,” she replied, contradicting her head movement. “I’m pretty sure I was up on a hook.”

“You were,” Nea replied. “Three gens left, against the Doctor.”

Feng nodded, remembering.

Nea looked into Feng’s face, noticing her eyes again, remembering how she’d noticed them the first time too. She kept going, the memory getting stronger as she did.  “You ran and ran and ran, but he finally got you. I didn’t see any of it, but I could hear it. I was pretty close by, in a room on a gen myself. I finished that second one right before he caught you, and slipped off. I had no idea where you were after he picked you up until he hooked you and there you both were, right by the hallway I was hiding in, and I stayed back there crouched behind a cart and prayed he’d go left, and he did.”

“I remember,” Feng said, looking at her hands. She stole a glance at Nea. “I saw you. Everyone else was really far away.  I remember I was thinking ‘God I hope she saves me. I hope she saves me. Please don’t keep walking, please don’t.’”

“How many trials had you been in?” Nea asked. She’d never thought to ask that.

“It was my 27th,” Feng replied automatically. She hadn’t needed to remember, she’d known.

“27. Still pretty fresh,” Nea commented slowly, thinking that over.

“Yeah. Everything still really sucked.” Feng leaned her head back on the log and looked up at the sky.

“You remember I crept out as he walked off and waited until we couldn’t hear him anymore?” Nea asked, watching her.

“Yeah, I remember you took a really long time waiting,” Feng replied.

Yeah, I was distracted looking at you. Trying to figure out how you had eyes a color I’d never seen and looked so determined and mad with a metal stake through your chest. “I did,” Nea laughed, “Sorry.” 

Feng shrugged.

“Do you remember?” Nea continued, leaning forward. “Right after, I tried to patch you up, but instead you took off towards the gen in the room with us, clutching your shoulder. I kept trying to get you to come with me instead, go run off and heal and find a new gen, but you weren’t having it. Kept darting your eyes from me to the gen and giving me the most disapproving and insistent look.”

Feng smiled in spite of herself. “Sorry, that does sound like me. I bet I was pissed at you.”

“You hella were, but it’s cool. Or, it was cool,” Nea said, correcting herself, “I’d never seen someone so set on finishing a gen. So I helped you and we heard him coming and we got it done and ran. And shit you were fast. I thought I was fast, only person who never had trouble keeping up with me before was Meg, but damn if we didn’t book it across the whole stupid hospital, clear to the other side, outside in the snow, breathing hard as we heard him pass. And then, I remember peeking out to see if he was gone-gone, and getting ribbed in the side by you. Turned around to see you gesturing to the big stab wound in your shoulder like that stupid Judge Judy gif of her tapping her wrist watch and slamming her palm on the table, ‘move bitch!’ So insistent, so done with me and my response time, always two seconds behind you.”

Feng laughed, covering her face in dismay that didn’t cut very deep, only a little embarrassed Nea remembered her doing all this after saving her form a hook.  “Oh my god, I remember, and that was definitely how I felt. I was like, ‘What is she doing? We got to GO,’ I’m so sorry.” She was laughing a little more in earnest now.

“So, I mean, I did patch you up of course,” Nea continued as if she hadn’t been interrupted, “and once I did you took off for a gen on your own. Someone else had finished another, so it was the only one left. And I followed you, because like, I guess I wanted to see what would happen.”

“Oh, no, I remember this too,” Feng cut in, “I got to a gen in a hallway and started working and like a second later you tapped me on the shoulder and scared the shit out of me because I hadn’t heard or seen you coming, and I smacked you in the face.”

“Full-strength man, and it hurt so much,” finished Nea. “Looked at me like ‘the fuck are you doing here, bitch?’”

“It’s what I was thinking,” said Feng.

“We finished the gen together, most of the way. We were so close and the Doc was coming and you just wouldn’t quit and I just knew he was going to grab you off the gen or slice you in the back, and he was only like ten feet off, so I stood up dragged you off the gen and got hit in the shoulder body-blocking for you, and led him off to try and give you a chance to finish that last gen. Which you did, of course, about the time he bashed me in the back with that nasty—the hell is it—a mace? Whatever it is.”

Feng shrugged. She didn’t know either. ‘The nasty stick’ was all that was coming up as an answer in her head, and like hell was she gonna say that out loud.

“I got hooked near the gen, and he went running off to try and get people at the doors, and there you were. Hiding not ten feet away. I remember looking down at you, all relieved, and meeting your eyes. And you gave me this apologetic little look and left me.”

Feng made a yikes expression. “Okay, well, in my defense I was never—”

Nea held up a hand. “I remember thinking ‘Oh my god. She’s going to leave me to die. After I saved her ass and took a bullet for her. I just can’t believe it.’ I could see you walking all the way to the exit gates a handful of yards off and opening it. I remember looking to see where everyone else was, hoping someone else would come, and then I heard the Doc coming back to puppyguard me in case anyone was feeling altruistic, and suddenly I was having to fight the stupid spider-tree shit to keep it from impaling me and then there you were, in front of me, lifting me off the hook, taking my hand, and dragging me with you to the exit you’d opened so we’d be sure to make it out.”

Feng smiled at her, meeting her eyes again as she finished. “You looked so done when I slipped in there to go get you. And I totally until just now had not realized you might have thought I was just gonna leave you to die. That makes so much more sense. I was like ‘Wow, she looks pissed. Oh well, better book it.’ I remember that being a good match. I remember everyone making it out.” The smile faded a little, and her expression got farther away.

“The point being,” Nea said, putting her hand on Feng’s knee—trying to get through before she lost her again, “that that was the most insane match I’d ever seen.”

Feng looked up at her, and there was glisten in the firelight again, the too bright eyes, the hesitation, the expression trying to hold itself together.

Nea met her gaze and held it. “It was amazing, because you fought like I hadn’t seen before. Took risks, but played smart, played aggressive. Most of all, you were this weird new kind of person who’d pick working on a generator over patching up the bleeding hole in your shoulder, and bet you could outrun the guy behind you even with a gash in your back and preferring those odds to leaving your gen and letting him kick it back into needing repair, and yet, somehow you were also the kind of person who chose to come back for the chick you didn’t even know who’d pissed you off for the last fifteen minutes and risk dying with her over getting out safe by yourself for sure. And just because you wanted to do it that way.”

Feng looked down, turning a little red. She was used to being praised for her skills in all honesty—it used to happen a whole lot, but she hadn’t expected it here and now and it caught her by surprise. But then…really it was more than that. In truth, she’d stopped feeling like she deserved praise a long time ago. Before she even came into this nightmare. And here it was even worse.

“You’re incredible, Feng,” Nia said, leaning closer, trying to get the other girl to look back up. “I know it’s been shit, and the Trapper won’t give you a break because he knows how good you are and you piss him off, but we’ll figure something out. You’re as fast as me, and a lot smarter. And you aren’t alone. No matter how bad things get, we’ll figure out a way to counter, and we’ll get better too. And someday, we’re getting out of here, together, and you’re going to teach me that game of yours so you can kick my ass at that too.”

Feng put her hand on the one of Nea’s that still rested on her knee and held it, still not looking over at her. When she finally did, there were tracks down her cheeks that caught in the firelight, and her eyes were red.

Nea had never, ever seen her cry out of anything but anger before, and just knowing it had happened made her heart lurch as she feverishly tried to think of what to do.

“Do you really think that?” Feng asked, looking up into her eyes, her voice choked—almost a whisper. “That things will ever get better?”

Shit, do I?  She looked inside and realized in a hollow and sickening way that she didn’t. She really, really didn’t. She hadn’t for a while now. Shit. “Of course,” she lied, squeezing Feng’s hand.

Feng sniffed and then put an arm around Nea’s shoulder and pulled her into a lightning quick hug, letting go after less than second and moving back to her half-foot of space between them and fixing her hair and drying her eyes, regaining control over her emotions.

I’m going to mean it, Nea thought, watching her and feeling the pressure on that had been against her shoulder a second ago fade.  I swear I’ll mean it, I just need to learn how again. Just give me a little time, and I promise I’ll help you. I’m not going to let you do this alone, not even the believing part. There has to be something to believe in left out there. There’s fucking got to be.

Feng stopped in the middle of pinning back her hair for a second and flashed her a quick smile.

There’s fucking got to be.

Chapter Text

Oh, shit…

Quentin Smith looked around himself. Fucking Badham Preschool again. Wonderful.

He felt sick in the pit of his stomach and tried to level out his breathing.

The trial had started him inches from the front doors of this nightmare zone school he couldn’t even really remember.

Come on, don’t think about it; don’t stop moving. You have to go.

A deep breath, a quick glance around, and Quentin slipped inside, heading for downstairs. He didn’t know why he so often ended up down there, so close to the worst place he’d ever been, but he always seemed to. No matter how hard he tried to avoid the building, he ended up here over and over again, among the pipes, by that disgusting old mattress on the floor.

Hollow, quiet footfalls on the stairs were the only sound as he descended the steps to the basement carefully. A generator, there in the corner—he’d been lucky. There wasn’t always one here.

A soft glow he wished he wasn’t aware of caught the corner of his eye as he reached the base of the steps, and Quentin hesitated. He then turned his back on it and took two firm steps towards the generator, then paused again.

You know what’s there, you don’t have to go look. Don’t.

He didn’t. He knelt by the generator and carefully let his fingers begin tinkering in the patterns that were now almost familiar, almost memorized. It was so slow. It took so fucking long to fix a generator. How could it take this long, every time, and still surprise him?

There was no sound aside from the clicks of the gen and the sort of ambient horror that always bounced around the walls down here.

Quentin’s eye twitched and he grimaced, the memories in the back of his head flickering images past him, clawing to be let out. Dead bodies hanging from the pipes, claws through his chest, the heat and steam, the sound of metal nails on metal, sharpening against each other, carving marks on the walls, the bodies.

I fucking hate this place. He kept going. He always kept going.

Maybe that was all he was at this point. Quentin Smith, he just kept going.

“How much longer,” asked something in the back of his head, further in than even the memories he was trying to repress, “how much longer does he keep going?”

Forever, Quentin snapped back at the voice in his head. Or…until it’s safe to stop.

“You can’t run forever,” the voice whispered back, “no one can.”

Quentin’s fingers twitched and he almost caused the gen to backfire. He grimaced again and tried to re-focus. He missed Zoneral.  The generator was close to complete now, and Quentin did his best to ignore the thoughts. Focus on what came next.

Okay, Quentin. Six seconds, and you’re done. Then you’ll have to run. Back up these stairs, or across the pipes and out the back? Can’t get caught here, too close to the basement. I could hide, but running’s better. Haven’t heard the killer yet, so that’s probably not good. At least there hasn’t been singing.

Two seconds left. Quentin stopped. The generator hummed under his fingers. He was going to have to run as soon as he set this off, so…

Flickering yellow light still came through the cracks in the wall behind him. From that tiny hole in the alcove that used to be covered by a drawing. Whispering to him, calling him to come and see. He was painfully aware of the anxiety building in his chest, bigger and louder until he was having trouble breathing. Fingers on metal on metal.

Don’t do it, Quentin. Wake up. You don’t have time to spare. You’re one of four people stuck in this hellhole and you’ve already wasted enough time. It’s not going to help you, it’s not gonna change anything that happened, or anything that happens next. Don’t you do it, you’re better than this.

Quentin’s fingers went to the cross at his neck, still cold even in the heat of the basement.

Fuck it.

He lit the generator and ran for the pipes, vaulting and taking off for the rear stairs in a mad scramble, not once looking back towards the lights and the little hidden room he could still see long after he was gone from the basement.

Outside, the light was bright and sunny and horrible, somehow worse than the fog and decay he remembered here. Quentin didn’t stop running until he was clear of the preschool and halfway across the yard, behind a boulder by a picnic table. His breath came in shallow and ragged as he attempted to quiet it. Looking around, there was still no sign of a killer. No heartbeat radius, no screams from his friends, no bell tolling, and god forbid, no singing.

Where are you, Quentin asked silently, peering out from behind his rock. Where are you, and why hasn’t another generator gone off? I wasn’t exactly fast about it, so…

Flickering light of a deeper orange color off to his left caught his attention and gave him a pretty good idea as to why. His heart sunk a little.

At least it’s not the bastard. Probably.

The glowing thing was a hex totem of some kind—he could never tell what curse they carried, but the human skulls and bones and sticks tied together with string radiating their sickly energy were never a good sign.

Quentin slid over to it, low to the ground and quiet, and began doing his best to rip the thing to shreds as quietly as possible. He hated doing this, because the air around hex totems was thick, like trying to move your finger through water, and the air sunk into your hadns and stung and made you go numb and cold. It made you feel like dreams where your teeth fall out, or like you were sticking your hand into a rotting body on the floor and digging around. It had never hurt him or anything, but it always made him a little queasy. Still, this long and no one screaming, or up on a hook, and still only his one generator lit? It had to mean the Hag and her stupid curses were active, making it almost impossible to get generators finished as the wires coiled away from you of their own accord, and sparked, and dropped bolts.

Well, somebody has to do it.

One last tug and the hex totem in his hands exploded all over him, showering him with tiny bone fragments and pieces of dark mist that landed like ash and melted like snow. Exploded wasn’t a figure of speech either—the sound it let out was like he’d dropped a grenade or set off a handful of cherry bombs.

This time, he did hear a heartbeat. Coming for him fast.

And now to run again.

He did, booking it for several yards and ducking through hedges until eventually slowing to a crawl as he reached a house. The sound of a killer nearby still thudded in his ears, but he could tell he’d gained a little distance. As quietly as he could, Quentin slipped up through a window above him and into the house.

Quentin knew he’d fucked up before his feet hit the ground, but it was too late to stop his momentum. The second his sneakers came in contact with the little triangle carved onto the floor beneath the windowsill, the Hag burst from the ground and dug her claw into his chest.

Quentin flung himself back over the windowsill and out, running as hard and as fast as he could. As he did, two generators went off almost at once. He’d nearly made it to the hedgerow he’d been gunning for before the Hag’s claws dug into his back and he went down.

The pain was sharp and deep, and he was trying so hard to think, think of anything—what to do, where to crawl, how far he could make it before she grabbed him, but he couldn’t. He’d been spent the day he got here, and each trial had been more than the last, until he wasn’t even running on empty anymore he was barely there at all. But this time, not even words came to mind as he tried to think. He tried to do anything besides feel, but feeling was all he could do. Feel terror, feel pain, feel the agony coming from the muscle in his back she’d sliced through, feel the blood oozing out from his chest under him, pooling around him too fast, too much, making him feel sick. The way his body felt cold now, and what that meant, and how tired he was, how fucking tired he was, how scared. And when he did finally put words together in his head to think it was because he heard her sucking his blood off her fingers and swallowing it, and then he was trying not to think about that—not to think about how many times part of him had been eaten by this thing, and trying not to think about how this wasn’t the first time claws had come out of nowhere and raked him across the chest and left him to bleed out, but once he thought about not thinking about that he was suddenly thinking about everything he’d been trying so hard not to think about since day one and it came at him with a rush, cascading, a tidal wave of too much fear and regret and despair to bear and he went numb for a second and didn’t feel anything at all, and then he felt everything all at once.

A strangled noise escaped his throat, somewhere between a cry and a whimper, and he stopped moving, eyes open, completely lost to what was happening around him, unable to stop seeing only things that weren’t there.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, no. No! Stop it! Stop, Quentin! Wake up!

He felt himself lifted off the ground and panic flooded his system like a shot of adrenaline. Motion came back instantly, and he was kicking and screaming, fighting like a cornered animal with everything he had, swinging again and again as something grabbed his wrist, trying feverously to free himself, until he registered his name and snapped out of it mid-swing and realized he was about to punch David in the face again.

Everything came back into focus around him at once and Quentin caught his breath and stopped. He was kneeling, locked in a struggle with his right arm held fast by David and his left arm already drawn back to punch again. Blood dripped from David’s nose as he stared back at Quentin in a mixture of surprise, confusion, and caution.

“Oh shit,” Quentin whispered, the fight immediately going out of him, his drawn back fist falling to his side. He could hear the Hag’s heartbeat radius still close, coming closer fast. “—I’m sorry.”

“’T’s ok,” David whispered back, looking relieved as he stood and pulled Quentin up with him. “Now run,”

They did. Following David as fast as he was able, Quentin did his best to keep up with blood dripping from his back and chest down his legs, filling his shoes. Something loud happened behind them, and the Hag tore off after whatever it had been, missing them in her rush. Quentin didn’t look back, but he heard the sound of her grow fainter until he lost track of it. David didn’t stop running until they reached the side of the preschool again, and he ducked behind a fence and motioned Quentin to join him.

Careful to be quiet now, Quentin did, kneeling beside David so he could patch him up. As the older man tore part of a roll of bandages with his teeth and started to wrap it around the cuts, Quentin looked down at his hand, which was stained bright red from his own blood where he’d been trying to keep pressure on the wounds while running.

I wish I could get numb to this.

He wondered how long it had been, since he first woke up at the campfire and stumbled on a group of other people, all as worn looking as he was, and just as surprised. A couple of months maybe? It was hard to tell the passage of time here. David hadn’t been there then, and not Laurie or Kate either—there had been less of them as a whole. It hadn’t ever really been a question before, but Quentin found himself wondering if they hadn’t been there as long as him, or if it had just taken them longer to be found, or to find someone else. David had showed up maybe a week after he did, when everything was still confusing and awful and fresh. He’d seen him for the first time on a hook, in the Basement. They’d both been on hooks in the Basement.

Quentin looked up at David and winced, watching the purple bruises forming on the right side of his face where he had punched him. David caught him looking and grinned.

“Not bad,” David whispered, barely audible, “you’re tougher than ya look. Pack ah bit of a punch.”

“Sorry,” Quentin whispered back, “I—I think I spaced out or something.”

David nodded. “Was like ya fell asleep n’ didn’t know. Yer probably deprived enough ta, even durin’ a trial.”

Quentin, who had been trying to see past the edge of the school for signs of the Hag, looked back up at David in surprise. “D-Do we have to here? Sleep?”

“Don’t know,” David whispered back, shrugging.

Thinking that over, Quentin let his gaze drift down to his shoes and the blood leaking out of them. No way. We can’t need to. I haven’t slept in what has got to have been months now, right? There’s no way I just…how long has it been?

He looked at David like that might give him some insight into the passage of time, and realized that he hadn’t just hit him—he’d left his nose well and truly broken. Quentin winced and felt an immense amount of guilt wash over him.

Great. Good going, Quentin.

“Is nothin’,” David whispered, noticing as he finished tying the bandages, “I got killed ‘bout an hour ago. This don’t even hurt.”

A cry came from far off to the right, somewhere in the yards by the house. A girl’s voice, so it had to be Kate.

“Guess that means Jake made it out okay,” David observed, trying to draw a silver lining. He offered Quentin a hand, and the two stood up together

“That was Jake drawing fire?” asked Quentin quietly.

David nodded. “While I got ya up. Best not waste time.” He pointed to a generator a ways off to their left, by a parked car. Quentin returned the nod, and the two slipped off towards it together. They’d only gone about two feet before they heard an agonized yell as Kate went up on a hook.

Kate had been hooked closer than they expected, so both of them slid behind a car, listening, trying to pin down the Hag’s location. Quentin winced, thinking about how that felt—being hooked. Feeling guilty, knowing it probably should have been him—would have, if David and Jake hadn’t risked being caught themselves to get him back up.

“I’ll go,” Quentin mouthed, pointing towards Kate’s location from behind the safety of the car. David nodded, but before Quentin had time to get going they heard the sound of the Hag coming their way fast. She was still out of their line of sight, btu the sound of fear she carried with her was growing louder and louder by the second.

Both of them tensed, preparing to flee if they had to, and using the maybe three seconds they were going to have before she’d be in sight and they’d know if she had seen them or was just guessing to plan escape routes in their heads. The moment to choose didn’t come, though. Instead, there was a loud sound from back by the houses again as Kate got free.

Quentin shot David a hopeful look, which he returned with a relieved smile. In seconds the sound of the monster was gone as she raced back towards her escaped prey. Then, after a few seconds went by and no more sounds of injury or frantic running came their way, Quentin and David let out a unified sigh of relief and resumed their crawl towards the generator.

Thank God. Good going, Jake.

They reached the generator and worked in silence, as fast as they could. With the generator hex gone, their odds of making it out of the trial alive were astronomically higher. They had only made it about halfway through repairing the generator when Jake slipped up to join them, grinning. Judging from that expression, he’d probably managed to sneak out right under the Hag’s nose when she went back for them, and Kae must be clear to. He made a “Y’all mind if I…?” gesture at the gen, and they moved out of the way to make room for him.

Quentin smiled back and mouthed a “thank you,” and Jake slid into place, stepping on a trap all three of them had missed in the dense weeds.

The sound of the teleportation trap deafened Quentin as dirt and grass exploded outwards, showering them with her aura of fear, and then there she was, her long fingers catching Jake in the cheek before whirling on Quentin, who stumbled back against a nearby car trying to flee, raking him across the leg. Diving past a pallet, Quentin bought himself a few seconds, and the Hag turned on Jake again. She was impossibly fast, but somehow David was faster, stepping in the way, and taking the hit on his forearm and giving Jake a chance to escape.

Running full-tilt, they scattered, gunning for ledges and windows, hedge rows, fences, cars, anything that could buy them seconds against her. Quentin found himself rushing back towards the preschool again, and he heard David go down with a crash a ways behind him on the street. A second later, to his left inside a house, there was the unmistakable boom as Jake sprung a trap and he heard the shout as his second friend went down.

Shit, shit. Quentin stopped and turned, running back towards where he could see David. If I’m fast maybe I have time to—

He didn’t. The Hag was coming back for David first, and she’d seen him. Quentin skidded to a stop and turned again for the preschool—the fucking preschool he always ended up cornered in somehow—going as fast as he could. The hole in the chain link fence and the many exits beyond were so close, and as he dodged and weaved he could hear her losing ground behind him.

Dashing blindly, Quentin missed the trap just inside the hole in the chain link fence. The Hag was instantly in front of him, her claws digging through his stomach and clean out his back. He felt his breath catch and heart lurch as he tried to stop, but instead his momentum carried him forward, digging the fingers in deeper until her palm caught on his ribcage. Blood trickled from his mouth as he tried to force oxygen back into his lungs, staring into the empty black eyes of the emaciated monster in front of him.

She tore her fingers back out of him and the force flung him to the ground on his back and she stood over him, letting his blood trickled from her claws into her mouth. Her tongue ran over the two rows of fangs and he felt a paralyzing fear ripple across his system, blocking out anything else, afraid even to try to flee.

No. Come on, please, Quentin begged, You can’t stop. Weakly, he rolled over onto his stomach and tried to crawl. You can’t give up. Keep running. He felt his body pitch as it tried to breathe and go into shock at the same time. He’d barely made it six inches before she lifted him up and dragged him the five feet to a nearby hook attached to the preschool and slung him up on it.

Fiery pain shot through his body, and he screamed, somehow finding the strength to grab the hook and struggle with it, to try and take some of the weight off his collar bone in a desperate attempt to feel less pain than what should already have been far too much pain not to kill him. He was vaguely aware of the Hag’s presence, digging her long fingernails into the dirt in front of him, laying a trap, but she was gone by the time he had enough control over the agony in his brain to look. Back on her way to get David and Jake.

Be careful, Kate, he prayed silently. God, please don’t let her get caught.

“Quentin,” came the almost inaudible whisper, as if in response to his prayer.

He looked up and there she was—Kate Denson—crouched maybe six feet away by the corner of the house. It had been a question, the greeting. She knew the Hag would have left traps. Some of the panic in his chest subsided and Quentin pointed to the trap in front of him. Kate carefully skirted it, slid up to the base of the hook, and grabbed him, freeing him from the metal lodged in his chest with one swift motion.

“Meet Jake in the basement,” she whispered as she set him on the ground and shoved him gently towards the preschool, “go!”

Kate booked it towards the house and their other two trapped friends, and Quentin did as she said and stumbled as fast as he could into the preschool, watching carefully for traps. He made it down the stairs and hid in a corner by some metal steam valves and tried not to shiver, doing his best to staunch the flow of blood coming from the hole in his shoulder.

It was about forty seconds before he heard footsteps pounding upstairs and then the thud as someone jumped into the basement from the hole in the floor upstairs. Quentin unsteadily made his way over towards the sound as fast as he could and met Jake halfway.

“Hag?” Quentin whispered. Jake shook his head—clean break. Whatever Kate had done had worked. Quentin nodded and fished around in his pockets for the medical tape and fabric he knew he’d find. Jake took a knee and was silent as Quentin applied pressure and forced closed the angry red wound that cut from just past his left shoulder blade through the front of his ribcage.  It always amazed him how calm Jake was under this kind of pain and pressure. As soon as he finished, Jake took the supplies from him and did the same for Quentin, who bit down on his lip and did his best not to scream in response to the overwhelming pain.

They heard a shout, way off in the distance, and Jake stopped, suddenly looking very grim. She’d caught up to someone. Kate? After a second he kept going, steady but tense.

“We need to be careful,” Jake said, and there was something scary about how level his voice was as his steady hands finished up their work. “Kate got hooked early and I grabbed her when the Hag was off looking for you two. Then, just now, Kate got you free, then me. She managed to get David up before he was hooked, but that’s still three of us already, plus Kate just now.”

It took Quentin a second for the significance of the statement to sink in past the agony in his shoulder, but when it did he felt himself go numb and even the pain in his chest was forgotten for a moment.

He’d forgotten that Ruin wasn’t the worst hex the Hag had to use.

Only a handful of seconds had slipped by since Kate went up on the hook, but they heard the loud clatter of someone being freed coming from where Kate had been hooked, and as they heard it a ripple shot through the air past them. They couldn’t see the curse, but they felt it, heavy in the air as if they were suddenly breathing in smoke. They could feel it sinking in past their skin like tiny droplets of acid.

“Four,” Jake said quietly, securing Quentin’s bandage and standing up. “David have tried to grab Kate while the Hag was close and just missed.”

That was right, there was an area of effect for the curse. And now… Quentin swallowed, looking at Jake. “One more.”

Jake nodded, grim.

“…Shit,” Quentin whispered to himself. Two generators still left, and the next person to be hooked…

“Gotta be careful. We can’t afford to wait the curse off, because next time she gets someone we’re all fucked,” Jake whispered calmly, “but go slow.”

One hit and they were down, no matter how small the scratch. There were different rules and methods to the things that chased them down in the fog. The Hag manipulated curses and used them to destroy her prey and the one burned into them now was nasty. Even a light cut from her fingers would multiply exponentially on contact, tearing through a body part like tissue paper. He’d been hit while under this curse before, and the sensation was hard to forget—it felt like a bolt of lightning ripping through you. But as bad as this one was, it was nothing compared to her final curse. If one more person got saved from a hook when she wasn’t right there it would take effect. Quentin had only seen this happen a handful of times, but it was fucking awful.  He wasn’t sure how or why these things in the mist hunted them for the Lovecraftian abomination in the sky, but whatever sort of deal it had stuck with them, any time the Hag got this curse to take effect it let her eat them.  Any of them she could grab.

That had never happened to Quentin, but he had seen it happen and it terrified him.

Intent on the task ahead, Jake was already partway up the back stairs, motioning Quentin to follow. He did, and the two slipped out the back entrance and to a gen in the yard behind the school. Slow and steady. Following Jake’s lead, Quentin focused on making as little noise as possible, on not missing anything on the repair. They were only there for a couple of seconds before Jake indicated something with his head. Looking up, Quentin could see the Hag in the distance, slowly making her way towards them.

The boys split of, abandoning the generator and slipping back towards the school. Hugging the corners of the building for cover, they crept their way towards the partially repaired generator they’d been working on earlier when the Hag had almost managed to down them all. The sounds of a generator repair well underway alerted them to David’s presence well before either of them saw him.

He greeted them with a nod when they moved to join him, sliding into the same spots they’d been in earlier, though more carefully this time.  His face was serious. He must also have realized that they’d run out of room for error on this trial.

As he began to work opposite David and Jake’s set expressions, Quentin thought how different the two of them were despite his initial impressions of them a couple months back. They were both strong and tough, sure, and that was the first thing people usually noticed, but they were almost polar opposites in how they were tough. David was strong in a loud way—like he was always already halfway to starting a bar fight he was sure to win, while Jake was quiet and set, patient—tough in a way that made you think he had what it took to endure.

There was never any downtime in trials, no off moments to talk or breathe, to do anything people would have thought of as relating to each other, and still at the same time, every trial Quentin was in left him knowing the people around him a little better.

I guess there’s time to think.

It was funny—they thought of the trials as things that happened to them, but that wasn’t really right, was it. They spent so much time in these awful little arenas being hunted, that was the majority of their days. Trials didn’t happen, breaks by the campfire happened. Their whole lives were these awful nightmares on repeat.

The generator was rattling now, close to starting up, and while the sickening energy from before still hung in the air and on his skin, Quentin could feel the curse fading from inside him. It lasted a long time, but they’d made it over half of the way there.

We can do this. Just a little more.

They were close, very close to finishing the generator, when Jake looked up and mouthed “Kate?” to David. David nodded towards the house nearby, which Quentin was willing to bet had a generator in the basement or second story. Jake nodded and slid off in that direction.

Smart. Get a head start on the last one.

Jake disappeared into the house, and a familiar dread set in Quentin’s chest as the generator neared completion. About six seconds and this thing is a beacon and you’re going to have to run. Run where?

Six seconds became two as suddenly their ears picked up th pounding intensity of the Hag’s terror radius moving towards them fast. Looking up, Quentin saw her as she rounded the preschool towards them.

Shit, she must have seen us.

He and David were both up and running as one, gunning for the left side of the house and the long way around. Behind them, the sound of their assailant became overwhelming until she paused and they heard her slashing at the generator, trying to destroy their progress. Good—that bought them a little time to run.

They were so close to each other that neither of them knew who stepped on the trap, but in an instant the lead was lost and there she was in front of them, and they were horribly aware that her curse was still burned into their skin.

Maybe it was that panic that gave them the extra burst of speed, maybe luck, but somehow both boys managed to fling themselves wide as she swung, and her blood-stained claws missed. Adrenaline and panic taking over, they tore off in opposite directions with the half-second lead they had.

Quentin had only gone about fifteen feet before he realized the Hag wasn’t chasing him—she was going after David. He turned to look and froze, caught between the instinct to flee and a desire to help his friend, and then the second to decide was over and David was past the house and disappearing, the Hag close on his heels. Quentin took a step after them and hesitated again, looking from the generator they had almost been able to repair a few yards behind him to where David had vanished seconds ago as he vaulted some shrubs.

Shit.

Three generators down, two to go. Kate and Jake had to be close to done on theirs and Jake would know the one he’d been on with Quentin and David was mostly fixed.

Fuck, fuck—think!

Quentin ran, not for the generator or for David, but for a yellowed chest nearby behind a hunk of concrete, leaping over it and tearing it open.

Come on, come on, come on.

There—perfect. Inside was a small medical kit. He always had a knack for finding them here.

Think it through. There has to be a way out of this.

He wasn’t fast enough to catch up to David and the Hag before she got him, but she was going to be under pressure. Any minute Kate or Jake would light a gen, and there’d only be just one left, and she didn’t want just David—she wanted them all. Two exit gates, one hatch. There had to be a way out, even with the curse.

If I can stress her out enough running around after us, get her to guard the wrong exit maybe. Buy time to get David.

One exit gate right by this gen, the other off by the preschool. It was a straight shoot down the street from one exit to the other, but a long one. The Hag would have to know to come back here though, to the generator they’d almost fixed—she’d seen them on it twice. That was, unless maybe—

Up as fast as he’d stopped for the chest, Quentin abandoned the empty container and his old gen, and ran for the one in the yard by the preschool. His feet dug into the grass as he sprinted, leaving an easy trail to follow while he listened for David’s yell and prayed he wouldn’t hear it. Leaping over a trap and sliding to a stop on his knees, Quentin reached the generator and started on it, hands moving quick and precise—just enough so she’d be able to tell someone had been there, repairing it. Then he took off. He’d seen another unlit generator by the preschool entrance.

Cutting through the school for visibility, Quentin saw another of the Hag’s trap and skirted past it. As he made the exit, he heard an agonized shout as David went down.

Shit, shit, shit! Faster, come on!

Quentin ran. Unlit gen in front of the preschool. This time he saw the trap coming and activated it on purpose.

Come and get me you bitch. Drop him if it’s worth it. You’re running out of time, two gens left.

She didn’t come after him, and the illusion of her vanished after a second. Quentin didn’t wait to see if she’d teleport or not before he began working on the generator—he just went, just kept going.

The heaviness in the air lifted and Quentin felt the old curse melt away, but he knew it didn’t matter. Three seconds on the generator, and David was up on a hook. Not far behind the preschool. The Hag had gotten what she wanted, her final trap set, and she’d be coming for him now. She couldn’t teleport to his side with her trap gone, but activating it had meant she knew where he was.

Quentin was up and running for the preschool when the second to last generator finally went off in the house. Thank God.

He dashed through the open doorway, hearing the sound of the Hag’s terror radius growing as she came for him. He threw himself through the hole in the concrete floor and fell to the ground.

Back again in the basement, back again by the alcove, and the drawings, and the room beyond with its pictures and bed and,

Stop—you have to wake up! Go, move!

He pulled himself to his feet and ran for the stairs, making it up them and out the back of the preschool just as he heard the Hag pass him overhead, closing in on the generator he’d been on seconds ago.

Quentin ran as fast as he could straight for David, tearing past the fence around the preschool and around bushes and trees until stopping short about ten feet from his friend as he came into view and Quentin saw the traps he’d know would be there. They were everywhere—so many of them—completely surrounding David and making it virtually impossible to reach him without tripping one.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

His fingers closed tight around the handle of his med kit as he tried to think a way out of this. There was a scream then, near the house again—Kate. Injured, not down. Thank God the curse wore off—keep running Kate, just long enough for Jake to get the last one. We can still make it. Quentin looked over his shoulder in her direction even though he knew she’d be too far away for him to see her.

“Don’t,” David said, just loud enough to be heard. “Gen left and doors to open. You know what’ll happen.”

At the sound of his voice, Quentin spun back to face him, and their eyes met. David’s were gaunt and hollow, so different from the man who’d been with him just two minutes ago. He’d been okay—he’d seemed okay, at least, and now he looked like. He. He looked dead. Like he’d already given up. Quentin could hear the steady drip as blood oozed from the hole so close to his friend’s heart, the jagged breathing made agonizing as the lung’s contracting and expanding tore it against the hook that was slowly killing him.

“I’m not just going to leave you,” Quentin said, desperate. “If they don’t get the door, then I can find the totem—there’s still time.”

A sound came from his right then, a way back—Jake must have sprung a trap to draw fire. The shout about four seconds later as he got hit confirmed it had worked. Smart, Jake was good at running, and Kate was faster than him on gens.

Back turned, he didn’t realize David was struggling to free himself from the hook until he heard the snap of the Entity arriving. Quentin spun around in time to see its claws surround David, trying to fight past his arms to rip open his chest.

“What are you doing?” Quentin hissed as loud as he dared, a cold fear flooding his system as he realized exactly what David was doing.

“We all kno’ how ‘t works,” David said quietly, the muscles in his arm taught in a losing battle, struggling to keep the Entity’s talons at bay, “Go ‘n I’ll buy the lot of ya some time; try ‘n get me free and I’ll stop strugglin’ the second yeh come close.”

“Are you crazy?” Quentin asked, taking a step towards him and stopping short when he saw the look on David’s face. “David, I can’t just leave you to die,” he whispered, mind blanking as he tried to think of what to do, what to say.

“It’s me, or it’s everyone,” David replied, voice quiet and set. The truth, no room for bargaining or discussion. “So it’s me.”

“So what, we sacrifice you?” Quentin asked, taking another step, “Just give up? That isn’t right!”

David’s expression was a warning now. There wasn’t going to be another step taken without him letting go of the claw aimed at his heart. “Don’t.” His voice was cold, exhausted, almost angry.

It isn’t fair. It’s always like this and it isn’t fair. Not again. I won’t do it!

“David, please,” Quentin begged, “I’ll find the totem—we can still—”

And then, behind him and to his left, the last generator went off. For a moment, Quentin could see the exits light up in his peripherals, offering the promise of escape and safety and hope. But he was looking at David, and he knew it was a lie, and there wasn’t going to be a way out of this for them all. He knew the Hag would be coming, and Jake and Kate were both injured already, and that saving David was impossible, and that none of them were ever going to get out this hell for real, they’d keep on living through this nightmare that reset and repeated on and on relentlessly, so it didn’t really matter if he did, or if he died, or if he left everyone else to die, because it would all just begin again like nothing had mattered.

“Time’s up,” whispered something in his head.

Yeah. It’s been up for a long time.

Quentin launched himself towards David, taking less than a second to close the distance, the Hag’s traps exploding around him as he set them off.

Time didn’t slow for him, and David didn’t hesitate. As the illusionary Hags appeared all around him he saw David let go, saw the talon swing back to tear open his chest, and he knew there was no time and no way he could make it, but with everything he had left Quentin tried.

Please.

The talon missed as Quentin’s momentum tore David free of the hook and threw both of them onto the ground.

Quentin was on his back looking up with the breath knocked out of him when the ripple of energy shot across the sky as the curse he’d activated exploded from the hook above them, cascading across the trees and the buildings and burying itself in their skin. Death on a timer.

He knew what he’d done, and the pain and exhaustion and regret and hurt on David’s face just inches away made him painfully aware. She could kill them all now.

“You can’t run forever, Quentin,” came the voice in his head again, “You know you’ll never make it. You’ll never get out for real. It’s only a matter of time.”

Just fucking watch me.

Struggling to his feet, Quentin grabbed David and pulled him up with him, shouting above the overwhelming panic auras from the six traps he’d sprung.

“Exit’s past the house!”

David looked in the direction he was pointing, and Quentin caught a second of hesitation and a tiny flicker in one of the traps just behind him. The Hag was coming.

Shit—

In one fluid motion, Quentin pushed his med kit into David’s hands and shoved the bigger man towards the house, using the motion as leverage to push himself between David and the trap, taking the hit for him as the Hag materialized and swung.

Long claws cut deep into his right shoulder, and Quentin stumbled a few steps before breaking into a run while behind him the Hag paused to lick blood from her fingers.

Run. Don’t stop running. The far exit—by the preschool. He prayed it would be open.

It was hard to run, bleeding badly, his right shoulder stinging from where he’d been hit, but Quentin did his best to make it to the exit. He could hear the Hag gaining ground behind him, fast.

Cutting through the school, Quentin stumbled over a little table, just barely catching himself on a bookshelf. He flung down a pallet and tore through the hallways, bursting from the far side of the preschool with his lungs burning for air from the strain and his eyes blurry from blood loss as he looked desperately for the way out.

There it was, just 20 feet away. Jake was on it, and the flashing lights above the door let him know it was so close to open.

Hope.

The heartbeat closed in and Quentin vaulted over the fence just a second too slow and felt a burning pain shoot through him as the Hag sliced his back leg open, and he pitched forward, slamming into the ground outside.

He’d been so close.

The Hag was past him in a second then, and on Jake. He made it far enough to be out of Quentin’s line of sight before he went down, but Quentin could hear the scream.

He started to crawl towards the closed door then, no longer sure what was driving him.

Shit, shit, shit. He tried not to think about what was about to happen to Jake, to him. If I can just get close to the door then she might come back for me first and then Jake—maybe someone will have time to—

He was trying, but forming coherent thoughts was getting harder and harder, and then the Hag was on top of him, sharp fingers biting into his arms as she dragged him over, flipping him on his back.  Quentin looked up into her eyes and all he could see was how hungry she was, how rabid, the flecks of blood on her teeth, her thin white bones showing through the stretched skin and scars, her labored breathing as she grinned. He could feel his body getting cold as the blood leaked out of him. Running out of time fast, but not fast enough to die in time. He tried to swallow and couldn’t. Her hollow eyes looked back at him and she opened her mouth.

Then there was a flash and he suddenly Quentin had to squint to see as a bright light caught the Hag in the face, and she let out a loud scream that was almost a hiss, recoiling. Before he had time to process what had happened, Kate was grabbing his arm and dragging him back towards the exit gate, flashlight still leveled.

On his left, David half-carried Jake past them to the exit and Jake flung up the switch for the lock.

“Hurry!” Shouted Jake, using David to keep himself upright.

Kate did, throwing Quentin over her shoulder like he weighed nothing and booking it for the door.

The gates swung open and David dragged Jake inside, hesitating a few steps from safety to wait for the other two.

“Go, go, go!” Jake called, looking past them to the Hag as she made a mad dash into the exit after, screaming in fury.

Kate reached Jake and David and all four ran to the exit just as the hag’s claw sliced deep into Kate’s back, knocking her and Quentin past the barrier and back into the safety of the woods.

For one moment they were stumbling over tree roots in a misty nothingness, and then the wounds on Quentin’s back and leg and chest closed up, and he could breathe again, and all four of them vanished for a second and then came burning back into existence, and Kate and David collided and sent the whole group tumbling out of the nothingness in a heap by the campfire.

There was nothing but the sound of people breathing hard for a second while they all came down from the panic high and registered what had just happened, and then Jake started to laugh. Quentin had never heard him laugh before.

“Holy shit,” Jake managed to choke out, “Kate.”

Kate untangled herself from Quentin and offered him a hand, beaming. He took it and sat up beside her. Beside them, David had propped himself up on one arm, but Jake was still lying on the grass.

“That was…” David didn’t know how to finish. He just looked from Kate to Quentin.

Jake was still laughing. “I thought we were all fucking dead,” he said, putting a hand to his chest, “–Ow. Shit, the wounds are gone but I think that shot of adrenaline is still going.”

David looked at the medkit Quentin had given him and shrugged.

“When did you even get a flashlight?” Jake asked Kate.

“Box in the house,” Kate replied, tucking her knees up to her chest. “I felt bad. I was the one as got hooked first, so—”

“You mean after I accidentally tripped over you and led the Hag right to your hiding place?” asked Jake, still doing his best to choke back the urge to laugh.

“Well, you didn’t know,” Kate defended herself, “And I’m still kinda new at this whole thing, set off a lot of traps tryin’ to get to y’all. I know it’s rough on you.”

“Kate,” Jake said, pausing to take a breath, winded from laughing. “You did good.”

She grinned.

“Thank you,” Quentin added. “You have no idea how much I didn’t want to get eaten.”

“Oh my god,” Jake continued, covering his face with both hands, “Jesus.”

“It looks like somebody had a pretty good trial. You freakin’ weirdos,” said Nea from across the campfire.

Jake gave her a thumbs-up, eyes shut, still refusing to move from his position on the ground.

Nea just shook her head and gave Feng a “can you believe this?” look.

Feeling eyes on him, Quentin turned to look and saw David watching him, his expression hard to read.

Shit. Yeah—he’s probably mad.

Quentin tensed up and David noticed. Slowly, he stood up and walked over, stopping above Quentin and looking down at him.

“David, I’m…” he stopped because he wasn’t sorry, even though that was probably what he was supposed to say. You can be pissed and that’s fine, but I’m right. I know I fucked up, but I’d do it again. And I will, and you can’t stop me. He swallowed and looked up into David’s face. “You better not do that again. It makes it really stressful trying to help you,” Quentin finished.

The bigger man looked down at him for a second, and then very slowly he smiled, put his hand on Quentin’s head, and ruffled his hair.

The response was so unexpected that Quentin just sat there in surprise, taking it.

“Only if ya stop punchin’ me in the face,” David replied, letting go and walking off towards the bonfire.

Quentin turned to watch him, trying to figure out what had just happened.

Nea and Feng had walked over and Nea was leaning over Jake, asking questions and poking him in the shoulder to see how long it would take him to get up, in spite of which it still looked like he had no intention of moving.

Kate was describing some of the events to Feng, overjoyed with the rare complete success, and a few feet away Laurie had woken up from her nap and was leaning on her knees, listening to them. Past her, Ace was still sleeping--good rest, the kind nobody should have been able to get here, but somehow he always did.

David stopped at the fire and warmed his hands, and in the distance, Quentin saw Claudette and Dwight appearing from the woods with their arms full of some yellow plant.

For a few seconds, Quentin just watched them, doing the same thing he always did—thinking about the here and now and the next step, and shutting out everything else. Tense, armed, readied—always planning, always thinking.

And then, slowly, Quentin looked down at his hands, and for the first time since he’d arrived, he allowed himself to think—to really think—about everything he’d been too afraid to face up to. He let himself think about the people back home, about his friends, his dad, Nancy. He thought about how awful all of this was, and how much he fucking hated feeling powerless and trapped, again, and again. Quentin let himself think about death, and pain, and how much he was afraid he was going to be trapped here forever and no one would even know what had happened to him. He wondered if they’d given him a funeral, or if they were still looking, if Nancy went to the library in search of answers and hope like he had, if his dad thought he knew why he was gone or if he sometimes drove the car around at night looking for him. As he turned around and watched the others, Quentin thought about the people here too. He thought about their lives before this, about the family and friends they had to have lost, about their chances of ever making it out, and the people waiting out there somewhere for them, maybe looking, maybe praying they’d come home. He wondered how long this had been going on, and if anyone had ever made it out. If anyone ever would. He thought about how little time they had before they’d be back in a trial, and the way David had looked so hopeless on that hook, and how it had sounded when Jake had laughed, and the way it had made Kate smile.

You’re wrong about me, Quentin thought, fingers tracing the grain of his necklace, homesick and broken and more awake than he’d been in months, I won’t stop running.

Chapter Text

“You seem distracted, Wraith.”

The voice whispered around him, filling the room. He felt the dark presence above him as a heaviness in the air. It had been there the whole time, looking over his shoulder, watching, waiting.

Of course, it was always there. Always around and observing things in a way—prepared, present. But this had been different. He knew this had been some kind of a test.

The ground around him had melted back into the solid comfort of the auto repair garage he always went home to long ago, but he hadn’t moved. He’d been standing there staring at nothing for a long time now, staring at the boards beneath his feet and the grass and the dirt, and thinking, or maybe not thinking, maybe very much not.

The Spirit had been waiting, watching him like he was studying the plank at his feet. When it finally spoke, he didn’t jump, just slowly turned his head towards the sound—he’d been expecting it for awhile.

“Why did she say that?” Philip asked, looking up at the black smoke above him.

There was a second of silence, then the Spirit said “Wraith. You have done well today.”

Philip felt the presence lower, and although he could not see the god itself, the Entity in the sky came closer, and the black smoke thickened.

“These souls you hunt,” it continued, voice smooth and calming, absolutely sure, “they in life obtained all they desired by using others—manipulating others. They found people like you, Philip—naive, good-hearted, a little too trusting, not quite ambitious or proactive enough to cause problems—people who just wanted to live. To have a roof, and food, and sometimes maybe a good drink, some music, something to make all that bleeding and sweating and enduring worthwhile.”

The words hit deep. They were almost his own--he knew he'd thought them before. The Entity was right and the words were hard but true, so Philip looked away.

“They took advantage of simple people, people who didn’t have the ruthlessness or the advantages in life they had to stand on, and built their mansions out of their bodies, their bones, their lost time,” continued the Spirit, and then for just a moment it almost sounded sympathetic. Emotion was rare from the god, and this wasn't emotion, but it was close. Like it was thinking sympathetic. “They were…unjust. And cruel. And in life, no one had the power to stop them. But here?”

If the god had been a human, it would have been gesturing out at the landscape around Philip and he could hear that in its voice, so he looked.

“Here there have no power. No advantage, no assistance, nothing to protect them,” finished the Spirit. “And so, they return to the one thing they had in life to use against those they found weaker, or more stupid, poorer, not ambitious enough.”

“Deceit?” Asked Philip absently. It was more of a statement really. He knew the answer.

“Manipulation,” corrected the Entity.

Philip thought about that for a second, eyes drawn back to the wood at his feet and the dirt, still seeing the memories of the recent trial play out instead. He felt his blade slicing through tendons and muscle, deep into bone. He remembered the girl’s face when she’d begged him to stop, crying, tried to throw herself between him and her friend. Tried to hold his hand at the end.

“But, why?” asked Philip, looking up at the dark cloud around him, “why such an obviously false lie? She could have pleaded innocence, or just asked me for mercy—she could have made promises. Why say she knew me? She would know I could not believe that.”

“Did it make you hesitate?” replied the voice above him, not missing a beat, “Did it make you wonder, and doubt, and think about letting her go?”

Those words bit deep too, and Philip looked away from the Spirit's voice again, feeling ashamed and stupid. Yes. It was right. For whatever reason, her plea had been effective even though it was nonsense.

“Yes, it did," said Philip after a moment of silence, still looking away, "I suppose you are right. I am a fool, and easily manipulated.”

He felt the cool pressure of something he could not see on his shoulder as the fog closed in around him. “Do not take it so to heart, Wraith,” replied the god, “You are simple, but I have seen you become strong. Wavering does not matter if you do not break, and you did not back down.”

Philip nodded slowly, not feeling entirely reassured. He thought again of their faces and their cries and things he couldn’t quite place, feeling sick in the pit of his stomach. He turned back to the cloud around him. “Are these all the same spirits, over and over, or do they simply look the same?”

“They are the same,” replied the voice in the fog, “it is a process, Wraith, your purpose here.”

“Can…” he hesitated, feeling miserable and unsure and unworthy from the hesitation and guilt that clung to him despite knowing he was in the right as reaper, and for his doubt, for everything. He was trying his best, but he always seemed to fail the thing that had saved him. Always made the wrong choice, fell short--so much confusion and fear and he couldn’t even place where all of the emotions were coming from, or why they were so absolutely overwhelming, but after a second he choked them down and did his best to continue, sounding small and lost to his own ears, “…can you explain?”

There was a pause, and then the smoke coiled back a bit and he could feel the Spirit’s eyes on him.  “Why do you suddenly need to know, Philip, when you have not before. Do you still doubt?”

“No,” he said maybe too fast, afraid it wouldn’t believe him. “I…” he trailed off as he felt it reacting to his denial—disapproval, withdrawal, irritation. What are you doing, Philip? Let it go. You… But he knew, deep down. It was more than wanting to know, he needed to. He needed to, or the look on that girl’s face was going to be in the back of his mind forever. Philip felt exhausted and worthless, but he tried again, praying it wouldn’t take offense, I'm sorry, I don't know why, I just... 

“I’m—I just want to understand," Philip said aloud, trying his best to sound level and sure of himself, "What my purpose is for you.”

It seemed to think this over for a few seconds. Philip hadn’t noticed while it was happening, but its presence had grown so thick around him that he couldn’t see anything but the vaguest of outlines of the objects beyond him. It had gotten warmer too, which was odd. The smoke always looked so dark and cold.

Finally, there was a sound almost like a sigh and the voice above and around him spoke again.

“These spirits you chase down, this is their punishment for actions in life. You are their reaper. The punishment they endure is what they have earned, acting against others while alive. You know this already. But there is more. Each time you hook one for me, and they are consumed, they lose a little will to go on.  Eventually, they will give up completely, surrender, and receive their justice.  This process, it burns away their pride, their power-hunger, their maliciousness, everything they rely on for their success, and forces them to accept that they no longer are the rulers. A punishment tailored to fit their acts.”

A lasting punishment, thought Philip, How many times must it take?

Coiling in the air around him and echoing, the Spirit began again, “They often cooperate with others, believing the stories they are told by their fellow spirits in the fog of innocence and goodness, and thinking that, by showing small acts of altruism, they can manipulate their companions here into taking hits for them, dying for them. They still rely on their old strengths.” It paused then, as if reflecting on that. “They all think this of each other, using the same tools and tricks and each thinking they have the others under their thumb. Even in death and in hell, they struggle to rise on the backs of others.”

It was a horrible thought, people like that, using each other in such ways. Even in a place like this? Philip thought back over thousands of interactions he’d seen between the people in the fog, trying to place them into these new categories and make sense of them all. For some reason that was hard. It was difficult to focus, to remember any specifics among the thousands upon thousands of memories of trials. It was all jumbled together, like a repeated nightmare. He realized then that the god had kept speaking, and he’d missed a little, and snapped his attention back to it.

“so they are clever, but even the most proud will eventually fall to death, to the truth, to their own powerlessness in the face of a relentless reaper,” finished the Entity, “and this reaping must be the work of a mortal of the kind wronged by them in life. There are rules to rituals, Wraith, you know that well. Your role is simply one of them.”

Little sparks blinked on and off in the mist, as if it was coming from a great fire, but there was none around. In the silence Philip could tell it was looking at him, waiting.  “And, they all died so young?” he asked finally, “or, do they choose to appear this way?”

That had always bothered him. There were a few older, but mostly they were younger than him—some almost children.

“They appear the age they thought of themselves as the best at once they have passed on to here, so for most that is a very young adult. For a few of them older, for some a variety,” answered the Spirit. It rarely had any emotion attached to its voice, but now it almost sounded miffed. “Have I sufficiently put your fears to rest?”

Shame and guilt flowed into Philip’s chest at the reproach. “Yes, of course. I am sorry.”

“Then do not fail me,” replied the Spirit, back in its level, emotionless voice. “Serve me faithfully and fulfill your goals in life.”

The pressure in Philip's chest ebbed and he felt relieved, if a little ashamed. He'd been thrown so many lifelines by this Spirit, and he still couldn't do his one job right. I should have known better than to demand so many answers. I should have done better. He breathed the smoke in without knowing it, the air was so thick and full of the Entity there was nothing else to breathe, and as he did he felt a weight go off his shoulders, a tension in his his muscles ease. Calm, almost empty, and light. God, so much better, such a relief after the consternation of feeling everything else all at once. That's right. This is right. You should say something--apologize again maybe. Stop standing here like a fool.

"I will. I am sorry to have questioned," Philip said, feeling fuzzy and far away and okay for once. Taking a knee, Philip put a hand to his chest in a bow and closed his eyes.

There was a feeling of pressure, and sound like the wind or maybe the sound a flame makes, and he felt weaker for just a moment. Then he felt the presence around him ease and vanish and he was alone.

He stayed kneeling for a full minute after the Entity was gone, eyes still shut. Finally, he opened them. Calm woods, old garage, wind in the trees. He still didn't move. His closed fingers had caught something hard between his cloak and his chest and trapped it there with the gesture. His clenched fist was still held tight to his rib cage, and the fuzzy feeling remained, clouding his head, but something else was eating away at its edges, fighting for a way in. 

Slowly, Philip tucked his fingers inside the garment and found a small pocket with a little round object inside. He lifted it out and opened his fist in the dim light of the garage to see a tiny roll of gauze.

Chapter Text

Dodge County, Wisconsin. 1982

 

It hadn’t been his fault. He knew that, and yet—and yet in a way it had.  In an awful way that he couldn’t forget about or let go of that was pounding at the back of his head. He had never stopped to look, to wonder, to question. Fuck.

He’d known something bad was happening, god damn it he’d known. He’d known. But he had just wanted to be left alone, and to work quietly. If he’d only been looking, then maybe—maybe so many people could have been saved.

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.

The rage and fear and panic and guilt and hatred were boiling and writhing inside, trying to get out, and it was all too much to control and there wasn’t a single fucking thing he could do about any of it, but he had to do something—anything!

“Fuck!” yelled Philip, slamming his fist into a tree. The impact sent waves of pain down his injured fingers and he stopped and placed his palm on the tree, using it to steady himself.

He hadn’t stopped moving since he’d left the auto yard until now, blindly walking quick, deeper and deeper into the forest. And now what? What? Keep going? Did that even matter? What could possibly be left for him? He was lost. Everything was lost. A migrant worker in a new country, no history, no background. He knew how life was. He wasn’t fucking stupid. He’d just killed a man—killed his white European boss, his Russian boss with mafia ties. And he had killed him. He had done it. He had thrown him into a car crusher and let it compress until it squeezed the life out of him, and now he was holding that man’s skull in his hands, dead eyes and chunks of flesh still intact, the blood dripping from it down his fingertips onto his shoes. He knew how this would look to the cops. He knew what would happen.

It didn’t matter what had been going on in the scrap yard; it didn’t matter how many bodies were in the piles of mangled cars, or what that poor fucking dead kid with his throat cut open still laying there in the grass by the crusher could have said, or what was true.

They would see what they wanted, and they would find bodies in the cars. Maybe all of this would be pinned on him. Probably. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Or do they just send in a new Azarov, a new Ojomo operating the crusher, and nothing fucking changes? Or is it too much of a loss with him gone, do the cops come and I’m… He thought of trials, a sea of unfeeling faces in the jury, of lethal injection. He thought of being beaten to death behind a police car, or in a jail cell, or maybe hunted down here in the woods, dogs and flashlights and pistols leveled. Maybe Azarov’s people would find him first and it would be a knife in the back, or along the throat, or a bullet through his chest, his head, bleeding out slowly, maybe hacked apart, fingers cut out, teeth pulled, a bag over his head and cinder blocks around his ankles and dumped in a river to die cold and alone and blinded, maybe lynched and left hanging from this tree as a warning, or dragged behind a pickup for miles until his skin came off, maybe tied up and thrown in the trunk of a car and left to be compressed into a cube like all the victims who came before him.

The worst part was he was no longer sure what came after—he was afraid not just to die, but to be dead. He’d always tried to live right. Fuck—didn’t I? I thought I did—I thought…

Philip knew he was no kind of great person, but he had done his best—he had tried to do his best, tied to follow the rules of his old gods, of his family, of the teachers back home. When he’d moved here he’d done his best to understand the new rules, and to follow them, to not cause trouble, not cause harm. He tried to be responsible for his choices, to be good to others, just and honorable in his actions. Right? Wasn’t that right?

Everything was closing in on him as the sun set, and he felt cold and heavy and alone, and every shadow was a warning that death was coming, and he’d fucked up in a way you couldn’t come back from. He took a desperate look around—watching for any sign of movement, of danger. It was so hard to tell. He didn’t even know where he was—he’d started walking and hadn’t stopped until he’d hit the tree, and now he was just somewhere in the woods, and everything was dark and isolated and the wind was picking up.

An owl hooted overhead and it sent a chill down his spine. That was an omen, back home. I wasn’t bad—I didn’t know! he thought, panicked, fingers nervously drumming against the bark of the birch tree. I—fuck, I thought I was doing what I could.

He felt sick, imagining the sea of bodies around him in the auto yard. Every day. How—how the fuck did I not notice? The smell alone should have…

But it hadn’t. Or maybe he hadn’t really cared—maybe he hadn’t looked. And now without meaning to he had broken one of the biggest rules of all. So many times. Gods, so many of them…He had killed so many innocent people. He couln’t even really think about it—process that information, do the math of the numbers of cars he’d jotted down on daily logs and translate that to terrified individuals tied and gagged in the trunk of a car. Fuck. Fuck, what have I done? It had to matter to the gods he hadn’t known what he was doing, but would that be enough to save him?

Philip realized suddenly that he used to know the answer to that—as a boy, when he’d really paid attention, back before he’d left home and learned new rules and new gods and moved on, but he’d lost it. He couldn’t remember anymore—he’d abandoned that piece of faith across the ocean, and that thought devastated him and he slid to the ground with his back against the tree and let the skull and spine fall to the ground beside him, covering his head with his bloody hands and unintentionally smearing the evidence against him onto his face.

What now? Where can I go? I—I have no one, I know no one here, how do I fix this? Please gods, anyone, please hear me, please listen—I know I left you long ago but I didn’t forget, please hear me. Fuck, isn’t there something out there to give me a chance to make this right? Isn’t there anything out there at all? Please.

The desperation built in his chest until it was all he could feel and it overwhelmed him. He begged, praying to his gods. Any chance. His seconds had to be numbered, there was nowhere he could think of where he could even just continue to live. There was no place left for him. No options. No way out.

In the distance, from what must have been a highway off to his far left, Philip heard the sound of a police siren, long and high. Coming.

Please forgive me, Philip thought, hopeless, looking up towards the siren as if he could see it through the trees, please accept me back home. I’ll be there soon.

The air was chilled and the sky was black and cold and a second siren joined the first. Slowly, like a man walking to the gallows, Philip reached over and picked up the spine again, then stood. Around him, wind whispered through the birch trees, and he knew his time was up. Alone in the woods, blood on his face and hands, cold, exhausted, waiting for the police, Philip gave in and his despair overwhelmed him.

And that was when the fog had descended around him, and the trees suddenly were thicker and darker and closer together than he’d noticed, and he was on the threshold of somewhere new. Sensing the change, he looked up. The birch under his fingers dissolved into an oak as it grew up and away from him and towards the grey smoke that was everywhere now, little sparks flickering on and off like fireflies. He looked over his shoulder and he could still see the forest full of birch he’d fled the auto yard through behind him.

That was when he’d heard its voice for the first time.

“Philip.”

He went rigid, clenching the blood-soaked spine he was holding like a club, and the hopelessness was replaced by an animal instinct to try to live. It was sooner than he’d expected, but he wasn’t going down without a fight—not without even trying.

“There is no need for that,” the voice came again, bouncing off the trees as if they were in an auditorium, making it impossible to tell where it originated from. “I am here to offer you a chance.”

He’d spun with the voice, trying to find the speaker, spine and skull still raised, and then he’d seen it. Descending from the sky, a huge black cloud, smoky, shadowy, like living ink. Long talons extended from it like some kind of tree, or spider.

Philip stumbled backwards in horror and fear at the impossible thing in the sky, turned, and ran. He moved faster than he’d ever gone before, ducking past trees and beneath limbs almost blindly, tearing through the underbrush, and then suddenly he rounded a large birch and skidded to a stop because there it was again—somehow he’d looped in seconds running in a straight line, and it was right in front of him—this monstrous, gigantic beast in the sky.

Breathing hard, eyes locked on the shape above him, Philip didn’t run—just stepped back this time, the spine and skull raised defensively at his shoulder. His back hit a tree and he stopped, muscles going rigid and cold at the sight of the big dark thing in the dark cloud, something primal deep in his DNA taking hold and paralyzing him. It was the kind of recognition all humans have for things most of them don’t really believe exist, but they have all seen in dreams, a fear and knowledge coded in to them which overrides reason and belief.

The thing in the smoke shifted, and the voice came from it again, “You do not have to fear me.” Its tone was calming and level, and the sound of it made him want to relax which scared him more.

He looked over his shoulder and saw smoke and fog and past that, the familiar lighter evening sky and birch trees of the Wisconsin woods he’d been in.

“I did not come to harm you, Philip Ojomo,” said the thing in the sky, and Philip turned quickly to look at it, shaken by the sound of his own full name. “You called on me. I came to answer.”

Called? Possible answers began suggesting places for themselves as his rushing thoughts did their best to comprehend, and the calming effect of the fog made it past his anxiety and the fear faded a little.

“You do not have to fear me,” came the voice from the darkness above.

“What are you?” Philip asked, staring up at the thing in the smoke and almost unconsciously taking a step back towards the safety of the birch trees. It wasn’t suspicion, or anger, or even fear that accompanied the question. It was wonder.

“You have taken many lives,” the thing above him said softly, “and you have chosen to try to balance the weight of the wrongs on your soul. You have already taken the first step, calling on me for help.”

He couldn’t see anything remotely like a face, but he still somehow knew it was looking at the skull and backbone he was brandishing like a weapon. He hadn’t realized he was still doing that. Philip relaxed his stance just a little.

“I don’t understand,” Philip said, a little afraid that he did understand, and more afraid he would be wrong, “what are you?”

“You prayed to me just now,” it replied. “And I heard you. Even here, so far from home, my power stretches to my people. You have not been abandoned.”

A kind of relief Philip had never known was possible filled him. He was unsure, and confused, and on edge, and afraid, but—but this all should have been impossible, or unlikely, or—and—but still, it was here. Real, unbelievable, and powerful, and…

“You…You came for me?” Philip asked.

Behind him, almost imperceptibly, the opening back to the auto yard grew smaller and the new woods expanded, like a drawstring back being closed inch by inch around him. Philip barely registered it, his attention all focused on the chillingly immense thing in the sky.

“I came because you are strong, and you deserve a chance at what you seek,” the Spirit replied. “You have already killed the man who deceived you, and you wish to undo what has happened. I am here to offer you a chance at your soul.”

Philip blinked, trying to take in so much new information all at once. “I…” he had no idea what to say to a god, and he was thinking too fast to be able to pick a coherent thought out and turn it into words.

He had been so sure he was lost to the old gods here, so far from home, almost no better than a traitor. Abandoned by choice in search of some petty better life and regretting it too late. And yet, here it was—it had come for him when he called and answered his prayer as little as he deserved it—and which one was it—could he ask—should he—was that rude? Wrong? He was so relieved and thankful and terrified he would do something wrong and fuck it all up when he was so close to hope again and that thought petrified him and he choked on words trying so hard to think and put it into speech.

You must say something! Thank it at least!

He tried again, and his voice came out soft and quiet like he was afraid to speak. He’d meant to say Thank You, but what came out was “You actually came...” He had to stop then, because he was afraid for it to hear him choked up and he knew if he continued it would.

The way back to the birch trees was a spec now, a tiny circle the size of a window, but so far back and shrinking still. The tree against his fingers was nothing but oak.

“Of course. I would not abandon you; I would not abandon any of my followers who call on me in faith,” it replied, its voice strong and hollow, cutting through him like a winter wind with no movement, sinking into his bones and making him shudder in spite of himself. He had never, ever seen or felt power like this. The shadows on the ground grew long and the moon was no longer the moon he knew, it had become red somehow in the sky, but as he looked up it flickered and was silver again.

Around them both the mist crept in and the thing in the sky lowered its talons towards him. Philip had to fight the nearly overwhelming urge to run from the massive thing in the sky.

“Now, come, be my reaper, my Wraith. I will take you somewhere new, where the old gods settle scores with those who deserve it, and you will hunt them down like you did Azarov,” said the thing in the sky, its voice passing through him and echoing around the woods.

Philip took a hesitant step forward, forgotten fingers still tightly wrapped around the bloodstained vertebra.

“What,” he hesitated, terrified of the thing that had come to save him, and then made himself take another step forward towards it, “what do I need to do?”

He was directly below it now, and the talons reached down until they were inches from him. Deep obsidian in color, thorny, and with veins of red-orange at the joints, they reflected light like polished steel.

“Give that to me,” said the voice, and somehow Philip could tell again that it was looking at the skull.

Carefully—reverently almost, Philip raised the bones and skull to the waiting unguis. The black nails closed around the trophy like fingertips and drew it upwards, and for a moment Philip was looking up into the cold, dead eyes of Azarov again as it was lifted past him. It brought back the reality of everything he had done, and he turned his head, listening again for the police sirens. Far in the distance, he could just make out a tiny circle of light and trees under a different kind of night sky.

“Take this,” came the god’s voice from above him, and the talons lowered again, unfolding to reveal something like the skull but not.

Philip took it and looked down at the weapon in his hands—and it was a weapon. The skin and eyes there moments ago were gone, and the bones were bleached white. Three wickedly sharp and jagged-edged pieces of metal where burned together into the underside of the skull, making the whole thing some oddly light three-pronged scythe of bone. He looked back up at the Spirit, questioning, but a little hesitant to actually speak in the presence of something so enormous and overpowering.

“I told you,” the voice above him answered the unasked question, “you are to come with me to become my reaper, Philip, my hunter of souls. Is this not what you prayed for? It is your second chance.”

Philip swallowed, and let the blade rest at his side. He looked back up at the thing above him.  Horror and fear were spreading through his veins like poison, but they were steadily losing out to the gratitude he felt and his desperation at this one last second chance. “Then, I will come,” he said, looking up at the coiled darkness in the sky, “and I will do my best to repay what I owe you.”

Circling about him, the black mist and thick smoke tightened like a noose and choked out the view of anything but the living circle above.

“Then kneel,” said the god above him, “and I will claim you.”

He was afraid, but he knelt, head tilted up to watch the creature in the smoke.

Slowly, one of the talons lowered until it was pressed against his chest. Philip breathed in the smoke and tried not to choke on it, tried not to shudder at the sharp onyx which felt as much like steel as it looked, but hotter. He did his best to look up and not at the claw.

“What should I call you?” asked Philip, trying very hard to find of anything to say.

“Spirit, God, Iska if you wish to honor the old ways, it makes no difference,” replied the Iska of onyx and living ink.

Philip gave a small nod, careful to move as little as possible. “Thank you,” he said, eyes still fixed upwards on the powerful spirit, “for coming for me.” He meant that. He really did, and he didn’t realize how much until he’d said it. Everything that had happened in the past two hours was so overwhelming and unreal and impossible that it was hard to process, but the bottom line was that he had been completely out of options and utterly alone, and now he’d been given a miracle.

“I always come when called,” it replied in acknowledgment, voice far more reassuring than something that looked as fearsome as it did should have been able to sound. “Now,” it continued, “steel yourself. This will be painful.”

He complied, taking a breath and half-releasing, then holding it. The long unguis at his chest moved up to just past his collar bone, at the base of his throat. Then, with one quick motion it punctured his throat, nail sinking in deep and coiling so it was hooked against the inside of his collar bone.

The action hurt more than anything Philip had ever experienced, and as his throat was torn open he choked, his body trying desperately to breathe with the object lodged inside it as blood streamed down and over his breast bone. His body hitched and he tried on instinct to reach up for the talon and grab it, but his body wouldn’t respond, and the knowledge that he couldn’t move was more terrifying than the pain.

More of its claws descended from above and two of them rested on his shoulders, one at the center of his chest, and the last over his forehead. He knew if that last one dug in he would be dead. Philip couldn’t breathe at all, but he couldn’t stop his body’s feverous pitching as it tried again and again to make the futile action and fill his lungs with oxygen, each time accomplishing nothing but digging the claw in deeper and sending waves of pain down his chest.

He couldn’t move, or speak, or even shut his eyes. The thing above him said “Don’t worry, this will be over soon,” and the claw resting against his forehead cut through his skin and bone and sunk into his brain.

Philip didn’t lose consciousness. He would have screamed if he had been able to, but he just choked on the claw as waves of agony slammed into him, and then the talon over his chest and the two at his shoulders dug in too, and then for a second he did lose consciousness.

As the nails dug deeper and deeper into him he was vaguely aware that he was moving—being moved. Philip’s feet dangled limply as the Iska lifted him into the air. His eyes tried to focus on something through the fog and the pain and he saw a little ember flicker and die in the fog in front of him.

“Take my power, and serve me” came the voice, hazy in the mist, “become my Wraith.” He felt an odd sensation seeping into him, like nothing he even knew how to begin to describe, and then a shockwave pulsed across his body as if the talons were jumper cables and he suddenly felt like he was burning from the inside, and Philip blacked out.

 

In the days that came after, Philip remembered that first meeting clearly, but he forgot the pain. He forgot the way things had felt when he breathed in the smoke. His recollection became blurred and foggy at the end, and it mostly finished with the talon resting against his throat. He remembered feeling different. Stronger, more powerful. Opening his eyes and seeing the world differently, with heightened senses and a new power to slip in and out of the spirit world at will with the Wailing Bell. He remembered being startled and uneasy the first time it had brought him to what had become his home—the Autohaven garage with the basement, and how it had explained the replications to him. There were instructions which came after, and a first hunt, and he could see those memories all strongly. The first human he’d seen in this place, the first time he’d lifted someone up and watched them be hooked as a sacrifice, the first time he’d swung his blade to bring someone down. Mostly though, what Philip remembered were the moments before the Entity had come, and the hope he had felt when he heard “Iska,” the way he hadn’t been alone.

Thinking over it now, that was still the part he remembered the strongest.

A cold wind was blowing through the birch trees which reminded him very much of Wisconsin. As Philip sat outside the husk of the auto garage, he let his fingers run across his sickle and went back over those memories again and again, slow, steady, hunting for some kind of answer, or explanation. He tried to put together a timeline in his head, from start to finish, but he just kept finding gaps, and haze, and nothing that helped any of this make sense. Taking the little roll of gauze out of his pocket again, Philip opened his fingers and studied it. There were a few drops of blood that had soaked into it where someone injured had handled the roll. Philip wondered if the blood was his.

It was such a little thing, a roll of gauze, wasn’t it?

There’s no way, Philip thought, There just isn’t. She could have seen me take this, or it could be a coincidence. Why would the spirit lie? I only have one job and no matter how many times it saves me I continue, even after reassurance and explanation after explanation, not to do it correctly! This doesn’t mean there is any truth to what she said. I don’t remember it, and how could I forget a thing like that? …Although, I don’t remember it at all. Picking it up, or taking it… Unsettled and confused, Philip drummed his agitated fingers against the wood grain of the garage floor. No amount of concentrated thinking was moving fast enough to make sense of this.

I don’t understand, and I don’t know what to do, Philip thought, feeling frustrated and lost, and deep down just a little afraid that maybe he did, and he let his fingers close tight around the tiny seed of doubt.

Chapter Text

“What’s up, it’s your girl Meg back with a brand-new Welcome to Hell with Meg Thomas. This week, potential romances that could or could not be blooming.”

“Hey!”

Meg Thomas glanced over her shoulder. Jake nodded at her from a few feet away where he was assembling tools in his toolbox.

“Yeah?” she asked, not bothering to stop filming herself on her phone cam, but angling herself so her back was towards Jake so they’d both be in the shot.

“How did you get that thing fixed,” he asked, pausing to wipe his hands free of some grease, “I thought Chainsaw-Boy-Bubba wrecked it.”

Meg nodded. “He sure did, but Feng and Claudette fixed it. It wasn’t broken-broken, just like, he fucked up my battery. Had to clean the phone too. Get blood out of it. But we back now!” she added, making the peace sign into her phone cam.

“Cool,” said Jake, closing the toolbox and standing up, “mind if I join you?”

She waved him over and he sat down next to her.

Meg had been doing this for a while now. A couple of them had had their phones on they got snatched, and while the things were mostly useless in practical ways—no service even to call each other walkie-talkie style; they tended to get really glitchy and unreliable if you tried to do things like play distracting recordings with them during a trial; battery consumption was like, whatever the word for hundred-toupled was if you tried to use flashlight mode, like, the things would die in seconds—but they were still quite capable of taking photos and videos. She hadn’t thought to use to the phone for fun when she got here—she’d really only even held onto it for sentimental reasons. It had pictures of her with her mom, and her dog. She hadn’t been willing to lose that. The first few weeks, Meg would look at the photos all the time. She’d tried to conserve the battery, but it hadn’t lasted, and then she’d kept the husk just in case—just so she technically still had the photos, even if she couldn’t look at them. But then she’d met Claudette, and the two of them and Dwight and then Jake had become a thing—an actual group—and Claudette had suggested she could charge the phone using plants—like ye old potato trick. Which would have worked great if she’d had a charging cord. Meg hadn’t been able to use the phone again until Feng Min had joined the party. They all liked to think of her as their tech guru, a mechanical wizard, the hacker girl, and yeah—she was damn good at that kind of stuff, but much more importantly she’d happened to have a charging cable in her pocket when she got grabbed. That plus Claudette’s savvy had been the ticket.

Meg had had her phone back for a while now, and while that hadn’t helped them in any kind of practical way, she’d realized that it was a big booster for her #1 coping mechanism: memes.

“We live?” asked Jake, adjusting his position in the video frame.

“Yup,” replied Meg. “A big warm welcome to Jake Park, my guest co-host! This is Welcome to Hell with Meg Thomas, episode”: she gave the camera the bird, “and today we are talking about potential romances.”

“Mmm, a tricky subject,” Jake followed up, glancing around the campfire. No one was off at a trial right now, but they were pretty spread out. Laurie was sitting alone over by some trees, Ace was trying to teach a card trick to Dwight, Kate, Quentin, Feng, and David, and closer to the fire Claudette was cooking and Nea was helping her.

“Yeah?” asked Meg.

“Of course,” Jake replied, “You know—we all could die at any time and do regularly. Lot of tension here. Hard to see what a lasting relationship would even be like.”

“But oh those summer nights?” Meg grinned. She flipped the camera so it was recording the others and panned it across the group. The closest two to them were Nea and Claudette, but even they were about 15 feet away. Decently safe verbal distance. “Let’s start with our co-host, Jake. Jake, what are your thoughts on potential romantic options of your own?”

Meg turned the camera to face him and he tried to look thoughtful. “Well, lets see. I wasn’t really expecting to be singled out first.”

“Thought you could dodge it by being on the show, eh?” asked Meg, “Oldest trick in the book. Not on Welcome to Hell with Meg Thomas, baby. Come on, fill us in, Jake: dudes, or chicks?” Meg shook the camera for dramatic effect. “The people want answers!”

“I mean, I have to choose just one?” Jake asked.

Meg put a hand to her heart. “The only truly good answer. You’re so right.”

“In all seriousness,” Jake said, adjusting the camera so it was even on him again, “I think I might have a shot with the Huntress. I’m just saying, she wants me.”

Meg laughed in his face, “I think she’s had you. Jake on a stake, many a time.”

Jake did a pretty good job of trying not to crack a smile. “You’ll see.”

“Really though,” asked Meg, voice mock-serious, “you’d pick her over everyone here—all these kind and noble friends? These drop-dead hotties with great abs?” Meg tapped her own stomach. “Go on, they’re rock solid, see for yourself.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Jake replied, “But, I mean, The Huntress could bench-press me, so.”

“Damn that’s a good point,” Meg said emphatically. She leaned in conspiratorially, “But come on—aren’t you and Nea pretty tight.”

He looked genuinely disturbed by that. “Yeah, in a very much sisterly way. Plus, Nea’s not really flying my colors, if you catch my drift.”

Hearing her name twice in a row, Nea looked up and over at the two of them and squinted. Meg turned the camera so it was aimed at Nea and gave her the peace sign. Nea nodded, said something to Claudette, then jogged over and slid into place between them.

“Hey guys,” Nea said, putting an arm around each and using Jake as a prop to lean on, “you filming Welcome to Hell?”

“Welcome to Hell with Meg Thomas,” corrected Meg, “and hell yeah—get in on it.”

“She’s doing dating this time,” added Jake, “which is a real shame because there’s just not much to work with.”

“Hey!” Meg elbowed him across Nea, which was a little hard to do. “I’ll admit it’s no Scare Cam special, or rap off, but I gotta branch out. Plus, a lot of those take group participation. I’m tired of you all letting me down. Also—speak for yourself, I got plenty of love to give.”

Nea smiled. “Okay, cool then—dating it is. So, in your honest opinions—”

“—Wait,” interrupted Meg, holding up a hand, “I gotta adjust the zoom for three of us.” She did. “Okay, also you didn’t introduce yourself.”

“Oh, yeah, cool—uh, Nea Karlsson,” she said, sort of shrugging, “Repeat guest-star I guess? Serial tagger, medium-hot, the cool one.”

“—It’s why she says ‘cool’ so much,” Jake added.

“—Yeah,” Nea conceded.  “So, I don’t know where you guys are at in this whole thing and if I’m derailing the train of thought, but what do you think are the odds I could get it on with the Huntress?”

Jake gave Meg a “See—see what I mean?” gesture.

“Ew! No!” Meg exclaimed, “all you people are just a bunch’a nasty masochists.”

Nea held up a hand. “Hey, it’s not the hatchets. It’s the big bulging muscles. I want her to bench-press me.”

Jake repeated the “See??” gesture.

“Okay, well, back in the realm of sanity, true love, and living longer,” Meg said, ignoring them both, “I’m thinking the most likely people to hit it off are Laurie and David.”

The other two gave her somewhat perplexed looks.

“What, no nay-sayers?” asked Meg.

“No, I’m intrigued, explain,” Jake replied. Nea nodded.

Meg grinned and flipped the camera to face Laurie. “Okay, well, #1. Laurie and David are both a little older than the rest of us—I mean besides Ace. That alone is a pretty weak foundation to start with, but look at her. She’s a fighter. I’ve seen her with a sharp object, and the girl. means. business.” Meg moved the camera towards David, who was being mercilessly laughed at by Ace for failing to do a card trick for the 14th time. “David is a pretty similar dude. He’s bulky, a big fighter guy, and they both don’t have the sort of goofy-memeing charm thing most of the rest of us have going—”

“—That’s a good point,” cut in Nea. Jake nodded with her.

“Since they’re the only two really capable of being serious,” Meg continued, “it just makes sense that it’s only a matter of time before experienced and rough meets seasoned and tough, and they hit it off.”

Nea uncrossed her legs and tapped the phone to flip the camera back towards them. “Okay,” Nea said, “you might have a point, but counterargument—they’ve met, no sparks. Plus, they’d both be way more stable with a little ray of sunshine balancing out their life than with each other.”

“So, David and Ace,” finished Jake like a done-deal.

