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When you miss a calibration

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Eli had always told him how good he was on the inside.

Aesop disagreed.

A murderer could never be good on the inside, he had yet to repent for his sins. He imagined his innards to be decayed and withered, resembling a fresh corpse he often worked with.

Autolysis, that’s what he imagined. His body self destructing.

Perhaps the games allowed him to repent. By indulging hunters in their pleasures an ironic role reversal took place as he was turned to prey.

Hunters were brutal, no matter how many times over someone was injured and ‘killed’, they took no mercy when repeating the process. It was an endless cycle.

Again, and again and again.

Like a clock, whose hands kept spinning and spinning. Uncontrollably spinning.

Aesop disliked hunters. He disliked his former self for being like the hunters.

Maybe if he could turn the clock back things would turn out differently. He doubted this, what he became was inevitable.

Maybe this was karma.

So, laying on his bed awake at some ungodly hour with Eli’s cheek against his chest. He never knew what the Seer saw in him.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The list of the days matches was found on the edge of the table in the dining hall.

A grandfather clock overlooked. Slowly ticking away.

Ticking.

Ticking.

The match for the morning was against Joseph. His sword was lethal.

Aesop decided it hurt more than when the hunters hit the chairs for fun, sending barbed wire into their stomach.

He also decided it hurt more than when they let them bleed out. He was bled out a lot.

The edge was sharpened to such an extent that it would slice open skin without much effort at all. Skin was so easy to slice after all. It was soft, soft things easily broke, it wouldn’t take much to kill them.

The clock ticked in the background, in the back of his head. Time was passing, time for what? His final demise?

If only he was that lucky, he didn’t deserve something so final.

The Embalmer.

The Seer.

The Mind’s Eye.

The Coordinator.

That was the list of names that the Explorer read out. Those were the survivors for the morning game.

Aesop caught Eli staring at him with a sheepish smile, it was rare that they’d share a match together, but he hated it nonetheless.

He despised watching his friend suffer in a match with him. Eli didn’t deserved to be carved up.

He wondered how long it would take to undo Eli’s perfectly knitted flesh. How long would it take till he became a pile of limbs and organs. Everything about him seemed so pretty.

Were his insides as pretty?

Aesop was certain that they were much prettier than his own.

How much time did the Seer have left? Were the hands on his clock slower than his own? How many more ticks did he have?

The Embalmer recalled the Forward telling him how the clocks were broken, stuck on certain times. Yet somehow it was ticking away, ticking in the back of his mind.

Ticking, ticking away.

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

How long did they have left?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Leo’s Memory, that was the map. It was cold, even with his long sleeves and mask on. Cold enough that he could let out milky white puffs of air. It was almost serene, if it wasn’t for the foreboding aura seemingly emitting from every wall.

As he zoned into his spawn point, his eyes darted around, taking a mental note of the other survivors positions. Eli was close by him, a pleasant coincidence as he quickly tottered over to the same cipher machine.

His pulse remained constant, and a ping from the Coordinator assured him that the hunter was on the other side of the map.

Despite his little connections to most other survivors, he did hold trust in Martha. She was skilled, though she performed best at rescuing, the was a great container, her military training ensured this.

Perhaps it would be a peaceful match. He shook his head, such thoughts would eventuate in him being caught off guard.

As the cipher machine, and the Seer, came into view, he gave him a short nod. It was going to fine, they were going to be fine.

Though the clock kept on ticking, he heard it. It was a slight noise, barely distinguishable from the cipher machine, but it was there, ticking away softly.

Aesop hissed, taking a hand to his head to ease the ticking, it did not happen.

Eli would’ve asked if he was alright, an expression of concern flashed across
his face. Though their attention was redirected to a bell, alerting them that someone was injured.

The Coordinator had been terrorshocked.

On 5 ciphers.

Of course survivors could have off days, but the Embalmer was fuming, it would be almost impossible to claw the match back to a win. Especially as another ping signalled that The Mind’s Eye was going in for a save.

Both Aesop and Eli both agreed on finishing their cipher before doing anything. Eli never seemed to show aggression, even when the situation was incredibly frustrating.

He was so good. Too good.

The ground momentarily shook beneath their feet. A flare gun had been fired. Surely enough, Martha was free once again. Though in the height of the action, Helena had been struck down.

Neither Eli or Aesop moved. The Coordinator went in for the save whilst the hunter had activated the camera world. Though soon they were both knocked down once again.

At this point they had finished their cipher, but they were too far from the action to make a rescue in time.

It was frustrating, a draw was now impossible. A one man win was the most they could hope for.

Now being out in the open, away from the cipher machine, the ticking seemed louder than ever. It hurt Aesop’s head and his ears started to ring.

Eli noticed his friend stumbling in the snow.

“Are you alright?” He mouthed, his voice hushed by the cool breeze which swept over the map.

It was a silly question really. Anyone could determine that the Embalmer was not alright, but the inconvenience of their situation left him unable to resolve anything. Especially as Aesop gave a curt nod in response.

