Everything was black. Ethan didn't know for how long he had been falling. Far above his head, a square of light was getting smaller and smaller.
He had panicked for the first few seconds, while the acceleration pushed his guts into his mouth ; but now, it was almost getting comfortable. He wriggled to turn around, trying to see something in the velvety darkness. Karl couldn't be very far, surely?
Down and down he kept falling.
The increasing anxiety that this would last forever was poking at the edge of his mind. What if this was his life now? What if he grew old here, just blinking like a blind pup and staring at the distant source of light, so far ahead?
It had gone so small that it almost looked like a shining star now, which brought some very interesting thoughts about cosmogony to his mind. Maybe stars were holes in the sky, from whence people had once fallen. Maybe there was another world behind the empty dark.
"Shit, are we in space?" he wondered out loud.
A yell came from beneath in a hoarse voice.
"No, dumbass! We're falling down an imaginary sinkhole!"
His heart jumped in his chest, and he perked up. Making swimming motions with his arms, he managed to roll and point down, squinting to try and see something.
"Karl? Is that you?"
"Who do you think? Archduke of Ostrich Franz Ferdinand?"
Yes, that was him alright.
"When we land", the voice of Probably-Not-Archduke-Franz-Ferdinand shouted, "I am kicking you in the nuts so hard you might actually end up in space! You let go of my hand!"
Ethan was going to protest, but that felt fair. There were rules, after all.
"Sorry!" he screamed back into the void as the air whooshed around him. "Any idea where we're headed?"
After a short silence, Karl yelled:
"No shit. What's down?"
Another silence. Ethan wasn't sure with the deafening whirl of the fall, but it felt a little bashful. He frowned, as if it meant anything in the engulfing darkness.
"Karl, what the fuck is down?"
"Nothing!" a protesting scream replied.
"For the love of… Dude, really? Are you doing the door denial again? I thought we were past this!"
Only the wind came back to his ears, carrying some muttered words too low to make out.
"Karl, I'm gonna count to ten and we'd better have landed then", he threatened while crossing his arms, which made him tumble around before he managed to stabilize.
His voice was cheeky and defiant, and Ethan gasped in outrage.
"Or I'll drop a shoe on you!"
"Go ahead!" Nervous laughter echoed from under him. "I could use some spares!"
Ethan muffled a swear and batted his arms and legs to attempt to fall quicker, very aware of how ridiculous it must look, and thankful for the cover of darkness. It didn't help, and he kept plummeting without getting any closer to Karl.
"We can't do this forever", he tried to reason.
"And why not?" retorted Karl's voice. It almost sounded like sarcasm, but not quite. Ethan's heart clenched in his chest, and not just from the fall.
"Cause I need to go to the bathroom?" he joked. "Also, I would really like to see the light of day again? And, you know. Saving my baby daughter and turning Mother Miranda to minced bird meat?"
A groan of approval rose to his ears and flew past. Still, they kept falling. Ethan sighed for himself, pinching the brink of his nose. His eyes were prickling with tears from the prolonged dive.
"Spill it out", he yelled. "Why are we not landing? What are you waiting for?"
"I don't know!" Karl's voice shouted in return. "Nothing! I… There's just nothing down there that I'm particularly excited about, alright?"
It sounded defensive, but screaming back and forth did not allow much tone subtlety. Ethan shrugged in the darkness.
"How about getting out of this place and grabbing a beer? Can you get excited about that?"
A humorless chuckle came from under him.
"Yeah? And then what?"
Ethan wiped his eyes and squinted in surprise.
"I don't know! Dinner and a movie, and then one last drink at your place?"
Karl barked out laughing for real this time, though his voice was a bit hoarse when he retorted:
"I didn't mean your plan to get in my pants, Winters. I meant…" His voice died and Ethan thought he had actually vanished into space for a second, but then he started shouting again:
"Look, I'd love to wine and dine you and find out what happens. Really, I would! Just might have been a little bit nicer if that didn't involve a toast to murdering my… that obnoxious little... Donna. Alright?"
Ethan felt his guts twist again, and he took a while to reply:
"Maybe we don't need to? Maybe she…"
"You need one more !" That was a downright shriek, angry and bitter. He clamped his mouth shut, feeling his heart pound in his ears.
"You need one more", Karl repeated in a slightly calmer yell. "And it is not going to be me. Not if I can help it."
"Of course not", Ethan immediately said. He could feel the gaping crack in Karl's reasoning as well as if he had been reading his thoughts, so he added:
"It's never going to be you, you bloody idiot! Not even if we don't kill her. I'll figure out something, but whatever happens, I am not killing you!"