“No, jackass,” said Nea, “David and Claudette. Or Quentin. I guess Laurie with the other one.”

“Uh,” Meg pointed the camera back at herself, then flipped it to frame Quentin. “Excuse me—Quentin has a girlfriend back home. And he ain’t no cheat.”

“She does have you there,” agreed Jake.

“Hey!” It was Claudette. She had an armful of plants and was casting them suspicious glances. “You keep saying my name! What are you all doing?”

“Welcome to Hell,” all three replied.

“With Meg Thomas!” added Meg.

“Lord god,” replied Claudette to herself, taking her plants and leaving, “not this again.”

Over by the card game, Ace passed his handful of cards on to Feng and stood up, speed-walking over to the little group. “You kids say ‘Welcome to Hell’?” asked Ace, straightening his suit-jacket collar.

Meg made room on the log and patted it for him to sit. He hopped into place and grinned at the camera.

“What’re we doing today? I hope it’s one of the ‘Who Would Win in a: blank’ ones,” said Ace. Meg really was sort of their only form of entertainment.

“Dating,” said Nea. “You and David—thoughts?”

“I could see it,” replied Ace without hesitation, “I bring a lot of balance and charm to a relationship. Man could use some.”

Jake snickered. Nea looked unconvinced.

“Really?” asked Nea, “But is he your top pic?”

“I mean no,” said Ace, “but I am considerably older than you kids, so,” he sort of shrugged, “guess I’ll keep waiting for a nice, hot middle-aged mom.”

Jake high fived him, expressionless.

“Well, Jake was being dodgy earlier, so who for Jake?” asked Meg. “He and Nea both threw out the Huntress as their pick, so they’re definitely both hiding something.”

“First of all, Huntress,” Ace high-fived Jake and then Nea, “damn attractive woman if it wasn’t for the constant murder. I get it—it’s the muscles.”

 Meg just shook her head.

“But,” Ace conceded, “they do sound like they’re covering. And you betcha I’ll help you get to the bottom of this.” He surveyed both young adults in turn, dramatically thoughtful. “Hmmm. Well, for Jake I’d have to say it’s gotta be Dwight or Claudette, right? Or you. Seem like a slow-burn kinda guy. He’d go for one of his originals.”

Jake’s expression didn’t change. He just eyed Ace.

“For Nea, well,” Ace thought for a second. Meg flipped the camera to the waiting group, then back to Ace, then back to the other survivors again.

“Dude, come on, spill—I gotta find out who I like,” said Nea, leaning forward in anticipation.

“It’s gotta be a girl, right?” asked Ace.

Nea kind of shrugged. “I mean, yeah, if I had one it would have to be. Cough-cough, Huntress, cough-cough. But please, continue.”

Ace scanned the group, checking the possibilities one by one. Meg panned with him, pausing and zooming dramatically on each.

“Let’s see,” Ace continued, “Claudette, Feng, Kate, or Laurie…Oh, shit, or Meg,” he added, and Meg flipped the camera for a dramatic shocked frame of herself.

“Dude, am I?” asked Meg, turning the camera to look at Nea. Nea smiled and shook her head at Meg. “It’s cool, tell me later, off the record—better that way,” Meg stage whispered. “Oh, shit, but is it me for you too Jake? Damn, I don’t want to be the love triangle that tears your two apart.”

“Don’t worry,” Nea said, putting an arm around Jake, “if we found out that was how it was we’d just both ditch you platonically for each other. No offense.” Jake gave Meg an apologetic gesture.

Meg nodded. “Bros before hoes. I respect.”

“I’m thinking it’s got to not be Laurie, because you’re too scared of her,” said Ace, still on his original track.

“Wait, isn’t that a double-standard since she said Huntress,” asked Jake.

“No—completely different situation. Ace is right,” confirmed Nea. “Please, continue.”

“You haven’t’ known Kate that long,” Ace continued, “so it seems a little early for that, which means I’m thinking it has to be Feng, Claudette, or Meg, right?”

“Hey!” called Feng from over by the circle of card players, “why do you guys keep filming us! Wait, are you doing Welcome to Hell with Meg Thomas?”

“Finally,” Meg said, gesturing to Feng, “Someone gets the name right!” She turned back to Feng. “You bet! Come on over—group discussion.”

“No, don’t,” called Nea, holding up a hand to stop her. She turned to Meg. “If everyone comes over here to join the party, who are we supposed to talk about?”

Meg gave her a disapproving look. “This is a group effort. There are no secrets here.” She waved Feng to come join them.

“There’s nothing but secrets here,” said Jake, “but she might as well come.”

“So, do I go or stay—I’m getting contradictory hand gestures,” called Feng from where she still stood by the card game.

The mixed messages of Meg’s “Come!”; Nea’s “Stay there!” and Ace’s “Bring Quentin!” came back to her at the same time.

“Bring Quentin?” asked Meg.

“He’s a neutral party,” explained Ace, “Quentin’s got that girlfriend back home, so he’s the only truly fair person to have ask the rest of us questions.”

Meg nodded and turned back to Feng. “Yeah, bring Quentin!”

Quentin looked up at Feng with a pretty clear please don’t look on his face, but she grabbed his arm and tugged him to his feet anyway.

Welcome to Hell with Meg Thomas had just started as Meg screwing around with her camera, but it had sort of caught on. I mean, it wasn’t like she had a lot of competition in the entertainment industry right now. It was dumb, and always excruciatingly poorly planned—question segments almost never got answers, attempts to spark impromptu competitions were often unsuccessful or half-assed—but it was a distraction. That was why Meg had started doing it. At first, she’d just been making little videos for herself, trying to be funny and dumb to cheer up—deleting them after a few viewings so she could have storage space for new ones, and then once she’d been in a trial that had been going just awfully, right from the outset. Somehow, she hadn’t heard the Doctor coming—of all people—and been snatched off a gen only about 40 seconds in and thrown up on a hook without even giving a decent chase and buying the others some time. Bleeding out of her shoulder and hanging there, aura blind and dismally hallucinating the Doc all around, she’d taken her phone out of her pocket, panned it across the nasty torture ward, turned it face herself and said “Yeah, so welcome to hell with Meg Thomas.” Claudette, who’d been hiding about five feet away coming to the rescue, had lost her shit in spite of the need to keep quiet.

That part had sucked, because the Doc had been on her tunneled ass the whole rest of the stupid trial, but she hadn’t heard Claudette—or anyone for that matter—laugh that much in, hell, who knows how long—since she got to this place. So, Meg had kept that recording and she’d decided to turn her private coping mechanism into a public service. She knew a couple of them thought it was dumb, or a waste of time, but overall it was pretty popular, and she’d even gotten Laurie to laugh once, so it was a well worth it use of effort.

 

“Uh, Quentin Smith. Apparently temporary hosting,” said Quentin into the phone cam. Feng had slid into place on the ground between Meg and Nea, David was crouched behind Ace, Kate beside him, Dwight was on the ground by Jake, and Meg had had Quentin move over to on the ground in the middle of them for proper phone-cam framing. Well, more like as-good-as-it-gets phone-cam framing.

“Okay, so, Quentin, thoughts on Claudette’s love life?” asked Meg.

Quentin looked over in Claudette’s direction. She was sending them all suspicious glances. A little further off, Laurie was ignoring them completely.

“What?” called Claudette.

Jake cupped his hands around his mouth. “Come join us!”

She shook her head and called back. “No way! Last time I did Welcome to Hell—”

“—with Meg Thomas,” added Meg under her breath.

“—I got made fun of for a week.” Claudette shook her head. “It’s always a trap.”

“I’m sorry, it’s so easy to make you blush with dick jokes—I promise to softball you this time!” Meg called back. “Look, I’m not even hosting, Quentin is! He’s actually nice.”

Quentin shot her a sympathetic look.

“Come on,” coaxed Dwight, “team building exercise. If you can convince Laurie to come, we’ll have everyone.”

Claudette shook her head.

“Okay, forget her,” said Meg. “Laurie, Laurie!”

Hearing her name chanted, Laurie looked over, surveyed the group, and turned her back on them again. Meg kept chanting. A couple of the others joined her.

“Okay, if I go will you leave Laurie alone?” asked Claudette.

Meg glanced around for consensus. Ace nodded. “Yup,” called Meg. “Red rover, red rover, send Claudette right over!”

Claudette walked over and sat by Jake and Dwight with a sigh. “I already regret this.”

“So,” Meg asked, “Claudette, how’s your love life.”

“Uh-uh,” replied Claudette, folding her arms. “You said softball, and that Quentin was host. Quentin, ask someone else.”

He sighed. “Okay. Anyone want to volunteer?”

Feng raised her hand.

“Yeah?” asked Quentin.

Feng lowered her hand. “Thoughts on the Huntress?”

Everyone else’s hands went up.

Chapter Text

Philip Ojomo. Entry 14,597.

I have decided to try and speak to the small girl who claims to have given me the roll of gauze. I don’t know what is going on, but I need to find out.

Unfortunately, this has not been going well. Everyone runs from me when I try to speak. The few first times I was in a trial, I spent a lot of it looking for the girl. She wasn’t there. It was other people I know—the boy who wears a cross, the girl with long blonde hair, the red haired girl, and the one who stabs me when I pick her up. The next time I got the red haired girl again, along with the one who breaks hooks, the man who dodges well, and the older man. After I realized she wasn’t there, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I went through the motions. I was afraid if I did nothing it would draw attention, so I threw people up on hooks, but made sure to be in the wrong place at the wrong time so they could all get out.  Maybe that was stupid. I don’t know what I’m doing or why right now, but I’m afraid to do anything too extreme one way or another because I may be wrong.

Hell, what am I doing?

I don’t know. After a few trials I thought maybe I would try to speak to a different one. I tried the red haired girl—cornered her in a room with no exits at that terrible plant with all the torture rooms and corpses—the bathroom there. I lowered my blade and tried to block the door, but the second I wasn’t poised to hit her she ducked between my legs too fast for me to grab her and ran. I spent most of the trial chasing her and trying to get her to speak with me. I failed miserably, although it seems to have boosted her ego. She started to run around taunting me every time I stopped to try and get her to talk. I have not ever heard her talk, but I think she must be American, because I recognized not only the middle finger but at least three other hand gestures from my time there.

It’s funny, I almost enjoyed that. I don’t think any of them have been comfortable enough in their survival in a long time to taunt me, and that kind of petty competitiveness was like being home. Games at school, or in the streets after work. Friendly hate.

Still. The end result is that I don’t think I can get them to trust me, or to speak to me.

I can understand that. I’ve killed them all so many times, I guess it is foolish to expect anything but that they would run from me unless they have no other option. Maybe I should try downing one and making them talk to me when they can’t flee? Although, I’m sure that won’t make them want to tell me the truth. Or to believe me.

I cornered the boy who sabotages three times as well, and he also ran from me before I had a chance to do anything, even though I did not attack him. He gave me a funny look the last time. Maybe that is some kind of progress.

The Spirit is getting agitated by my lack of success. I know it does not usually pay great attention to trials, but the last one, I felt it watching us intently. I improved my performance and killed two of them on hooks—the girl who stabs me and the girl who is so quick on generators, and I think that satisfied it. It will only hurt my standing with the humans here though.

Gods, what am I doing?

I need to think, and I have time—I have nothing but time—but it doesn’t matter. I go over the same points over and over and find no answers. I have to find someone who will talk to me. There has to be a way.

Shit. I have not thought about it in such a long time, but I am very alone here, aren’t I? I always thought of myself and the Iska as…I don't know, a sort of team. And I know there are others like me here, in the woods, but. Now? There is no one for me to go to. I have to find a way on my own. I feel like I am losing my mind. Over something so little as a roll of gauze. Why does that matter so much?

This is stupid, I’m getting nowhere. I will try again, a few more trials. If I can’t find her, I will have to try something different. And I have one idea.

I don’t know who to believe. I don’t know what is true. But if I am wrong, if I have been this whole time, and the people here are just…people, how much more alone must they be? If there’s a god out there listening, I would pray for us both. But somehow, I feel that there is nothing to hear us.

Chapter Text

It was October.

It was always October in Haddonfield, and it always would be.

Laurie breathed in the Halloween air and exhaled slowly, tasting the cold, but not really, feeling the chill, but not truly.

Michael.

Again.

It wasn’t always Haddonfield. It had been lots of places over the years. Auto yards, swamps, streets, decrepit houses, barns, mental wards, farms, forests, the meat packing plant, the preschool. But they always came back to Haddonfield eventually, him and her. Maybe he burned offerings to come here. Tonight, she’d been the one to do that. She hadn’t known the killer would be him, but she’d had a feeling, and she’d been right. She usually was—she could sense him looking her way; she knew he could sense her too.

Last time she had appeared in Haddonfield, she’d found the keys the old house where they always were, under the mat, and she’d taken them. She hadn’t known why. And then, tonight, she’d thrown them into the fire and burned them as an offering, and she hadn’t known why then either, but now she did know.

Somewhere out here in the mist, Quentin, Jake, and Claudette were working on generators. Fighting, struggling, doing what they could to minimize the damage and live a little longer. Sometimes, in trials when they were downed, Laurie and the others would crawl away from the killer who had hit them as the monster paused to step over a windowsill, or break a pallet, or wipe blood from their knife. They never got far, though. It never mattered. But they did it just the same, struggling to live a little longer. Struggle to struggle a little longer. That’s all any of this was.

The air was a little darker than usual tonight. He was going to kill them himself tonight, not offer them up—she could tell. They could often tell when a Killer had raised the stakes—if they had time to catch the way the smoke looked different as they appeared.  It wasn’t a sure thing, though. Not for most of them. But Laurie could always tell with Michael.  He was going to kill, not offer up. Who knew how many of them—1, 4? It wouldn’t be none of them. No matter what else happened.

Laurie saw him then—Michael—just as he moved past a hedge row and paused to scan the terrain with his slow, unrelenting focus. She ducked behind the little concrete wall and prayed it had been in time. He turned to look at her concrete wall and stared. Not walking towards her, not looking away. He shifted his body to face her.

Damn it. Laurie felt the panic racing through her, trying to tell her to run and to hide at the same time. She didn’t run, she held her breath and stayed down.

Again? Again? How many times have you killed me, and you’re still not satisfied?

Michael took a step towards her, then another, kitchen knife raised. Behind him, a generator barely in their line of sight sparked and misfired as someone screwed something up. He paused. Her brother tilted his head, eyes fixed on the concrete, then he turned towards the generator and started to walk.

She should have felt relief at that, but she didn’t.

It isn’t fair.  She didn’t even know—she had never known—why he wanted to kill her. She hadn’t done anything to him, and still, methodically, like it was the only goal he had ever known, he came after her again and again with that kitchen knife, in a thousand different ways and places, new version after version of events, but it always stayed the same at heart—always him, always her. She would try to fight him, stab him, sometimes beat him for a handful of time, and then he’d kill her—always, eventually. There was no winning.

But there’s not for you either, is there? Laurie whispered under her breath.

Laurie Strode was tired. A long time ago, forced to choose who she was in the middle of her dead friends and with two children in her care, Laurie had chosen to be a fighter. And she had been. Laurie Strode had fought like hell. She had fought long, and hard—longer than anyone could possibly have thought a human being could last. But it had been a long time since that night in the real Haddonfield. It had been such a long time…

Laurie Strode had been fighting since 1978. She didn’t know it, but she had been fighting for forty years. Again, and again, and again everything had happened. People came, people went. People died. She died. She suffered. She tried to get out, and she failed. She was always running, always afraid. Sometimes she slept, and when she slept she dreamed about dying, or worse, she dreamed about being home with her parents and friends and she had to wake up. She had to lose the dream and remember her friends were dead, and that the normal life with chemistry textbooks was a lie and the nightmare was real. Laurie hated good dreams. It was too hard to say goodbye to them. Everything had been too hard for a long time, and still, somehow, she had gone on. She had kept fighting, kept running, kept struggling, kept going. Forty years of deaths, of wounds, of being alone and waking up from dreams where she had thought she remembered how it felt to be okay.

The truth was, after forty years, Laurie had nothing left to live for.

 Why? Laurie asked herself. Why do I keep trying? To escape? To live just long enough to die again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next? To win? To spite him? I don’t want to win anymore, or to spite him—I don’t even want to live anymore. I just want it to be over.

God, please,” she whispered, knowing after years of praying that there was no one listening, “let it be over.”

Michael was going to be gone in a second. She had a chance to run—to go work on a generator, to get out and go back to the fire, back to the other survivors, and be alone there awhile and then come back here to generators and Killers and stab wounds and sacrifices. She might be able to make it this time—she’d brought a nice tool box. Laurie looked down at the little box with purple trim she had so carefully collected and felt more sad than she had thought she still knew how to.

“Wait!”

Michael stopped, and turned.

Laurie was standing by the time he’d turned, the little concrete wall and several yards between them. She set her toolbox on the ground and stepped around the wall as he watched her.

He started to walk towards her then, slow and sure, like a force of nature: in no hurry, because nothing in this world could stop him.

“Listen to me!” Laurie shouted, leveling the little piece of glass she’d brought with her at him like a knife.

He didn’t stop. He didn’t speed up. He just kept coming.

“Michael!”

He did stop then.

Laurie hadn’t ever called him that. There had never been a reason to. She had known. It had taken a long time for her to remember, but here in the fog she had. Remembered who he was, and who she was. How had she ever forgotten? Her brother. Her older brother. But what would have been the point of speaking it out loud? It wouldn’t have changed anything. It only hurt to remember at all. Michael must have been so young the last time she’d really seen him, but she’d been younger. Smaller. She remembered looking up at him and him looking back and thinking he was smart and strong. He used to seem so big, and a long time ago that meant something so different to her than it did now.

Why do you want to kill me, Michael? You need to like you need it to breathe. Why? What did I ever do to you? This feeling…sad—she was sad again. Why? It wouldn’t help anything. There were too many regrets to count. None of them could be changed.

Her brother tilted his head to look at her for a moment, then started walking slowly towards her again.

“How long have we been doing this, Michael?” Laurie asked, taking a step towards him. Her voice was strained, cracked, ragged. “How many times have you killed me?”

He paused again, listening, knife still raised and ready.

“Go on,” Laurie said, taking another step towards him and extending her arms to the side, making herself a clear target. “Go on, forever—because you can kill me, you can kill all of us again, and again, and again, and it’s never going to be enough for you, is it?!” The desperation she felt was starting to seep into her voice and make her sound frantic.

Her brother was still watching her, no motion now aside from a slow tracking of her movements with his eyes. The steady up and down of his chest from his breathing.

“I might be trapped in here with you,” said Laurie, moving a little nearer, “but you’re also trapped in here with me. And nothing—nothing you can ever do will change that. You’re going to be stuck in this fucking loop with me forever, killing us all again and again but never for real. Going through the motions without it ever meaning anything!”

His head moved with her and he took a few slow steps, pausing again after a second  when she kept coming, until she finally stopped about fifteen feet away.

“You keep burning offerings, earning kills or whatever you do for the thing up in the sky that bosses you around, but it’s not enough. I know it isn’t. That’s why you keep doing it more and more, because you’re trying to satisfy a hunger you can’t beat,” her voice caught in her throat and she kept going, tears running down the sides of her face, “You hate it here. I know it—because you’ll never be free. I don’t know why you…why you hate me—”

He wasn’t moving towards her at all now. Just breathing, just watching her cry. Watching and listening.

“I don’t know why you want so much to kill me, Michael, I don’t know what makes you hate me,” Laurie was crying in earnest now, fighting to talk through it. “I just remember being friends with you when we were little.”

She hesitated then, hoping for just a moment he might say something, or do something. It didn’t even matter what. But he didn’t.

Laurie swallowed back the bitter-sick despair that silence made her feel and kept going. “I know you’ll never change,” she said softly. Her voice was quieter now—almost sentimental, full of regret and memories. “That’s okay,” she continued, “that’s okay.”

He took a step forward then, and then another. Maybe he’s made up his mind he’s done listening, Laurie thought absently. She didn’t try to run. She just looked up at him.

“Whatever it is in your head that makes you need to kill, it’s been eating away at you for years now, like hoping to live has been hurting me. Because the little pieces of that we both get aren’t enough.” She found his eyes underneath the mask and met them. “Aren’t you tired, Michael? Don’t you want it to be over?”

He kept coming. Slowly—much slower than usual. Only about nine feet between them now.

“Go ahead if you want. Kill me,” Laurie said quietly, fighting to find his eyes again under the shadow of the mask, “Kill me today, and tomorrow, and the next, and the next, forever. Keep on suffering with me. You’ll never be at peace. I can’t ever really escape, but you can’t ever really kill me. We’re both trapped. So go on. How many more will it take Michael? How many times before you’re satisfied?”

She took another step towards him then and he stopped. Seven feet.

“Or,” Laurie said, “Or we could end this?” There was almost hope in her voice. “We could end it for both of us, I think. Give up with me.”

He was so still it was like he wasn’t a living being. For a second she couldn’t even hear him breathe.

“I can feel it,” Laurie said quietly, looking up at the sky above them, at the breeze shifting past the shutters on houses and the leaves in the trees. “One last time Michael. This time for real. Let’s end it and go home. Both of us, together. Please.” The last word was a whisper. “Let’s end this story. You and me together, just this one time. Kill me and give up. We won’t have to wake up this time. I know it. I think you know it too.”

She could feel it in the air, in her soul. She was almost used up. The last embers of a dying fire, nothing but a pilot light. She was so, so close.

“It could be over,” she said, her voice a plea, quiet and gentle and desperate, “it could be over for both of us. Brother and sister?”

She swallowed, silent tears still trailing down her face. Michael slowly took a step towards her, then another. Five feet.

I was right, Laurie realized as he got close, you’re tired too. As gone as I am. I wish things could have been different. I wish I could have understood you. I wish you weren’t a monster; I wish we weren’t alone. I wish you were like a brother.

“Laurie!” She recognized the sound immediately—Quentin’s voice. “Stop—what are you doing!”

He already had to know what she was doing. She’d been shouting enough of it.

“Stay out of it, Quentin,” Laurie said, keeping her gaze fixed on Michael, not even looking to see where the younger teen was.

“No!”

She saw him then. His voice was desperate too, but a different kind of desperate than hers had been. You still hope; you still believe in things, Quentin, don’t you? He must have gotten close carefully, but he wasn’t being careful now—just running, trying to get to her fast. She wondered if he’d been the one on the generator. Out of breath. She wondered how far he’d run.

Michael didn’t walk, just turned his head towards Quentin as he came, head moving with Quentin’s motion as he reached her side.

“Come on!” Quentin said, grabbing her arm and trying to get her to go with him.

“Let go of me,” Laurie said firmly, eyes still on her brother as Quentin tried to pull her away and she did her best to shake him off.

“No!” Quentin argued, trying to make her look at him, “Laurie—Laurie stop! I’m not just going to let you give up!”

“You don’t get to decide what I do with my life,” Lauri snapped, finally looking at him. His face was panicked.

“You’ll die!” Quentin begged.

They both felt Michael moving then, and Quentin hurriedly put himself between the two of them as her brother’s long shadow suddenly loomed across them.

“That’s what I want,” Laurie said, trying to shove Quentin back out of the way. He kept shifting himself in front of her again, arms out like a little wall and facing Michael now, not her. “Quentin! Stop! You don’t understand—I’m done, I can’t keep doing this—”

“I’m not going to just let you die!” he snapped back over his shoulder.

“Why? So that I can die again and again tomorrow?” Laurie kept trying to move him to the side, but he was stronger than he looked. She was getting mad, desperate.

“We can find a way out!” Quentin said, turning his head to look at her.

She shook her head, angry. “There is no way out, Quentin! Now get out of my way!”

Shoving him hard, Laurie caught Quentin off balance and he stumbled forward into Michael’s chest. Laurie put her hand to her mouth in horror as her brother reached down, grabbed the smaller boy by his throat, and lifted him into the air.

“Michael, wait!” Laurie shouted, “stop!”

“Don’t,” Quentin managed through the choke hold, but he wasn’t looking at Michael, he was looking at her. Then the kitchen knife dug into his chest, and again even deeper, and Quentin stopped moving. Michael tossed his lifeless body aside and it rolled to a stop by Laurie’s feet.

She looked down at Quentin as his blood soaked into her shoes. You look more peaceful dead than I’ve ever seen you, Laurie thought, feeling a pang of guilt in her chest as the blood pooled around his curly hair, drowning the little cross and saint pendant he always wore. A lot of good it had ever done him. God doesn’t care Quentin. He never did.

She looked back up at her brother. He was still. Watching her. Waiting.

Laurie took a shaky breath and looked up into her brother’s face. What little she could see of it. “Don’t worry. I’m still here. I still want to go home.”

One hesitant step, then another, and Laurie closed the distance between them. She’d never really been this close to him before. She had—she’d been carried around, stabbed, killed, but he’d never been still. She reached up for the hand that held the knife and carefully guided it to the spot just a little towards the center on the left side where she knew her heart was.

“I don’t suppose you want to take that thing off?” Laurie asked, looking up at the big white mask, “this one time?”

She could tell from the way his eyes flickered that the thought was horrible to him. She smiled. “It’s okay. I didn’t think so.”

Laurie let her breath come in slow. She reached up gently and put one of her hands behind his head, at the base of his neck. She could just feel skin where the mask ended.  Her brother stiffened as her hand went up, then relaxed. For a second it was almost like standing with a dancing partner. One hand around his neck, one hand on his, right above her chest.

“Goodbye Michael,” she said, looking up into his empty eyes and wishing they could look like anything else. “I know that I should hate you, and I think I do. But right now, I wish it could have been different.”

Laurie let out a breath and held it.

“Whenever you’re ready.”

Laurie was lonely standing there in the ghost of Haddonfield, holding her brother. She had never, ever felt so completely isolated and desolate. She was afraid too, but not as afraid as she was of living. It’ll hurt, she told herself, one last weak bid at reassurance at the end, it’ll be awful one last time, more awful than it’s ever been, but then it’ll be over.

Her brother dug the knife into her heart and Laurie’s breath caught in her chest and stopped. The pain was immeasurable, rippling across her, and the fear was worse. It consumed her as she felt herself starting to disappear. Over. It’s going to be over.

Relief and terror, and then as she began to fade she also felt Quentin’s blood seeping through the soft material of her shoes and making her cold, and for a second she felt bad that he had tried so hard to save her and she wished she could have had the chance to apologize for that.

Chapter Text

That was all. One, just one moment as she died where Laurie wished that she had the chance to apologize, but that was all it took. A sudden change hit her immediately and spread along her body.

No.

Laurie realized her mistake too late. Michael realized it too; he felt the change and he made a sound almost like a roar—agonized, betrayed, and Laurie stopped fading and instead she burned out of existence as she died and burned back into existence beside the campfire.

No.

Quentin was there, breaking off mid-sentence some frantic communication with Dwight to turn towards her. She saw relief flood his face.

No.

Behind him, she saw relief on Dwight’s face too, on everyone’s.

No!

Quentin took off running and reached her, throwing his arms around her and pulling her into a hug.

“Oh my god, Laurie, I was so scared you were dead for real,” said Quentin, arms wrapped right around her shoulders, “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

No. No, no, no. I…

She looked down at him as he hugged her and the others started to crowd around—relieved, happy.

“You had us worried,” said Dwight, “are you okay?”

“What happened?” asked Feng from the back of the little crowd.

What happened? What happened…What did I—Quentin.

She got it then. Everything clicked and the voices around her filtered out as realization hit home. That one second of desire to keep living—to apologize—she’d fucked up, she’d missed her chance. That one second of having something to live for had betrayed her and dragged her back here. She’d failed.

No!

She moved Quentin’s arms off her shoulders and took a step back, silently shaking her head at him—at all of them—white as a ghost.

No.

The relief on Quentin’s face faded into worry and the chatter around her quieted as she continued to back away.

“Laurie?” asked Kate, concerned gaze shifting from her to the other survivors around her.

“What have you done?” Laurie asked Quentin, voice lost and empty, “How could you do this?”

David’s eyes flickered from her to the smaller boy as his expression changed. Any relief that had been there was gone now, replaced with worry and uncertainty.

“What?” asked Quentin.

She didn’t say anything, just kept looking at him and shaking her head slowly, unable to say anything else yet. The others looked from her to Quentin and back, not sure what to do.

“Laurie—” Quentin started, but she cut him off.

“—No. No, it doesn’t matter. Do even you understand?” she asked, suddenly feeling her eyes well up with tears. “Do you understand what you’ve done?”

“I…” Quentin looked at the others for support, or maybe answers. “I tried to stop you,” he said, looking back at Laurie.

“You did,” she said, her voice uneven and ragged. “Congratulations.”

Nea took a cautious step forward. “Laurie—what happened?”

Laurie looked and Nea and blinked, taking a second to really register her presence. Everything felt foggy and far away. She wasn’t sure what this feeling was, desolate, and empty, like there was nothing left, but she knew there was. There was so much she was going to be forced to do and re-do. Emptiness in the face of too much to handle.

“I was out,” Laurie said, shifting her gaze from Nea back to Quentin, “I would have been out. I could have finally died. I found a way…A way to do it for real, and he stopped me.”

The others looked at Quentin. He nervously took a step towards her and she took two back, shaking her head at him.

“No, you stay away from me,” said Laurie. Like she was afraid he could somehow make things worse.

“He was just trying to help,” said Dwight, raising a hand palm up like she was a wild animal to calm, “he didn’t want you to die.”

“You don’t have the right,” Laurie said, twinges of anger creeping into her voice, “none of you have that right—to keep me trapped here.”

“We aren’t just going to let you kill yourself,” Quentin defended.

“What makes it your decision?” Laurie asked, anger and misery mixing together in her voice and coming out as desperation. “I wanted to die, and you should have let me! I could have been free!” Her anger was mostly internal, but it was so strong that she was crying now, and it made her furious she couldn’t stop. “Do you even understand what that means to me? How long I’ve been—waiting, looking for some kind of way out? And now?” she made a sweeping, desperate gesture with her arms, “How long is it going to take for me to get him to trust me again? To have another shot? God, Quentin, how much longer do you want to force me to go through this?”

He didn’t look sorry at all as he looked back at her tear-stained face, just confused and worried, and she was hit with a sudden, overwhelming rage by the lack of understanding.

“Well?” she shouted. He didn’t answer, so she closed the distance between them in two long strides and shoved him. He stumbled backwards into Dwight. “Well!” she shouted again.

“Laurie, stop,” said Dwight, moving between them, “it’s not his fault you’re stuck here.”

“Yes it is,” she said, disbelief coloring her voice. “Right now, it really is.”

“I don’t want you to die to get out of this,” Quentin said, “I want you to get out for real.”

Laurie was so angry she almost laughed. “Out? And how are you going to do that Quentin, huh?”

“I don’t know!” he shouted back, “but we’ll figure something out—you can’t just give up!”

“Oh?” she asked. She started to turn and walk away, then changed her mind, spun back around and punched him in the face. Caught completely off-guard, Quentin stumbled backwards. “You’ll figure something out?” she asked again, furious. “And what—I just wait for that?”

She started to get close to him again and David stepped in the way.

“That’s enough,” he said, voice low and even like he really meant it.

It wasn’t enough though.

“Quentin’s right,” said Dwight, trying to calm her down, “we’ll figure something out. As a group.”

“I figured something out,” Laurie snapped, “I was free. Until he fucked it up.”

She turned away angrily and ran her fingers through her hair, trying to slow down her racing thoughts and pounding heartbeat and think. Fuck! What—maybe next time I see Michael, maybe I can…Maybe…

“Laurie.”

Quentin again. She looked back at him. The cheekbone she’d hit was already turning purple and starting to swell.

“You can’t just give up,” he said, tired and pleading at the same time, “after everything—”

After everything? She snapped. She was so tired of being stuck here, of fighting a battle she could never win. And finally—finally there was one obstacle she could fight back against. Laurie threw herself at Quentin and knocked both of them to the ground. He hit the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of him and she landed on top and started swinging at him, again and again, driven by a consuming hopelessness and rage. Not even really trying to hurt him, just trying to make him shut up—make him stop. Quentin didn’t try to move out of the way as she swung at him and he didn’t fight back, just tried to shield his face with his arms, which made her angrier, and she hit him again and again, like she could undo what had been done if she could just punch him hard enough.

You don’t fucking understand! You never listen! Just listen to me for once in your god damn life! You don’t understand—I can’t go back.

 She wasn’t even seeing him anymore as she pounded, trying to get past his arms and bash in his face, she was just struggling—against what, she didn’t even know—her fear, her loneliness, her anger—no, her prison. This isolation no one could understand.

“Laurie, stop!” shouted Dwight, trying to forcibly move them apart. He caught an elbow in the face as she fought back.

Dwight kept trying. Laurie barely registered other shouts and felt people join in trying to pull her off of Quentin, but she struggled back, fighting with almost inhuman strength until finally David and Nea managed to drag her off him, and Dwight and Kate grabbed Quentin and pulled him a few feet back so he was out of her reach.

“I’m sorry,” said Quentin, wiping blood off his lip as Dwight helped him shakily to his knees, “I couldn’t just let you give up.” He did sound sorry now, and his voice was pleading. “I’m sorry you want to die, but I’m not sorry you’re alive right now—You shouldn’t have to die like that.”

“You still don’t get it!” she shouted, lunging against Nea and David, trying madly to break free. “I’m not alive!”

The wiry girl and the stronger man held onto her until finally, Laurie stopped struggling. She looked past them at the others, Dwight, and Kate, and Quentin, and Feng and Meg and Ace by the fire. “You don’t get it!” she shouted at all of them, “None of you do!”

The fury ebbed out of her and was replaced by something much worse. Her voice changed and became flat and empty as she looked around at them and their worried expressions and the fight went out of her. “None of you do.”

They were all watching her, wide eyes, like she was something unbelievable. Horrifying. You’re all still so new, and young. You don’t understand yet. It hurt her to think that. Think about them becoming like her. You’ll want this too. You don’t understand… She looked back at Quentin, her voice still dead. “Listen to me. For once. There is no other way out, Quentin. Things are never going to get better.”

“You can’t know that,” said Kate tentatively from behind Quentin.

“I know it,” replied Laurie with absolute certainty, “I’ve been trying for longer than any of you.”

“Even if there’s probably no way out, isn’t it worth it to keep going? For some kind of maybe?” said Nea, her arms still braced in case Laurie tried to break free again. “For even some shit slim chance to go home?”

Laurie choked back the urge to cry and met the younger girl’s eyes. “Nea, I can’t go home.”

David’s grip on her shoulders lessened then. As they watched her Laurie looked around the little group and realized how quiet it had become. You still don’t understand, do you? You haven’t figured it out.

“You don’t see it,” Laurie said hollowly, “But you’ll figure it out eventually.” She scanned their faces, looking for any kind of understanding among the scared people looking back. “I did. Come on, think. Some part of you has to know already. It didn’t take me long. I could tell from the way you look, the way you talk about the 90s in the past tense, from the phones…” You’re all afraid, but you still don’t get it. You don’t— She let out an exhausted breath and her eyes picked a nervous looking Meg Thomas out of the little circle. “Meg, what year is it?”

“What?” asked Meg, looking even more worried after being singled out.

“It’s 2016. Maybe 17,” replied Dwight, hand still on Quentin’s shoulder.

Laurie saw Meg turn and look at Dwight and watched the horror spread across her face. She saw Quentin’s expression twitch too. Like they had both taken hits to the gut.

Looking out over the others, Laurie lowered her tone to something almost gentle. They weren’t the enemy. They were as fucked as her—they just didn’t know it yet. She took a step back from David and Nea and they let go of her. Laurie looked down at herself.

“Look at the way I dress,” Laurie said softly, “Did any of you ever really think we were from the same time?” She gestured at her worn clothes. “Just look at me. I’m not from 2016. I’m not from 2000 anything. I can’t go home because there isn’t one left for me,” she said, looking at Quentin, “I lost my home in 1978.”

They were all silent. Rapt horror rolled over them like a wave as they finally understood. She saw some of them doing math in their heads—maybe for her, maybe for their own missing years. Faces fell or became guarded, lost, confused. A part of her suddenly regretted having told them.

“You…” whispered Meg. She stopped, swallowing whatever she had been thinking of asking.

“I’m—what—57?” Laurie asked, looking at David, suddenly having to do the math herself. She could tell from his expression he was trying to wrap his head around what forty years of this would even mean. “Even if I got out by some impossible miracle like you all keep praying for,” Laurie continued, “there’s just…there’s nothing left. My life is over. It ended a long time ago.” They were giving her words their full attention now, faces grave as she met their eyes. “All my friends, they’re already dead. Michael killed them before I disappeared. And my family? They’ll have died of old age without me even there to say goodbye. There’s no life left to go back to—there’s no getting out, there is no back home for me.”

“…It could always be a Jumanji scenario,” Meg offered in a tiny voice.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Laurie said, giving her a hopeless look.

Meg swallowed, looking ashamed and miserable.

“I don’t get any of your references,” Laurie continued, sounding as lost as she felt, “I wouldn’t even understand the world anymore.”

“Laurie…” Quentin tried, sounding and looking a little broken himself.

“And you,” she said coldly, suddenly angry again at the pity in his voice and he flinched at her tone. “You still think you have the right to force me to keep living.”

“Please,” Kate cut in, her usually calm lilt wavering as her shoulders trembled.

“It could have been over.” Laurie said, ignoring Kate, voice harsh, “I could have been out. But you dragged me back. Because you think you know better.

“He was only trying to help,” said Dwight, his voice stern as he moved himself between them just in case.

“Well you didn’t.” Laurie said coldly, staring past him at Quentin, trying to force him to meet her gaze and hold it. “How much more do I have to suffer for you before you’re satisfied? Before it’s enough that you’ll allow me to die? How much more blood do you need, Quentin? What’s it going to take?”

He looked hurt, shaken, and she knew that, but she couldn’t stop. Somewhere deep down she knew Dwight was right, but something else was driving her and she was too broken up inside to just take this anymore.  It wasn’t fair, and she couldn’t live with it this time, and she wanted so badly for someone to understand that—to acknowledge it. She didn’t have anything left inside to turn to.

“You don’t understand,” Laurie said after a second of silence, her voice giving out. “None of you do. I’ve been doing this for almost forty years. There is nothing left for me.”

Nea cleared her throat nervously, like she was trying to think of something to say. David almost looked like he understood.

“I have tried every coping mechanism there is,” Laurie continued, “I have tried. I’ve fought, I’ve prayed, I’ve been strong, and it doesn’t matter. Nothing changes. I’ve learned how not to feel, how to control my panic, how to suffer, how to survive—I can repress, or accept, and slog on through, but I’ve used up all my hope. I don’t even know if there’s any of me left. I’m already alone, even here, with all of you. I’ve always been alone. I just want it to be over.” Her last words were almost a whisper.

Laurie looked away from the people around her and down at herself. At her old shirt with the 1977 price tag, the waist high flair jeans. “Look at me,” whispered Laurie. “I’m too old. I’m too far gone. And I’m so tired. I just want it to be over.”

Nobody knew what to say. Kate was crying silently, biting her lip to keep from making any noise. Laurie wished she hadn’t noticed.

“And what,” Laurie had to pause to try and choke back the crack in her voice, and she looked into Quentin’s eyes, “what gives you the right to make me keep going?”

Dwight took a step towards Laurie, his voice calm and level, a little pained. “Laurie, you know he doesn’t—”

“—I want to hear it from him!” she shouted. Her eyes met Quentin’s and held them like he was the god hiding somewhere out there that she had been waiting years now to demand answers from for all the broken promises, for everything that had gone wrong.

“…I just…” Quentin tried, his voice barely a whisper, “I wanted to save you.”

“You didn’t,” Laurie said, “I’m already dead. You’re just making it take longer.”

All the horrified looks around her, the wide eyes and people who didn’t know what to do, they made Laurie feel sick, and she started to tremble. She didn’t know if it was from fear, or exhaustion, or crying, or anger, but she couldn’t stop.

How long. How long before I can convince him to trust me again? How many more times am I going to be forced to die?

Laurie sunk to her knees and cried. There was nothing else left for her to do. People half-started to approach her but held back at the sound of her agony. The intensity of her despair was so strong it made them afraid, the hopelessness and fear and hatred radiating from her like a black sun. Her shoulders started to convulse and she fell forward onto her hands and shook with sobs until she was so exhausted all she could do was stare at the false grass beneath her fingers.

Her voice was the only sound. Everything else was quiet as she cried alone in the middle of the only people she knew.

After a few seconds, Kate silently moved and sat down on Laurie’s right, about two feet away. She didn’t say anything—wanting to help, but afraid to make things worse, so she just sat there, close. Trying to be a presence. David knelt down near her and quietly said something she didn’t catch, and then Laurie heard the sounds of Claudette and Jake burning back into existence by the campfire.

“The Shape went crazy—you all wo…,” she heard Claudette trail off as she registered the scene, “What’s going on?”

Laurie could make out Dwight going over to them, people talking in low tones, but she didn’t have the strength to care. There was a quiet sound nearby then, as sneakers slowly moved through the grass and Quentin sat down beside her, tucking his knees up to his chest. For a few seconds he didn’t say anything, just sat there, hugging his knees and casting glances her way a few seconds at a time. She didn’t look back.

“I’m sorry,” said Quentin finally, looking small as he turned towards her. In her periphery she saw him look away after a second. Maybe at the campfire, maybe at nothing. “You’re right,” he continued, “I don’t know.”

She hadn’t expected that. Laurie listened, still motionless, leaning on her hands and knees, fingers digging into the grass, too spent to do anything else.

“I don’t have any idea what it’s like to do this for so long,” said Quentin after a little pause, “and I don’t know that much about you, or what you’ve been through” He looked back over at her then and tried to swallow the emotion in his voice. “And…I’m sorry, that I didn’t…that I didn’t get to know you. I want to.”

She slumped back and matched his stance, tucking her knees to her chest too, and letting her chin rest on them, still not looking at him.

 “I know I haven’t given you a good enough reason to believe me, but I…I do care about you,” Quentin said. His voice was quiet, barely under control—trying to stay strong and losing, like he always seemed to be. “You’ve saved my life. A lot of times. And you help me whenever you can, sometimes when you shouldn’t. That’s more than enough to know I want you to get to be alive.” He looked at her, hoping she would look back. “For me to not want to see you die like that.”

“There’s nothing to live for,” Laurie whispered, looking at nothing.

He nodded slowly. “Maybe not…Maybe you’re right.”

She did look at him then, surprised. His face was covered in bruises she hadn’t realized she’d caused until now, and one of his eyes was swollen and turning black. She felt guilt dig in deep. I did this. He looked bad. His lip was cut badly and still bleeding, and she could see him trying hard to choke back tears. He looked haunted, almost as tired as she was, and she remembered how peaceful he had looked dead on the ground.

“I know,” Quentin paused and swallowed hard, trying to get his voice in check, “that I talk about getting out all the time. But I don’t really know if that’s possible. And maybe you’re right, maybe it’s not. I don’t know. But I know I’m going to keep trying.”

A few feet to Laurie’s right, she could sense Kate was listening too. Where he’d knelt close by, David was watching them, almost looking like he wanted to intervein, but holding back. Around the campfire, the other conversations were growing quieter.

“Why are you telling me this, Quentin?” Laurie asked quietly after a second, looking back at the grass at her feet.

Quentin looked away from Laurie and took a shaky breath. “I know it’s not the same, but I don’t know what’s waiting for me when…if I get home.” He let his chin rest on his folded arms like she was and stared into the fire. “Out of all of us, everyone Kreuger—the Nightmare—went after, Nancy’s the only one left now. I left her all alone, and I know she’s going to think he’s why I’m dead, and that he’s still out there, waiting to come after her. I know she’ll warn my dad—she’ll have already warned him, and told him why she thinks I’m dead.”

Quentin’s voice had gotten hollow. It was a sound Laurie knew well. She watched as he looked away, clearing his throat and trying to blink back tears.

“Back before all of this started,” Quentin continued, “when Kreuger was still alive, my dad was the one who killed him. I yelled at him about it once, because I didn’t understand. And, uh…we…we talked about it, after—I apologized to him. But,” he fought to get control of his voice again and continued, “I know he’ll remember that? And…He’s going to think it’s his fault—that I’m dead because he killed Kreuger, and Kreuger came after us out of revenge. And I’m…I am so fucking afraid that he’s already taken his shotgun out of the shed and put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Because of me.”

Laurie watched him, watched the anguish on his face. After a second he finally looked back at her and made a hopeless gesture with his hand.

“He might have already, and I wouldn’t even know—he could be doing that right now, and I can’t know, or stop it.” Quentin looked back into the fire. “I know how fucked up he was after mom died, and I know how sad he gets. And I can’t do a fucking…” he swallowed again and kept going, “I want to tell him I’m glad he did it, that he killed Kreuger, even after all this. And that I wish I could have been the one who killed that bastard the first time, but I can’t. I can’t do anything about him, and…I didn’t want you to die like that.” He was crying silently when he looked back up at her. “I thought I could do something…to make things better. To stop you. And I’m never going to be sorry I did, because you shouldn’t have to die like him. Alone, and scared, and sorry, and hopeless. …And…and I’m sorry I can’t…can’t fix it, that I can’t fix anything, but…please don’t give up?”

Laurie watched him and she wondered how old he was, and how long he’d been here, and then she wondered how he could look at her like that when her knuckles were bruised from trying to break his skull.

“I don’t want to lose you,” said Quentin, voice fragile, like it might break, “I don’t want to lose any of you. And maybe you’re right, and there’s no way out, but maybe there is. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Life’s just a bunch of things that happen to you, and things you do, and some of them are good, and a lot more are bad—especially here, but you have to have good things to remember at the end or how’s it bearable having lived at all?” He met her eyes and she held the gaze. “And I saw you in Haddonfield, and you didn’t. You didn’t have anything to look back to. If we all have to die here, it can’t be like that. I know I sound stupid, but you’re all I have. All of you are like family. Maybe I don’t even really know what that means. I’ve never had siblings, and it’s always just been me and my dad. But, I think...” he took a shallow breath. “I think I’m starting to? I hope I am.”

Laurie was silent, tears sliding down her cheeks as she looked over at him.

“I know you don’t believe in me, or in any of us—or that things can get better, or change, but, please, just let me try? Just give me a little time to try to prove you wrong?” Quentin begged, eyes pleading.

She was frozen for a second, thinking about the fear of facing another day like this, thinking about family, and trying to fight back the urge to hope again, and then she thought about how she’d wanted to apologize to him at the end, and how swollen his eye was. Finally, almost imperceptibly, Laurie nodded. “I’ll give you a week.”

Quentin swallowed. “Can…could you maybe make it two weeks?”

What had been a muffled sob came out as a laugh and Laurie wiped the side of her face with a palm. “Yeah, but don’t try to get three from me. It won’t happen.”

She was suddenly aware of all the others again, most of watching her so intently it made her feel miserable. Laurie had always kind of been an outsider in the group by choice. People died, people gave up, nothing got better. She hadn’t tried to be a part of things, it was easier not to, and she had been different anyway. But now, suddenly almost wanting to be a part of something for the first time in so long and not knowing how, she felt sick and afraid, looking at the mess she’d caused.

Some of the others were standing and watching, but most of them had sat down around her, and Laurie couldn’t tell what any of them were thinking.

“I’m sorry,” said Meg in the silence. She sounded so small.

Laurie turned to look at her in surprise.

“I wasn’t trying to leave you out,” continued Meg in a choked voice, “with the pop-culture stuff. I didn’t know.”

She was trying not to cry.

“No,” said Laurie, shaking her head and feeling horrible, “Meg, I’m sorry. I know you didn’t…”

Ace took a few steps over and plopped down across from her. He took a deck of cards out from his pocket and started to shuffle them. “I’ll play you for three weeks,” he offered, looking up at her from under his brows and trying to get her to laugh.

It almost worked, and she cracked a smile.

“Can I…?” came Kate’s soft accent from her side. Laurie turned and saw her making an uncertain gesture with her arms. It took her six full seconds to realize Kate was asking permission to give her a hug.

For the past forty years, Laurie hadn’t touched another human being except on accident, or to rescue them from a hook or be rescued, to trade first aid. Not until putting her arm around Michael, but she nodded. Kate scooted closer on her knees and slowly put her long, gentle arms around Laurie and buried her face in her neck. It felt strange. A sensation she’d almost forgotten. Claudette walked over and knelt too, looking for permission before wrapping her arms around Laurie as well. They held on for a long time. Laurie could feel the other two girls breathing in and out, hear their heartbeats. David moved a little closer and knelt down beside her and awkwardly put a hand on her shoulder. She looked over at Quentin, and he gave her a weak smile, and she felt awful about the purple-blue staining his face in all the places she’d hit him, but she tried to smile back.

Dwight took a knee in front of Laurie and she turned to look at him over the two girls who were still hanging onto her. “Listen,” he said firmly, “two weeks isn’t going to do it.” He glanced at Quentin. “And we’re all getting out of here,” Dwight continued, turning back to Laurie, “together.”

Behind him she saw Jake nod, like hired morale police muscle.

You’re wrong, thought Laurie, her heart sinking a little, none of us are ever getting out of here.

Even so, she could feel heartbeats that didn’t mean death and she remembered what it had been like to be a teenager fighting and smiling with friends, and for the first time in a long time, Laurie had more than the grim determination to keep going, she had the strength to hope she might be wrong, even if she knew it would fade soon and things would go back to the way they had been.

“I’m sorry about your face,” Laurie said to Quentin.

He smiled. “It’s okay, I broke David’s nose a few days back.”

“Ya punch a lot better’n him,” David observed, almost like a compliment.

Claudette and Kate gradually let go of Laurie. “I’m sorry I didn’t know,” Claudette whispered as she let go of Laurie, “Jake and I didn’t hear anything.”

“It’s probably for the best,” Laurie replied, tilting her head in Quentin’s direction, “I might have done that to you too. And I would have felt a lot worse about it.”

Claudette smiled and sat down by Dwight and Jake, and Kate went back to where she had been before. The others had come over and taken seats by then too, kind of gradually, and the whole group ended up as a sort of deformed circle.

“Do you…want to talk?” asked Nea, looking unbearably uncomfortable.

Laurie honestly didn’t know.

“We could try again,” offered Feng after thinking for a second, “meeting? Do it the right way?”

They had met like survivors in a war zone, fleeing and hiding, working together, pausing to trade names and tips and warnings—not like normal people, giving hobbies and stories, personalities, pasts. Proper here had never seemed like it needed those kinds of things. There wasn’t time, and they wouldn’t help you survive. Even some of the details they knew about the killers had stayed close to their chests. What did it matter who Kreuger was, or that Michael was her brother? It wouldn’t help anyone run faster. More important to know his abilities, his tells, his weaknesses.

Feng had a point though. In a lot of ways, they all really didn’t know each other.

“I’m from Montreal,” Claudette offered after a second of silence.

Nobody else offered anything up in the eight seconds of silence that followed, so Dwight said “I used to be a pizza delivery boy.”

Meg gave him a look that somehow conveyed horror and absolute joy at the same time.

“…I’m from Sweden,” Nea said after a moment.

“Do you speak Swedish?” asked Jake.

“Yes, I speak Swedish,” Nea replied, giving him a disbelieving look.

“LAN parties are a big thing, and I’ve been to them,” offered Feng.

“The fuck is a LAN party?” asked Nea automatically.

Feng sighed. “A bunch of gamers get together and hook up their computers to play online games.”

“Well, ahm filthy rich,” David commented.

“As am I,” added Jake.

“What?” Claudette said, turning to look at him, “No you’re not—you live in the woods.”

Jake nodded. “And am extremely rich.”

David nodded at him in a game respects game way.

“Damn,” Nea said thoughtfully, “I should have flirted with you when I still had the chance.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Jake replied.

“Yeah, you’re right, it was a good call,” agreed Nea.

“How about you?” Dwight asked Laurie.

“Yeah, and how stupid do the rest of us look by 70s standards?” asked Nea.

Laurie looked at Quentin, who have her an encouraging smile, and took a breath. “Um, not terrible. Just kind of boring, mostly.”

“That’s…that’s worse…” Nea said to herself thoughtfully in a quiet voice.

“I’m from a place in Illinois called Haddonfield,” Laurie offered after a second.

Kate perked up. “Haddonfield—that’s in Livingston County, right? One of my best friends lives there.”

Laurie nodded, surprised.

“She’s the reason I have an accent. Hers is thicker than mine by miles. I’m from Pennsylvania originally,” she hurried to add, “but I stayed with her for a couple of years working on music.”

“Not that many people in Livingston County have accents like that,” Laurie said, thinking back.

Kate nodded. “She wasn’t from Illinois originally either. She was from Tennessee.”

“You’re a singer?” asked Laurie. She’d heard Kate sing. It would make sense.

Kate nodded. “Sing and play guitar. When I had one. How about you?”

Laurie shrugged. “I hadn’t decided what I was going to be. I was seventeen when I showed up here.”

“Is Michael the Shape’s name?” Quentin asked quietly. She looked over at him in surprise. “Earlier,” he added, “in Haddonfield. You called him that when he grabbed me, and you said ‘Michael killed them’ about your friends?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s his name.” Laurie Strode? Cynthia Myers? I guess I’m Laurie at least, after all this time. “And the Nightmare?” she asked after a second, “you knew Kreuger before?”

Quentin looked like he really didn’t want to talk about that. “Yeah,” he said after a second.

“Did all of us?” Laurie asked, looking around, “do we come in pairs?” Everyone else looked at each other and shook their heads.

Slowly, Nea raised her hand, pre-wincing. “I did disappear when I went to this old asylum on a dare where apparently some nurse killed a bunch of people to spray graffiti…”

“Nea,” said Dwight, sounding like the world’s most disappointed father.

“I’m sorry!” she replied, “I watched Scooby-Doo on Saturdays, not Supernatural.”

“Oh,” said Laurie in surprise, “I actually know that one—Scooby-Doo, not Supernatural.”

“That’s a real shame. Love me that monster hunting,” commented Meg to both girls. She looked at Laurie then and scooted forward, almost conspiratorially. “So, uh, what shows were you into? I’ve seen a lot of the classics. I bet you we’ve seen some of the same ones. You’ve seen Star Wars, right?”

“Yeah,” Laurie replied, “Well, the first one. The second one wasn’t out yet.”

“Oh shit,” said Meg, “Nobody spoil it! I will personally end anyone who spoils Empire Strikes Back for her.”

“I mean, I’ll never get to see it anyway,” Laurie said, “so…”

“Laurie,” Meg said, looking her dead in the face, “you will get to experience that movie if I have to re-create it here myself out of figurines I get Jake to whittle because I can’t.” She paused and thought for a second. “You know—I might could actually do that.”

“Can you at least tell me if Leia ends up with Han Solo or Luke?” Laurie asked.

Everyone in the circle looked at Meg and fought the urge to say something as she sent them back death glares.

Meg turned back to Laurie and shook her head. “No, but we’ll talk.”

“What about you, Ace?” asked Laurie, hoping to avoid more questions herself.

“Well, this might come as a shock, but I was quite the gambler,” Ace replied.

Feng gave him the most sarcastic No shit? expression Laurie had ever seen.

“And,” he continued, “I have successfully passed myself off for both Jimmy Stewart and George Clooney.”

“Uh, how?” asked Feng.

“Yeah…” Laurie said slowly. “I don’t know the other one, but Jimmy Stewart was about 70 when I disappeared. And that’s me. 1978 me.”

Ace shrugged. “That did make it a challenge.”

“You are definitely lying,” accused Dwight.

Ace shook his head, grinning. “Signed autographs as both. And got paid for it.” He looked at Laurie. “Favorite actor?”

“Kermit the Frog,” she replied, deadpan. “Or Robert Redford,” she added after a second.

“What about your favorite band?” Kate asked Laurie.

“Uh,” Laurie thought, “This probably won’t mean anything in 2016, but ABBA and Chicago? And, uh, I also like Rush.”

“FUCK YES!” shouted Meg Thomas.

“Everybody still likes ABBA,” Jake added.

“Everybody still likes Chicago,” Kate said.

“I like Rush,” Quentin said quietly.

“Which is your favorite song?” asked Claudette. “I really like Dancing Queen.”

“Me too,” Laurie smiled. “But my favorite’s Mamma Mia.”

“Really?” asked Dwight.

“Yeah,” Laurie said thoughtfully, “been 17 for a little too long to want to be the Dancing Queen anymore.”

That prompted surprised laughter from everyone, completely caught off-guard by the fact that Laurie had made a joke.

“You all really still listen to ABBA?” Laurie asked cautiously, like she was a little afraid they were all lying to make her feel better.

“People liked the band so much that they actually turned a bunch of their songs into a musical,” Claudette replied. 

“And a movie,” added Meg.

Laurie processed that.

“We should sing sometime,” Kate suggested, “It’d be nice. There have to be songs all of us know.”

Laurie shook her head. “I can’t sing that well.” She turned to look at Quentin then. “You said you like Rush?” He nodded. “Which is your favorite song?”

Quentin looked down. “Marathon,” he replied, looking embarrassed.

Laurie shook her head slowly. “I don’t think that one came out yet. I don’t know it.”

“Oh,” Quentin said, looking surprised and guilty like he should have thought of that. “Uh,” he thought for a second, “In the End?”

“I like that one too,” said Laurie, smiling just a little. “God, I haven’t heard music in so long.”

“We could change that,” Kate said, “I really wish I had my guitar.”

“I don’t sing,” said Jake very finally. “You go ahead though.”

“Ah, shit,” Meg exclaimed suddenly. Everyone looked at her in surprise and saw she was starting to dematerialize, “Of all the goddamn times to—”

She was gone then. The others looked around to see who else had been given the short straws.

“Well,” Jake sighed, watching as his hand started to disappear, “be back in a bit.”

“Ah,” Dwight added as he started to vanish too, “wonderful.”

Laurie looked down and saw her feet starting to burn out of existence. Another trial, already.

“Laurie?”

Quentin. She turned at his voice. You look so scared, thought Laurie.

“You’ll come back?” His face made it more a plea than a question.

She barely had time to nod before she was gone, and then she was somewhere else.

The forest. Cool air and leaves blew past Laurie. She could taste the cold, but not really. Feel the chill, but not truly. She let out a long, slow, shaky breath.

I want to go home, thought Laurie, miserable, the brief calm of seconds ago already almost lost. How can I feel like crying? I can’t have anything left to cry with.

She wondered what had happened to Michael, and what he’d be like when she saw him next. If he thought she’d done this on purpose.

I want to go home, thought Laurie, I’m so tired.

For a few seconds she stood there in the woods, unmoving. I want to go home, she thought again, remembering the pain in her chest when she’d been stabbed, and longing for a different version of events where that had been the last thing she had to feel.  But I can’t, she thought, thinking about how hard trials were going to be for Quentin with his eye swollen nearly shut, I promised.

In the distance far to her left, Laurie Strode saw the tall light pole of a generator and she turned towards it and started to walk, the long, practiced walk of someone who had been doing this for far too long, and as she walked she tried to imagine what a song called “Marathon” by Rush might sound like.

Chapter Text

It’s gonna be hard to tell exactly when two weeks is up, thought Jake absently as he cleaned rust off the toolbox items he’d recovered in his last trial, probably already been a couple of days considering how many trials, but we’ll never really know. Works for a stall tactic.

Jake wasn’t exactly worried about Laurie. It wasn’t really like him to be worried about anyone. But nevertheless, he’d thought about what had happened a lot over the time that had gone by. He and Claudette had been in a house basement fixing a generator together—never even heard anything. She’d almost been gone. He hadn’t really realized that was a thing that could happen here before.

“Hey.”

Jake looked up and saw Nea standing there. He was good—alert, sharp, and he could still never hear her coming when she tried to be sneaky.

“Hey,” Jake replied, straightening up and setting the small socket wrench back in his toolbox.

Nea looked distracted. He knew her pretty well at this point. Jake wasn’t big on having to be around other people most of the time, but she was good at not counting against the maximum number of people he could stand at once, and they had always gotten along surprisingly well. Plus, their bad senses of humor seemed to mesh. He never used to joke around with people—he tended to like seclusion. Jake favored the wilderness, the interior of cars, and being alone, getting things done by himself. Isolation was a word most people feared, but he embraced it. And still, somehow here, in the most isolated and wild place he’d ever seen, Meg and Nea had managed to bring out this disappointing side of himself he hadn’t realized he still had. The whole thing wouldn’t have been so difficult to deal with if it hadn’t also been genuinely enjoyable. Who really knew why things had changed so much, or when they had started to. Either way, Nea’s presence had become a staple of life the way the sound of evergreens used to be. Usually she just wanted to come over and be vaguely sarcastic about something, but today she looked distracted.

“What’s goin’ on?” Jake asked after waiting a couple seconds for her to talk and getting no response.

Nea blew her hair out of her face and looked at him. “First, are you gonna give me shit about this?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Am I?”

Nea sat down on the fallen tree he’d been testing a saw on and pulled off her beanie so she could run her fingers through her hair.

Huh. Agitated enough to lose the hat. That bad. Jake sat down next to her and turned to face her. “Well?”

She was jittery, spinning the hat around her fingers like a substitute stress ball.

Jake sighed. “If you didn’t want to tell me—”

“—Do you think I have a shot with Feng?”

He blinked. Nea was tapping her foot against the ground nervously.

“Uh,” Jake responded slowly, “I mean, she was pretty set on the Huntress, so.”

“I’m being serious,” said Nea, shooting him an annoyed look.

Jake thought about that. “Okay. Don’t know why you’re coming to me for advice.” She looked like she already regretted that decision. “Listen,” Jake said, relenting a little, “let’s look at your competition. If she likes girls—”

“—She liked the Huntress,” Nea cut in like that was a lifeline.

Jake shrugged. “She said she was hot, so assuming that’s an indication, there’s you, Meg, Laurie, Kate, and Claudette.”

“Shit,” said Nea under her breath, “and all of them are hot.”

Jake nodded slowly. “Yeah. But lucky for you, I’m pretty sure Kate and Laurie are both tragically heterosexual…That was a, uh, Parks and Rec reference if you didn’t—”

“—Yeah, I got it,” said Nea, “very nice, but what about Meg and Claudette? …I thought you didn’t watch TV,” she added after a second.

“Yeah, I don’t” Jake replied, “Okay, starting with Claudette,” he continued thoughtfully. “She’s nice, very pretty, but lucky for you she’s never, ever going to have the guts to ask anyone out while she’s alive.”

“Harsh, but I appreciate it,” Nea said sincerely. “Okay. Meg then?”

“Could be,” Jake replied, and Nea made a sound like she was dying. “I’m pretty sure if you had competition it’d be Meg.”

“You could have lied,” Nea said unhappily, leaning forward to bury her face in her hands.

“Did you want me to?” asked Jake. He waited for an answer, but she just made a vaguely anguished sound from behind her hands. “Look,” Jake said, “Considering how absolutely ruthless I can be and how little you know I care, why ask all of a sudden? What’s this about?”

Nea sighed and lifted her head back up to give him a miserable glance. “I don’t know. I guess, after…” she made a vague gesture.

Ah, Laurie.

“I’m just…” Nea thought for a second. “I don’t know.”

“Just ask her out,” said Jake, getting off the log and kneeling back by his toolbox. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“She could say no!” Nea replied, arms making a universal what do you mean gesture.

“Okay, look,” Jake said, standing back up. He wiped his hands off on his jeans and turned to Nea, “can you hold this?”

“What?” asked Nea, holding out her hand to take whatever it was.

Jake put his hand in hers.

“Oh,” said Nea, blinking at it. “Uh.”

“Try that,” said Jake, taking his hand back and returning to his toolbox. “It’s very tactless and mildly endearing. Should be perfect for you.”

Nea blinked at her hand again, then looked at Jake. “I mean, damn man, I kinda thought it was smooth.”

“It definitely wasn’t,” he said, not looking up. “Just go do it. Until you ask, the answer’s definitely ‘no’.”

Nea hopped off the log, mood apparently 180’d. “Yeah, okay. Why not.”

“Atta girl,” said Jake distractedly, digging some tape out of the bottom of the toolbox and setting it beside him on the ground.

“Thanks man,” Nea said, putting her hat back on and straightening up, “I’m gonna do it.”

“Hey!” called Jake when she’d gone about ten feet.

Nea stopped and turned.

“I’ll wager my toolbox against your sport light that she turns you down flat and breaks your heart.”

Nea shook her head at him. “Why are we friends again?”

“We’re friends?” asked Jake, grinning.

She flipped him off and headed towards the campfire.

Knock’em dead, thought Jake, turning back to his toolbox glad she hadn’t taken the bet.

 


 

“Hey.”

Feng looked up from the repair she’d been trying to sew on her jacket. Damn, Nea. How do you do that? Girl was silent as the fucking grave. “Hey yourself,” she said, trying to hide the fact she’d been startled enough for her adrenaline to kick in.

“Can we talk?” Nea asked, glancing at the assorted people around the campfire, “Uh, alone?”

David and Quentin were a little way off, where it looked like David was trying to explain a maneuver to Quentin, who was repeatedly failing at it, but with small, slow signs of improvement.  Claudette and Dwight were having another quiet conversation together by the fire—they’d been having a lot of those lately—and a few feet away, Meg Thomas was sitting in the middle of Laurie, Kate and Ace, animatedly mid-story.

 “Why?” asked Feng, still focused on her patch job. She tied a knot and bit through the thread to cut it.

“Uh, the noise?” Offered Nea, glancing back at the others. Feng looked up and followed her gaze.

“And Bet Midler said that was actually her favorite role of all time,” explained Meg, picking a sketch pad up off her lap. “I’m going to go scene by scene, and I already drew references pictures. It’s gonna be fucking lit.”

Ace was totally into it. Laurie looked at Kate like she wasn’t sure the two of them should have agreed to this. Kate shrugged and looked at Meg. “Are ya sure it wouldn’t be better just to show it to us sometime?”

Meg shook her head. “And miss my chance to perform? I’ve been waiting my whole life to sing that number to a live studio audience.”

“Who…?” Laurie started to ask, trying to remember a name.

“Oh, you’d be Binx, for sure,” said Meg with the clarity of a Pope.

“That…wasn’t what I was going to ask,” Laurie said uncertainly, “wait, didn’t you say Binx was a cat?”

“Yeah, but he’s also the mvp,” Meg replied.

Feng looked from them back to Nea. “Yeah, okay, I see your point. Sure.” She set down her jacket and stood up. “Let’s go.”

 

Nea led Feng to the edge of the woods by camp. Some of them went into the woods regularly—Jake, Meg, Claudette. Occasionally someone else would go to help Claudette gather plants, but for the most part the rest of them stayed put by the fire and the clearing. It felt…Safer. And that wasn’t all. See—they hadn’t exactly worked all of this out for sure, but Nea was convinced there was more than one campfire. She’d come to this place, again, and again, and even after bumping into some other people in trials, she almost always used to end up alone. It wasn’t until she’d escaped with Dwight once that she’d come to this place with someone else. Since then, it had been the same. She always made it back to the group, but she felt like it was because she was trying to, and she was always a little afraid that someday she’d get lost and show up at the matching fire that was void of people again.

The forest was new to Nea. She’d gone with Claudette a few times and taken the occasional trip to explore just a little, but it was still almost completely uncharted territory. Everything seemed deeper and stranger the second she stepped out of the clearing, like she was entirely somewhere new, and ancient, and dangerous.

All of that was just background noise to Nea tonight, though. She was focused on the girl to her right, wearing her metallic team uniform from the life she used to have, bob cut just a little bedraggled in a way that made Nea’s heart speed up.

Once they were just inside the tree line, Nea stopped and turned to Feng. The other girl seemed pretty at ease, but curious, waiting for some kind of explanation.

“So, uh,” Nea started, floundering immediately.

Feng waited a second for her to keep going.

“Uh,” Nea tried again. Shit, why didn’t I plan anything I was going to say ahead of time? That would have been so easy. God. This isn’t good, she’s looking at you funny, say something, dumbass. She cleared her throat. “I wanted to talk to you.”

“…Yeah…?” Feng prompted after a second. She’d gone from looking mildly interested to mildly confused.

“Listen, uh,” fuck, thought Nea, why didn’t you rehearse at all?!

Feng awkwardly cleared her own throat and glanced around. “Yeah?”

“Can you hold something for me?” Nea choked out after a second.

Very warily, Feng extended her hand as if she were expecting Nea to put a snake in it.

Shit, wait, what am I thinking, I’m not doing that, thought Nea. She waved a hand. “Nevermind. Uh,”

“Nea, what’s going on?” asked Feng, dropping her hand back to her side, “you’re being really weird.”

Nea took a big breath and slowly let it out. “Okay,” she said, trying to steady her nerves, “yeah, I know I am—sorry.” She shuffled her feet for a second. “Okay, yeah, this isn’t getting any easier.” Nea took a deep breath. “I like you.”

It took a second to hit, and then Feng’s expression changed. Her eyes which had been narrowed with vague suspicion widened and shifted away from Nea like she suddenly didn’t know what to look at. “Uh,” Feng started.

Quickly holding up a hand, Nea kept going. “Look, you don’t have to give me an answer right now if you can’t, or if you just don’t want to, but, I wanted you to know.”

Feng looked like she’d walked in on her brother and his best friend making out, or a cryptid in her room stealing her hard drive.

That’s probably not a great sign, thought Nea desperately. “After what happened with Laurie,” Nea continued, “I just wanted to make sure you knew. In case it mattered to you—and, uh, because it does matter to me—but I promise I’m not going to be shitty about it,” Nea hurried to add, “like, if you have no interest back I’m not going to be an asshole during trials or something—I wouldn’t do that. Nothing has to change if you don’t want it to, but, uh…” her steam sort of died out and she trailed off.

“…Are you,” Feng started again and then hesitated after a second, “…like, are you being serious?” she asked.

Nea nodded. Her face had drained of its color and she could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Shit, shit. I should have waited and thought this through better. I didn’t like even bring flowers or something to giver her as a gift—fuck, are you supposed to do that when you ask a girl out? God damn it, why did I ask Jake? For all I know he’s never had a girlfriend, I should have asked David! Or Quentin! Probably not Dwight though… Oh man, I fucked up. God…

Feng didn’t say anything, she just bit her lip uncomfortably.

“I-I am,” said Nea, just in case somehow the nod hadn’t been translated properly, “being serious.”

“Like, romantically?” Feng asked again.

“Yeah,” Nea choked out. She cleared her throat nervously.

“Okay…Why?” asked Feng, still watching her with an odd expression on her face that looked somewhere between discomfort and confusion.

Why?

Nea hadn’t expected that at all. “Uh. What?” she blinked, taking a second to run the question through her head. “Because…you’re…awesome?”

Feng was still giving her that almost wary look. “So…you like me because I fix gens well?”

What the fuck is happening right now? Nea thought, panicking internally. “No,” she replied quickly, “I mean, that’s pretty cool, but…Uh,”

Why? Nea realized suddenly she didn’t really know why. She knew she meant it—being around Feng changed everything for her. It made things better because… Oh no, oh fuck, I don’t like her do I? This is worse than that, Nea realized, heart sinking and fluttering all at once. Oh God.

She looked at Feng and suddenly it dawned on her that she was taking way too long to say something.  “It’s because you’re my friend,” Nea hurried, “but, uh, it’s different from that too.”

Feng was watching her carefully, still hard to read. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I don’t really know how to say this,” Nea said, feeling like she was going to die of embarrassment, “So uh—I guess I’ll just give it a go. Uh. When I…Okay,” she  took a deep breath, “The very first time I met you, I immediately thought that I wanted to get to know you—and I guess probably some of that’s because you’re super fucking hot, but that wasn’t the only—fuck, I sound like such an idiot—I’m sorry, I really don’t know how to say this kind of thing and I know I’m fucking it up. I’ve never felt like this before—give me a second.”

Okay, think. Try to make sense. Lord, please Nea, make sense.

Feng was still silent, listening almost suspicious. Looking at her, Nea felt some of what she was trying to express come together as the emotions solidified.

“I look at you,” Nea said slowly after thinking for a second, “and I feel like…look, I’m never sure of anything in my life, or care that much about it, but when I see you, I know that I want to be with you. And I don’t even really mean like, be-with-you date-you, I mean I want to see every good thing that happens to you for the rest of your life. And like, I know that. I know I want that, and that it’s super important to me. I feel like you’re a story that I want to be a part of. And it’s not just that I think you’re smart, and tough, and gorgeous—it’s like…I saw you and I thought ‘Whoa. there’s somebody I want to see get a happy ending’—I don’t really know how to explain that. And like, not just that—I want to see the rest of it to, I thought ‘I want to see her wake up, and tell jokes, and watch movies, and do dumb shit, and open Christmas presents.’”

Feng looked even more surprised now, and Nea was afraid that she looked a little cornered. She didn’t want that—she tried to think of some way to fix it.

“I-I want to see you be happy,” Nea said, trying to make sense of how she felt, “I want to see it, and I want to help it happen—I wanna make it happen. Because, I think whatever you’re gonna do, it’s gonna be something I want to get to remember. I wanna be there for all of it.’”

She looked at Feng’s face, trying to read the emotion on it, and she couldn’t. Feng started to say something and then stopped, so Nea kept going.

“I don’t know how to answer your question because I don’t think it’s really something about you—that is—I mean, I think it’s you—not some part, like, that’s just how I feel whenever I see you. Not because you’re smart, or amazing, or whatever. When I look in your eyes I don’t really think about one thing you do. I just think: ‘that’s Feng. She’s the girl going places, going somewhere good,’ and…I want to be there with you,” Nea said, afraid now that everything she was saying sounded wrong, “I want it because I want to see you get that ending, and also because when I’m with you, you make me feel like I might be somebody to remember too.” She looked down. “Like you believe in me…Or, at least, you make me feel like it matters who I am. Not just that I’m here.”

“…Oh,” said Feng after a few seconds of the silence that lingered when Nea finished. She looked down at her shoes for a moment, and then back up at Nea. “…Do you really mean all that?”

Nea nodded. Yeah. I really do.

Feng looked away, thinking something over for a second. Finally, she took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” said Feng, sounding sorry, “but I don’t think I can say yes.”

“Oh.” Nea felt her heart sink.

“I never thought about it before,” said Feng, “but…yeah. I was gonna say yes, but I don’t think I can now.”

Nea had known that rejection might be a thing, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. It was different than she expected though. She felt confused, and the pain stung like a slap.

Across from her, Feng looked agitated, like she was trying to solve a problem in her head.

“This stuff you’re talking about—the way you say you feel about me,” said Feng, “I don’t feel like that about you. And I think it would be shitty of me to act like I do.”

Nea felt her heart sink lower.  I shouldn’t have done this. Fuck me. God, I’m stupid.

“I don’t think about you all the time,” Feng continued, “Or feel like I need to see how stuff goes for you. I’m just…I guess I’m not like that.” She sounded like she was discovering this as she spoke, and she looked like she’d been hit by a car. “Nea, nobody’s ever said anything like that to me before. Not my mom, or my dad, or any of the guys who’ve asked me out. I don’t even know how to feel about it. Maybe sad. Like, I’ve always done better on my own—I mean, I’ve been a part of teams, and that’s all good, but when it comes down to it, I depend on me to win, not the team, and I’m here to help me perform, not anybody else. That makes me sound like an asshole,” added Feng, “but it’s the truth. It’s just who I am. I don’t think I can know how to be different.”

There was a sickening feeling in Nea’s chest, an ache that felt physical more than emotional, like she was hurt inside by some collapsing organ. It wasn’t that she was angry or hurt that Feng didn’t think she was good enough, or that she was being turned down and rebuffed, it was that she felt like somehow by asking she’d made Feng feel worse. It was also that she’d only just realized it, but Nea had started making plans in her head—she hadn’t known until now, but there were dozens of little memories of things she’d only thought might happen, and losing those wounded her.

“I’m not like you think I am,” said Feng, “I’m selfish, and I don’t think I can change. What I do works. I don’t want to stop. It’s what I know how to be.” She paused and relented a little. “I don’t mean that I don’t care about you. I like you, a lot, but, not like you like me. I could keep going without you, and I’d be fine. I…”

Feng stopped then and her face scrunched up into a frown. She made a sound almost like “huh” and muttered something Nea couldn’t catch.

“At least, I think so,” she said after a second, sounding less sure.

“I don’t think you’re an asshole,” said Nea, trying to sound less shaky than she felt, “I like how you are. Even if you don’t like me. But I think you’re better than you think you are.”

“You sound like a mom,” said Feng, eyeing her, “or Dwight.”

Yeah, I probably do.

Nea shrugged. “I just wanted you to know. It’s okay that you don’t feel the same way.” It wasn’t okay, but it would be, eventually. Maybe. At least she would keep her promise not to change how she acted.

“I’m sorry,” Feng said, actually looking sorry, “that I’m not like you.”

“I’m glad you aren’t,” said Nea, smiling at her friend even though she felt like her heart was dying. “Should we…uh?” she added after a second, awkwardly looking down at her hands and then holding one out.

Feng took it and the two of them shook hands. Nea wasn’t sure why she’d felt like that was what should be done, it felt ridiculous once she was doing it. After shaking it, she held onto Feng’s hand for a second longer, and then took a step forward and kissed her on the forehead.

That’s more like I feel, Nea thought as she drew back, better goodbye to an idea than a handshake.

“I’ll, uh,” Nea said, stuffing her hands in her pockets, “see you back at camp. Good luck,” she added through a sort of choked voice, doing her best to smile.

She had gone about ten feet when she heard Feng’s voice from behind her.

“Hey.”

Nea paused and turned around.

Feng was standing there, holding out her hand. Nea hesitated, then walked back and took the hand, wondering if this meant a hug. It didn’t. Once she had Nea’s hand, Feng didn’t say anything, she just started to walk deeper into the woods. Nea’s only choices were to go along or to resist, so she followed.

“Where are we going?” Nea asked after a second.

Feng didn’t say anything.

They kept going until they were a few minutes from camp, near some boulders and dense trees, and finally Feng let go of Nea’s hand and stopped and turned to face her.

“I’m sorry I said all that, and I’m really confused right now,” Feng said, shoulders squared, “and I don’t know what it’s like to care about somebody like you mean,” Feng continued, locking eyes with Nea, “You know that, right?”

Nea nodded slowly. “I don’t really either,” she replied, “I haven’t cared like it before.”

“I feel bad though, because I didn’t want you to just leave,” Feng said after a second, looking agitated. “But I should, because I’m sad all the time and lonely, and I don’t know how to like someone, and that can’t be good reasons to want you to stay. But I do feel a little bit more okay whenever you’re here, like it’s a little better, and…I guess. If you know all that, and you still want to find out...”

She trailed off, and Nea was left not completely sure what that meant.

“Uh,” Nea asked after a second, “what?”

Feng took a step forward and suddenly she was very close to Nea.

“Even if you know it probably won’t work, do you still want to give us a shot?” Feng asked. She said it more like a challenge to back down than an offer, on edge and tense herself. Her face was inches from Nea’s, and Nea could hear her breathing—even, but a little fast.

“Yeah,” Nea replied, her heartbeat quickening to match pace, “I do.”

“Okay?” asked Feng. Her intensity turned hesitant and she looked almost afraid. Last chance to back out.

“Yeah,” Nea replied again, more sure, “I want to try with you.”

“Are you totally sure?” asked Feng.

“No, I changed my mind,” said Nea, unable to stop herself, “Yes I’m sure.”

Feng bit her lip and smiled at Nea, almost laughing. Then, slowly, almost gingerly, Feng reached up and took Nea’s face in her hands and pulled her into a kiss.

For a second after their lips met, everything was long and slow. Nea felt herself breathe in and Feng breathe out, and there was only the sensation of warmth and life, and then it became something entirely different. Her pulse quickened and Feng pulled on her and the kiss became deep and Nea was kissing back with a rhythm that was almost frantic. She felt her chest heave as she moved with Feng, leaning into the kiss again and again and then she felt Feng’s tongue in her mouth and as she kissed back it was almost like they were a single new being together, sharing their breath, heartbeats perfectly timed, her fingers wound around the other girl’s hair of their own accord, and then they broke apart, catching their breath and looking at each other in surprise and wonder.

Feng was breathing hard, and her expression seemed so impressed when she looked up and met Nea’s eyes that Nea started to laugh. Feng straightened herself and closed the distance again, shoving Nea just hard enough for her back to catch against the tree behind her and half knock the breath out of her. Feng grinned at Nea and placed her palms against the tree on either side of the other girl’s head like she was holding her there, and then she leaned forward and her mouth was on Nea’s again and everything else was gone.