The muffled screams from Martha and Helena could be heard from across the map as their rocket chairs took off. It was a surreal experience, the kind where your insides felt heavy from the exertion of pressure pushing down on you. It was almost painful.

After you shot off you would black out, then a few moments later you would jump awake in your bed, glistening with a cold sweat. It was ironic, it was like you had just woken from a nightmare, but it wasn’t. The manor sure did strange things to everyone’s head.

Both their breaths hitched as they felt their heart rate increase. Aesop thought his heart was beating so loud that it would burst from his chest.

A locker was close by.

Convenient.

Without passing by a second thought he opened the door, gesturing for Eli to get him with him. It was a cramped space, only designed for one person. But they closeness of their bodies put them both at ease.

There was something about standing shoulder to shoulder which emitted an indescribable warmth from the pit of Aesop’s stomach.

“Hey, Aesop?”

This snapped him out of his daydreams. The voice was frail, shaky, it made his heart ache.

“Can you hold my hand.”

He did not expect that. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t that. Of course they had ‘relationships’ outside of matches, but such things were purely void of emotion.

At least if void of emotion meant small blushes and a shortness of breath whenever he saw the other man, then he was right. There was nothing between them.

A hand against his own pulled him out of his thoughts once again. As their fingers entwined, the familiar butterflies spread across his chest. Maybe they could stay like that forever, ignoring the ticking clock, and just indulging in each other.

By now Joseph had walked past to look elsewhere, leaving them alone. But their hearts still beat hard.

“Eli?” He whispered, glancing over in the darkness. The small bars of light which shone in through the vents fell upon the Seer’s place. Even in minimal light he was still beautiful.

The Embalmer received a small hum in response, the Seer turning to him. His lips looked so soft, his cheeks and nose were rosey, and though he couldn’t see his eyes, he imagined them to be full of emotion.

Unconsciously the Embalmer lowered his mask. His lips were slightly chapped due to the irritation of the mask he learnt to withstand. His lips hardly compared to the Seer’s.

No words were exchanged as he leant in for a kiss. It was chaste, only a prolonged peck, but it filled them both with an indescribable adoration for each other. Like a flower blossoming at the beginning of spring, their feelings flourished into something more than a friendship.

Some plants grew in the strangest of places. Apparently inside a locker in Leo’s Memory was one of these places.

“We’ll get out of here, together.” Eli softly smiled. Everything about him was so soft, it almost moved Aesop to tears. He was so perfect.

‘Together.’

The word lingered in the Embalmer’s mind. It meant more then escaping the match together. It was a hope to escape the mansion, and to start afresh after. For things to go back to how they used to.

Aesop wasn’t sure he wanted things to go back to how they used to be.

His head hurt once again, the familiar ticking returned. Hope was such a futile thing, it could be destroyed just as quick as it was created. Someone like the Embalmer didn’t deserve the luxury of hope.

But it was okay, they were going to be okay. The activation of the photo world meant the poor hunter had lost sight of them. Unfortunately, they had to keep moving, if crows were to start circling around them that would be the end for them.

A cipher was close by, if they continued to decode, avoiding the attention of the hunter, then they’d be fine. So why did the clock keep ticking?

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

Four hands made quick work as they decoded together. Brief glances were exchanged, but nothing more, neither dared to mention the kiss in the locker. Aesop preferred it like that, confrontation scared him. It was a silly thing to confess, but it was true.

What also scared him was the everlasting thought of something dreadful happening to one of them. The stress they were under was immense, too intense to bear without cracking. Once someone cracked, the threads holding them together would come undone, leaving them with irreparable damage worse than any sword.

How much would it take for the Seer to come undone?

Such morbid thoughts made Aesop cringe in disgust. His anxieties only slowed down his ability to decode. In the end he was a hinderance to Eli.

Maybe if he just sacrificed himself then Eli would make it out alive.

Tick.

Tick.

The photo world was about to collapse. It was fine, it was going to be fine. Nothing could hurt them, they’d be safe as long as they just continued to decode.

His hands began to shake, resulting in a shock from the cipher machine.

But they were almost done, right?

They could finish it soon enough, even if the machine reset.

They had plenty of time.

Aesop’s breath hitched in his throat as the photo world collapsed. It was some horrible coincidence that one might see in a tragedy, where odds were repeatedly stacked against someone to the point where they could no longer push back. Their doom was inevitable in the end.

The sharp tip of a sword nicked at the Embalmer’s flesh, drawing a small drop of blood.

He missed.

The hunter missed!

He knew nothing could harm them. He could just kite away and it would be okay.

However. There was always a however. Aesop’s expression resembled shock, relief, then something worse. Fear.

A sickening squelch could be heard, the kind which made the Embalmer’s stomach turn. A deep crimson began to drip into the white snow. At first it was a droplet, then rain, then a splatter of a waterfall.

He had never seen a deeper red than that of Eli’s insides.

Tick.

Tick.

Then silence. The ticking had stopped.