It rang almost true to his ears. There was no protesting it: he did not want to murder that man anymore. Not even a little. That was not something you did to someone whose hand you had held through an entire house of horror, and who had punched your homicidal wife for you and lost both his boots defending you from various monsters. It was just... poor form.
And probably, it wouldn't come to it. Surely the world was not cruel enough to force him to make that choice, because it wasn't one at all.
Karl Heisenberg mattered. But Rose was everything.
Sound was changing in his ears, as if whatever abyss they were falling through was turning into something else. They were closing in on the ground, he immediately realized. With a strange sense of relief mixed in the usual dread of anticipation, he added in a scream:
"Look, how about we both make a promise, huh? I'll go first. You are getting out of this village. Can't promise much more, but this I swear."
And in his heart, he was wishing it so hard that he felt his blood burning. There was a short silence, broken only by the hiss of the air against what sounded like a stone conduit. Something was shaping around them, some new nightmare that they would face head front, hand in hand. Together, the two of them.
The fire in his chest was growing impossibly tight, impossibly painful.
"Now you promise me that you'll forget the crotch-kick when we land!" he quipped through a tight throat .
"Fuck no", Karl replied in a strained yell. "You deserve it. But… But you will see your daughter grow. Can't promise much more, but this I fucking swear."
The words were vibrating with righteous fury, and they hit Ethan like a brick to the head. Seeing her grow , he thought, and he felt like he was run over by a train of emotions and future memories. Assembling a jigsaw puzzle with Rose, and driving her to her first day of school. Letting her win at Go Fish while Karl yelled that it was unfair. Walking her to prom, and down the aisle under a garland of white flowers.
He did a double take on that list, raising his eyebrows. Well, one of those things was not like the others, and it had come from straight up nowhere. But it felt right, somehow.
The burn in his chest was boring through his ribs, tearing at his guts, sizzling his skin. His cheeks were pulsating with a painful warmth, and he held onto that one image with desperate fervor. It would happen. He would make it happen.
And I will devour whatever stands in my way, flesh and bones and soul.
He frowned slowly as the intrusive thought excused itself and shuffled out of his brain. Well. That place was starting to get under his skin. Time to get out, grab a cold beer with his buddy Heisenberg, and firmly ignore that bullshit.
"Do you play Go Fish?" he shouted into the darkness.
"Probably not the one you have in mind!" Karl laughed back. "Unless Salvatore introduced you to his obstacle course?"
Ethan snorted and grinned in the dark, wild thoughts forgotten. He could see the shapes and shades of a rocky cave now, dimly lit by crackling torches.
"Ah, shit", he heard Karl say right under him, suddenly much closer than he had been so far.
They crashed. He felt the air leave his lungs and his bones pop in various places as he landed hard onto Karl, who had landed on top of...
A pile of corpses , Ethan noted, feeling completely jaded. Of course we are at the top of a fucking pyramid of rotten corpses.
For once, he was thankful for the darkness. He could barely see the mound of pale dead flesh, getting only glimpses of rigid limbs entangled beneath them. Under his head, there was a warm chest breathing up and down. Karl was probably having the worst time of them two, now that he thought of it. The stench was unbearable, sweet and sickly, stinging his eyes and tainting his tongue with the taste of decay.
He heaved loudly, and felt a hand push against his mouth. An unyielding arm had wrapped around him and was holding him in place. Struggling to get free, he bit down hard on the leather glove. It tasted like cadaver, and he gagged on his palm, shaking his head around.
"Shut your damn mouth", Karl hissed in his ear.
"Hmpf! 'et me…"
A low growl reverberated through the cave and into his bones, as the pile beneath them shifted. Ethan felt himself slip head first down the stack of bodies, before Karl grabbed him by the waist with his other arm. He was now looking upside down at the slope of dead faces and wrinkled flesh, wrapped in an iron-tight embrace. Very carefully, very slowly, he was hefted back enough for a bearded jaw to set on the side of his face. Whispered words tickled the shell of his ear:
"Not. A. Sound."
He was going to ask why, or what was going on, but that felt like it would defeat the purpose. The low rumble spread again through the cave, and Ethan felt his mouth dry up as he caught sight of a hunched silhouette. Massive and difformed, it was crouching near the base of the pyramid. A horrible squelching sound of mastication came to his ears. There was a crunch and the drip of saliva, and satisfied muffled groans into something wet.