Her hands found the fabric of Feng’s pants and the back of her neck and she pulled her closer, harder, leaning into the kiss, the motion of heaving chests and hips against hips. Nea felt a hand on her chest and another tightly wound in her hair, and as their rhythm intensified she needed more and Nea shoved off the tree she’d been pressed against, half lifting Feng, who was more than willing to oblige, wrapping her legs around Nea’s torso, never once letting her tongue leave Nea’s mouth as they moved blindly, bumping and slamming against trees in the intensity of their motion. Nea pulled her mouth away from Feng’s and started to kiss her neck, following the jawline down to her collarbone, the sudden slow motion in the midst of their intensity somehow ever stronger. She heard the breath catch in Feng’s chest as she turned her head to expose her throat to the exploring lips. As soon as she reached her collarbone, Nea felt warm palms on her cheeks and Feng turned her head back to look up at her.

For a moment they just looked at each other, motion forgotten and stars in their eyes. Then Feng grabbed her flannel by the collar and jerked her up into an intense kiss, the force of the lunge stumbling them into a boulder, and as she kissed back Nea felt one hand cup behind her head and another slide up under her shirt and past the bra, and the sudden touch tugged on her inside and she leaned into it, hands unsure where to go through the intensity that suddenly floored her, finding the cool skin along Feng’s back and pulling herself further into the grinding ripple of hips against each other, no longer able to control her own motion or wanting to break from the rhythm, almost like a fight as it dragged her relentlessly into the other girl, but voluntary and stronger and safe in a way, struggling together towards something impossible that felt so good she thought her chest might rupture from it.

They kept going, hands exploring quicker, tugging harder, motions getting stronger and stronger as they struggled to never stop, until Feng suddenly let go and dropped to her feet again, catching Nea by surprise and off-balance, and using the momentum to knock her back onto the grass, moving to straddle her before she had time to recover her breath or move.

Chests heaving up and down in their frantic efforts, both girls paused for a second, trying to gasp air back into their lungs as Nea stared up at Feng. Feng grinned at her and reached down, wrapped her fingers around the edges of her shirt, and pulled it over hear head, leaving herself in a black bra as she tossed the shirt blindly into the weeds behind her.

Slowly, Nea let her hands run up Feng’s side, feeling her friend’s breath and her heartbeat as her palm met Feng’s chest, and then she slid her hand into the hollow of Feng’s back and let her fingertips unsnap the clasps and her other hand tugged the bra free.

Heart racing, Nea hesitated, just staring at the other girl in wonder. Feng didn’t. She took Nea’s hands and placed them on her breasts, and then leaned forward, one hand cupping Nea’s head and the other slipping down past her pants as she pulled her into a kiss that was long and deep and consuming against the rhythm of roaming tongues and reaching hands and rocking hips and rapid breathing.

Her whole body moved, dragged along with the motion in her hips and arms and the girl on top of her, and she heard moans among the rhythm and wasn’t sure if they were hers or Feng’s or both, but the motion and the sound intensified and she felt energy like adrenaline but stronger all through her, something like she’d never felt in her life, and an intense pleasure that felt like wanting and needing and relief all at once, and the sensation built and flooded her and then suddenly she and Feng as one burned out of existence and back in, and she felt her back slam against the cold concrete floor of the meat packing plant, and her head stung as it smacked into the uncaring floor.

Feng’s head snapped up from where it had been and she sat up on Nea’s chest, frantically looking around.

“Ow…” said Nea quietly from underneath her.

“What the fuck,” she heard Feng whisper angrily.

“No, no,” Nea replied, still out of it on her emotional high. She reached up and put a hand under Feng’s chin and turned her head back to look at her. “It’s cool. We’ve been living in a horror movie for so long, it was only a matter of time before somebody had to be the dumb couple that goes to make out in the woods and gets their asses cut up.”

Feng looked at her, annoyed for a second, and then her expression became a losing battle not to smile. “So what, we’re a public service?”

Nea nodded and sat up, Feng still in her lap. She kissed her on the lips, and then the nose, and gave her a soft smile. “We’re cheating though, because everyone gets their asses cut up here anyway,” whispered Nea, her voice containing the barely choked down urge to laugh, because for some reason all of this was incredibly funny to her, “but nobody else gets to bang.”

Feng snorted and shook her head, then looked down at herself. “Oh, fuck,” she said realizing, “there’s two more of us in here and I don’t have shirt.”

“Or a bra,” Nea added helpfully.

Feng gave her a look.

“Here,” whispered Nea, gently moving Feng off her lap and standing up, offering Feng a hand. Feng took it and Nea pulled her to her feet, tugged off her flannel, and passed it to Feng. “Better than nothing.”

Feng smiled and took it, then pointed to a gen a few feet away from them. “Let’s do this shit,” she whispered happily. As she slid over to the gen, Feng tied the flannel around her torso like a towel, or an impromptu tube-top, instead of putting it on and buttoning it.

“Fashion?” Nea whispered as she knelt by Feng and started on the gen.

Feng looked across the generator at her and gave her a sly smile. “No. I want it to come off as fast as possible once we get out of here,” she whispered back.

Nea choked and cleared her throat, grinning as she worked.

After a few seconds, she heard an almost hesitant sounding bing-bong of a bell from about three feet behind her.

Ah, fuck’n hell, Nea thought, grabbing Feng and taking off at top speeds. Maybe I’ll get a chance to impress her by dying heroically.

 


 

 

“You’re sure it’s the Wraith?” asked Dwight, creeping after Meg Thomas past boxes in the meat packing plant.

“Sure as I am that I’m gonna beat his ass for dragging me here in the middle of trying to describe the emotion when Binx starts purring because home’s a thing again for the first time in 300 years,” replied Meg. “I heard the bing-bong stick.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dwight, choking, “the what now?”

Meg stopped in front of him and made a swinging motion, “You know, the stick thing he hits the bell with that makes it go ‘bing-bong.’”

“That’s not the sound a bell makes,” Dwight hissed back. “Please don’t say it like that, I think you took years off my life.”

“Dwight,” Meg said, looking him square in the face, “Bells go bing-bong. They just do.”

Suddenly the two of them heard the sound of a terror radius come shooting towards them, and they slid behind a cage with a decaying corpse in it, trying to breathe quietly. The sound faded, and then got closer, then faded again.

“So,” Meg whispered after it had been ten seconds and the little pallet-looping or whatever was happening seemed to still be going on, “Not to sound like Claudette, but the Wraith’s been being pretty fucking weird lately.”

“Yeah?” asked Dwight, sounding hopeful.

“I was thinking I might start fucking with him and see what happens,” Meg whispered back, “You know, for posterity.”

Dwight shook his head at her. “Why would you do that?”

She made a sort of duh gesture with her hands. “For posterity,” she said again, much slower. “Also,” she added after a second, “I was thinking—”

And then Feng and Nea came tearing around the corner, the Wraith right behind them, shot past the hidden survivors, and vanished up the stairs in a mad scramble, hand in hand.

Meg blinked at the sight of Feng in an only semi-functional tube-top and mouthed “What the fuck? Was that a tube-top?” to Dwight, who got the “What the fuck,” but not the “tube-top,” and just shook his head in confusion and went back to staring himself.

The Wraith hesitated at the base of the stairs as the two girls vanished, looked around, drooped his shoulders and sighed, then walked up the stairs slowly after them, quickening his pace as he reached the top.

“What the fuck was that,” Dwight whispered, peeking out from behind the cage.

“The fucking Wraith, or the,” Meg gestured to her boobs.

“I don’t even know,” said Dwight, suddenly exhausted, “let’s just get to a gen.”

Meg put a hand on his shoulder. “You do that. I’m gonna go fuck with the Wraith.”

“Please don’t make him mad,” Dwight hissed after her as she vaulted over some boxes and was gone.

Jesus Christ, thought Dwight, I need to try to talk to him, but I don’t want to do it after she gets through. I know we’ve been worried Claudette and I haven’t been in trials with him at all, and this is a good thing for us, but damn I don’t want to do this. He squared his shoulders. Quit wimping out. Do it for Claudette. You said you would, so come on. Get going. He heard a loud clang and laughter from somewhere above him. God, this is the fucking nightmare scenario.

Dwight took a deep breath and slowly started up the stairs, only absently thinking to himself he was doing exactly what the Wraith had done.

Chapter Text

Nea had hoped to show some grand gesture by taking a bullet for Feng, but she didn’t end up having to. She and Feng pretty easily avoided the Wraith, who eventually lost them altogether. That was fine by her.

In the end, she tugged open an exit gate with Feng at her side, ran for the escape, burned back into existence by the fire at camp and hit the ground running, fingers already intertwined with Feng’s. The two girls made a b-line for the forest, not even stopping to greet their surprised friends or register their reactions. As Nea and Feng shot past Jake, she saw him raise a hand and she smacked a flying high-five behind her back as they went by.

It took another three minutes for Meg to come stumbling back to the campfire, laughing about dodging the Wraith, and then looking a little concerned by the immediate bombardment of questions about Feng and Nea she had no idea how to answer. After another four minutes passed, Jake asked her about Dwight, who should have been back—one way or another. She didn’t know. Claudette stopped working on her Med Kit and moved to sit by the fire and wait. Jake kept working on his toolbox, but he shot looks at the campfire with increasing frequency as the minutes dragged from seven to twelve. The tension around the fireplace grew, and eventually, one by one, everyone stopped what they were doing and just sort of sat by the fire, waiting in silence.  No more questions about the missing girls, no third act of Hocus Pocus finished by Meg, no more lessons from David. Fourteen minutes.

Something was very wrong.

 


 

Dwight had attempted, six times during the trial, to get close to the Wraith. He’d failed every one of them. Meg had been causing absolute pandemonium upstairs, and Feng and Nea weren’t any better.

Claudette was right though, the Wrath was…off. He was chasing hard, but Dwight never saw him go to hit someone. Didn’t even swing. He tried to grab them from time to time, but not attack. A trial where the killer didn’t even draw blood was virtually unheard of.

Dwight tried getting close to him when the Wraith lost Meg in a chase, but no sooner did he slip out from behind a box and say “Hey,” and get that slow, horrifyingly ominous head turn, when Meg was back and shining a flashlight in the killer’s face and shooting away at impossible speeds.

Feng and Nea were the only two who got any work done on generators, but they went fast as a two-person team, and it didn’t take long with such little interference from the Wraith for all five generators to power the escapes.

It was the easiest trial Dwight had ever seen. And that kind of freaked him out. The longer it went on, the tenser he felt. It was like the air got thicker.

On the other hand, Nea and Feng had left the second a door was open, and Dwight realized that if he was going to have a chance of talking to the Wraith, this was pretty ideal. After all, if things went badly, he could just run for the escape instead of die. Hopefully.

He’d been following this line of positive thinking, crouched in an exit, when Meg had gone down. It had been quick—a lucky shot maybe. Like Claudette, Dwight could sense people—to a weaker extent. They’d all developed abilities since coming here, and that was one of his. He didn’t have the range Claudette did, but Meg and the Wraith were close, only a few yards off.

Shit. It couldn’t have been easy, thought Dwight, slipping out of the exit and towards where Meg had gone down. He saw the Wraith pick her up and carry her, kicking and fighting, towards a hook. God damn it, Meg.

He heard her scream in pain as the thick chunk of metal cut through her shoulder and out her chest, puncturing a lung. He felt the sensation in his own chest—he knew it far too well. Dwight wondered if it was the same for all of them, or if he was the only one who had trouble breathing as his lungs filled up with blood.

Okay, I promised Claudette, but get Meg first.

The Wraith looked up at her and then turned and moved quickly towards the exit he’d just come from, melting into invisibility as he went. Dwight counted in his head to give the Wraith a few seconds of distance, then bolted to the hook and lifted Meg free.

“Little bitch,” he heard Meg whisper as he got her down, “hitting me blinded, lucky shot.”

“Go,” hissed Dwight, shoving her in the opposite direction the Wraith had taken. She did, and Dwight saw the invisible form of the Wraith slide into place in front of them almost too late. He moved between the huge man and his injured friend as she ran, blocking his path. The Wraith uncloaked then, the wailing bell making a sound that Dwight would unfortunately probably hear as bing-bong from now on thanks to Meg. Dwight expected to be hit, and then to make the quick run back towards the exit only a few yards off with a cut in his side. Good odds at that. Instead, the Wraith kicked him.

He’d never been kicked by a killer before. Honestly, he wasn’t sure he’d ever been kicked by anyone before. It hurt. A strong, tall man’s foot rammed into your chest at high speeds, for the record, was painful.

He went flying back and slammed into a little table nearby, toppling it and knocking the breath out of him. Before he could get back up, the Wraith was above him, foot planted firmly on his chest.

Dwight had never seen the Wraith mori someone, and he had the sudden overwhelming impression he was about to.

“Wait!” said Dwight desperately, trying to shift the foot with both his hands, “I just want to talk to you!”

The Wraith looked down at him and cocked its head.

It looked up then, like it was listening to something above it. Then it looked back down at him and stomped, hard, knocking the breath out of him and leaving his chest aching as he gasped for air.

It bent down then and picked him up, slinging him over its shoulder. He didn’t have the strength to struggle, trying as hard as he could just to breathe, and the Wraith moved downstairs quickly.

Oh god, he’s taking me to the basement, Dwight realized as they rounded a corner. His brain decided to reassess its position how much it needed oxygen to fight back, and he started to struggle wildly.

As soon as he did, the Wraith picked him up off its shoulders with both hands and slammed him into a wall.

Dwight’s head rammed back against the wall, stunning him. It took him a second to be able to see clearly again, and he felt blood dripping down the back of his head. The Wraith hadn’t even bothered to sling him over a shoulder this time. It was just dragging him along quickly by the collar.

They hit the basement steps and he tried again to struggle, fighting to pull the Wraith’s hands off his shirt. The Wraith threw him the few steps down to the landing, knocking his head hard against the wood paneling, and pinning him with one of its feet again.

This is bad, Dwight’s mind offered. I’m definitely going to die and it’s going to be way worse than normal death. Worse death, that’s what this is.

It stomped on his chest again, and he started to cough, lungs desperately trying to fill up with oxygen.

“Wait,” Dwight tried to get out without any air. The Wraith stared down at him, then it rammed its foot into his chest a second time, harder, and Dwight keeled forward, coughing on the ground.

He felt it grab him and throw him down the last few steps to the basement floor. He hit the ground still coughing and skidded a few feet, slamming into the base of one of the lockers. It advanced fast and grabbed him by his collar, lifting him into the air while he kicked and fought.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, no. He saw the array of hooks out of the corner of his eye. The basement hooks were different. It always hurt to be stabbed through one of these things, but the ones in the basement burned.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Dwight managed, “Don’t!”

With one swift motion, the Wraith threw him onto one of the hooks, and as the Wraith let go, he tried to brace for the pain that hadn’t kicked in yet and he felt himself suddenly dangling. There was no pain though. It took Dwight a second to realize that the hook was caught through the back of his shirt, hanging him like a clothing wrack, and not through his shoulder.

What the fuck? his panicked brain asked him desperately, begging for help on damage control. Did he do this on accident?

How should I know? he thought back, equally freaked out, but this is bad.

Beneath him, the Wraith turned its head like it was listening as it looked up at him, then it looked furtively over its shoulders and reached into its cloak.

Oh God, thought Dwight with immeasurable dread. Oh fuck, what the hell is happening?

Slowly, the Wraith drew its hand from the cloak and held it out to him, opening its fingers when the hand was close to reveal a little roll of gauze.

Oh thank God.

“Yes!” Dwight almost shouted, as the terror gave way to immense relief. “Yes! That’s Claudette’s—she gave it to you—you do remember!”

The Wraith nervously looked over its shoulders again and put a finger to its lips. Dwight took the hint.

“Sorry,” he whispered, “I’m just really excited—I thought I was about to die painfully.”

The Wraith looked at him for a second, then the gauze, and shook its head.

“What?” asked Dwight quietly.

It glanced over its shoulder again, then made the hand signal for ‘keep going.’

What is it doing? wondered Dwight. “Uh…” he started, trying to think, “…I’m wrong?”

It shrugged at him, still giving the ceiling furtive glances.

This is weird, thought Dwight, What are you looking for? What would overhear us? Why are you acting like this, Wraith? But this is good, right? I mean, it’s trying to talk to me…sort of, and I’m not dead. Okay, uh, what now?

He hadn’t said anything in response yet, so the Wraith shrugged at him again and shook its head.

“You don’t know?” Dwight prompted, guess at what it meant. Can it not talk? Or, should I stop talking?

The Wraith nervously tapped its foot on the floor. It opened its mouth like it might speak, and then shut it. Instead it tapped its temple with a finger and shook its head at him.

I’ve always been so mediocre at charades, thought Dwight unhappily. Damnit. Why did I not build basic skills in life. Or…pre-trial hell whateverthe…ah fuck it. “You…” he thought for a second. “You don’t remember?” he continued, hushed.

The Wraith nodded then. It was hard to read an expression behind the mask of mud and paint on its face. Dwight had never really been this close to the Wraith before—not in this way, where he didn’t have to be running, or fighting, or something. He’d not taken a long, good look before. He always had vaguely seemed tree-ish to Dwight—like a living elm or something—a bad dryad. But he was more human looking up close. His arms were human skin anyway, similar shade to Claudette’s. There was the same paint-mud covering most of him as made a mask on his face, but Dwight could definitely see skin too. He wondered if the mask was a part of him, or something that could be taken off.  The eyes weren’t human though. They glowed, a vaguely blueish white, with nothing he could see behind them.

Still though—it nodded. Right? Right. Okay, okay, good—good. That’s something. But what do I say now? thought Dwight, trying to keep up. What does it want me to do? It doesn’t remember, so why? Is that normal for a killer? “She said she gave it to you because you hurt yourself,” Dwight continued after a second of thought, hoping that answer would help.

The Wraith gave him a look he had a hard time placing but was pretty sure fell in the realm of disbelief, confusion, or skepticism. So probably not a great sign. Okay, give it more detail, but don’t piss it off. This is…I think…going pretty well. Don’t fuck it up.

“You attacked everyone,” said Dwight carefully, choosing his words as he went, “You had been acting weird before that in a couple trials, not chasing us and stuff, and then you suddenly did again, and almost killed a few of us, and then it was just you and Claudette—she’s the one who gave you that—kind of small, glasses like me, often wears an apron?”

The Wraith nodded in a way that indicated it knew exactly who he meant.

“Right,” continued Dwight, “So it was just her, and you had her, and she thought you were going to kill her but,” he tried to remember exactly what Claudette had said, “You seemed like something was wrong, and you hit yourself in the head on purpose until it cut your head open, and then you let her go. She gave you gauze to take care of the forehead cut.”

The Wraith stood there, like it didn’t know what to do. He could tell it had been listening carefully to what he said. It slowly put its fingers up to its forehead like it was feeling for a wound. Dwight could tell there wasn’t one.

“You seem okay now,” he hurried to add, “I don’t know—maybe you heal fast like we do? You…You uh, don’t remember any of that?” I probably sound super full of shit. Is there anything more provable? Come on, think.

The Wraith lowered its hand and looked at him again, head tilted, then down at the gauze it still held. He saw it run its fingers over the worn fabric slowly.

I have nothing, Dwight thought hopelessly, I don’t know what to say if it can’t remember anything. That’s not fair. If that’s the case, then what can I say to it that would even matter?

“I-I’m sorry,” he said quietly after a second, feeling a need to say something, “That’s really all I know. We’ve been trying to talk to you ever since, her and me, but this is the first time one of us has been in the same trial since…” since you killed her, thought Dwight, but he didn’t say it. “We never thought you all were like people before,” Dwight continued after a second, hoping maybe it would give him a sign they were right—that it was like a person.

The Wraith quickly turned its head back to look up at him then. Its glowing white-blue eyes unblinking and fixed.

“I’m Dwight,” he offered, awkwardly extending a hand like he was going for a handshake. Guess I’m doing this. I probably look ridiculous.

The Wraith looked at the hand, and then there was a sound above them, and the Wraith jumped. There was a sudden heaviness to the air, and all about him, Dwight saw the spider-like fingers he’d seen appear around him so many times on a hook start to burn into existence.

The Wraith looked back at him and he thought that maybe he could see a real expression behind the mask this time: dread. It looked from the ceiling, to the claws, back to him, and then moved the one small step it needed to reach him and picked him up.

Oh no, thought Dwight as he realized what was about to happen. “Wait, wait! Please don’t!”

The Wraith ran him through the hook. He felt the boiling hot metal cut through his lung and skin and he screamed in pain as his bodyweight tore against it and made everything worse as he hung there.

It met his eyes for a second, and he thought he saw guilt, and then it moved away from his line of sight and all he could see were the sharp spider-like fingers surrounding him.

The Entity’s claws solidified about him and closed fast, with a snap like a bear trap, and Dwight caught the one in front of him and struggled, fighting to keep it back.

“Please,” he called, trying to turn his head towards where the Wraith had gone, “I know you don’t want to do this.” For some reason the panic of dying this way was stronger than it had been in a long time—maybe since the first time. I know I was getting somewhere. Come on, prove me right. Shit, please prove me right. “Please help me!”

He heard something then, a voice, but a language he didn’t know. The talon he was struggling against lost a little of its tension and the fight was easier for a second. Above him, he saw dark clouds descending and the air thickened with black smoke that swirled in a slow, dedicated vortex in the center of the room.

Sound—the voice from before continued, rapidfire.

The Wraith was in front of him again then, and with one hand it gripped him by the collar and tore him off the hook, dropping him to the ground with a thud.

Dwight’s head hit the hook post as he dropped, and he felt dazed for a second, hand to his wound trying to staunch the blood flow from the chunk of flesh he’d lost when it tore open his chest.

He’s talking, Dwight realized, fuzzy vision watching the Wraith gesture up at the smoke above it. I don’t know what language, but he’s talking.

He hadn’t ever heard a Killer speak before. He hadn’t known they could.

There was a hiss that echoed and changed, a sound between wind and whispers and fire, and Dwight realized with a cocktail of morbid, frozen fascination and fear that something was talking back—the Entity was talking back.

Oh fuck, this is really bad, isn’t it, he thought in a quiet panic, trying to put comprehensive thoughts together. He struggled to make it to his feet, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t the injury in his chest stopping him, or the daze from where his head had hit the post. It was the immense, overpowering pressure from the cloud above him. Just being in that thing’s presence was making him week. His legs just wouldn’t stand. There was no fight or flight reflex to kick in in the Entity’s aura. There was only one impulse, and it was to hide. Move, he told himself, trying as hard as he could to push through the ice in his veins.

In front of him, the Wraith continued to speak. There was emotion in the voice, he was sure of it. Something intense but not hostile. Desperation maybe.  It had been talking fast this whole time, but it stopped then, started and faltered, and he could tell by its tone it was asking a question.

The cloud above the two of them was thickening. It was getting hard to breathe. The Wraith looked at him, and then back at the cloud, and said something. There was a hiss as it was answered by the cloud, and the Wraith just stood there, like it had been hit by a train. Unmoving—staring at nothing. Then, slowly, it looked at him, and then the stairs, then back to him. Head still, only its eyes moving.

Run, he realized. Run for the stairs. He tried, fighting to his feet and taking two shaky steps towards the way out, looking back at the Wraith and the cloud above. The Wraith moved then, putting its body between him and the rest of the basement and the thing in the inky black smoke, its back to him, and Dwight had the distinct impression that if he didn’t run now, he wasn’t going to have another chance.

He started to run, but something about the rigid stance, the tension in the Wraith’s posture. Dwight stopped and looked back. You’re in trouble, aren’t you? You saved me, and now you’re going to pay for it. Really, he had no idea what this was. What the rules were for killers, or even what the killers themselves were, but he knew enough to know that the Wraith was letting him go, and it wasn’t supposed to. He wasn’t the only one in danger.

“What about you?” he asked, hesitating at the landing.

The Wraith turned its head to look at him and it looked surprised. Maybe even sad.

Suddenly, the basement walls around Dwight exploded into flame.

“Holy shit!” he cried out on impulse, trying to move away from immense heat suddenly coming from all directions.

Above him, he heard a crack like thunder, and he looked up in time to see burning chunks of ceiling coming down. The Wraith moved like it was trying to reach towards him, then he was buried.

He didn’t die. It wasn’t fast, like he’d hoped and prayed in the split second he’d seen the roof coming at him. Nothing so merciful. The beams pinned him to the stairs, breaking bones with the force of their fall and searing his flesh. He screamed, trying to shift the debris off him as he felt his skin melt and smelled himself burning. Dwight had died a lot of ways, and all of them had been gruesome, but nothing had hurt as much as burning alive did. The smoke around him filled his lungs and choked him, and he coughed and struggled to breathe, which only made the burning and tearing of his muscles more awful as he involuntarily increased pressure and fought to get free. He smelled his hair burn and all he could hear was the crackle of fire and his own screams. The burns went deep, cooking organs that tried desperately to save him, cauterizing wounds as they were caused so he couldn’t bleed out, and making it impossible to fill his lungs with the oxygen they needed, but not enough to let him die of asphyxiation. He couldn’t pass out. Even with so much pain, he was horribly awake. He saw himself go blind as the heat snapped his glasses and cooked his eyes, destroying his retinas, searing away his sight with impossible agony. His stomach lining burned through and he felt hot embers fall inside him, and then there was a sound like movement and something sharp cut deep into his forehead and it was over.

He had neve been so relieved to die.

 


 

 

When Dwight woke up, he was laying on his back outside in the grass, by the campfire, and there were voices all around him.

“Fuck, he’s awake,” relief flooded a voice he knew was Jake’s.

I made it, thought Dwight weakly, or something.

“Oh thank God.”

Claudette. There was emotion in her voice like she might cry.

He opened his eyes then, afraid to at first because he was terrified they wouldn’t work anymore—the memory of losing them still fresh. They did though, and he was suddenly blinking against the harsh light. Thank god, I can still see.

Almost everyone he knew was crowded around, looking down at him. Claudette grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him up into a hug.

“You’re okay! You were gone for so long after the trial ended,” she said, burying her face in his shoulder, “we were worried something awful had happened.”

Motor control came back, and Dwight reached out and wrapped his arms around Claudette, returning the hug.

“You were out for another minute after appearing here too,” said Jake, crouched beside Dwight and still sounding a little worried. “That’s never happened before. What went on in the trial?”

Dwight let go of Claudette and looked at the others around him. “I don’t know where to start,” he answered.

“I’m sorry, I thought we were both out. You weren’t even injured, and we were so close to the doors,” said Meg, looking miserable.

He shook his head. “Yeah, no—you didn’t do anything. It’s okay.” He held out and arm and she move over and hugged him.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” asked Quentin. He had a med kit open. Dwight nodded, wondering what they’d been planning to do to wake him up if he hadn’t on his own.

“So, what happened?” asked Jake again from his position crouched beside Dwight.

Dwight started to answer, and then he noticed Laurie, expectantly watching with the others. Whatever happened before that made the Wraith forget, Dwight thought to himself, I think it just happened again. Or maybe something worse. And the last thing some of them need is false hope, or to feel divided right now. He was torn for a second, trying to decide between telling them what was definitely important news, and protecting them by hanging onto it himself for a little longer. It seemed stupid not to—the kind of thing you got mad at characters for doing in a tv show that had been running too long. But then he remembered the way Laurie had almost sounded worried about seeing the Shape again after he tried to end it with her, about what would happen to him. Come to think of it, they hadn’t seen the Shape since. There was a sudden worry in the pit of his stomach that they might not see the Wraith again this time either. That would be his fault. What had happened back there?  Okay, you’re overthinking this—or, maybe you haven’t thought it through enough. None of this hiding stuff all alone bullshit, that’s stupid, but ask Claudette. Maybe both of you wait a match and see if the Wraith is there, and if he’s different. At least think this through before you tell it all. Just, buy a little time. It’ll be okay, I just need time to think.

“Dwight?” prompted Jake, the relieved expression that had been there shifting back into something a little worried.

He thought for a second, then Dwight looked back over at Jake and shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

It’s been…it’s been a lot. Reader, friend, fellow survivor. Whoever you are out there in the mist, hang on tight to something! I have got some really important things to share this time—not like recipes or advice, I mean real, actual, valuable information.

A few—well, I guess at this point it’s more like a lot of trails back—the Wraith stopped mid-trial and didn’t attack me. He let Dwight and me both go. If you’re reading these in order like I’m writing them, then you know that, but it seems like I always only find scattered pages when I find the writings of other people at all.

To make a long story shorter, he started acting strange and leaving us be, until one trial he went wild and almost killed everyone. The really weird thing was that after he went all frenzied on us he started hitting his head on purpose—like he was trying to snap out of something almost. I really don’t know how else to describe it. But after he did that, he calmed down after that and let me go.  Before leaving, I gave him a bandage—because he'd hurt his head banging it on a wall. Him letting me go, and me giving him the bandage, it was almost friendly. Only then, the very next trial, it was like he didn’t even know who I was, and he killed all of us. Not hooked—killed. Killed-killed, mori’d. Ever since then, Dwight and I have been trying to talk to him, to figure out why this happened. I know it sounds dangerous, and maybe foolish—a lot of my friends thought so too, but how could I not? And then, earlier today, a similar thing happened to Dwight. It’s huge.

Wraith has been acting strange again the past few trials, according to the people who were in them (it’s never been me, unfortunately), and then this time, right at the end of the trial he grabbed Dwight and sort of trapped him in the basement, but he didn’t hurt him. We’ve talked it over, Dwight and I, and we think that was so the others would leave and not try to get Dwight back out. We’re usually aware by sound or aura when other people get hurt. But if he wasn’t hurt, nobody would know he was in trouble. It makes sense, doesn’t it? It worked that way anyway. Okay, but back to the important stuff.

Sorry, I know I’m a little scattered. I’m still shaky. In a good way—I’m really happy! I can’t even put it into words right. I haven’t been this happy in…lord, I don’t even know! Maybe since I got Jake to try being part of the group with Dwight and Meg and me. Anyway—okay, so the first trial I had with the Wraith after he let me go, I tried to make him stop attacking us, and I mentioned the gauze I’d given him, but he didn't stop—it was like he didn’t even hear me. He did though, because that’s why he grabbed Dwight—he still had the gauze and he wanted to know why. He remembered what I’d said! Apparently he knows which one of us I am, and he remembered that conversation, but not where he got the gauze—I, I guess I should stop to say that Dwight got this mostly nonverbally. He didn’t exactly “ask” where he got the gauze, or tell all of that to Dwight, but I’ll take all the nods and head shakes I can get—it’s something new, and promising, and hopeful!

I really think that the Wraith isn’t a bad person. I think he’s good, and I think we can make friends with him. I’m going to try! I know I can figure out a way.

All of this stuff with Wraith and Dwight was only a few hours ago, but we’ve talked about it a lot. We haven’t told any of the others yet, because we’re worried about them. Dwight thinks Wraith might be about to go back to acting normal again—normal as in killing everyone mercilessly—and a lot of them have been through some really rough strings of trials recently. I think we should tell them, for sure, and so does Dwight, but just, maybe after we try talking to the Wraith on our own a few times. I don’t want people to get hurt and die more than we all already do, and I don’t want them to give up on the Wraith because of attempts going badly either. It just seems like there’s so much at stake for everybody. I’m trying to make good decisions, but I feel like I’m out of my depth. I’m really, really glad Dwight’s helping me. I shouldn’t be, because I know that puts him in danger—I mean, he just died horribly because of all of this…That’s my fault in a way, I guess. I should try to think of something nice to do for him to try and make it up. I mean, I can’t make something like that up to him so more like to thank him, I guess. He’s a good leader and a better friend. I’m really lucky.

And I’m getting sidetracked. I’m sorry, you don’t care—I promised information.

We aren’t sure why the Wraith would have forgotten what happened in our trial. Dwight thought for a minute maybe the killers forget naturally, but then, we remembered that it’s been a long time since the trial where I told him about the gauze, and he still remembered that, and there’s far older stuff we know some of the others still recall, so that can’t be the answer. We know so little about how the killers work, or why they do what they do. They never talk to us, or to each other, as far as we know. Well, almost, I guess. The one Quentin knows, the Nightmare, he’s always been different from the other killers. I really forget about him when I’m not a trial with him—or I try to. He does talk, if you can call it that. It’s so strange, the others don’t say a word, but he’s a different kind of thing. You can’t hear him at all unless you fall asleep, but once you do, he’s everywhere. I don’t really think of it like talking in the way a person does, and I always remember it sort of blurry when I wake up, but I know he talks. He mocks you and says horrible things, things I wish I could completely forget. But he's some horrible exception. Aside from that, the killers are all silent things stalking the night. They don't talk. They just don't. The closest we’ve ever heard to one of them talking is the Huntress singing.

What’s more, they do seem to remember things—the Trapper really hates Feng because for awhile she was just running circles around a strategy he’d worked out that had had the rest of us duly thrashed. And that has to have been months ago.  Laurie says the Shape remembers her, for sure, and I can tell from the way he acts she’s got to be right. Which means the Wraith forgetting has to be unusual. I mean, I guess it could be something just about him—no long memory, but I don’t think so. That feels like such a stretch.

This is supposed to be informational, but I think at this point I sound like I’m almost writing a conspiracy wall instead—trying to put together puzzle pieces with photographs and newspaper clippings and red string. I want so badly to be helpful, to figure this out, to go home. I just want to find some way to save everyone. I need to think it through though. There’s just so much right now—so much that is new that we have to talk about and think over.

And then, there’s still so much we don’t have any idea of.

We don’t know a lot about the thing that is I guess the “big bad,” or the boss, or whatever I should call it. The Entity. The thing that keeps us trapped. We see it.  We all remember being grabbed by it, and lord knows it’s killed each of us enough times. But we have no idea what it actually is. What’s more, we don’t really know what the relationship is between it and the Killers. We know they sacrifice us to it, and I think we’ve all seen it sort of…I don’t know how to describe it…cue them in, maybe? Sometimes there’s a sound like whispers or the wind near us, and it lets the Killers find us. 

We know the Killers burn offerings too—like we do.  I don’t think any of us think of it as anything like offering in the traditional sense—worship, or whatever. But if you throw things into the campfire when you can tell you’re about to be dragged into a trial, it changes things. I don’t really remember how we all figured that out, but each of us did, and on our own. It was like knowledge we were born with, or given the second we arrived here. However we first discovered it, we’ve learned better what causes what through trial and error. We’ve picked up a lot of things in the fog. So have the killers. Whatever skills we’ve developed, they’ve developed some of their own. Not just the Wraith being able to turn invisible, or the Hag teleporting around like an evil X-man or something—it’s other things too. Smaller things. They’re stronger and faster than should be possible. We tried to fight, all of us, when we first got here. I know a lot of us tried for a long time. We’d grab blunt objects and swing, try and make traps. It didn't work. It doesn’t work. Anything but the set ground rules are useless in a trial. I tried once to break a picture frame over the Nurse’s head when she went to attack Jake, and it did break, but I swear it did before even touching her—it just flew apart all over me on its own and did nothing to her except let her know I was there.  Quentin says in a lot of ways this is like how being in the Nightmare’s dream world was back in reality. You couldn’t hurt him there—his world, his rules.  That’s a scary thought for us, if it’s the same. How are we ever supposed to win?

The other thing is, while we’ve all known the whole time that this is the Entity’s world, we never really thought a lot about what that means for the hunters. It seems so voluntary—I think most of them enjoy it; I know some of them do. With Laurie and Quentin knowing two of them and that they’d been serial killers before coming here, I just assumed that’s what all of them were. That this was hell for us, and some sick heaven for them. I think that's part of why we never tried to talk to them.

Maybe that’s wrong, though. Maybe we’ve been wrong about a lot of things.

Whatever else is true, the Wraith is different from the others. Aah, I’m sorry, I’m all jumbled again, and I’m skipping important things.

When the Wraith grabbed Dwight to ask him questions, it took him to the basement, which you’ll know by now is the worst place in this whole hell world. He put Dwight on a hook through his shirt, instead of actually stabbing him like Killers do to sacrifice us, and tried to get him to explain the gauze. Even though he wasn't really hooked, the Entity still showed up to take its sacrifice like it usually would, and the Wraith hooked Dwight for real to appease it, or to cover, or something. Dwight thinks he was trying to act like he hadn’t been talking to Dwight—said that the Wraith was cautious the whole time, like he knew he was doing something he shouldn’t. Dwight also said it was like he didn’t want to hurt him though—like he felt bad about it, and then when Dwight asked him for help, the Wraith changed his mind. He actually let him go.

That still amazes me. Letting someone slip through an exit is one thing, but the Wraith took him off the hook. Killers don’t take survivors off of hooks. It doesn’t happen. But he did! And after, and this is the other big thing, Dwight heard him talk—the Wraith, like, for real talking to and with the Entity, and it was talking back. They had some kind of a conversation. Dwight didn’t know the language, and I know this may sound unimportant if you’re new to the fog because language isn’t that much in some ways but believe me, it is. After there’s been nothing but silent monsters hunting you for months on end, just talking is such a human thing. It means we have a good shot at communicating with them—we can try! And what’s more, we know the Entity communicates directly with the Killers now, and it seems like they take specific orders from it, but also that they can disobey, because they were definitely talking about what to do with Dwight, and the Wraith did what he wasn’t supposed to.

The room caught on fire and collapsed on top of Dwight after that, which we had no idea the terrain could do—especially a part as sturdy looking as the basement, and I feel absolutely horrible...I wish I could have...Anyway, the roof caved in and he died, so he didn’t see what happened after the Wraith tried to let him go, but he says that when he was burning to death he thinks the Wraith mercy killed him. Dwight said he’s pretty sure Wraith was in trouble for letting him go, so whatever happened next, it probably wasn’t good. I guess that makes sense. I wonder if he got in trouble for letting me go too?

We haven’t been in another trial with Wraith yet—like I said, it’s only been a few hours at this writing, so that might not be a bad sign. It isn’t yet, anyway. There’s not much else to tell, but still, this is a wealth of information. We know that at least some of the killers—one of them anyway—is human like us. At least mostly; at least enough to feel pity and to be kind. That’s something—oh who am I kidding, that’s more than something, that’s huge! I keep trying to downplay how I’m feeling so I can get through this professionally, or coherently, or something, but I’m so happy I want to go give people hugs and dance and—I don’t know—shout maybe! It’s so much to hope for! And what about the others? If this is true of the Wraith, could we get through to the Huntress, or the Hillbilly?

I feel like I’m doing a real poor job of organizing this—I’m just so excited right now! I’ve been so worried that maybe somehow I’d remembered things wrong, or that I just was mistaken, or reading things into my memories, but this is proof—it’s proof that we can talk to at least one of the killers. This could change everything for us! If we can work with the Killers, what can the Entity do to stop us?

Okay. Professional face back on. I’m getting way too ahead of myself. Gotta stick with what we know. We know the killers work for the Entity, on its orders. We know that they can do things they are not supposed to. I can’t say we know for sure, but we are pretty certain that if they do, they get punished some way. Maybe they lose memories? We talked about that as a possibility. But again, that’s speculation—not unfounded, but…Okay, okay. Things we know. We know that the Wraith’s memory is unreliable, but that he is capable of feeling bad for us, and willing to help us under some circumstances—that he has been repeatedly. We think it is very likely that the Entity is responsible for him forgetting things, maybe for him acting especially aggressive sometimes too. Dwight and I don’t know if it can control them—surely not outright though, or it would just do that all the time and have nothing to worry about—but maybe to some extent. We don’t know where the killers come from, but it seems like they used to be people, good or bad, from our world too. Like us. I’ve talked a little to Laurie—I was careful about what I said because she’s been through a lot and I don’t want to make her sad or worry her, but she’s stronger than we give her credit for, and she told me she thought that the Shape was sick of how things are here, sort of like we are. Not sick of dying of course, but of the repetition, maybe—or just of not getting what he really wants. So, we know the killers don’t do everything voluntarily—or at least, we’re pretty close to sure. We also know they can’t all be from the same times. We haven’t talked about this as much as we probably should have, but Laurie’s from the late 70s, and so is the Shape. Lord only knows how long I’ve been here. Dwight and I showed up about the same time—2016, but Feng says she left in 2017, which means it’s been at least a year. Probably more. I haven’t asked everyone. I’m sort of afraid to.  Anyway, staying positive and not thinking about that, based on the technology in the Meat Packing Plant, the Pig has to be from some time in the 2000s, or the very late 1990s at the earliest. From the cars in Autohaven, Wraith must be from earlier. Laurie thinks a similar time to her own. We don’t know how far back things go, or how far forward, but at least we know that time works differently here. Not just our perception of it, but aging.

I’ve spent time thinking about that ever since Laurie brought it up. She was 17 in 1978, which means she’s been here at least something like forty years. She’s definitely not 55, but she is older than 17—I’m pretty near sure of that, just by looking at her. I would have thought she was older than me—I did think she was, that she was something in her upper 20s. I also think I’ve aged just a little myself. And Quentin—since I first met him, he seems older. Not like a whole bunch, but a little. I sort of think everyone does. Maybe we age here based on something other than time, but we still age. I haven’t got any real proof, but my best guess is if Quentin’s right and it’s sort of like a dream world, where a lot changes based on our perceptions, then maybe it’s how much we mentally believe we’re aging. Maybe. Or maybe time is just different? I’m sorry, I know I keep offering ideas, but at least I’m giving you the reasons behind them. Maybe if you have more information than I do, you can put what I know with what you know and get some facts.

Back to more provable things, we know that the Killers can talk, even if they don’t act like it. Dwight said Wraith spoke a language he couldn’t place, but he does seem to understand English—at least some of it. He definitely got at least most of what Dwight was saying. The Entity can speak too—at least in a way the Killers understand. Oh, shoot…My shoe is starting to Marty McFly on me, as Meg calls it. I guess I’m going to be in a trial. I suppose that that’s it for now—hey, with a lot of luck, maybe it’ll be the Wraith! I’ll burn some salt, and finish this later. Wish me luck.

 


  

As her feet began to vanish, Claudette shut her journal and tucked it back where it lived, inside a small hollow in the log near the makeshift garden she’d started. After enough trips into the woods, it had seemed practical to transplant some of the growing things here, closer to what was home now, and she’d enjoyed it too. She’d found a lot of faded pamphlets and newspapers in the Auto Heaven gas station and sewn them together as pages before attaching them to a makeshift cover and spine made from a chunk of leather and some wood.

She looked around to see who else’s number was up. From across the campfire, she saw Kate stand up and glance down at a vanishing arm before checking to see who else around the campfire was being pulled. She met Claudette’s eyes and grinned at her and held up her vanishing hand in a Hey look! Me too! gesture. It was weird to associate positive feelings towards being pulled to a trial, but Claudette appreciated it. It made her feel a little less scared herself. She smiled back and waved—they were too far to actually say anything without shouting, since Claudette’s garden was a bit away from the campfire.

Quentin stood up too, sighing at vanishing fingertips on both hands. Kate said something to him and he smiled and gave her a little solute and just had time to nod in Claudette’s direction before they and whoever their fourth was vanished.

 

When she materialized in the Red Forest, Claudette was only a few feet away from Kate. A lucky start. Both of them were by a little patch of trees near a hill.

Kate smiled at her and winked, and the two girls crouched in unison on instinct. Claudette gave a little Where to?  gesture with her hands, and Kate pointed to the little hill and the generator on top of it. Claudette nodded, and they crept towards the hill together. Going for a generator on a hill was gutsy, because it put you in plain sight, but Kate was right. Best time to do one of these was at the beginning before the pressure was on, or when you know the killer was off chasing someone else, because you sure as heck didn’t want to have to depend on it later on when there were only a handful of gens left, and with two of them together they should be able to get it quick.

They reached the base of the hill and as they started up it, there was the unnerving sound of a chainsaw in the distance and Claudette shuddered. She was afraid of a lot of things, but chainsaws were up there. Being stabbed hurt, period, but someone ripping through your back with a motorized chain was a kind of awful that made her wince at the very thought of it, even after all this time.

Hillbilly, or Cannibal? she wondered, At least he’s far away. She hoped it was the Hillbilly—she liked him a lot more than the Cannibal, for reasons which had a decent amount to do with how he hunted, and another large chunk due to the fact that the other chainsaw wielder was called “the Cannibal” for a reason.

They reached the top of the hill and Claudette pulled open the chest as Kate started on the generator. To her surprise, it was empty. She crouched there, blinking at it for a second in genuine disbelief, and Kate noticed her expression and joined her and looked in too, then gave her a What on earth? look. Claudette had opened a lot of chests in her day, and never had one just been empty.

Something faded and white-ish caught Claudette’s attention then, just barely visible as yellowed paper, rather than the true yellow-brown of the box itself. She reached into the chest and pulled the papers out and looked at them. A series of journal entries, each signed by the vaguely familiar name “Benedict Baker.”

Kate blinked at the pages and leaned closer to squint, then her expression changed to an Ohhhhh. Claudette gave her a questioning look, and Kate pointed to the name “Benedict” and mouthed, “I know him.”

“You what?” Claudette mouthed back, because she’d found a handful of papers by him over her time here, and always assumed he’d been long dead.

Kate gave her an in a minute gesture and pointed at the generator. Claudette nodded, checked the box one last time to make sure she hadn’t missed anything, shoved the pages in her jacket pocket, and then they both slipped over to the gen and started working.

After glancing around to make sure there was no sign or sound of the chainsaw wielder yet, Claudette turned to Kate across the gen and whispered “You know him?” so quietly it was barely a sound.

Kate nodded. “Met him…” she held up ten fingers, then two, for twelve times. “Before you all,” she added almost imperceptibly.

“I never have,” whispered back Claudette, almost to herself rather than Kate. “What’s he like?”

Kate tilted her head, thinking. “Nice,” she whispered finally, “dramatic, but real nice. Old-fashioned. I got him to sing with me.”

Claudette had a lot more questions to ask, but this wasn’t the time—just like it wasn’t the time to actually read the pages, so she just turned her full attention to the gen and focused. Across from her, Kate looked distracted. The two girls worked in silence for a few seconds then, Claudette wondering what the pages said, Kate lost in her own thoughts.

“What’s going on with you and Dwight?” whispered Kate suddenly.

Claudette looked up at Kate in surprise.

“It’s about the Wraith,” continued Kate, “Isn’t it?” Her voice was low and careful, and she was keeping perfect speed on the gen, but she was watching Claudette between glances at her work. “We aren’t dumb, y' know,” she said, “You and he've been sneaking off ever since that one trial and talkin’—you’re both up to somethin’.”

“What?” asked Claudette quietly, trying to deflect, “We talk about everything—I don’t know what you mean.”

Kate gave her a look. “You’re not the best liar.”

Probably true, thought Claudette unhappily, But I can try.

“I think,” said Kate after waiting a second to see if Claudette would answer on her own, “that you’re still tryin’ to talk to him, to the Wraith, and that’s what Dwight was bein’ cagey about earlier.” She paused, and Claudette tried to avoid eye contact. “I wanna help you.”

“What?” whispered Claudette, looking up in surprise.

“I wanna help you talk to the Wraith. I’ve been think’n, and I wasn’t in any of the trials where y’all said he was actin' strange, but I know you, and you got good instincts when it comes to people. I trust you, and if after all that’s been happenin’ you still say there’s somethin’ goin’ on, then I bet there is, and I want to help.” Kate paused then, smiling at her across the gen. “Sides, it’s plain dumb for you two to try and do it all yourselves. You gotta know that.”

“I, uh,” Claudette whispered back, faltering.

“Don’t try’n dissuade me,” Kate cut in quietly, holding up a finger, “Or I’ll just try’n do it on my own. ‘N that’ll be worse for everyone.”

“You’re sure?” Claudette asked, giving up on straight up lying and feeling a lot of emotions at once.

“No need to tear up,” said Kate, having 180’d instantly from almost teasing to genuinely worried the second she realized Claudette might cry, “I didn’t mean ta bully ya. I just wanna help.”

“I’m just happy,” said Claudette, trying to choke down the crack in her voice, “and I feel bad at the same time.”

The generator lit then. Somewhere in the distance, so did another.

They heard a chainsaw rev.

“I really do want to help,” Kate said sincerely, putting a hand on Claudette’s across the gen and squeezing it, “But right now we gotta book it.”

She smiled at Claudette and took her hand, pulling her away from the generator, and they did book it, peeling off together and making for some nearby shrubs. They made cover before the Hillbilly reached the hill, but he saw their tracks and came after them with a vengeance. After trying to dodge him for a minute he saw them both for real, and they had to run. He was too much faster than them, roaring after the two girls with his chainsaw like a heat-seeking missile, and they had to split up so he wouldn’t get them both. Claudette made it halfway across the arena before he caught up to her, fueled by the terror of the spinning blades behind her.

She’d lost Kate near the lodge, when she’d jumped a window and Kate had run upstairs, and the Hillbilly had followed her—that was good, at least. Both Kate being okay, and him being the Hillbilly—Claudette was a significantly less afraid of him than she was the Cannibal.

Still, the sound of the rusty machine’s engine roared behind her and terrified her more than enough. She dove behind a tree, trying to get out of the way in time. The man was relentless, and she had no idea how he could run so well with that thing when he had to know that if he fell carrying it he could kill himself.

The Hillbilly just missed her, and Claudette dove to the side, dashing around a pile of logs and leaping a pallet, using it like a shield as he stood on the other side of it, looking at her.

She’d felt bad for him the first time she saw him—thought maybe he was one of them—one of the people trapped here. That was, in the few, short seconds before he’d seen her and run at her with that chainsaw. She’d actually come out of hiding that first time and tried to introduce herself that first time, ages ago. It had been a one-time mistake. His face was deformed in a way that looked so painful, and as scared as she was of him, she still felt bad when she looked at him. Like they were both victims, not just her. His glowing eyes stared at her as he raised a foot to smash the pallet.

Claudette ran then, dodging and weaving past anything she could, panic flooding her veins whenever she heard the chainsaw rev behind her. She saw a little windowsill in the house and went to leap it and felt the tearing, spinning furry of motorized blades slice into her shoulder as she leapt, carving a deep trail through her back and down a leg. She screamed and fell, bits of her skin and blood spattering the wall and floor and windowsill around her as she went down. She tried to crawl, even though she knew it didn’t matter, but it hurt too much, and she was shaking. The cutting was done, but she could still feel the blades tearing through her back like it was happening.

The Hillbilly stepped over the windowsill after her and grabbed her easily, slinging her over his shoulder like a haybale, and carried her down the dark steps to the basement.

The familiar pain of a hook tore through her shoulder with an awful, burning sensation that only accompanied the basement hooks, and she fought the urge to cry. Beneath her, the Hillbilly turned the chainsaw on and she started to shake uncontrollably. Sometimes the killers hit them for fun when they were up on a hook—cut up their legs or something. Claudette was so afraid of that, of being hurt just for the fun of it—the slow time they sometimes took. She was lucky this time though, and he turned away from her and disappeared back up the steps, leaving her alone.

As soon as he was gone, Quentin slipped out from behind the far wall where she’d had no idea he was before, medkit in hand, and gave her a silent, relied Whew! at having not been found, then a little wave and reassuring smile. He waited a second for the Hillbilly to gain some distance, and then grabbed her by the waist and freed her from the hook. They both ran the second she was free, out the opposite direction the chainsaw sound had faded in, and didn’t stop until they were far enough out to feel safe.

Quentin gestured for her to hold still and opened his medkit. He’d gotten really good at this—she had too. Sometimes the others jokingly called them Field Medics. They’d thought it was silly, but there was a little truth to it. Somewhere along the way, the two of them had started sharing tips and techniques—methods, remedies, new ideas.  She’d taught him how to make some of her herbal dressings, and he’d helped her learn the drugs they found in medkits scattered throughout the trials.  They’d even experimented a little, trying to make better supplies. The chainsaw wound was deep, and wide, and choppy—not easy to stitch up. Knife wounds weren’t so bad—not even the Trapper’s cleaver, but chainsaws cut erratic and wild, tearing up your back and legs like a boat propeller. She did her best to keep quiet and hold still as he worked.

“How many left?” she asked quietly. She’d been so focused on the chainsaw during the chase, she hadn’t paid any attention to the generator progress.

“Two,” whispered Quentin, “You ran him for a long time.”

That was good. That was hopeful. And she’d been the only one hooked so far—that was really, really good.

“So,” said Quentin after a second, holding the needle he’d been using in his mouth for a second as he carefully lined up chunks of her torn shoulder muscle to sew back into place. “What can I do to help with the Wraith thing?”

“What?” asked Claudette nervously for the second time in under an hour.

He started to sew and she flinched, trying to keep her hurt cries as quiet as possible while he worked.

“Dwight told me,” Quentin answered in a hushed voice as he continued to work.

“He did?” she asked through the pain, surprised that he would do that without asking her if she thought it was a good idea.

“No,” admitted Quentin, continuing to stitch, “But you just did, so. What can I do?”

Did he really just. Did I just get looney-tuned by… “You cheated by asking me while I’m in pain,” Claudette complained, gritting her teeth as one of the needle stabs bit especially deep. She whimpered.

“Sorry,” whispered Quentin, “I’ve almost got it.”

“I’ll talk to you about it after the trial,” said Claudette after a second of thought, “I have to tell Kate anyway, so I might as well do it all at once.”

“Kate asked too?” said Quentin, sounding surprised and happy.

“Yeah, beat you to it,” replied Claudette, fingers digging into the dirt to fight the pain in her back as he pulled the thread tight and tied it off.

“Good,” said Quentin, returning his supplies to the medkit and then removing and handing her a pain pill. “Sorry, I’d have given that first but I just grabbed this kit in the basement,” he added apologetically, “—didn’t even see it until just now.”

She dry-swallowed it.

Quentin pointed to a generator off to their right, back towards the house a little. She nodded.

“How’d you know?” Claudette asked in a hushed voice as they crept towards the generator.

“I kind of suspected ever since Dwight wouldn’t let me come help you all that first night after the bad trial,” Quentin replied, “I probably should have asked sooner.”

She nodded thoughtfully, then looked back at him. “You don’t have to, you know—we don’t know it’ll work.”

“Yeah,” replied Quentin as they reached the gen, “but I want to go home. It’s something—and it’s not a bad idea. So I’m in.”

He smiled at her and she smiled back and the two of them got to work, Claudette feeling guilty and worried about her friends, but also a little fuzzy and happy they were so ready to help her. First what had happened with the Wraith earlier today, now this? Things were actually looking up for once. We can do this, she thought, smiling at the notion, Together, we really can.

Claudette never saw the fourth member of their trial. Things got bad once they were down to one generator. Sometimes things just sort of worked out so that everyone had been on a hook before, and long enough that they knew if they got placed on one again the Entity would take them immediately and it would be over. That was it’s own kind of fear, and this was one of those trials. The Hillbilly had gotten whoever their fourth was while she and Quentin did a gen, then in rapid succession, Kate, their fourth a second time, her again, Kate again, and Quentin twice in a row like a bad pallet loop, all of them just going down one after the other. Their fourth had managed to light a gen during the second half of that though, and Kate had grabbed Quentin and made it out an exit, her right behind.

She was almost to the freedom beyond the brick walls, Kate and Quentin disappearing steps ahead, when she heard the roar of the chainsaw. There wasn’t time to hide or anything to hide behind, so she just ran—trying to make it the last few steps. She didn’t quite, and the blades cut her down with incredible force, chewing up her backbone with the swing and the Hillbilly almost stumbled into her mid-run.

Safety was right there though—just inches away, and as the Hillbilly recovered from his swing, moving the chainsaw so he could pick her up, she pulled herself across the threshold of the exit and heard the familiar black spikes shoot up behind her as the Hillbilly reached for her, blocking him.

The healing wasn’t instantaneous, but it was fast. The pain went, and then she felt the uneven and broken sensation in her back fade and she pulled herself to her feet. Across the trial area, she sensed the injured fourth member of their group—someone she didn’t recognize—turn and leave through the other gate. They’d all made it.

With the recent fear fading and the pain already a memory, Claudette felt giddy, almost peaceful, as she looked back at the Hillbilly and his glowing white eyes. Because everything was going so well, she felt impulsive, and on a whim she picked up the little circular grey scarf she was wearing and shouted, “Hey, catch!” to the Hillbilly, tossing the piece of fabric across the barrier as the trial started to fade around them.

The scarf bounced off his chest and fell to his feet and he looked down at it, and then back up at her.

“It’s getting cold out,” she called over. Claudette clasped her hands in front of her and smiled at him. “Thanks for not actually killing anyone this time. Stay warm!”

He blinked at her, and then the trial and he disappeared around her, and she was standing back at the campfire.

“Woo-hoo!” Kate snagged her from behind and easily picked her up and spun her in the air. “Perfect trial! No casualties!”

Quentin grinned and gave her a high-five as she came back down and Kate let go of her.

“Yeah! Anyone get a look at who our fourth was?” Asked Claudette.

“I’d never seen him before,” replied Kate. “But he was older. Black, suit and coat—looked kinda like a dad or a college professor.” She looked at Quentin like she expected him to continue for her.

“I didn’t see him either,” said Quentin, shaking his head.

“But…I only got him off a hook once,” said Kate. “If it wasn’t you or Claudette, who did it the other time?”

Quentin shrugged. “I guess he saved himself. It’s hard, but I’ve done it before.”

“Oh, right...” said Kate, “I’m so used to workin’ as a team now I forgot about that—used to do it a lot.”

“Yeah,” agreed Claudette. Sometimes she’d still try that—if the situation was desperate, but it was agonizingly painful, and almost always futile. It just sped up the sacrifice process and brought the Entity down on you most of the time. Still, there were times when someone burned salt and prayed the luck would help them free themself. And Nea and Jake had gotten really good at it for awhile—there was a long stretch of time a good while back where they spent match after match burning salt and freeing themselves from the hook. It still didn’t always work, but they’d gotten really good at struggling free, and it drove the killers crazy. There had been too many downsides, though, and the killers had started to adjust to the strategy after a bit, so neither of them had tried it in a long time.

“Well, whatever happened, we all made it—that’s what counts,” decided Kate. She turned to Claudette. “N’ I think you have somethin’ to talk to us about?”

Claudette nodded and motioned to Dwight from across the campfire to come over. “Yeah, we have a lot to share.”

 


  

Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t finish this entry before, because I have more to tell. I don’t even know where to begin. I guess with the hope that I haven’t been doing all of this for nothing. Maybe someday someone will find this and it'll actually help them out. I found a couple of pages of journal writings today—all by Benedict Baker. You’ve probably found something of his at this point, no matter when you’re reading this. It’s rare to find something he wrote, but I think we’ve all managed to come across at least one. Still, it’s usually fragments—just little things. This was pages. Just two, stuck together and in bad repair, but that’ still so much more than usual, and there was a lot in them.

It’s such an odd time to find something like that though, it almost feels like a trap—with so much already going on? Maybe I should be more nervous about that, but even though the timing is odd I just don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t think it’s some kind of trap; I think it’s a connection. We’re learning—we’re finding pathways through the darkness, and I think we opened a doorway to the knowledge someone else left.

That said, there are no secrets of the universe revealed. The first is a bit about the towns of Wetherfield and Weeks, before this man was in the realm. He mentions weekly Penny Dreadfuls, which made me worry he was from back in the 1860s. The second bit is mostly about a man named Vigo, who walked the fog looking for answers. He calls him an alchemist, which is funny, because what he describes is a lot more about biology than the creation of gold. While Vigo sounds more like a chemist or a biologist than an alchemist, some of the conversation Benedict describes having with him sounds really important to me. I’m going to transcribe both pages and attach it to the back of this for you to read for yourself. The other most interesting part to me is a little bit at the end, after Benedict has finished writing about Vigo. This last bit is about the Huntress. Benedict thought the Huntress was more human-seeming than most of the killers here, and that from the way she acted she was looking for something. That doesn’t sound like a lot to go off of, but I’ll keep it in mind. Maybe I can figure out what that is? I’ll ask the others, too. If we can figure out what she wants, maybe we can help her? I sort of tried making friends with the Hillbilly after a trial today, too. I think I just confused him, but we’ll see—who knows! Maybe things will get better—maybe a lot of things.

Back to the journals. I’ve not met Benedict Baker, and I didn’t think any of us had, because I always thought he must have died a long time ago. But I was wrong. I’ve talked to everyone, and Nea said she’d seen him a few times, but that they spoke just once—survived a close trial together and traded names. That was back before she joined us. It makes me wonder; if we’ve all managed to find eachother and stay as a group, why haven’t really any of us seen him? How many more of us are out there, and why do some of us get this companionship, and some are left to wander alone? Does he know something the Entity doesn’t want us to? Or is it something else? Something random, or a plan I just can’t see in motion, or worse, is it something personal?

The only one out of us all who has properly met him is Kate. Twelve times, according to her.  She met another man before finding us, too. Another David.  I have to wonder why? And why not again since? This may sound silly, but I wonder if it’s her singing. It seems dumb to say there’s something a little magical about Kate, but I feel like it’s true. There’s something about her music—maybe it’s just the ability to sing happily in a place like this at all, but I don’t think so. Music has always been special. There’s no real reason for humans to be able to sing or play instruments at all—it isn’t necessary for life, but there’s no arguing that it’s one of the most incredible things people can do. Almost magic. There’s something especially amazing about Kate when she sings—it makes me feel hopeful when I hear her, and the sound brings a lot back to me. I remember listening to music on my headphones gardening—I remember taking piano lessons when I was six, and playing new cds on my old boom box when I was eleven while I did chores. I think about my car stereo, and Christmas time with mom and dad caroling, and the way my whole life music could make me feel like I was going to be okay. I used to have a hard time with people. I get anxious easily. I would always put on headphones at school and drown out how I felt with old Beach Boys songs. That kind of small-time natural magic shouldn’t still work in a place like this, but with Kate it does. I wonder if she’s a beacon people can see even when the Entity doesn’t want them to, and that’s how Benedict found her? I wonder how much choice we have about anything here, and how much power to change things. No matter what the answer to that question is, I’m going to keep acting like I do have a chance to make things better, because if I don’t then what’s the point? If you have hope in things, you can make them happen.

That has to be the way it is, doesn’t it?

I do my best not to talk like I’m giving up on things, even when I feel down, because I need to keep everyone else’s spirits up, but…the truth is I don’t always feel like I can keep going either. Sometimes I want to give up. Or I want to sit in a corner and cry. I miss my mom, and my dad. I miss home, and my garden, and my stuffed animals, and the neighbor’s great big borzoi Frigga. Mostly I’m scared. I’m scared of everything, all the time. I'm scared I might not see my parents again, and of the sound of chainsaws, and crows startling. I’m even scared of being shocked by the generators. I don’t want to die, or to let people down, or to get hurt. The worst part of being here is that everything’s already so bad, but we all know it can get worse. And it does—it has before. Things got better when we started to become a group, but sometimes I think we wonder how long it will last. I know I do. There’s this new fear of losing each other, because I think we all kind of know that this is something that could go away someday. What would we even do—what would I do, if I ever lost any of them? One way or another, for real? I can’t even think about that…

I’m sorry. This isn’t useful. I usually don’t go on like that. I guess I just brought it up to say that things are rough—I’m sure they are for you too, but there are some things that help. Being in the group has made things easier for all of us. Even if I’m a nervous about losing people, being with them is well worth it. They are all incredible. A lot of the time it’s little things, like Meg’s dumb Welcome to Hell with Meg Thomas show, or Ace’s bad stories about previous near-death experiences, but they mean a lot. Kate’s been a big blessing too. Ever since she got here, waking up to the sound of Kate singing has made things so much better—I think for all of us. It reminds us of home.

Maybe she was right. We should do a song night.

Along the lines of things that have made my life better in unexpected ways recently, during the last trial not only did we all make it out alive, but during the trial Kate asked me what was going on with Dwight and me and the Wraith, just out of the blue, and not ten minutes later Quentin did the same thing, and both of them want to help us talk to him now. I tried, but I couldn’t convince them nothing was going on, because I’m apparently not the best liar. End result being that after the trial Dwight and I brought them up to speed and now there’s four of us working together. It’s really nice, because they’re both genuinely interested, and how hopeful they are makes me feel more sure about this myself. They had some good ideas, too. Kate said maybe we should try giving him gifts—like flowers or food. I wonder if he eats? And if he does, what he eats? She’s very right that that would be, at the very least, a little surprising and thought-provoking. If I was running around killing people with a sickle and someone handed me a pie and a daisy chain, you better believe I’d be trying to figure that one out for awhile. Quentin wanted to know a lot about the specifics of what was going on right before he started acting weird each time, and thought maybe we could try to recreate some of that—try to trigger the same response. They both agree that, after everything we’ve sort of pieced together, it’s pretty likely he’ll be acting weird again or have forgotten things after what just happened with Dwight.

Maybe we should tell Jake and Meg, too? I don’t know, because Kate and Quentin really seem like they want to be involved, but I don’t want to ask the wrong person and accidentally guilt them into helping me do something dangerous, or to make them worry. I wish I could know how people would feel about things before talking to them—that would solve a lot of my problems, actually. I miss getting to ask them for advice on the big things I’m trying to figure out about this place, though. Especially because they’re both really smart, and they’re family to me. I'd feel a lot better if we were all doing this together.

I know why we decided not to though. I really hope I’m doing an okay job of all of this. It’s hard to know what I should do next. Dwight and I, and now Kate and Quentin too, agreed we have to talk to the others about what’s going on soon, but we’re going to wait until after we see the Wraith again and see how many of our guesses we can maybe prove, or if he’s acting crazy again. He might mori a bunch of people like last time…

Okay, last point of interest. The page about Vigo mentioned a conversation he had with the man about the campfire—our campfire. Benedict talked about how it’s something that brings relief, but also sort of its own dread, and that one time he tried to burn his hand in the fire, but nothing happened. He’s right—I tried the same thing a few minutes ago after reading what he said, and the campfire is warm, but I felt nothing trying to burn my hand, and my skin was fine. I’ve seen it burn things, though—I’ve seen it burn flowers, and salt, and papers, and even jars. But not us. It’s strange—I always sort of thought it was real fire. I mean, it never goes out, so I guess I knew that, but I didn’t expect it not to burn me. Vigo said he believed that the campfire was an important part of this world. That we’re almost in like…a large house, with closet after closet that open off a main hallway, and several stories. That instead of it being built like a house though, it’s a sphere, and the hallways all start at the center, not the bottom. He believed the campfire was the end of one are—the part closest to the center of this whole place. The part of our little closet nearest to whatever is in the middle of the bubble. Vigo said that everything here is artificial, but some of it is significant, and then he told Benedict to look through the cracks in the basement sometime. I guess that’s another thing I’m going to do—and that’s not one I’m going to tell anyone else until I’ve done it—the basement is the worst place in any trial, and I’m doing that one alone.

Whatever else happens, I’m glad we’re more together on this. Laurie seems a little better too, the past few days. She’s been spending a lot of time with David and Quentin, talking strategy, and with Meg, Ace, and Kate talking pop-culture. Apparently Meg has decided to recreate a whole string of childhood favorite films for her—which I wish she’d told me, because I missed all of Hocus Pocus, and I like that one too. I really would have wanted to see it! I heard she even sang when they got to the musical performance. Going off and scheming with Dwight has really cost me… Oh well. She’s doing Homeward Bound next, and I have no idea at all how she plans to pull that one off, but I want to find out. I’ve heard her do a Michael J. Fox impression, and she’s actually pretty worryingly good at it. The girl has a mind like a steel trap when it comes to media. Jake dared her once to recite as much of Back to the Future as she could, with some bet over how much she could recall. It was legendary. She did the whole movie. I'm not kidding, the whole two hours, non-stop—either word-for-word, or close enough that no one caught her and she bs'd her way through. Never a hint of a struggle to remember a line. I couldn't look away. She got super into it and started doing sound effects and describing events between dialogue, too. Imagine the kind of YouTube content she could put out if she had access to an editing program and wifi.

I guess that’s about it—I have no regrets about including Meg's performances. They're noteworthy. But, I will go ahead and copy the notes from Benedict after I finish though, like I said. Hopefully I'll have updates for you soon. I hope the Wraith is going to be okay. Dwight feels really bad about what happened in the trial, and I wish I knew what to do to help him. Back when he first told me all of this, he said he thinks he shouldn’t have said anything to get the Wraith to help him, and should have just let the Entity take him. I tried my best to make him feel better, but I don’t think that it worked. I’m not great with people, still. I wish I was. Anyway, I’ll try to think of something better to do. I'll keep trying.

I am a little worried myself though. Whatever did happen to the Wraith, I hope we find out soon.

-Claudette Morel

Chapter Text

“Hey!”

“Ah—hey!” replied Dwight, the papers he’d been holding going everywhere. He hadn’t heard Nea coming, like he never did, and as she plopped down next to him without warning had to stumble over himself to catch the loose pages he’d just scattered—pages of drawings and notes he’d been working on trying to record everything he could remember from the encounter in the basement. It had probably been at least a full day since things had happened, but the memories were still strong, and he’d been working hard to copy down anything that might be useful.

“This a bad time?” asked Nea, looking so warm and happy he would have thought she was high if this was a college dorm instead of a tree by the edge of a forest in this hellscape.

“No—no I’m good. What is it?” said Dwight, getting the last of his papers under control and flipped upside-down and away from view.

“Sweet then. I need some help with…Uh,” Nea hesitated, leaning forward and folding her hands together nervously. They were sitting beneath one of the trees at the edge of the campfire’s clearing, which gave them some very solid distance from the assorted people at the fire itself, but she was still casting glances that way.

“Nobody can hear us,” prompted Dwight after a second.

Nea turned red and blew a little piece of hair out of her face, then turned to look at him. “Okay, so. I mean, you were there, with Feng and me in the trial, so you know—”

“—Oh yeah, no, I very much know,” replied Dwight, memories of the last trial still quite fresh in his memory.

Nea grinned and raised her hand for a high-five.

“I’m not gonna,” started Dwight, but she brought the hand almost in front of his face and waved it there and he gave in. “Okay,” he sighed, resignedly fiving her. “Was that it? You wanted to come make sure I definitely knew you were dating Feng? Because trust me, everyone knows.”

She shook her head. “No, I uh. I’m not even sure she’d call it that—it’s complicated. Just, I asked Jake before and that was a bad idea, and you seem like, more the person I should ask so,” she spun her hand in the air like she was looking for the right words, “I—With Feng I don’t know. I mean, I feel great, and I’m super happy, but also like, I don’t know?”

“You…” Dwight trailed off, “I’m sorry, what are you asking me? I mean I guess I’m glad you think I’m more responsible than Jake, so thank you for that—that’s very nice, but I have no idea what you’re talking—”

“—I’m talking about how I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now!” said Nea, throwing her hands up in exasperation, “And I don’t want to fuck it up, so…So, I guess—Just, like,” she shoved him, and he wasn’t at all prepared so the force half-knocked him over, “give me advice!”

“Okay,” said Dwight, slowly recovering from the shove and righting himself, “First, calm down.”

“Sorry.” Nea clasped her hands together again as he straightened up.

Dwight looked Nea up and down. People came to him for a lot of weird things, but it had never before been relationship advice. “Look, I don’t know why you’re coming to me about this—”

“I mean, who am I supposed to ask,” cut in Nea, “my real dad?”

Suddenly Dwight felt both very old and like he’d been kicked in the gut. “Okay.” He sighed and adjusted his glasses, which had fallen askew when he’d been shoved over. “You want to know what you’re supposed to do now that you’re dating?”

“Yes,” said Nea, nodding, “I mean, I guess it’d be different in the real world, but here? I can’t like—take her to the movies. I mean we could go listen to Meg recount Treasure Planet word for word, and that’d be pretty cool, but I don’t know if that’s like date material. So what—I—Do I like—I don’t even know, Dwight!” she threw up a hand and then slowly let her chin rest on her other palm. “I mean…and how does this change stuff for me during trials? Should I always try and take hits for her, and between them do I…what? I mean, obviously other than making out,”

“Okay,” said Dwight, trying to speed her along.

“Well,” continued Nea, “What am I supposed to change now?”

Change? Dwight considered that for a second. He’d never seen Nea look so scattered. Sure, he’d seen her under pressure or in a pretty bad way, but this kind of disorganized and out of her depth? Not really. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen her panic before, but, Ohhh, I’ve never seen her panic over nothing before, he realized. He thought for a second. Wait, hold on. “Did you…Did you two only just get back form the woods?”

“Yeah,” replied Nea. “Like, uh, I don’t know, ten minutes ago?”

Jesus, thought Dwight. “Okay, well, then you two were gone for what—four-five hours? And this is after yesterday, where we barely even saw you two. So…you’re probably off to a good start.”

She gave him a sly look and a little nonchalant shrug, raising her eyebrows in an Oh, you know kind of way.

“Okay, first of all, you stop that,” said Dwight, “Second, did you really run off from her right after getting back just to ask me about dating because of some kind of first-time jitters?”

“Hey!” Nea cut in, “Not first-time, and it’s not like that. I didn’t ‘run off,’ I just,” she combed her fingers through her side bangs for a second, looking away from him. “I just…” she sighed and looked back at him, “Look, don’t be a dick, okay? Promise?”

“Am I a dick so regularly that I have to promise not to be one?” asked Dwight, sounding almost insulted even though he wasn’t.

“I guess not. I’m used to talking to Jake about stuff,” conceded Nea. “But promise anyway.”

Dwight nodded and motioned her to go on.

“Okay. So. Feng…” Nea spoke slowly, trying carefully to pick out how to say what she was thinking, “She like—she didn’t super want to…well that’s not it exactly…she…I guess she wasn’t sure about saying yes? To, uh, dating me?”

That’s not how it looked from the sidelines, thought Dwight, but he didn’t say anything—just kept listening attentively.

“And that’s okay,” Nea hurried to add, “I get, whatever. But I really like her, and I’m super glad she agreed to give it a shot, and I think it will work out well, but. I guess…” she stopped and tapped her foot against the ground in irritation, “I guess like, I don’t want to fuck up? I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying too hard, or being pushy, or clingy? Like—I don’t want her to think I’m suddenly being super nice and getting her gifts and shit because I’m trying to guilt her into staying or something like that? Because I wouldn’t do that…” she added, looking miserable, “and I really, really don’t want to fuck this up and make her feel pressured, but I do want to make her happy, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to do all of this.”

Nea leaned forward, resting her hands at the sides of her face as she stared at the dirt. Dwight watched her thoughtfully for a second. She was usually so casual and assured. Easing through things. He hadn’t had any idea before yesterday that she even liked Feng, much less that it was as complicated as all of this. Sitting there with her face cupped in her hands, she looked so dejected. Never seen you look forlorn before, he thought, It’s weird. Then he thought, Oh wait, shit—I’m supposed to be thinking of a response to this and I haven’t said anything. Uh.

“I’m…afraid she’ll change her mind if I fuck it up, but I don’t know what that looks like,” Nea said after a few seconds, staring down at nothing. “And I don’t want that to happen, but I also don’t want to force her to do anything…Or guilt her. I don’t know…I want something to go well for once. I was really happy, you know?” she asked, stealing a glance up at him, “For like, a good, decent chunk of today. And yesterday. I can’t say that about any other day I’ve been here. I don’t want to lose that. But I also don’t want to do the wrong thing.” She let out a slow sigh and turned her attention back to the grass between her shoes.

“Look, Nea?” said Dwight after a moment, turning so he was facing her more head-on, and leaning forward himself so his face was level with hers, “I think you’re just overthinking this. You don’t have to worry about everything you do so much—the two of you were friends before this. She’s not some stranger you met on Tinder you don’t know how to talk to.”

“That’s true,” said Nea, still looking at the ground.

“You asked her out,” said Dwight.

Nea nodded, flushing a little.

“Okay, so why?” prompted Dwight.

“Why?” asked Nea like she couldn’t comprehend the question. “Why ask? Uh, because she’s amazing and smart and super hot,”

Well, she’s not wrong, thought Dwight absently.

“And I just like her—I don’t know what to tell you,” said Nea, moving one hand to gesture hopelessly, “I want her to be happy, and I like to be with her.”

“Okay,” said Dwight, raising his hands in a why not gesture, “Great—sounds like a fine motive to me. So go do that. You all have been friends for a long time, and you’ve made her happy before. Just don’t make it weird because you’re dating now. You care about her, she makes you happy—so show it. All you need to do is not ask her all the time how she thinks things are going between you, or if she’s more sure about dating—wait for her to tell you that herself. Other than that, do what you did before. Go talk to her, make her laugh, be a good friend. She’s not going to get pissed at you for being nice unless you’re attaching a price to it. Just go be normal.”

“…That’s it?” asked Nea after a second, finally looking back up at him.

“Yeah,” replied Dwight, “Just don’t push her. If she seems like she needs time alone, let her have it. Now go be nice to your girlified and quit wasting time with me.”

“Hey! Rude,” Nea cut in, lightning-fast hooking her elbow around his neck and pulling him closer to her and holding him in a decently uncomfortable headlock for a second before flicking him in the forehead with her index finger. “It’s not a waste of time. You give good advice.”

Dwight pulled away, rubbing his forehead, “I give very obvious advice, but you’re welcome.”

She shrugged. “Well, then I’m dumb. But your obvious stuff feels more grounding now with a dad stamp of approval.” Nea stood up, stretching and smiling down at him. “Yeah…I do feel better, thanks.”

“If you’re going to use me as a father figure, then don’t hit me,” said Dwight, hand still on the sore spot where she’d flicked him. “Show me some respect.”

“I don’t show my own father some respect,” replied Nea, winking.

“Well, then shame on you for being a bad daughter,” replied Dwight, adjusting his papers. “Now get out of here and go pick your girlfriend some flowers or something.”

“Oh! That’s actually not bad—a basic romantic gesture I actually can do here,” replied Nea, considering. “Yeah, okay—thanks dad!”

Dwight gave an unhappy grunt as she waved and disappeared back towards the others.

I’m not that old. I’m not the oldest. How did I skip the rest of my life and go straight to being a father?

Letting out a deep sigh, Dwight returned to trying to work. He’d done his best to remember any words he’d heard the Wraith speak—not that he would know what they meant, but it still seemed like a good idea to record them if he could for sure remember any. He was sketching, too, trying to recall every detail about what the Entity had looked like to him. Of course, he’d seen it before—every time he was sacrificed he sort of saw it, but this had been different. It’s just too bad I’m really shit at drawing, he thought, looking down unhappily at pencil sketches he’d been working at for hours that still looked like a bad artist’s attempt at a creepy child’s drawing for a low-budget horror rpg.

Well, might as well spend more time. I’ve already wasted so much that if I don’t try and make this usable I’m going to feel like garbage, thought Dwight, starting to erase the edge of a drawing so he could change it.

“Hey, uh…Got a second?”

Dwight looked up from his spot to see Meg Thomas standing awkwardly few feet away with a hand raised like she was going to rap her knuckles on the tree to ask permission to enter as if the bark was a closed door. This was especially unsettling because Meg usually didn’t need permission to come chat, and even if she was being polite, Meg definitely wouldn’t have considered him trying to draw to be something in the category of an interruptible activity. Her asking permission to come hang out gave him the distinct impression that he was about to be asked to give help with something both complicated and difficult.

“Yeah, of course,” said Dwight, sitting up a little and moving over so there was room for her to sit with her back against the tree too. She sat down, leaving about half a foot of space between them---another bad sign, Dwight was sure. Meg was usually all for using people as sofas and no personal space with friends.

“Thanks,” said Meg, her expression heavy.

I feel like a doctor, thought Dwight as he waited for the shoe to drop. He’d been in and out of meetings all day, as it were. First Kate, then Claudette, then Claudette, Quentin, and Kate all together for ideas, then Nea, and now this.

“I need to talk to somebody, and I decided it should be you, because you’re nicer than Jake, and I can’t live with myself if Claudette’s disappointed in me,” said Meg, turning to face him matter-of-factly.

“Solid logic,” replied Dwight, “I think. What did you do?”

Meg shook her head. “I didn’t do anything. I kind of thought I could just handle all this on my own. Not think about it, or think my way through it, but now I can’t. So.”

“I’ll do what I can,” replied Dwight, setting his papers on the ground beside him. “So if you didn’t do something, then what’s wrong? I mean, other than the obvious…everything.”

“Where to even start,” answered Meg, leaning her head back against the tree. She smiled for a second, but it disappeared in a flicker, replaced by something sad and tired, and after a few seconds of thoughtful silence she turned her head to look at him. “Hey Dwight, who were you before all this?”

“Uh,” he thought about that for a second, “I don’t know. I guess.” He looked over at her and gave a half-hearted smile. “Kind of a shitty answer, but it’s true. I was still working on figuring that out.”

