Joseph has never called himself a superstitious person, so he never took any peculiar signs to heart, no matter how frequently he stumbled into them. Whatever haunted his conscience couldn’t be anything but mere coincidences, figments of his mind that were slowly falling apart, maybe consuming him whole. Though, the one matter Joseph was certain of was that, with time, insanity was bound to overcome him.
This cursed manor was of no help to his condition either.
Oh and how he despised the games, that he could hardly control his own instincts during each bloodbath. And he’d been warned of the tingling sensation that will take over his mind once the weapon was placed in his hands, of the constant ringing in his ears when prey was around. Calling himself a hunter was as painful as it was true, and Joseph hated that title with every inch of his being.
However, lately, the host’s schemes were the least of his troubles. He’s walked through fire way too many times to care anymore, seen too much, felt too little. Who would’ve thought that one day he’ll play as someone’s puppet, to reach his own humane and inhumane limits through someone’s sadistic fantasies? But Joseph learned to accept it, powerless in the face of his cruel fate.
He’d taken too long to come at terms with the hollowness in his chest, both from the lack of his physical heart, and the one from becoming nothing more than a pathetic husk. And that was why, when he’d started waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air, he understood that something was definitely wrong.
Colour was something that Joseph fought to distinguish, and sometimes not even the matches helped. He’d walk in and out of his camera world, he’d watch the motionless mirror images of the survivors, and he’d sigh. Everything was the same yesterday, just as today and most certainly tomorrow. No matter how bright the sun, he’d still be trapped in that monochrome place, where only he was allowed to move freely, like a ruler over his kingdom.
If only his waking days were no longer so tedious, maybe he’ll see his own colours again.
Not even his dreams let him escape from the depths of that darkness. They were vague at first, merely showing him the distorted shape of some large corridors. Doors on each side; portraits staring into his soul. He’d aimlessly wander the place, head emptied of any questioning thoughts, all until he once caught sight of a blue light, flickering gently in a corner. Naturally, he followed it.
At first, Joseph was disappointed to find nothing. The light disappeared as soon as he reached out to it. His dream, too, would end there. Nights turned cold for him afterwards, so much that he couldn’t get a wink of sleep anymore.
That light bothered him greatly. Because the more he returned to that manor, the more it piqued his interest. It was always in a different place, once hanging around an old book, some other time standing behind a door. Each time Joseph would approach it however, it would either hide or just dissipate into nothingness. And Joseph opened his eyes to the same ceiling, breath caught in his throat and insides hurting.
He’s changed his strategy after another couple of failed attempts. Maybe trying to get closer to it was his mistake all along. So he decided to ignore it during his next visit, using the time to explore more of the manor, now that his surroundings were no longer vague and undecipherable. Some rooms gave him strange feelings of déjà vu, but he could never place a finger on what awoke such thoughts in his mind. He’d just cast his eyes over statues, books and furniture, not yet daring to touch any of them.
And nothing about that dream bothered him as much as walking into one of the bedrooms did. Not expecting much, Joseph had stepped inside. This one, compared to the other guestrooms he’d seen, was significantly bigger. The decorations were much more extravagant as well, windows larger and watching over the back gardens.
On the wall, however, was a painting. Two pairs of eyes stared right back at Joseph, who was now debating whether he should look at it for longer, or if he should go and search for the light, so he could leave this place. Yet, whatever his mind decided in the end, he remained glued to his spot. His mouth was slightly agape.
It felt like seeing himself in a mirror, seeing the proud, condescending aura coming from one of the people in the portrait. The same piercing gaze as his own, pristine white hair neatly tied with a bow; a coat that hugged his frame so perfectly. Yet, unlike Joseph, that man was smiling. It wasn’t forced at all, warm and sincere, and it made the photographer question if that really was him.
Frankly, seeing himself might have not been as much of a surprise, were it not for the person joining him. A slightly shorter man stood by the other’s side, smile definitely not as bright, but contented nevertheless. The image felt strangely reassuring to Joseph, as his eyes adjusted easily to the familiarity of… gray. Much like what he’d had to see during his temporary existence at the manor, this man was lacking colour.