The gloved hand carefully slipped away from his mouth and settled on his chest, splaying over his ribs. Blood was starting to pool to Ethan's head and it was very unsettling to look at the hulking shape upside down, but he didn't dare move an inch.
After an eternity, the thing gave one last growl, a very loud burp that almost made Ethan snicker, and it shuffled away. As it passed the dim firelight of a torch, he recognized the massive hammer strapped to its back and the shagged beard.
Weirdly enough, he instantly relaxed. Oh, that guy again. The werewolf who's cosplaying as Karl Heisenberg.
The real one was still holding him tight, with one hand gently stroking circles over his pounding heart. Very carefully, Ethan managed to lift his head up, feeling his abs strain and silently thanking Chris' Program : From Eight Pack To Six Pack. He wriggled to turn around, ending up sprawled over his chest, face hovering over his face, and desperately trying to ignore the cold dead hand on which Karl's head was laying.
"It's alright", Karl whispered, and he could feel the air on his lips. "I've got this."
"You do?" Ethan asked, not bothering to hide his thankfulness. "What's the plan?"
Karl blinked and winced.
"I… am going to walk over to him?" he suggested in a whisper.
"And this time, I'm getting that hammer back somehow. And... splitting his face open?" He looked like he was studying Ethan for a reaction. Ethan had no idea what it was supposed to be, so he made a variety of faces.
"Or begging for his forgiveness? Letting him swallow me and spit me out?"
Ethan's face settled on firm confusion at this point, while Karl swore almost right into his mouth. Somewhere down in the cave, the massive werewolf groaned again. It sounded almost painful, this time.
"Help me out here, for fuck's sake", Karl hissed. "What do I have to do?"
"I don't know!" Ethan protested in as low a voice as he could. "How would I know?"
"You're the one figuring out Donna's hilarious puzzles! Just tell me what to do!"
Ethan glanced at the hulking shadow on the stone, swallowing hard when another menacing growl echoed through the cave.
"Context, please? Who is this guy?"
Karl shuffled nervously under him, and dislodged a corpse in the process. The two of them slid down a bit further to the ground, Ethan desperately trying to find purchase with his feet to stop their fall. His shoe met something that could be a face or a ribcage, and the heap settled.
"Does it matter?" Karl's voice was almost pleading, his eyes planted into his. "I don't think it does."
Ethan huffed. Karl's tongue ran over his lips, a breath away from his own. He was still staring at him, looking cornered and awkward.
"Look, buddy, if you want my insight, I'm gonna need some too. Who is he?"
Karl didn't reply. A voice above them did, as a ray of golden light sparkled over the horrible mound of rotting flesh. It would have looked ethereal if what it shone upon hadn't been empty faces with melting tongues and twisted limbs stiffened by rot.
"Why, he is you, Ethan", Mother Miranda said.
She was wearing her regal attire with the strange headgear caging her face, and her crow wings were lazily flapping in the air. Her naked feet set on the back of a whitened ribcage, and she stood there at the top of that monolith of death, proud and quiet. Looking down on the two of them, she smiled under the golden mask.
"What do you mean?" Ethan whispered, straining his neck to look at her without moving from Karl.
"He is your fate", Miranda languidly stated, preening the feathers of her wings. "He is what will happen to you, because that is what happens to the people whose lives touch him."
Utter disgust dripped from her voice as her shining eyes set onto Karl, disheveled, haggard, and sprawled over a pile of dead bodies.
"You know this, don't you?" she continued in a velvety tone. "You know that's what I'll do to him." Her chin pointed to Ethan but her gaze didn't leave Karl. "And it will all be your fault."
"The fuck are you talking about?" Ethan furiously murmured. The giant lycan did not seem to react to Miranda's voice, nor to the freaking beam of light surrounding them, but he did not want to push his chances.
"You have been wanting me dead since we met. If that happens, it won't be on him."
"He's got a point", Karl whispered, poking at him with a firm finger.
Shiny Miranda smiled almost sadly, and tilted her head to the side. Her wings folded and vanished behind her back, and she crossed her hands in front of her like a humble maiden.
"I wanted you dead because you were a nuisance, Ethan Winters. But now that he has set his hands on you? Now, I want you broken . I will take you apart and unravel everything that made you a man. I will shatter your spirit and defile your body to the point where he won't even want to set an eye on you ever again."
The thought of Moreau crossed his mind as the Miranda illusion continued. That explains some things. In the golden light, her voice was soft and her posture demure, and it made Ethan's flesh crawl.