Meg shook her head. “No, I mean—your family. Girlfriend? Boyfriend? Pet fish?”

“Oh,” said Dwight, “No—no pet fish. There was a dog that sort of lived at the office at work. Barkley. I know-I know—don’t look at me like that, I didn’t give him the pun name, I just worked there.”

“Family? Friends?” prompted Meg.

“Well,” said Dwight, shifting to join her comfortable lean against the tree, “I have a mom and a dad. My mom was—is—kind of overprotective and likes to bother me and check in all the time, dad has always been more busy, but he’s okay. I guess I’m kind of average.”

“Girlfriend?” she asked. He shook his head. “Boyfriend?” he shook it again. Meg nodded thoughtfully. “Me neither. I was too busy. Used to run track.”

“Figured it was something like that—with the jersey,” replied Dwight. There was another pause while neither of them said anything, but with as much time as they’d spent together in this place, the pauses in their conversations had become comfortable. Not forced.

“I never wanted one before,” said Meg, staring off into space, “But I do now.”

“Yeah?” asked Dwight, turning to look at her.

“I waited too long,” said Meg, slowly turning her attention away from the leaves above her to glance at him. She gave him a sad little smile. “I kind of thought we were all too stupid to make a move. But that was just me, I guess.”

Meg... Shit. “Nea? Or Feng?” asked Dwight.

“Nea,” she replied, smiling wistfully for a second before the expression faded. “Such a cool punk. Fast, stealthy, stylish in a loud way, likes my memes. What more could you hope for?”

“For how long?”

She thought for a moment. “Not sure. Didn’t happen all at once. But awhile now.”

“I’m sorry,” Dwight said after a few seconds of silence.

“It’s okay,” said Meg. “I get it.”

He looked at her, wondering if that were true at all. Meg looked far away, and a little reserved, like she was trying to keep something contained.

“The thing is,” Meg continued after a second, turning to look at him, “I feel bad. Like, not that they’re together—I mean I do feel sad about that, but what’s worse is that I feel bad about how I feel.” She paused and looked at him, her expression tired but firm. “It’s not pretty. This is your once chance to opt out.”

Dwight nodded slowly. “That’s okay. Go on.”

She gave a resigned shrug and tucked her knees up to her chest. “I…I do genuinely love the both of them, even though I’m upset.” She looked him in the eye, trying to communicate her sincerity, “And I’m happy for them—really—I know that’s true. I do want them to be happy, but…” she shook her head and balled one of her hands into a fist, unconsciously running the fingertips of her free hand over the white knuckles as she talked. “I’m also angry. Like really fucking ugly kind of angry. And it’s not fair, or right, but I am so mad at them, all the time, for being happy when I’m not—and I know I’m jealous. I’m jealous that it isn’t me. I don’t want them to be together.”

She let out a long sigh and cut her eyes over in his direction to see how he was taking it, looking a little bit nervous, but tired more than anything. Dwight met her eyes, but his expression didn’t give away a whole lot.

“I know I shouldn’t feel like this, and it makes me shitty,” Meg continued, looking away again, “but I don’t know how not to. It isn’t the only thing I feel,” she added, sounding exhausted, “I do really want them to be happy, and I think part of me is happy they’re happy, but I can’t just feel that. Even when I’m happy for them, I’m also angry, and confused, and sad. I feel all of it at the same time, and it’s making me crazy. I want to hit something, or curl up in a corner and die. I’m so fucking unhappy that they’re happy together, and at myself for being so unhappy they’re together, and that there’s this little part of me that doesn’t think I should feel bad for being angry, and I…” Meg stopped and looked away for a long stretch of seconds while Dwight waited. “Does that make me a bad person?” she asked finally, and when she looked back over at him her eyes were bright with tears she was holding back.

“No, no, hey,” said Dwight, moving closer and putting an arm around her. She half-heartedly tried to push him away with a hand but it didn’t stop him. “Look, are you going to treat them differently? Like let them die in trials, or stop being friends, ban them from your movies?”

“No,” said Meg, giving him an almost horrified look and then turning away, “Well…maybe. Not the trials, that’s fucked up, but I don’t know if I can go joke with them right now.”

“Forever?” asked Dwight.

She shook her head, and when she spoke her nose sounded a little stuffed up from her body’s intense desire to cry. “No, of course not forever. Just a couple of days.”

“Then don’t worry about it,” said Dwight, trying to get her to look at him, “You’re hurt because you lost something; that’s okay. We can’t control how feel. Anger and jealousy are only bad if you let it change you. You aren’t a bad person just for feeling bad. Okay?”

She looked at him finally, little streaks down the side of her face from crying silently, but she didn’t say anything. After a second she closer her eyes and shifted, burying her face in his button-down and leaning against him like a cushion.

“You still care about them, right?” asked Dwight, putting his other arm around her.

“Of course,” came her muffled response from the shirt, “I love them. They’re my friends, and even if I want to yell at them I’d take a bullet for them.”

Dwight smiled down at the top of her head. “You got nothing to worry about, Meg.”

It was quiet for a moment, Meg content to stay in the comfort of the shirt and Dwight in no rush to make her move, then she spoke again, quietly.

“It’s not the big thing, though.” Her voice was almost a whisper, and he wasn’t sure he’d heard the whole thing.

“What?” asked Dwight.

“I ran track,” said Meg again, like she was trying to prompt his memory of news gained so recently he couldn’t possibly have already forgotten. “But I stopped. I didn’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend either, like you. But also no dad—just a mom. And I stopped track and went home because she got sick.”

“Sick?” repeated Dwight, releasing his grip on Meg a little so he could see her better. She had the side of her face still pressed against his shirt and was looking off at nothing.

“Yeah,” said Meg, blinking as silent tears slid down her cheeks, “She was sick. Really bad—house-ridden kind of bad. I was supposed to go to college, but I went home to take care of her. Because there was no one else to look after her, you know?”

Dwight thought about his own mother. She’d always annoyed him when he was little, checking too often to see how he was, interrupting him when he was on mic with friends, doing embarrassing things like sending a birthday cake with a photo printed picture of him as a kid putting on a yard sale and the words “Going Big Places” on top to his workplace as a happy 1 year anniversary of him getting his dead-end office job. She’d payed for him to go to college.

“You must love her a lot,” he said, not sure what else to say.

“Of course,” replied Meg, nose stuffed up, “She’s my mom—the best one out there—raised a wild little brat single-handed.” There was a second where she paused to breathe, and then she asked him, “You got here in 2016?”

“Yeah,” replied Dwight. “Me and Claudette both.”

“I got here in 2014,” said Meg, her voice hushed. “That probably doesn’t sound like much. But…that means it’s been at least two years. Probably more. And,” her voice cracked and she paused to try and get it more under control, “and I know she wasn’t doing so well before? Not a lot of time left. I…I came home because no one else was there to take care of her. She needed somebody, and we didn’t have any money to hire a nurse. Without me home…I. Dwight, if it’s been two years…” He could feel her chest heaving as she tried to keep herself under control. “She’s dead,” Meg finally managed to get out. She collapsed then, all the strength she’d been using to keep herself in check gone, and she buried her face in his chest and sobbed, the sound muffled but agonizing as her whole body shook.

Fuck, thought Dwight, I don’t know what to do. He wrapped his arms tight around her and held her, trying to bring her some kind of comfort. “You don’t know that,” he said softly, “She might be okay.”

He could feel her shake her head. “She needed someone there all the time,” Meg choked out, “To take her meds, and look after her, get her places. Our Doctor said she probably only had another year, but recovery was possible. Hard, but. We were gonna beat it, Dwight,” she looked up at him, like she was begging him somehow to understand, to turn back time and change things, “We promised each other that we were. And she was gonna be okay. If I just went missing one day, any money we had she will have spent looking for me, and for what? For nothing—to die alone, and thinking I probably got raped and murdered on some backroad? I couldn’t even be with her, and she’s going to have thought the same thing about me. Her last months won’t even have been good. They’ll have been hell.” She shook her head, any remaining semblance of okay shattering as she spoke. “Nobody is going to pay for the funeral. I would have made it pretty. Even without much money. I would have gotten so many flowers. It could have been nice.”

“Meg, I’m so sorry,” said Dwight, pulling her close like he could shield her from the world, even for a couple of seconds. “I’m so sorry.”

She cried for a long time after that, sobs eventually just silent tears and quivering. He never once let go. It was the only thing he could do.

Dwight felt helpless too. One of his best friends coming to him for help and comfort, but what could he actually do for her? Promise her? Nothing. When he’d first gotten them to form a little group it had been with the promise that he knew how to help them survive, but that was an empty promise. He couldn’t do anything for them. There was no way to control things, not really. All he could do was be here, and that felt like so little right now. Such a small gesture it was almost meaningless. I’m sorry, he thought, looking down at Meg, feeling where her tears had soaked through his white shirt. I don’t know how to help you.

Finally, the shaking died down and Meg grew still. She stayed in the shirt for awhile after that, just breathing as they sat in silence. Then, after a bit, Meg let go of him and sat beside him again, rubbing her face with the arm of her track jacket. Her face was red and splotchy, and her eyes swollen from crying. “Thanks,” she said, letting out a breath. “It probably doesn’t feel like it, but I needed to tell somebody that and It helps a little. To get to say it.”

Dwight leaned over and stretched an arm around her shoulder and they sat there, side by side in silence for a minute looking up at the trees and the dark sky above. Not even the same sky, the same moon. Nothing’s the same as back home, thought Dwight, unable to find the sky beautiful. It was like being trapped in a room with a painting of the sky and knowing it was the closest thing you’d ever be allowed to see.

“Nice, isn’t it,” Meg said from beside him, and he looked at her in surprise. “As bad as everything gets here, at least there’s still detail. On the leaves and stuff. This is a nice tree.”

I guess, thought Dwight, glancing at the tree. Oak. He hadn’t really had an opinion on the tree—it was just somewhere to get his work done out of sight of the others enough they couldn’t really see him, but close enough that he wouldn’t lose track of the campfire and get lost. It was sort of pretty, though, in the way that old trees were. He’d never been much of an outdoors person, but there was something. Quiet and big. Made you think a little about how much they’d seen, how much more they’d see after, and still time to bear witness of your insignificant moment beneath it. Even if it wasn’t a real tree.

“You know,” Dwight said, looking over at Meg, “Your mom would have been really proud of you.”

Meg looked back in surprise, her eyes glossy like she might start crying again.

“Out of everyone, you do the best job of making it feel like home. Keeping people’s spirits up,” continued Dwight, “Definitely better than me. Your mom raised a fighter, and a good person. You look after us.”

A tear slid down her cheek and Meg smiled at him, her voice a little chocked up, “You mean that?”

He nodded. “Of course. I wouldn’t lie to you.”

Meg looked at the ground for a second, then back towards the campfire and took a deep breath. “You know, I think I’d sort of been hoping…with Nea, maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone. Or that maybe something could go right here, and that would be like a sign. But things never go right here, do they?” She turned to look at him. “And suddenly knowing Mom…I felt like with her being gone I would be alone. But that isn’t right. Nea’s still here, you’re here. All of you.” She smiled for a second, and then the smile faded. “Do you think that’ll matter, in the end? That we’ll really be okay?”

Dwight wasn’t sure. He knew he needed to say yes regardless, but did he really think so? Everything with the Wraith had seemed like such a huge deal only minutes ago, but…The Entity—this thing, this monster, it had taken them both out in the basement almost instantly. It could manipulate the world around them, their perceptions—maybe time. Even if they could get the Wraith’s help, what would it matter against something like that?

“You’re supposed to say ‘yes,’ dummy,” said Meg, elbowing him gently.

“I was thinking,” apologized Dwight, snapping out of his internal monologue. “I know I’m supposed to say yes, but I did just promise not to lie. That kind of thing weighs on your conscience.” He adjusted his glasses, not because he needed to but because the action bought him another second to think, and he glanced at Meg. “I guess I’m not sure. I hope so, I think I think so. But I don’t know how yet.”

Meg nodded like that was an okay answer and she gave him a faint smile. “Well I do. I think we’ll all be okay. You’re too nice, and life can’t be that unfair. It’s already taken enough away from us. After everything, we have to be okay.”

“Yeah,” said Dwight, “you’re probably right.”

“Someday though,” Meg added, deflating a little, “Not now. Still, other things can be done,” she continued, regaining a little of her usual brightness, “For now, I think I’m going to go check on how the rest of us are doing. Congratulate and mercilessly mock the happy couple. Preferably with bad sex jokes.” She stood up and offered him a hand. “You want to come?”

“Soon,” said Dwight, taking the hand and shaking it instead of using her help to pull himself to his feet. “Got to finish something up first.”

“Okay,” said Meg. She turned to go, then paused and knelt down beside him, kissed him quick on the cheek, and turned to go. “You know, you’re alright Dwight Fairfield.”

“That’s what they tell me,” he replied with a smile, even though no one had ever said that to him before.

“Oh, and I heard you in the trial,” she added, backing away from him so she could keep easy eye contact while moving towards the campfire. “I’m onto you trying to talk to the Wraith. And I’m down to help, because fuck it, why not?”

“What?” asked Dwight, taken aback.

“No take-backs, you were way to obvious, and now you pay the price,” Meg replied, still backing away, “You just pop out from behind boxes in front of a killer like ‘Hey my name is Dwight what’s yours,’ and think I’m too dumb to put two and two together? Oh, also, Jake knows but he doesn’t want to help. I did tell him though.”

“Meg!” said Dwight in disbelief. “W-”

“Sorry dad!” Meg called, giving him a little solute, “I’m going to leave before you chew me out, but tell me the details later,” she added, turning and hurrying towards the campfire before he could protest.

Now I know how Claudette felt, Dwight thought ruefully. He watched Meg’s form fade for a few seconds. Oh well. Maybe it’s for the best.

Dwight picked up his papers thoughtfully and looked over them again. This isn’t going to be easy. No matter how well we plan, it’s going to be a lot fucking harder than we thought, isn’t it? And what if it is all just some kind of trap? He didn’t really believe that…No, not after seeing the Wraith protecting him firsthand. But…There was always the vague possibility. Even if it wasn’t something the Wraith was doing, but something the Entity was doing. Should he be trying to plan for that too? How would he even do that?

Try as he did to focus on plans and recording details, his mind kept slipping back to what Meg had said, and to his own mother. Muriel. He’d thought it was a dumb name when he was little, kind of like his own. Dwight was a really easy name for kids to come up with jabs to go along with when picking on you. Although, he couldn’t remember anymore why he’d felt that way about her name too. Would I have stayed? he kept wondering, if he had been in Meg’s shoes? Would he have given up a future for his mom?

The fucked up thing was that he knew the answer, and the answer was no. I mean—if she’d asked him to, sure, probably. Who was going to tell their own mom to just die? But…if she had just gotten sick, and his dad had been busy, and he’d kind of known? Probably he would have just assumed it would work itself out—she’d pay someone to come over. That’s not fucking true, Dwight told himself, I would have cared. I’d have checked on her, and visited.

Would you? A little voice in his head kept asking. “Yes!” Dwight snapped aloud, hitting the side of the tree with a backhanded balled up fist. “Ow, fuck.”

I did love her—I do love her, Dwight told himself, I wasn’t that shitty. I wasn’t. Maybe. Maybe that was true, he conceded to himself after a minute, but did she know that? Dwight had wondered, of course—he was sure all of them had spent time thinking about what must have gone on with the people they left behind. He wondered then, though, how his parents had felt. If the people from his work retreat thought it was their fault he was dead, and they’d lied together to the police out of fear of some kind of manslaughter charges. He’d thought about this before, but he hadn’t wondered so much how they remembered him. I wonder if they thought I was alright? If anyone did?

His mom had, though. She’d told him that at least, that she loved him and was proud of him—far too often and publicly for his comfort even into adulthood. He wondered though, if he’d ever given her a good reason to really believe all the things she said. That thought hurt.

“Hey, Dwight?”

Again. Three in one day, God I hope this doesn’t develop into a pattern. Dwight looked up at Feng Min and waved a hand in greeting.  “Feng. What’s up?”

“I wondered if you had a second to talk?” She asked cautiously, like she was already second-guessing her own decision to come ask.

“Yeah,” said Dwight, again setting down his papers. I wasn’t going to get shit done anyway. “Take a seat,” he added, gesturing to the ground beside him.

Feng sat beside him and turned to face him, straight to business. “Okay. You can’t repeat any of this.”

“I am a closed book,” he promised. Fucking Fort Knox.

“Good. I need advice,” said Feng, “and you seemed like the best person to ask. Because David’s too macho, Ace is…well, Ace, Jake’s super weird, and I’m pretty sure Quentin’s never actually even gone on a date with his girlfriend.”

Dwight really hoped it didn’t show on his face that her comments on the selection process alone had left him well-informed he wasn’t going to be the best person to ask either. “Go on.”

“But first I need to ask you this: am I a shit person?” asked Feng, dead serious.

“What?” asked Dwight, taken aback. Lot of self-esteem issues in this group tonight. “No—why would you even ask that?” He thought for a second then. “I mean, yes you play hard in trials and sometimes leave people to bleed out so you can make it to the hatch—”

“—Okay, but—” she started to interrupt, but he held up a hand like he was trying to make peace and she let him continue.

“No, I get it—sometimes killers try to use us against each other. If I’ve got the Cannibal up my ass with a chainsaw hoping the only other person still alive will come try to save me so he can kill us both, I’m very okay with them sneaking off and escaping alone. I mean I don’t love dying, but I prefer that to making it a party event.”

“Right!” said Feng, “You get it.”

“Yeah,” continued Dwight, “I guess you’re also very motivated, so I get that you could have a reputation as kind of a hardass, but that doesn’t make you a bad person.”

“Okay, but,” Feng thought for a second, “I’m not as nice as a lot of you. You guys all make friends a lot easier, and I’m just not like that. I like being alone, and working alone—I mean other people are good sometimes, but I’m not…you know. I can’t be like Kate. Or Meg.”

“I mean, I’m not as nice as a lot of us,” replied Dwight. “And Jake’s like my best friend, but he’s also kind of an asshole. Trust me, you’re fine.”

“Then, if I’m okay right now, does it make me a shit person if I date Nea?” asked Feng, as if that was a commonsense natural progression to follow.

“I…Again. you’ve lost me,” said Dwight. “What does that even mean?”

Feng sighed and glanced towards the fire. It was a long way off—impossible to make out who was who, or even if they were really sitting or standing. Nothing but light and vague motion. “Look, Nea said she really likes me. And I told her I don’t feel the same way, but we’re still doing this…I mean, I do like her, but in like a hookup way, not in an ask you to marry me kind of way?” Feng explained, “And she said that was cool and she still wants to try, but, like. I mean, I do like her, and the sex—the sex is great.”

“Ahh,” said Dwight, “Okay, I-I don’t really need to know about all of that.”

“Fine,” Feng said unapologetically, “Point is, I think in the real world I’d be like ‘we shouldn’t do this, because I’d be taking advantage of you,’ but we’re not in the real world. We’re stuck. Here. In hell. And like, we’re both definitely happier because of having sex a lot, and that’s rare—and who’s it hurting? But.” She stopped and thought it over for a second. “I do care about her, and I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t think I am, but if I’m mostly doing this because the sex is amazing, and I don’t like her like she likes me, is that super fucked up? Does that make me bad?”

She looked at him, and her expression were genuinely concerned. “Okay, let me think,” said Dwight, trying to process everything he’d just heard. “So, you do like her?”

Feng nodded.

“But not as much as she likes you?”

Feng made a face like she wasn’t sure that was quite right. “Maybe more like not in the same way. Or both…”

 “Okay. And you’ve been upfront about all this?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Feng.

“Well, first off, you aren’t a bad person,” said Dwight. “I don’t think a bad person would spend all this time agonizing over if banging someone they kind of like in hell makes them shitty.”

She gave a begrudging nod like he had a fair point but it wasn’t enough to make her feel good about this.

“Second,” continued Dwight, “You haven’t done anything wrong. It’s okay not to feel the same way about someone. You aren’t at fault for not having the same feelings. You’ve been upfront, you told her how it was, and she still wants to try dating. Both of you know how it is, and you’re happy right now. That’s a good thing, and you aren’t bad for enjoying it.”

“Even if I’m…Definitely not in love?” asked Feng hesitantly.

“Did she say she was in love with you?” asked Dwight, taken aback.

“No—no, that’s…that’s me being extreme,” answered Feng. “But. She said she likes me a lot. Like, very seriously.”

“Okay. Okay, well.” He thought for a second. “Are you sure you’re never going to feel more strongly about her than you do now? Ever?” asked Dwight.

“No,” she answered, “Of course not. But I don’t know that I will either.”

“That’s okay, then,” said Dwight, “People don’t all move at the same rate. Some of us fall into things, and some of us walk in slowly. Doesn’t make you any less good, or right. And if you don’t end up falling for her, that’s okay too. You told her you’d give it a shot, and she agreed to that. Both of you know how it is. Just give the relationship a fair chance, and be honest with her about how you feel—whether it’s closer to her romantically or not. She can take it.”

Feng thought that over and nodded. She looked back up at Dwight. “Yeah. I can do that. But that means I have another problem. Which is good, because I wasn’t sure this conversation would make it to the second problem. So here it is: if I’m dating her, what am I supposed to do?”

“What now?” asked Dwight.

“All I do with her right now is have sex, and I feel like that’s probably not the right way to go about this, so like…how do I be a good girlfriend?” asked Feng. “So long as it’s okay for me to do this, I think I do want to give us a shot—like a real one, but I’ve never done this before. So what do I do?”

“I am not sure why you came to me for advice on how to be a good girlfriend,” Dwight said slowly.

“Okay, well, how to be good to a girlfriend then,” corrected Feng, annoyed, “Same thing. So, what did you do?”

Uh. “Look. She likes you. You make her happy. Just, be decent to her. She wanted to date you because you were a good friend—don’t stop with that,” Dwight offered, thinking on his feet and working it out as he went. “There’s going to be stuff she’s into that doesn’t make sense to you or is boring, but let her talk about it anyway, because people talking about the shit that’s important to them is fun even when the shit itself is very confusing or boring. There’s also going to be stuff that you do find interesting—so ask her about it. Let her tell you about stuff she cares about, and be there for her if she needs you. Make sure you do the same for yourself, too—if you all decide to be together, it ought to be because you’re stronger as a pair than alone.”

“So…” Feng considered that for a second. “Like before when we were just friends, but with sex?”

“Yes,” said Dwight, grabbing onto that reply like a life preserver and relieved she’d accepted all that without asking him for examples. “But maybe take it as a chance to get more out of that relationship too. We all need someone to talk to—with all the shit we go through here? Once we get out there isn’t going to be enough therapy in the world for even one of us. You all can be at least someone to talk to, though, for each other. Which is something. Oh—and please don’t ditch your other friends just because you’re together. I’d hate to see Jake lose so many of you at once,” he added.

Feng laughed. “Wouldn’t dream of that—he’s way to useful in a trial. And not annoying.”

“Perfect,” replied Dwight, “Then just do that, and also spend time together outside of sex. I know you guys teach each other skills—keep that up. I mean, if having sex makes you all happier, go for it, just find other stuff to do too. Share interests and have fun together. Nea’s an expert tagger—go spray paint your initials on a tree or something.”

“That actually would be fun,” admitted Feng. “I’d like that. Yeah…Thank you Dwight, I think I can do…at least most of that.”

“Welcome,” replied Dwight, standing up.

Feng took the cue and stood up herself beside him. “Okay. I’m going to go have a nice conversation with my girlfriend, I guess, and see how that goes.”

Dwight nodded. “Go for it.”

“I appreciate the advice. I knew you’d be the best guy to ask about girlfriends.” Feng smiled.

If so, only to the discredit of my fellow men, thought Dwight, but he just smiled back. “Of course. Heading back to the campfire?”

“Yeah. Things to do,” she replied. Dwight was really glad Meg wasn’t there to make a Nea’s ‘things’ joke, because he was certain he was going to hear a lot of them over the coming weeks.  

“Shall we?” He offered Feng an arm to take, and she laughed.

“Geeze Dwight,” she said, taking the arm, “Big dad move. No wonder everyone calls you that. But yes, you may professionally escort me back to the campfire.”

“Okay,” said Dwight, giving her a look, “I just did you like three favors, so can you be nice to me for at least the next twenty seconds?”

“I can, but I’m going to quite literally count them off in my head as we walk, and bets are off when I reach zero,” Feng replied, giving him a devious look.

“Wonderful,” said Dwight, “I will walk quickly then.”

Sketches tucked under his free arm, Dwight walked with Feng towards the campfire and their waiting friends. There was still a lot of planning to do, things to try and get done, but it was enough for one day. After all, there were people to look after and that came first. Time for monsters in the sky and lost memories later. For now, even he needed just a little peace. A little time together. It meant something important, if fleeting—a memory for when things got worse. A little feeling better.

Even if he knew it wouldn’t last.

Chapter Text

 

Luck is an odd concept. For example, if while crossing the street you are almost hit by a car, are you lucky you were missed, or are you unlucky that you were nearly hit?

It’s entirely possible that luck is simply a concept that boils down to a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty mentality. But Ace Visconti would have argued otherwise.

His whole life, he’d been lucky. In ways. Although an objective viewer might argue the opposite, Ace held that it was a proven truth.

When he was young, his father worked full time as a custodian, and his mother struggled to make ends meet as a cleaner. Those jobs might sound synonymous, but trust me, they aren’t. A ‘custodian’ is a job with a title—sometimes a fancy word for ‘janitor,’ but it still implies some form of responsibility—you might be a gardener, or maybe you look after the floors, the lawn. Regardless, you are someone who has a title. A ‘cleaner’ is someone who pushes carts and enters hotel rooms one after another to clean them, who picks up the towels thrown onto the floor and starts wash cycle after cycle. It’s more of a description than a title, really, and the pay gap shows. Still, it was the best they could get. Since most of the people who could afford custodians and cleaners where they lived in Argentina were hotels, resorts, or casinos, those were most of the establishments his parents found their employ in. Sometimes they worked together, sometimes alone. They were always happy to work together, and had a game where, if they shared a job, they would try to pass one another in the halls. The first to smile at the other if they made eye-contact won a point, and at the end of the day, the person with the most points bought the other a drink, or a shave ice, or a soda. His mother would often carry a candy in her pocket to pass to her husband if they passed in the halls, and he would collect pretty stones and do the same for her with them.

As anyone who has ever been poor can tell you, it isn’t fun. Ace didn’t really mind, though, as a young boy, that money was tight and life was difficult—that was just normal. Children are often unaware of their situation. It wasn’t a tragic past. The birthdays were small, but the presents thoughtful, his parents always busy and exhausted, but kind. They taught him, indirectly, maybe his best skill—to find ways to cheat the system, to be happy despite his circumstances.

Still, his life of poverty did build a hunger in him. It wasn’t a fear of being poor exactly though, or a desire to be rich. It was more a question of what he could accomplish with nothing. When you’ve got nothing to start with, and you decide one day as a boy of eleven walking home with holes in the soles of your shoes and two coins you found on the edge of the street to give luck a go because why not, it could be me, and life actually rewards you on the first slot spin with more money than you’ve ever held before? Well, you realize in that moment, blinking at the coins falling down on your head and the people patting your back and laughing about how some kid in one spin got what they’d been trying for all morning (and in a few cases, slipping a few of your precious earnings into their own pockets with a jovial front) that life is a little different than you knew it to be. You thought when you were little that it was nice and full of wonder, and then a bit older you realized it was more complicated, and some people just don’t get some things, but now you see those were both wrong. There are three big components to life—what you deserve, what you are actually given, and sometimes there’s this new third thing—what against all odds you luck into.

A little boy, he’d gathered as much of the money as he could—which was most of it—and run home to his parents, black hair falling into his face as he stumbled along, coins rolled up in the bottom half of his shirt and no free hand to get the hair out of the way and clear his vision. He was young, but even at eleven he’d noticed a few of the adults pocketing his new money and been sharp enough to know it was in his best interest to laugh and smile at them and not confront, just cut his losses, but it did dissuade him from his impulse to stop and buy a box of candies to take home. Ace arrived home well before the rest of his family, in the early afternoon, and dumped the little pile of money on the center of their kitchen table, then ran and got a wash towel to cover it with and waited for his family to get home. He got bored sitting at the table after a few minutes, and decided on his good-will high to tidy things up a little and decorate with some of the paperchains they kept in a drawer for holidays. While this was mostly initially to combat the several hours between him and his family arriving, he got kind of into it as he went on, humming along to the neighbor’s loud radio and hop-skip-jump-dancing about as he found things to do around the house. Many hours later, when his parents finally arrived, the house was celebratory and he had set up two candles beside the hidden pile of money. He met them at the door and dragged them inside excitedly, making them wait in front of the table and then removing the cloth with a flourish like a stage magician to reveal his goods, all grins and prestige.

His parents were astounded, and immediately afraid he’d either stolen it from someone, or accidentally got a job drug-running packages for the mob, but once he assuaged their fears they hugged him and gave thanks and his mother cried a little. It was a good night. One Ace would always remember.

It wasn’t big money. It wasn’t the huge slot payout—the life changer—but Ace got new shoes, and it was nice. A little padding for the family. His parents didn’t demand he give them the money—Ace volunteered it, but he kept a small container of the coins in secret for himself, because the memory of pulling that lever and being rained on with rewards was fresh, and new, and full of wonder.

After that day, Ace loved to gamble. He couldn’t stop—no…no maybe he just didn’t want to. There was hardly a difference. To be honest, some of the allure was the money and the high society he got better and better at faking his way into as he grew, but perhaps a bigger part of it was just that taking risks was fun. The payout and the happiness and the new things were lovely, but so was the thrill of feeling the coins wash over him in that first instant. When he was small, Ace stuck to slots. That first big win was probably the only money Ace won that he actually managed to keep. Not that he didn’t win—he did, he would just lose again, one way or another. Sometimes to an impulse buy, often to the same game, on occasion simply because he gave the money to someone else. But it never stayed with him. Still, there was no stopping Ace. After using up his supply from his first win, the young Ace would find coins on the street, beneath vending machines, earned by holding doors for tourists who didn’t realize he didn’t work at whatever establishment he conned them for change at. He used to sit on the edge of a high stone railing by one of the big casinos, bake in the sun, and eat bags of Bugles while waiting for tourists he thought made good marks to pose as a porter or a doorman to. As he got older, he found more easy jobs that he was suited to. For awhile he was quite the local tour guide, and he moved on to card games and roulette, races, competition—anything with dice.

Among his steadily growing skill set two of his big assets were that he genuinely liked most people, and that the man had no shame. People generally like people who like them first, if there’s nothing to cause a negative reaction, so Ace’s winning smile and smooth talking got him into plenty of parties, venues, and opportunities to bet. He wasn’t a bad looking young man either, or middle aged one as he grew, and he shamelessly flirted and seduced his way through plenty of disasters, going after anyone open to a medium-quality pick-up line, and down for something fun. When he was young, it was easy to insert himself into groups as arm candy for someone.

The first time it happened, Ace was trying to make it inside a casino he’d frequented before and had been grabbed by the collar by a doorman and thrown out for having won too much the previous night and being a suspected cheat. Barely twenty, Ace was pretty small, so he went several feet before hitting the ground. As he rolled to a stop on the mosaic tile walkway, heels clicked into view and he looked up to see a short older woman in her 50s looking down at him like he was an injured puppy. Her name had been Irene, and she’d helped him to his feet, and Ace had instantly had the impulse to act much more injured than he was. Cradling his lightly scraped arm like it was broken, he sucked up the woman’s sympathy like a sponge in a bathtub. She brushed his hair out his face and asked if he was okay, and he told her he would manage, and explained when she asked that the doorman had thrown him out because he’d won too much the last night and was unfairly suspected. She’d huffed at the bouncer and marched over to him and demanded that he allow Ace in to accompany her. He’d stayed securely behind her the whole time, doing his best to look small and innocent and awed, and the bouncer had relented at Irene’s fury and let them both past. Ace had thanked her, all doe-eyed, and she’d told him he could follower her around and be her good luck charm—even passed him a disgustingly large handful of cash with which to bet. Irene bought him a martini and a glass of gin, which she soaked her handkerchief in and used to clean his cut. He had dutifully followed her the rest of the evening, and she had won. Partway through the night, after an incredible high-stakes blackjack hand, she had turned to him in wonder and said, “You are a good luck charm.” He’d winked and leaned forward on the table and said for the first time something which came to be almost second nature to him as a response. “What can I say? I’m a lucky guy. Some of it was bound to rub off on you.”

His charm opened him new doorways, new chances. What was easy when he was young was really no more difficult as he aged. In fact, on some occasions as Ace aged, people would see him and assume he was bit richer than themselves, and they would be the one making a pass at being a night’s arm candy.

As he ricocheted around as a faux high roller, Ace thought of himself as lucky. He won a lot of games, he had some skill, and he was far from the life he’d started in. There wasn’t resentment in that, though, in humble beginnings. Although he never quite got his thumb on the pulse of accumulating wealth, Ace always sent money or gifts home to his family in the rare times he was actually ahead financially.

The nature of luck being in question, at the very least no one could say that the cards did not favor Ace. That said, Ace wasn’t actually the best gambler. He was great at cards, but he was also what the casinos called “a perfect mark.” Despite being a bit of a bastard himself when it came to scamming, he was the sort of gambler who got so into his winning high that he could trounce the house round after round, and not have the good sense to pull out when he was ahead, then come back and do the same damn fool thing the next night.

Not too long went by before Ace started to become indebted to too many establishments, to too many people. They could never quite catch up to him though. Many a time some muscled thugs would break into his newest apartment, only to find it empty—bread still in the toaster, but him long gone.

Ace didn’t mind the close scrapes, because they never caught up with him. The only real downside to this lifestyle for Ace was that as he started to put himself in more and more danger, it meant it was less and less safe for him to see his family.

Once he got caught in an alley by a collector he chanced past at a bar who recognized him from over a year before. He ended up having a knife to his back and being casually escorted into a nearby alleyway. He was forty-two at the time, celebrating a birthday, and he did his best to keep smiling and to act friendly. Deescalate, charm your way out. It wasn’t like he wasn’t afraid, feeling a blade in the small of his back. He was terrified, but he was putting on a good face. Ace was proficient in that. The man who was about three times his size had shoved him up against a dirty brick wall and pinned him there by his throat, demanding to be paid, and Ace had promised. His usual charm hadn’t worked so well, and he’d ended up on the ground, feeling the man’s boot slam into his gut again and again as he tried to shield his head. A policeman had happened by then. Ace thanked the officer profusely and was more than cooperative in describing his fled assailant, who he had no idea the identity of, or why he’d been targeted. The next morning, Ace was gone.

So with all of that in mind, here was the question. The big one. Was Ace really lucky?

Was he lucky that the officer had saved him back outside that bar, or unlucky to have entered the one bar that had a man looking to kill him inside it? Was he lucky that he’d won the slots as a boy, or unlucky that path had led him into running down dark streets one night and being swallowed up by a dark fog, landing him in something worse than the death he’d been fleeing would have been like?

Maybe luck is just a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty way of viewing life, and there is no answer to this question.

But Ace didn’t think so. Ace thought of it like this: he was poorly fated, and quite lucky.

Fate, as he saw it, was the things that happened to you. Luck, the way they turned out. Fate was being born poor, people nearly killing you in an alley; luck was the out he’d found in gambling, or a policeman walking past.

When he’d arrived in the Entity’s realm, it hadn’t been something he was equipped to deal with from his experience. Not that it really was for any of them, but for some of the kids it seemed to develop into a quick learning curve. Laurie and Quentin, for example, had had practice running from psychotic killers. Feng treated everything like a high-stakes videogame. Maybe, in theory, Ace could have tried to think of it like that—a high-stakes wager, but it was different for him.

He had been alone when he’d arrived, and the horrors of being chased down and hung from hooks had been incomprehensible. It was a commonplace occurrence for everyone now, but that didn’t mean the absolute unthinkable agony and terror of something like that went away. It was easy to say things like “being impaled on a meat hook and having a monster gut you and consume your essence is a horrifying and painful experience,” but it wasn’t something Ace really thought he would have ever been able to describe to someone if he got out and somehow found a way home. How could anyone begin to convey what it meant, to time after time be hunted down and killed like a fox being hounded for sport and pleasure, what it felt like to die? It was true that there were things you got accustomed to, in ways, but there are some things that just can’t really be…adapted to. It got easier, but there was no way to negate the fear of death, or the pain of having someone throw you to the ground and carve your insides out with a chainsaw, of being electrocuted and hallucinating until the energy friend your brain and burned you from the inside out. Ace had done his level best to face it positively. Keep smiling, keep confident, you’ll luck into something. Ace had been scared, of course, he hadn’t ever known any better than the rest of them if he had a chance of escape someday, but he’d weathered it by making himself believe he would. It had helped, even if it was a ridiculous notion that positivity could save you in a place like this. Telling himself he would live, again and again, that he would be lucky, became almost a mantra. He ran, and he struggled, and he hid, and when he saw others he tried to help them, and he clung stubbornly to his belief that he would survive. Belief, warranted or not, was the only thing no one, no matter the power, could take away from him. And probably it was silly, probably it was unwarranted faith. However, true to his words, it wasn’t long before he had lucked into something—only a few dozen trials. Then he bumped into Meg Thomas, working a gen, and he had been at a loss. He’d been at a loss because, well, he’d seen people before, helped a few of them, but never for more than an instant—never enough to really see them, to breathe, to think, and Ace had no real idea what the hell was going on—maybe one of the circles of hell or something, maybe something similar—and while he’d known there were others, this was the first time he got a good look at one, and she was just a kid.

A kid. God, so young. He almost hadn’t believed it, and it had made him hesitate to get closer for a second, like he might bring the danger with him. Meg had been something else, though—strong, and fast—much faster than him. He’d seen that, but he’d also seen her get thrown up on a hook, cut down by a blade. Ace had been through a decent amount in his adult life, but never before had he had to witness something like that—a young girl being tortured. It was a terrible feeling, watching some kid scream and writhe with pain as a piece of metal came tearing out of her chest, or monster sent a ripple of electricity through her body and beat her down with a studded metal pole.

And there was so little he could fucking do about any of it. He tried—of course he tried. But this wasn’t like the real world, where you could intercede in a mugging on someone’s behalf, or punch a drunk man in the face. Sometimes the only real choice was if you were going to let someone die alone.

By some miracle, they had both made it out of that trial alive, the only two survivors, and she’d told him she had a group of other survivors she was staying and working with and he should come join them. Meg had been all friendly, offering a handshake, like he was being made partner in her Outrunning Killers firm.

He’d gone, because of course he had—who wanted to be alone in a place like this, or to leave someone else alone? When they arrived, to Ace’s surprise and internal dismay, the other survivors had all been kids. Jake was a little older than the other three, and maybe kids wasn’t entirely accurate from their point of view, but when you’re in your mid-50s, everyone under 30 is a kid. There had only been four of them back then, Jake, Dwight, Claudette, and of course Meg. He’d been their fifth. Everything he’d been through, everything he’d endured in the short time he’d been in the fog, and these kids were going through it too. That thought was…difficult to stomach. All his life, keeping a positive spin on things had been something Ace had done to control his surroundings and how others perceived him, and for himself. A vastly effective survival technique, it was his life vest in an unsure sea of existence. For the first time though, suddenly he needed to be lucky and charming and full of faith in success for the good of other people. It had never felt like a flimsy shield before he had had to use it to protect someone else.

Ace had never had kids, and the sudden unexpected responsibility of being the oldest person in a situation as intense as this had been daunting, to say the least. To his extensive relief, by the time he’d arrived Dwight had already somehow assumed the role of team dad, so he had been able to, thanking the lord silently in his head, slip into the much less stressful role of fun uncle to the group.

There was no earthly clue in Ace’s mind how to help a bunch of kids through the hell they were all suddenly enduring, but he’d done his damn best. Stay positive, talk to them about their lives between trials, do card tricks. It wasn’t something anybody would have been trained for, certainly not Ace. He’d liked all of them. Claudette was so quiet back then, when they’d first met—a little afraid of everything, even the sound of her own voice. He’d gotten to watch her get stronger, calmer and more prepared. He still remembered clearly one trial where he’d been stabbed deep through a side while, in desperation, jumping off the third story of a building on the MacMillian estate. Somehow the fall hadn’t killed him, and as he’d rolled off the haybale he’d hit covered in blood she’d come power-sliding in from god only knows what hiding spot to start trying to get him back up on his feet before the Trapper made it down the stairs, like some action movie battlefield medic.

They were incredibly resilient kids. Dwight did a great job of organizing and coordinating people. Meg liked to make fun of him and ignore his suggestions between trials, but when the pressure was on, it was good to have a leader. Meg herself was quite a character, somehow still deeply invested in cliffhangers she might never know the outcomes of in favorite tv shows from before her arrival. Kind of reminded him of himself, in ways—she kept finding things to smile about, and got the others to joke with her. She kept finding ways to make this unbearable existence feel normal between deaths and beatings. Jake was quiet, in an almost stern way—kept to himself. It had taken some time for him to warm to the others, but after a little time with the group Ace could tell Jake cared about the rest of them in his own way, more and more as time went on. He would probably never admit such things out loud, but Ace had been working on a generator with Jake maybe a few months after joining the group when they’d seen Dwight, injured, trying to outrun the Wraith nearby—he’d watched Jake’s knuckles go white as he gripped tools too tight, stealing glances towards the chase. He knew what a man praying for a good outcome on a roll of the dice looked like. Jake was always quiet about it, but Ace had seen him take a hit for Claudette, go back for Meg. It was a gradual thing, increasing with age. Maybe he was growing up. It seemed like all of them were having to learn how to do that—to decide who they were going to become.

Ace often wondered to himself how all of these kids had turned out to be so good. There had been others, then, as time went on. Nea, Feng, Quentin, David, Laurie, Kate. Slow, not all at once, like milestones marking their progress through the mist. Nea liked trouble, Feng was competitive to a fault, Quentin always tried his best, David was a fighter, Laurie a survivor, Kate never gave in, and Ace had liked all of them.

They were good luck. It was poor fate to end up in this place, for all of them, but it was good luck that they’d found each other. Good luck he’d been forced to try and take care of a bunch of kids. Good luck that they didn’t need him. Better still that they had each other anyway.

He thought about that a lot, but he wasn’t thinking about it now. There was the vague sound of David trying to explain to Jake a drinking game he’d never heard of before (and Ace new quite a lot of them), but Ace’s thoughts were mostly far of, and fixed on old memories. For no real reason at all, he was remembering a stray grey cat he’d been taking care of right before disappearing, and wondering if after he’d vanished it had gone to the bakery down the street for shelter. There was no real reason for this—he probably should have been focused on the strangeness of Dwight’s recent trial with the Wraith, or concern for Laurie, but he’d drifted. Sometimes he was driven to spend a long time remember little chunks of nothing at all from his old life, just to prove to himself that those memories were real too. He had always been the kind of person who could recall an old memory so well he might suddenly start laughing over a really funny one in public without warning, and embarrass his friends, but that was a great skill now. Ace was finally shaken from his reverie by the realization that his fingertips were starting to vanish. He dug a little packet of salt out of his pocket, got up, and dropped it in the campfire for luck, watching the others nearby to see who would be joining him. David stood and gave him a nod, walking over and burning a little packet of his own—herbs of some kind, by the smell. Not salt.

“Take ah bet on who the killer’ll be?” asked David.

It was nice to have David around. He was still significantly younger than Ace, but he was the closest thing to a fellow adult.

“Yeah, I’ll take that,” Ace agreed, smiling at David and resting his hands in his pockets as they began to vanish. “Nurse.”

“Doctor,” replied David, “Let’s keep our bets medical.”

“Done,” said Ace, taking one of his hands back out of his pocket and shaking David’s hand. They’d probably both be wrong and have to go to Dwight to settle whose guess was closer to the Killer they actually got.

They were gone then, in a little crackle of firelight. There was a sound like a fire consuming something, then Ace could see again and he was standing on the ground of Coldwind Farm. He looked to his left and was greeted almost as fast with the sight of a nasty little cage full of sharp metal and shards of glass with a little doll sitting on top and he grimaced. Pig.

Well, at least she’s female, so I probably win the bet, he consoled himself. Now let’s go sneak around and bring some light. His casual smile was back as quick as he’d lost it, if a little false for the first few seconds, and Ace crouched, moving quietly towards the flickering lights of a generator a few yards off.

He slid into place by the generator and started to work as quietly as he could. Easy does it. Don’t want to make this thing spark. Ace mentally hummed a familiar jazz tune to steady his hands and kept a lookout over his shoulders, watching for the creeping figure he knew would come for them sooner or later.

A lot of them had favorite and least favorite killers to go up against. Generally that had to do with either the level of fear and pain they inflicted, or how easy they were to escape from. Ace wasn’t sure if he had a favorite or a least favorite at all, but if he’d had a favorite it wouldn’t have been the Pig. The reason wasn’t because she was fast or sneaky, it was because she was sadistic. It felt wrong to say that it was easier to watch your friends be murdered than to watch them be tortured, but it was true—at least for him. Only a matter of time before she found someone and the real fun began.

There was nothing though, and he got closer and closer to lighting his generator. That was actually not the best feeling. Usually by the time he was halfway to lighting a generator, he or someone else would have been jumped. But there was no blood-curdling scream, no sign any of them were in danger. It was unsettling for the silence to go on so long. If he hadn’t already had his proof it was the Pig, he would have begun to suspect it had to be the Wraith or the Shape.

A shriek came from behind him then, memorable as it was chilling, and as he let go of the generator and tried to move out of the way the Pig was upon him, her knife blade digging into his back. Ace screamed something that had been “Fucking hell” in his head, but came out as an unintelligible shout, and fell backwards. He had been so careful, and somehow he still hadn’t seen her coming. As Ace hit the ground he turned, using his feet to fling the Pig off himself, dragged himself up and started to run, dropping a pallet and waiting to see if he could run her around a bit. She wasn’t having that, though, and smashed through the it the second he dropped it. That’s fine, thought Ace, and he took off for some farm equipment. Behind him, the sound of the Pig’s presence disappeared. Crouching to throw me off guard, thought Ace, not slowing down. Some of the Killers could do that—cloak their ambient horror aura, and she was one of the most skilled at it. He wasn’t about to buy the bait that he’d actually lost her just yet.

Ace didn’t see whoever the Pig stopped chasing him to go after, but he heard a shout of pain and realized that he’d been wrong about her sneaking after him—she’d switched targets. He came to a stop then, bleeding by a baler.

Someone lit the generator he’d been working on. Good on you, pal, thought Ace, wishing whoever had finished his work well, and also that he’d brought a medkit. Damnit, I always remember to burn a sacrifice, but I never take my stuff. I always think I’ll want it later, and I just never use it. Guess I gotta find a chest I guess and hope for the best. That or a friend.

There was a generator fairly nearby amidst the corn, and Ace, who had been planning to go hunt for a box, changed course and hoped for the best. He was lucky. The sounds of progress well underway greeted his ears as he stole over, and he saw David crouched by the generator, fingers moving steadily over gears and wires.

Perfect—that was entirely the best way this could have worked out for me. A friend. Just seeing David instantly alleviated a little of the stress. On top of that, it looked like he was pretty close to finished with his own generator. Ace slipped closer.

Guard up, David saw him almost the moment he moved, and he stopped working on the generator and stole over, giving a sympathetic grimace at the knife wound in his back an carefully staunching the blood flow while Ace did his best not to make nose in response to the pain and both men listened for the Pig and whoever she was chasing. Neither of them heard her coming. Somehow, even though they were looking for it, she’d gotten close, using the generator and used it to block their view. Ace had a sudden feeling that all was not well, and no time to respond before she was out of cover with a shriek and on top of the both of them, raking David across the chest as he turned and tried to push Ace out of the way. Ignoring David, the Pig turned on Ace and leapt as he backpedaled, digging the knife into his shoulder. The stab wound was deep, and it carved into him in a way he knew from experience meant it had hit important things—things that were torn open from the twist of the knife and would fail and leave him to bleed out on the ground if he couldn’t find help. He fell back as it sunk into him, hitting the ground square on his back. The Pig landed on top of him and dug the blade in as far as it would go, grotesque masque inches from his face. There was a loud sound from David then, as he tore off through the cornfield, and the Pig let go of Ace and took off after David.

Time—he’s buying me time. Might be able to lose her, thought Ace, starting to try and drag himself forward by his elbows. His chest ached in a dull, tearing way with each movement, and they became harder and harder to make. Horrifying, unpredictable, sadistic, ugly looking masked creep, thought Ace incoherently as his heart raced. There was a shout as David went down nearby. No. Shit. He could hear his friend struggling as she picked him up a few yards off, and Ace stopped moving, praying the rows of corn and the distance would make him hard to find. The thing was like an animal though—it could smell blood, and the steady swish of corn stalks brought the Pig back beside him in a matter of seconds, hauling David over her shoulder. She dropped him on the ground beside Ace and they were almost face to face for a second.

David was clutching his chest, almost at his collar, trying to slow the blood that was seeping through it. His face was a horrible grimace of pain, and his breathing was harsh and sharp as he tried to not sound injured. They knew the Pig—they knew she liked that—to hurt them and hear it. David was proud, and he was strong, and not about to give her the satisfaction she wanted, and Ace had been in enough trials with both of them to know that would just make her want to break him more. Hang in there, Ace thought, trying to give him some kind of reassuring look in the few instants they met eyes, but David’s face was taught, like someone bracing for impact seconds before a collision—not going down without a fight, but no real hope of escape left either.

The Pig slammed a knee down into the small of David’s back then and he stifled a cry as she rolled him over so his face was pressed into the dirt. A wave of her hand and Ace saw one of the awful little torture devices appear in her grasp like she’d summoned it out of the ether, a steel cage with spikes that closed down around your head. Ready to snap you open in half, a reverse beartrap. David was working not to look at her—to not give her the satisfaction, blood seeping from his shoulder and into the dirt. Unrelenting, the Pig dug her fingers into David’s hair, jerked his head back hard, and forced the trap over his head. She went to shove part of the device inside his mouth and David fought madly, struggling with everything he had to keep the thing out of his mouth, but there was so little he could do. Her fingernails dug into his chin and there was a snap and a muffled sound from David as she pried open his jaw and forced the metal in, hooking the prongs deep into his jaw, and locking the cage shut in the back. Ace could see blood trailing down the side of David’s face. The thing functioned as a gag and a murder weapon, and the horror of knowing something was fastened around your head that could snap it in two at any moment was a kind of awful that was hard to imagine. Helplessness and fear, like being forced to the ground beneath a guillotine. He tried to make eye contact again, but the Pig moved between them and he lost sight of David.

Left on the ground wounded and unable to speak as the Pig turned her attention towards Ace, he could faintly hear David trying weakly to crawl away in the faint hope someone would come help him while the Pig was busy. Ace prayed someone would.

Not giving David a second thought, the Pig paused above Ace and looked down at him for a moment, any semblance of humanity gone behind the grotesque mask, and then she moved out of his field of view behind him and he felt her knee against his shoulder blades, hitting him right where she’d stabbed him earlier and applying pressure.  It was excruciating, and in spite of his best efforts a cry escaped him at the sudden, unbearable pain. Her fingers were dragging his head up by the hair then, and it was his turn to fight as the steel cage descended around his head and his mouth was forced open and sharp metal hooks were shoved inside and buried in his jaw, filling his mouth with blood he choked on. There was a snap as the reverse beartrap locked in place.

As soon as she finished, she dropped him, his head smacking against the cage as it hit the ground and he hit it, and the Pig left him for David, following his easy trail of blood through the corn. I can take it, thought Ace, ignoring the little cut dripping blood in his left eye, I’ve known one too many sadists before this shit. But David… He’d been kicked around in life enough to know that if you were still breathing when it was over and you could get back up, you’d won, but David was different. Taking it easy and convincing himself things would end up alright next time might work as a method for Ace, but David was a man who had spent his life tough—the kind of person who would fight his way through trouble, and even if he lost he’d have damn well made his point to his opponent along the way. Everyone here had their own coping strategies, some positive or promise that made it so you could get past the suffering and the loss and the hell you went through, and while most of them could still find ways to use their old techniques now, David’s just didn’t exist anymore. He was used to winning in exchange for having the guts and strength to fight—there’s a pride and a respect even to a well-lost fight. There was none of that here, in a place like this, and in a lot of ways the Pig was the one who forced that loss of control on them the most. “Hey!” Ace started, trying to shout after her and draw her back, but all the words in his long string of insults were impossible through the steel gag and all that he could manage was a muffled sound past the metal digging into his mouth. Somewhere deeper in the cornfield he heard the sounds of a struggle, and then a strangled scream as David went up on a hook.

“Heads up, this is gonna sting.” The voice was almost inaudible, and Ace had both never heard the speaker’s voice before, and not seen or heard anyone coming up from behind him. There was someone beside him though, someone that he couldn’t see—the cage around his head blocking out any peripheral vision. He tried to answer on impulse, forgetting too soon that he couldn’t with the steel prongs digging into his jaw. The attempt at speech turned into a choked sound of pain as Ace felt a needle slide into the cut on his back as the speaker began to close it with quick, if painful and tactless strokes. In the next moment that someone was pulling him to his feet, and for just an instant he was face to face with a man around his own age, a man he hadn’t seen before, wearing a uniform and a policeman’s badge on a chain around his throat.

“Get that thing off. I got him,” the man whispered, indicating David’s direction with his head.

Not waiting for agreement or disagreement or even for Ace to process the order, the policeman shoved him in the opposite direction the Pig had disappeared off to and got going himself. Well that was nice of him, came his brain’s first delayed attempt at a coherent response to the situation, Wait, who was that? There wasn’t really time to find out, though, so Ace turned and took off for the Jigsaw box he’d seen when he first arrived. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, he thought as he listened for any sings of being followed. A long time ago his first thought would have been to help David, but he’d learned at this point that doing anything hasty would just make it worse for all of them. It was smarter to leave and let the cop get David, because if Ace was off trying to remove his trap, then the Pig would have to choose between hunting him down, looking for fresh meat, and guarding David. Better odds for them all. Got to think smart, play this smart. We can figure it all out. Plus, the cop was right that he had to get the contraption off fast, for the good of everyone. He was going to have to hope for the best, though—there were always a lot of the traps around the trial grounds, and only one of them would have the right key inside.

Usually Ace would have thought it was odd that so much time had passed and another generator hadn’t been lit, but he knew why this time, and considered it a mercy. Nobody around the fire with him had been dragged in except David, which meant either Meg or Dwight was in here as their fourth, or that there were two strangers, and both of them were being unusually kind. See, the reverse beartraps were worse for them than a lot of traps the killers employed, because it forced everyone to make a hard choice. Either stop lighting generators and risk your own chances of escape, or light them and know you have blood on your hands. Lighting any generator was the on switch that would automatically trigger the timer on the back of his reverse beartrap, and David’s. Two and a half minutes to get it off then, or their jaws would be ripped open, butchering their skulls. He had to get his off as soon as possible.

Ace got close to the box he’d first seen, and the one lit generator, and crouched—just in case. She might be looking for him. At least if she is, it’ll make it easier for the cop to get David, Ace thought as he stole closer. He could just barely see David from here, a tiny shape across the cornfield. What’s taking so long?

Almost as he thought it, he saw the same man who had helped him appear, duck past some boxes, and take a quick dash to grab David and free him from the hook. David ran, and the cop crouched behind the boxes he’d used as cover before. There was a distant shriek and then Ace saw the Pig appear, chasing down David with a vengeance and running smack into a pallet the cop dropped from his hiding place as she tried to pass him, unaware. The shriek was one of fury this time, and the Pig forgot all about David and went after the man who was causing her so much trouble. He was fast, though, and she missed her first swing and he took off full-tilt. As she tore off after him, it only took seconds for them to be completely lost past some ruined walls.

Who is supercop? John McClane? wondered Ace as he stood and rushed the last few steps to the Jigsaw box. It would be great if there was actually time to find out, but there wasn’t. Ace faced the box in front of him and did his best to steel himself.

Trials with the Pig were their own kind of awful. Less immediate death, more slow torture. The jigsaw boxes were a part of this. Big things—about as tall as him. A metal hood on top and a sharp wire cage around the base. The hood had several holes for an arm to fit into, and there was a key hidden somewhere inside. Sometimes it would be the one you needed, most of the time it wouldn’t. If it was, a signal emitted from the back of the beartrap would release the catch on the key and give it to you, if not, you were shit out of luck and would have to repeat the slow, agonizing process again at a different box—usually while listening to the timer strapped to the back of your head countdown to zero. There were a whole handful of these traps scattered around the trial, and only one had the match to any specific trap. To even find out if the key inside a box was the correct key you had to dig through the trap blindly, and that was a lot worse than it sounded. Not because it left you exposed to the Pig, either.

Okay, not getting any easier, go on, thought Ace, and he carefully slid his left hand into the box and started to dig. Almost the second he began, a gentle prod from his fingertip sent a sharp pain down his arm as a piece of broken glass sliced it open. The whole inside of the hood was coated in layers of razor sharp, paper thin shards of glass, and you had to sift them as gingerly as possible to get at the key without slicing their hand open too badly. Too badly being the key phrase—there was no version of events where you walked away from a box uninjured. Sometimes there were other things to make it worse. Moving parts you had to dodge that would crush fingers or push them into the glass, razor wire, think blades of various lengths attached to the roof of the hood. The worst was occasionally there would be blades attached to the hole you had to rest your arm in to dig through the glass itself. As he moved his hand carefully, Ace could feel that that was the case this time. The circular razor all around the hole at his wrist nicked him and Ace sucked in a breath, let it half out, and held it, willing his arm to be as motionless as possible. If he didn’t go slow, he’d slit his own wrists on the armrest, but the longer he took the more sure it became that either the Pig would find him, or someone would light a generator and it’d be 60 seconds or die. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Could be the mantra of a Pig trial.

Digging a little faster, Ace’s finger pads sliced open at the familiar touch of the glass, and he fought the urge to move or jerk his hand away at the pain. Not gonna cut my wrists just yet, thank you. He thought as calmly as he could, trying again to find notes of a specific favorite jazz song in his head as he started to sift the glass carefully, praying for the key. Come on baby, come on. Shifting a pile of shards with his thumb, a piece of glass somehow got wedged upwards and caught him by surprise as it dug into the palm of his hand, deep, and he jerked away from the pain. Just a little—mercifully upwards, not down, but the blades in the arm rest dug deep into the top of his wrist and Ace bit down on his lip hard to combat the urge to jerk his hand away this time. Slowly, he calmed his breathing as he watched blood slide down the inside of the see-through mesh bottom of the Jigsaw box and pool in a metal bucket at its center. So close. You got it, just a little more.

He started to move the glass again, listening as best he could to the world behind him while struggling to simultaneously focus on not cutting open his wrist or palm and finding the key. All at once his fingers found it—a key, and relief flooded him and a smile flickered across his face, but as he tried to grab it to take it out, its release didn’t trigger and the piece of metal stayed secured to the bottom of the box.

Fuck. Wrong one, he realized. Okay, okay, he thought, trying to see the best in it, but it’s only my first try. The doll on top of the box laughed at him and he carefully withdrew his hand, cradling the mangled appendage for a second as his eyes took in tiny laceration after laceration. There were little cuts all over the hand, a deep gash in the palm, and his fingertips were just bits of torn, hanging flesh. Better keep going.

He did. While he’d been trying to find a key, off in the distance someone had gone down and was up on a hook. He had half missed it, in his focus, and had no idea if it was the cop, or David again, or their last trial member. But there was a jigsaw box near the victim, so Ace stole closer, unsure if he was going to go for the box or the rescue first. I’ll flip a coin, he thought, heads the rescue, tails the box first. As he got closer, though, he saw the policeman from before again, heading for the hook up on the hill at a sprint. Damn, who is that guy? Ace wondered again like a bystander in an episode of MacGyver as the officer snatched the other person, who Ace couldn’t see well but was fairly sure wasn’t David, and took off again at a run, barely losing any momentum in the rescue. The rescued party took off in the opposite direction, and both were gone.

Box then, I guess. No rescue needed, Ace thought, moving to the box.

As he went through the agonizing process again, Ace tried to think over the objectives instead of the pain. One generator done, probably some in progress people are holding back on for us. That might be the best idea, work as much on as many as possible, light them back-to-back once we get these things off. The ugly doll on the box laughed at him again as he came up empty a second time. Well shit, thought Ace, At least I’m not on a time limit yet.

Another yell—close, way too close, a little to Ace’s left—came out of nowhere and he jumped. Quickly ducking behind some junk, Ace moved to get a better look, hoping the Pig hadn’t been close enough to hear the doll laugh. As he got closer, he realized it was the cop this time, finally downed, and his heart sunk a little. The Pig didn’t bother throwing a device on his head for some reason, she just picked him up and rammed him through a hook. Ace flinched reflexively as he heard the other man scream. She crouched and slid off the hill then, much to Ace’s horror right towards him.

Don’t freak out—she didn’t see you, she’s checking the Jigsaw box, Ace thought hurriedly. He shifted a little to the left to be further out of her line of sight and held his breath. The red-cloaked form slid past him. Oh jeeze, oh thank God, thought Ace, sliding around the far side of his junk heap to be solidly away from her.

Up on the hook, the cop had seen him, and he very unobtrusively extended his fingers until his palm was facing Ace in a wait gesture. Ace did, following the cop’s gaze back the way the Pig had gone. After a few seconds, the cop waved him closer with two fingers, and Ace booked it up the hill.

A generator went on.

Halfway through unhooking the other man, the cop and Ace were face to face when it happened, and both men turned their heads to look. There was a “Beep.” then a moment and another slow “beep” from the device screwed into Ace’s head. Ah, fuck, thought Ace, setting the cop down.

“Get moving,” said the cop, staunching the flow of blood from his chest on his own, “I can patch myself up. You got two minutes.”

Ace nodded and swallowed, then turned and took off for the nearest Jigsaw box. God, I hope David already got rid of his.

He made it down the hill booked it past low walls and trees until he was beside a third box. Come on, how many fucking tries can it take, he thought desperately. Ace stuck his hand into the box slowly and winced as the already damaged nerve ends did their best to gently sort through the little shards of glass. Calm down, won’t be a help, he told himself. Third time’s the charm, I’m sure this one will be it.

Another generator lit in the distance. Made sense—anyone with one of these on their head was already screwed, so no point in holding back now. Ace couldn’t really blame whoever had lit the generator, either. Trials would come to a point where they couldn’t keep getting stalled by this, or it would mean everyone would end up dead. He knew that. It was always a tough decision. He’d seen people light generators while wearing reverse beartraps. Feng seemed to get some really specific, strong pleasure out of doing that. Like it was a great big “fuck you” to the Pig.

His fingers found a key amidst the glass and Ace prayed with everything in his heart that third time really would be the charm. It was. The key came free and Ace sliced open his wrist in his hurry to get the key to the back of the trap.

The metal behind his head unhooked and the cage came free and Ace dragged it over his head and out of his mouth and let it drop. Tasting metal and blood, and doing his best to hold pressure as he wrapped up the wrist he’d just mangled, Ace felt immense relief watch over him.

It was spoiled by a crack! behind him as something snapped a twig, and Ace took off at full speed without even looking. He’d gone fifteen feet before he glanced over his shoulder and saw that it wasn’t the Pig. It was a surprised looking man holding up a hand in a “Wait” gesture, already beginning to lower the hand in the expectation Ace wasn’t coming back. Whoops.

Ace stopped and turned around a little sheepishly and awkwardly jogged back. The man looked relieved, smiling for a second, and came to meet him halfway.

Two strangers in one day, and both adults, much to Ace’s surprise—finally. The cop was likely about his age, whereas this man was probably a little younger than him, but early 40s seemed like a reasonable guess. He was dressed formally, but a step down from a corporate businessman. Too comfortable and not cold enough for that. Maybe a doctor, thought Ace, taking in the white coat.

As he knelt beside the other man, Ace took in the deep gash in his side and the blood running down the sides of his mouth. “Got yours off too,” whispered Ace, gesturing to the nearby Jigsaw box, “That’s good luck.” Gently, Ace removed a small cotton pad from his pocket and held it in place while his new friend held up his shirt so Ace could secure the dressing in place with a bandage.

“What are they?” asked the other man quietly. He seemed calm—controlled, but his eyes kept darting around, watching for trouble. Like the little grey cat he’d been taking care of in Sanremo. Vigilant even at rest.

“Never seen the Pig before?” asked Ace, feeling deeply sympathetic. Buddy, I remember my first time with her, and it was shit. Tried to run through an exit gate with one of these things strapped to my head, and let me tell you that’s sure a one-time only mistake.

The man shook his head, freezing up for a second as birds across the cornfield took to the sky and another generator lit. Ace froze too—only for a moment, waiting for screams. Nothing yet, though, so he went back to fixing the man’s side.

“They activate when a generator is lit,” replied Ace, circling back to the man’s first question. “You get about two and a half minutes, unless something’s wrong.  If you don’t get it off in time, your head gets ripped open in half. The jaws—”

“—The metal hooks into the jaws to force your mouth open on command, like a spring-loaded car jack,” finished the man in a way that indicated he was thinking through it out loud, not interrupting because he already knew.

“Yeah,” agreed Ace, “Or a reverse beartrap.”

The man grimaced at that, his hand absently going up to trace the cut open edge of his mouth where the trap had been attached.

“You can’t walk out the exit with one on either,” added Ace, “it’ll activate on its own and kill you.”

“How do you get a key?” asked the man, slow and thoughtful with intent, like someone mentally prepping a battle strategy.

“You already got one off, didn’t you?” asked Ace, absolutely unprepared for that question.

He shook his head. “No. No, the…thing got distracted. A policeman. She was halfway through it, but she left me to chase him.”

“Wow, Supercop’s crazy,” replied Ace on instinct, again feeling a strong who is he? he wanted answered more and more, “That guy saved me today too.” The man he was patching up gave him a slightly confused look. “Right, right,” continued Ace, “The reverse beartraps. To get one off, you have to go to these and dig around inside,” he indicated the Jigsaw box nearby with his head. “Only one has the right key though, and digging around for it will screw up your hand.”

Ace tied off the bandage and held out his own hand for the man to see, and the man gave it a glance and then a hasty double-take as the visual of the damage really sunk in.

“Jesus Christ,” whispered the man in the coat, “Well, thank you for the information. And the help,” he added, lowering his shirt back down over the bandage.

Ace could tell he had to be new here just from the way he was comfortable whispering. Even the smallest sound could give you away. And while sometimes, or on special occasions, they would talk to each other during trials, if a motion could suffice instead, it would. No good taking chances. That’s rough, thought Ace, remembering his first trials, Yeah, that’s hell.

The other man held out his hand and Ace awkwardly went for a handshake. The man in the coat looked down at the handshake like he had no idea what Ace had done that for, but shook his hand just the same.

“I, uh—I was reaching for the bandages. You’re bleeding as well,” he whispered as they shook hands.

Oh, right. I forgot about that. Ace was so used to being in pain that the fear of having his head snap in two had far outweighed the stab wound in his chest. The cop had gotten the cut in his back and he’d been able to walk after that, so he’d pushed the rest of it to the back of his mind. Ace nodded sheepishly, handing over the bandages. The man took them and a needle and something that was maybe antiseptic out of his own pocked and doused Ace’s chest wound. Yeah—ow—shit—yeah, that’s antiseptic. Oh geeze, can we get diseases?

“Sorry,” the man said, voice barely audible, “Just a moment.”

As the man in the white coat worked, Ace heard a yell, and saw someone go up on a hook a little way past the cornfield. Please don’t be David, he thought guiltily. Wishing him well meant hoping Supercop had gone down, and the man had saved him and apparently everyone else here at least once today. I’m going to have to go help whoever it is, aren’t I?

The other man finished his field dressing on the chest and did his best to bind Ace’s hand—which was excruciating, but did make him feel better because he no longer had to look at it.

“Do you know…” the man asked slowly, hesitantly, like he wasn’t sure he should. “Do you know why we’re here? Or…”

Right, very new, thought Ace, Poor bastard. “Not exactly,” Ace replied, watching him wind the bandages around his chewed-up fingertips, “It gets easier though.”

The man in the coat gave him a look like he didn’t quite believe this was a thing that could get easier. In a lot of ways that was true. Some of it got easier, sure, but some of it got worse. It wore you down. “Does anything ever change?” the man asked after a second. There was always a pause before he spoke, like he was carefully selecting his words, and Ace realized suddenly that this was because he wasn’t sure how many questions he was going to get to ask. He wondered how many times he’d been in trials with someone and gotten to speak to them only for a second, only to lose them, or to die himself. This might be the longest chance he’d had. It hadn’t been until Ace himself had met Meg Thomas that he’d exchanged more than a few words with anyone, although he’d tried at first, before he realized how sharp the ears of the things in the fog were. That had quickly beaten the impulse to communicate with others out of him. Well, it nearly had.

“Aside from the killer?” replied Ace, “Not really. Sometimes it goes better, sometimes worse. We keep trying, but even if we get a win, we’re still stuck overall. Think of it like Gilligan’s Island, but every episode gets its plot from Friday the 13th.

The face the man in the coat made said he didn’t love that. He finished on the bandage and stood up, motioning to a generator near the two of them. Ace shook his head and pointed to the man on the hook across the field.

The man in the coat looked tired, or maybe sad—disappointed, but he nodded back.

“Best of luck, Professor,” Ace whispered, turning to slip away through the corn.

Behind him, the man in the coat started to say something in reply, then he just shook his head and smiled—just for an instant—and gave a tiny wave as Ace disappeared.

Moving through the field, Ace did his best to move as quietly as possible. When he made it closer to the hook, he could see it was David, reverse beartrap still attached, and his heart sunk.

It was an awful sight, but one he was as used to as he could be. The metal digging through David’s shoulder, wounded all over, arms battered and bruised from trying to fight back the thing that was attempting to kill him. No, the reason his heart sunk was the reverse beartrap. They’d been trapped together, and Ace had had maybe a minute left when he got his trap off. If his was still on, it meant David’s had to be close to triggering. The timers on the back stopped if you were up on a hook, but the second he took him down, David would…

The nearest Jigsaw box was only a few yards—maybe he could still get free. I have no way of knowing which one has his key though, or which ones he’s already tried. Or how much time he had left. Ace hesitated.

Blood dripped from the corners of David’s mouth where the reverse beartrap had been forced in, and there were two long gashes across his chest, destroying his Rugby shirt, and a third wound—a deep wound, right in his gut. She’d sliced him open, and a little piece of his intestine was hanging out though the wound. The talons of the Entity were around him, and he was struggling to keep them from tearing him apart, but there wasn’t any hope in his face. Ace knew that expression well. Someone past thinking through damned if you do, damned if you don’t, who just knew they were fucked.

I can’t leave him though. I need to do something. Ace slid out into the open, into David’s line of sight, and the two men met eyes. For a second, David looked almost glad to see him, then almost ashamed that again he’d been reduced to this. Trials were always hard on David. He was the kind of person who wanted so badly to protect people, and he used to be able to. It wasn’t easy for him to run and hide, and that meant that usually he did manage to block a hit or two for someone, but the world repaid him by leaving him to die on a hook, leaking blood and stomach acid, often near the dead body of the person he’d been trying to save. Ace took a step forward, worried look up at the reverse beartrap, and David shook his head.

He couldn’t tell Ace what he meant through the gag, but it was clear. No way out. Better to die on the hook than from the trap. Ace couldn’t blame him. Slowly, Ace nodded in understanding, then he walked closer, holding up a hand when he saw a warning look on David’s face which meant if he tried to interfere David would let go and let himself die to keep from being taken off the hook. David hesitated, then obeyed, holding the Entity back as best he could, and gave Ace a questioning look.

Both of David’s hands were being used to keep a claw poised above his chest at bay, but Ace moved up right below the hook, ducking to be out of the way of the talons, and put his hand on the back of one of David’s hands, then looked up at David, giving his best reassuring smile.

David understood then, and Ace could see some relief in his eyes. He took a breath, then he let go of the claw and took Ace’s hand, gripping it tight, and the instant he did the claw hooked forward and dug into David’s ribcage, shattering bones and impaling him clean through, giving him just enough time to yell in muffled agony through the steel gag before it killed him. Ace felt the strength of the grip that had been almost crushing his fingers go out of the hand as David’s eyes shut. Gently, Ace let David’s fingers slide through his own as the body was lifted upwards into the blackness above that served as their sky. I’m sorry kid, thought Ace, you always deserve better than you get.

Maybe she had been watching and waiting—hoping he’d take David down and let the reverse beartrap do its work, maybe she’d only just arrived. Either way, Ace did hear the Pig behind him this time, crawling up through the grass, breathing a little too excited. He knew she was there, but there was nowhere for him to go. Walls around him, except towards her—he was boxed in. Still, Ace tried anyway, spinning on his heel and going for a dash past her, and he almost made it, but her blade caught him in the side and he stumbled, barely dodging a second swipe from her as he regained his balance and ran for the cornfield. Come on, you aren’t that old, get faster! He did his best, trying to move unpredictably through the tall corn, when suddenly he couldn’t hear her anymore. Keep running in case she’s sneaking, or go still incase she’s lost you? Ace froze and crouched, praying the corn would hide him. Where did she go? He turned and looked around, and there was nothing, not even motion in the corn. Ace started to move then, crouched low to the ground and as quietly as possible, heading towards the edge of the cornfield. He was about halfway when behind him there was a rustle, ever so slightly, and he turned to look and there she was, crouched not six feet away. The second he saw her, she sprung on him like a loaded gun firing, and the force knocked him backwards to the ground. Her blade caught him in the chest, and she was on him again, straddling his waist, reverse beartrap in hand. As the cage came towards his face, he saw it was different, rusty spikes attached along the metal prongs, and as she shoved it into his mouth he felt the spiked tips dig into the roof of his mouth and his tongue and carve little trails of blood and serrated flesh. There was a snap of the trap as it locked behind his head.

Trying to ignore the screaming pain in his mouth, Ace struggled against her as she lifted him towards a hook. A generator went off, and she heard him make a sound almost like a laugh under her breath.

That’s five, realized Ace, That’s all of them—why is she happy? He didn’t like that question.

She got close to the hook she’d been gunning for, and there was the cop, blocking her way. Oh thank God, thought Ace, I’m going to send this man a fruit basket. He redoubled his efforts to break free. The Pig swung at the cop and he easily dodged her, slowed down by Ace, and suddenly Ace was free. She let go of him and he landed on his feet and watched in amazement as she let out a scream and lunged at the cop, who took the hit in his arm and sprinted off, her hot on his tail.

Damn he’s good, thought Ace, watching the cop disappear, dumbfounded. A loud “beep,” from the reverse beartrap sprung him back into action. Oh yeah—fucking shit! Ace took off for the closest Jigsaw box.

The box was close to one of the huge metal exit doors—so much the better, right? Ace moved quickly, grimacing as he watched the glass tear away the bandages that had only just been so carefully applied. There was a scream from near the exit, and Ace feverishly tried to speed up. He was so close, if he gave up now he’d have lost so much time. Got it! The key—he’d found it. As he tried to grab it the doll on top of the box laughed and the truth sunk in. Oh darn.

The Pig was there then, rounding a row of little wooden walls. Hearing the doll laugh, she’d dropped whoever she’d had before, and her black, empty eyes met his and he could sense the smile underneath.

Ace jerked his hand free from the Jigsaw box, losing a huge chunk of skin in the process, and ran.

Leaping over farm implements and weaving through corn and trees, Ace was halfway to the barn when she gave up and turned back for her original prey. Once he was sure she was really gone, Ace took shelter behind a large boulder to catch his breath and surveyed the remaining Jigsaw boxes. He chose one on the left, far away from where he’d started, and ran for it, hoping the Pig was still occupied, and that whoever she was after made it out. He reached the box and slid his arm in, only now noticing how deeply he’d cut it. A problem for tomorrow’s Ace. He sifted through the glass as fast as he could stand, until finally his fingers found the key. Again, still bolted to the base of the trap. Fuck!

He ran for a third box, close to the barn, and tried again. Come on, come on. The beeping from the reverse beartrap was getting faster, more frantic. Something moved behind him and Ace froze. Are you kidding? Again? How fast is she? He started to slowly remove his hand, hoping she wouldn’t realize he was onto her before it was free, and tried to get a glance at her out of the corner of his eye. It wasn’t the Pig. It was the man from before, with the white coat—the man who’d reminded him of the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. A reverse beartrap was securely fastened to his own head, and Ace could see he was scared. Yeah. I’m scared too, thought Ace, giving the man a reassuring smile on impulse—forgetting there was no way the stranger would be able to read his facial expression well with the reverse beartrap on his head.

Turning away from the Professor, Ace slid his hand back inside the trap and continued to dig. Come, come on baby, his fingers found the key, but it wouldn’t budge. That’s okay—that’s okay, I have some time left, Ace told himself, sliding his hand out. The man in the coat had moved up beside him, and he looked at Ace questioningly, hand poised by the armrest. Ace nodded at him, and the Professor slowly slid his arm inside.

“Careful,” Ace started to whisper, hoping to warn him about the razors surrounding the armrest, but the metal spikes sent shockwaves of pain down his tongue when he tried and all that came out was a muffled attempt at words and sounds of pain.

The other man paused to look at him, worried it was a warning, but Ace just shook his head and motioned for the man to continue. He saw him winces and jerk his hand as he must have started to sift the glass, and a muffled cry of pain came out as the motion cut his arm. Ace put his hand on the Professor’s shoulder and tried to steady him. Trying his best to reassure him, and to convey the sensation that the first time was the worst. That wasn’t really true though—second time was.

I can’t stay, thought Ace nervously as the beeping increased, I have to try another. There were two left, one far across the farm, by one of the machines. The other was closer, but still a long way off—near a shed. Ace mentally flipped a coin. Shed it is.

Ace moved back into the Professor’s line of sight and hurriedly pointed to the Jigsaw box he was going to try. The Professor followed his motion and nodded, then re-focused on the trap. Ace could tell from the way he kept wincing that he was digging through the glass to fast. Deep red blood was draining down the inside of the barred metal base of the container and mixing with his own at the bottom. Why? wondered Ace, For fun? Is us being dead not good enough, it’s only fun if you can see the piles of blood neatly stacked up too? That’s some fucked up stuff to be into, and not in a remotely good way.

There wasn’t time for him to stop and help walk the Professor through it though. His timer had over half of its span left, but Ace’s was speeding up at an alarming rate. Ace ran for the shed, but he’d only gone about six steps when he heard the ambient terror of the Pig getting close. Of fuck. He looked back and saw that the Professor had heard it too. He was digging through the Jigsaw box with the frantic speed of someone with two seconds left on fixing a generator and ready to sacrifice a punctured lung for success. One second, another half, and the Professor pulled his hand out of the trap too fast and ran for a thick tree a few feet in the opposite direction Ace had taken.

Positioned behind a boulder himself, Ace saw the Pig then—coming at him fast from the direction of the shed, and right on the policeman’s heels. He’d been wounded in the leg, and it was slowing him, but he wasn’t giving up. Oh shit, they’re going to run right over me, Ace realized, calculating their trajectory with a sinking heart. Welp. Not if I can help it. He made a mad dash over to where the Professor was crouched and baseball slid into cover beside him, both men breathing fast and shallow as they watched.

Dodging and weaving too slow now, the cop didn’t quite make the Jigsaw box before the Pig lunged and slashed him deep in the back. He fell forward, hitting the ground hard, and the Pig took slow, meticulous care cleaning his blood off her blade as she stood over him.

With an unstoppable dedication to each movement, the Pig dug her fingernails into his forehead and wrenched his head back, summoning one of her reverse beartraps and forcing it around his head and into his mouth. She kicked him over so he was on his back and drew her blade. Oh no, thought Ace, realizing what was about to happen. He was faintly aware of the Professor at his side, wide eyes fixed on the scene before them. He started to move, to go help, but Ace help up a hand to stop him and shook his head. It’s too late. You won’t make it in time, he thought. Several yards between them, and she was fast. The other man stopped, but he looked from Ace to the cop, torn. I know, it feels shitty. Like you’re just leaving someone to die.

She swung, and to cop managed to catch the blade. Leaning into the motion, the pig twisted the knife, and they heard him scream through the metal digging into his jaw as she left a gaping hole where the center of his hand had been. With deft movements and unrelenting force, the Pig placed the soles of her boots on his arms and pinned them down, and with one quick swipe she slit his throat. It didn’t kill him instantly, and his body convulsed as the blood spilled out over his chest, then he was gone.