Eyes and hair painted silver, skin pale as a ghost. Even his clothes kept the same dull palette. He seemed to be in complete opposition to Joseph himself, the one from the painting.
But the portrait gave no clues of who that person might have been, or why he and Joseph were framed on the wall of the largest bedroom in the manor. From his foggy memories of common home courtesies, the owners of a house had their picture hung either somewhere visible to all guests, or tucked in a safe place. This, if he wasn’t mistaken, could have been the latter.
No matter how much he tried to explain the situation to himself, it brought up even more questions. With a deep inhale, he tried to close his eyes and tame his heartbeat. But then he had to snap out of it again, just to realize that he, indeed, felt something in his ribcage thumping loudly. Heat flowed to his face and limbs, and his ears rung too.
Suddenly, he wanted to touch the painting.
It took too much force from him to push one leg forward and actually get closer. His arm felt heavy as it reached forward, and the eyes watching him seemed like they were mocking the hesitation. And although Joseph chose to ignore them, he no longer managed to fulfill his wish. From the painting itself, that familiar light hovered towards him, landing gently on his stretched-out hand. There was no more time for him to voice his protest as his eyes opened to the sight of his bedroom.
He hadn’t despised his own room as much as he did then.
Surprising was that he was surrounded by light this time; so he’d woken up during the day. At his door was a loud knock. “You’re requested for a match.” Joseph groaned into his hands, not giving a response to the one outside.
The blade in his hold never felt as foreign as it did during that game. He’d missed too many of his swings, the others dodged his angry slashes with too much ease. And switching targets proved to be of no use whatsoever; he hadn’t paid attention to who the survivors were either, other than Patricia who’d been messing with his patience for too long now.
He took a picture, then walked towards one of the ciphers. It’d be a simple scare there, just enough of a shock to have the survivor kneeling at his feet in no time. Taking a deep breath, he gripped the photograph tighter, before releasing it into the wind. He raised his sword, then brought it down to the unsuspecting victim. Silver eyes locked with his, widening. Joseph had no time to stop himself either.
The survivor fell to the ground with a quiet whine, a hand moving to cover his bleeding arm in an attempt to stop the flow. He breathed heavily into the facemask he was wearing; his gaze darted from the cipher to Joseph’s weapon and then to Joseph himself, but he said nothing. The photographer couldn’t take his eyes off his figure, as he bit the inside of his cheek in thought.
“Who are you?”
He didn’t receive an answer right away, just more of that confused, yet intrigued stare. There was no fear in those eyes, no hurt; and the familiarity of it made Joseph shiver.
“Are you one of the new survivors?” The silence was much too unbearable for his already drying throat, and Joseph kneeled too, looking at the other from the same level. He dropped his saber in the process.
The survivor nodded after a moment of hesitation. “…Aesop,” were it not for the way the air suddenly stilled, Joseph might have missed the response, with how softly it’d been spoken. “My name is Aesop.”
And Joseph was surprised to let out a relieved sigh, smiling. “You have beautiful eyes, Aesop.” He chose to say, with the tiniest hint of a chuckle. “They’re very expressive.”
“Your smile reminds me of something.” The hunter’s shoulders tensed, before he tried to reply. Words refused to leave his throat, however; he had to settle for a curious tilt of his head instead, letting Aesop continue. But the other just shook his head dismissively. “It doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t say that to someone I just met.”
But Joseph didn’t seem upset with it. On the contrary, he looked like he found everything rather amusing. Reaching forward, he offered a hand to the other. “Let me help you. I’m not as good with healing as your teammates might be, but I can try my best.”
“Aren’t you a hunter, though?” Aesop’s question came out almost instantly.
“I am. Is there something wrong with it?”
“Why do you want to help me?”
Joseph paused, an unfamiliar but heavy thought slipping in his mind. He masked the sudden tremor by clearing his throat. “You’re… a little more colourful than the rest.” Aesop seemed like he wanted to ask something, but he nodded instead. The frown on his face proved that he didn’t quite understand Joseph’s claim, yet he went with it anyway.
The photographer felt his heart beating again when he got closer to Aesop, much similarly to his dream self, when he wanted to touch the painting. This time, however, nothing woke him up; this was no longer a cruel joke of his mind. For once, he really didn’t mind being surrounded by colour.