"I will leave you a ruin. A pathetic hull to serve only as the living reminder of what Lord Heisenberg seems to keep on forgetting…"
The peaceful tone turned to a shrill scream as she set her unforgiving gaze on him:
"You break everything you touch!"
Karl did not reply, looking firmly away from the shimmering woman. Ethan rose on his elbows and touched his cheek, turning his face towards him. He locked eyes with him and said in a matter-of-fact tone:
"We both know that's wrong, right? You don't break everything."
"Don't I?" Karl muttered, glancing away. "You've met Sturm."
There was no arguing with that, so Ethan pursed his lips. The images of the factory were dancing in his memory, twisted flesh wrapped in metal and the sick orange gleam of the reactors where something alive pulsed in pain.
"Ok, fine. You kinda have a thing for… desecration", he acknowledged ruefully. "You have weird hobbies. Then again, it's not like I've seen a badminton club around here."
Miranda snorted, and sat crossed-legged on a nearby corpse. The skin of her thighs gleamed white before she adjusted her dress over her lap.
"Face it, Karl", she purred with intense satisfaction. "You are a harbinger of corruption."
Only silence replied to her. The grey eyes were still stubbornly looking in the distance. Ethan sat up, straddling Karl with his knees, and ran a tired hand on the back of his neck. It didn't look like Fake Miranda was going to maul them in the minute, and the prowling shadow was gnawing at some other unfortunate remains at the bottom of the heap. The whole thing felt like having a very strange family picnic on top of a hill. Albeit, made of corpses. So he turned to her and bluntly asked:
"Why is it that none of your children can get along? After so many decades enduring you…"
"Exactly for that reason", she cut him in a dark voice that wasn't Miranda's. "There is no room for love when all you know is fear."
Karl let out a humorless snort. He didn't protest, and Ethan felt his heart clamp.
"I know what you think", the woman said, unfurling a leg and lifting his chin with the tip of her bare foot. "Why could they not be friends? Why did they not fight me together instead of leaning into my mind games?"
She wore spiky golden rings around her toes, and he felt them on his face when the back of her foot stroked his cheek, soft and sensual, before slapping him hard.
"Because they were monsters long before I set my hands on them."
"I don't think that's true", Ethan said, lifting a hand to his jaw. A line of blood smeared on his fingers. Pain was throbbing hot on the side of his face. He stared at the woman languidly sitting in front of him, beautiful and cruel. She was sadism dipped in gold, with eyes empty of mercy and the aura of a winter night. Cold without hope, death not a threat but a promise.
Reluctantly, he had to acknowledge that he did understand Moreau and his obsession, a little bit. She was magnificent and terrible.
"No?" Miranda murmured in a voice that melted right into his spine. "You think good people would have dived so low into the depths I offered them?"
"I think you lured in an orphan who was dying for the promise of a family, a struggling engineer who thought money would help him change the world, a woman who could feel the waters of poverty under her feet..." He counted on his fingers. With an hesitation, he added:
"And a lonely little girl who lost her parents in dubious circumstances. There's really nothing to gawk about. You took fragile people and pushed them over the edge. Bravo. Do you want a fucking medal?"
"They had in them the seeds of…"
"Oh, enough with the edgelord nihilism bullshit", he cut her firmly. "Everyone has the seeds of evil or whatever. I've been mowing through mutants for a week and I have no qualms shooting people anymore at this point. That won't stop me from sleeping."
He took a deep breath and tried to calm his annoyance. This wasn't Miranda. It was Donna playing as her evil stepmother. He needed to remind himself that.
"You took the plunge yourself", he said in a slightly calmer voice. "You lost a kid. That has my full fucking compassion. I grieve for her. But you didn't have to break all the lives you broke after that. And you know what?"
He didn't dare rise to his feet on the unstable heap of limbs, but he lifted his chin in defiance.
"I'm not sorry for you. I'm sorry for Moreau, because you preyed on his need to belong somewhere, and I'm also getting the sense you turned him into a fish to stop him from fucking another man. I'm sorry for Karl Heisenberg, fuck, I am. For everything. I'm sorry for the Duke, and even a little for his lady, though she did go overboard with the nightmare dungeon."
He planted his eyes in hers.
"And I'm sorry for Donna Beneviento, because she was good once, even with the cadou inside her veins."
The pretty face contorted into spite and hissed:
"Oh, you're sorry for them, are you? What good does that do? They don't want your pity, Ethan Winters." Her foot pressed against his throat and pushed him back. She rose up like dawn and spat:
"You are a good man. They are not. And there is nothing more revolting to the fallen than watching someone refuse to slip down the pit of shit they are wallowing in. They hate you. All of them, even him."