She hadn’t had to put the trap on him. That was what stuck with Ace. The second she’d taken him down she had known she was going to kill him, so she’d just put that thing on him for fun. To prove how powerless he was to stop her. That in spite of all the times he’d managed to run her around, the number of people he’d rescued from hooks or patched up, it had still ended like this.

Beside him, Ace heard the Professor’s breath catch as the policeman died. I wonder if this is the first time you’ve seen someone truly killed in one of these, thought Ace, looking at the other man’s expression. He’d expected him to look horrified, and he did, but more than that he looked pained. I wish I could tell you it isn’t permanent, like everything here, thought Ace.

Wait, maybe I can. Ace touched the other man’s shoulder and when he turned to look, he pointed to the cop and made first an O, and then his best attempt at a K with his fingers. The Professor gave him a deeply confused look, although Ace couldn’t be sure if that was because he didn’t understand, or because he wasn’t sure why Ace was telling him a dead body was okay. Ace gave up on that, and his focus returned to the beeping coming from the reverse beartrap on his head. It was getting faster and faster. Very little time left.

A few yards off, the Pig turned away from her kill and crouched, creeping back off towards the shed. In a few seconds she was gone.

Guess not the shed, thought Ace, and he stood, quickly pointed the Professor in the direction of the closest Jigsaw box, the second one he’d tried and took off for the far one, praying he’d reach it in time.

When Ace reached the Jigsaw box, his timer was frantic. I can’t do it with this arm again, thought Ace, not out of dread but realization, All my nerve endings are shot. Too desperate to fear the pain, Ace stuck his arm in and dug frantically, doing his best to be quick and not make it worse for himself. No panicking. Just sift through the glass. You have a 50-50 shot, and you’re a damn lucky man. It’ll be there.

The glass stung and blood ran down the inside of the Jigsaw box, spattering the edge of the bucket as the frantic beeping got faster and faster. Thirty seconds. Ace’s fingers found the key.

It wasn’t his.

Ace swallowed, and pulled his hand out carefully, looking far, far across the farm towards where he knew the last box was. Twenty-five seconds.

Wounded and dripping blood. Maybe, if he were Meg, he could have made the box, but even then, all he would do is reach it.

That sunk in. Twenty-two seconds and he was dead. Ace had been killed by a reverse beartrap before. It was a sensation that was hard to describe, hard to imagine, impossible to forget. The feeling of ripping, tearing open, the pain, the crack and snap inside your own skull you just had time to think you heard, the force of the blow. The skin around the jaws tore first, splitting the sides of your mouth, then your jaws tore apart and your skull shattered upwards and you were gone, nothing but a hole of blood and gore and tissue and teeth where they shouldn’t have been left of a face. He couldn’t stop it.

Without really thinking of doing it, Ace sat down. Still, in the grass near a tree. “I hear the crystal raindrops fall on the window down the hall, and it becomes the morning dew,” Ace sung under his breath, the same Grover Washington song he’d been singing in his head all day.

Beyond him a little ways, there was a sound in the cornfield then, and as Ace looked, wondering if he would rather die by the Pig’s hand than the trap, he saw not the Pig, but the Professor dash out of the field, his own trap still attached.

Seeing Ace sitting on the ground a few feet from the box, the Professor stopped and looked at him in surprise and concern. His eyes darted from Ace to the Jigsaw box, questioning.

Ace shook his head and tapped the timer on the back. Fifteen seconds.

The moment the Professor understood was apparent on his face. It fell, pained, and he moved towards Ace and knelt.

Ten seconds.

Ace pointed at the Jigsaw box the Professor had come for. He could still hear the Professor’s own timer going. Maybe a minute left, and ten seconds was a lot to lose when you only had sixty.

The Professor nodded and tapped his wrist as if there were a watch there and held up a finger. I’ll wait.

He reached out and took Ace’s arm then, gripping it just above the elbow. Ace couldn’t see much of his face past the reverse beartrap, but he could tell from his eyes that he was trying to smile at him.

You’re going to stay with me, so I don’t die alone, Ace thought, Huh. I wish I’d asked your name.

He reached out and took the Professor’s arm holding on like men trying to pull the other up from a ledge. It felt safe.

Five seconds.

Ace had never thought of himself as someone who needed help, or was unfortunate. A thousand years ago in another life, he’d thought Irene was foolish for looking down at him like a lost puppy and taking him under her wing. But maybe she’d been right all these years. Back then he’d been so young, just twenty. Just been a little too young to understand what it meant to be young, or alone. Watching these kids facing death again and again like they were bound to find a lucky streak eventually, he’d finally started to understand why she’d helped him back then. Even if she was a fool, even if he might have been playing her for one, he’d been a dumb kid without a lick of power or good sense, and she’d been able to help, even if just once. He’d been the fool. She’d been kind. Making a small gesture in a big, empty, wonderful world. Just in case it mattered.

What a damn fine thought. Ace looked into the Professor’s eyes and prayed the man would be able to forget what he was about to see, and that a little of his luck really would pass onto someone else. Infinitely glad not to be alone. You know, thought Ace as he gripped the arm of a friend he hadn’t known an hour ago and smiled a real smile as the timer hit one, I really am incredibly lucky.

 

Chapter Text

 

I used to have something like a journal when I was little. It’d be full of real silly things, like jokes I heard, or pictures I drew, thoughts I had on whatever show was comin’ on PBS or Cartoon Network right then. When I got older, I started to use them for memories. Little things, not what I think of as I guess “real” journals—like they were on those shows, “Dear Diary, today I did this.” Often, especially as I got older, my records of the days would just be snapshots along with a few names and a location, sometimes pressed flowers, or a feather, a ticket stub—I guess that makes it a scrapbook instead of journal, huh? That was never how I thought of it though. Almost like just a record, more than anything. Then of course I had another journal. One for writing lyrics, and the notes of a melody line. But then, more often than not the two intertwined. I’d start writing in my head looking at a snapshot, or the name of a place. Hurry to open my second journal, the one I always tried to keep in a jacket pocket. Small, leather bound. Just a continuation of the real memory. Snapshot made it permanent, the song gave it a second life.

Haha, damn that’s some flowery stuff I just wrote. I kinda like it though. It’s how I feel, so it’s got truth to it. I guess I should be sorry to anybody else reading this, but I’m not because why are you reading it? It’s my journal. I clearly marked the new one for group use as “Field Journal” on the cover. Anyhow, I have been doing some of those old journaling habits in this journal ever since I got here—pressing flowers, writing lyrics, sketching since I don’t have a camera to remember my friends with.

Starting today I’ll probably be writing in here a little less often. Books and blank pages are hard to come by, but Claudette has a reliable method for getting pages from autohaven, and so with her help I’ve been able to make a new journal. A “Field Journal” for all of us to use. That is, Dwight, Claudette, Quentin, Meg and myself. We’ve decided we’re all gonna try and talk to the Wraith, see if we can’t get through to him. That journal is gonna be different. A log, for us to record how things go in trials and share ideas without having to sneak off into the woods together all the time. Allows for slightly less suspicion from everyone else. (Although, if I’m honest, it’d be kinda nice if everyone did notice and we could make this thing a group effort. I get why not, though. I heard Meg already talked to Jake and he was a hard pass.)

So, Kate Denson, promising to write again in here, but maybe the last entry for a bit. I wish us all the best of luck with the Wraith.

 


 

 

Field Journal.

Day 1, Entry 1

Okay everyone, we have semi-limited page space, so keep that in mind best you can. This is here so we can work though our…I guess “action plan”? As we attempt to befriend the Wraith (I could say "make contact with" to sound more official, but let’s be honest. We’re trying to make friends. Also, I think we all know Meg would any overly-official sound’n language as an excuse to impersonate a federal agent in every one of her field entries. This is definitely not a suggestion for you to do that, Meg. ; ).

All of us will be updating here to record notes on how our attempts to talk with the Wraith go. Let’s hope it goes well.

-Kate Denson

 

Wait, so am I being asked to do the FBI thing? Is this an audience request?

-Meg Thomas

p.s. I was in a trial with the Hag and I have no Wraith reports, but I have a couple of thoughts on other things. I don’t want to do a full entry until the FBI question is answered, though.

 

Meg, it doesn’t matter what you do so long as you include useful information.

-Dwight

 

Dwight, please don’t tell her to do whatever she wants. She came up to me in a trial and told me she’s going to start reenacting and filming vines on her phone for Laurie, since Laurie’s never gotten to see vines, and to ask me did I think we could convince the Wraith to play the serial killer in the one where someone’s hiding in a closet from a serial killer and the killer says “Red Robin” and the victim pops out of the closet to say “yum?” Please, please stop giving her free reign. Do you have any idea how hard it is not to laugh when someone says that to you while you’re working on a generator and the mental image pops into your head? I got stabbed and almost died…

-Claudette Morel

 

Sorry mom…. : (

-Meg

 

I’m not your mother! We’re the same age!! : ( ( (

-Claudette Morel

 

Welcome to my life….

-Dwight

 

I don’t know what I expected.

-Kate Denson

 

So, I guess I don’t know if we’re still doing this? But I was in a trial with the Wraith. It was me, Feng, Nea, and Ace. He did go after people for real, not like the recent trials where it’s mostly been easy. He somehow got Feng really fast (I know, right? That almost never happens to her.) I told Nea I’d run interference for her while she got Feng, because it was a good plan and gave me a chance to try and talk to the Wraith, so I made a lot of noise to draw him out. It worked. I ran and got some boxes between us and tried asking him not to kill me and telling him we knew he was better than this and something was going on. That did not work… Ace got me free and I found the Wraith again, chasing Feng down as she was trying to free Nea from a hook, and got in between them and put my hands up and asked him to please let her go because she’d just started dating Nea and she just wanted to help her girlfriend, and that also didn’t work and I ended up sacrificed, but he did look extremely confused the second time, and I think Feng and Nea got away, so that’s something, right?

--Quentin

 

Good work! At least we know he’s back in rotation. I’ll go ahead and add that Quentin and I talked about this outside of the journal, and the Wraith didn’t look much different, but he thinks there were some arm scars that weren’t there before. I know Kate and Meg have already heard this, but Claudette hasn’t, and I’d just like to remind everyone to keep an eye out and try to confirm that during a trial with him.

-Dwight

 

Damn. CSI up in here. I like it. I was not in a trial with the Wraith yet. I was in one with the Clown…he ate my finger. : (

-Meg

 

I was in a trial with the Wraith finally. The arm scars Quentin noticed are definitely new. They look like burns to me. David, Meg, and a man I hadn’t seen before were in the trial. Kate’s met him—she says his name is David, and that he’s a policeman. He was really nice, but I think he thinks I’m crazy now…

Well, anyway, we were in the trial and Meg and I bumped into each other right after it began, and got lucky and saw the Wraith before he found anyone. I’ve been bringing stuff for this scenario into every trial just in case, instead of the useful things I usually bring, and it finally paid off! So, Meg and I ran up to him and I sort of similar to Quentin’s attempt tried to do a “Hold on, we’re friendly—please don’t attack us” thing and he uncloaked and attacked me and it didn’t work at all, but I didn’t run away either, I just kept trying to talk to him, and I told him my name and asked him what his was, and he just looked at me for a second and then picked me up by the throat (I guess because I wasn’t running away and that was easier than hitting me until I was down and then picking me up). Well, when he picked me up, I took a little clover chain I’d made out of my pocked and dropped it around his neck and he just looked down at it, and back up at me, and at the necklace, and he really slowly set me down and took it off and picked me back up again, but I had a second one and I did it again, and when I took out the second necklace he just stared at me for a couple of seconds and then really slowly walked over to a hook and hung me on it, and then stayed in front of it for a couple more seconds to just look at me, all confused. He took off the second necklace and walked off, but he kept looking back. Mostly he avoided me for the rest of the trial after David the cop got me down. (Unfortunately, I think he saw the whole thing, because he kept giving me looks too like I was crazy…) But at least with the Wraith I think that’s some serious progress! He chased me if I got close, but it was way easier than normal to lose him, and if I was near anyone else he’d go after them instead. It did sort of feel more like an ‘I don’t want to deal with that again’ than a ‘I don’t want to hurt her’ mood, but still! Very exciting news! (Thanks for the idea about the flower chains, Kate!)

-Claudette Morel

p.s. Meg, why did you include the part about the Clown? Did something new happen, or did you just want us to know?

 

Awesome! Does that mean we should all start bringing stuff into trials? Since it was effective? Do we try to keep sort of replicating that, or should we keep trying to do everything we can think of, and see if something new works better?

Also, did he actually eat your finger Meg? Because what the fuck?

--Quentin

 

Yay! I’m so glad we got some good news finally! This is a little unrelated, because I haven’t seen the Wraith yet, but I was talkin’ to Ace and he ran into the same guy we did a few trials back and the cop Claudette mentioned. I know the cop (sort of); his full name is David Tapp, and the other man is really nice, from Ace’s description. A little off-subject, but if we see them we should focus on trying to get them to join the group.

As far as the Wraith goes, that’s really reassuring. It sounds like it’s sort of working, and like he’s acting similarly to how he did before, so Dwight can stop worrying about him having been really messed up after whatever happened in the basement. Let’s keep trying gifts, since they seem to be distracting him at the very least. Claudette also told him her name, and Quentin and she both had some success with the hands-up, palm out, ‘I just want to talk thing,’ so let’s keep a steady run of those three? It feels like being consistent will help us in the long run.

-Kate Denson

 

Claudette, I wrote about my finger because I was kinda sad about it. Quentin, I always thought that’s what he does with fingers when he kills people—does he not? What the hell does he do with them, then? Use them as decorations????

Also, I was in that trial with Claudette too! And I want to add that it was a lot more fucking wild than she described. Like, she broke the Wraith. It was like that scene in Lilo and Stitch where he’s trashing her room until she puts a lei on him and then he just falls over. KO’d. He was just staring at her for a good 15 seconds like “What the fuck???”

Poor bastard. I wouldn’t know what to do either. Fuck’n wild. Also, while he was chasing other people (including me. He sacrificed two of us, me and the cop), I tried to talk to him too. I kept bringing up specific things that have happened, like him letting me escape for a whole week and me running around taunting him (good times), or him making friends with Claudette, and kicking Dwight. That pissed him off after awhile, so maybe don’t try that. I mean, dude did kill me. I was getting confused looks too, but like “The fuck is wrong with you? >: (” kind of looks, not the good kind of confused.

-Meg

p.s. The Clown’s a little bitch and he can bite me.

p.p.s. Oh wait, oh fuck, I gotta think of a better derogatory term. He can…no. …I don’t really want him to kiss my ass…he’s so gross… Everything I’m thinking of is even worse…

 

Meg, thanks for giving us all that mental image. The Clown is terrible though. I just love getting drugged and hacking my lungs off. It’s not like I have enough trouble seeing without bright pink smoke in my eyes. Also, why is him eating fingers the normal and not upsetting option to you? Wouldn’t decorating be less disturbing? I mean, obviously not by much, but a little? Now that I’m thinking about it though, when the trials end we get all our fingers back…do you guys think that means that his copy of our finger vanishes? Or do we all just have a shit ton of clone fingers in a box somewhere or in his stomach? I never thought about that, but I could ask the same about the internal organs of mine the Hag has eaten…Eww. I take it back, I don’t even think I want to know.

Kate and I still haven’t been in a trial with the Wraith. Mostly we keep getting this new thing—it’s a ghost, with these chopped up arms and pieces of glass sticking out of it, and it’s so fucking fast. I hate it.

I am a little concerned though. I’m glad we seem to be making progress with the Wraith, but last time it seemed like as soon as the Entity was onto him, it was over. So, should we be being so obvious? That said, I don’t really know how to tell you all to do it surreptitiously yet…

And Kate, noted. We will all keep an eye out for the policeman and the other guy.

-Dwight.

 

It’s a good question, but how can we be subtle and get through to the Wraith at the same time? I guess we could pass him notes or something, but I doubt he’d read them. Surely the Entity doesn’t watch every trial. Sometimes multiple groups are in trials at the same time, and Dwight said it took a few minutes for the Entity to show up in the basement, so it can’t be omniscient.

If we could just tell better when it is and isn’t around, we could just try to avoid being suspicious when it is watching, but I have no idea how to do that.

-Claudette Morel

 

Well, I’ve been thinking, and the Entity doesn’t seem to have done anything yet, right? We haven’t been being subtle at all, and nothing with the Wraith has changed, so maybe it’ll only interact if we successfully get the Wraith to act differently? If so, that would make things a lot more doable for us.

--Quentin

 

I think Quentin is right. We should just have a plan for how to act once we get him to chill out. Speaking of, I’ve been in back to back to back trials with him and it’s been WILD. I’ve decided my best course of action is to try and force him to interact with me in some way outside of the usual murder chase. Big goal. However, I’m super good at getting what I want. <-OuO

SO. I rolled up, start work’n a gen, I see him coming all invisible, and when he appears behind me I jump up and say “Wait, if I can guess your name will you let me go?” and he swings at me and I run off and throw down a pallet and when he catches up I go “Okay, so, you’re way too interesting to be John. Crossing that off. What about a William? Or an Andrew?” and he gives me a look and breaks the pallet and starts chasing me, but I’m a god at running and I start dodging and weaving and putting bushes between us and cars and going “What about Davis? David? Daniel.” and he’s getting super pissed at this point, but that won’t stop me! You all know how I am!

So I lead him all over the place, jumping windowsills and shit, and eventually he gets me and puts me on a hook, but David saves me and we book it out the exit (lost Ace and Dwight). So right after, I get pulled into a trial with him again, and I see him and I’m like “Hey bitch!!” and he looks like “You again?” but he chases me, and I rinse-repeat, and I’m like “Ryan? Rhys? What about Adam, or Benjamin? Benny? Boris.” and he’s getting more and more annoyed, and stops chasing me to go after other people, but I keep harassing him, so after he sacrifices Jake he tunnels me, and I keep on keeping on. Start throwing out weirder and weirder names. I hop through a window and I’m on the roof outside and he’s inside looking at me and I’m all “So, I know I’m going out on a limb—or a windowsill, if you will, but what about Bartholomew?” and he climbs right out after me and I jump off the roof and he jumps off after me and hits me in the back and as I run off I’m like “Nebuchadnezzar?” and he gives me this look like “what the hell are you smoking?” and I’m like “Well you’re not giving me any leads to work with!” Anyway, he chases me down and gets me and I end up dead in the basement—think only Kate made it out of that—but before I die I’m like “Saul? Solomon? What about Hassim, or Amir? Omid? Benji? Ivan?” and he just walks off.

So, we get to the third trial and I’m starting to feel like those Old Spice guys like IT’S ME!!! And he sees me and he’s just like Ah, shit, not this again. So we’re standing there, he’s seen me and Quentin on this gen, and I know if I want him to chase me in spite of having two targets and me being just devilishly good at evading I got to start off strong, so I’m like “I know it’s you, Archimedes, you’ll never take me alive!” at the top of my lungs and run off cackling. He chases me and wounds me, but I lose him when he goes after Nea who I accidentally run right past, but I find him again and start going through every name form every Bollywood film I’ve ever seen on Netflix, and he’s getting more and more irritated with every Arjun, and then I start just picking characters from popular books and superhero names, and man there are a lot of X-men to go through, and I’m getting pretty cocky because he’s actually less good at hitting me when he’s pissed off, and we go wild chasing all over Haddonfield and I’m dabbing through windows and looping police cars like the goddess Nike herself, and eventually I lose him and hide in a locker under one of the houses and I hear him come stomping down the stairs and he’s looking all around the room (there are like six lockers) trying to figure out where I’ve gone and I wait until he’s right in front of my locker about to check it and I go “Is it Thomas?” through the locker and he flips out! His face gets this great expression on it like he wants to scream but also is trying not to laugh, and I throw open the door and duck between his legs and take off shouting “What about Mike?” and he throws the fucking sickle at me and hits me in the shin and that hurts like hell but I pick up the sickle cackling and run off with it saying “Mine now, Zachary!” and he books it after me and gets me, and at this point everyone else is gone free (except for Nea, who got extremely unlucky and got sacrificed like one minute into the trial) and he catches up to me only like ten feet from the house we were in and grabs me by my collar and I take a swing at him (sorry guys, it was instinctive : ( I know…) and he catches the thing before it hits him and rips it out of my hand and picks me up. All the time while he’s stealing the sickle and carrying me I’m like “Okay, not Mike—what about Peter? Avery? Dwight? I know a Dwight, and you know I could see you as one, or maybe a Jimmy? Calvin? No, Lex??” and he walks over to the hatch and drops me by it and lets me go. So I stand up and I’m like “Does that mean I guessed your name right?” and he just sighs and raises the sickle in this really threatening way and I’m like “Okay, okay, I get it, I’m going,” and I hop in the hatch, but before I do I turn to him and I give him the little heart with my hands and he looks at me like (– m –)  like he can’t believe I’m like this and I escape.

Heh heh. This one is for all you doubters who said you couldn’t annoy someone into dat affinity stat, you were wrong. ☜(゚ヮ゚☜)

-Meg “epic” Thomas

 

…Meg, what the fuck did I just read?

-Dwight

 

This really brings me back to the days of LiveJournal.

-Kate Denson

 

We could all start adding signatures to our additions!

-Meg

[*~ ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ ~*<3 ]

 

I can’t…I’m not…strong enough.

-Dwight

 

Why are all of you being weird? This is great! Meg, good job! I mean, it's not what I would have done, but I think it sounds like you did at least seriously make him reconsider the nature of what’s going on here. I’m really excited!

I was in a trial with him earlier today, and when he saw me he looked kind of resigned, and after he caught me and knocked me down, and stooped beside me and held out his hand for the necklace he knew I had, and I gave it to him, and he picked it up and stayed there just looking at it for a second, and then kept going with the trial as usual. I ended up getting sacrificed, but he didn’t throw away the flowers this time! I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I think it’s good. Nice work, Meg!

-Claudette Morel

 

She wasn’t on LiveJournal, god bless her. Meg, I guess she’s right. In a way, it’s working. Big progress for us. Next time we’re in a trial with him, any of us, maybe we should try talking to him more seriously? Since he seems to be at least thinking of us differently, he might be ready to hear some of what we have to say.

-Dwight

Chapter Text

Nervous and uncertain, Philip paced the floor of the garage, trying to think.

What the hell is going on?

His fingers found the wilted clover chain he’d stuffed in a pocket after the girl who’d given it to him had died, and brought it out. She’d been doing this so often—all the time—why—why the hell?

“What the fuck is going on,” Philip whispered, dismally slumping to a seat with his back propped against a wall. Looking out at the forest of birches past the rotting ceiling of the shed, he took in a deep breath of fall air.

It didn’t make sense! None of it did! For what must have been a few weeks or something now, they were doing this to him. Not all of the humans, but some of them—just acting crazy. It had started with the small girl with glasses. Claudette... He wished he didn’t remember that. It had been better when he hadn’t known any of their names. They kept on telling him, though—especially her.

And after she had started, then it had been the insane redhead, running around taunting him so lighthearted, like they were friends? It was like a whole handful of them suddenly didn’t care if they died at all!

But no, that wasn’t right either—they begged for their lives. At least most of them. They kept telling him he was better than this, or that he had a choice—the redhead had told him he had been friends with them once, which was ridiculous. The small boy who always looked exhausted had asked him to leave two of the others alone because they were in love. The little one with glasses kept trying to put flowers around his neck! Of all things—why the hell? Trial after trial, endlessly the same, hunt after hunt, work as a reaper—for years—and then out of the blue this…this…madness? Suddenly everyone was breaking the silence to talk to him, and trying to give him gifts, and—

Philip put his head in his hands and groaned.

He knew—he knew that they tried to manipulate him, that they would try anything to get him to leave them alone. The Iska had talked to him about this. That had to be what this absolute anarchy was, but he couldn’t take it anymore! It was too much! It was so hard to feel like they weren’t…sincere. The little one with glasses always looked so hopeful if he did anything, anything at all she could take as a sign of softening. If he waited a moment before picking her up, or didn’t throw the flowers on the ground and stomp on them—if he even looked at her. No one ever looked at him with hope. Like he was the answer to some prayer.

“I don’t understand…” Philip whispered up at the sky, head tilted back against the wall. “I don’t understand this at all. What am I supposed to do?”

There was no answer.

There never is, thought Philip, gaze still fixed on the stars. Fuck.

For a moment, Philip considered writing in his journal—trying to get his thoughts out and make sense of them somehow, but he gave up on that without even trying. The night was cold and it felt simple, sitting in the garage and waiting for a trial. So much easier than the actual trials had been of late.

I can’t keep doing this, thought Philip, moving to lay on his back on the ground, staring up at nothing.

It was true, but he was afraid to talk to the Spirit. It had been so disappointed in him only recently for falling for the human’s acts. It had given him information on what they would do, and why, and still he was having so much trouble. It’ll be disappointed in me. It will be angry, thought Philip, and the thought filled him with dread. I can’t.

But he couldn’t go on, either.

For an hour or so, Philip tried his best to sleep—to turn off completely and not have to think about it, but his brain was against him, and it kept replaying things he’d seen. Not just the ones who had been giving him trouble, either. He saw the girl who crept along like a cat holding hands with the girl who was so fast on generators and laughing as they slipped out an exit, and he saw the same girl’s face crumpling as she watched the same friend die. There was an endless supply of memories, not only of things that filled him suddenly and against his will and better judgement with guilt, but things which showed a change. He remembered long ago, the boy who broke hooks stealing away again and again when others were caught, and then there had been a period he’d started to come back for some of them. Now sometimes he came for them before they were even caught, trying to distract danger from them. Philip remembered how scared the little girl with glasses used to be. He’d caught her trembling in corners so many times, and back then it had been easy. Why didn’t that make me feel bad? wondered Philip, as seeing the image of the girl so paralyzed with fear in his head now made him feel sickened. What changed? What changed in me?

There were other memories, newer. He’d caught the boy who always looked exhausted and hung him on a hook. Two already dead, and the blonde girl who would stab you if you weren’t careful had gotten a door open and been free to go, but she hadn’t. She must have known it was suicide, but she’d come back for the boy and freed him, and had downed her right by the door and almost gotten the boy, too. He’d just barely managed to crawl past the burrier in time. She hadn’t seemed to care, though, when he went back for her. She’d been smiling. He’d sacrificed her, and she’d still looked happy. Proud, maybe. There were newer men, too. A policeman, and a man who was maybe a doctor, who wore a white coat. In his last trial he’d almost stumbled over the man in the white coat and the older man who often smiled and had been around much longer. Philip had uncloaked and chased them down, but in the brief moment before he did, he’d seen them recognize each other and smile. The way someone might look seeing a family member they hadn’t seen in months get off a train, or a boat, or arriving from a flight. Why? Why did it matter—why was he only thinking of things this way now?

Fuck.

There was no getting sleep. There was no getting around it.

“Iska?” Philip called, slowly pulling himself to his feet. “Entity?”

There was nothing, no response for a moment, and then he felt a rush of cold air about him, and then a white-hot heat which flickered into existence, and he sensed its presence, waiting in the basement.

The basement.

This would be fine. It would be fine…

Steady and slow, in a manner that was almost cautious, Philip walked to the top of the stairs and looked down them. His face twitched involuntarily as his gaze landed on the landing, feeling like something faint had triggered an unpleasant memory. Odd. Shake this off, and go. Just be calm.

Taking a deep breath, Philip walked down the stairs and through the ever-thickening air until he was close to the Spirit. Its presence hung in the air around the center of the room, and he felt its eyes on him as soon as he entered. He moved a few steps forward until he was before it, and the air around him thickened. Black smoke, cutting off sight beyond it. “Thank you for coming here,” Philip said to the blackness, “I am sorry, but I need to talk with you.”

“And?” asked the Entity, waiting.

“The souls,” Philip said slowly, making a sort of empty gesture with his hand.

“Ah.” He could hear the distaste in the Entity’s voice.

“Please, hear me out,” continued Philip. “I…understand, how it is…How they are?” he added, slowly pacing in a half circle as he tried to think through what he meant to say. “I know they lie and manipulate, and that they were some kind of monsters in their lives, but…I don’t think that can be everything now.”

The Entity was silent, but he felt the air thicken and blacken around him. He could feel its low anger beginning to submerge him in the smoke, like rising water.

“I’m sorry,” hurried Philip, taking a step backwards out of a primal fear he felt at the Entity’s anger “But, please—please I need you to listen to me.”

“I need to listen?” came the Entity’s voice, disbelieving.

“It’s not like you believe it is,” said Philip, putting his hands up, palm-out in a calming gesture, suddenly uncomfortably aware of how many people had used that same gesture on him over the past few weeks. Begging for their lives. It did not stop me. “Maybe they were monsters in life, but look at them now,” he continued, trying to focus on his goal, “I don’t believe the actions they take to help each other are meant to just manipulate, and beyond that they have changed here.”

“Wraith,” said the Entity almost too calmly, “It’s because you are so easy to manipulate that they act like this. Any act of kindness or humanity from them weakens your resolve unbelievably.”

Philip shook his head. “No. I don’t think that is all. Just look at them. You must have seen things yourself. I have watched the ones who used to leave others to die return tp die in a friend’s place—I have seen them choose pain or death for no reason other than to keep another from being alone. You were with me, you saw the way the small girl died before, when you had me kill everyone by my own hand” he said, mind playing again the image of her trying to hold onto to the dead friend she had begged him to spare in the moments before he had dragged her away and killed her. “And then, these past few weeks,” he hurried to add, almost excited or reassured by the thought of new evidence, “one of them keeps giving me gifts and telling me she thinks I’m good, and two of the girls—they’re in love. That is a change, and I cannot believe it is for some terrible hidden purpose. They are in love stupidly. They run around holding hands even though it slows them down. I have caught them because I have heard them talking, trying to help each other. Not only to survive, but to feel better.”

“Wraith.” The Entity’s voice was stern this time, almost harsh. It wasn’t hearing it. He felt the rebuke in his body as if he’d been struck.

“Please,” begged Philip, fighting the urge in his chest to run, and the voice in his head telling him to shut up and drop this. “Please,” he said again, taking a step towards center of the inky blackness above. “If you would just watch them you would see—they aren’t all still like you think. They act friendly—”

“—They act,” cut in the Spirit.

“No,” Philip said, “No, it’s more than that. Please, if you would just watch some of my next trials, I can show you. I think what they go through here has caused them to change. Some of what they have said to me is insane, but I think some of them mean it. Please, I know I must sound weak and wrong, but please, I am begging you to just watch even one trial. I can show you. They can change.”

“I know,” said the Iska, voice both tired and irritated.

“You…know?” asked Philip, stopping and lowering his hands towards his sides. “…What—”

“Such a pity,” said the Entity, voice making a sound almost like a sigh, “I can’t believe it. It’s been only something like two weeks. This fast? Really? I can’t believe it. This is some kind of record. I suppose I should have prompted you better after resetting you the last time.”

“What?” asked Philip, staring up at the inky black smoke in confusion. “Reset?—You…I don’t understand?”

He barely had time to even recognize movement, far too slow to react as suddenly two of the Entity’s claws shot out of the darkness around him and caught him by the shoulders, dragging him back against the wall behind him and slamming him hard against it, pinning him there as more of the thing in the smoke materialized around him.

“Wait! Wait, I don’t understand!” said Philip, panic welling up in his chest as he tried in vain to struggle against the claws pinning him back. “What have I done wrong?”

There was no answer, and the smoke thickened about him and Philip began to find it harder and harder to breathe. He started to cough, trying to fight the dizziness that was coming over him.

“Please—I’m sorry, I don’t mean to show you disrespect!” he said desperately to the thick blackness above. “I will listen!”

“I believe you, and I might be able to keep this going for a bit,” replied the Entity’s voice, no hint of emotion anywhere, “But it would only be a matter of time before they reached you in this state. You’ve broken down too much, too quickly. I may as well reset you preemptively.”

“Reset me?” Philip’s voice was strained and full of the fear that was coursing through his veins. What the hell? What have I done?

“You’ll forget all of this,” said the Entity. “I might need to make sure you’re a bit more…compelled for a while after this as well, stop them from just doing it again.”

“But why?” asked Philip, absolutely lost. “I can listen to you, you know I respect you; I serve you—if you would only explain I would—”

The claws around his arms tightened, cutting into his flesh and Philip let out a cry of pain.

“No,” said the Entity darkly, “You would listen to them. You always do, eventually.”

“I—” He stopped, remembering the ridiculous string of things the redhaired girl had accused him of the first time he had seen her acting strangely. “You let Claudette go, and she gave you a bandage, and then you kidnapped Dwight for questioning and he thought you were going to kill him, but you took him off a hook and let him go. You have to remember some of this! Even amnesia has memory triggers and shit, right? You keep on forgetting, but for like a whole week you were just letting me run away and we had this thing going where you’d chase me and I’d flip you off and make fun of you, but you’d never actually hit me—come on! Remember something!”

“I have…done this before?” he asked, trying to find the center of the Entity’s presence in the room, where its eyes would be, and focus on it.

“Many times,” it replied, and for a second he almost thought it sounded…pleased by that.

Why? Why would…I…it… … …

Philip ran through every memory he could think of, the strongest, the most important memories to him, ever since he had come here. Slowly, he turned his head and looked at the talons digging into his arms and the blood slowly dripping from them onto the floor. I’m not even fighting back. Like I already know I can’t win. Like my body already knows it’s over. The basement, the light seeping in through cracks on the wall, the inky sky, the obsidian claws, the whispering voice, and a thousand tiny fragments, moments he had missed when they happened. People he had killed. People.

“…My gods never answered me, did they?” he said after a moment, looking at the array of hooks in the center of the room.

“No,” replied the Entity. “They abandoned you like everything else.”

Philip nodded, almost out of habit, and any fight that he could have had went out of him. Of course. Of course…I was so fucking blind. Of course I was. Again, and again, the same idiot, I fall for the same trick. Why would they come for me? I wish that I had died in that wood. He watched as more limbs descended from the deep onyx smoke and a burning metallic claw rested against his chest.

“Finally figured it out at least,” the Entity commented, shifting above him in the mist, “For a minute I thought I’d broken you too much last time. But I forget; it’s that you’re just stupid.”

The burning of the sharp talon hurt, and Philip was scared, but his hopelessness outweighed the fear and left him empty, with nothing to give him the energy to plead, or scream, or attempt to fight or flee. It wouldn’t matter. I won’t even make the doorway. What then—just die? Or, or forget again? And again, and again? It doesn’t matter, there’s nothing I can do.

“You cause me so much trouble, Philip,” sighed the Entity. “But then again…” with a sudden flash of movement, the talon at his chest slashed across his torso, cutting him with a thin slice from shoulder to hip. Philip let out a scream, jerking back against the talons holding him and cutting himself deeply into his arms. “That’s part of the fun,” it finished.

Philip hung where the claws held him, mind screaming in pain as blood licked its way down his side. Why. I... Everything was a blur or pain and confusion. Trying to comprehend a new context for so many things he’d done and so many things that had been done to him, Philip felt utterly lost. Then they were right. Right this whole time. I’ve been killing children, and people with whom I was a friend? It was too much, too overwhelming to understand all at once, and in a second it wouldn’t even matter; he’d forget again. It said next time I should be more “compelled”? What does that mean—what will it have me do? I have no choice? There must be something…I…I can’t…

“You know, Wraith, you feel very strongly,” it commented, black talons flickering close together in front of him in anticipation, like a spider’s legs. “Wrath, despair, pain, guilt. You’re very human, deep down. Almost a pity I don’t have you on the other side of this.”

The claws shot out and latched onto his forearm, dragging themselves down along its length and slitting it open like it was skinning a hare. Philip cried out and started to try to fight against the claws pinning him back then, the pain enough to beat back the despair for a moment, but it was like being held down by a vice, and the struggle only made it hungrier. He could feel it—like it was grinning at the sight.

“Yes, better—good! Fight back. Don’t just submit. It’s more fun if you struggle.”

The words seeped into him and made him feel sick. He tried to tug the more intact arm free, but the motion was like dragging his muscle against a razor, and the Entity pulled back, dragging him back against the wall and pinning him there.

“You’ll have to do better, or I’ll come up with things myself,” he heard it whisper. The fog grew thicker, and he began to choke on the smoke and cough, fighting to clear his lungs. Below him, a claw slowly burned into existence from the ground, like a vine creeping up, and dragging itself along his leg, taking skin and muscle with it as it moved, agonizingly slow. Philip kicked the claw with his other foot, desperate to make the pain stop, but it was like kicking iron bars, and it burned him.

“Not good enough,” the whisper hissed at him, and a claw hooked itself into his shoulder and slit straight down, slow, impossibly slow, savoring every second, carving open his chest and stomach and letting his entrails seep out through the open wounds onto the floor while he screamed.

He thought the pain would kill him—or knock him out, but it didn’t. It was unbearable, but he couldn’t stop it, he couldn’t turn off. “Please,” Philip choked out, looking up at the fog, desperate, “Just kill me.”

“Not yet,” replied the thing looming above him. “Not until I’m satisfied.”

I can’t…there’s nothing I… All he could feel was agonizing wave after wave of pain, and fear, and despair, but he wanted to fight. He didn’t want to forget, or to end up here again, dying pinned to a wall. Or to kill. I cant… His eyes stung with the smoke, and Philip’s gaze rested on a burn scar on his arm. How did I get that? I… The Entity dragged a claw across his cheek, cutting him deep, slicing at the corner of his mouth, and Philip lost concentration. His vision went hazy. No…I had…I had an idea…

He tried—he fought to remember. Philip’s blurry vision came back into focus on the cut in his chest and the blood running down his legs. Cut.

He started to struggle again, against the arms pinning him back. Each movement was agony, but he couldn’t look precise. Maybe. Fighting with all his strength, Philip got one of his hands above a claw. The things were hot, sharp, covered in tiny barbs that made cuts jagged and broken. He closed his fist down fight around a spike and felt it dig into his palm. Fuck. Fuck—what? They’re always telling me their names, what name is… There was no way, a name was too long. Last name. Last name. He tried, letting the past few weeks come back to him in fragments. Quentin…Quentin…shit…Dwight? Claudette, Claudette…Mo….More….Claudette… He didn’t know, but it had started with an M, for sure, and that was enough. He dragged the spike under his palm, carving first a “C”, and then an “M” as he struggled. Scars stay, he half told himself, half-prayed, Scars stay… They did—they had to, didn’t they?

A talon caught him under the ribcage and hooked upward and Philip’s vision went white for a second, and he could feel blood running down the corner of his mouth. When his vision came back, his head was lulled forward against his chest and he could feel his little remaining strength draining away. It was like being dead. Philip tried to raise his head to look at the Entity he could hear moving above him, but he didn’t have the strength. “Please,” he said again, voice dry and barely audible, “Just kill me.”

One of the claws caught him under the chin and lifted his head up to look. There was nothing to see, just the darkness, moving like it was alive. “Beg,” said the voice, savoring the moment. “And I’ll consider it.”

Chapter Text

A long time ago, when he was a much younger man, there had been one thing that David King was afraid of.

Even before he began collecting debts for friends who ran bars, or fighting in underground tournaments, it had never been pain that David was scared of. As a boy, he’d fought his way through plenty of bullies. As the rich son and only child of a wealthy family, he was the target of much resentment growing up, and while he could have handled that through his father or mother, through the school, through any of the options money and the good opinions of teachers could buypass or buy, he’d always wanted to sort it out proper. After all, it’d hardly be proving someone wrong about him being s a spoiled rich kid if his response to their insults was to throw money at the problem, now would it? Fair and square meant bare knuckles to a jaw. They couldn’t say he’d bought that.

Growing up, David hadn’t had a lot of friends, but he hadn’t been lonely either. There were always a few. Madeline, a girl who took judo and had been able to knock him on his ass; Timothy, a smart boy who got shit for speaking his second language poorly and had shared similar opinions on Grange Hill. Others as he aged. When friends were bullied or in trouble, David would fight for them, too. He thrived on it.

It wasn’t the shine of a knife blade against a streetlight, or the sudden cold steel of a pistol that he feared either. After he’d been banned from Rugby for going to town on a referee who’d had it coming for over-fouling to help his home team, David had had more than his fair share of those things, too. He’d been stabbed in the stomach collecting debts for The Fitzgerald, been clipped by a bullet once interrupting a street mugging. He didn’t fear it.

None of the things his rich friends had feared scared him either—not losing his wealth, or disappointing his family. David’s family didn’t much care what he did, so long as he was happy, and it wasn’t murder. Money itself was so much not an object to him that he didn’t fear losing it. Besides, David lived like a man working construction, not the man he was. Cheap bars, self-repaired car, dingy flat with a punching bag hanging from the ceiling and a couch that was worn and more comfortable than any bed. And if he’d ever needed it, there was always home to go back to.

David didn’t fear losing, either. He fought, and he almost always won, but even his losses were never true losses. He’d take the hand of an equally bloodied man and tell him he’d crush him next time, and next time he would. The kind of loss that built drive to get better, that made friends.

No. That was never it.

Many of the people who had met him in the Entity’s woods probably thought he had no fear, only anger and disappointment. More of them probably thought he’d never known fear before he set foot there. But neither opinion would be correct. There had been one thing.

As a boy, David had had a dog. A bulldog, named Boris. It had been a puppy when he was four, and gotten older with him. When he was fourteen, his family had been celebrating David’s father’s birthday, and somehow Boris had climbed onto the table and consumed half of a chocolate cake without being spotted. They found him in a corner of the room, dying, and rushed him to the vet. David rode in the back with the dog’s head in his lap, stroking its head and promising to it that it would be alright. They didn’t make it to the vet’s.

Years went by, and David forgot what it was like to feel fear, until one day in college. Twenty-one. It was the holidays, but not exactly. Not Christmas, not New Years. The 28th of December. Some people had stayed over for Winter Term classes—some to get ahead, some in a last attempt to save grades and make up failed courses. He’d been drinking. Not drunk, just happy. Walking home from a bar. There’d been a girl. One he’d never seen before, but must have gone to his school, because they had been wearing the same scarf—school colors. It had been a gift thrown into the crowd at random during a Rugby game, so she must have been close to him once in proximity, but never seen. She was standing on Trinity Bridge, looking down at the water. It wasn’t much of a night. No snow, no rain, but not clear either—just overcast and cold. After, David was never even sure she’d seen him, about twenty feet away and passing, back towards the academy on foot, when she’d hauled herself up over the railing and jumped.

David had gone in there after her. There was a horrible moment where he hadn’t been sure what had just happened, as he watched her go over and there was nothing and then the sound of a distant impact, and then he’d dropped the bottle and run to the side and looked down, and he couldn’t see her in the water down there. Just the white from where she’d hit, the remains of a splash. Looking down, one foot on a white rung, maybe he had been afraid, because it was high and the water was cold and black, but if he had been scared, that hadn’t registered, and he’d jumped.

When he’d jumped, David had thought the cost of that moment would be diving into the freezing black abyss. Like a decision you were asked to make in a game, or puzzle in an ethics class. Risking death, risking freezing, risking that fall into the black river below, and that if he could do it he would save her, but then he’d hit the water.

It was colder than anything he’d ever felt, and his limbs tried to lock up. The water engulfed him and David sunk, and as he did he had opened his eyes and there had just been…nothing. Nothing but darkness, as far as he could see up, and down, and in any direction. He’d swum down as far as he could, looking for her, unable to see, until his lungs felt like they would burst and he’d turned to swim back up to get a breath and he couldn’t tell which way up was, and it was like there was no above to get back to at all, and then David had fought with everything he had and his body had found the surface and he was up, gasping for air in the Irwell. David had spun in the water, freezing, eyes stinging, and he’d looked—looked for her, in case she’d come up—looked for bubbles, for movement, for something. But there was nothing but blackness.

He’d filled his lungs with air and dove again, as deep as he could, going more by feel than anything else, praying his hands would somehow catch onto that scarf, or hair, and he would be able to pull her back up, and as his lungs gave out in the frozen, still, empty nothing of the pitch black river Irwell he had known true fear. Fear that he wouldn’t find her. Fear that she would die, lungs full of dirty water, maybe while she changed her mind and struggled to the surface. Fear that he could have done something differently, and fear that he’d never had a chance at all. Fear that he would see this horrible, black, slow-moving nothingness in front of his grasping fingers in every dream for the rest of his life.

He came up out of the water calling for help, hoping someone else could intercede. Search and rescue. The police. Anything. Then he’d gone back down into the endless dark below, fighting an unwinnable battle against the current, and time, and the despair of a girl with nothing left to lose.

People came too late. Maybe there had never been any other way things could have gone. He would never get to know that. David had stayed in that river for an hour and a half, before he was forcibly dragged out by rescue personnel. He’d been hospitalized. Exposure, then pneumonia, and sick for about a month. After two days of dragging the river they found the girl’s body. Years later there were still nights, even here in the fog after everything he’d seen, where the nightmare that came to him with sleep was her, was that endless darkness, and the cold. Searching, searching, never once even in the dream finding.

 


 

“David?”

The name barely registered, tugging at him to come back out of where he was, to wake up.

“David?” Still quiet, but louder, the voice carried pain and a hushed urgency, “David, please. Please wake up.”

Wake up. You gots to. Someone needs me. Ow...Shite. Fuck’n…fuckn’n give me a second…I can’t focus…my…

“David?” A second voice, worn and cracked. Almost ragged.

Everything was blurry and dark when David opened his eyes. He blinked, trying to focus then, and became aware of a deep pain in his stomach, the smell of blood, and hot steam coming off pipes in the Badham Preschool basement. Ah fuck…

“He’s still alive.” Relief and restraint, forced calm—a third speaker, but David was more awake now. I know that voice, he thought, trying to focus on it, …Jake. It took a second to click.  He tried to focus his blurry vision in the direction of the sound and after a second he saw him, standing up against a line of pipes in the wall, pinned there by barbed wire tied around wrists above his head. The skin around the wire was torn and bleeding. Must’ve tried tear’n free of ‘em on his own... David thought, still only half conscious. He felt weak and sick, like the life had been drained out of him. Jake didn’t look much better. One of his eyes was blackened and swelling, and there were deep cuts along his chest and left thigh.

“Jake?” he whispered back, “…The hell’s…” There had been two others, hadn’t there? David tried to get his bearings. His own wrists were free, although he felt so empty and weak he wasn’t sure he could move on his own. He tried though, doing his best to pull himself up and crawl closer to Jake. Everything around him was wrong—shadowy, and there was fire leaking from the pikes. Why? What the fuck’s…

“Careful. You’ll cut yourself.”

It was the second voice again—exhausted and strained. This time he recognized it. Quentin. He hadn’t seen him at first, he hadn’t seen anything but Jake across from him, but as his focus came back to him he was aware of Quentin, only about seven feet away, but in shadow, hanging from the pipe he was tied to. The pipe was low enough to the ground that Quentin could have stood on his own if he’d had the strength to, but he was slumped, held up by his arms, which were pinned to the pipe behind his back by something David couldn’t see.

It was dark, but not so dark David couldn’t make eye contact with the younger man, and he followed Quentin’s gaze and looked behind himself to see a tether like Jake’s, wrapped around his ankle. What?

“The fuck’s…” David started, and then it all came back, and he took it like a blow.

 


 

 

Nine minutes ago, the sound of something that wasn’t children, but wanted to sound like children singing, had warned David that this was going to be another bad trial. If he wasn’t David, he would have thought of it as yet another fight he couldn’t win, but that had never been an idea David could just accept, no matter how much logic his brain tried to throw his way: a fight he couldn’t win. There had always been a way.

Almost.

He wasn’t as good at sneaking around as a lot of the smaller survivors, but he’d learned—he had had to. You could never see the Nightmare, though. Once you heard him coming, gauntlet blades dragging against the wall, singing mockery of little girls closing in, you knew he was near, but you couldn’t see him. You wouldn’t know which way to run. If you hid, you wouldn’t know if he could see you until it was too late. You had to guess.

The first time David had met Quentin, it had been on a basement hook. They’d been struggling, side by side, and he’d wondered how the hell someone could look so tired and so awake at the same time, like they were hanging on by a thread, but onto that thread with the strength of a giant. Then he’d come face to face with Kreuger, and he’d understood. There was no privacy in his personal history for Quentin, no ability to escape his past. It stalked him, hungry for encore after encore, and everyone knew it, especially him. No wonder he never slept. No wonder he never stopped trying to wake up.

As far as trials with the Nightmare went, for the first four minutes, this trial hadn’t been so bad. But David had known it would get uglier long before it did. The air was thick and tense, the way they had learned to expect meant a Killer was out for something special. A more personal something. It had been him, Quentin, Jake, and Meg. Before the trial had started, they’d all been optimistic—they were a good draw, with talents that balanced and supported each other well. Then things had begun, and everyone had realized fast that they were not a good draw at all—not against this.

The Nightmare had gotten close to David twice, but he’d been lucky. The first time he’d managed to outrun him, and the thing had gotten distracted by someone else, giving David time to wake up by shocking himself with a loose generator wire. The second time, he’d heard it coming, hidden, and been passed over. Everyone else seemed to be fairing similarly, but they were spread out, and no one had gotten much work done. The Nightmare was fast and relentless. He didn’t always kill people quickly—in fact he rarely did that—but there was never room to breathe. The Nightmare had found most of them a few times each already, dragged them forcibly into his nightmare realm, maybe carved a gash into an arm, and let them run off to lick their wounds. Slowing them, forcing them to look after themselves before getting the generators done. Toy’n with us. David hated that.

 


 

 

“David?”

Meg. His mind placed her as the first voice he’d heard. David wasn’t sure how he’d missed her. She was beside him, a few feet to his right and a little behind him, laying on the floor on her stomach like he was. One of her wrists was tied to a pipe close to floor level. She’d tried to struggle free too, like Jake, and the wrist was torn and bleeding. There was blood seeping out of a deep cut on her cheek that had bruises forming around it, and when his eyes met hers he could tell that she was scared.

“Are you okay?” she asked, voice hushed, “You were out for something like a minute.”

“Aye. You?” he lied, watching her pale face in the firelight.

She nodded silently.

“Where’s he?” asked David, struggling with every ounce of strength earned from years of rugby and fighting to pull himself up onto his elbows. The effort nearly made him black out, but he fought it off, willing himself to remain up.

“Close,” replied Quentin quietly, glancing around the basement, “He disappeared a minute ago because he wants to watch us wonder when he’s coming back. The bastard likes to see people squirm.”

It was almost silent in the room as David tried to force himself up onto his knees. The open wound in his torso had soaked his clothes in blood, and he felt sick trying to move. You’re not dead, so keep on. Geht up.

Blood trickled down the side of Quentin’s face and caught the firelight as he turned to try and get a glimpse of the stairs back up to the preschool above.

Jake watched David, a focused expression that was maybe his version of concern on his face as David struggled to his knees, but no one said anything. Finally, David made it up, and the motion almost made him black out. Fuck, ahm go’n ta pass out if I don’t do somethin’. He leaned back against the wall and tried to catch his breath and fight back the dark creeping in the edges of his vision.

Close, thought David, looking around at what he could see of the basement, Could be anywhere.

The silence lingered, nothing but the sound of David trying to catch his breath and Quentin’s blood dripping against the floor.

“This the same as last time?” said Jake finally, turning his head towards Quentin, his voice quiet.

Last time?  thought David. Jake looked…off, off in a way David hadn’t seen before. He had never seen Jake truly scared, but as he watched, there was something in Jake’s eyes. Maybe fear, maybe dread? Maybe something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“Close enough,” replied Quentin, sounding hollow. “If any of you can think of a way to kill yourself before he gets back, you should probably try.”

David looked at Quentin, then Jake. Jake pursed his lips, like he really was genuinely considering methods. “Fuck,” he heard Jake whisper under his breath.

There had been lots of trials with the Nightmare for David, and every single one of them had been fucked up in a way he couldn’t have dreamt of before being trapped in the fog, but he hadn’t been trapped like this before. The fucker was always slow—sadistic in a way not even the Pig was. The Nightmare had been especially awful a few times, but David and Jake had never been in those trials. They’d known about them, but not in detail, only that the people who’d been in them hadn’t been okay afterword, and hadn’t wanted to talk about it. At least, that was all David knew.

“Isn’t it against…whatever rules there are?” asked Jake after a second, voice quiet and cold. “Not to follow the pattern?”

“You don’t know him,” said Quentin, gaze still fixed on the stairs. The blood from a deep forehead gash had run into his right eye, and with his arms pinned behind him he was unable to wipe it away, so he had it closed to try and keep the blood out. It trickled past the eye and down to his chin where it fell to the concrete floor with a steady drip. “If they get punished for breaking rules,” Quentin added quietly after a second, turning to look back at the other two, “I don’t think he cares.”

 


 

 

Being dragged into a nightmare was an awful experience. You were perfectly awake when it started, awake and scared, and high on fear and adrenaline, and you knew—you fucking knew that you were safe until you fell asleep, and that if you fell asleep the thing out there could get you, but you didn’t have a choice. No amount of slapping yourself, or keeping in motion, or trying to fight it would keep him back, or wake you up.

The sensation of being pulled into a dream itself was difficult to describe. Sometimes, when getting a normal night’s sleep or taking a quick nap, it’s possible for your mind to come back online before your body does, which leads to a truly awful sensation called sleep-paralysis. In sleep-paralysis, you are fully conscious, but physically cannot move your body at all. The kind of fear that sensation brings is hard to describe to someone who has never experienced it, because there is nothing quite like it. A paralyzing powerlessness floods you when you are not only physically unable to move or respond to the world around you, but have no choice in being fully aware of it as well. Being dragged into one of Kreuger’s nightmares was similar. The song would start to overtake you, and fog roll in at the edges of your vision. You would feel dizzy, out of breath, and then your eyes started to close, and you would feel your own heartrate slow—would feel yourself losing consciousness. It was like getting drowsy behind the wheel of a car—a mixture of the knowledge that sleeping would kill you, and an inability to completely stall the process. Only, here there was no pulling over to the side of the road, no energy drink. And what was coming when you finally lost the struggle to stay awake was far worse than any collision. You never really had anything but the illusion of control about being dragged into the Nightmare’s world. No matter how much you fought to stay awake, your fully conscious brain doing everything it could to keep you away from the thing waiting on the other side, your body would still always betray you in the end, while you watched, helpless, and then you’d be awake. Awake in the dream. It felt like waking in the way you do if you dream you’ve missed a step, or fallen from a rooftop—waking with a jerk, but when that feeling brought you into the dream world, it was just a sign you were still falling.

Jake had gone down first. David had heard Meg scream, and he’d stood up on instinct, intending to run and help her. When he had looked for her, he’d been able to see her just barely, far down the street by Badham Preschool, with her head lulled to the side and her eyes open. Asleep, stuck in a nightmare. He couldn’t see the Nightmare himself, but David had seen the cut suddenly explode along Meg’s arm as she raised it to protect herself and something that wasn’t there sliced her open, flinging blood past her and onto the pavement. She was in a bad position too—backed into a corner, with little chance of escape, but they were too far away from him. David had known that if he went to help her, the Nightmare would have gotten Meg and put her up on a hook by the time he was even close, and it would see him and coming and go after him once it had finished with her, and there was no way he would be able to lose him or to save Meg, but no matter how much he knew that, David couldn’t make himself know it—not deep-down, and he went to try to help her anyway. Or, he had started to, but then Jake was there, between Meg and the thing that wasn’t quite real, and the Nightmare left her to go after him.

Meg had still been stuck in the dream though, so David had run another fifteen feet down the street with the intent of waking her before he saw Quentin reach Meg and wake her himself. All three of the other had vanished then, back behind houses and fences, and David had returned to his generator feeling useless and kept working and tried to focus on that, on getting things done.

And then Jake had gone down. Somewhere in the preschool, by the looks of it—the worst possible place for the Nightmare to get you.

It was fast after that. It was always fast, but not like this had been. David didn’t know how it had happened. Maybe one of them went to save Jake, maybe they just got unlucky, but he had heard Meg scream again, and then seen Quentin go down, and then her, and then the Nightmare was coming after him.

The generator beneath his fingers had lit. It had been the only generator completed. David knew he should have left it and run, since lighting it would give away his location, but it was so hard to force yourself to give up on a step towards survival when you were that close, just one second more needed, and so he hadn’t stopped.

Once the generator was on, David ran, trying to make it around the area hugging corners to reach the preschool unnoticed. As he had run, the Nightmare had gone to move Jake beneath the Preschool, but it had left Quentin and Meg to bleed.

I oughta be able to get one ‘ah them back up ‘fore he gets the both of ‘em, he told himself, hugging the slight cover offered by a car and trying to guess which one the Nightmare would go for first.

But it didn’t. It went for him.

He didn’t know how it had seen him, or when, but it was on him fast, relentless. The song started up and dragged him in, against his will, against his body’s will, no matter how hard he fought. He was running then, slow, like in any nightmare, too slow, and the thing was behind him, laughing, dragging its fingers along trees and across cars, carving deep scars in them. It got close and swung at him and David dodged out of the way, just barely, and made it over a windowsill. Ducking and weaving through halls of the preschool as fast as he could, David almost stepped on Quentin, shirt bloodied from three long gashes across his back, face pale from blood loss. And afraid. The Nightmare was the thing Quentin feared most, and everyone including the Nightmare knew it. David could hear the Nightmare behind him, getting closer, but he couldn’t leave Quentin, so he had grabbed him and half-carried, half-dragged him to his feet. He had shoved the small boy forward through the doorway ahead of him and felt a claw dig into his back. David had turned and seen it then, lost to the dream himself. The Nightmare, his burned face grinning, shirt stained with blood, bladed fingers flexing and dripping. Fuck ‘im, David had thought in a sudden blinding rage, and he had grabbed a child-sized chair sitting by a table at his side and brought it down on the other man’s head. It had exploded into little plastic and wood fragments around him and the Nightmare had laughed.

Fuck this! David grabbed the table and he had swung it like a club. It shattered against the Nightmare like a pane of glass, doing absolutely nothing.

“Oh, no, go on,” the Nightmare had said, leering, gesturing to the other chair in the room, sick smile plastered to its face. “I like a little foreplay.”

With one quick motion, David had snatched the chair and brought it up against the Nightmare’s jaw in a swing that should have broken it. But, like everything else he’d ever tried to fight back with, the chair flew into pieces before it even really reached his target, and the Nightmare moved just as fast, lunging forward, his gauntlet cutting clean through David’s stomach and out his back.

David coughed, and he had felt the taste of blood in his mouth as the strength went out of him. He slumped forward against the arm through his middle, and the Nightmare caught him and let him slide slowly to the ground as it drew out its hand.

“Don’t go anywhere,” he had heard it say as it flicked his blood off its glove, “I’ll be right back.”

It hurt. Laying on his back on the floor of Badham Preschool, that was all David had been able to think. It hurts. Fuck. Fuck, et hurts. I…think I’m dyin’.

He didn’t used to fear anything about that. Pain, or blades, or dying. It hurt, it hurt so unbelievably much. His body was seizing, and the hole in him was a deep kind of pain that didn’t come in waves, giving relief between onslaughts—it was endless and unchanging.

There had been a scream in a voice he recognized as Quentin’s, and then David had known it had been for nothing. He’d fucked up, they’d all fucked up, and now they were finished. Quentin. Fuck, ah hope it’s fast.

Sometimes, things went terribly in trials—even worse than the usual kind of awful. Sometimes the Shape would kill everyone, one by one, this unstopping thing, never running, never breaking a sweat, but somehow always just behind you. Or the Hag would manage to eat people, ripping them apart and swallowing their intestines while they looked on, screaming and dying. Not too long ago, he’d been beaten to death by the Wraith beside Claudette, knowing she was next and there wasn’t a fucking thing he could do about it—hearing her screams as he died.

David had thought this would be like that.

He had been wrong.

Still in the dream, bloodied and weak, David was only partly conscious when Kreuger had come back for him, and when he was lifted up the blood loss had made him black out completely.

 


 

 

Slowly regaining his breath while leaning against the wall, David looked down at the barbed wire encasing his ankle. It couldn’t be so he wouldn’t lose track of them. They couldn’t just crawl away like they usually would have tried to do. Once you were in the dream, the Nightmare never lost sight of you. If you tried to crawl away, he would come find you and drag you back.

“He’s going to do it again.”

David looked over at Meg in surprise, and he could sense Jake and Quentin do the same. She hadn’t moved from where she’d been dropped by Kreuger, laying on the ground, unmoving. She looked ready to break, like she was at the end of being able to hold it together and the smallest crack would finally shatter her. On impulse, David looked at the other two to see if they had any fucking idea what to say. He could tell tell from his expression that seeing her like this was worrying Jake, and that was something that was hard to do. Quentin just looked miserable.

“Meg, I’m so sorry,” Quentin said, “He’s here for me, this shouldn’t keep happening to you.”

Tha’s right, thought David, Was Quentin’n her’n Claudette’n Ace the last time. David didn’t know what last time had been, or what she was remembering, but whatever it was, it had been bad. I should…There gots ta be somethin’ I can do...Aye?

Using the little strength he’d been able to recover leaning against the wall, David dragged himself back onto his stomach and over towards Meg until his tether was cutting into his ankle and he was beside her.

“It’ll be a’right,” whispered David, putting an arm around her like that would be able to protect her.

“He’s…” Meg whispered, unable to finish.

“Ah know,” said David, thinking of Ace and trying to emulate the sense of security the older man had given him right before he died, and he took Claudette’s small hand in his large one. “It’ll get over fastr ‘n it seems. Try’n tune everyth’n out as much as ya can, a’right?”

She nodded, her face pale. Not from blood loss like him, but from fear. They were quiet for a second. David could feel her heart pounding in her chest. It slowed a little as he held her, waiting. Then they heard the singing start up, quiet, but growing steadily closer, and he felt her heart speed up, frantic.

“David?” she whispered again, voice catching in her throat.

“Yeah,” he replied, trying his best to sound reassuring and steady.

“I’m scared.”

Yeah. He could feel it, feel her tremble. It wasn’t just her, either. They were all scared. “Ah know,” he said quietly, “It’ll be a’right. It’ll end.”

Empty promises. Lies.

“Well, isn’t this sweet,” came the Nightmare’s voice from all around them, “I hate to break up such a compelling scene, but just watching gets old.”

“You fucking coward!” Quentin shouted, lunging against his restraints. “You can’t live without picking apart people who can’t do shit to fight back!”

“Aww, still working on that psychological assessment? I’m flattered, Quentin. Didn’t know you still cared,” the voice echoed around the room. “Little narcissistic to think I can’t live without you, though,” he added, materializing beside Quentin, “wouldn’t you say?”

Quentin tried to jerk free, and moved himself as far from the Nightmare as his bonds allowed, gaze full of hate and fixed on the thing before them.

“Don’t worry,” Kreuger continued, running a bladed finger along Quentin’s jawline and leaving a thin red cut in its wake, “You are special.” He stood then, taking a step back. “But you’re not my favorite.”

“No,” spat Quentin, eyes following the burned man as he moved, almost looking just a little smug, “You lost your favorite for good.”

Almost without having to look, Kreuger’s bladed hand shot out and grabbed Quentin’s throat, fingers cutting into the skin as he squeezed, cutting off oxygen. David flinched involuntarily as he saw the little slits of bright red appear all along Quentin’s neck.

“Good point,” the Nightmare said, the anger that had been there a moment ago fading as a slow smile crept over his face, “Guess I’ll have to pick a new one.” He turned to face the others, hand still tight around Quentin’s neck. “Any volunteers?”

They were all silent. He saw Jake’s eyes narrow and felt Meg tremble beside him. Fuck, the hell ahm I suppose’t do? He could see Quentin’s face growing pale as his body twitched, trying to breathe through the grip on his throat.

“Awww,” said the Nightmare, turning back to look at Quentin, “They’re shy. Guess you’ll have to pick for them.”

The Nightmare released its grip on Quentin’s neck and he gasped and started to cough uncontrollably.

“So, which one?” the Nightmare asked, moving away from Quentin and over towards Jake and placing its bladed hand near his heart. “I’ve never been a huge fan of the big outdoorsy type, but I’ll admit Dean was pretty fun. Maybe I should branch out.” He strummed his gauntleted hand against Jake’s chest. “Thoughts?” Jake held perfectly still, not looking at Kreuger, barely even breathing as the blades tapped against his ribcage.

“What?” Quentin managed to get out between coughs.

The Nightmare gave him a disapproving look. “Come on, Quentin, it’s not that hard. Since you’re the expert, which of these three would be the best replacement for Nancy?”

“None of them are anything like her,” snapped Quentin, breathing almost back under control, “And you already think so too. Just kill us—it’s better than listening to your voice.”

“Wow, now that really hurts my feelings,” said Kreuger, removing his hand from Jake’s chest. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you don’t like this game.” He slowly walked over to David and Meg and looked down at them, then back at Quentin and grinned.

David could feel Meg’s heart pounding as she tried not to look up at the Nightmare.

“We can both admit there are better possibilities,” said Kreuger, crouching between them and looking back over at Quentin, “the scared little girl with glasses: ‘Claudette,’ what a name. There’s ‘Laurie,’ the pretty blonde—she might be fun, after all, she’s already somebody’s favorite.” His voice got conspiratorial, “Got to be a reason for that, right? Peel off a few layers and maybe I get to see what he’s getting that I’m missing out on. But for now, let’s stick to present company.”

Without any kind of warning or tell, Kreuger grabbed David by the back of his shirt and tore him away from Meg in a single lightning-fast movement, flinging him back against the wall like he weighed nothing, and knocking the breath out of him on impact.

“Could be interesting,” said the Nightmare, giving an overly fanciful gesture towards David, “Though guy. Lot of things to break there. And then of course there’s Meg,” he reached down without looking and lifted her up by the wrist that wasn’t tied down, pulling her against the restraint and making the barbed wire dig into her arm. She let out a little cry and closed her eyes. “At least we already know that she’s fun,” finished Kreuger, giving Quentin a wicked grin. He let Meg drop and stood up.

“Go on, then, choose,” said the Nightmare, standing up and making a sweeping gesture at all three people on the ground. “Or I could just make it a package deal?”

Quentin’s eyes swept the group, looking hunted.

Jesus Christ, thought David, still trying to recover from having the breath knocked out of him, What kind of bloody fuck’n sick game-

“Me,” said Quentin, looking back up at Kreuger.

It laughed. “You,” asked the Nightmare, moving up to Quentin and placing one bladed finger at the edge of the cut over his right eye, ever so slowly carving the edge of it as he spoke until the gash went from one side of his forehead to the other. Quentin closed his eyes and twitched under the pressure and pain, trying not to cry out as his forehead was sliced open. “You can’t pick yourself, Quentin. I asked you to pick one of them,” said the Nightmare, standing back upright. “Besides, I’ve had you,” He added as he turned and moved back over towards Meg.

“Wait!” shouted Quentin.

“Oh, sorry, one-time offer. You didn’t pick, so I’m going to try sampling them all,” the Nightmare called over its shoulder. It knelt beside Meg, grabbed her wrist, and ran its gauntlet down the length of her arm. She did what David had told her to, and turned her head away, eyes shut tight, breathing fast with fear.

“Stop! I’m the only one you have a history with!” Quentin shouted desperately, the gash in his forehead covering his face in his own blood, and his voice getting louder with each attempt to draw the Nightmare back, “I’m the one you lost to, I’m the one who took away your favorite, and I’m the only one who could ever be your new favorite! You’re just playing with everyone else!”

“I like to see you jealous,” grinned the Nightmare, looking back at him, “It’s cute.” With one swift motion he tore his fingers along Meg’s arm, peeling the skin from it and drenching it in a spray of her blood as she screamed.

Jake and Quentin both shouted, but David couldn’t tell what over his own “Fucking bastard!” And he lunged at the crouched figure despite his rational brain’s intense screamed warnings that this would only make things worse.

David’s fingers dug into the Nightmare’s sweater as the wire around his ankle dug in, cutting his lunge shorter than he’d wanted, and he pulled backwards with all his strength, trying to drag the man away from Meg.

It didn’t work. David just half hung there, clinging to the sweater, while the Nightmare stayed put like it was bolted to the floor. It’s head slowly swiveled around impossibly far to look behind it at David.

“Not very patient, David,” said Kreuger, leering down at him, “I like the fighting spirit, but you’ll have to wait.”

It backhanded him so hard that the wall cracked this time when David hit it, fingers still clinging to bits of torn fabric, and pain shot up his left side.

His vision went dark at the impact, and he heard someone screaming his name, but he couldn’t be sure if it was Quentin or Meg. Everything was muffled, and slowed. Fuck…fuckin’ bastard…ah’ll… He tried to drag himself out of the wall, back up at least to his knees, and he couldn’t. There was an unbearable pain ripping down his left arm as he tried to leverage himself, and as he turned to look down at it he could see bone poking through the skin at his elbow. Fuck et, David thought, gritting his teeth, overcome by a blinding fury, and he tried again. He heard the sound of something tearing.

“David! David, stop!” Desperation—Quentin’s voice. David looked up and saw him looking back, eyes wide with fear and horror.

“No, go on,” said the Nightmare, watching him with hungry eyes, “I like it when they fight back.”

With one massive surge of strength, David used his right arm to drag himself forward, pushing against the wall. He heard a snap as he fell forward, and felt a screaming pain travel up his left arm. David did his best to catch himself with his good arm, but he was too slow and he hit the ground and had to drag himself back up to his knees.

“Jesus Christ,” he heard Quentin say, voice quieter now, but full of grief and horror.

When he looked, the arm was half detached, flesh torn open and bone exposed, hanging there by a little muscle and flesh.

“Leave ‘er alone,” David managed through the pain, looking up into the Nightmare’s face with defiance and hatred and a look full of murderous intent that would have scared any normal person.

“All of you seem really attached to this one,” the Nightmare said in mock surprise, grabbing Meg by the back of her neck with one hand and pulling her in front of him until she was almost in his lap, then wrapping the gauntleted hand around her from behind and running it across her exposed stomach from the sport croptop she wore, not yet cutting the skin.

“I’ll fuck’n kill you,” David said through gritted teeth, so angry for a second he didn’t feel any of the pain.

“I’m shaking in my boots,” replied Kreuger without a hint of sincerity. He craned his head down and to the side until he was speaking in Meg’s ear, “What do you think, Meg? Could this work out, long-term?” he leaned in even closer and whispered, “Did you miss me?”

A flick of his bladed glove dug a single claw in at her belly-button, deeper and deeper, slowly, until it was embedded up to the last knuckle. Meg flinched and let out a choked whimper, fighting the urge to scream with everything she had.

“Fucker!” shouted Quentin, lunging at the pipes again.

“Fuck her?” asked the Nightmare, smirking up at him. With one quick motion he pulled the finger embedded in her stomach right, dragging it clear to her side, gutting her. Meg screamed, fighting against the arms pinning her in place, flailing as blood poured out of her, and finally grabbing his face with her free hand and tearing into it with her fingernails.

His skin tore open and peeled back, coming free easily and oozing puss and blood onto her hand and down his chin while he laughed.

“That was fun, but let’s see if we can’t make it more interesting,” said the Nightmare, leaning its head speaking into Meg’s ear again, “Let’s see,”

“—You can’t make me scream.”

All four of them looked up at Jake in surprise, even the Nightmare. He’d been so quiet David had almost forgotten for a second that he was there. Held upright by wrists suspended above his head, he had his gaze fixed on Kreuger, expression set and readied.

“She’s easy,” continued Jake, his voice level and lacking emotion, “You’ve done this before, so you know that. It’ll get boring. But I’m not like that. No matter what you do to me, I won’t scream.”

“Jake,” said Meg, voice almost a whisper, like instead of saying his name she was saying the word “don’t.”

“And you don’t have all day, do you,” Jake continued, perfectly calm, “Your boss’ll be pissed once it realizes you’re doing this shit again. Otherwise you’d do it all the time. You going to relive last time like a weak little bitch, or make it a challenge?”

“I’m loving the Lieutenant Kaffee thing, very courtroom-drama-little-shit,” said the Nightmare, letting go of Meg slowly. There was a flicker and suddenly he was standing up, beside Jake, sizing him up.

As Kreuger disappeared, Meg fell to the ground on her side and used her free arm to try to keep pressure against her gutted stomach. She bit her lip to try and keep from making any noise, but David could see silent tears welling up in her eyes as she looked at Jake. Kreuger glanced behind himself and grinned at her. “How about you, Meg? Like to watch?”

“You always leave before you’re finished?” asked Meg. The strain in her voice was immense, like saying it had taken everything she had.

Shite, thought David, watching her. The girl had some inner strength he hadn’t dreamed of.

Kreuger laughed. “Well, I wasn’t really planning on it, but if you insist.” Leaving deep red gashes, the Nightmare dragged his claw across Jake’s chest like he was testing the waters, seeing how easy this was going to be. Jake’s face twitched, but he didn’t make a sound, looking straight forward, past the Nightmare.

“Kreuger!” called Quentin, trying again to draw him back.

“Wait your turn,” replied the Nightmare, holding up a finger without looking. He ran the gauntlet along Jake’s side, then up an arm to his fingertips, leaving nothing but tiny scratches along his path. “This little piggy went to market,” he said running his fingers over Jake’s thumb. There was a sudden flick and the index blade dug through the thumb, cutting it off and leaving it to fall to the floor, “this little piggy stayed home,” he continued, running the gloves along his index finger and then slicing it off, “this little piggy had roast beef,” as he finished the sentence he let his fingers close around Jake’s middle finger and he slowly pulled, ripping it free in painstakingly halted motion, not slicing. Jake swallowed and his face twitched, and David saw his chest rise and fall as he took a big breath to try and steady himself, but he didn’t cry out.

“Stop,” begged Meg on the floor, starting to cry. “Why?”

“Why?” asked Krueger, pausing, still facing Jake, letting the blades of the gauntlet scrape together in a sound almost like scissors made. He made a slice with two fingers, catching Jake’s ring finger between them and cutting it in half, and Jake jerked involuntarily at the pain. “That little piggy had none,” he added to Jake as an afterthought.

It was suddenly beside Quentin then, fingers closed around his hair, and it jerked his head back painfully, exposing his neck.

“Want to answer for me?” the Nightmare asked Quentin.

“I wish I’d killed you the first time,” Quentin replied, voice steady.

In one swift motion, Kreuger dragged his claws across Quentin’s face, scoring deep scars past his eyes and into his cheeks as the boy screamed.

“Well, Meg,” the Nightmare replied, turning his head to look at her. “I just enjoy playing with kids.”

Sick fuck’n basterd, thought David, overcome with anger watching Quentin’s head fall forward as the Nightmare let go, and feeling sick. He had been paying attention to the Nightmare’s movements, and to Quentin, but he felt eyes on him and turned to look. Jake was trying to steady his breathing, but his eyes were fixed on David, and as soon as their eyes met he saw him mouth something he couldn’t make out the first time. Jake recognized the confused look on David’s face and tried again, and this time David got it. Then Jake looked at Meg. David followed his gaze.

Shite. But he was right, wasn’t he? She was curled on the floor, arm still to her torso, watching Quentin and the Nightmare and quivering. That’s right, she’s been through this b’fore, thought David, shite… Jake was right, even if he took his time cutting off every finger, he’d go back to Meg eventually. She was bleeding, badly, but it could take minutes for that to finish her off.

Ah can’t be noticed, thought David, slowly lowering himself onto his hands and knees as if too exhausted to stand. Gotta be careful.

“Isn’t there supposed to be a fifth pig?” said Jake, tone still unbelievably calm, and the Nightmare turned from Quentin back towards him.

“Not bad, Jake,” said Kreuger, “You’re not all talk, but I think I’m up to the job.”

David slowly pulled himself towards Meg, fighting the urge to black out, inch after inch after inch, his left arm dragging behind him, sending wave after wave of pain.

“I don’t know,” replied Jake, “You haven’t done shit yet.”

“You really should learn not to talk back so much,” said Kreuger. There was a horrible shlick of the blades, and then a sound like gargling, and David looked up in spite of himself. Blood poured out of Jakes mouth, and Kreuger put his hand beneath the boy’s chin and tilted his head up and back so he would choke on it. In his gauntleted fingers, he held most of Jake’s tongue.

Fuck’n hell, thought David, feeling a sensation he didn’t know well welling up in his chest. Panic. Ahm panick’n—this is no the time, stop it! But that was easier said than done. He saw the little knives holding up the torn piece of flesh for Jake to see, and for a second David saw his own hand, outstretched against the blackness of a river. Nothing he could do. Fuck it, no. No this time.

He dragged himself the last few inches and was beside Meg again. She was shaking and crying silently, looking up at Jake. When she saw David she whispered “We have to help him,” so quietly if he’d been any further away there would have been no sound at all. She looked so broken and helpless, not like he’d ever seen her before.

“Aye, I know,” replied David almost as quietly, “I’m go’ta take care o you first, then ‘im. You trust me?”

She nodded, and he believed it. She trusted him more than she should have, like he was someone who could actually save her.

A few feet away, David was vaguely aware of Quentin shouting something and the sound of the Nightmare’s gauntlet carving through flesh. He didn’t look this time.

“This’ll be fast, aight?” he whispered, and he reached over with his right hand and closed it around her throat and started to squeeze. He saw her pitch weakly under his grasp on instinct, her body fighting for air, but her eyes weren’t afraid of him. Just heartbroken as she looked from him back up at Jake. “Ah know,” David whispered again, “I’m sorry. Ahl get ‘im next.”

Above them, Jake started to struggle, convulsing as the Nightmare dug its fingers around one of his eyes and started to tug it out of its socket.

Beneath him, David felt Meg’s body stop fighting, felt her go still as the life left her, felt the moment he had killed her and she took her last breath. The second he was sure, he looked up at Jake and shouted “It’s done! You’ve done it!”

Jake screamed. The kind of awful, long, agonized scream someone could only ever hear in a place like this. Screaming without a tongue. Fear, and agony, and hatred, and despair, and pain above all—the kind of broken pain humans weren’t meant to ever know, or suffer. The scream was long, like the scream of someone dying, and once it ended he screamed again, and again. Like it might give him some relief.

Quentin watched, horrified, as Jake’s screams echoed around the basement and he tore against the wire holding him up. Even the Nightmare looked surprised for a second, and then what David had said clicked and it whirled around on him and Meg and it understood, and as soon as it understood what had happened it kicked him, knocking him against the same wall he’d been thrown into earlier.

It stood then for a second, moving in a half circle, one finger held up in a wait gesture as it thought.

“That,” it said finally, looking from David to Jake, who had stopped screaming and was hanging silent now, eyes closed, like all the fight had gone out of him “I’ll admit, that was clever,” he glanced down at David, “Never would have thought you had it in you.”

From the time the Nightmare had noticed David, Quentin had been watching them too, and as it spoke realization flashed across his face, and he looked from Jake’s still, faintly breathing form, to David. It was hard to read his expression in the darkness. Horror, pity, pain, guilt?

“They’re a lot more decisive than you, huh Quentin?” asked the Nightmare, grin returning to its face as it turned to him.

This time, Quentin said nothing.

“So much bravado,” it added, turning back towards Jake, “I’m almost impressed.” It closed the distance until its face was inches from his own. “Almost.”

Jake was still, quiet, head hanging limp. His left eye socket was nothing but a bloody circular wound, and blood still dripped from the corner of his mouth.

“Oh, did you think it was over if you screamed?” asked Kreguer, running his gauntleted hang up Jake’s neck and under his jaw, tilting his chin up with one bladed finger. “Look at me.”

Jake’s eye stayed shut.

The Nightmare’s gauntlet swung across his chest, digging against Jake’s collarbone. Jake’s body shuddered as the blades cut into his chest and he flinched. “Look at me!”

“Enough!” shouted Quentin from across the room, “That’s enough!”

Kreuger turned to look, a slightly bemused expression on his charred face.

“Every fucking time you’ve done this, I’ve been here,” Quentin said, tugging again in vain against the restraints, “Every single fucking time, it’s been me, and I’m the only one it has always been. You chose me, over and over and fucking over. You keep fucking with them because I’m not afraid of you anymore, and you think it’ll get to me better if you go after my friends, well it won’t!”

David could see Jake breathing weakly beneath Kreuger’s hand, eyes still shut. More tissue than person, at this point. Fuck’n hell, it’s goin’ ta do that to Quentin now, thought David, watching in a frozen horror. I gotta do someth’n. I can…I can… Can what? There was nothing, there was no single fucking thing he could do, not for either of them. They were too far away, and he was almost dead himself. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“You wanted me, fine,” Quentin snapped, head raised, defiant, radiating anger, the blood from the forehead cut still slowly trickling down his face and into his shirt, “But nothing you do will ever really get me, do you fucking get that? You lost the day we both got taken. You’ll never get Nancy, and you’ll never even really have your consolation prize in me, because every time you tear me apart and kill me, I’ll come back, and each time, I’ll be a little less afraid of you, and I fucking hope whatever the punishment you get for fucking around like this is, that that thing in the sky really makes you burn.”

“You know,” the Nightmare replied, letting go of Jake, “You’ve gotten a lot less pathetic since you came here. But you’re just as cute, and small, and scared as ever.” He walked over to Quentin, slowly, sniffing the air like an animal. “You’re not scared anymore, Quentin?” he leaned in close to the boy’s face, “That’s a lie. I can smell it on you. That’s always been the only really fun thing about you, you know?—how easy you are to push around, how easy it is to make you squeal.”

Behind the Nightmare, David saw Jake’s chest rising and falling slower and slower as his blood dripped onto the floor. Thank god, yer almost there. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a friend bleeding out and prayed, for their sake, that they would die before whatever was looking for them found them, but he had never felt it this desperately. For a second, he saw Jake’s eye open weakly, and he looked over at Quentin, and then it closed again and he went still. Please be dead, prayed David, too far away to be sure.

“Leave ‘im be,” said David, struggling to use his good arm to raise himself off the floor again. He was starting to get cold, but he couldn’t die. There was no way he could just give up and leave Quentin here, alone.

“Your other friend,” said the Nightmare, grabbing the side of Quentin’s head and forcing him to look, blades digging into the skin by his ear. “The big, protective one, here to take a hit for you again. Really seems to like you. You’re not cheating on Nancy already, are you?”

Their eyes met, and David could see in the flickering fire light how exhausted and hurt and scared Quentin was. Running on empty, and still trying. But so tired, so close to down and out.

Kreuger let go of Quentin and crossed to David, footsteps echoing against the concrete louder than they should have been able to sound. David had at least a full foot of height and was much larger than the Nightmare, but the thing bent down and picked him up by the throat like it was nothing, jerking him up so hard that the barbed wire around his foot cut clean through his heel and he was pulled free of it with a scream of pain.

The Nightmare, dragged him over to the glowing furnace a few feet from Quentin, and slammed his back up against it. David let out a yell as he felt the intense white-hot of the grated metal burning into his back, and the room filled with the sickening smell of burning human flesh.

“You know what, Quentin?” it asked, looking up at him as David screamed, “Since the last game was so fun, I’ll let you make another choice. Careful though, you really do have to pick this time. Wouldn’t want a repeat.”

It let go of David, and he fell forward away from the grate, convulsing on the ground as his charred nerves reeled from the pain, and the burning sensation continued to spread throughout his back even now that he was free of the metal.

“Your friend here wants to protect you, and you don’t want me to hurt him. It’s a tough choice, so let’s make this interesting.” Kreuger moved back over to Quentin and held his chin in its gauntleted hand. “Since you both feel so strongly, we’ll play a game, and I’ll let you choose which one. I can carve him open while you watch, then throw him in the furnace if his heart’s still beating when I’m done, or I can take you, and tear you apart while he sits there and watches you scream, long and slow, until I’m finished. Whoever you don’t choose, I kill quicker, but they have to watch. Your choice.”

Quentin looked at David and David shook his head. Do no do it ya fool, he thought, meeting the desperate gaze of his friend, I’m stronger’n you are, I can take it—I want to be the one. You know it. Do no do this, please.

The Nightmare paused, looking from Quentin to David and back again, and a slow grin spread across his lips. “What’ll it be? Do what he wants, or do what you want? Better chose fast, Quentin, or I might have to pick for you again.”

“Me,” said Quentin, swallowing hard, eyes still on David. The boy looked so sorry. He turned his head and looked back up at Kreuger. “Do it to me.”

Fuck.

The Nightmare laughed. “A little predictable, Quentin. Don’t think your friend likes this much, but I can’t say it’s not what I was hoping you’d pick.” It released Quentin’s chin and dragged one of its claws down his throat, all the way to his collar bone, leaving a little red line in the flesh behind it. “After all, it’s been awhile, and with how much trouble you’ve caused, I think I’ll enjoy a little payment.”

It moved away then, and over to David, grabbed him by the front of his shirt, and dragged him across from Quentin, near where Jake’s body hung. David was shoved back against one of the pipes, and the Nightmare coiled a length of the same barbed wire tight around David’s neck, pinning him there, the tiny spikes digging into his throat and making it hard to breathe, reminding him of the way his fingers had closed around Meg’s throat and he’d choked the life out of her. I’m go’n ta have to live with that, thought David, fighting the urge to vomit and trying to block out the memory. I’m go’n ta have to…

“Wouldn’t want you to look away," said the Nightmare, then it leaned in close to David to whisper into his ear. “Don’t worry, I’m not finished with you yet, David. There’s still plenty of time. And if you try to find a way to quit early the way your friends did, I’ll take it out on him. But you won’t try that, will you? Because this—this is worse for you, isn’t it? This is what you’re afraid of. I can smell it on you.” The thing was so close to David that he could smell its burned skin and his friends’ blood all over it, and he felt his pulse quicken at the question, and as it did he saw the corner of the Nightmare’s mouth twitch up into a smile. “Oh, that’ll make this fun.” It let out a soft, low, horrible laugh, and then suddenly it was gone from beside him and back with Quentin.

I can’t just do noth’n, I have ta…I… David looked up at Quentin desperately, trying to think of something, of anything he could do. The smaller boy met his eyes and tried to smile, like this was going to be okay. Then the Nightmare moved between them. Fuck, I…

“Where to start, though?” asked the Nightmare, running its hand along Quentin’s chest. It reached up and carved a few little slits into his cheek almost absently while Quentin twitched, fighting the urge to make a sound. “Well, there’s not really a rush.” It hooked one claw at the top of Quentin’s shirt, slicing downward and slowly slitting the shirt in half and carving deep into the flesh beneath it as Quentin cried out. It stopped the motion just above his hip and withdrew its finger. Looking at Quentin, it moved the claw up to its face and licked the blood off it. “Too bad I can’t give my regards to your father myself. This’ll have to do.”

Quentin screamed and tore against the pipe he was tied to, consumed with anger and pain, his chest heaving with panicked breaths.

“Like I remembered,” Kreuger said, a smile creeping into his voice, “So easy to get a rise out of.”

It placed its claws in the center of Quentin’s chest and slowly started to dig them in, inch by inch, while the boy’s body convulsed involuntarily at the pain and he let out a choked sound almost like a whimper. It pulled the blades out with one quick motion, little fountains of red gurgling up out of the puncture wounds and leaking down his bared and damaged chest. Quentin’s shoulders shuddered as he tried to deal with the pain, and he fought back a muffled sob.

“Then try some’n harder,” said David, his voice dry and scratchy. Speaking hurt. The barbed wire was so tight that even swallowing was painful.

“No, not this time,” replied the Nightmare, focus still solely on Quentin. “I like easy,” it said, leaning in close to Quentin.

Quentin’s face twitched, and he tried not to look at the Nightmare as it reached down and carved a long slit up the side of his leg. David saw blood soaking down into his tennis shoes and starting to pool. “Bring back memories yet?” asked the Nightmare, leaning even closer, “or should I try harder?”

David looked up into Quentin’s face and his friend met his eyes. Fear, agony, horror, exhaustion, trauma. Most of all, misery. Like he wanted to cry even more than scream. Miserable that this was happening, that this had happened to Meg, to Jake, to David. That it was happening to him, and with an audience. He can’t do it, thought David, He can’t go through this shit with me watch’n. That, he understood.

But.

Fuck, I’m sorry, he thought, looking up at Quentin. Ah can’t do what you’d want ‘n leave you alone with him. Ah can’t, you’ll…

Quentin looked so broken. Not once had David ever seen him beg for his life in a trial, but he was begging silently now, with David. His expression was so hopeless. Fuck, ah can’t…

“I’m sure I can bring something back,” said the Nightmare, fingers flicking together in anticipation. It reached down and began to carve a slow trail from the base of its cut down Quentin’s torso. David watched Quentin flinch and close his eyes, turning his head up and away from the Nightmare, as if he could shut it out. The Nightmare kept carving, slowly, watching Quentin, savoring every little twitch of pain and breath of fear. David saw the smaller boy swallow hard, trying to choke back sounds of pain, and as the fingers kept carving down, he looked past the Nightmare at David one last time, anguished, desperate, pleading.

You got to, David realized, Ah can’t, but ah have to, because he can’t. No matter how much worse whatever the Nightmare did to Quentin because of David’s actions was, or how much knowing he'd caused that was going to weigh on David forever, Quentin could live with it, and he couldn’t live with David watching this happen. Meeting Quentin’s eyes, he tried to give him a reassuring smile, but he wasn’t like Ace. He couldn’t do it. This was hell, and he couldn’t fake his way out of that. So David did the best he could manage, and gave Quentin a nod, hoping he would believe this was okay. I’m fuck’n sorry. I’m so fuck’n—

David jerked forward and to the side as hard as he could and tore open his throat on the wire. It was the most pain he’d ever felt in his life. Worse than the arm, worse than the chainsaws, worse than being slit open by the Pig, and it was because of the fear—he was afraid to do it, and afraid to die, because he was so fucking scared for Quentin, scared to leave him with that thing, to leave him to be taken apart by it in the worst possible way—to leave him alone. Fear washed over him as the blood poured out over his chest and suddenly, he was gone.

David jerked upright onto his knees with a gasp outside the campfire.

Before he had time to register anything but the presence of the familiar light in the woods, Meg had wrapped her arms around him and was in his lap, shaking.

“David, are you okay?” he heard her muffled voice ask from inside his jacket.

He looked down at himself, trying to tell. No, he thought, looking at the back of Meg’s neck and remembering the way it had felt to choke the life out of her, Don’t think ah’ll ever be okay. “Aye,” he said wrapping an arm around her to return the hug. “Been through worse’n that.”

Looking up, David only saw Jake. Which was odd—usually everyone was around the fire.

“We asked them to go,” said Jake, recognizing the look. “So we could talk alone first. Kreuger trial—they understood.” He looked worse for the wear. Even though their wounds had healed, there were bags under Jake’s eyes that hadn’t been there before, and his left eye kept twitching, like it was constantly needing to prove to itself it was still there. Jake moved over and sat beside David and Meg, resting an arm on one knee. Even though he knew they would be back, David couldn’t stop himself from looking to make sure Jake had all his fingers. “Thanks,” added Jake, glancing from David to Meg meaningfully. David nodded.

Meg let go of David and moved between him and Jake, tugging them until she had an arm around each one. They were all quiet for a second then. Just thinking. Occasionally exchanging looks—starting to say something and changing their mind.

“Do you all want to talk about it?” asked Meg after a second, not sounding like she herself really did.

“No,” said Jake and David in unison.

Meg nodded slowly and then moved, propping her feet up on David and putting her head in Jake’s lap, looking up at him. “So, what you did, does this mean I really was your secret crush all along?” she asked, not meaning it.

Jake smirked, but more as the result of trying not to smile and not completely winning than from feeling conceited. “No,” he said, leaning over so his face was about a foot above hers, “But at this point I like you okay.” Jake laid down on his back then, taking in a deep breath of the fall night air. Meg stayed where she was, using his stomach as a pillow.

“I’m sorry,” Meg said after a second. “I freaked out, and he used that.”

“No,” said Jake, almost cutting her off. David could only half-see his face from his position in the grass, but he looked intent, gaze focused up on the night sky. “You’d done that shit before. Next time it happens to me, I won’t be okay either.”

Meg nodded slowly, and they were all quiet again then. Thinking—maybe just breathing again. It was companionable, though, their silence, and a comfort. It stretched on for a long time.

After several minutes, there was a sound like the hiss of a fire, and Quentin stumbled into existence beside them, pitching forward and just barely catching himself on his hands and knees before hitting the ground.

“Quentin!” said, Meg shooting up to a sitting position. Behind her, Jake did the same almost as fast.

“I’m okay,” said Quentin, looking worse than David had ever seen him. He stayed on his hands and knees for a second, trying to regulate his breathing. “Are you all…?” he trailed off, looking over at them, expression full of worry.

Meg nodded, and so did Jake. “We’re a’right,” said David for the group. Quentin met David’s gaze and swallowed, looking miserable again, and pulled himself to a sitting position.

“Was’t worse because…” David trailed off, hand reaching for his throat instinctively, remembering the Nightmare’s words.

“No,” said Quentin, shaking his head. “No. I…Thank you for doing that. It…” His face changed, and for a second David thought he might cry, and his breathing sped up until it was too fast. Quentin stopped talking and put his hands over his face, and for a few seconds he kept them there, breathing so fast David would have reached out to touch him and see if he was alright if he hadn’t been afraid to, and then Quentin’s breathing slowed back down and after another few seconds he lowered the hands. “I’m…I’m so sorry,” he said, looking at all of them, “If I had just figured out a way to kill him back before any of this happened, he never would’ve—”

“—Not your fault,” said Jake, “…And I’m the one who went down first. Besides, we’re all getting used to being carved up out here.”

“That bastard,” said David, almost to himself. “I’d love to rip his arms off and shove’em down ‘is throat.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Meg asked, looking at Quentin. David could tell from the look on her face that she knew he wasn’t. Neither was she—neither were any of them.

“Yeah,” Quentin replied, trying not to show how little he believed the lie himself and too worn down to do it well. “I’m okay. It’s happened before. It’ll happen again.”

They were all quiet for a moment, thinking over their own versions of what that statement meant to them. After a couple of seconds, Meg moved over to be beside Quentin and tucked her knees up to her chest. “What exactly is he?”

“Kreuger?” asked Quentin, a little surprised, “I’m not sure, I guess. He was a regular guy…I—I mean, he was fucking evil, but he was a human anyway, and then he got burned to death and came back as…that. As this thing that’s only real in dreams. I did a lot of research, back before, but not enough.”

“That’s cool. Because I watched a lot of Supernatural, and I’m going to help you find a way to kill him,” said Meg, and looking at her face David believed it. His memories of her trembling beside him were so fresh and overpowering. Seeing her now, voice level and with deadly intent in her eyes, it was almost like looking at a different person. But it wasn’t…it was still just Meg.

“Supernatural?” asked Quentin, “Wasn’t that…like…monster hunting stuff?”

“How is that all you know?” asked Meg, “That show is huge.”

“I-I don’t know, I never saw it,” replied Quentin, looking a little attacked. “You think it’ll actually help?”

I’m go’n ta have ta go through life scared, David realized slowly, watching them and thinking about Jake hanging from his wrists with one eye, and the look on Quentin’s face when the Nightmare had mentioned his father, the feel of Meg’s throat under his fingers, and the way the Irwell had looked a long time ago. Maybe all of it ah’ve got left. But that’s what most of ‘em do already, ‘n did before. I won’ leave ‘em ta do it alone now; that’s worse’n bein’ scared. Ah’ll have to learn it, an probably I won’ take to it easy, but fuck if I’m gon’ta let that stop me.

“Aye,” said David, scooting closer himself. “I’m in as well. I can take the normal shit like bein’ eaten by the Hag, or the big’n with the white mask, but the fuck’n minger bastard’s got ta go. Thoughts, Meg?”

“Sounds like a poltergeist; salt and burn the body,” replied Meg without missing a beat.

“Well, that’ll be a problem for us,” replied Quentin, “since his remains are probably in Ohio.”

“What if we kill him here,” interjected Jake, moving closer, “Kill him again, kill this version. We have a lot of salt.”

Chapter Text

It was nice to be in the woods. Relaxing, quiet, simple. Jake Park had stayed out there alone for hours, finally getting a little bit of peace. In a sense, it would have been nice if the woods stayed the same—if trails could get familiar, and landmarks known, but that wasn’t the case. Sometimes things stayed, maybe for days even, but eventually it would change, like trial areas did. Parts would always be the same, more parts similar, but a lot of it would randomize, like someone had the component parts to a forest and just shook the box full of them every so often to mix it up.

Still, in ways, this was nice too. Jake never ran out of new places to explore. Wander, Jake mentally corrected himself. Exploring was done with the intent of familiarization of terrain, and since that was impossible if it kept changing, “wander” was probably the more accurate description, although he never felt purposeless going through the woods.

Jake had needed this break. It had maybe been a day since the trial with the Nightmare. He was still looking at the fingers of his left hand more often than he needed to, drumming them against trees as he passed, or trailing them along leaves to reassure himself by the sensation that he still had them. He’d lost fingers to the Clown before like everyone else, but this was different. No matter how many times he saw his own reflection, Jake sill kept closing his right eye to test his left’s ability to exist, kept feeling his tongue against the back of his teeth, or whispering nothing to himself to be able to hear himself speak. Jake did all of this because that was easier than thinking about any of the rest of it—treating the symptoms. Despite his best efforts not to think of anything except the woods and where his next footfall would take him, Jake kept finding his mind drawn back to things he had only known without context before. Ace, Meg, Claudette, Quentin. Before that, Quentin, Nea, Ace, and Dwight. And there was a time before that with Laurie, back before she joined us. The list echoed around in his head and he tried not to think about it. Things about them, about how they’d acted for days after, sometimes longer…

For about a month Dwight had been clumsy after the one he was in. Like his knee was fucked up, when it wasn’t. It had made him miserable, and he’d died in almost every single trial he’d been in because of it. People had gotten frustrated with him about it too—Jake had gotten frustrated. Dwight had known it, too, that he was screwing things up for everyone, and while Dwight played a decent game when it came to hiding how he felt, Jake had seen how awful it had made him feel.

Fuck. Jake slammed his fist against a tree in the vain hope it would distract him with pain. It didn’t, though. It just hurt in an entirely ignorable way.

Wandering did help. So many mindless tasks that took focus and strength, it was easier not to think things over. For a while, he sat on a huge boulder he’d found deep in the woods and looked up at the sky, wondering about older things than the trials, things he hadn’t thought about since the first few weeks of being in the Entity’s domain…maybe things he’d really never thought before. His mom. His brother. The people who he'd met here, and trying to reconcile the person he used to be with the one he'd become. After awhile he gave up on that and just laid on his back on the rock and thought of nothing but the cold air and the sound of the wind in the leaves. And then, finally, after a long time spent looking up at the starless sky, Jake decided to head back.

As he approached the campfire, Jake knew something was wrong before he could see the others. Even several yards from the tree line, he could hear them. Now, of course, sometimes they were just loud—filming Welcome to Hell with Meg Thomas, or listening to a film be recounted, an incredible escapade from Ace’s past, someone recounting old stories, or a recent trial experience by someone, but they weren’t just being loud right now—they were being frantic. Talking fast, but low and somehow still loud, and everyone over each other.

If it’s not one fucking thing, it’s another, thought Jake as he broke the tree line and stepped into view.

In truth, he’d already been a little concerned after hearing them, but when he saw the looks on people’s faces, the scale of annoyed to concerned shifted drastically, and he was afraid that something really had gone very wrong. He quickened his pace and hurried up to the group. Kate saw him coming and sprinted to meet him halfway, a handful of the others behind her.

“What happened?” asked Jake as she reached him and grabbed his arm.

“We were in a trial,” Kate started, barely able to get half her answer out before four different people started to explain over each other.

“It’s been way too long, Jake—this is bad—”“—Nobody knows what happened, but they aren’t back and—” “Kate saw Dwight get hit, and they might be dead—shouldn’t he be back if he’s dead though?” “—it’s never been this long before, not even that one time—something’s  wrong! We—"

“—Stop!” snapped Jake, holding up a hand. Nea, Quentin, Feng, and Meg stopped talking. Jake looked from Kate to the crowd behind her. Ace, who had been trying to calm the people around him down enough to let Jake hear one person at a time, gave him a sympathetic look. He looked tense, too, though. Worried. Even Ace. …No, no. It can’t be that bad,  Jake tried to reassure himself. “Ace, what happened? And what about Dwight?” asked Jake, making eye contact with him over the rest of the crowd.

“He was in a trial with Kate, Claudette, and Meg,” replied Ace as calmly as he could, while the group around him gave him a little space and quieted down, listening themselves, but still on edge and ready to break back into chaos.  “They had the Wraith, and something went wrong.”

Again? Jake looked back at Kate, then Meg. Meg was barely keeping it together, and after yesterday Jake understood that completely, so he turned to Kate. “He’s still gone.”

Kate nodded.

“How long has it been?” asked Jake, trying to keep his voice calm and level.

“Two hours,” said Kate.

What? The surprise registered on his face, and Jake felt the floor drop out beneath him. Two hours? Two hours after the end of a trial, and Dwight’s still gone?

“What happened?” asked Jake, grabbing her shoulders on instinct.

“I—I don’t know, exactly. The Wraith—,” Kate responded, looking harried and worried.

“—was he okay?” cut in Jake. “Did he get grabbed like last time?”

“No,” said Meg, shaking her head, “He was on a hook.”

It took Jake a second to respond to that. On a hook? How the…fuck…there was no way to be on a hook for two hours. He. Fuck! Jake’s mind flickered to the other campfires, the ones he used to find before he’d joined the group. That has to be it. Right? –Just lost, somehow. He looked again at the faces around him, at the expressions. Nobody was assuming that. They all thought it was worse. Why? That realization filled him with dread. Nothing that had ever happened in the fog was unfixable. That was part of how Jake got through it. He could handle pain, he could bear it, he could keep going. Back when it started, he’d kept to himself, convinced that it would be a lot easier without anyone else to care about. It had been a long time since Jake thought about that—he’d been working with this group of idiots for so long. But suddenly, confronted by a sea of worried faces, Jake was afraid something had happened that was different. That might be harder to fix. And to Dwight. Jesus Christ, of all the fucking people it had to be him again.

“What happened,” said Jake again, focusing back in on Kate, his voice stern and level and betraying none of the panic that had spread from them into him. “Everyone’s acting like it’s worse. What’s worse.”

“The Wraith was wild again, like before,” answered Kate, “all of us ended up in the basement. We tried pleading with him, and nothing was working. Dwight and I were on hooks, Meg was gone already, and he was going to hook Claudette, and something happened—I—I don’t know what, but,”

 “Kate thinks it was almost like he was disoriented, and that he and Dwight got sacrificed together,” said Meg, miserable. “We tried to jog his memory and that’s what did it—we fucked up.”

“Oh, you think?” asked Jake, whirling on her on impulse. Seeing the look on her face, he relented a little, feeling guilty even against the anxiety in his chest. “Look,” he said, tone calmer, “I was fine with all of this shit with the Wraith because it didn’t affect me, and it wasn’t causing trouble, but it’s gone way too far.”

“Shit with the Wraith?” asked Laurie from a few feet behind Meg.

Jake walked through the crowd and to the campfire and picked up one of several makeshift wood spears he’d carved in his free time.

“What are you doing?” asked Nea, trailing after him.

“Me? No, we—we are going after him,” said Jake, turning to face the others. “Because I didn’t come here to watch Dwight die because you all decided to make bad decisions.”

“What bad decisions?” said Laurie, moving up beside Nea.

“How are we going to go after him?” asked Feng.

Jake gestured to the woods. Everyone turned to look at it, then back at him.

“Are….but Jake, that’s crazy,” said Feng, “We can’t go in there. We’ll get lost, and we don’t even know if it connects to the Killer’s areas. And if it does…Jake, if it does that means it connects to the Killers’ areas.

“Yeah, well,” Jake replied, tossing Feng a sharpened wood stick which she caught and looked down at in surprise, “They should have thought of that before they kept fucking with the Wraith.”

“What are you talking about—what fucking with the Wraith?” asked Laurie again, “You mean the way Meg runs around taunting him?”

“No,” said Kate quietly, “We’ve been trying to talk to him again.”

Laurie gave her a disbelieving look.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” asked Feng, holding up the makeshift spear, “You know nothing really works against killers, right?”

Jake held out his hand. “Okay, give it back then.”

She pulled the spear closer to her chest and clung to it.

“Can I have one?” asked Nea.

Jake tossed her one. Nea held it out and looked at it in admiration.

“You said the last you saw, he got hooked and sacrificed in the basement?” Jake asked, glancing at Kate.

She nodded.  “’Least I think so—I died right in the middle of it, so, I didn’t see everythin’.”

“Then to the best of our knowledge, the trial is gone, which means they either ended up at one of the other campfires,” continued Jake, tossing a stake of more knife length than spear to Laurie, who caught it automatically, “or they went wherever killers go after trials. Either way, woods are our best bet.”

“Are you sure about this?” asked Nea, moving over to help Jake pass out various sharpened pieces of wood, “I mean, I’m down to go—but if they’re just at another campfire, then wouldn’t it mean we just have to grab them next time we’re in the same trial?”

“Not taking the chance,” replied Jake, standing up. He paused, mid-motion, and looked down at her. “’They’?”

“Claudette didn’t come back either,” came Meg’s voice at almost a whisper from a few feet away.

Fucking wonderful. The nice one too. “Okay,” said Jake calmly, turning to the others. “Meg and I know the woods the best. Laurie’s capable, and Nea’s the least likely to get caught if we go somewhere we shouldn’t. You three, pick the people you think most likely to get lost and bring them with you. We’re going in groups of two. Someone’ll do three. At least one person in every group needs to know how to fight, or I’m vetoing. Kate, you’re with me, because I need to hear the whole story and I can’t take Meg.”

“Then I’ll take Ace,” said Meg quickly, linking her arm with his.

“You realize that no matter what happens, that makes you the weakest team,” asked Jake.

“I mean, very rude,” Meg replied looking up at Ace, who put his hand to his heart and gave her a playfully offended expression, “But go off I guess.”

Nea and Feng glanced at each other.

“Feng and I’ll take Quentin,” said Nea, raising her hand.

Quentin looked surprised.

“That sounds fine,” replied Jake, turning to Nea, “He can make sure you two stay focused.”

“Hey! Just because we’re dating doesn’t mean—” Nea stopped as Jake gave her a does it though? look, “Okay, normally I see where you’re coming from, but this is mom and dad we’re worried about. But fine, whatever, Quentin’ll be there, and you don’t have to worry about us.”

“Then that means David and me,” finished Laurie, looking over at David in the way two people chosen last for sports teams do, which he returned with an awkward guess it’s us attempt at a smile.

“Easily the strongest team,” Meg commented absently. “Sorry,” she hurriedly added to Ace, “Jake got my mind there and now it won’t come back.”

“I can live with this,” said Jake, moving to the middle of the group. “Okay. Here’s the plan. I’m heading north, Meg you go running west most often, so you all go west, Nea, you guys take east, Laurie, head south. If you don’t find anything, head back after six hours. Do not get lost. Mark your trail periodically, and both of you have to pay attention to where you are, because if someone gets pulled into a trial and you lose them, you’ll have to find the way back on your own. Okay?”

“Wait,” interrupted Feng, “What do we do if we actually find a killer.”

“Do what we always do,” replied Jake, “Sneak.”

“This isn’t a great plan,” said Kate cautiously, “We ain’t thought it out very well. I mean, I wanna find them and I think we should go look for sure, but shouldn’t we work out what we’re doin’ a little more before running off in all directions? We might just make it worse, like this.”

“No one has to do anything. I’m going, come or don’t,” replied Jake, picking up his walking stick sized spear and heading north towards the edge of the forest without looking back.

“It’ll be fine,” Meg said reassuringly, putting a hand on Kate’s shoulder. “I’ve run all over these woods. It’s easy to tell when you’re getting close to something alive—you hear it. Just do what Jake says and stick together. We’re all seasoned survivors. We can work it out. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even find Trap and Adam out there.”

“It’s Tapp, but okay,” Kate said, taking a deep breath. She looked around at the mixture of concerned, tense, and excited expressions about her. “Y’all just…be safe, please? And smart?”

There was a consensus of nods and sounds of agreement, a few waves and “good luck”s, and they split off. Ace gave a little After You bow and followed Meg west into the dense forest, Feng and Nea headed off east, Quentin hurrying to catch up after pausing to grab his medkit from by the campfire, and Laurie and David side-by-side, armed, and looking dangerous went south.

As the others vanished, Kate turned and sprinted after Jake, catching up to him just inside the tree line.

“So,” Jake said, scanning the terrain for a second before picking a direction just a little left of true north and starting off, “Tell me everything.”

 


 

 

Ah, the treatment ward. My least favorite place to hunt down generators, my favorite to run into boys with chainsaws, thought Kate, watching a static filled screen above her flicker as the trial began. Nothin’ for it.

Slowly creeping along, Kate lifted herself over a low windowsill and past a soda machine, wishing in passing she could actually get a soda out of it. Simple things in life ya miss most. Well, not really, but they were a lot more fun to dwell on. And damn if some cold pop wouldn’t have made her feel better about life for a few seconds.

Ahead of her, Dwight stuck his head in the doorway, looking for her. As soon as he saw her, he motioned her to follow, and she did. Thank god someone ain’t lost.

He moved past the hall into a second room, one with a generator, and motioned to it. She nodded and joined him, and together they got to work.

“Any idea who?” Kate mouthed. Dwight shook his head and shrugged.

Maybe it’ll be the Wraith, Kate hoped. She and Dwight had still been getting short-changed on that, but Claudette had been picked up too, and she’d been in trials with him a few times since their plan went into action. In the back of her head, Kate kept silently hoping the fourth would be one of the two new guys, Tapp or Adam. Mostly because if it wasn’t, then it would be Quentin or Meg, who’d both been through hell in a Kreguer trial the day before. Most of them had been around the campfire, but Quentin had been off alone, and Meg was off jogging, and since their fourth hadn’t been in her line of sight when she’d vanished, then if it wasn’t one of the new guys, it would be one of them. They really didn’t need that, no matter what killer. They needed a break.

Back home in Pennsylvania, Kate had had a little brother named Aiden. It was a pretty big age gap—five years, but they’d still been close. She’d been the responsible friend in high school until Angel Watts had transferred in and become their very voluntary team mom who brought them food and germ x and always had ibuprofen in her purse. Later in life, a musician on the road she’d often ended up the designated driver after festivals. One of her favorite memories was of a party back in Lexington, after a concert. She’d been with a few fellow singers who’d worked the same festival as her—all of them had been bunking at the same hotel across town. There were three boys with her, Alvin, who looked like a bear and remembered every nice thing you’d ever said to him when sloshed, Trey, who got happy and quiet and was one drink shy of comatose, and Dev, who really wanted to try standup improv after a few shots of tequila. They’d left the party after hours of karaoke, dancing badly (except for Dev) in an apartment kitchen, and Kate trying first to teach—and then after realizing what a terrible decision that had been—desperately not to teach drunk boys how to play bishop with a pocket knife, long talks about dreams and memories, and the realization their college friend-turned-agent Daniel looked almost uncannily like Kenny Loggins. By that time, everyone but her had been too drunk to get behind the wheel, so she’d insisted that as their designated driver she ferry people home. On their way out, Alvin had warned her that he was going to have to go slow because he might fall over and to make sure not to lose him, and she’d told him not to worry. That she was like an NPC you have to follow in a video game quest, and could only go a certain distance ahead. He’d gotten the biggest eyes and the most excited expression on his face and drunkenly told the other guys to stop walking and see how far she could go, and Kate had gone about ten feet in her best NPC posture and turned and waited for them, and Alvin’s face had lit up with delight. She and the three sloshed men had played the NPC quest-follow all the way past four other apartments to her car in the distant guest parking lot, and everyone but Dev, who stayed up to play Meant to Live on repeat, fell asleep in the car long before reaching their hotel. 

That night had made Kate so happy. As much as she loved to sing, the music business was full of people who were bad, plain and simple. It was nice to see that when three of the men in her field she’d thought of as casual friends got absolutely waisted at a party, they became soft, friendly, goofy, and wouldn’t shut up about the cinematic genius of Galaxy Quest. It had been right near the start of her real music career, and she had so much faith in people and hope for the world, but she’d also lived there. Nobody with eyes living on this earth could pretend things were really all good, and music was her life and her love, but also a little daunting. Meeting so many people at the festival, talking to agents, hearing stories from older people in the field? And then, after all that little doubt had accumulated inside her? Of all the wonders in the world, three drunk guys in a parking lot made it better. That had been the inspiration for one of her first released singles.

Human behind these inhibitions,

a little closer to what we all believed in.

I t’s nothing special? No, it’s the world to me. 

I like to find the secret that you hid is that you were afraid to show deep within,

oh, how good you are to me.

There’s still something to hope for, beyond all the day to day strife,

feeling so run down and lost in this life.

Mmmh, but aren't we just a little better than what they say?

S o, thanks to you and this little nothin’ at all, I know now for sure there’s still a way.

She’d called the song Little Things in Life, and ever since coming here, to the Entity’s realm, she’d seen that again and again. Small things. Every time she thought it was hopeless, something would surprise her. Tiny stuff—like Nea taking lessons from Claudette so she could make Feng a dessert she’d mentioned once in passing, and Feng staring at it like the fairly mediocre creation was the most beautiful thing on God’s earth, or Laurie going to Quentin for a four hour discussion on bands she’d never even heard because she could tell he was down, or that one time Jake, who she’d never though had even liked her, had come over to her when she was alone and asked her to sing. Kate often thought afterword that calling the song “Little Things in Life” was the wrong choice, because the gestures might seem small, but the point had been that they weren’t. It was like finding a bottle of cold water in the middle of the desert—who cared if it was one bottle? The miracle was cold water, where it shouldn’t have been able to survive. She’d thought maybe even just from an aesthetic standpoint just Little Things would have been a better choice, but she hadn’t really ever been able to put her finger on a fitting title for the song, so she’d left it the way it was, though she’d considered calling it a handful of other things.

Being in the Entity’s realm was hard on Kate. That seemed like a stupid thing to say, because it had been hard on everyone, but most people probably couldn’t tell how hard it was. Kate acted a good game, and in truth she believed in it—believed that they would get out, that things would be okay someday, but at the same time, Kate missed her mom and her dad and her little brother. More than that, she was a little older than a decent handful of the others, and she felt responsible for them. Maybe that was because it was a position she’d often drifted into in life and she’d learned it, or maybe her default psychological response to loving someone was just to try and put herself between them and bad things, even when it was stupid, or maybe she felt like she was fresh and just had the energy the others didn’t—like she was relieving someone’s post. Whatever the truth was, Kate tried her best to get to know the others, and to look out for them. She wasn’t always good at that, or at showing them support, but she tried. Hard.

Kate was one of the lucky last few to have not been grabbed during one of the especially awful Krueger trials, and it made her feel guilty—like her good fortune was part of their bad. Even though she’d never been dragged into one, she knew how rough these things were on people—not firsthand of course, but last time she’d seen the way people acted for days—weeks after. She had wanted so badly to be able to help, and she hadn’t. She’d spent time gardening with Claudette and singing old Beach Boys songs, and tried to learn medicine tips from Quentin, and helped Meg stage videos, but she could tell she wasn’t healing anything. She had tried to help out Ace, too, but he’d seen right through her sudden interest in his old stories and redirected her to one of the younger members. Kate wasn’t so easily defeated and had made Ace come along with her to tell stories anyway, and afterword he’d seemed a little better. But it was so close to nothing. It felt worthless.

God willing, the four who’d just been in the Krueger trial would get a little break. Quentin was a good kid—she should probably stop calling him that, though. Like her brother, he was older than she was giving him credit for. And always so earnest. Trying his best to do everything possible while living like a broke college student two days before midterms. And Meg—she was half the reason they were as sane as they were, after all of this. She’d become the distraction and the fun people needed—a walking vaudeville. Just being around her made people happy, but as someone who had lived similarly, Kate knew just how tired that could make you—raising everyone else’s spirits all the time. When you crashed, you crashed hard, because you had never had plans in place to catch yourself.  The Wraith had been a good thing for all of them recently, and everyone was doing their best, but as she and Dwight sped through the generator, she prayed that Meg and Quentin weren’t here, and wouldn’t end up in a trial for as long as possible.

Their generator lit, and Kate and Dwight booked it in an awkward medium speed mix of fast and careful, weaving through rooms.

“Oh! I see them,” whispered Dwight, pointing through a wall. “Both together, on a gen.”

Damn, wish I could do that, Kate thought with a sigh. It would have been really nice to be able to sense other people’s presence. The number of times she’d accidentally led a killer right on top of a friend during a chase because she’d had no idea they were there was…not fun to think about.

Together, Dwight and Kate slipped into the room. Kate’s heart fell a little as she saw Meg Thomas turn around and grin at her and Dwight before turning back to the gen she was on with Claudette. ‘Least she seems ok, Kate tried to console herself. She always did seem to bounce back. The generator was already close to done, and as Dwight and Kate joined the other two, it only took a few seconds for the thing to light.

As it lit, the sound of the generator mixed with the all-too-familiar sound of the wailing bell as the Wraith materialized behind them.

There was a terrible moment of indecision as Kate’s heart lurched and she tried to figure out if this was something to be happy about or terrified of. After all, four of their five-person team, right here. On the other hand.

She looked up. The Wrath was so tall. She always forgot that, but he was massive.

“Mike?” asked Meg excitedly, grinning up at the Wraith as he appeared.

The Wraith brought his sickle down across Meg’s face and the smile disappeared as she fell back with a cry, blood pouring from her forehead.

Oh no, thought Kate in a frozen panic, Oh no, it’s happened again, hasn’t it?

Dwight ducked as the sickle carved down again and the blade hit Kate in the arm. She recoiled and lept a windowsill, looking desperately up and down the hall for some way to circle back in and help Meg without being spotted, clutching her own torn arm as she did. Inside the room, she heard the sound of a thud as someone dropped a pallet, and then Claudette cry out.

A memory pulled itself to the front of Kate’s mind, from not that long ago. Sitting by a generator, Backwater Swamp. The way the Wraith had looked when he materialized. Usually the reaper hunted them in a way you would describe as hunting. For him, more work than sport. Motions followed, actions taken. That day, he’d come at her like a killer. Like she remembered from the one time she’d been attacked back in the real world, by a man in an alley way outside a bar. The Wraith had had anger in its eyes, like she’d done something unforgivable, and it had wanted to hurt her. It had wanted it badly. The rage had been overwhelming, and she’d been terrified. It was usually so calm, the Wraith—one of the only ones who never stabbed you for the fun of it if you were up on a hook, or just hurt you to hurt you. It was like being chased by something supernatural. And then, suddenly, in the swamp, she’d been terrified of it in an entirely new way. And he’d gotten her, fast. Grabbed her shirt and rammed her against the side of a log wall, dug his sickle into her shoulder, thrown her to the ground. When she’d been there she’d tried to crawl away from him, fingernails digging into the dirt, and he’d dragged her back and hit her, over and over, his blade driving in like the back of a hammer, prongs hooking and tearing, and all the while she’d been overwhelmed with fear from how much this man wanted to kill her. Her personally. And he had, helpless beneath his feet. The second she’d met his eyes in there, it was exactly what he’d looked like. Nothing but rage.

“Jesus Christ,” she whispered more as a plea than an expletive, rounding the far corner of the room and looking in. She hadn’t been quick enough.

Before her, the Wraith had backed Meg into a corner. She had a hand up like she could shield herself from him, and the other was trying to staunch the blood that was streaming down her face.

“Wait!” said Meg, trying to put on bravado, “If it’s not Mike, you could have just said so.”

There was fear behind the tone though, and she flinched before the sickle connected with her chest, digging in hard. The towering man tore his blade free and Kate heard Meg scream, then he reached down and picked her up and flung her over his shoulder.

As he moved out of the room, Kate had just barely made out Meg’s weak voice saying, “You forgot me again, huh?”

She sounded…sad, thought Kate, moving quickly after them, No. Worse.

As the Wraith moved through a doorway, Kate realized where he was taking her. The steps to the basement.

“Hey!” shouted Kate.

He turned to look, glowing white eyes like embers of hate narrowed in her direction with a look that sent shivers down her spine, then he turned and kept walking towards the basement.

Damn it! Kate ran and lept, taking the six-foot fall onto the basement landing to get in front of him, and tried to block his path.

“Let her go!” shouted Kate, kicking him in the shins, “She’s your friend and you forgot again and you’re hurting her feelings!” Logically, Kate knew that he was almost certain to neither listen nor care, but if she’d been him and someone had said that, it would have at least made her confused.

The Wraith swung his sickle with his free hand, and Kate dodged out of the way, stumbling a little on a step as she did. He swung again, faster and more angry, and she just barely ducked, watching as a tiny chunk of her hair fell to the floor. Without warning, the Wraith’s foot shot out and caught her in the chest, sending her flying against the lockers at the base of the stairs. She impacted so hard that the locker dented, and she knew trying to pull herself up that at least two ribs were either broken or bruised.

Dropping Meg on the ground, the Wraith walked over to her and grabbed Kate by the hair, wrenching her upright ramming her hard against a hook. She felt it tear through her back and screamed, the white-hot pain of the basement hook temporarily making her vision black out. As soon as she could focus again, Kate looked for Meg. The Wraith was above her again, reaching down to grab her by her throat.

“You don’t remember any of it?” Kate heard Meg ask weakly. His fingers closed around her neck and he lifted her into the air, running her through the hook beside Kate without a second thought.

He vanished then, disappearing back up the stairs, leaving Kate and Meg alone.

“Are you okay?” asked Kate, looking at Meg’s mangled face and chest. The wound had torn her open deep enough that Kate could see the white bone of a rib.

There was no reply. Meg just stared forward. Shit. “Meg?” asked Kate again, voice failing to contain the worry she felt.

“I guessed it,” Meg said after a second, head hanging limp, watching blood drip from her forehead onto the ground below.

“You guessed it?” asked Kate, struggling to focus on her friend instead of the pain in her chest.

“His name. I know it was one of the ones I said, but I didn’t get to ask him which one,” she replied, her voice flat. Kate didn’t know what to say, so it was quiet again, and then Meg spoke. “I must have guessed about eight hundred names. I’ll have to start over,” she looked at Kate, “Do you think he’ll ever remember?”

Kate looked at Meg’s torn face and her fragile expression and nodded.

There was a little thud as Dwight took the same six-foot fall Kate had and rushed down the stairs, grabbing Meg and lifting her free in one swift motion. Thank god.

Just above them, they heard the bing-bong of the wailing bell, and suddenly the Wraith was there, on the stairs. Dwight tried to reach Kate, but the Wraith grabbed him by his collar and threw him at the wall, whirling on Meg and catching her in the back as she tried to run.

“You don’t remember,” Meg said from the ground as the Wraith bent down and grabbed her, voice pleading, “But we were friends—I’ve been trying to guess your name, and Claudette keeps bringing you flowers, and you keep forgetting because of something the Entity does!”

The Wraith slammed her back onto her hook and she let out a scream of pain. He’d let it carve a second hole through her torso, instead of re-hooking her through the same wound. Meg stared down at it and the open hole through her beside it in horror and then the thorny black talons burned into existence beside her and she was struggling to fight them back.

“Listen to me!” called Meg as the Wraith walked over to Dwight and its sickle dug into his arm as he tried to shield himself from the blow. “You don’t like being taunted but you warm up to it, and I’m Meg Thomas, and we’re kind of frenemies at this point! The girl is Kate Denson, and you haven’t seen her as much, but she sings like an angel and even you would like it, and the guy you’re trying to kill is Dwight Farfield and you like him! You saved his life and took him off a hook once because you wanted to know the truth about what you kept forgetting because you found some bandages you couldn’t explain!”

The towering man didn’t even turn to look, didn’t hesitate. It reached down and tore Dwight from the dent he’d left in the wall, and Kate heard him cry out in pain as he was moved, his left arm hanging awkwardly, and then it ran him through the third hook, rung the wailing bell, and was gone.

“Fuck! Come back here, you jackass!” Meg called after him, struggling with the claws.

“I-It’s okay,” said Dwight, gritting his teeth, “We’ve seen him like this before. It might take some time, but we’ll get back to where we were.”

“And then what?” shot back Meg, arms strained with the tension of holding back the huge obsidian spike leveled at her chest, voice starting to break a little, “He’ll forget again! Over and over.”

Above them and a ways off, they heard a cry. Claudette.

“How the fuck does he keep finding us so fast!” Meg spat. Kate could see the struggle for her was going to be a losing one, and very soon. She could feel herself starting to get weak, and there was the slow crackling sound as claws began to materialize around her, too. In a moment, she’d be doing the same thing.

“We’ll be more careful,” Kate said, trying to sound reassuring. She wasn’t as sure. She didn’t know if the others had noticed the change in the Wraith—the anger, the way he looked like he wanted nothing more than to snap your neck, but she wasn’t about to bring it up if they hadn’t.

Around Dwight, talons slowly started to burn into existence as Kate began her struggle against the Entity’s claws, and then there was a little thud, and Claudette made the six-foot drop, clutching a wounded shoulder, finger to her lips.

Meg’s face lit up. Claudette dashed to her side and lifted her free of the hook, running to Kate the second Meg was free. Meg was stumbling over to Dwight and Claudette’s hands were on Kate’s waist, starting to raise her up, when they heard the wailing bell on the base of the stairs and the ambient horror of a killer approaching washed over them. Claudette tried to get Kate free before he reached them, but the Wraith’s fingers closed around Claudette’s shirt and he tore her backwards and threw her to the ground. She made contact with the pavement and skidded along it with the force of the throw, impacting into the back wall at an angle. The Wraith turned on Meg and brought his sickle down hard into her back and she crumpled beside Dwight, screaming as the blade lodged in her shoulder.

The Wraith loomed over her, looking down at the torn and bloodied girl at his feet. He paused for a moment, glancing in Claudette’s direction with his cold, glowing white eyes. She was weakly trying to pull herself up to her elbows and failing, so the Wraith turned its attention back to Meg.

“Please!” Meg begged, looking up at him, curled on her side in a pool of her own blood, “You have to listen to me! I don’t want this to all be for nothing—I can’t do that—I can’t do it again. You know us—you were getting to know us!”

“She’s right!” Kate shouted, struggling against the claw at her chest with everything she had.

The Wraith ignored them both, stooping to pick up Meg. He grabbed her throat and lifted her into the air, easily carrying her back to her hook for the last time.

“You stupid jerk!” Meg choked out, kicking at him and trying to pry his fingers from her throat, “You disappear and come back with new scars acting different, but you have to remember us! You knew us!”

“Don’t you remember her at all?” Dwight shouted, face clearly showing worry at the desperation in Meg’s voice.

“You have to remember, something has to be different for once! We played a game where I guessed your name and you hated it,” Meg said, faster and faster and voice more and more frantic as the Wraith lifted her above the hook, “And Quentin kept trying to make friends with you, and the girl you just threw into a wall was the first one to think you weren’t a monster! Her name is Claudette—”

The Wraith ran her through the hook and the Entity’s claws immediately snapped shut around her, impaling her against their points. Kate heard Dwight shout her name as she screamed. Then it was over, and Meg’s body shuddered and she went limp and her form started to fade as the claws around her lowered until they encased her, and the thing in the sky drew up her husk and she was gone.

Shit. Shit—Meg. Kate looked at Dwight, and he looked at her. Both panicked, sad. This wasn’t really such a setback—they’d known it might happen, but it felt like a huge loss. After the past week, after everything?

Not giving Meg’s husk a second look, the Wraith turned and stalked over to Claudette. She’d managed to pull herself to her knees, and as she saw him coming she crawled backwards away from him until he had her in a corner and she had nowhere to go.

“W-wait,” Claudette stuttered, back pressed against the far wall.

“Leave her alone!” Dwight shouted, trying to continue for Meg, “You know her! She helped you!”

“You saved me,” Claudette said, voice timid and faint, like she was afraid she would say the wrong thing. “Please—you aren’t like this, you’re good.”

The Wraith grabbed her, and she tried to pull away weakly, letting out a scared cry, but he lifted her easily and flung her over a shoulder, then turned towards the last hook.

“Her name is Claudette!” Kate called, feeling herself losing strength against the claws around her.

“She’s Claudette Morel, and you know her!” Dwight added, “You have to remember something.

The Wraith hesitated. It stood in front of the hook, Claudette still over its shoulder, and slowly turned to look at Dwight for a second. Then it shifted Claudette from its shoulder and into its hands to hook her, and it stopped again, looking at her as she stared back with big eyes, somehow hopeful and terrified all at once, and Kate saw a flicker in the Wraith’s eyes for just a moment.

Damn it! Kate thought, barely managing to stave off a particularly strong thrust of the claw from digging through her ribs. Dwight didn’t have more than a few seconds left before he’d begin struggling too. It-it’ll be okay. We just gotta restart and be more careful this time’n it’ll go okay, I know we can.

“The first time you let us go it was me and him,” Claudette said, her voice still small and scared as the Wraith stared at her, and she pointed to Dwight with her wrist since her arms were pinned to her sides. “Try to remember, please.”

Its eyes went white-hot again, and flickered, and then repeated the process, and it took a step over in front of Dwight cautiously, almost disoriented, like it was trying to get a good look at him and having some trouble. As it looked, the talons around Dwight solidified, and Kate saw the claw that he would soon be struggling against at his waist arc back above his head to try and run him through and as it did, the Wraith took another step, right between him and it, oblivious, still holding onto Claudette. She saw Claudette, who was facing the claw, see it coming and scream, and the Wraith jumped and turned to look as the claw shot down at its chest and Dwight behind it, and then Kate had lost her focus on her own struggle, and the talon she’d been keeping at bay had run her through.

She’d burned back into existence standing by the campfire, frozen, eyes wide. It had taken her a second to be aware of Meg tugging on her arm asking what had happened.

“Uh,” Kate had said, “Ah—ah think Claudette, Dwight, and the Wraith just all got killed…by the same claw.

Meg blinked. “I’m sorry, they what?”

She had explained, to everyone, what she’d seen—her last memory an image of the Entity’s claw swinging full speed, just an inch from running the Wraith though. And they’d waited, some confused and concerned, a small handful horrified at the possibility they had just killed the Wraith, for Claudette and Dwight to return, sacrificed. But they hadn’t. Minutes dragged on to ten, then twenty, then forty, and everyone started to get really, really scared.

By the time Jake appeared at the edge of the woods and it had been two hours, no one knew what to do, and everyone was deeply afraid that this time, something that couldn’t be set back to the way it was before had changed.

Chapter Text

 

“You disappear and come back with new scars acting different, but you have to remember us! You knew us!”

Meg’s voice came in foggy as Claudette tried to shake it off and get to her feet. She had to get to her feet—she had to get up! If she didn’t, Meg would…

“Don’t you remember her at all?”

It wasn’t enough. As Claudette’s arm muscles gave out and she felt pain ripple through them again as she hit the floor, she could hear Dwight shouting. Please, please, thought Claudette, fighting again to make it to her feet. She pulled herself to her knees and saw the Wrath dragging Meg by the throat back to the hook she’d jus been on. Please, you have to remember!

She tried to cry out, to say that out loud, but when she opened her mouth there was no sound. Claudette lost her voice to a flood of memories, Nea, and Kate, and then David right at her feet, and she couldn’t move. No! No, you can’t do this—you can’t freak out now! But the fear rolled over her like wave and drowned her in itself.

“We played a game where I guessed your name and you hated it, and Quentin kept trying to make friends with you, and the girl you just threw into a wall was the first one to think you weren’t a monster! Her name is Claudette—”

Meg’s voice was cut off as the Wraith ran her through the hook and the Entity’s claws snapped shut around her, killing her, and Claudette flinched as she heard Dwight scream Meg’s name. No. No, no, no, not again.

Things had been looking up for them and suddenly everything was all wrong. She was trying her best to shake it off and look at this the way she had before, but no one was doing well right now. The Krueger trial the day before had been hell for the people in it, and she hadn’t been one of them, but knowing it had happened had brought back memories she had fought so hard to forget. Memories of the last time. The time it had been her. Remembering that made everything that walked towards her in the mist something beyond monstrous—too far from human to ever come back, and she was scared. It’s…it’s different, it’s the Wraith. The Wraith isn’t like the others. She tried so hard to believe it, but her heart was pounding in her chest and things she didn’t want to think about were fighting harder and harder to get in. It wasn’t that the Wraith was killing them. He was different again, like she’d only ever seen once before. Vicious, and fast, and brutal. And worse, angry. Angry with a low, boiling rage. When he’d met her eyes for a second after ambushing them all by the generator, it had been like there was nothing inside him anymore except hatred. That had made her so scared.

He turned then, the Wraith, and looked at her from across the room. The look sent a shudder down her spine, like looking at death itself, and Claudette was overcome with the fear that he was going to kill her like he had before—torn apart, blow after blow, like firewood. It had been a long time since she’d seen him and thought of him as an ‘it’, as a monster, like the other killers, but as it came for her she crawled backwards on instinct, trying desperately to get away. So afraid, it was all she could do.

It stalked forward, relentless, radiating hate, eyes fastened on her like she was already dead at its feet, and her back hit a wall. “W-wait,” Claudette managed, looking up into the thing’s face with some faint, desperate hope of finding any trace of the person she’d been trying to get close to for days still inside.

It raised its sickle to strike her and she was suddenly seeing a different day, years ago. She was standing alone, in a cornfield. Everything had made her so scared—the darkness, the wind, the fog, the way everything was huge and expansive and open, and still somehow felt like a cage. The ash in the air. She’d been on a bus from Toronto, going home, going to see family for a long weekend. Paused between stops for a quick walk in the woods—hoping to stretch her legs, take pictures of some flora, smell air that wasn’t like city air. It had been such a nice, simple thing to do. And then, she’d been taken. Engulfed in a wood that went on and on and got cold and dark, and thick with fog. Lost, and alone, and she’d ended up suddenly somewhere else. Disoriented. Staring down at arms and legs that flickered like embers as they solidified, but didn’t hurt, afraid something was wrong with her head, because there was no way this could be real, right? As the embers on her skin faded, she had heard a terrible moaning sound and turned to look, and she had seen nothing moving, nothing alive as she turned, but when she had seen what was there, her heart had sped up with panic and she had been too afraid to scream. There had been a massive tree behind her, and dead animals hung from it. Animals that had been lacerated and torn, hung in the tree by hooks and rope and chain. Cows, and they were dead—they had to be, some were just tissue and blood, and yet the sound seemed to be coming from them.

She had stumbled back from the sight, hand over her mouth, and fallen backwards over a low stone wall onto her back, hard. This towering tree of sacrificed, moaning animals looming over her, she had been too petrified to stand, and she had tried to crawl back from it, overcome with horror, and then there had been the sound of a bell, right behind her, and she’d looked up and seen a thing burn into existence above her.

It had looked like a man—at first she had thought it was a man, and that she was sick, or hallucinating, or dreaming. Feet, hands, legs like her own. She had been so scared, and she had wanted it to be a dream so badly, for a moment she had started to whisper “Dad?” in a panicked, half-choked voice, pulling herself around to face him and pleading inside that somehow, some way, this was a nightmare, and he had come to wake her up.

But as the man above her bent down to look at her, she had known it wasn’t. That he looked nothing like her father. And his head—his head was wrong, it was covered in a mask like mud, and his eyes glowed. She had been too afraid to run from him. Claudette had stared back at him, chest rising and falling in terrified, shallow breaths, and then he’d moved his hand and she’d seen what he was holding.

“No! No, no, no—please! Please don’t hurt me!” The wickedly sharp metal prongs of something between a scythe and a club sparkled in the moonlight as he had raised a weapon made of someone’s skull and spine and wickedly sharp blades, already spattered with blood.  Claudette had started to cry, curling up and making herself as small as possible, doing her best to cover her head with her arms. “Please, please—I don’t know who you are; I don’t know where I am! Please don’t kill me!”

She had never been so scared, not of anything, and there had been almost no sound as the huge man above her had taken two steps forward and stooped down beside her.

The man was so much bigger than her, and specked with blood, but his movements had been so steady and calm, and he had lowered the blade back to his side as he knelt, and for a moment, Claudette had almost thought he wasn’t going to hurt her. But he had. A hand that was rough and coarse from scars and work had reached past the arms she was trying to shield her head with and grabbed her by the throat, and with one motion he had stood, dragging her up with him and lifting her up into the air. She had tried to scream and struggle, tried to pry his fingers off, but she had failed. Lifted into the air, fighting to breathe, face streaked with tears, she’d looked down at the Wraith as he looked up at her, his eyes glowing white, his face expressionless. She had been carried a few steps over towards a towering metal hook, and her mind had flashed to the animals in the tree and understood what was about to happen before it had.

“No, please—please don’t,” she had managed to get out past tears. She had been so helpless, so scared, so lost and alone. “I don’t want to die. Please.” So terrified the words had been whispered, quiet, not screams.  “I want to go home.”

The hulking, shadowy thing that wasn’t a man had looked into her face and felt nothing. It had looked back at her with no pity, no sympathy, no hesitation, or regret. Not even malice. Then it had run her through the metal hook, and the indescribably awful sensation of having a jagged metal rod tear through your body had shot through her for the very first time, and she had been left to hang beneath the tree full of dead cows, just another sacrifice. No explanation, no comfort, nothing but confusion and fear and anguish. The man hadn’t even looked back.

“Leave her alone! You know her! She helped you!”

Dwight’s voice dragged her back out of the flood of images and fears, but she was still seeing the cornfield as she looked up at the Wraith again, arm raised to strike her down. So much like the first time she had seen him.

Helped him? He…he helped me…helped me first. The thought fought back some of the terror, and she tried to find her voice. “You…saved me,” Claudette offered, voice almost a whisper, so afraid she would do something wrong. Afraid of the Wraith. It looked down at her, eyes narrowed, and for some reason that had reassured her, because at least that was an emotion—it looked like anger. Distrust. That’s right, he’s like a person. It was just hard to get to him. But he’s not bad. I-I can do this. I wasn’t wrong. “Please,” Claudette continued, thinking about clover chains and the look on his face when he hadn’t wanted to take the gauze roll from her, “You aren’t like this; you’re good.”

For a moment, she thought she saw his eyes flicker, but then the steady glow was back and it closed the distance between them. On instinct, Claudette had put her arms over her head like before, and the Wraith hesitated. Through her arms she saw him lower his sickle and go to grab her instead. Not her throat, though, like usual—he went for her arm, and as his fingers closed around her forearm, she let out an involuntarily cry and tried to break free, but he lifted her off the ground easily and shifted her up to over his shoulder.

Everything had seemed surreal and too real all at once, and she heard Kate shouting, but it took her another few seconds to understand she had said, “Her name is Claudette!” Longer to understand why she was doing that.

He…That’s right…he knows that—I’ve told him before, a lot of times now. My name. He could remember. He didn’t though. The Wraith moved up to the hook beside Dwight without hesitation, and Claudette’s body told her to struggle—to try and fight free, but she didn’t. She just hung over the tall man’s shoulder, shaking a little, trying to think of what she could possibly do or say that might stop him.

“She’s Claudette Morel, and you know her! You have to remember something!” Dwight had shouted from beside her, and she had looked and just barely been able to see him—see Dwight, looking back at her, looking worried.

And as Dwight said her name, The Wraith stopped. They had been close to the hook—almost on top of it, and Claudette had been waiting for the tidal wave of pain that would rip through her when he put her on it. But the Wraith didn’t move. Hanging over his shoulder, she registered the cease in movement with surprise, and then felt Wraith twitch beneath her. Slowly, he turned his head to look down towards his sickle, and as he looked down at the hand his fingers loosened around the blade, letting it slide from his palm almost to his fingertips, like he might drop it.

The Wraith hadn’t done that either, though. Instead, slowly, it turned its head and looked back over at Dwight. What’s wrong. Why did you stop? Claudette wondered, hoping it was something good, and not something that meant he was considering stabbing Dwight with the sickle for not shutting up. She was doing her best to watch the Wraith and get some idea, but there was no way to get a good look at his face while slung over his back. He had shifted his shoulder then, to roll her off of it, and as she slipped forward, he grabbed her with both hands, pinning her arms to her sides in a motion that took less than a second and that she had felt thousands of times as he went to life her up and drive her body onto the hook. Only, midway to impaling her, the Wraith stopped, fingers digging into her arms as he held her level with him, staring into face like he was looking for something. Do you remember me? Claudette had barely dared to hope, staring back—willing it to be true. His eyes rested on hers and looked in, long and hard, searching, trying so hard to find something, and she saw the white glow over his eyes flicker once, and then again. He suddenly turned his head away, wincing and closing an eye involuntarily to pain, like someone had shined a light in his face, or he had taken a blow to the head.

“Wraith?” Claudette’s whisper was barely audible, a tinge of worry creeping into her voice.

He took a few deep breaths, and then turned his head back to face her, eyes once again fixed on hers, but narrowed this time. Like behind the mask he was confused, or angry, or both.

She was so close to him, pinned there, that she could see his chest rising and falling, and while he’d been almost still before, he was breathing quickly and a little shallow now, as his eyes flicked over to Dwight, and then back to her, tense as he tried to find whatever he was looking for. Are you scared? Claudette had suddenly wondered, the thought hitting her like a slap to the face. It gave her courage. Maybe it meant they really were getting through.  “The first time you let us go it was me and him,” she said, voice still sounding empty and little in her ears despite how hard she was trying to be brave, and she moved her wrist, trying her best to point at Dwight with her arms pinned to her sides. “Try to remember, please.”

The Wraith’s eyes went white-hot again, and then flickered, and the process repeated. He looked at her, then Dwight, and slowly took a cautious step over past the steadily-forming claws of the Entity, almost in front of Dwight, still holding her, and looked at him the way he had been studying her. Dwight shot her a quick mixed hopeful-panicked this is good, right? look, and then the Wraith shifted to get a better look at Dwight and she couldn’t see him anymore, held in place by the Wraith with her back to her friend. She could see the Wraith though, with this look on his face like some kind of disoriented confusion, like he was looking over a math proof trying to figure out where he’d fucked up. Then, behind the Wraith and off to the side about a foot, Claudette saw the Entity’s claws solidify around them and arc back to try and impale Dwight, who she knew must be bracing for the coming struggle. Almost the moment Claudette was aware of this, the Wraith took a second step, right in front of Dwight, and Claudette was suddenly looking dead at the coming claw over the Wraith’s shoulder and she realized with an intense horror that the Wraith didn’t see it and she couldn’t move and it was about to kill them both, so she screamed.

As she let out a blood-chilling scream, the Wraith jumped, following her gaze and turning lightning-fast to see what she was looking at, but it was still too late, and she saw the Wraith’s eyes widen as he tried to move and heard Dwight shout “Oh fuck!” and then the claw snapped shut.

The talon hit them at an angle, dragging against Claudette’s side, and the Wrath let go of her and she saw herself fall back in slow-motion as the claw ran the Wraith through, dug past him with unrelenting speed at Dwight’s chest as he screamed, and then, against all odds, Dwight caught it.

She impacted against the ground, staring up as in front of them, the Wraith hung there, suspended an inch and a half off the floor by the talon through his chest, arms up and at his sides, staring down in shock at the claw and the gaping hole in him, not reacting, like he was on a time delay.

“H…Holy shit,” Dwight sputtered, fighting to keep the talon at bay, staring at the blood seeping out of the Wraiths back. “C-Claudette! Help!”

The Wraith blinked and she saw his body shudder, then the light disappeared from his eyes and they shut as his head lulled to the side and his arms fell limp beside him, blade clattering to the floor, and he went still.

Moving as fast as she could, Claudette dragged herself to her feet, ran to Dwight, and tore him free of the hook. As he stumbled to his knees, clutching his chest, the talons dissolved around them and the Wraith’s body fell to the floor with a thud, head cracking against the ground, unmoving.

Both of the survivors stared at the Wraith’s still form in horror, then each other.

“Did,” Dwight swallowed, “Did we just kill him?”

“Oh…Oh my god,” Claudette whispered, kneeling beside the body on the concrete. “Please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead.”

He had fallen on his side, and she gently eased him over so she could see the hole in his chest.

“Oooh god, oh god,” she muttered, running her hands along the wound.

“Is he dead?” asked Dwight, moving up beside her.

She looked down at the Wraith’s weathered hands and reached for one to check for a pulse. Yes! Oh, thank God! Weak, but it’s there. Oh thank you, Jesus. “He’s alive,” she said, relief flooding her face as she turned to Dwight.

“Okay, okay good,” Dwight replied, letting out a tense breath. “We gotta end the trial then—fast. Before he bleeds out.

“Do they heal after trials like we do?” asked Claudette, suddenly feeling a deep, shadowy worry in the pit of her stomach. “I’ve never seen one get hurt worse than a stun.”

“I…don’t know,” replied Dwight, looking harried. “Okay, okay, then what can we do?” He was almost talking to himself, mind working a mile a minute. “Can you patch him up?” he asked her.

Claudette looked down at the massive hole in the man’s chest cavity, and the pooling blood. “In reality? No way in hell. Here? M-maybe, with a proper medkit, but I’ve been bringing,” she pulled a little flower chain out of her pocked to show him and slid it back in, feeling miserable and stupid, “I don’t have one.”

“Okay. Okay, then you stay here and do what you can. I’ll check every box I can find and see if there isn’t something we can use. Alright?” said Dwight, putting a hand on her shoulder. She nodded.

Dwight ran to the chest in the basement and threw it open, angrily discarding a flashlight a few seconds later before booking it upstairs, clutching his own chest to staunch the bloodflow and his left arm still hanging awkwardly.

As Dwight searched, Claudette looked down at the unconscious man beneath her. She had seen the Wraith up close long and still enough to really get a look at two times now: a minute ago when he was holding her, and from across the trial burrier the time he’d let her go, but it was never like this. She had been thrown over shoulders or torn out of lockers countless times, she had never been close enough to any killer to study them—to really look at them. She always had to be running, or hiding, or struggling, even if she was near them. But now, the Wraith was perfectly still and harmless at her feet, barely even breathing.

She wanted to stare, to see what he really looked like and if he was a human, but even half in shock she was together enough to know this wasn’t the time. Blood was seeping out of his chest where the long, deep, jagged hole remained. Do what I can? Claudette asked herself. What can I do?

The claw had gone in right at the base of his ribs, exiting higher between his shoulder blades as it carved up, and when the Entity’s claw had disappeared it had left nothing keeping pressure on the wound. That’s the first rule of a puncture wound, right? Claudette thought, fighting down the urge to panic, Don’t remove the object? Well, too late for that. I can’t put a new one in, right? What are you thinking! That’s—of course you can’t! That’s crazy; jamming something in the hole is stupid. Breathe and think rationally!

Over the many, many trials she’d been through, Claudette had dressed more than her fair share of open chest puncture wounds—it was like, the most standard injury per trial. But with the Wraith, it was different. They started to recover a little as soon as they were saved from a hook—but him? He wasn’t recovering at all, and the hole was twice the size it usually was in one of them. The hit he’d taken was the one that always killed them when it connected. Trying her best to think fast, Claudette pulled off her shoes and used the Wraith’s fallen sickle to pry off the plastic soles from their bases, quickly taking the cleaner side she’d just torn free and moving the Wraith onto his side so she could place one chunk of oddly shaped plastic over each hole. I took that one pre-med elective for fun, and I don’t remember anywhere near enough! Why couldn’t I have disappeared later in the semester! she thought angrily, Chest wounds are supposed to be treated for potential lung collapse by sealing them, right? Her mind played her images of a bad PowerPoint slide clicking past while the speaker had told a story about someone using a driver’s license to seal a wound and save a life. AHHH, I don’t know! I’m not a medical professional! I’m not even a med student! She kept going, though, because it seemed better than nothing, and she had to do something—she couldn’t just sit there and watch him die. Pressure needs to be steadily applied and I need to bind it, she told herself, focusing in on what she did know about injuries as she tugged off her pink top and started to try and tear it into lengths—resorting again to using the Wraith’s sickle after trying to do it by hand for a second, and easily using the blade to slice through the material. Using the shirt and the shoe laces from the eviscerated shoes, she secured the best wrapping she could around the Wraith and tied it in place, then stayed by him, using her palms to keep consistent pressure on the chest wound as she watched her pink fabric turn red.

There was nothing to do then but wait for Dwight to come back. Under her fingers, the Wraith’s chest rose and fell shallowly, his eyes still shut tight and his skin slick with sweat and blood.

“Please don’t die,” said Claudette, looking down at him. “We’re so close.”

She had never known exactly what the Wraith was, but she could see him more clearly now—now that she finally had time. His arms and legs and chest were all human skin, dark brown, and covered in scars and old wounds. Who did this to you? Claudette wondered, her eyes tracing a large scar that spiraled outwards from near where he had been wounded and covered most of his chest. Was it the thing in the sky? She glanced up as if afraid it would appear, coming to finish what it had started, and then down at her own arms then. They were rough, speckled with little cuts and scars, worn out from all of this. It was true that they healed after trials, no matter what happened to them, but for some reason sometimes little things stayed. She had never been able to understand why. Were you ever like us? Claudette thought, gazing down at what she could see of his face.

The Wraith’s head was human-shaped, but it didn’t look human. There were tiny little almost…branches at the top of it, for lack of a better word—like he was some kind of tree, and his skin was thick and rough like bark, entirely different from the skin on his arms—not even the same shade. Greyer. But as she looked closer, Claudette noticed little patches of dark brown amidst the rough, bark-like thing covering his head, and realized after squinting at it for a second that it was skin—normal skin underneath whatever was covering his face, which meant that it had to be some kind of mask, right? And she was gripped by a sudden, deep-seated urge to see if she could peel the mask off and get a look at his face underneath, but wisely beat that impulse down even faster than it had come up and refocused on applying her steady pressure to his chest wound.

I wonder if he…if any of them take the masks off when they aren’t in trials? You look like a monster when you’re chasing us, but… “You are a human, huh?” Claudette asked out loud, feeling somehow like talking to him, even unconscious, might help him stay alive.

There was no response, just the unsteady, shallow breathing beneath her hands. He looked hurt, and weak, and so much less scary. It was…well in a way it was reassuring. She was worried of course—worried he would lose too much blood, or go into shock, or die, but even amidst that fear there was something strangely comforting about realizing he had human skin, and seeing an expression on his face like you might catch on someone sleeping fitfully from a nightmare. It was even reassuring just being able to feel him breathe. It was familiar.

Racing footsteps pounded on the stairs above her, and Dwight skidded on the wood stairs as he headed down, almost losing his balance as he rounded the landing.

“Did you find one?” Claudette asked hopefully.

Dwight held up a slender black key.

 

 

“Which way?” asked Claudette, doing her best to hold up her half of the Wraith.

They had him draped over their shoulders, one arm around him apiece, but he was so big his legs dragged on the ground as they moved, doing their best to be gentle of the torso wound. The Wraith’s head hung forward over his chest, eyes shut, and Claudette kept having to steal worried looks in his direction to make sure he hadn’t stopped breathing.

“This way,” said Dwight, indicating right with his head. “I’m sorry I took so long. Why is it only if I actually have a key on me I can never find the damned hatch?”

“I think they’re cursed,” Claudette replied, grimacing as she rounded the corner and the pressure from holding up the Wraith upset the gash in her side.

“I finally found it by a vending machine,” Dwight continued, taking his own worried glance at the Wraith, “But it’s ungodly far from the basement. Do…do you think he’s gonna make it?”

Claudette looked at the Wraith and bit her lip. “If he gets better outside trials like we do, yes. If not…I…Let’s just hurry.”

Dwight nodded and they kept going, as fast as they could without hurting their burden. It took them a minute to make it to the room Dwight had described, but there it was sure enough. The hatch, right before a glowing black vending machine. Still closed.

“You didn’t open it?” Claudette asked, surprised.

“I…” Dwight looked like he was trying to figure out how to put something, “We know that Killers can’t go past the exit.”

Oh. Of course—that made sense. “Do you think he can’t go in the hatch?” whispered Claudette out of habit, since there was no longer any real need to whisper here.

“I thought that maybe if we put the key in his hand and had him unlock it…?” Dwight offered. “Look, I know it’s probably stupid, but.”

“No, no—it’s a good idea. It might help, won’t hurt,” Claudette reassured him as together they eased the Wraith to the ground by the hatch. He didn’t look good. The breaths were coming in still shallow, but slower now.

Gingerly, Dwight took the Wraith’s right hand and placed the key in his palm, then moved the hand to insert the key in the lock. There was a satisfying click and the hatch swung open, and the sound that Claudette had always thought somehow sounded like both wind and light came gently pouring out, and she and Dwight looked at each other.

“I’ll uh, I’ll go first, and you pass him down to me,” said Dwight, taking a deep breath. He let go of the Wraith gently and tossed the sickle down into the hatch first, then eased himself into the hatch, doing his best to lower himself while bearing most of his weight with only his uninjured arm as he descended the iron rungs on the side of the pit. “Alright,” Dwight called up, “I’m ready.”

“Please work,” whispered Claudette, moving to lift the Wraith’s feet into the hole. She was so sure, in the pit of her stomach, that bars like outside the trial gates would appear, or the black smoke billowing out of the hatch would solidify and block his entry, but his legs slipped in as easily as Dwight’s had, and she let out a breath that turned into a little laugh, overwhelmed with relief and happiness. She leaned over the hole and saw Dwight looking up at her, looking so similarly relieved he might pass out. She nodded at him and then moved and hooked her arms around the Wraith’s shoulders and awkwardly did her best to gently leverage him into the hole.

He was heavy, and Claudette wasn’t that strong, and she was so terrified of dropping him that she could feel her heart thudding in her chest, but she managed to hold onto him as she leaned forward on her stomach and lowered the body, and in a few seconds Dwight had a good hold on him and told her to let go. There was a muffled cry of pain as the entire weight of the large man shifted to Dwight and his dislocated shoulder, but he got the Wraith to the ground safely, and Claudette hopped in after them. Above her, she heard the hatch clank shut, and suddenly it was pitch black.

There was a second of silence and the sound of people fumbling through pockets, and Dwight hit the nightlight function on his wristwatch at almost the same instant Claudette lit up the flashlight Dwight had dropped in the basement. They smiled at each other, so relieved they had made it this far that they both let out relieved laughs.

“Is it working?” asked Dwight, crouching next to the Wraith and picking up the sickle from where it had landed, “Is he healing?”

Claudette stooped beside him, her side wound closing up as she did. In front of her, she watched Dwight’s shoulder re-set itself. The Wraith, however, didn’t look much better.

“I don’t know—I don’t think so,” replied Claudette, reaching down to check his pulse. “He’s breathing, and his heartbeat isn’t irregular, so that’s good.”

“Okay,” said Dwight, nodding, “Then let’s get going. Sooner we make it out of here, the sooner we’re back at the campfire where we can do something about it.”

“Yes, please,” Claudette agreed readily. She wanted to fix the Wraith as soon as possible, and on top of that, while hatch escapes were nice, you had to wander your way through tunnels in the dark, sometimes for a few minutes before reaching the campfire, and she didn’t like it. The tunnels were thin and always sounded eerie—like they weren’t supposed to be here.

The two of them shifted the Wraith onto more carriable positions over their shoulders and started off again, following the winding earthen path in silence by the light of Claudette’s flashlight, until they finally reached a dead end and another set of iron rungs leading up.

Claudette and Dwight traded a quick look in the dim light, and Dwight passed the Wraith off to Claudette and hurried up the rungs with the sickle, throwing open the hatch up top and crawling out. She expected to see him appear again in a second, laying on his stomach, arms ready to help her lift the Wraith up, but he didn’t. She waited a few more seconds and then nervously called up after him. “Dwight? Everything okay?”

“Y-yeah, I uh, it’s…” He sounded close, like he was right on top of the hatch, and then she saw his head appear in the little square of moonlight above. “I’m sorry, here, pass him up.”

A little disconcerted, Claudette climbed the first few rungs, getting as high as she could manage one-handed so she could keep a grip on the Wraith with her free hand and without lifting the Wraith completely off the ground so she could bear the weight, and then she placed her right foot as high up on the rungs as she could reach and with as much strength as she could muster, she lifted her body weight and the Wraith’s with one leg and propelled them both up towards Dwight just long enough for him to shoot out his arms and get them under the Wraith’s. They managed it on the first go, and Dwight got a firm grip on the larger man and started to try and lift him up through the hole while Claudette did her best to get a grip on the Wraith’s legs and lift some of his weight from below. It was a clumsy, awkward job, especially with them trying to be gentle of the hole through his chest, but after a few seconds of concentrated effort and silent curses at almost-lost grips and banging elbows against iron rungs, Dwight got the Wraith out onto the ground above the hatch and Claudette clambered out after him.

As her head got aboveground and she could take in fresh air again, Claudette’s eyes went wide and her breath caught in her throat. There was no campfire, no familiar clearing in the woods, but she did recognize the place. She had been there so many times, fixing generators while trying to hide from things that wanted to kill her. Autohaven—right in the center of the dilapidated garage.

“Oh no,” she breathed out, almost a whisper.

“Yeah,” said Dwight, looking a little ashamed. “Thought I’d wait till we got him out of the tunnel to tell you.”

“What…we can’t be in another trial, right? There…aren’t any generators,” Claudette said after a second, pulse quickening as she scanned the horizon to make sure she was correct.

“Yeah, I think not,” Dwight replied, shifting the Wraith into a more comfortable position on the wood floor.

“Is this where killers go?” Claudette asked, mind working quickly to propose options. “Is—did we go where he goes?”

“I think so,” said Dwight, looking grim. “It makes sense, if you think about. We can run into people a ton of times in trials, but it’s only if we try to leave together that we end up back at the same—at our own campfire.”

“Oh god, and we had him unlock the,” Claudette started.

“—Yeah, the black lock,” Dwight finished.

They were quiet for a second, looking at each other and the unconscious man with them, and the familiar yet forebodingly new terrain.

“What do we do?” asked Claudette finally.

“I guess we should…try to find a way back,” Dwight answered slowly. “We don’t know if his…home is connected to our own, but we might as well try. There’s at least not a burrier, like in the trials. It might go on past what we can see.”

Claudette nodded slowly, thinking that over, and shivered a little involuntarily. It was always sort of cold in the woods, and she wasn’t used to running around in a tank top.

“Here,” said Dwight, noticing and starting to unbutton his dress shirt, “If we’re going to be walking around in the woods for who knows how long looking for home, you’re gonna get cold like that.”

Claudette smiled at him and shook her head, holding up a hand for him to stop. “And if you take your shirt off and give it to me, you’ll get cold. You actually have less layers—I’ve at least got the tank top.”

“I-I know that,” Dwight replied, looking a little hassled, “I’m trying to be nice.”

“Well, it’s sweet,” Claudette said, still smiling, “But I’ll be okay.” She glanced down at the Wraith and her smile faded. More of the dressing she’d made out of her own top had red blotches soaking through. “I actually will take your shirt though,” she said, turning back to Dwight, “I’m going to have to destroy it to keep him going long enough for us to make it somewhere I can actually try to fix him. Sorry,” she added apologetically.

Dwight sighed and nodded, unbuttoning the shirt and passing it and his tie to her, shivering a little himself with nothing to shield his torso from the cold. “It’s fine. The thing was getting worn out anyway. Not like I really loved having to wear a dress shirt all the time anyway.”

“Really?” asked Claudette, “Oh, can you pass me his weapon?” She held out her hand for the blade and Dwight picked it up and handed it over. “What would you wear if you could have chosen your outfit when you disappeared?” she asked, starting to slice the dress shirt into slivers of cloth.

“A Christmas sweater,” replied Dwight, “Hey, is there anything I can do to help?”

“Sure, take these and tie them together to make one strand,” said Claudette, passing him a few pieces of what used to be his shirt.

“How about you?” asked Dwight, moving to sit a little closer so they could pass things easily.

“I don’t know for sure,” replied Claudette thoughtfully, using her teeth to tie off a knot. “Maybe a costume.”

He looked at her in surprise, pausing in his work.

“What?” she continued, feeling embarrassed, “I know it’s dumb, but if I was wearing a Halloween costume and going around dressed as Batman, or Storm, or Princess Leia, I’d be a lot less scared.”

“No I…I think in a way that makes sense,” replied Dwight, handing her a completed cord of fabric. “I guess I’d want the Christmas sweater for the same reason. Sweaters always made me feel more at home. Safer, you know? Because I only really wore them at home, because I didn’t care what I looked like at home, and no one can tell under a sweater anyway. Plus, they’re warm.”

“You make a good case for sweaters,” Claudette smiled, moving to undo some of the bandages on the Wraith and fix them. “Why don’t you see if you can get some idea of what direction to go? This’ll take a minute.”

Dwight nodded and stood up, looked around for a second, and then headed off towards a patch of woods.

For he’d gone a few steps, Claudette watching his retreating figure, she called after him in something just a little too loud to be called a whisper. “Hey Dwight!”

He stopped and looked back, waiting, looking pale and cold and like a huge nerd.

“I’m really glad I got stuck here with you—otherwise I’d be freaking out a lot more. You’re like a human sweater,” she continued, and then after hearing her words she flushed and added, “I-I meant that in a nice way. Not an insulting one. Be-because of what you just said.”

“I put you at ease?” he asked, wrapping his arms around himself against the cold, looking ridiculous.

“You make me feel safer,” she corrected. It was true, and saying it made her feel warmer and calmer inside. This was really a terrible situation to be in, not just in general but specifically at present, and having Dwight there was keeping her level and making her feel like things were going to be okay. He really did have a knack for leading.

About ten feet away, Dwight blinked in surprise and awkwardly stood there in silence, shirtless and huddled against the wind for a second before saying, “I…don’t really know how to respond to that, because it’s kind of an unexpected, weird compliment, but thank you. I’m glad I’m good for something. You too. I mean—”

“—It’s good,” she cut in, smiling to herself, and then she waved him on, “Go do your thing—find out where we’re going.”

“Right!” He replied, rubbing his arms for warmth, “On it!” Then he turned and headed off, arms still wrapped around himself, and Claudette went back to working on the Wraith.

It didn’t take her long to re-bind the wounds. To her immense relief, it did look a little better than she had been afraid it would—mostly because it hadn’t worsened, which it really should have after being dragged half a mile and passed up and down ladders by two people smaller then himself, which probably meant the killers did heal at an accelerated rete, even if not as quickly as the survivors did outside of trials.  Still, he didn’t look great. The hole wasn’t closing up, and even if he was losing blood a lot more slowly than someone should have for a wound like that, he was still losing blood. He’d soaked through most of her formerly pink shirt, and it was already starting to leak onto the white of Dwight’s by the time she was halfway through re-binding it. Despite the anxiety trying to bubble up in her chest, Claudette focused down and did her best to get him stable. She ended up finishing getting things back in place about the same time Dwight appeared at the edge of her vision, quickly heading towards her.

“You found something?” she asked hopefully, no real idea what he could have found.

“I think so,” replied Dwight, stooping down to help her lift the Wraith up again. “There are several different areas not too far from here, and I can hear fairly disturbing sounds coming from a few of them. Most of them look kind of like trial areas too. Only one that doesn’t, so I’m thinking we try our luck that way? Or we pick the least horrifying devil we know. Is he…any better?” Dwight added as an afterthought, giving the Wraith’s still face and closed eyes a worried look.

“Not really,” Claudette replied honestly, “But he’s not worse either—so that’s good.”

“That—that is good,” Dwight agreed, looking a little relieved.

“Devil we know?” Claudette asked. “So…it’s like a Killer cul-de-sac that we’re in the middle of?”

“Yeah,” said Dwight, looking disgruntled at that description and like he wished he hadn’t had to break this particular news, “It looks like it. Not exactly a neighborhood—the places are weirdly separated, and it’s kind of hard to see into some of them, but I climbed a tree and got a pretty decent look, even through the fog and whatever weird shit separates them.”

Claudette took that in for a second and then swallowed. “Okay, what are our choices?”

“Well, I could see houses in one direction,” Dwight replied, looking as wary of that as she immediately felt.

“So definitely not that one because it’s either Haddonfield or the Preschool,” Claudette finished for him.

“Yeah, hell not that way,” Dwight agreed. “Rotting boats in another, so probably the swamp. And then it’s sort of hard to tell what’s behind us—I thought it was just woods, so maybe Huntress, but I think I heard the damn horse.”

“Eugh, the Clown?” asked Claudette, grimacing, “Okay. And the one you don’t recognize?”

“It kind of looks like a…farm?” Dwight explained, thinking hard for a good way to describe it. “But, uh, not Coldwind. No corn, or anything. More like…grassland…like the Midwest or something? Maybe that’s a ranch, not a farm? I don’t know.”

“Okay. And no bad sounds?” Claudette asked.

“There was a chainsaw coming from somewhere but it was hard to tell and seemed far off—really faint. Nothing but creepy wind and birds and this vaguely hissing sound from the swamp, and I could hear the nurse, but she sounded further off than the chainsaw. Really distant. The only thing I heard that was close and definitely alive in any direction was the horse,” Dwight answered.

“So…Swamp, Clown, Midwest,” Claudette whispered. “We can’t go fast with him, and we’re only going to be able to be so careful and quiet carrying a body. At least nobody out here should expect us to be around, but…”

“Yeah,” said Dwight after a second, looking grim, “How the fuck are we ever supposed to get out of here.”

Claudette let out a slow breath. “What do you think? Which one would go with the swamp?” They had a decent idea who went with some places, and after confirmation from Laurie and Quentin that Haddonfield and the Preschool were very specific locations tagged to Killers, they had put two and two together and assumed every area had someone to go with it. Some of those had been easy to piece together, like the Doctor and the Treatment Ward, or the new Spirit girl with a Katana and the suddenly-appearing, never before seen ruined Japanese estate, but a lot of them were guesswork. Most of them were pretty sure the Huntress went with the cabin in the forest—for one because she appeared there far more often than anywhere else, but also because she always seemed sort of protective of things inside it, and was never that way in other locations. As far as the others went, both chainsaw wielders showed up on the farm regularly, and almost as often on the estate with the water tower, and the wrecker yard. She most commonly ran into the Wraith in the swamp and the autoyard, so her guess had always been that he went with one of those two, and now she knew for sure which, since his hatch brought him to the garage. But that didn’t tell them for sure what lived in the swamp.

“Part of me says devil we know—with our luck, we go for the one that looks safest and get fucked. But we don’t know for sure which killer goes with the swamp, unless you know something I don’t?” Dwight paused to see if she did, and she shook her head, so he continued. “I know that’s me being superstitious, and it’s dumb, and we should go for the only one we don’t know means something around usually wants to kill us and try the ranch-ish place.” Dwight finished. “But I don’t like it. You?”

Claudette bit her lip and let out a dissatisfied grunt. “Okay, okay yeah, I agree. This is dumb, but I say we go to the swamp, try to get through the reeds, and if we see something we bail quietly, we back up, and we go through the Midwest patch instead.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Dwight, looking a little relieved. “It’s this way, then.”

Together, the two survivors adjusted the Wraith’s weight and made sure his field-bandages were as stable as could be, then they carried their unconscious burden through the white birches of Autohaven and into the woods, going as slowly and carefully as they could manage.

It wasn’t easy going. The wood was expansive, deep and dark in a way that the one around their own campfire was not, and the longer they tried to push through it towards the place Dwight had seen, the harder it got. Weeds tugged at their ankles, low-hanging branches cut at their exposed skin as they tried to forge their way through like an awkward three-legged race partner set trying to lug around a sack of rice, and the wind made it sound like there were things whispering and breathing in all directions, just out of sight. The flashlight was lasting, which was a relief since they hadn’t known if this area would zap the batteries like trial areas did, but the darkness was choking the light and if felt unnervingly dimmed, like trying to go through the forest by candle light. On top of that, no matter how far they went it felt like they weren’t getting closer. It was as if the ground were a treadmill and the terrain was moving around them, a perfect, ever-changing illusion to make them feel like they were going somewhere. After half an hour of this, they weren’t nervous anymore, they were worried.

“You’re sure we’re going the right way?” Claudette whispered. The area still looked like Autohaven to her. Birches, weeds, grass.

“I don’t know,” Dwight answered. They were both freezing, but he looked worse than her, shivering in his bloody dress pants. “I-I can try climbing a tree again.”

“You take a break,” replied Claudette, “You’ve been carrying most of the weight anyway. I’ll go this time.”

Gingerly, Dwight and she set the Wraith down, and Claudette gave him basic instructions for checking the unconscious man’s pulse and seeing that the bandages hadn’t shifted too much, then found a nearby birch which looked tall and had branches low enough for her to grab with a leap. She used to climb trees all the time back home, and birches were pretty easy trees, so she had it scaled in no time, going higher and higher until she’d passed most of the trees around her and the branches supporting her weight were getting dangerously thin. Once she was as high as she thought she could manage, Claudette inched along a limb until she’d gotten her head past the layer of leaves and could finally get a good look out at the world around her.

The forest was pitch black, and shadowy—only giving the vaguest suggestion of things beyond her line of sight. It was like being in a video game where the graphics didn’t render and things didn’t completely load in until you got close, and when you were far enough away you could tell, because they wouldn’t be there at all. Like Dwight had said, there were houses in the distance, way off to her right—suggestions of them anyway, pale white-ish structures that looked blurry, and a little flat, like a painted backdrop. She was suddenly nervous, and turned to look. To her dismay, behind her the hollow shell of the autohaven garage was much closer than a half-hour’s walk, and she felt her heart sink.

How are we ever supposed to get back? she asked herself again, feeling hope drain away as she scanned her surroundings.

“Okay, okay,” she whispered for the reassurance of her own voice. “Think it through. You can do this.”

They had heard the Killers before, sometimes even without going too far into the woods by the campfire. Distant, always, but they’d heard them all the same. Connected, Claudette thought, remembering what Vigo had said in the journal she found, We can hear them because we’re connected. Like doors off the same hallway. Or…he said like a circle, with everything having a door to the center…Connected, maybe more like planets orbiting the sun. Gravitational pulls, predictable cycles. We can see each other, but we’re far away. Then she glanced at the nearby boats and houses and open farmland and thought, Well, maybe not that far. But…something keeps us from running into each other. There has to be a way to do it, though? Right? Like a circle. Like a sunflower. No…that’s stupid. Like an atom. Tiny little worlds bunched up together. So how do we open a door. Can we? Should we just try and break through the walls instead? The Entity can open doors—it does, or, it does something like that when it moves us from where we are to a trial.

Frustrated, Claudette rapped her fingers against the limb she was holding onto. Looking at the areas near them, so close and so impossibly out of reach, a wave of sadness washed over her.

Damn it! I’m too stupid to figure this out! I can’t do this kind of thing—that Vigo guy was some sort of weird Alchemist-Chemist-Biologist genius, and he couldn’t do it! Compared to that, I’m nothing. I’m not going to get anywhere. Claudette held up a hand and cut off her own mental tirade, and took a long breath. Okay…Okay. This is hard, but you have to figure some of it out, or the Wraith is going to die. That thought hit deep and she felt the blood drain out of her face. Yeah, no pressure. Okay. Okay. I’m being stupid and wasting time; I should ask Dwight. Two heads are better than one.

Feeling nervous and disappointed in herself and more than a little scared, but also just a bit reassured by having a next step (albeit a temporary one), Claudette scrambled down the tree as fast as she could.

“You find anything?” asked Dwight hopefully, looking up at her as her feet hit the ground. He was propped up against the tree opposite, with the Wraith’s upper body propped up in his lap. “He’s still breathing, but he’s starting to bleed through my shirt too,” Dwight added, gesturing at the unconscious form.

“Yeah. It looks like we haven’t gone far at all,” said Claudette, moving to sit beside him. As quickly as she could, she explained what she’d seen and what little she knew, or guessed, from the notes she’d found. All the while, Dwight listened thoughtfully, face scrunched up in concentration.

“Okay,” said Dwight after thinking for a few seconds when she’d finished. “So, if the areas are closed off, it has to be for a reason, right? Like, so the killers don’t kill each other, or so we don’t wander in like we’re trying to now and get slaughtered.”

“Or just because it likes to keep people separate,” Claudette suggested thoughtfully. “Although, we do have the campfire.”

“Not at first though. We have to want it, and leave together,” Dwight added.

“We both have to want it,” said Claudette.

“Right!” continued Dwight, looking a little excited by the idea they were making progress. “So, we want to find the swamp, right? But maybe we can’t because whatever’s there doesn’t want us to. Or maybe it’s because he’s out cold, and doesn’t want anything.”

“Do you think it’s that simple?” asked Claudette, “Like, the reason the Killers can’t come to our fire is because we don’t want them to? And now we can’t get into their places for the same reason? Why—wouldn’t they want us there, to kill us more?”

“I don’t know,” said Dwight slowly, considering, “Maybe because the Wraith wouldn’t want it.”

“If that’s the reason, we won’t get anywhere unless we can wake him up and explain what’s going on,” said Claudette hopelessly.

They sat together in dejected silence for a few seconds, thinking. Absently, Claudette took the Wraith’s hand to check his pulse, and hesitated when something carved into his hand caught her eye.

“What?” asked Dwight, noticing the look on her face.

Claudette held the hand up for him to see. “He’s never had that before—I know, I’ve been yanked out of enough lockers—”

“—Yeah, me too,” agreed Dwight, rubbing his neck at the unpleasant memory. On the Wraith’s right palm, there was a symbol that looked like “Mɔ,” sort of like a badly drawn M and a closed parentheses mark.

“Hey, I just had a thought,” Claudette said suddenly. “Not about the…weird mark—sorry, I’m jumping subjects, but it’s about getting out. It’s probably gonna sound dumb though.”

“Please,” said Dwight, giving the go on gesture, “At this point, anything at all is more than welcome.”

“…What if we just get permission?” said Claudette in a voice that betrayed she knew it didn’t sound like a great idea.

“Get…” Dwight hesitated, running that through his head, “You mean from the Entity?”

“Yeah,” replied Claudette, flushing, “I know it sounds dumb, but it might work.”

“It’ll know we’ve got him if we actually succeed in…talking to it,” Dwight said haltingly, “I mean, I guess it has to either already know, or be oblivious as shit, since it’s the one who accidentally stabbed him. But…then why hasn’t it done anything? It can’t actually want him to die, right? Because it never kills killers. It uses them—I kind of thought it needed them.”

“Yeah, it is weird,” agreed Claudette, really thinking that angle through for the first time. “It should be trying to do something about this. Does—do you think it somehow didn’t notice?”

“I’ve got no fucking clue,” answered Dwight, sounding exhausted.

“Well, I don’t actually mean ask permission when I say get,” Claudette said, picking up her old thread. “You’re probably right and it does know, but if it doesn’t, I don’t feel like drawing attention to ourselves is a great idea. It clearly doesn’t like us, because it kills us all the time. And if we die out here, I don’t know what happens to us.”

“Yeah,” said Dwight, grimacing at the thought.

“So, we don’t know how to get past its stupid rules and barriers and stuff, but what if we don’t have to? Not ask permission exactly outright, but what if we can cheat?” suggested Claudette.

“Cheat how?” asked Dwight, watching with an expression that was a mixture of intent and hopeful, “Because I’m very behind that if you’ve got a plan.”

“Well, I was just thinking,” said Claudette slowly, still working the pieces out in her head as she went. “It makes sense if the Killers can’t walk into each other’s areas because they’d fight, right? I know some of them would. And it makes sense that they wouldn’t be able to go into our campfire, either, because then we’d have nowhere to go to be temporarily safe. But I think we can go more places than the camp, at least sometimes, because of the journals I’ve read. Like—Benedict Baker, it sounds like he’s wandered all over the place, way more than just by the campfire. There are places I’m sure we’re not supposed to go, too, because there’s rules and an order to everything. But, well, by all accounts we should never have been able to get out here, but we did, with the hatch. So…what if we’re already outside our own electric fence?”

“You mean…” said Dwight, picking up her string and following it, “If it’s like true/false rules on a computer, or magic wards, or whatever, why even have a rule we can’t walk in the back door of one killer’s place to another? Because there’s no need to ward against something that can’t happen.”

“Exactly,” said Claudette, feeling excited at the idea of all her time spent hypothesizing about the realm actually coming in useful and reassured that Dwight had made the same connections, “And we could just be entirely wrong about all this, but it should be easy to test.”

“But we’d have to leave the Wraith,” said Dwight, looking down at the shallowly-breathing man he was propping up. “Which was the original problem we were trying to avoid.”

“Okay, so hear me out,” Claudette answered, holding up a hand and feeling both nerves and a little anticipation at the idea that had just solidified in her head, “So what if the problem isn’t that he can’t exist in anyone else’s realm, but that he can’t go in? And we can use that technicality.”

“Like, when you’re a little shit and your mom says, ‘Be home by ten,’ and you come home at 2:00 am, which, technically, is still before 10:00 am, which she failed to specify?” added Dwight.

“Exactly,” replied Claudette, building up assurance as she went, “—ish, uh, anyway. I’m thinking what if he doesn’t go in. What if we pick him up and take him in. I mean, we’ve been trying to drag him in, he hasn’t been walking, but it’s still been all three of us crossing the border.”

“Do you…do you think it’s that easy?” asked Dwight, blinking and staring at nothing as he ran the scenario through his head. “That it’ll matter if he’s being lugged in instead of helped in? I mean, shit, I guess it could,” he added, shaking himself out of his reverie. He looked at Claudette, voice steadily picking up hope and confidence as he continued. “I’d almost believe anything right now. We followed him through his hatch, and he just almost got sacrificed on accident. I got grabbed off a hook by a killer. Plus, it sounds like the Nightmare, Shape, and the Wraith have all somehow gotten away with doing stuff they weren’t supposed to be able to. Let’s give it a shot.”

Dwight looked at her, excited with the possibility, and Claudette beamed. She had no idea if it would actually work, but his enthusiasm was reassuring, and she scrambled to her feet and helped him lift the Wraith, taking the tall man’s legs as Dwight lifted his shoulders, until the two of them had him suspended a few feet off the ground.

He was heavy, and they were two of the weakest members of their group, but desperation and adrenaline go a long way, so huffing and struggling and shivering through the underbrush, the two of them awkwardly forged forward as fast as they could, trying hard to watch their footing and their cargo and where they were going all at the same time.

Doing their best to avoid especially difficult terrain, Dwight backed through what looked like almost a little trail through the steadily denser trees, but after about half a minute of pushing on turned into a denser and denser patch of twig-like brambles, the pieces of which kept getting stuck in Claudette’s hair and scratching up Dwight’s back. The Wraith felt ridiculously heavy in Claudette’s arms as she did her best to tug her head free of branches without the use of her hands, and both of them were so distracted trying to break through the brittle little branches that they didn’t even realize the grass had turned lighter and the night somehow darker until Dwight broke free of the brambles and stumbled out into the open.

“Oh, shit,” he whispered, a flood of different emotions flickering across his face.

As Claudette broke the tree line behind him, she saw it too. Pale, open grassland, patches of trees and bushes and brush. A single white porch swing moved gently in the light breeze about fifteen feet away, the only sign of life anywhere.

“We went the wrong way?” she whispered back, worry seeping up into her chest. She swallowed hard and tried to fight it back down. You don’t have to be scared. Nothing bad has happened to you here, ever. This is okay. You’re okay.

“I don’t know how…” Dwight trailed off, scanning the horizon. He seemed to process something internally and sort of shook himself and turned back to Claudette. “Hey, on the plus-side, you did it,” he said with a reassuring smile, voice low, “We made it in.”

Claudette felt her face get hot and nodded. Temporarily losing her ability to speak unfortunately seemed to be her deeply engrained default response to being praised. At least it temporarily distracted from the wave of uneasiness that had passed over her when she saw the open grassland.

“It’ll be okay,” whispered Dwight, easily picking up on her nervousness and doing his best to reassure her. “We just keep quiet, stay on the edges, and go through. With any luck, it belongs to some killer that’s long gone. After all, we’ve never seen the place before in a trial, so that would make sense, right?”

She nodded wordlessly and did her best to get a better grip on the Wraith’s legs. As she did, her eyes moved up to his chest and face, trying to see in the dark how he looked. His face was drawn—a little more conscious than he’d looked before, like his unconscious mind was gradually becoming aware of the fact that he was in pain. Still breathing, at least. But there was blood starting to make it through the second layer of wrappings and leak over his chest.  I’m going to have to lose my pants or my tank top if this keeps up, thought Claudette, feeling sickened and overwhelmed with simulated embarrassment as well as fear for the Wraith, And that won’t even really help that much. No matter how many times I re-dress the wound, if it keeps bleeding through, even if I’m slowing the flow by reapplying appropriately tight dressings, he’s going to bleed out. Please, she thought, looking down at the weakly raising and falling chest, Please don’t die.

That possibility was something she didn’t want to think about, so she made herself take a deep breath, and then she turned back to Dwight and whispered, “Okay, ready,” and the two of them started to slowly creep through the edge of the yard, going as quick and quiet and clandestinely as possible for two small young adults in the dark trying to haul the dead-weight of a man twice their size through an open space.

Which wasn’t exactly fantastic.

 


 

“So, how exactly are we supposed to find ‘em?” asked Kate, who could tell she was mildly annoying Jake with the fact that she wasn’t having to struggle very much to keep up with him.

“I have a few ideas,” Jake said, avoiding an actual answer.

“Okay,” said Kate, pulling herself over a boulder Jake had decided to scale and joining him on top of it. “Why are we--? Oh.” She stopped the question, taking in the larger than normal view of the forest available from the high vantage point.

Jake didn’t seem to notice. He just scanned the area and then hopped off the rock, proceeding in a slightly more easterly direction than before.

“Are you mad at me?” asked Kate, skidding down the boulder behind him and stumbling into place. “Because it really seems like it.” Jake kept going, weaving quickly through the trees, and Kate sped up to keep pace. “You’ve barely said two words since I finished explainin’ what happened, and you dodge every question I ask.”

Jake sighed. “I’m not mad. I just don’t feel like chatting.” He pushed past some bushes and took a turn.

“Would it really hurt to try and formulate a plan?” Kate asked, following, “Or at least tell me what yours is?” Her companion did nothing to acknowledge she had spoken, so Kate kept going. “Look, I wanna help them. And you. But I ain’t spent as much time digging through the woods as you have, so there’s not much I can do if you won’t talk to me.”

There was a set expression on Jake’s face as he pushed on, occasionally stopping for a half second to scan the area and then picking a new direction and continuing.

“Jake, please,” said Kate, feeling a lot more tired and distressed than irritated with him. “I just wanna help.”

She moved a branch out of her way and pushed on after him, trying to pick out any indicator in the woods ahead that there was some kind of path, or trail, or direction to follow. It seemed endless and jumbled to her, not like a real wood. There were no paths carved by animals moving from shelter to shelter and water to food. No growth patterns in the trees built around their universal need for sunlight, no telltale sounds of life. Not even water.

“Do you know where we’re going?” she asked, speeding up to be nearly abreast with Jake so she could see his face. “I don’t just mean where they are. I mean—all this looks the same to me. It’s unreal,” she continued, gesturing at the trees around them. “I’ve been in my fair share of woods, too.”

“If we keep going, we’ll find something,” said Jake, voice heavy with annoyance and the desire not to be disturbed.

His tone set Kate off a little, and she bristled. Why won’t you just work with me you damn stubborn fool? I ain’t asking for much. Shit. “Find something?” asked Kate, her voice just barely indicating she might have her hackles raised, “Like what? The Nurse? The Cannibal? And what if they are out here with the Wrath—huh? Then what? Do you wanna fight him? We don’t know what happens if we get killed by them outside of a trial, and everyone’s wandering around in the woods Scooby-Doo style split up, and they might not even still be with the Wraith.”

Jake stopped and turned to shoot her a look, then he pushed on again, choosing not to engage. Kate followed just as stubbornly, not finished.

“They could have gone to another Campfire, or somehow still be in the trial even. We don’t know. At least I don’t—hell if I can tell if you do, because you won’t talk to me.” Jake was walking a lot faster now, so Kate was too, and a near jog combined with the string of accusations was making her breath come in a little short. “I ain’t saying we shouldn’t be out here doing something, but just because you know what you’re doing don’t mean the rest of us do, and if you won’t tell me your plan what do you expect me to be able to help with. If you would just—”

“I don’t have one—okay!” Jake exploded, turning on her. “Is that what you wanted to hear? Will you finally stop asking me?”

Kate took an involuntary step backwards, surprised. Jake glared at her for a second and then let out an angry sound she didn’t know how to classify and turned on his heel and stalked off further into the woods.

It took a moment for the surprise to pass and her to be thinking clearly again, and then Kate hurried after him. It only took a few seconds for her to be back at his heels. “Why didn’t you just say so?” asked Kate, her voice a lot gentler.

Jake didn’t answer. He just kept forging on, eyes straight ahead.

“Jake—” Kate prompted, but he sped up again. She frowned and squared her jaw and sped up, making it past and in front of him with a sudden burst of speed. “Jake,” she said again, putting her arms out like she was trying to stop a charging horse. It worked, and he stopped opposite her, looking more tired than angry now. He waited a second for her to ask him again, but she didn’t, so he let out a breath and answered one of the questions she had asked before.

“I’m worried,” Jake said. “I don’t have a plan. But I want to be out here, so that if I think of something in time, at least I’ll be close enough to actually do something. Yes, I know it’s impractical, yes, I know it could put everyone in danger.” He waited a second for her to move, and when she didn’t, he sighed and looked down, then gestured at the forest behind her. “Can I pass?”

 “Why didn’t you say that earlier?” asked Kate, lowering her arms.

Jake made a noncommittal gesture with his hand. “What do you want me to say?”

“The…answer to what I asked you?” replied Kate like she was trying to figure out if that was a trick question.

“Look,” said Jake, and he went to move past her, but she shifted and put herself in front of him again. He gave her an irritated look and tried a second time, but she countered again, and he stopped.

“I wouldn’t have cared,” said Kate. “I don’t—that you haven’t really got a plan. I get it, you want to be out here even if we know nothing, because damn if even a bad shot at helping them when they might be in trouble ain’t worth it. But the fact we don’t got forever to prepare don’t mean we shouldn’t do it the best we can.”

“You didn’t want to do this in the first place,” countered Jake, moving suddenly and finally making it past her. He started to walk quickly again, and Kate fell into step beside him. She was quiet for a second.

“I’m sorry,” said Kate after a moment of walking by him in silence. “I’m just worried about people getting’ hurt because we do things the wrong way, or don’t think it through. I didn’t mean it to sound like I thought this weren’t worth it, or I didn’t want to come.”

Jake’s eyes flickered over towards her when she apologized, but he didn’t say anything.

“You shoulda talked to me though,” she added, “because if even you got no plan, we need all the strategizing we can get.”

They kept going in silence for a second, then Jake glanced in her direction and said, “If I didn’t act like I had a plan, everyone would have been more nervous. You’ve been in trials with everyone. You know the mindset going in is a bigger indicator of if we win or die than the tools we bring.”

She nodded slowly. “That’s true. But since it’s just us two now, is this really just an 100% guessing game walk through the woods?”

“No,” replied Jake. “I’ve been here a lot. Things reset every so often—terrain randomizes. Sometimes I can hear killers out here, but where the sounds come from changes. Usually more often than the woods themselves. I’ve heard the nurse, chainsaws, singing—yeah, unfortunately of both kinds,” he added, noticing the question Kate was about to ask, “Sometimes I hear a horse; even more rarely that stupid clown cart music that goes with it. Just recently, I hear that ghost girl making noise in the distance. Don’t even know what I’d hear to go with the Trapper or the Shape, and I’ve never heard a Jigsaw box or the Wraith’s bell outside of a trial either. For us, I tried to pick a direction I hadn’t heard any sound from recently, because if we can get to a killer area from here, that gives us something like a one in four shot of being right.”

“Was it really east, west, north, south for all four?” asked Kate, “Like parts of the woods without sound in those directions, all symmetrical?”

“No,” answered Jake, ducking under a low branch. “It’s more like there’s a big gap up here—up north—where there’s no noise recently. Who knows, could be all four side-by-side, or I could just be wrong. The true sort of ‘area of effect’ is more north-east than true north, like 11-2 on a clock. But I figured it was just as likely I’m guessing wrong, and missed something down south or west. Plus, I haven’t canvased everything since last time the woods shifted, and for all I know it could have happened an hour ago, or be happening now. It’s not a great plan, but there’s just not a lot to work with. Meg probably has a similar understanding,” he added after a second.

“Oh,” said Kate, thinking that over. “Alright. Did you give Feng’s group east on purpose then?”

Jake vaulted over a fallen log and she saw what was almost a smile flicker across his lips. “They took Quentin, and I knew he’d bring a medkit. You never know,” was all he said, turning back to wait for her to clear the log.

She smiled at him and did, landing gracefully on the far side. “So,” she asked, brushing pieces of bark and dirt off her jeans, “You sent Laure and David, the strongest two fighters, as far away from where you think they are as possible? That wise?”

Making a noncommittal half-shrug, Jake moved on deeper into the woods, doing his best to avoid the worst of some ever-thickening underbrush. “One of the killers I can’t hear is the Shape, and he can always tell when Laurie’s nearby.”

Kate didn’t say anything, but she caught his gaze and gave him a look that suggested she didn’t entirely buy that.

Catching the glance, Jake looked away for a second and then added, almost as if it was an irrelevant afterthought, “David and Laurie have both been through a lot of shit lately.”

“And you haven’t?” asked Kate, smiling in spite of herself—not because there was anything funny about what she or he had just said, but because it was a lot more thoughtful than she had figured Jake for.

“No,” refuted Jake, finally breaking through what had been an especially dense bunch of trees and pausing to take in the more open area, “I’m good.”

“You’re not,” replied Kate with a note of finality, stopping to tear a large branch from a fallen tree. She hoisted up the makeshift club and slung it over her shoulder, turning back to Jake with a smile on her face. “But you’re alright.”

For just a second, he cracked a smile despite himself, then he cleared his throat and returned his expression to its reserved and focused default. “This way,” he said, gesturing a little to his right.

Kate nodded and followed him, and for a second they walked together in silence. It was weird, being out here in the forest like this. She had gone out a little—more than some of them—but never that far. The woods by the campfire had always looked so…similar to her. And now, even though they’d gone on for ages, part of her felt weird about it—like somehow they hadn’t. Well—they had—they had to have, because she could look back and see everything behind her that she’d just walked through, but at the same time…it was like—like the feeling you got when you worked on an essay for two hours and looked down to see your page count was a sixth of what you thought it was, or assumed you’d been driving for an hour after zoning out and listening to music in the car, only to realize it had only been twenty minutes. Well, being spooked by nothin’ I can put a solid label on ain’t helping, so best to forget that for now, thought Kate.

“Any idea how we actually get into another area?” she asked Jake, glancing back at the trail they were carving one last time in spite of herself. “I mean, surely there’s some kind of wall—like in trials—y’know, between us’n them? Otherwise I know some of them woulda come and hunted us down by now.”

Jake nodded agreement. “That’s one of the bridges I was planning to cross when I got there.”

Kate dug her way through a particularly dense patch of trees and brambles, carving a path for the both of them. As she finally made it to the end, she slipped out and held up a handful of tangled branches for Jake to pass under. “I think we’re there.”

“Okay, feel free to offer advice,” said Jake, passing through the opening she’d created. He looked up in surprise and blinked. “Oh. That’s what you meant.”

 


 

 

“So you’ve been trying to befriend the Wraith?” asked Ace, looking amused and a little curious.

He and Meg were walking side by side through the woods, heads on a swivel. Not missing a beat, she turned to look back at him and said, “Yup. Basically since the trial where he killed people—although not me; Quentin and Kate and I were more recent—right after the weird trial with him and Dwight.”

Her tone was conversational and friendly, but there was a not quite disguised air of fear and sadness Ace could pick up hanging in the back of it.

“That makes sense,” he agreed casually, “’Bout what I’d expect Claudette to do. She’d be a hard case to get to give up on you.”

Meg nodded wordlessly. Preoccupied by the task, Ace thought she probably was only mostly hearing what he said. She kept searching, eyes on the edge of the seeable amount of forest ahead.

“They’ll be okay,” said Ace reassuringly, putting a hand on Meg’s shoulder. She started, and looked at him in surprise, but he kept going casually, as if he hadn’t noticed how concerned she was. “For one, they’re both smart, and they tend to play it careful. For another, nobody ever really dies in here. And besides, uh…well…damn, I….guess I didn’t really have a third thing, but it felt like, symmetrically, there would be one when I got there…Uh.”

Unconsciously, Meg flashed a real smile for a second, like she was fighting the urge to snicker.

“No, I got this,” said Ace, holding up a hand when he saw her start to say something, “—oh! Okay. Third bullet point: If you’re worried about the Wraith, don’t be. He’ll be fine too.” He paused to gesture towards the deep grey sky above them. “That thing up there obviously wants him her, or it would have gotten rid of him already. Besides which, I don’t really think it’s in its nature to let anyone go, even the death way.”

“I hope so,” commented Meg, looking a little better. “You’re right that big nasty never lets anyone just die,” she added, giving the sky the stink eye. “It’s just been shit after shit, you know?” she said, turning back to Ace.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “But don’t worry. No more of that today. I know you took a risk picking the old man as teammate for this, so if a killer comes, you have my full permission to just,” he zapped one hand across the other making a motion like a rocket taking off and a sound effect to go with it, “zoom on out of here and leave me in the dust. Trust me, I can talk my way out. I’m very charismatic that way,” he added, popping his collar.

Meg snorted at him. That’s better.

“Okay, Gramps,” replied Meg. “But you know I picked you so I’d get the good luck, since we were all splitting up randomly, right? Gonna just,” she mate a spinning motion with her arm, “Rig me that roulette wheel so I can be the one to find mom and dad.”

“That makes so much sense,” said Ace, staring into the middle distance and committing to the bit so hard he almost tripped over a hulking tree root. Stealing a glance out of the corner of his eye, he could tell Meg looked a lot better. Better not lose traction. Try to think of something she’ll feel good talking about. “So, tell me about this…giant covert operation thing you all had going,” said Ace, hoping for a hit, “Was there any success? A good story?”

“Oh, that?” asked Meg, moving to avoid a thorny looking bush. “Yeah. Well, Wraith’s weird. If you push him long enough, he starts helping people—like letting Claudette go, but then something makes him forget about us and we have to start all over, which fuck’n sucks. We’ve tried a lot of ideas out, but just acting like the nature of a trial is the complete opposite of what is should be seems to be the best thing for getting him to wake up, or whatever. Like, Claudette made him flower chains, and I called him a punk ass bitch who sucks at freeze tag.”

“Opposite ends of a very large spectrum,” commented Ace, smiling.

“Yeah,” agreed Meg, “Together, we got it covered. He’s not so bad though,” she added after a second. Her expression got distant then, and she frowned. “Except last time, when he really beat the shit out of me.”

Concerned, Ace started to say something to try and redirect the conversation, but Meg kept going before he made it.

“You know what it’s like if…” She thought for a second, making a face and staring blankly into the woods as they trudged along. “The way it feels to have someone you’ve never really seen mad so mad at you it scares you? A parent, or a friend, or something? Like, there was this time with my favorite teacher in high school. We were on a trip for track once, and I had this girl I got into shit with a lot—not like we caused trouble, but like we fought, and I did this thing—it was super mean. I mean, she had it coming, probably…but it was bad. And this professor walked in on us at the hotel and saw me do it, and she was crying, and he yelled at me and it was like I hadn’t ever understood what yelling even was before that?”

Ace nodded slowly as he listened, remembering once as a child making his father so mad over something he’d said to his mother that he’d hidden outside, laying flat on the roof for almost three hours. It wasn’t like normal shouting or disappointment. The experience had been something that was hard to put into words, because it sounded mundane, but it had been very far from that.

“Like—you know how ‘angry’ is one thing, and ‘enraged’ is another,” Meg continued, “There should be a word like that for yell, because it was in another cosmos, and he was so mad that I ran out of the room because I really, honestly, genuinely thought he might kill me. And like, looking back on that, I guess that’s stupid now. If he’d even hit me, he’d have gotten in so much shit with my mom and the school, but. It was like he wasn’t even the same person. And I remember running outside, down the street, and hiding by the building, and hearing him come outside and call for me, still angry, and thinking I’m never going to be able to think of you the same way again. But I did.”

“It was like that?” asked Ace.

“Yeah,” replied Meg. “It was like if someone put that mode on a human being with an axe and turned it up to eleven.” She stopped walking and stared off into space for a moment. “I’ve never seen any of them like that before.” She thought for a second, then turned back to Ace and sort of shrugged. “But I guess anybody can get that way. He’s probably still okay, deep down.”

There had been a hesitation in her voice, almost like she was offering a hypothesis to herself for consideration, but after a moment she nodded with a note of acceptance.

“Ah, shit,” she exclaimed suddenly, looking down at her feet in dismay as they started to crackle and disappear. “Sorry, Ace, I’m gonna—oh,” she stopped as she glanced up at Ace and saw him point down at his own dissolving knees. They were both going to disappear.

“Quick,” said Ace, holding out a hand, “High-five for good luck before our hands disappear.”

Meg fived him expertly and they clasped hands like two bros greeting each other before a night of getting just mega sloshed on the town.

“Well, at least if they ended up back at the campfire and were just on a delay, we’ll know pretty soon,” Meg offered hopefully.

“And if they ended up at the wrong fire, we can get them back if they’re in there,” added Ace.

“And if not, guess we’ll die,” Meg grinned, and they both vanished.

 


 

 

“So.”

They said it at the same time, which just made it worse. Laurie and David had been walking in a painfully awkward silence for way longer than either of them had expected, and with each second added to the pool of time with nothing said, the silence got more and more grating.

David tried a halfhearted oops—same time laugh and Laurie made an attempt to join in, but that just left both of them feeling like they’d done a harrowingly bad job. They both grimaced.

“Uh,” said David, trying again. “Sorry.”

“No—no, you’re fine,” Laurie replied, waving it off. “Sorry. I’m still…trying to figure out how…and exactly what all just happened. I uh, don’t really know what to say.”

Ahh.., thought David, Ah don’t know what ta say either, but ah can’t say that now because she just did. He cleared his throat. It wasn’t like they never talked or trained or hung out outside of trials—they did, especially recently. But there was so much, after everything that had been going on recently, that he wanted to ask her about and knew he probably shouldn’t, and he could tell the same thing was going through head about him. To make things worse, they both knew almost nothing about the events leading up to some of their friends going missing, so there just wasn’t a whole lot of that subject for them to talk about, even though they should.

“’s okay,” David replied, rubbing the back of his head in some vain hope that would buy him time to think of something to add. “…You’d no idea? ’Bout any of this?”

Laurie shook her head. “No. I thought we all agreed that the killers are terrible and vicious and…never going to change.” She got a faraway look in her eyes as she finished, and the line off her mouth set.

“Right. Ahm I’m the same boat,” answered David. “Them two’d best be okay. All this’s a wreck.” That comment didn’t really seem to be helping, and even he felt worse after he said it, so he hurriedly added, “…Least this means we might get to take a shot at one.”

“That never works though,” interjected Laurie, absently fiddling with the sharpened stake she was holding as they walked.

“Works for you,” David countered. “Ah’ve seen you stab your fair share’o blokes.”

Laurie glanced over, a little surprised. “Well, I guess that’s true. But it never seems to do much.”

“Does more’n I can,” replied David, making a punching motion as if taking a swing at an imaginary training bag in front of him. “Ah could drop an acme hammer Looney Tunes style on ‘em an the thing’d just bounce off.”

He’d been trying to make her laugh or maybe at least smile, but her expression became one of righteous anger instead.  “Yeah, it isn’t fair,” agreed Laurie. “We’re at a big enough disadvantage with no real weapons, and being so much smaller than most of them. Those monsters are hard enough to kill without stacking things further, I should know.”

“From before ya came here?” asked David, very interested in possibly having a non-intrusive chance to hear more about something he’d been curious about since Laurie had admitted to knowing the Shape before.

She nodded. “I stabbed him through the neck with a knitting needle.”

“Shite, not bad,” said David, having a good bit of fun imaging that.

She noticed the look on David’s face and added, “Then I stabbed him in the eye with a clothing hanger.”

“Did it at least slow ‘m down?” asked David, disbelieving.

“Sort of,” answered Laurie thoughtfully, “It took him a minute to get back up, but he didn’t seem any worse for the wear.”

“That when you got taken?” asked David, “Y’know, to here?”

“No,” Laurie sighed, “That was later. First I stabbed him.”

“Still nothin’?” asked David, almost angry on her behalf as she nodded. “For fuck’s sake, he’s a human is he no?”

“Yeah,” said Laurie a little doubtfully, “He should be. But by all accounts, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Anythin’ else?” David prodded, very involved in the story at this point.

“Yeah,” Laurie replied. “He got shot in the chest.”

“A gun?” asked David.

“A pistol. From…I don’t know, maybe ten feet? And it was…” she thought and counted on her fingers, “S—no, five times.”

“Jesus Christ,” said David.

A smile played at the corner of Laurie’s mouth at his horror. “That was before he fell backwards off a second story balcony.”

“An he got up?” asked David, knowing the answer, but needing to hear it.

“He always gets back up,” Laurie replied deadpan. “He’s got the survivability of a cockroach.”

David let out a slow breath. “That’s fucked.”

She nodded, twirling the stake in her fingers. “Too bad you all stopped me,” she said almost absently, like it was more a passing thought than an important one. “I think we both would have disappeared. Who knows if there’ll ever be another chance to really get rid of him.”

David really didn’t know how to respond to that. Complex personal issues weren’t his strong suit when it came to talking things out, because he just hadn’t had a whole lot of experience with it, so he thought for a second and then just said, “Well, ahm glad ya did no. I prefer some real good’n some real shite together to none ah the both.”

Her stride faltered for a moment and she blinked, thinking that over. “Maybe,” she agreed slowly, “I don’t really know.”

They kept walking in silence for a few seconds.

“So,” she said, glancing over, “How about you? How come you can take such a beating and get back up?”

He shrugged, pushing through some waist high bushes. “Guess ah’ve always been that way. Got inta scraps a lot as a lad. Big thing about fights is you got to be ready to get hurt, ‘cause unless you’re fight’n some daft weaklin’ ya will be. Bigger thing is, fight ain’t over till some’n gives up. You do no always have to land the best blow, or deal the most damage, you just got be able to take what hits you longer’n they can.”

“Smart,” she agreed, “And true. So, if hypothetically there were someone who can get shot five times and take it, how would you kill them?”

Oh shite did ah put mah foot in mah mouth? David looked over and saw she was trying to hide a smile. “Shoot’m six times’n run ‘m over with a car?” he offered.

Laurie laughed. It was one of the only times he had ever seen that. It made him smile too.

There was a sudden change in her face, then, and he saw the color drain from her cheeks.

“Laurie?” he whispered, mind immediately shifting into trial mode.

“He’s here,” she said quietly, eyes staring dead ahead at something David couldn’t see. He watched as she took a step backwards, like there was something coming for her.

“You can see ‘m?” asked David quietly, trying to see anything himself past the trees.

Eye still fixed on the woods ahead, Laurie flinched suddenly, like she was sympathetically taking a blow. “He’s over there,” she said, pointing straight ahead of them. Slowly, she let the arm drop. “He can see me.”

“Far?” prompted David, only just remembering Laurie could often sense a killer’s presence from a distance.

“Yeah,” she replied steadily, “But not far enough.”

“He comin’?” asked David, hefting the long spear he’d gotten from Jake’s stash, ready to lose another impossible fight.

“He’s trying,” she replied, looking a little less pale than she had before. “I don’t think he can. It’s like he’s hit a wall.”

“We should go, then,” said David, lowering the spear just a little. “He’s no what we’re after.”

Laurie nodded slowly, and David turned to go.

As he went, Laurie started to follow, but she hesitated half-turned and glanced back at the outline she could see shimmering through the trees and the dark mist. He was watching her, unmoving. She turned back around and took a slow step towards him and his prison, tilting her head far over to the side like she’d seen him do a few times, like she remembered from a long time ago. Wondering.

There was a delay where nothing happened at all, and then she saw his outline shift and his head tilt in response, until both of them were almost looking at the other sideways. Huh, she thought, watching. Why did you used to do this all the time? Were you confused, or do you just see better this way?

She turned her back to him then and went after David, but as she reached the foothold she knew would be the last one she would be able to sense him from, she glanced over her shoulder one last time and saw him, still watching her, still unmoving. His head was still tilted, but a little less than before—back to his own usual angle. There was an urge in Laurie’s chest to do something, but she didn’t know what. Call out? Flip him off, like Meg would have done? Ask him why he was like this, or if he could please tell her in advance his recovery rate for being run over in a car? I feel guilty, Laurie thought absently, Because I didn’t keep my promise to you. That’s such bullshit. You’re a murderer—you’ve killed me. You’ve killed everyone I love. I don’t owe you anything, even my word.

Laurie wanted him dead. She knew it, and she meant it. But there was something else to it too. Something she didn’t know how to put words to. Something she wished wasn’t true—something that hurt. A little like familiarity. The only constant, the only relationship, of whatever kind. For forty years. Which made it something.

That’s sad, Laurie told herself, watching her brother’s silhouette across the dark woods, the wind brushing slowly through her hair. That’s so lonely it’s sad, and you can never tell anyone that. It makes you sound weak, and crazy. And no one would understand enough to even forgive you.

“Laurie?” It was David, calling from a little way off. She looked and saw him waiting.

You’ll finally die someday, she thought, squaring her shoulders as she looked back at the hazy suggestion of Michael she was almost too far away to see. And I’ll be there to see it. Then she turned, and walked out of range, eyes set straight ahead. No more looking back.

 


 

 

“So, you’re assuming he got reset?” asked Nea as Quentin finished doing his best at giving them the short version of the past few weeks.

“That’s what I said all along,” said Feng, sounding superior, “But nobody listened to me. ‘He’s not a robot Feng’—‘You’re ideas are weirder’.”

“You said you thought he glitched,” corrected Nea.

“Well, that’s kind of what Quentin’s describing,” argued Feng. “I mean, something going wrong with him that makes him act like he’s not supposed to, and the Entity goes and restores factory settings. Glitch: reset.”

“So, you were right from the Entity’s point of view,” grinned Nea, having maybe a little too much fun ribbing.

Feng huffed.

“But yeah, to answer your a lot earlier question, that is what we think,” Quentin added in cautiously.

“And you got him back in one trial? That’s got to be a record,” said Feng, genuinely looking impressed.

“Well, I don’t know that they ‘got him back,’” replied Quentin, “Kate said he was looking sort of confused by Dwight and Claudette right near the end, but that’s not the same as stopping.”

“Should we be assuming if they’re still with him it’s sort of a, uh,” Nea pretended to pull the trigger of a finger gun, “Shoot on sight kind of deal?”

“I would prefer not to,” said Quentin, giving her a dubious look, “We don’t really want him to be dead, do we? Even if we can’t get him to ever listen to us, he’s still easier to deal with than a lot of them when he’s confused, and I’d personally rather be in a Wraith trial than one with, like, the Pig. Plus, he barely ever moris people.”

“Okay, then a punch on sight?” asked Nea.

“Yeah, that’s probably accurate,” agreed Quentin.

“K. So, do we just keep walking till we find something?” asked Feng, “That’s kinda what it sounded like Jake wanted.”

“Yeah, I think when we get close we echolocate though,” Nea offered.

“Echolocate?” repeated Feng, looking aghast at the mental image of a literal interpretation of that.

“You mean we listen?” asked Quentin.

“No, I mean we try to scream really loud and bounce our vocals off objects—yes I mean we listen,” said Nea. “Listen and follow the sounds back.”

“I guess that’s what we have to work with, anyway,” agreed Quentin after an awkward second of silence.

They kept walking for a minute, sometimes all three abreast, sometimes Nea and Feng a pace ahead, sometimes behind, sometimes single file. After a bit, Nea cleared her throat and said, “So, how you holding up?”

“What,” asked Quentin, who had been deep in thought going over everything he could remember about Autohaven in case a change in the types of trees or grass might help them find the right direction.

“You. Holding up,” prompted Nea.

“Uh,” Quentin started to answer automatically and stopped, because he didn’t know what to say. “I—I guess?”

Nea nodded thoughtfully, and he saw a look pass between her and Feng.

“I’ve gotten kind of lucky recently,” said Feng, “Not much Trapper. Mostly the Spirit and the Doctor, sometimes the Hag.”

Nea gave Feng a kind of disbelieving look.

“Hopefully it spreads around. We could all use a break,” added Feng quickly.

“Uh, yeah,” replied Quentin, fairly confused.

“Are you sure you’re cool though?” asked Nea again after a few paces in silence, “I mean, you never seem to sleep—do you sleep?”

“No,” answered Quentin immediately, “No, I don’t.” I can’t, he added internally. “But I’m used to it.”

Nea and Feng traded glances again.

“Well, if you ever want to trade,” Feng offered after a second, “I have some toolboxes I’ve pim—set up pretty well. And no med kits, which I know you’re good at finding. So.”

Nea looked like she might die.

What the hell is happening? wondered Quentin, looking from one to the other.

“Uh, sure, I’ll trade if you need some. I could just give you one,” Quentin offered.

Feng looked uncomfortable but didn’t say anything, just kind of nodded.

They went a few more feet and Nea turned to Quentin again and said “Look, I know I don’t really know what shit’s like with you, but if you ever want to talk about it…”

Ooooh. “Wait,” said Quentin, stopping. “Did—did you two pick me as your third wheel so you would have an excuse to check up on me after the Kreuger trial?”

They both looked guilty.

“Uhhh,” said Feng, like she didn’t want to answer.

“You know you could have just come and talked to me, right?” asked Quentin. It was sort of stupid, but at the same time, it made him feel better that they were trying—albeit badly.

“Yeah, but we’re both kind of shit at that,” said Feng. Nea nodded her agreement.

Quentin looked down and smiled and shook his head. “Okay. Well, thanks.” He looked back up at both of them. “I mean it. But I also don’t really want to talk about it. Ever.” He didn’t want to think about it either, but that wasn’t happening.

They both nodded. “I get that,” said Nea, voice low and dark. Quentin remembered the Kreuger trial he’d been in with her well. It was no wonder.

“We should keep going,” said Quentin, indicating the waiting forest ahead. They did.

“I don’t know a lot because mostly people don’t talk about it,” Feng said after a second of them walking in silence, “And I’ll leave you alone about this after, but I know Meg said you died last. On purpose. And, uh, that’s fucked up, but it’s also pretty hardcore. That you’d do that. So.” She awkwardly went to put a hand on his shoulder and chickened out at the last second, switching it out for a friendly, gentle shoulder punch.

Honestly, so much shit had happened to every one of them despite him trying his best to protect the others that Quentin hadn’t really felt like he’d been able to do much at all. So much damage had been done, taking more of it barely seemed to matter. It had felt a lot like failing. Utterly and completely.

Feng hadn’t been there, and she didn’t know, but even so, for some reason her saying that made him feel at the same time like crying, and a little less beaten.

“Thanks,” he managed quietly, and then focused on where he was walking.

The walk was silent then for a minute. It was getting darker, if that was possible, and the fog thicker. Still, that was a change at least, so maybe it was a good thing.

“So, to wildly change subjects,” Nea offered after a bit, “I was thinking. We should throw a birthday party.”

“We should what?” asked Quentin, completely not expecting this topic line.

“For Laurie—well, that was the idea at first,” Nea corrected herself. “Kinda snowballed from there.”

“She might not 100% like getting forty birthday parties,” Feng commented, “I wouldn’t. It’d make me feel old.”

“Well, she’s obviously not old,” Nea countered. “And anyway, I was thinking we do it for everyone. We’ve all been here at least a year, most of us unfortunately more.”

That hit Quentin. Another thing he’d been trying not to think about. 2010…2017? Maybe worse? Fuck, seven years is a long time. Fuck that’s a lot of… So much can happen in seven years. I should be twenty four. Or older.

“You okay?” asked Nea, noticing the look on his face.

“Yeah,” Quentin answered automatically, shaking himself out of his reverie. He was never okay, and he’d been asked that so many times his default response was just to lie at this point. There wasn’t even a stage where his mind checked to see what he wanted the answer to be any more—he just always said yes. But, if there was never any okay to be, maybe that was the natural way for things like this to go.

“Well, anyway, I think that it’s fucked up she’s been stuck here so long,” Nea continued, turning back to Feng, “But I think it’s less bad if we honor the good part of that. You know—like, dude, Laurie has survived this bullshit hell for—hang on, 1978 to 2000….lets say 18 to make the math easy…Okay, so I was right—yeah, forty years. Like DAMN. Can you imagine? It’s bad enough she’s been stuck here so long alone,” Nea continued, holding a huge pine branch out of the way for Feng and resisting the urge to let go of it so it would smack Quentin and/or Feng right in the face, like a true gentleman, “She shouldn’t have to have gone forty years without anything good. I think we should give her like the best fucking birthday party ever. Maybe do a whole week-everyone gets a birthday day after day, we get super waisted, you and I try to set up other couples maybe,” she added, nudging Feng with an elbow.

“Okay, you might have a point,” Feng considered. “Birthdays were never a big thing for me at home or after, but you should celebrate accomplishments, and birthdays are celebrating being not dead yet, which is the biggest accomplishment in this hellhole.”

“Right!” said Nea, happy someone seemed to get it. “Everything has been super shit lately, and there’s not a whole lot we can do, but we can at least throw a party to celebrate that, in spite of everything, we’re still here. I think it’d do us all hella good. We can’t get back the stuff we lost or lose the shit that happened, and most of that is super shitty shit, but we should say ‘fuck that,’ and get drunk to celebrate how much we have done. It hasn’t been normal life, but we’ve saved people. We aren’t alone anymore. I have a girlfriend, Laurie got to sort of experience Adaptation and somehow Meg still got me to fucking cry at the end?”

“One more step removed. It’s the way that movie was meant to be seen,” Feng agreed.

“Exactly,” said Nea, grinning, “Dwight accidentally responded to me when I said ‘Hey dad, do you have a second,’ and didn’t even notice after that he’d done it, Ace finally nailed that Ginger Spice solo. There’s been real good shit, too. We should get that. We get shit in this place. That’s something we can claim.”

She has a point, thought Quentin, watching the other two talk. I don’t think there’s anything that can ever change the fact that there is nothing good about being stuck here for seven years, except that Kreuger got stuck in here too. But…there have been some good things that happened. I don’t think I’m a strong enough person to ever be able to say I’d pick this again if I had the choice, but at the same time, I am glad I met them all. I’m glad that I can help them here. Even if I fuck up a lot.

“You’ve convinced me. I’m on board,” said Feng, pausing try and get a good glimpse through the trees up ahead. “Also, is it shitty that I’m not worried about Dwight and Claudette right now? Like, intellectually, I am, but emotionally I feel nothing because the idea of them not being okay is kind of…incomprehensible to me.”

“Well I’m sort of freaked out,” answered Quentin, “But the fact that you have that much faith actually makes me feel a little less nervous…I think.”

“It’s kinda shitty,” said Nea in a no-sugar-coating way. Feng looked betrayed. “I’m kidding,” she said, smiling, “You’re probably just having a hard time registering this. Or like he said, you have hella faith in them. Plus, I’m mostly talking about anything else to distract myself, but it doesn’t feel super real to me either. Nothing like this has ever happened. I can’t really wrap my head around it. But… They’ll be fine, right?”

In the distance, they heard a sound they were all too familiar with, washing fear over them like a beacon lighting up the night. All three of them froze.

“Ah, shit,” said Nea quietly, crouching, Quentin and Feng quick to join her. “Found one, I guess.”

“We should get closer, huh?” asked Feng, looking dead inside. “Just in case?”

“We’re looking for the Wraith, though, right?” whispered Quentin. “So, we should just keep moving until—” they heard a human scream shatter the stillness of the night. “Yeah, we should go right now.”

 


 

 

As they moved through the still yard, Dwight focused on his footing, trying to make sure not to snap a twig or stumble. At the same time, he was doing his best to watch the yard.

It wasn’t like any kind of terrain he’d ever seen himself. There were trees—sometimes spread around thickly, like the patch they’d fought through to get here, but they all looked wrong…Try, and sick, like too much sun had made them grow wrong. The moonlight made everything look a little blueish, but he could tell the grass under his feet was burned yellow, and there was so much...brush. It wasn’t overgrown in the way he was used to thinking of, but it certainly looked like no one had touched the place in a while. And all the time, that one white porch swing kept swaying in the breeze, creaking, moving and setting him off with each false alarm it gave. Further away, mostly obscured by the fog, he could just make out a white house. Chipped pain—old. With a porch. What the hell is this place? thought Dwight, not really wanting to find out. He couldn’t even really put his finger on what felt off about it, but he was wading through a sense of foreboding. Something bad happened here. Something really, really bad.

If directions could be trusted at all in the fog, the way out would be on the opposite side from where they’d entered, and if they didn’t go far enough before trying the woods again they would just end up in a different Killer’s back porch, and considering one of those on the right of this area had been either the Preschool or Haddonfield, there was no way in hell they could chance that.

Dwight swallowed hard and focused on where he was going, doing his best to shoot Claudette a reassuring look. She smiled back, looking about as afraid as he felt, and they kept going.

Beneath his hands, the Wraith shifted.

Oh fuck.

He didn’t open his eyes, but he moved a little, like someone might try to turn in their sleep, and Dwight heard a weak, pained sound come from his throat.

Claudette heard it too, and he saw her face light up with relief and happiness, and then what had hit him first hit her second and the happiness faded and was replaced by fear.

You have to start waking up at the worst possible time? thought Dwight in a controlled panic, Fuck, if we don’t keep him quiet…

It had been fear of being spotted in here that got Dwight initially, but it suddenly hit him as a secondary concern that, if the Wraith woke up, he might try to kill them himself.

“What do we do?” Claudette whispered, almost inaudible.

Shit. Shit—shit—I… “Gag him?” offered Dwight quietly, feeling himself start to sweat.

“I don’t think that’ll help us convince him of anything when he wakes up,” Claudette whispered back. “We’ll look like the badguys.”

The Wraith groaned, unconscious face twisting in pain. The sound was louder this time, and they both stopped moving and crouched, holding their breath and watching for any sign of life from the farm house as Dwight placed a hand over the Wraith’s mouth.

There was no response from the house. No light going on. Nothing. And then, something. Hard to place, and surreal.

“The fuck was that?” mouthed Dwight.

Claudette didn’t answer. Her eyes were huge and fixed on the farm house.

They heard it again then. A sound almost like a pig, coming from the house.

Shit. No. There’s no way.

Dwight’s breathing sped up and he looked around desperately for somewhere better to hide. Beneath his hand, he felt the Wraith’s head move.

No more noise came from the house. They waited in silence, and the seconds ticked on Dwight’s watch from ten to sixty.

“Should we?” Claudette mouthed, indicating the way they’d been going before with her head.

Dwight nodded, and as carefully and quietly as possible, the two of them lifted the Wraith and inched forward again. Slowly, so slowly it was painful. Dwight was freezing and his arms ached from the strain of holding up the Wraith for so long, but together they made it past the left side of the house, keeping as far from it as possible without forsaking the cover of the tall grass and bushes nearby. Dwight barely registered a weathervane on his left as they passed it, it clanking against its post in the breeze and filling the air with a dull metallic thump.

So close. We’re so close.

They made it past the side of the house, Dwight in the lead. There was a little section of the wall that protruded past the rest, and as he stepped past it, Dwight sensed movement before he saw it, and then something dull and heavy slammed into the side of his head and his vision went black.

 

The next time he became aware of anything, it was that everything was hazy and painful. Someone was screaming, and there was another sound—a bad sound, like buzzing. He couldn’t remember what it was. His head hurt so much, he thought maybe he was dying, and he couldn’t move.

Dwight fought to open his eyes and when he did, the world was fuzzy and he could barely see anything. There was something small and bent in a strange shape near his face, and something much bigger was in front of him, moving. It…it didn’t make sense.

The voice that was screaming. He knew the voice.

There was another sound, like a pig shrieking. And a chainsaw. That—that was the buzzing. …The screaming—the screaming?

Dwight tried to move again but his body wouldn’t respond. He felt cold.

I…I can’t…What’s…

There was something huge near him, coming closer. Everything was blurry, like he didn’t have his glasses, and he couldn’t see what it was, but the chainsaw sound was coming with it.

My… He recognized the shape in front of him as his glasses, broken. Laying a few inches from his face. What…happened…?

He couldn’t think right. This was bad and some part of him knew that, but he couldn’t even feel afraid. His head hurt so much, and it was too hard. Too hard to do anything. He felt his eyes trying to shut and gave in to the compulsion as he watched the blood-specked boots getting closer.

“Get away from him!”

The voice was familiar. He fought to open his eyes again and did. Groaning, he managed to move his neck just enough to look up from the feet to the person above them. Yellow apron, face that wasn’t a face. He knew who this was…he knew…he…

But he couldn’t remember. All he could remember was to be afraid, and doing its best on its own without the ability to think right, his body tried drag itself away, but it couldn’t. His arms wouldn’t move. The thing above him was holding something big and loud over its head and he realized suddenly that it was going to bring that thing down on him and he would be dead.

“I don’t…” Dwight managed, looking up, his mind desperately fighting for the only thing it could do to try and save him, “…I don’t want to die.”

Whatever was looming over him didn’t seem to care.

There was a sudden movement from the side, and the thing cried out and changed direction mid-swing, swiping left instead of down at him.

Weakly, Dwight turned his head to look and saw someone standing there, holding something long and sharp, blood dripping from the tip.

C…Claudette…?

“I said stay away from him!” he heard her shout, shaking as she held the Wraith’s blade out in front of her.

The huge thing in the apron swung the chainsaw at her, screaming like a wild boar. It was horrifying to watch. This—this thing. So completely inhuman sounding, flailing about with a spinning saw, screeching, a face that wasn’t a face.

I have to help her, thought Dwight, and he struggled again to move. He saw the fingers on one of his arms twitch. What happened to me?

Somehow the chainsaw didn’t hit Claudette; he saw it slam into a wood fence as she hit the ground and rolled. She made it back to her feet as the thing in the apron wheeled on her, and to his surprise even as disoriented as he was, Dwight heard her shout, “Come get me you sick fuck!”

It did, chasing after her, screaming like a deranged pig as she bolted for the far side of the house.

“Wait,” Dwight said, voice hoarse, trying to reach his hand out towards her, “Don’t.” She’ll die…I…

There was a new sound. Something coming fast from the other direction—from sort of behind him, and he couldn’t turn to see what it was, and an awful feeling spread over him as he lay there, helpless, listening to the pounding of feet get louder and louder.

Something slid to stop behind him and grabbed him, picking him up and resting him on their knees, turning his head gently up towards them.

…Jake? He thought, confused. Without his glasses, Dwight was close to blind, but it looked like him. “Jake?” he tried out loud, knowing that was impossible and hoping it was true.

Jake’s features flooded with relief and Dwight heard him exhale like he hadn’t been breathing until just then. “He’s alive,” he heard Jake say to someone else, turning his head to look back over his shoulder. “Find Claudette.”

There were more footsteps, and then Jake was looking back down at him, moving his chin to get a look at the side of his head.

“Talk to me Dwight,” said Jake, voice steady, “You’re pretty fucked up.”

“I don’t know what happened,” said Dwight weakly. “I can’t remember.”

“Do you know where you are?” asked Jake, using one hand to pull his scarf off and hold it in place as he started ripping it into pieces with his teeth, his other hand still holding Dwight’s head steady.

“The woods,” Dwight answered, unable to think of anything better. “Where’s Claudette?” he asked, suddenly worried, and already unable to judge the span of time between when she’d run off being chased and Jake had arrived.

“It’s okay,” said Jake, tugging off one of his gloves and using it as padding while he started to tie bandages around Dwight’s head. “Kate’s got her.”

Dwight wanted to believe that, but he could still hear the chainsaw on the far side of the house.

“Go,” said Dwight weakly, “Go help her. I’ll be okay.”

“I’ll go in a minute,” said Jake, “Just hold still.”

The pain in his head intensified as Jake applied pressure to it, and Dwight lost consciousness again. He couldn’t have been out for more than a few seconds, though, because when he opened his eyes Jake was only just letting go of the completed bandage around his head. Looking up at his friend’s face, Dwight had never seen anyone look so worried before.

“Am I dying?” asked Dwight, swallowing hard.

Jake looked down at him in surprise, caught off guard by the question, and quickly shook his head, but Dwight couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth. “You’ll live. Just try to stay still. The sledgehammer got you pretty solid.”

Sledgehammer? …The…Cannibal…That’s it. That’s…the apron, the chainsaw. The Cannibal.

There was a cry from behind the house that sounded like Kate’s voice, and Dwight saw Jake’s head snap over in that direction to look. Then he heard it, too. The chainsaw was coming back.

In one quick motion, Jake scooped him up in his arms like he weighed nothing.

“I’ll slow you down,” pleaded Dwight, unable to physically resist, but Jake didn’t listen.

He made it to his feet and spun on his heel, moving as fast as he could towards the low white fence the chainsaw had hit in some vain hope of cover. They only made it about ten feet before there was a roar behind them as the Cannibal closed the distance, and Jake shouted and went down as it hit him in the back with the saw.

On impact, Jake lost his grip, and Dwight hit the ground hard, rolling left a few feet before skidding to a stop. Blackness started to close around the edges of his vision, but he fought it, not willing to pass out completely this time.

“Jake!” he called desperately, unable to see more than a few feet in the blackness with his weak vision. The Cannibal heard, and he saw its white and yellow outline shift, turning towards him.

There was the thunk of an object hitting something then, and the Cannibal screamed in pain and fury, and when it turned to look, Dwight could see a long thin something sticking out of its back, like it had been shot by an arrow.

There were two forms coming, a bigger one from straight behind the Cannibal and the smaller one from off to the side. The bigger one was holding a long club of some kind, brandishing it like a weapon. Kate? Dwight saw the Cannibal screech and swing its hammer at her. Despite his size and the weapon’s weight, it came fast and sure, with the finality of a wrecking ball, and she didn’t have time to move, so Kate tried to block the blow with her log. The swing snapped the branch in half, leaving her weaponless, and she tried to jump back out of the way as he swung again, but the hammer was quicker and caught her in the ribs, sending her flying backwards. She was too blurry for him to see an expression on, but Dwight saw her arms give out as she tried to pull herself back up. The Cannibal just stood there for a moment, watching her try to crawl away, and then it revved the chainsaw.

“Hey!” shouted Dwight with all the strength he had, trying and failing to even get himself up on one elbow. “Over here!”

It turned and looked at him, and waddled over in that sickeningly excited way it always did. Dwight felt fear well up inside and choke him as it did what he had hoped it would and left Kate.

Stopping above him, the Cannibal placed a foot on his chest and flipped him over from his side onto his back.

Fuck. I’m going to die for real this time, thought Dwight, not even knowing how to feel about that. It had never seemed like something that could happen, so he had stopped being afraid of it until now. More than afraid though, he was…sad. I’m going to die.

It brought the chainsaw down and there was a flash of movement from the side of his vision and sparks flew over his head as Claudette threw herself between them, holding the Wraith’s blade out in front of her like a shield and the Cannibal’s chainsaw caught on it and fought to crush its way through the blade, making the tearing sound of metal on metal.

She looked terrified, struggling with all her might to hold up something far too strong for her above him, riding on desperation.

Leaning into its swing, the Cannibal shoved down against her as hard as it could and she fell back, losing her balance and stumbling. The blade of the saw sliced passed her and Dwight harmlessly, digging into the dirt at the Cannibal’s feed, and he dragged it back up faster than Dwight would have thought imaginable and brought it down at Claudette again as she struggled to recover her footing. As he watched it happen, Dwight knew there was no way she was going to be able to catch it fast enough.

Suddenly, something huge and dark tore past Dwight like a streak of lightning. In one impossibly fast motion its hand shot out and snatched the back of Claudette’s shirt, yanking her backwards as it moved forward and interposed itself between her and the coming blade. There was a flick of its left wrist and a metal bell appeared in the outstretched hand as if summoned from the ether, and Dwight suddenly realized the thing standing over him was the Wraith. It moved, no hesitation, no wasted movement or time, reaching behind itself with its right arm and tearing its scythe out of Claudette’s hand at the same time as it held up its left and caught the coming chainsaw in the teeth of wailing bell. There was an awful sound of metal screeching as the chainsaw caught in the bell’s teeth, and as the items impacted, the Wraith shifted his weight, leaning his left shoulder back with the weight of the chainsaw, and leveraging his right forward as he used his transferred speed to bring the sickle up, digging in deep across the Cannibal’s belly, splitting it open and sending blood spilling out over himself and Dwight and Claudette behind.

The Cannibal screamed in pain and fell back, trying at once to step further away and break the chainsaw free so he could swing it right, at the Wraith, but the Wraith stepped forward as the Cannibal stepped back, unwilling to lose the distance that was enabling him to keep the chainsaw at bay, and he swung the back of the sickle up and across, slamming the flat of it into the Cannibal’s nose and sending blood shooting from the broken tip. The Cannibal screeched like a boar and grabbed at the Wraith’s sickle in desperation and anger, and seeing it coming the Wraith dropped to the ground and rolled out of range as the Cannibal swung the chainsaw down after him, carving into the gravel where he’d just been. He came up on one knee, blade readied as the Cannibal wheeled on him, blood dripping from its belly.

It lunged forward and swung the chainsaw and the Wraith rose to meet him and caught it in the teeth of his blade and they were locked in a grapple for a second, struggling to come out on top, until the Wraith suddenly shifted his weight backwards and kicked the Cannibal in the stomach where he’d cut him. The Cannibal fell back again, wheezing and screaming in fury and pain, and the Wraith stood there in front of him, blade at the ready, watching, chest slowly heaving from exertion, but making no sound.

Furious, the Cannibal revved his saw and lunged, swinging erratically, backing the Wraith towards Dwight and Claudette again and the wall beside them.

It swung wildly as it moved forward, trying to find a way past the blade blocking it. It took a hard swipe at the Wraith’s head, and the Wraith barely deflected the blow and moved back, giving a little ground. Dwight couldn’t see very well, but it seemed like the Wraith was slowing down. Maybe tiring out.

The Wraith stumbled, suddenly, and the Cannibal lunged. Dwight thought the blow would carve right through the Wraiths’ chest, but he managed to move, and the saw Grazed his arm, tearing a chunk of flesh from the side as the tall man stumbled backwards, off-balance. Unrelenting, the chainsaw carved on, and the Wraith fell back again, trying to get solid footing and keep out of the saw’s range, barely parrying or moving out of range of each swipe as the Cannibal swung at him again and again.

He’s not gonna make it, thought Dwight as the Wraith struggled back. He could tell the Cannibal thought it too. It was pressing on harder and faster, screeching as it drove the chainsaw after its opponent. And then, in the middle of a swing from the chainsaw and with a burst of strength and speed Dwight hadn’t imagined he had left in him, the Wraith exploded up, under, and past the blade, launching himself at the Cannibal’s head. The motion was like watching a wolf leap to tear the throat out of a bear, the blade in his hand held so close to the Wraith’s chest as he moved Dwight couldn’t tell how he had any control where it landed, and then he was past the chainsaw and the sickle dug into the Cannibal’s chest, hard, prongs settling in deep. Just as fast, the Wraith shoved off the cannibal and stepped back like a dancer, wrenching the blade free as he did, tearing open the Cannibal’s chest as his sickle ripped through him.

The Cannibal stumbled back, making a sound like a dying hog and staring down at its bloody chest and the missing circular chunk of itself that was supposed to be there in disbelief, then fell to the ground, landing flat on its back on not moving as the sound of the chainsaw died out beside it.

The Wraith stood there over them all in the moonlight, breath fogging in the night air, and made a sound like an entirely different sort of beast. A low, rumbling sound, almost something like a growl as he looked down at the body of his fallen foe.

Then he turned his head and looked back at them, blood shimmering on the teeth of his blade in the moonlight and dripping down his reopened chest wound and arm.

Dwight had no idea what he would do, but as the Wraith looked down at him and Claudette, all of the strength from a moment before dissolved. He fell to his knees and the blade slid out of his fingers, landing harmlessly in the grass beside him. The Wraith hung there on his knees for a second, breathing hard, staring down blankly at his empty hand and then back up at them, and Dwight saw Claudette beside him, staring back at the Wraith in a mixture of wonder and horror, and then the Wraith pitched forward and fell to the ground and was still, the only sounds in the yard the slow tapping of the weathervane, the creaking of the white porch swing, and the slow dripping of blood.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Soft mud squished under his feet as he struggled to rush through it, grabbing at his ankles and slowing him down. He stumbled in the slick, faintly salty substance, and caught himself with one hand, the other clutching his burden to his chest.

C-careful. Almost lost her.

The little boy fought back to his feet in the thick mud, tugging free his short legs a bit more carefully this time, the ground making the hollow sucking sound of unforgiving mud as he tried to regain his balance. Pausing with one foot and both hands free, the boy made reassuring sounds to the soggy creature he held tightly against his chest before more carefully finding another foothold amidst the muddy bank.

“It’s okay,” he said, wobbling one arm in the air for balance as he took another step. “I have you.”

His white and green checkered shirt was worn and soaked through and spattered with mud and filth from the river now, but he didn’t care, and as fast as he could, slipping and sliding but not falling again, the boy tore his way through the last ten feet of bank and back onto the safety of firmer ground.

Falling to his knees, the child gently lay the waterlogged kitten down on the grass bank and stroked its head, willing some life back into it.

“It’s okay,” he said again, running his finger over the bridge its nose, smoothing fur that had once been mostly white. “You’re safe now. I won’t hurt you.”

The kitten’s eyes stayed shut, matted hair clinging to its tiny, underfed body, droplets of water running past its nose, pink with a little black blotch. The creature was so small that, as little as the boy was himself, it was still only about the length of his hands. As the animal stayed still, worry flickered across the boy’s face, and he moved his hand to the kitten’s belly and gently pushed on it, as if hoping that might dislodge the water in its lungs.

“Philip?” came his mother’s voice from a few feet away, up on the street. “What are you doing, baby?”

“I saved it,” said Philip, glancing from the kitten to his mother for a second. She stood there, black and green head wrap whose green matched his shirt, skirt tied at the waist, looking beautiful and perfect and like home and safety and only good things. As solid as a mountain. Philip looked back down at the kitten, and gently pressed on its stomach again, knowing it might have swallowed water, but aware of how much bigger than it he was that he was afraid to hurt it by anything more than the gentlest touch.

“The kitten?” asked his mother, taking a few steps closer and looking down at it.

“Yes,” said Philip as he carefully began to stroke the length of the kitten’s back, hoping to comfort it and dry it and wake it all at the same time. “I saw it in the river.”

“That’s how you got so muddy,” said his mother, coming to a stop behind him and looking down over his shoulder.

She watched in silence for a moment as her nine-year-old boy huddled over the waterlogged kitten, stroking its fur and staring intently, waiting for a sign of life he knew was coming.

“Baby,” he heard her say after a few seconds. “I’m sorry. It’s gone.”

“No,” said Philip, shaking his head and not looking up. “I can still save it.” He picked it up gingerly in one hand and continued to stroke its head. “It’ll wake up in a second—you’ll see.” Eyes fixed on the kitten, he prayed it would move. Open its eyes and make a sound. Sneeze water all over him, or try to struggle free. Maybe even choose to stay. But nothing happened, and the seconds lengthened and grew shadows as he waited. “It was alive,” he added after a moment, voice unsure, willing his belief to be true.

“It’s okay baby,” said his mother, resting a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. “You did your best.”

“No,” said Philip again, not ready for that to be true. You can’t be dead. I wanted to save you. He shifted and held the still form in both hands, stroking its head with his thumb. It was so little.

“Philip. It’s okay,” he felt the hand on his shoulder squeeze reassuringly. Soft pressure. “Nothing’s ever really dead while it’s remembered.”

The hand let go.

The voice was one he knew, but it wasn’t his mother’s, and as he looked down at the drowned kitten, Philip recognized not the muddy shorts and bare feet he’d had as a child, but the muscles and the scars of an adult’s body lining the hands holding up the small creature. The green and white shirt was gone with the old memory, and in its place were a cloak and torn body wraps.

He turned his head to look up at the speaker then, and where his mother had been there was a man standing there looking back at him. Something like his own age, in a white coat and with curly dark hair, glasses, walnut skin. His face was at once deeply familiar and completely foreign, the kind of déjà vu that only ever came with someone in a dream you had never met, but were meant to know. When he looked back down at the kitten, it was gone. He’d known it would be.

“It’s not okay,” said Philip, looking back up at the man. For some reason he couldn’t understand, he felt like crying, and the knowledge that he couldn’t understand why was worse. Empty. Desolate. “I don’t remember you. And when I wake up, I won’t even remember that I have forgotten.”

The man took a knee beside him and let his arms rest across it. “That’s okay too,” he said, smiling in a way that was calming and gentle. Familiar in a way that was just barely out of reach, and for one brief instant Philip thought he did know him, but then the moment was gone, and the man was a stranger again. And somewhere, deep down, Philip knew it; he knew that if there had been other survivors in the Entity’s realm he had once known, that was lost now—well and truly, and no amount of struggling to find time that was gone could bring it back.

“How can you say that?” said Philip, feeling a cool sensation on the side of his face he recognized as tears, but came with no understanding of how or why or even who he was mourning.

“Because you’re still here,” answered the man. He stood then, and turned and faced away from Philip, watching something very far off, wind whipping at his coat. After a moment he glanced back at Philip and smiled, and the expression on this stranger’s face somehow seemed almost fond.

Slowly, Philip stood up beside him, staring into the distance with him. There was nothing out there he could see, just a pale, stormy grey-white emptiness. Still, he watched it in silence for a moment with the man, because it seemed important, and right. “I don’t even get to miss you,” he said after a second, voice sounding strained and thin in his own ears.

In the distance, there was a sound he hadn’t heard in years. Thunder. He waited, but no rain came with it, no lightning; false, like everything here, the empty promise of a storm without any true force behind it. The man didn’t say anything for a second, but Philip thought he looked sad.

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” said Philip, almost more to the storm than the man.

“Yes you do,” the man replied, turning his head to look at him this time. “You’re the same person you’ve always been, aren’t you?”

“Am I?” asked Philip, feeling empty.

“You’re Philip Ojomo,” the man replied, turning so he faced him completely.

“I don’t know what that means now,” said Philip hollowly.

“You’ll figure it out,” replied the man, pushing some of his hair out of his face as the wind whipped at it. “I still have hope in you.”

“I can’t.” Philip shook his head. Hope was false, and he didn’t have the strength for it anymore.

“I’m glad you don’t mean that,” said the man, watching him. His expression was almost solemn now, maybe sad. The wind picked up about them and the sky darkened above, bringing with it debris, and as it passed through them the man began to fade into nothing with it. Something was happening. Something was waking him up.

Philip reached out after the stranger to try and keep him there, but as he stretched out his hand the man vanished into the stormy air like he had never been there at all, and as the wind whipped past Philip and the man vanished, so did the faint echo of a memory that had come with him, and Philip was alone again.

 


 

 

“We should kill him—get rid of him while we have the chance. Two less of them is two less of them, no matter how you’re looking at it.”

“And I’m telling you, not a chance.”

Angry. They were both angry. Both men. Philip’s head ached as it fought its way back up from unconsciousness and he tried to recognize the sounds and put them into context. He felt sick, like vomiting and curling up on his side on the floor, but he couldn’t. He was having a hard time thinking right, an impossible time moving. Where am I? What…happened?

“Do you not know what that is? What’s going to happen when it wakes up? You think a couple rolls of gauze tied around its wrists are going to stop it?”

“You’re not killing him—we didn’t go through all the work of patching him up to watch him get murdered in cold blood.”

“You just don’t understand—”

New voices. Three…four people?  I can’t move. Something’s wrong. In the back of his head, he knew they were talking about him, but his brain was fuzzy. Everything was disjointed, unreal, painful. What…?

“Cold blood? Are you hearing yourself? Have you not seen what these things do? –They hunt! They kill! That’s it, and you’re the prey!”

The second voice again then. Level, cool, hostile undertones. “You weren’t there.”

 


 

 

Racing through the woods, Nea tore through underbrush at incredible speed, neck and neck with Quentin. Ahead, they still heard the chainsaw, and with it more screams and shouts. A few yards ahead, Feng broke through a chunk of brittle limbs and slid under a patch of low-hanging trees. The girl was ungodly fast when she had to be.

Nea’s heart thudded in her chest with fear and adrenaline as she and Quentin followed Feng’s path, gaining on her a little, heading straight for the sounds. They were close enough now that Nea could recognize voices, if not words, and she heard what she was sure was Dwight.

Before them the trees were thickening, but for a moment Nea thought she could see something beyond them. Then there was a sound like an animal dying—a horrible shriek that went on and on, shattering the eerie quiet of the night and outdoing even the tenseness of the chainsaw and screams before with its pure, unreal horror. Then suddenly, the sound of the chainsaw died and the air went still, which was somehow worse, and Nea and Quentin looked at each other automatically, neither losing stride. Fuck, that can’t be good. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“This way!” called Feng over her shoulder ahead of them, vaulting over a bush and racing out of view as she broke the tree line.

A few yards behind Feng, Nea did her best to keep up, Quentin half a step behind her as they moved single-file to make it through the path Feng had carved. As she jumped the bush herself, Nea could see a dilapidated white farm house and open grassy yard ahead—a place unlike any she’d seen before. She reached the other side barely in time to catch Feng’s shadowy form tearing around the corner of the house up ahead in the darkness, and Nea sped off after her, vaguely aware of the sound of Quentin’s footfalls behind her.

Soles pounding on the soft earth, Nea suddenly felt the bottom drop out of her stomach and she pulled up short as she reached the edge of the house and saw the scene before her.

There were bodies scattered everywhere. She couldn’t even tell how many of them were dead. The Cannibal was laying on his back in a pile of blood, a gaping wound in his chest, chainsaw still beside him. Past him, she could make out a form she thought was Kate trying to sit up. Closer to her was Claudette, drenched in blood and kneeling over something unmoving it took her a second to realize was Dwight. Feng was crouched beside her, saying something, and about a foot away, the Wraith lay still by their feet. There was so much blood. Spattering clothes, and the grass, and a white fence nearby. Everything was soaked in red, like the set of B horror film. Only this was real, and horrible, and she could smell it.

“Holy shit,” she whispered as Quentin kept moving past her, reaching Claudette as Nea hung by the edge of the house, staring at the scene laid out in front of her. She could tell he had called something over to Kate, but she missed it, looking past Quentin as he slid into place beside Dwight for the one person she didn’t see. Jake—Jake was with Kate. Where is he? There was no sign of him. A chill ran down her and she reclaimed her motion, hurrying towards the group around Dwight.

“Where’s Jake?” asked Nea, stopping above the others and glancing at Kate as she heard the older girl suck in a sharp breath as her attempt at movement hurt her. She turned her head away and looked down at Dwight then, and the sick feeling she’d had before shot through her and she was afraid. His eyes were shut, and he wasn’t moving, Improvised bandages stretched around his head and held a padded glove in place at the side of his face, but it wasn’t enough. She could see blood and torn skin and things you shouldn’t be able to see on the outside of a head at the edges of the glove. “Is he—” she added as she stared down at Dwight, not willing to finish. She thought she might vomit. Claudette shook her head, and as Nea looked closer she saw with immense relief that his chest was rising and falling shallowly. As she watched, his breathing slowly became more labored and his eyes fluttered open for a moment, and she saw him squint, like the action was hard, and he was trying his best to concentrate.

“Jake?” he asked her weakly, looking at Feng and Claudette before finding her behind them and focusing on her face. “Is Jake okay?”

“I don’t know,” answered Claudette gently. “I’m gonna look, okay?”

He tried to nod and couldn’t quite do it.

What the fuck. What the fuck happened? thought Nea in a panic, looking behind her at the carnage.

 “What happened to him?” she half-heard Quentin say, trying to sound calm as he opened his medkit and dug through it.

“Cannibal surprised us and got Dwight in the head with the hammer. Kate in the ribs with the same. Jake in the back with the saw. Then the Wraith killed him. I’m okay,” Claudette answered quietly, rapid-fire and as concisely as she could. “You got him?”

Quentin nodded, and Claudette squeezed Dwight’s hand and stood up.

 “Jake?” called Nea, stepping away from the others. “Jake?” she tried again, louder.

“Over there,” she heard Kate say, voice tense and strained. When she turned to look, Kate was leaning on an elbow and pointing off to Nea’s right a little, into the weeds by the white fence. “Alive,” Kate added, lowering herself back onto her side and closing her eyes.

“Claudette, Kate’s hurt,” Nea called over her shoulder, already running in the direction she had indicated.

“She knows,” Nea heard Kate say in a tired voice behind her.

When she reached the weeds, she saw him, half on his stomach, half on his side, looking back towards the house.

“Jake?” she asked, kneeling beside him. There was blood soaking through the back of his coat and onto the ground around him.

He looked up at her, face a little strained and pale, but otherwise reassuringly normal Jake. “I don’t know if it was the chainsaw or how I fell, but I can’t hear for shit right now,” said Jake tiredly and a little quieter than he probably meant to. “Everyone’s alive?” he asked, straight to the point and exhausted, like he was confirming something he was already 98% certain of.

Nea nodded.

Jake laid his head down on the grass and she heard a muffled “Get Quentin and Claudette to look at Dwight first, then make sure someone keeps the Wraith from bleeding out. I’ll be fine,” from the weeds.

…The…The Wraith? She didn’t really have time to unpack that at the moment, so she focused on what she knew to do. “He’s over here,” Nea called back to the others, feeling immense relief wash over her. “His back’s a little cut up, but he doesn’t look too bad,” she added, turning back to Jake.

In a second, Claudette was beside her.

“None of that is yours, right?” Nea asked, taking in the copious amount of blood on her friend’s face and soaked into her hair and clothing.

“No,” Claudette replied, glancing down at her hands, “But I really shouldn’t be sowing people up like this. Do you—?”

It only took Nea a second to know what she meant, and quickly she pulled her flannel off and tossed it to Claudette, suddenly feeling a little cold in the chilly night air as Claudette tried her best to get the blood off at least her forearms while she looked down at Jake and assessed his situation.

“He, uh,” Nea remembered, watching Claudette, “Said for me to tell you and Quentin to help Dwight first and then the…Wraith?”

“Jake, shut up,” Claudette replied, gently folding up the base of her friend’s jacket and shirt to get a better look at the cut the chainsaw had made.

“He also probably can’t hear you,” Nea added.

“I can hear her,” Jake said from the grass, not opening his eyes “She told me to shut up.”

“Kate, will you be okay for a minute?” Claudette called over her shoulder in a voice that was fighting to sound controlled.

A few feet away, Nea saw Kate’s hand raise above her body in a thumbs-up, and then drop again.

“You’re lucky,” Claudette said, eyes scanning the wound. “Your coat took a lot of that for you, and he didn’t cut through any tendon or bone. This can be badly patched with some suturing until we get back to camp, and you should be able to walk.”

“Nea can do that,” Jake replied, opening his eyes and turning his head so he could see them, “Go help somebody more wounded.”

The fuck I can, Nea thought to herself, This shit isn’t acting like a trial injury. I’m not some back-alley doctor, I’ll get you killed trying to operate in the dark in someone’s yard.

“Jake,” Claudette said, her composure breaking for a second and her voice cracking. She hesitated, glancing at Nea like she didn’t want to say this in front of her.

Nea tried to give her a look that was both concerned and reassuring, but she couldn’t tell if she had been successful because Claudette just sort of looked apologetic, or maybe sad in response.

“This isn’t like normal,” Claudette continued, turning her attention back to Jake, “I don’t—I’m not a real doctor. I know you guys joke about it, but you’re wrong. I don’t know what I’m doing, and Dwight’s,” all that came out was a choked-up sound, and Nea saw her bite her lip, trying to calm down. “I don’t know if Kate’s ribs are broken, or if she’s bleeding internally. Or if I messed up and the Wraith’s already dead. I said you don’t have any tendons that got cut, but that’s just what it looks like to me, maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know, Jake, I can’t do this. Please—I’m scared.” She said it quietly, so that no one else would overhear the panic, and she looked ashamed and heartbroken and terrified all at the same time.

“Yes, you can,” said Jake, voice still level. “Nobody’s gonna die. You’re good at this; Quentin’s good at this. Stabilize the Wraith, make sure Dwight’s not getting any worse. The rest of us will be okay for a minute. Trust me.”

Claudette nodded and cleared her throat before turning to look at Nea, trying to erase the emotion from it. “You…uhm…Do you think you can…?”

“Yeah,” said Nea, no idea if she could, but determined not to make things harder on Claudette by saying that out loud. “I got this. I’ll get thread and a needle from Quentin.”

Nodding, Claudette turned away from her and called over to the group by Dwight. “Feng?” Nea looked too, and saw that Feng was still beside Quentin, helping him with something, but she looked up when she heard her name. “Can you help Kate?” asked Claudette. Feng nodded wordlessly, looking about as daunted by that as Nea felt, and quickly stood up.

“Jake,” said Claudette, looking back down at him, “You’re really okay?”

“Go, I’m fine,” said Jake, moving an arm to wave her off.

“I’ll be right back,” said Nea, standing up with Claudette and hurrying to join Quentin.

“We need a needle and thread for Nea,” said Claudette, kneeling beside Dwight again. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s holding together,” said Quentin. Dwight’s eyes were closed again, but Nea could tell without the few seconds of panicked insecurity first that he was still breathing. “Jake?” he asked, passing Nea her supplies.

“Bigass gash,” said Nea, standing. “But he’s tough.”

She turned to go and paused, looking down at the bodies on the ground. The gaping hole in the Cannibal’s chest, the blood covered sickle laying a few inches from the Wraith’s still form.

“Is he alive?” Nea asked quietly, eyes on what she could see of the Wraith’s still face.

“Yeah,” said Claudette, following her gaze. “Look, he’s still breathing.”

 


 

 

“Do you have to go?”

Philip sighed and set his suitcase down on the ground beside the door. It was early morning, nearly four, but the moon was full and bright, and it was peaceful outside. Not dark.

“You should be in bed,” said Philip, turning to face the child behind him. His niece, barely seven years old, was standing in the doorway in her pajamas, watching him unhappily, holding to a stuffed creature which he had bought for her when she turned three, but had never been able to tell for sure if was a dog or a bear.

“But you’re leaving,” she said, holding the toy to her chest.

“Yes,” said Philip, taking a knee to be closer to her level. “But we said goodbye, last night.”

“I don’t want you to go,” she said, staying in the shadow of the hallway doorframe, hoping it would force him to walk back further into the house to converse.

“Daima, we all have to go sometime,” replied Philip gently.

“But why?” she asked, giving in and taking a couple steps closer because he wouldn’t. “You don’t have to go to America. You could stay.”

“It’s a better future,” said Philip, gently tapping her forehead with a finger, “It will be for all of us. Once I make enough money, I can send for you all to come too.”

“I don’t want to go,” argued Daima, “I want to stay here. America is scary.”

Philip nodded thoughtfully. He would be lying if he said he didn’t feel a little the same way. But even though the war was over now, things weren’t safe here for people like them anymore. Even if a new country was scary, it was also hope. It was somewhere with the promise of better things—of money, and freedom, and safety.

“It is scary,” said Philip out loud. “I don’t want to go either, but I have to.”

“Why?” asked Daima stubbornly. Always more likely to pout and argue than to cry. A tough little girl.

“A new beginning,” said Philip, smiling a little at the thought despite the fear in his chest he hadn’t let on to around anyone. Somewhere you will make it. At least all the way to as old as I am now.

“What’s wrong with the one you have?” asked Daima, reaching out for his hand and trying one last time to win him back.

Wrong? It was a funny question. Nothing, and everything. He loved this country. He loved the trees, and the winds, the river. The look of buildings, and the ceremonies his Grandmother had taught him, the taste of the language on his tongue. He was not an old man. Philip was young, only in his twenties. And yet, he had lost more of the things he loved by the time he reached Daima’s age than he hoped she ever would. He had been born into decolonization, and seen people hope. He had been a boy when that hope was lost to half-finished systems of government that could not agree and succumbed to old wounds. He had seen hope in his mother at new freedoms, because their people’s way over governing had always been to come together, and as a youth been old enough to lose that hope himself along with her to a war over race and sectors of land, but first over oil. And now, as a man, he was not going to watch it happen again. Too many people were dead. Too many things broken. He saw people with hope, and he saw the signs of things preparing to fall apart again. Criminals, colonizers, governments, neighbors. There was nowhere to turn to and be safe. He had been struck down one too many times. There was no longer a way to trust the future promised him by this life. No. This time, he was going to find that hope himself. If that meant leaving, leaving family, leaving home, leaving the old ways, he would do it. Enough had been lost. It was time to gain something. A new country. A new start.

“It isn’t safe here,” said Philip, reaching out and messing up Daima’s thick, curly hair as he ruffled it. “We deserve something better.” He stood then, and picked up his little suitcase. It held a suit to help him get a job, a little money, some photographs and a few things to remind him of home, given to him by his family last night. Only what he could carry. “You’ll see,” he added, turning back to Daima, “Someday you’ll be glad.”

She looked at him, like she was looking into his soul in the way that only children can do, and she shook her head. “No. We’ll both be sad.”

“Don’t curse me with that as I walk out the door,” said Philip playfully, trying to bring up her mood. “Wish me luck.”

She nodded solemnly, like a priestess handing out powerful magic, and she held out her hand again. He reached down and took it this time, and she placed her palm against his, staring at how much bigger it was thoughtfully. “Good luck,” she said, looking up at him with big eyes the color of rich soil, almost black, and even more full of life. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” he said, and he bent over and kissed her on the forehead.  

He had left then. Turned and walked through the door, down old streets he knew well, bathed in moonlight, breathing in air he knew better, with the taste of rain in it, and he had never gone back.

Looking forward, looking for a better life.

In America, he had had hope. Relief at getting a job—any job, by the time he did. And he had survived. On beer, and television, and work he understood, and cheap food, and hope. But after four and a half years of searching, it was not a better future that had found him.

 


 

Claudette watched in petrified horror as the Wraith went still on the ground before her.

More had happened in the span of sixty seconds than she could process, and as the night filled up with nothing but a sudden, unnatural silence and the sound of the wind, a calm in a place that should never have been calm, she watched as blood began to slowly creep through the grass and pool beneath the person who had just saved her life.

“No,” she said, almost a whisper, and then she was moving. Fast—faster than she knew, slipping on the ground that was slick with blood and stumbling to her knees beside him. “No! No, you can’t die!” she said, moving him onto his back and staring down in horror at the blood coating his chest. She realized suddenly that her arms and legs were drenched in blood, and for a second she had the sickening belief that it was his, and then she remembered the Cannibal, and became aware of the cool stickiness of another human’s blood on her face and neck as well. Maybe it’s not all his, she thought, looking down at his blood-soaked cloak and trying to get her thudding heart to believe what her mind was clinging to too.

“Don’t die,” she said under her breath, trying to get a good look at his wound through the carnage. It was so overwhelmingly daunting, trying to find where spatter ended and injury began, her own hands slick with blood making everything that much harder. She felt like sobbing. He was breathing still; she could feel his chest rise and fall beneath her hands, but the dressing she’d worked so hard on was soaked through and falling apart.

“Please,” she whispered, trying to readjust what was salvageable of the bandages, “You can’t die. It isn’t fair.”

His head tilted a little and she saw him open his eyes for a moment. Just slits, barely even a second and a half, but he looked at her, and beneath her hands she felt his heartrate speed up, and then his eyes closed again, and he was dead to the world.

“Is he okay?”

The voice was weak and strained, and she recognized it instantly as Dwight’s.

Dwight! Shit-shit, what am I doing?

“He’s alive,” she said, hurrying to her feet and back over to where Dwight lay watching her, barely more conscious than the Wraith was.

“That’s good,” he said as she came to a stop beside him.

She had seen him take the hit—seen the sledge connect to the side of his head, seen him fall, but she hadn’t had a second to breathe since then. Only now did she see someone had hastily bandaged the wound, slowing the bleeding, but making it difficult for her to tell the level of damage. “Did…” she had to pause to let her overworked mind find the person she was looking for, “Did Jake do this?” she asked, carefully kneeling beside Dwight and moving parts of the bandage as gingerly as possible to better see the wound.

“Yeah,” said Dwight, “He…” his face was pale and drawn, and he looked like he was having a hard time focusing. “He…” Dwight tried again, fighting to remember what he had been going to say, “…Is he okay? Is Jake okay?” he asked, sounding scared.

“I don’t know,” she replied softly, trying to stroke some of the hair matted with blood away without hurting him so she could get a better look at his injury, “I’m gonna go look in a second, okay?”

He had looked worried when she said she didn’t know, but her second answer seemed to calm him down a little.

As she finally got a good look at the wound in the side of his head, Claudette felt a sickening feeling seep into her chest and spread. “Dwight, can you move at all?” she asked, voice steady and reassuring.

“I’m…” he trailed off, looking confused and disoriented, and she saw him try to focus, and he stared past her for a second, a look of intense effort spreading over his face as he tried. His hand twitched, and then nothing. “I’m sorry,” he said, voice quiet, sounding worlds more exhausted than before. “I can’t help…I’m…” his eyes started to close, and she saw him try and fight it. It suddenly hit her that she didn’t know if she should tell him to do it—to resist the urge to go under, or to let it happen and rest, and somehow that one small piece of uncertainty made her feel broken inside and utterly lost.

“It’s okay,” she said softly, gently readjusting Jake’s bandages around Dwight’s head, moving more gingerly than she ever had before. Somewhere off to her left she heard a faint shout. A woman’s voice. “Just hang in there, okay?” she continued, “I’m going to fix you up.”

He believed her, and closed his eyes. As his breathing leveled out, Claudette sat above him, overcome with anxiety and worry and uncertainty, listening to the pounding of approaching footsteps.

 


 

 

“You think it’s your friend because it killed something else first? It went after the biggest threat—that doesn’t mean it wasn’t gonna kill you second!”

I…am the ’it,’ thought Philip slowly as the argument became clearer in his head, I am the thing they are afraid will kill them. Why? Do I do that?

“He was protecting us!” Another voice. A girl.

Did I? Do I do that? As the haze in his head grew thicker, and in a detached way that was only made possible by the mixture of pain and confusion and sleep that overwhelmed him, Philip wondered who was right. If they would be smarter to kill him, or to let him go.

“Look, I didn’t see it, you didn’t see it, but they all did. We should at least try to talk to it—him—whatever. I mean, he’s pretty fucked up. What’s he gonna do to us on death’s door? “Another voice he had perhaps heard a few times, but didn’t really know.

“Didn’t he just eviscerate a man while on death’s door?” A woman this time, calmer sounding than the others, but wary.

“Exactly!” came the first voice again, “If you don’t kill it when you have the chance, you’ll regret it.”

“You aren’t killing him,” came the second voice, firm and tense. “You think we’re being stupid, but you’re the one who wants to choose poorly. We need him. We need him to talk.”

 


 

 

“Always seems to end up like this, huh?” asked Quentin, wiping his brow with a forearm.

He and Claudette were bent over the Wraith, doing their best as a team to stop the bleeding and get him stable.

“Does it?” asked Claudette, doing her best to match his light tone and only half succeeding. “I don’t remember this much fear about killing somebody on accident. That just me?”

“No, you’re right,” replied Quentin. “This is like the excruciating difficulty version of normal. Can you keep pressure here?”

“Mmmhmm. You have any hemostatic gauze?” asked Claudette, holding out her left hand and using her right to keep pressure on part of the Wraith’s chest wound.

“Yeah. I have a styptic pencil, one injectable, and some hemostatic gauze,” he said, passing her all three.

“Thanks,” said Claudette, moving to inject the Wraith. Quentin watched her, curious himself to see how well it worked under more normal circumstances. It wasn’t like inside a trial, where one of these things was almost like downing a healing potion in a video game, but it helped just the same, and he saw relief wash over Claudette as the bleeding slowed. “You brought the good stuff,” she added, smiling at him.

This is surreal, thought Quentin, picking up a little bottle of antiseptic. I’ve treated so many injuries since I got here, but it’s never been real before, has it? I think it can’t be quite real now. At least if my memories of real life are still reliable at all, but…I wonder if this is what it feels like, to do this for real? Or close to it. I wonder if after several thousand times sewing up wounds and jamming people with meds if I’d actually be any good at the real thing?

He glanced over at Claudette, who was carefully binding the Wraith’s chest with the hemostatic, a look of concentrated focus on her face. You’re good at this. She was fast—always improving, always coming up with new ways to use things around her. People depended on that, and she didn’t let them down.

“Hey,” asked Quentin, cleaning the edge of the Wraith’s exit wound and taking a chunk of the roll of hemostatic gauze himself. “Once we get out of here, want to go into the medical profession together?”

“I want to open a nursery,” said Claudette, stealing a glance away from her work and over at him, smiling in spite of the panicked undercurrent that had been pulling at them all since they first heard the chainsaw. “But if horticulture doesn’t work out, I’ll consider med school as a viable second option. Don’t think I’d be much good at it, though,” she added, “I can’t handle blood.”

That almost got him to laugh, because she was positively drenched in it, and Quentin smiled, feeling a little better himself.

“Hey,” she said after a second, the light expression that had been there a moment ago all but gone, “About Dwight.”

“Yeah,” said Quentin, exhaling slowly. Being hit in the head by that thing in trials had always been excruciating and disorienting, but seeing it do something more like the damage you could really expect from a sledgehammer hitting someone’s skull? “He’s disoriented and has a hard time staying awake, but he’s easy to wake up initially, and he doesn’t have trouble talking,” offered Quentin, almost as much for himself as Claudette. “It’ll be okay,” he added, wishing he actually knew enough about head injuries to believe that completely. “Even outside of trials, we seem to heal faster than usual out here.” That, at least, was true. He’d expected to have an eye almost swollen shut for a week after Laurie beat the shit out of him, but it had only been really bad for a couple days, then a shiner for maybe a week.

God, please be true, he thought, glancing over the few feet to where Dwight lay, eyes shut, breathing a little shallow.

 


 

The voices he had been hearing gradually faded into nothing and Philip lost the little grip on consciousness that he’d had.

Everything was lost, hazy. Everything hurt. Slowly, he almost forgot about the words he had heard, and when he woke up, it wasn’t to the sound of anything. It was to the feeling of pain in his chest.

The sounds came second, garbled, slowed, fogged down. Faint, beyond the sharp ache between his ribs. Instinct took over and recognized the pain as a threat, and tried to wake him. It took a second to struggle through the weight in his head pressing unconsciousness down on him and holding him in place, but finally Philip opened his eyes.

It was lighter than he was used to, and it took him a second to focus and realize he was looking down at his own legs. He tried to move, then, and realized he couldn’t. There was something rough, like bark, at his back, and his arms were held in place behind it. What? Why am…

He forced his stiff neck up weakly, trying to look around, and became aware that the sounds he’d only been registering vaguely before were voices.

“Look—even if it knows anything, it’s not gonna tell you. It’ll break free and start snapping necks.”

Philip’s own neck was sore, and it hurt to move it. He was initially only really aware of feet ahead of him, pacing a few feet off, but as he turned his head to look he saw many people. Some sitting, some standing—sort of a blurry circle he was a part of. Beyond them a bit was a large campfire he had seen before, from a distance. There were a lot of people here—a few of them were moving, but most were still, watching the others. One of them was sitting on the ground a few feet to his right, resting their hand on their chin and looking vaguely annoyed.

The figure felt Philip’s gaze on him and turned to look, and recognition flashed through Philip. He knew this boy—he’d seen him before. In trials. He eats hooks—breaks, he breaks hooks, Philip corrected himself mentally.

As soon as the boy looked at him and saw he was awake, he stole a glance over towards the others, then looked back at Philip and made a quick gesture with folded hands like he was feigning being asleep.

What? Oh, thought Philip, Go back to sleep. He only had an instant to think it over, but he was confused and disoriented, and in an a lot of pain, and in the little time he had been awake he had heard someone mention snapping necks, so he took the advice and closed his eyes and let his head rest against his chest again.

He needed time. To think, to wake up completely, to figure out what was going on. But he didn’t get it. Philip had been quick, but not quite fast enough.

“Hey,” came one of the voices from the circle, “He’s awake.”

 


 

 

“It’s okay,” said Kate in a reassuring voice. “I’ve broken ribs before. It’ll heal on its own, and if I’d punctured somethin’ I’d be coughin’ up blood by now, so I’ll be alright.”

“Should I bandage it—like you splint a wrist?” asked Feng, helping steady Kate in a sitting position.

“Nah—don’t want to stop me from bein’ able to breathe right. I just need to take it easy and not be too still for too long. Can you help me up, though?” asked Kate, grimacing and gingerly holding a hand to her ribs.

“Yeah, of course,” said Feng, shifting and pulling one of Kate’s arms over her shoulder, reaching around her back, and supporting her beneath her other arm as well so they were side-by-side. “You’re okay to get up?”

“Yeah, should be,” replied Kate, letting out a slow breath. “On three?”

Feng nodded. “One, two,” she started to lift, leveraging her leg strength to lift Kate, “Three.”

They made it up pretty easily, Kate breathing a bit heavily, and Feng relaxed her grip. “Hang on, I’ll go find you something to use as a walking stick,” said Feng, gently letting go of Kate.

“Thanks,” said Kate, trying to steady herself on her own.

Feng turned and headed the way she’d come. The spear she’d gotten from Jake was probably about the right length, and she remembered dropping it when she had gotten to Claudette, so it was probably still over by Dwight.

Broken ribs, thought Feng, glancing at Quentin and Claudette as she passed. They were both bent over the Wraith, trying to keep him alive, but staying close to Dwight and pausing to check on him intermittently. Broken head. She looked over to where Jake was bent over on his knees, shirtless in the cold as Nea sewed up his back. Broken back.

She didn’t feel good. She felt sick, and cold, and like crying. A few minutes ago, she had been joking around about how everyone would be fine, and wondering if it was wrong that she didn’t feel anything. Well, she felt a lot now, and half of it was guilt, because she almost believed her lack of concern had caused this.

Bending down, Feng took the sharpened branch and picked it up, then she glanced over her shoulder at the Wraith. When Jake had given her this, she’d half expected to be trying to run the thing through with it in an hour, and now people were trying to save him. Does this mean he’s part of the team now? she wondered. None of them had taken the time to ask what had happened in any more detail than Claudette originally gave, but they had accepted the way the other four were acting without question. After all, they’d been here. Plus, Jake wanted the Wraith taken care of too—and Jake was pretty far from generous and forgiving. If he wanted the Wraith, that meant there was a solidly good reason.

Feng reached Kate and passed her the spear, which Kate accepted with a grateful smile, then flipped upside-down and leaned on the dull end of.

“Dwight doin’ okay?” asked Kate, looking over to where he lay a few feet off.

“I don’t know,” said Feng. She was suddenly bowled over by the almost overpowering urge to cry, and she fought it down with all her might, but she knew some of it must have showed on her face, because Kate gave her a funny look. “I thought he’d be okay,” Feng managed, voice husky.

“Well, let’s see what we can’t do to help,” said Kate, wrapping her fingers around Feng’s and squeezing them quickly before letting go.

“Yeah,” said Feng, turning back towards Dwight.

 


 

 

Philip had always been good at English.

Languages in general seemed to come easy to him, and he knew how to work hard and learn fast. Despite this, though, speaking it often made him uncomfortable. He knew he was using the right words and correct meanings, fairly sure in the order and version, but often people would still look at him oddly—like he had done something wrong, and cornered by the fear of never knowing for sure if they were right and he was mistaken, the second language carried with it a low undercurrent of anxiety.

It wasn’t so bad in the tiny apartment where he lived at first, or the dingy two-flat he moved to later. Everyone in those places was from somewhere else. Sure, most of them weren’t from Nigeria like him, but they shared this new home and way of speaking as a second one, and that was an equalizer.

The same problem wasn’t such a big one at work. At his job, Azarov would pass on orders, and Philip would do them, and that was about it. Most of the workers were migrant, like him, and the other ones didn’t really care. The little discussion was easy—about sports, or television, work and the weather. There was a rhythm to it, like the mindless rhythm of crushing cars: easy, learnable, reassuring.

There were only a few places his self-consciousness about his way of speaking presented issues for him. Stores, where clerks were always a little suspicious. Public buildings, when he had to appear to get papers for a car, or a home, or staying in the country, where the people talking with him always made him feel about sixteen years younger than he was. And then there were public streets, where in truth people rarely said anything to him at all, but still always carried the vague Russian-roulette possibility of having something go wrong, with so many people on them.

Still, as the years went from one to four, Philip became a little less nervous. It wasn’t so much an improved skill as it was a desensitization to the reactions he received, confidence through practical use. Either way, he was glad that the difficulty waned, but just the same, the fear never really left him.

Though he hadn’t fought, he had lived through war before. Crime, and danger. It was different here, but many things were the same. You had to learn the rules, learn what to avoid, where to avoid, when to disappear. You couldn’t get arrested, because once you did, you would never get back out. Head down, straight line, follow the rules. Just work, go home. Milwaukee was to be avoided at all costs. He had once heard a man stopping at the gas station ask about where he lived, and then joke that the 16th street bridge in the city separated Africa from Europe. Philip had said nothing and done his job. That was often the right decision here.  But he remembered, and he avoided places conversations flagged for him, drawing maps in his head of where he could and could not safely pass.

It was 1981, and people spoke of all the changes. There was new music, new cinema. Star Wars, and MASH, The Rockford Files, and new rock—hard, and alternative, and progressive. Queen. New cities, new buildings, new highways. Newer and better and faster cars, everyone racing—racing to find something, to find promises of money and technology and change and a golden future, a dream. But it had taken Philip much less time than those four years to realize that things were not as simple as he had been promised. His belief in a better future had been the same mistake he had made and seen countless others make again and again his whole life: the promise of false hope.

But that is okay, he told himself, making instant oatmeal with water in a bright and ugly plastic bowl in his cold kitchen with its chipped linoleum floor, I made it. I have a roof, I have a job, I have some money I can save and still eat, and no one has tried to shoot me yet. If I just keep going, I’ll get there. He didn’t know where there was, but it felt calming to hold to it. It meant alive, and okay, and maybe other things too after living long enough. Maybe there just wasn’t a way to get any more than that out of life at all, and that had to be enough.

There was snow here, and snow was new, and interesting. Half-tame animals wandering the streets you could toss food too and sometimes pat on the head as you passed, and that was familiar and comforting. Everything was manageable. I’ll be okay, Philip told himself, swallowing a spoonful of the thick, vaguely tasteless, vaguely sweet, sticky oatmeal. He walked into the living area of his side of the minuscule two-flat he had been sharing with a large family until a few weeks ago when they had been evicted. It had happened before, and would again, he was sure. The only unusual thing was that it had taken this long for someone new to rent the vacant space. Philip picked his coat up off the back of his chair and pulled it on over his broad shoulders and zipped it up against the icy air waiting outside, then tugged a thick, worn blue scarf out of one of the deep pockets and tied it around his throat. I just have to keep going, he thought, pausing at the screen door, looking through the glass window at the street outside.

Keep surviving.

 


 

“Nea,” said Jake, looking at her out of the corner of his eye. She was kneeling behind him as he sat crouched with his shirt off in the cold forest air so she could easily get to the chainsaw wound on his back, needle and thread in hand, hesitating “Please tell me I don’t have to talk you through this, because all you have to do is stitch up my back, and I have had a fucking day of it.”

“Like, damn, bitch, okay,” said Nea defensively. “I’m going—Sorry I’m not speed-stitching; I’m just trying not to hurt you.”

I’m so tired, thought Jake, tugging his belt free from his pants and biting down on it in preparation for the pain to come. “Just do it,” he said through the belt.

He heard her take a breath so deep it was audible, even with his hearing still a little rough, and then she did. The needle went into the ragged skin in his back, and he sucked in a sharp breath, fighting down the urge to jerk away or make noise. Tune it out, he told himself.

The needle went in and out of his skin slowly, stabbing and then tearing as she drew pieces together with the medical thread. He forced himself to attune to the rhythm, using the familiarity of the motion to wade through it, work past it. Jake had always had a knack for that, and he was damn glad of it now. Endurance was probably his strongest trait.

Jake had been wounded before, and even if this was definitely not following the rules he could generally expect from injuries obtained in a trial, he had a pretty decent idea of how much he could take. This one wasn’t so bad. It hurt like hell, but he could move fine, and it didn’t seem to causing him any trouble using his limbs. He had actually been more concerned over his hearing, but that was slowly but surely clearing up. The more pressing matter was what to do next. He had to get everyone back to camp, and fast, but what after that? Dwight was in something a lot worse than ‘rough shape,’ and they would have the Wraith to deal with.

Fuck. The Wraith. That was its own issue. Meg had told him about their little group’s plan to befriend the killer and thought it was foolhardy, but not surprising, considering it was Claudette’s idea. He hadn’t even remotely considered that it might work. But what he’d seen? Just now? Laying in the weeds, head spinning from hitting the ground wrong, watching two of his friends about to die. The thing had moved lightning fast, and it had protected them. It hadn’t been fighting the Cannibal, or attacking an enemy—it had been protecting, clean and simple. There was no way to deny that. Its first move had been to put itself between them and danger—then move Claudette. Everything it had done had been tactical—purposeful, and that definitely included its opening move. He couldn’t go back to ignoring the things they had pointed out as reasons to try with the Wraith, because now he knew they were right. Besides, he didn’t really want to. It had saved all of them, so they owed it.

“Done,” said Nea, letting out a breath she’d been holding and sitting down beside him, passing him his shirt and coat. “It passable?”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” said Jack, rotating his torso to test it. It seemed like it would hold up. “What’s the damage?”

“Well,” said Nea, looking back over at the others, “Dwight’s alive. Kate’s on her feet. All three of us are fine, and so’s Claudette, and it looks like the Wraith isn’t dead yet either.”

That was actually better than he’d hoped for, and he internally let out a sigh of relief. “Okay,” said Jake, pulling his shirt on and standing, ignoring the pain that rippled through his back as he did so. “Let’s get people moving as fast as we can.”

Nea had worked fast, so it took a few minutes for Claudette and Quentin to get the Wraith stable enough for them to want to move him. After a little arguing, Jake successfully convinced the others that Kate carrying anyone with broken ribs was a terrible idea, and that the rest of them should rotate out carrying the Wraith and Dwight, three people at a time on the Wraith, a fourth with Dwight, and the last one getting a brief rest. Claudette argued with him for a good four minutes about carrying anyone himself with his back fucked up, but eventually he wore her down by pulling off his shirt so she could see the sutures and holding Nea up over his head so he could prove both that he could do it an that the stitches would hold up, after which she rather angrily gave up arguing with him.

When they set out, Quentin, Feng, and Nea took the Wraith, Jake carried Dwight, and Claudette walked with Kate, doing her best to help her and move obstacles ahead out of the way as they dug through forest underbrush which hadn’t really been an issue for them before, but was a pretty big one now that they were transporting bodies.

He’d wrapped Dwight up in bis coat before heading out, hoping it would defend him a little from the cold, but looking down at the unconscious friend he was doing his best to carry gently, Jake was worried. Dwight was breathing steadily, but he looked like shit. Pale, sweaty, cold. When Quentin had gotten an eye swollen shut outside of trials by Laurie, it had taken a few days to downgrade to a black eye, maybe a week to heal. Even at an accelerated rate like that, if he could expect the same for Dwight, how the fuck was he supposed to survive even one trial like this in the meantime? They’d gotten lucky so far—no one had suddenly vanished while trying to carry bodies, but it was only a matter of time. He was going to get butchered. For who knew how many trials in a row. Jake was refusing to consider the option things wouldn’t improve eventually, but even with that kind of worry aside, right now Dwight couldn’t even move on his own.

You really like to cause problems for me, huh? He looked down at Dwight’s drawn features, his shallow breathing. Shirtless under a coat too big for him, Dwight looked smaller than he was. Damn it. It had to be you.

In Jake’s arms, Dwight shifted his head a little and made a faintly pained sound. Almost a whimper. Fuck. Hang in there, we’re almost back.

He’d think of something. He had to.

 


 

 

“You sure?” said a voice Philip didn’t recognize. He kept his eyes shut, but there was suddenly the sound of a lot of people moving at once.

“See—he’s breathing differently. And his eyes were open a second ago,” came the reply.

Shit.

“You waited too long,” came the first man again. “Do it now, while you still have a chance!”

“No!” snapped a woman’s voice, “Just—stay there. Okay?”

There was no speaking for a second, just the sound of movement, and then he heard another woman say, “Be careful.”

There were footsteps close to him, coming closer.

Philip wondered for a second if he should keep playing dead and hope they gave up, but he remembered enough about what had happened now to have a pretty good idea of where he was. The souls—the people he hunted. Four of them had tried to convince him he knew them, and then he’d been stupid—he’d listened, and gotten himself injured. Philip could still remember the surprise and pain tearing through him, and looking down to see the Entity’s claw through his chest. He’d passed out then, in the basement, at the mercy of the two who were left. They hadn’t killed him, though—they had tried for some reason to fix him, and to take him with them. He’d woken up in the grass with bandages around his chest to see them fighting something else—another of the hunters working for the Iska, and Philip had seen that they were going to die, and killed the other reaper to save them. Why did you do that? Philip asked himself, the memories of the battle still strong. You will definitely be in trouble with the Iska, and that is if these people don’t kill you first. Why had he done it? Philip wasn’t sure. In that moment, it hand just been…it had seemed so definitely the right thing to do. They had been trying so hard to protect each other from something so impossible to fight, and it had been brave, and he hadn’t wanted to see them die. You are stupidly impulsive to the core, he told himself, hoping that maybe his actions would be enough to convince them he didn’t intend them any harm and keep him alive now. Unfortunately, he was also aware suddenly that there were many more of them than the four he had helped—the four who claimed to know him—that they were all supposed to be the worst kind of people, and that the rest of them hated him, and it occurred to him that if he kept pretending to be out they were likely to hit him to wake him up.

There’s no helping it. I will have to figure out what to do as I go. Resigned to the situation as best as he could be, Philip slowly opened his eyes.

There were so many of them. At least twelve, circled around him, a variety of emotions on their faces. Not all hostile, almost none friendly. Mostly, they looked cautions—wary. Several of them were holding sharpened stakes of some length, like spears. The closest one to him by several feet was a girl—unarmed, and one of the four from the basement and the yard. He had been told her name. Claudette Morel, he remembered, thinking of the scar on his hand he couldn’t see. He tried to move and look around to get some kind of bearings, and realized that he couldn’t make it more than a few inches to the right or left or stand, because his arms were securely bound behind him around a tree he had his back to, pinning him there. He was a tall man, but held down like this everyone was above him and he had to look up at the girl, and as he did, she crouched to be at his level.

“Hey,” she said softly, as if she were trying to calm down a wild animal. She put her hands out in front of her, palm up. “It’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you. Nobody is. Are you alright?”

What? He was confused, but more than that, Philip was scared. He hadn’t realized it until she had promised safety, but the slight lowering of the fear he felt made him realize its presence, and the strength of it. Bound and injured and weak, weaponless, and vastly outnumbered, Philip was very aware of how the armed people around him probably felt about him. The more time passed, the more clearly he remembered things he had only been half awake to hear them say. Much of it had been about killing him. Shit, thought Philip, looking back up at the girl, swallowing, I’m supposed to say something back.

The girl was speaking English, and it had been a long time since he’d done that. The only language he’s used since he’d come here was his own—and that had to be what? Eight years? He had understood everything she said, but he was afraid to try and answer—afraid after all this time he would mess it up, and under pressure from the people staring him down and the fear of making things worse by saying the wrong thing, his old anxiety ate at him and he said nothing.

“We did our best,” she said, motioning to the bandages covering his chest, “Me and Quentin,” she added, gesturing to a boy in the group behind her with curly dark hair who was watching him with cautious interest. “You should be okay.”

Again, Philip said nothing, doubts seeping into his chest as he tried to think what he even would say in response to this. What happened? How did I get here? Why did you take me? Why heal me? What do you want? What do you plan to do? He looked past her to the spectators behind, trying to figure out something from their expressions. Tense, curious, cautious. One of them was staring him down, taught like a bowstring, waiting for an excuse. A newer human here—the police officer. His hand was wrapped around one of the spears.

“I’m sorry we had to tie you up,” Claudette continued, and he looked away from the crowd and back at her. “We weren’t sure what you’d remember, or do, when you woke up.”

She paused again, waiting for him to say something, and Philip balked, unsure and self-conscious and at a loss. This is not going well—do something. At least say something to show them you don’t want to fight. Please.

“It’s not going to talk to you,” said the policeman, voice tense.

“Hey,” cut in the boy who’d told him to pretend to still be asleep, turning to face the cop, “Let her try.”

“It’s not gonna talk,” said the policeman again, “You won’t get anything out of it.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t speak English,” argued the boy, his own posture tensing as he kept his eyes focused on the policeman. “Dwight heard him talk before, in a different language.”

“We have a couple other things we can try,” the girl in front of him added, glancing over her shoulder at some of the others, then turning back to Philip. “Parlez vous Francais?”

“Talar du Svenska?” offered one of the other girls behind her.

Shit, shit—what am I supposed to do here? If I answer…I—What do they want from me? One of them had said they needed to keep him alive for information, and he remembered that clearly now, but Philip didn’t really know anything. Not anything he could think of that they would want to know, anyway. What would happen when they figured that out? Trying to think, he didn’t say anything, and he saw Claudette’s face fall. Behind her, the policeman shifted, his posture stiffening. I’m making this worse.

“Do you understand me?” asked Claudette in English again, looking back at Philip with dying hope in her expression. “At all?”

Shit, she’s going to give up. I should just— Philip nodded once, and he saw a look of relief and happiness spread across her face instantly.

“Do you speak any?” she asked hopefully.

Philip swallowed. Behind her he saw the cop watching him. Looking back at the girl, he nodded again.

“Good! –Then, uh,” she said, looking excited and stumbling over herself trying to figure out what to say next. “Will—can you talk to us?”

I guess I don’t have much of a choice, thought Philip miserably. It was harder to make himself do than he’d expected, and it slowly dawned on him that aside from the Entity, he hadn’t spoken to anyone at all in years, and talks with the Iska were infrequent and odd. It had been a long time since he’d really had any form of human contact at all, and he wasn’t sure he remembered the correct way to do it in the first place, not just in a second language. He took a slow breath, thinking much longer and harder than he needed to over which way to say what he wanted, eventually going for the simplest out of fifteen combinations that came to mind in the hopes it would be the least likely for him to get wrong. “I do not want to hurt you,” said Philip finally in English, very slowly, trying to remember how to sound reassuring and calm.

His voice sounded strange to him—wrong, but her face lit up. Past her there was a wave of reactions throughout the others—mostly surprise.

“I didn’t think you did,” she said, smiling at him, her happiness almost overflowing. It was weird and a little confusing, juxtaposed with the open hostility wafting off a few of the people behind her, but reassuring just the same. “Nobody’s going to hurt you either.” She said, and she moved then, shifting from her crouched position and sitting down cross-legged across from him. “Thank you, by the way,” she said after a second, looking like she really meant it, “For saving my life.”

That surprised him, and he didn’t really know what to say in response. His mind played back images of a chainsaw and sparks against the night sky. “You are welcome,” he said after a second, voice still sounding strange and not like his own to him.

Past her, a few of the people were whispering to one another as they watched him. It made him uncomfortable and nervous to have no idea what they were saying. The cop still had his eyes fixed on him suspiciously, and a few of the others in particular did as well: the blonde girl who had stabbed him before, the strong one who sounded English, the small girl who was quick on generators.

Okay. This is going okay. No one has hurt you yet. Keep going, he encouraged himself. After picking through many versions of words he remembered and choosing some, Philip turned back to Claudette. “What do you want from me?” he asked her slowly in English, being far more careful with the language than he needed to and trying to keep from looking past her to the others, as anxious as he was to watch everyone’s reactions for danger, “If you do not want to hurt me, what do you plan to do with me?”

Her expression fell a little. “No—we don’t—I just want to talk to you.”

Philip glanced at what little he could see of his bound arms.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding genuinely pained. “We didn’t know how you’d react. Sometimes we talk to you and then you forget about it after and it’s like you don’t know us anymore, so we were trying to be careful. You’re calm though, right? And you won’t attack us,” she asked.

Without breaking eye contact, Philip nodded. She started to get up and move towards him.

“What are you doing?” said the policeman in disbelief, starting forward, “Don’t untie it—the first thing it tries to do when it wakes up is talk her into letting it go, and still none of you are worried about this?” he asked, turning to the others.

Claudette paused, looking back at them. Damn it. That was stupid of me.  

“It’s okay,” said Philip quickly to the girl, eyes on the policeman as the man’s fingers tightened around the spear he held. “You’re afraid of me. I will stay like this.”

The girl looked from him, to the policeman, to the boy who’d tried to warn Philip to stay asleep, and then slowly sat back down. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

“Me too,” he just barely heard the redhaired girl whisper, leaning lean over to the boy who’d tried to warn him, “Ace and I thought we got lucky, but our timing was actually really shit for the both of them. So. My bad.”

The boy didn’t say anything back, but he gave a single nod, still watching Philip and the policeman, not the redhaired girl.

Okay, thought Philip carefully, far too conscious of his own heartbeat as he watched the policeman waiting for him to do something wrong a few feet away. Think this through. It’s not great, but you’re alive. You’re alive because they helped you. Even after… So much had happened. It was confusing, and looking back on it scared him—he scared himself. Usually, hunting them down was just his job—his role. But today had been different. He could still remember the way the fury had felt coursing through him, how much he had wanted to kill them—to hurt them. To tear them apart with his own hands. And why? Why had he done that? They’d been begging for their lives in the basement—begging for him to stop, and to listen to them, and that had only made him angrier. He looked over at the redhead. She had been watching him, like everyone else, so their eyes met, and he felt ashamed, remembering what he’d done to her. No wonder you are all afraid of me, he thought, feeling defeated, I would fear me too. The policeman is probably right.

“Do you remember us?” asked the small girl in front of him.

Oh yes, thought Philip. He knew who all of them were. He’d killed each and every one of them countless times on a hook. There were more specific memories too—he remembered knocking the glasses off the one with a white business shirt and watching him struggle to run away injured and mostly blind. He remembered hearing one of the girls sing when he was between trials, and snapping the older man in the torn suit’s leg once when he’d managed to rescue one of the others from the basement and failed to get away himself, remembered the way the crack had sounded and the leg had hung. He remembered dragging the girl in the ski cap through the mud of the swamp and butchering her, and he could recall his first trial with this girl, and the way she had cowered at his feet—too scared even to run from him, and how he had felt nothing. Because it had been right—they had been meant to suffer. This was punishment. Wasn’t it?

You helped them, though, he told himself accusingly. So why? Why do you feel guilt now, why did you protect them? Why aren’t you fighting? Isn’t this your job—your right? Was it? I don’t know, he thought back, I don’t know anymore. If they’re lying, why save me? Why do I have this scar I don’t remember on my hand? Why does all of this feel wrong? He was torn, his knowledge and his gut pulling him in opposite directions. Philip had never talked with any of them before, and it was surreal—they were so...normal. So much like people he could have met anywhere.

“What are you?” he asked Claudette, leaving her question of his memory left unanswered.

She blinked in surprise.

“Us?” asked the man who sounded like he was English, “What’re we? What’re you.”

“I’m…Claudette Morel,” answered the girl, holding up a hand towards the man who had spoken to quiet him. Philip remembered that, from before, from the basement. “I’m just a…normal person. I’m 20…or, maybe,” she thought for a second, “Maybe 22, or 23? I’m not sure—but that’s what we all are,” she added, “different ages, but we’re all just regular people. I was a college student?”

That can’t be right, thought Philip, mind working as fast as it could to try to process information and place it. That’s wrong. I know what you are. But looking at the small girl before him, he wasn’t sure. It was a horrible, bottoming-out feeling. He didn’t want her to be right. He couldn’t even begin to process yet what that would mean, but he knew it would be too much against him to be able to handle.

“How about you?” asked the policeman from behind her. “You hunt people like it’s a sport, kill them over and over for what—some sick fun? Survival? Just a job?”

There was overpowering animosity behind the words, and while it had been in the back of his mind the whole time, Philip was suddenly very aware that if the man came at him, he wasn’t going to be able to fight back. He was just going to die. Philip hadn’t tried to break free from the restraints pinning his hands behind the tree before, because he’d known if he tried they might attack him, but he did now, testing their strength and trying to be subtle about it, because he knew if the policeman saw him that would probably be it. The motion shot pain down his left arm, and he looked over at it in surprise, only remembering when he saw the white bandage around the arm that he’d been hit by the chainsaw there.

“Hey,” said the boy who broke hooks, glaring at the cop, a warning tone to his voice.

“Well?” asked the policeman again, taking a step forward, unphased by the younger man. “What are you? A serial killer? A cultist? Just a thug?”

“No,” answered Philip, looking up at the policeman. What else am I supposed to say? Even if I told the truth, how would I begin to answer that?

“No?” repeated the policeman, taking another step towards Philip, fingers still tightly wound around the spear, at the ready.

What can I say to explain, thought Philip panicked, I’m…I don’t even know if I should believe them—believe her about them being just people. They can’t be—I was given a second chance, and vengeance. If I say that, it’ll make them angry no matter what. How can I explain if I’m wrong? And it will all be even worse if I’m right about them. They were looking at him though, demanding some kind of answer. He tried again to tug against the bonds at his wrists, less careful to not be seen this time in his desire to break free, but whatever had him tied down was strong. Trapped. I’m trapped here. They were waiting, and each second he said nothing made the tension in the air worse. He saw the small girl watching him hopefully, and to her he wanted to explain—explain in a way that made sense, and could be understood. Nervous, he ran through a handful of ways of saying what he wanted to in English, trying to find the best one, but ended up settling for simplicity again in his fear of saying it wrong.

“I…thought you…deserved it,” said Philip quietly, watching them.

The girl looked so genuinely and completely surprised by that, and confused, that it took her a second to even understand what he’d said, and as he watched the expression form on her face, Philip knew that what he’d been fearing the whole time had to be true. They were right about him. There’s no way, thought Philip desperately, Why? Why would the Spirit lie—why...

Behind her, he saw an expression he recognized on the policeman’s face: righteous anger. The man came towards him, fast, and Philip closed his eyes, and tried to brace himself, expecting to be struck. Waiting, his breathing came in quick and shallow, but no blow came, and after a second Philip opened his eyes. The policeman had stopped, only about two feet away. Claudette and the boy with curly hair she had called Quentin both stood between him and the cop, but he didn’t seem to be trying to push through anymore—almost more tired than angry now.

“I’m sorry,” said Philip, hoping it might matter. He didn’t know what else to say.

“You’re buying this?” the officer asked the two young adults in front of him, ignoring Philip. Both of them stood their ground, and the man sighed. “What were you before this?” the man asked Philip, looking past the little human wall between them and down at their prisoner.

“Just a man,” Philip replied, voice quiet. “Nobody, really.”

“Okay. Then talk,” said the cop. His tense stance didn’t relax, but he moved back a bit. He didn’t sit either, but the added distance still made Philip feel a little safer.

Once the man had retreated, Quentin gave Claudette a nod and returned to where he had been before, and she turned back to Philip and knelt down across from him again. “I’m sorry,” she said again, letting out a breath. “This is hard for us. Trusting someone, after…everything here.”

It made sense. He wouldn’t have trusted himself in their shoes. Philip gave a nod, still a little confused that she and the boy had protected him.

“Okay,” said Claudette thoughtfully, “There’s so much to talk about I don’t really know where to start.” Her expression changed suddenly, into guilt, “Oh, yes I do. I’m so sorry—I didn’t think to—” She took a breath. “What’s your name?”

It was such an oddly human question. It felt so foreign to be asked that after all this time that for some reason it made him sad to be asked it. “My name is Philip,” he answered after a second, “Ojomo.”

“Hah!” said the redhaired girl from a few feet back. “I knew it! I mean, I didn’t know it, but I guessed that one when I was doing bible names!”

What? thought Philip, looking up at her in startled confusion, absolutely no memory of what she meant.

“Sorry,” said the redhead, “I forgot you don’t remember that anymore. I’ll shut up. Go on.”

“Philip,” repeated Claudette, smiling at the name. “Okay, nice to officially meet you then, Philip.” She held out a hand on instinct, and then immediately looked like she wished she could die as she remembered that his hands were tied behind the tree. “Philip,” she started again, trying to recover, “for a while now, we’ve sort of been able to make friends with you here. I don’t really know how it started, or why, but you let us go once during a trial, and then again the next time.”

I did what? Philip had no memory of that. He looked for it, because the expression on her face was so sincere it was hard to believe that she was lying, but try as he might, all he could find was memory after memory of killing her.

“But then it was like you forgot about us completely,” she said, “And you were almost…It was like you were worse than before. You killed some of us—not on hooks, but. Yourself.”

He did remember that. The way it had felt, the praise from the Entity for a job well done, the way she had begged him to stop and clung to the lifeless body of her friend. What the fuck am I? thought Philip, suddenly and overwhelmingly sickened by the memory. What the fuck am I now?

“But then, you remembered. Or—or you just decided to help us again, and you tried to talk to Dwight—the uh, the one with glasses and a white shirt,” she added, gesturing in the air like there was any kind of hand gesture that could convey glasses and a white shirt.

Philip knew who it was from the description anyway though, and he looked for him in the group, but didn’t see him.

“You don’t remember any of this?” she asked again, and he shook his head. That made her look sad, but he could tell it also wasn’t unexpected. “I figured,” she said quietly. “You sort of told Dwight once before that you couldn’t remember things that had happened before. And after that you forgot us again. We tried talking to you a lot after that, and I kept bringing you flowers—Meg kept bothering you,”

Meg. That’s right. The redhead, she had told him her name in the basement. The one who had been so insistent on them being friends. His memory of carving his blade into her face and running her through a hook was very fresh, and it hurt him to think about it, so he tried to shut it out. The attempt was not very successful.

“That was sort of starting to work,” continued Claudette, “But then—last time happened. And it was like being back to square one again, except you were angrier. Like you didn’t remember us at all. Do you…still…not?” she asked, right on the edge of hopeful and pained.

“I don’t,” said Philip, feeling bad that he couldn’t give her the answer she wanted. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember anything you’ve said.”

But,” she argued, “You did stop—even before you got hurt, right? Dwight said something, in the basement, and you didn’t hook me. If you don’t remember us at all, why did you stop?”

Why? Philip thought back, going over the memories he had of the basement. Everything was so drenched in emotion—in rage and hatred and bloodlust, that it was hard to think right. Even the colors were wrong. I didn’t stop, did I? But no, she was right. “Your name,” said Philip, looking back at her.

“My name?” she repeated, confused.

Fuck, thought Philip, confronted with something more complicated to explain and nervously choosing vocabulary. “I…A scar appeared on my hand yesterday, which I did not remember getting,” he said carefully.

“Oh—” she said, recognition flashing in her eyes, “I saw that—Like an M and half a circle.”

He shook his head. “It is a C and M, drawn blind.” It had not taken him very long to figure that out. Waking up from a normal night to find a very definitively purposeful scar on his palm had absolutely no memory of getting had been of immediate interest and concern to him, and he’d spent several hours trying to figure out how and what had happened. There had been no mention of anything in his journal—not just about the hand, but unusual at all. After about an hour of digging through his writing and staring at his hand looking for answers, Philip had caught his reflection in a piece of glass in one of the windows and it had suddenly hit him that he’d been looking at it wrong. A ‘CM’ at least could make sense, and that would be the mark left behind in a handprint now, or the way the letters might have ended up looking if carved into his hand without looking. The fact that, after thinking it through, the letters looked to him like they appeared the way they would if he’d put his own hand against something sharp and tried to leave them there had bothered him. If he’d probably done it to himself, then why—and when? He had still been wondering about it when he’d gone into his next trial, and with the search of the past few hours still in the back of his mind, when people had started to shout her name at him, the initials had clicked as a possibility. It had probably been stupid to assume or even wonder if that’s what it was, but there hadn’t been even another maybe until then. The first possible answer, and it had immediately gotten his attention and made him wonder.

“Why…How did you get that?” Claudette Morel asked, trying to work through it like he had.

Philip shrugged. “That is why I stopped. I wanted to know as well.” He still didn’t know. Or even if the marks were because of her name.

“Then,” she said slowly, going over the events of the night in her head, “Why did you save us from the Cannibal? It can’t be because you wanted to know about the scar.”

“No,” Philip answered, thinking over that question again himself.

“Then, why?” she asked, watching him. Big eyes. Dark, almost black, like rich earth. Like his brother, like his niece.

“I don’t know,” said Philip honestly, feeling empty. He took a breath and picked carefully over verbs and vocabulary, trying to find what he meant to say in a way that would not be misunderstood, and kind of hoping for a better answer for himself. “I am sorry,” he said slowly, “I wish I knew better what to say. I woke up in the grass, and I remembered being hurt, in the basement. I could tell that you had tried to heal me, and saw that you were fighting, and going to die. I did not want that to happen, because it seemed…wrong…at the time, so I fought.” It was simple. It had been simple at the time.

Disoriented, a horrible pain in his chest. He remembered waking to the sound of a chainsaw, and screams. His last memory had been being run through on the Entity’s claw, the confusion and agony, and the knowledge he would probably never wake up again when he lost consciousness. His blade had been gone, but someone had bandaged his chest, and then he had seen them—two of the children he’d tried to kill in the basement, the two who reminded him the most of himself. Hurt. Struggling against a man larger than Philip, wielding a chainsaw. Another hunter. The girl had had his sickle, and she was trying to protect the boy with it, holding back something she must have known she did not have the strength to beat. Philip had not thought things carefully through, weighed options, looked for answers—he had just known very definitively in that instant that if he did nothing, they would die, and that he didn’t want that to happen. So, he had acted.

It was the truth, but Philip didn’t like his answer, because it made him feel stupid—impulsive. Simple. Things he knew he had been called many times, although he couldn’t remember by who. He knew it probably sounded about as convincing as he’d felt saying it. And yet for some reason, it seemed to make the girl happy, and she smiled at him.

That sight was so foreign to him now. No one was every glad to see him, and they shouldn’t be. He was a reaper—he brought death, and vengeance, and pain. So much time had gone by that he had forgotten what it felt like to have someone look at you like that, and now it made him feel miserable, because he didn’t deserve it. Don’t look at me like that, child. I have sacrificed you on a meat hook like an animal and killed you by my own hands. Those thoughts finally broke something open inside him, something that had been preying at the edge of his mind, but he had been trying to avoid, and it came at him all at once then, like a rockslide, breaking him down and burying him.

“You said before that you…” she paused, thinking about how to phrase it. “Worked for the Entity, and hurt us because you thought we deserved it?”

Philip couldn’t say anything, so he just nodded, struggling through the weight of memory after memory throwing itself at him under a new context. There was so much. There was too much to ever move past.

“Can you explain what you mean?” she asked hesitantly.

All about him, Philip was very aware of the eyes on him. Everyone was waiting. “I,” Philip tried, and had to stop. Every face he was looking at, he had memories for. Memories of screams, of death, of pleading for their lives, or trying to shield one another. And he had never once taken pity on any of them. I have done so much, thought Philip, broken by the realization, Far worse than I did for Azarov. I can…I can never make up for this. I cannot come back from it. I am a murderer. Not just a tool, or an accident, not in vengeance. I am…I am just a killer. Gods, I have…the things I have done. How could…I…

He lost his focus on the world outside him for a few seconds, dragged down by the voice in his head. When he re-focused, Claudette was looking at him, concern on her face. “I thought you were something else,” Philip managed. Bad people. Dead people. People like me. “Evil,” he added after a second, hoping that would be enough that she would not ask again.

“Do you believe us now,” she said, looking worried. “That we aren’t?”

Philip nodded wordlessly. I do. Ever since he’d first entertained the idea, more and more things had fallen into place and made sense. Ways they had acted, things they had said, things he had done. How had he missed it? How had he done this for so long without ever once doubting himself, wondering about them? For fuck’s sake, so many of them were just kids.  What the fuck am I?

To his dismay, when he nodded she looked so relieved at it, as if him currently lacking the desire to tear her heart out of her chest was something good, not just the absence of something impossibly vile.

“I don’t know what you want with me,” said Philip, clearing his throat to dig past the emotion he was trying hard not to let overtake him. “But the policeman is probably right. If I have forgotten you before, I am a danger to you. It would be smarter to kill me.”

Claudette stared at him in disbelief, completely taken aback. Behind her, most of the others looked similarly surprised. Even the policeman himself.

“Even with that aside,” added Philip quietly, looking away because he couldn’t stand to look at her face any more, “If you want to kill me as retribution, I will not try to stop you. I would deserve it.”

He was scared. The thought of dying like this terrified him for the same reason it had years ago, when the Entity had found him. If he had been unsure where he would end up before, there was certainty now, and it petrified him. But after all of this, it was their right, if they wanted it. It was the only gesture he could make. The only attempt at repayment he could offer. Even if it meant death, in the worst possible way.

Philip lowered his head and looked at the ground, letting himself lean forward and rest, head bowed, against the weight of his arms behind the tree. He had never been so desolate.

“Kill—? No,” said Claudette, voice full of worry for him, which made him feel worse, “We don’t want to kill you—you helped us. Y-You saved us. We—we were hoping we could make friends with you,” she added self-consciously.

What kind of life did they have to be leading in this place to want to be friends with something like him, after everything he had done to them? He was too overwhelmed and ashamed to say anything, so he didn’t. Afraid to even look at her.

“Can we…can we try?” he heard her ask, sad, and worried, and pleading.

“I will try to do whatever you ask,” said Philip after a second, still not daring to look back up at her. “I don’t know what I can do, but I will do what I can to help you.”

“Okay,” said a voice he recognized as the boy who broke hooks. “That’s enough. Come on, there’s too many of us—give the man some space. We don’t all need to be here right now.”

“It’s dangerous to leave her alone with him,” he heard the cop say, voice not quite as hostile as before, but still heavy with mistrust.

“Laurie can stay. She’s on the same boat as you, and she’s a quicker draw than even David and me. That fine with you, Laurie?” the boy replied.

He didn’t hear a verbal response, but it must have been assent, because it seemed to be accepted by everyone. Some of them started to move away. Philip didn’t look up, but he could hear footsteps as they went.

“Can we…?” he heard a voice he recognized as Meg’s say a few feet away.

“Sure, unless it seems like too much,” came the boy who broke hooks and at this point Philip had to guess was the leader’s reply. “Just read the situation.”

“I don’t like it,” he heard the policeman say, his voice getting further away as he spoke.

“We aren’t going out of line of sight,” was the boy’s irritated, barely audible reply. Then they were gone.

His chest ached from the wound the Entity had given him, and Philip latched onto that. A simple fact, one he didn’t have to feel much over, but present enough pain to offer distraction. What am I supposed to do? he thought, head still down, eyes on his legs, scarred from some things he remembered and some he did not. It was a worst-case scenario for him. He’d done the same thing twice, much worse this time than before. Unknowing executioner. The thought came absently with several hundred others, but it stuck. The thing was, he wasn’t even sure if it was true. Looking back, he knew, he knew that he had been sure what he was doing was correct, that they were what he had been told. But. What kind of excuse was that for this level of blindness? Was that something you could really not know? As real as they seemed to him now, it was hard for even him to believe himself.

“Hey.”

Claudette. Philip could tell from her tone that the girl wanted him to look up. He didn’t want to, but he did, because he’d promised to cooperate.

When he looked up. there were only four of them remaining. Claudette, the blonde girl who often stabbed him in trials and by process of elimination must be called Laurie, and then the redhead—Meg, and the one Claudette had called Quentin. They were watching him with a variety of expressions, but not even the blonde girl really looked hostile. Most of them seemed more cautious or curious than anything, which just made him feel worse.

Trying to ignore as much of how he felt as possible, Philip turned his attention to Claudette and nodded at her to continue whatever it was she had wanted to say.

“Can you tell us? About yourself?” she asked softly.

“About myself?” he asked, a little surprised.

“Yeah,” she replied. She put a hand to her chest, like she was introducing herself to a classroom. “I’m from Montreal. I like botany and the Beach Boys and reading, and I got stuck here because I got lost taking a walk on my way home from school.”

The other three watched her, and then looked at Philip, waiting for him to respond in kind.

“I am from…Wisconsin. Before that, Nigeria,” said Philip after a second, not wanting to talk about himself, but honoring his promise to do what she asked.

“How did you end up like this?” asked the blonde girl, watching him carefully. “Most of the killers here we know anything about were murderers before. That’s only three of them for sure, but.”

“I did kill someone,” answered Philip, tired. “My boss.”

“Why?” asked Meg, sitting cross-legged and leaning forward.

So he told them. Slowly, and in chunks, sometimes revisited for clarity. It wasn’t a long story, but they all wanted to know so much about it. About what Azarov was like, how long it had taken for the Entity to arrive, what it had said, what it sounded like, how long it had taken him to get used to the killing. Answering them was uncomfortable and miserable for Philip, but he trudged his way through, doing his best to keep up despite his anxiety towards the language, his dislike of the memories and discomfort at recounting them, the general weariness and pain he felt, and the complicated nature of their questions.

It was odd, talking with other people after so long. They were all very persistent. When he started to explain things, Claudette had been almost exclusively the one to ask questions, but as he kept going the entire thing almost turned into a group discussion—sometimes the kids even pitching theories to him for how things had worked. They never seemed horrified either, at least not at the things he had done—not even the blonde girl, who to his extreme surprise thoughtfully commended him on his decision to shove his boss into a car crusher. At least as unexpectedly, all four of the kids were indignant on his behalf when they figured out that one murder was probably why he’d been taken by the Entity to kill for it, and went on about that for a while. It was a hopelessly overwhelming out of body experience for Philip, talking to so many people at once for so long, and about himself, after years of…basically nothing. Even before he’d come to the Entity’s realm, he’d lived alone, with really not much of anything for five years but casual conversations. He was so out of practice it was pathetic, and he would have probably been mortified at the way he perceived his attempts to speak with them if that emotion hadn’t already been preoccupied with the fact that he had personally killed all four of the people he was speaking to, on multiple occasions.

Still, after about an hour and a half of this, it got easier. All four of them were generally so friendly towards him that despite himself he started slowly to feel less miserable and to process at least a little of this new information that overwhelmed him. He could tell they were trying to make him feel better, but even though he knew that, he couldn’t entirely stop it from working. It seemed wrong to him, for them to let him off so easily. Every time he would describe what something was like for him here, or the part of the process of being a reaper for the Entity, they would discuss it and dissect it and re-paint it in the most understandable way—sometimes leaving it making more sense to Philip after they’d taken a swing at it than it had before, even though they were his experiences. All of the kids were so dedicated to this process that it was honestly a little frustrating. It wasn’t at all that Philip wanted to be hated, or to suffer, or die—the threat of similar very real possibilities in his near future were keeping a constant undercurrent of fear running through him—but just the same, it didn’t feel right. The way they took his side so quickly made him feel guilty and wrong, like he must be lying to them or representing himself unfairly, to be so easily forgiven. He couldn’t stop thinking about things he’d done to them, like looking into mirrors containing his worst decisions.

No matter how often they smiled at him, or spoke in a friendly tone, there were overwhelmingly more memories of their fear, and suffering. Unimaginable things he had done. What even could someone hope to do, in the face of something like that? To repair anything? It was exhausting, and miserable, and there was no escape from it.

It was strange to him that they were so…normal in how they interacted with him. None of the little group had really been hostile towards him when they started to talk, but it had been awkward and tense for them too at the star, and things got simpler for them as time went on, like it did for Philip—although, not in anything like the same timeframes. It only took the redhead about fifteen minutes to start joking about things, and the rest of them seemed fairly comfortable after maybe an hour. Philip tried to ask them questions too—about themselves (partially to give himself a chance to breathe and partially because he genuinely wanted to know), and while they mostly deflected and redirected the conversation back to him, he learned a lot. Not all of the survivors stayed in the same place outside of trials, and they had had to grow the group they had now from nothing. They were all from different places and backgrounds, and some of them had known each other longer than others. They had started to band together originally just for some kind of comfort, or community, but for a long time now had been focused on trying to find a way to escape this place for good. There were more killers than Philip had been aware of as well, although most of the ones they mentioned to him he had seen before. Laurie and Quentin were both curious in particular if he knew anything about two specific killers—ones they called the Nightmare and the Shape, and Philip learned that they had each known one before, although he couldn’t really get either of them to elaborate on that.

“I can’t help you much,” said Philip, whose confidence and speed in his conversational English had become much quicker after being forced to speak it for a couple of hours, doing his best to think through any memories he had of the two men described. “I see the others sometimes, but I never speak with them. I could tell you what I have seen them do in their time alone, but I doubt that would help. And it has been little, very few times.”

“I’ve been thinking, though,” said Meg, “If you were basically brainwashed into this, doesn’t that mean some of the others might be too?”

“Not all of them,” countered Quentin slowly. “The Nightmare was like this on his own, before coming here, and while I can tell some of it pisses him off, I really don’t think he’s been tricked into any of this.”

Laurie looked a little distracted, considering.

“Definitely,” agreed Meg, “But what about, the like, that angry The Ring girl who just showed up?”

Philip did his best to shrug with his arms tied behind his back. He had no idea what any of the other killers’ experiences had been like.

“Nobody else has ever acted weird, though,” said Claudette thoughtfully. “Just the Wrai—Philip,” she corrected quickly.

“Why do you all call me that?” asked Philip. It had been bothering him for a little while now.

“Sorry,” said Claudette, “It’s still kind of instinctive.”

“No,” Philip corrected himself, choosing his words more carefully this time, “I mean to ask how you knew? The Entity calls me that.”

“Oh,” said Claudette, looking surprised. “Uhm…I don’t.” She glanced at the others.

“I don’t know either,” said Laurie, looking suspicious at this information, “We just all sort of…did.”

“Although we call you other stuff too,” added Meg, “Mr. Bing-Bong, Daddy Longlegs.”

“Meg, that’s just you,” said Quentin.

There was no good way to respond to that, so Philip tried to forget it. “Is it the same for all of us?” asked Philip, looking back at Laurie and Claudette. “Everyone knew our titles?”

“I guess,” answered Meg for them before they had a chance. “Not at first, though. We really did call you like, eleven different things at one point. Ghost, stalker, shade, banshee, hunter, spirit. I personally was a pretty big fan of ‘Phantom’ for a while. Don’t really remember why we settled on Wraith.”

That was interesting, but he didn’t know if it was significant, or what it might mean, so he let the topic drop and they kept going.

About the first question they had asked him that wasn’t about himself had been if he knew anything about a way out. He didn’t. He didn’t even really know how things got in, except himself, and certainly most of them hadn’t given the thing he’d been calling the Iska verbal permission to take them, so he wasn’t sure how much his story had been able to help. Quentin especially had a lot of questions about ways out—things that looked out of the ordinary, questions about the basement, about how the Entity moved, and looked, and the sacrifice process, and things the Iska had said to him. Trying to answer him felt very useless. Philip had never tried to escape—never even looked for a way out. He really hadn’t asked the Entity that much about anything either—which had felt entirely normal and maybe respectful to him before, but strange now.

Finally, after a couple of hours of this, the pain in his chest started to wear on him. He did his best to power through it, finding little details to focus on in the people in front of him, but he ended up starting to drift in and out of consciousness, despite his best efforts. His last intact memory was of one of them asking him if he felt sick.

 


 

 

When Philip woke up again, the bandages around his chest were gone, and Quentin was bent over him, doing something to his wound.

“Hey,” said Quentin, looking up as he noticed Philip’s eyes open. “Sorry, I’m almost done.”

Philip’s body felt heavy, and slow, and cold, and he felt like vomiting, but knew he didn’t have the strength to actually do it. He was awake enough to be able to tell he was struggling a little, but not awake enough to actually recognize how dazed and disoriented he was. Everything hurt, massively, but distantly at the same time, and he couldn’t make sense out of that. Only that the hole in his chest worried him.

“Am I going to die?” he asked Quentin, looking up at him still mostly out of it.

“No, you’ll be okay” answered the boy, voice reassuring. Philip wasn’t sure that he believed him.

He stayed silent for a few seconds, feeling the stabs of pain from the boy’s work absently, like they didn’t matter. Above him, the boy was focused, brow furrowed and eyes fixed on what he was doing, and Philip couldn’t stop watching him, thinking about things he’d been trying not to. Finally, he couldn’t take it.  

“Are you afraid of me?” he asked Quentin quietly, too tired and sick and half-dead not to ask what he’d been wondering about for hours.

“No,” said Quentin, looking back down at him. “I’m not.”

“You should be,” said Philip, voice tired and thin. “I would be.”

“I don’t know,” Quentin replied, eyes on the torn chunk of flesh he was dressing, “I’ve been hurt so many times, I don’t think I’m really afraid of getting hurt anymore. Just of being hurt.”

“What is the difference?” asked Philip, trying to keep his eyes open and having a hard time. As far as he could remember, those words basically had the same meaning in English. Both verbs that meant something happened.

“Getting hurt is just something that happens to you, being hurt is something someone does on purpose. I don’t know,” he added after a second, taking a gel dressing out of his medkit and applying it to Philip’s chest, “Pain isn’t so bad on its own. It’s other things that go with it.”

Philip did his best to understand that through the fog in his head. “I have hurt you, though,” he said quietly after a moment, “And all of your friends. Probably many times in front of you.”

Quentin didn’t say anything, just kept working.

“You could kill me,” said Philip. He wasn’t even really sure why. All he could feel was sad, and lost, and through the pain and the cold and the urge to vomit he was too weak to follow through on, he just wanted peace. Even more than that, he wanted to understand. “It would be very easy.”

Above him, Quentin’s hands stopped moving, and the boy looked down at him with an expression he couldn’t quite place. “I don’t wanna do that,” he said after a moment, “I like you.”

“Why?” asked Philip, feeling something like despair well up in his chest.

“You’re…pretty much the same as us,” answered Quentin after a second, carefully going back to his work. “Just lonelier.”

For a minute, Philip lay against the tree in silence, trying hard to take that in and accept it for the offer it was, and failing, while a person he had caused endless suffering for bandaged up his chest. Finally, after a bit, he could feel himself starting to go under again, and while Philip was only half-conscious, he was awake enough to know he didn’t want to pass out again without at least saying something. He looked up at Quentin, vision getting blurry as he did, trying to find some response to give that might matter. “I am…sorry,” said Philip finally, breaths coming in shallow and short, struggling weakly to keep his eyes open.

“We know,” said Quentin gently. “Just hang in there—you’re gonna be fine.”

 


 

 

 “How is he?” asked Quentin, sitting down at the fire beside Claudette.

“Okay. He woke up for a little while and talked to Jake, but he’s asleep again,” she replied, looking over at Dwight’s drawn face. “Better, I think,” she added hopefully, tucking her knees up to her chest. “How’s Philip?”

“A little better too,” replied Quentin, leaning his head against the log at his back, exhausted. “I think we wore him out, but the wound’s getting better. And a lot faster than we heal out here.”

“He’s nice,” said Claudette after a second, watching the flames in front of her. “I don’t know what I expected, or if I really expected anything at all, but…”

“It’s weird,” agreed Quentin thoughtfully.

“It’s fucked up,” said Meg, who was laying on her stomach beside Claudette, watching the campfire too. “I kinda feel like I got off easy now. I mean, I die a lot, but at least I didn’t get tricked into killing people all the time.”

Quentin nodded.

“And for what,” continued Meg, “—because he killed a guy? Like, one time. And vigilante-justice style.”

“Yeah,” said Quentin, staring off into space, set expression on his face. “My dad did that. I don’t love the implications.” Ending up here, as a Killer? Just for doing what needed to be done?

“What are we going to do with him?” asked Laurie after a second, looking over at Jake. She and Meg had given everyone else the medium-version of what they’d heard from Philip while Quentin and Claudette had been working, and they were all at least sort of up to speed. “We can’t just keep him here, tied to a tree forever.”

Jake was leaned forward, chin resting on his palm, watching Dwight sleep in his lap. “We let him go,” he said after a second, turning to look at the others.

“If we let him go, won’t the Entity just…wipe his mind again, or whatever it does?” asked Laurie, picking at the grass beside her.

“You all really buy all of this?” asked Tapp again, but with much less energy than he’d started out with. He was tired too, at this point. It hadn’t exactly been the hopeful team-up Ace and Meg or he had been envisioning when they’d got him back to the campfire with them after their trial. He certainly hadn’t expected a group of them to come stumbling in with a half-dead kid, a couple injuries, and a captive killer they were dead set against putting in the ground. The Wraith still seemed suspicious to him, but even he wasn’t sure anymore. Pretty damn detailed backstory for someone who would have probably had to come up with that on the spot. Besides which, he liked to think he was good at reading people, and the man they had tied to a tree seemed more defeated than anything. Even so, though…

“What reason would he really have to lie?” asked Jake. “If he wanted us not to kill him, he could have thought of something better. He hasn’t tried to escape, either.”

“Could be a trap,” Tapp replied. “Maybe not even his idea.”

“What would the Entity even get outa this?” asked Kate. “But I’m with Laurie. If we let him go, he just forgets us again.”

“What were you all going to do if talking to him worked?” asked Feng, looking over at the little group of four who’d been in on the plan.

“We didn’t expect to get this far,” said Claudette unhappily. “I mean—as fast as this. We didn’t have one yet.”

“We can’t keep him,” said Jake slowly, “If we do, it’s only a matter of time before the Entity does something about it.”

“You have a plan?” asked Nea, looking up hopefully as she recognized something in his tone.

“Maybe,” said Jake. “Thank Dwight when he wakes up.” He stretched his arms and glanced over at where their prisoner lay a few yards off. “Okay. Someone trade off and stay with Dwight so I can talk to him.”

“Can’t we wait?” asked Claudette pleadingly. “Let him sleep for a little at least before we make him leave?”

Jake thought that over for a moment, then sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, why not. An hour or two will probably be fine.” He slumped back against the log, pretty worn out himself after the day they’d all had, and carefully readjusted Dwight’s position in his lap, trying to make sure the sleeping friend wrapped up in his coat was comfortable and not putting any pressure on the head injury.

“Sorry, by the way,” said Ace after a short silence, glancing over at Tapp, who was distantly brooding into the fire. “We’re, uh, usually not as much of a mess. Or all at each other’s throats. We don’t typically have this kind of a day.”

Tapp looked over at him in surprise. “Oh. Right,” he said as what Ace had said connected and he remembered that this wasn’t just an irritating problem, but also his more or less official introduction to a group of strangers. “I’m sure I haven’t really made any friends today myself.”

“No, Ace is super wrong; people here fight all the time,” said Feng, moving from where she had been using Nea as a pillow, and propping herself up on her elbows. “I think it’s normal if you think they’re all nuts.”

“Oh, you’re definitely crazy,” answered Tapp, adjusting into a more comfortable position by the fire, “And somehow it’s still been a better day than I’ve had here before.”

“And it’s been some kinda day, huh?” said Kate, laughing softly to herself. “Nice to see you again, though, David,” she added to Tapp, smiling.

“Yeah, and I’m sorry we were all like ‘quit your job, come join my emo band,’ and then when you did, everyone spent the rest of the day yelling at you,” added Meg, in a friendly tone, trying to lighten things up. “In our defense, you spent the rest of the day trying to kill our other new friend, so it was just a bad time for everybody.”

“Your other new friend is a mass murderer,” answered Tapp, leaning his head back against the log and closing his eyes for a second. He let out a huge breath, like he was trying to manually pump the stress out of his body. It was more or less how all of them felt: absolutely exhausted. “You all really need to think over how much you’re risking by trusting that thing,” he added after a second in the voice of a prophet who knew he wasn’t going to be listened to.

“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal,” said Nea, “What’s he gonna do, kill us again? Damn, what a change for the worse.” She grinned at Feng, hoping for a laugh. Feng just sighed and patted her on the knee and went back to using her as a pillow.

Everyone was quiet then for a bit. There were a few really nice minutes of nothing but the fire crackling beside them, and they got rest, if not sleep, everyone thinking through little chunks of their own struggles, trying to sort out new information—a few of them too tired to think much about anything except how much they wished they were asleep.

“Hey,” said Jake after a while, nudging Meg with his foot to prompt a response. “He said the Entity doesn’t always watch trials?”

“Yeah?” answered Meg, turning her head to look back at him. “But it sounds kind of random.”

“That isn’t what matters,” he replied, staring past the fire into the woods, face contemplative. “Yeah,” he muttered to himself after a second, gaze still fixed, “It could work.”

 


 

 

Philip was vaguely aware of someone speaking to him as he drifted back in from unconsciousness. He blinked, trying to pull himself fully into wakefulness, and his eyes focused on the boy who’d been the first one he saw when he woke before—the one who seemed to be the leader. The boy was crouched in front of him, black hair falling into his eyes, a hand on his shoulder and saying something that Philip missed. His chest hurt less, and he felt a little better—less spent and weak, if still a bit shaky.

Doing his best to shake off the lingering fuzziness in his mind, Philip lifted his head to be able to see the boy better.

“You up?” asked the boy, letting go of him.

Philip nodded. Jake, he remembered as his body continued to wake up. When the others had spoken with him, he had asked about this boy and they had called him ‘Jake’.

“Good,” said Jake.

Behind him, Philip became aware of the others—all of the others, like before. That may not be good, his mind offered. How? Philip responded mentally to himself, What can I possibly have left to lose?

“Can you find your way back to your area?” said Jake, standing back up from his crouch.

Back to…wait—my…the garage? “What?” asked Philip, confusion passing through him.

“We can’t keep you here,” ans