"I don't", Karl immediately said.
"Yes, he does. He resents you for your freedom."
"I don't", Karl repeated, almost plaintively.
"You do! You do!"
"I don't care", Ethan cut them. "Mia hated me too at some points, and so did I, and I still loved her. Sometimes you feel like shit around other people. Doesn't mean you hate them, not really. It's alright."
"See?" Miranda said triumphantly, pointing a finger at Karl's guilt-ridden face. "That. Exactly that! That's the kind of thing that drives him mad. Oh, it burns inside, doesn't it, Karl? His fucking compassion for you, like he can't see yet that you don't deserve it?"
"Shut up", he growled, raising on his elbows. "You're just jealous because nobody ever cared to help you !"
Oh, shit. Ethan wanted to interject, but words were failing him.
"And how could they?" Karl spat. "I'm the one breaking everything I touch? You killed your fucking gardener!"
"I didn't!" Fake Miranda hissed back. "It was an accident! And then, I made sure that it wouldn't happen again, unlike you!"
At the bottom of the pile of corpses, the giant werewolf threw his back and howled. The sound swelled beneath the stone canopy, vibrating through Ethan's skull, and then died in a painful gurgle.
"Ka-a-a-aaaaaaaa-rl", it wailed in an agonizing quaiver.
Karl closed his eyes in pain for a second, clenching his teeth before he let out a furious whisper:
"You wish, you horrible degenerate", Miranda sneered in disgust. "Go ahead and tell him, Karl. Tell him what happens to the people who help."
She gave a cold and cruel smile before vanishing with a whisper:
"See if he still wants to save you, then."
The golden light disappeared, leaving them in the darkness again. Next to his own hand, Ethan could feel gloved fingers clenching on the empty cord around Karl's neck. Ah , he thought. Dogtag.
He considered making a joke about it being a wolftag now, but decided against it. A low rumble was reverberating through the cave, and he felt icy sweat drip down his spine. Carefully, he lied back down. The groan was getting closer. Behind the stench of death, a whiff of rancid sweat and wet dog came to Ethan's nose.
"Fuck", Karl was murmuring to himself. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
His hand was gripping Ethan's waist so hard it would probably bruise. He bit down on his tongue when a whine came from not far below them. Panting raspily, like a pug with tuberculosis, the giant lycan fussed with the pile in the darkness. Horrible snuffling sounds came up, and it wailed again. Ethan's heart was skipping so many beats it was a wonder it was still pounding at all.
"Context", Ethan hissed, blinking quickly to try and regain his vision in the dark. The blinding beam of gold had left them in a world of inky black. "Talk to me, for fuck's sake."
"Andrei", Karl whispered after a second of silence. "His name was Andrei. He was th- the leader of the village." Despite the stutter, he sounded furious.
"Not officially. Miranda wouldn't have permitted it. But he was the one people came to when they had a problem. When the crops were bad or people were fighting, or another girl had not returned from the castle despite the prayers and the sacrifices."
Wet grunts turned into a horrid growl which almost sounded like words. Ethan couldn't make them out, but he felt Karl's chest tighten hard under his palms.
"He… Look, one day, back when I was still trying to- when I was still fighting back... I got hurt. Bad times. Ended up lying in the snow somewhere. He took me in. He knew who I was, he could have taken me to her but I woke up in his bed instead, with two kids sleeping at my feet and a bowl of soup on the table."
The words sounded like they were clogging his throat, heavy as lead.
"I thought he wanted- a favor or something. You don't take Lord Fucking Heisenberg to bed without an ulterior motive."
He tried to make it sound sarcastic, but it just came out devastatingly sad.
"-and what do you expect from me?" a haughty voice asked in the distance. Dots of shimmering sand were shining above the corpses. They looked like golden fireflies, soft and sad, and they painted the horrible landscape with a melancholic glow. Hollering like a warhorn, the giant lycan pounced onto one, claws dripping with congealed blood and saliva.
"Nothing" , another voice answered, calm and pleasantly deep. "Don't wake the kids, that's all. Luiza has a cold." The specks of gold were imbuing the cave with just enough light for Ethan to see the lumbering silhouette plop down at the sound of that voice.
"Just speak, farmer" , Heisenberg's voice drawled in that cold boasting that Ethan did not miss at all. "If it's about that Ingrid woman again… "
"It is not. We both know she is never coming back. Rest, don't scratch your bandages, and eat the damn soup, boy."
The giant lycan lowered its head in his gigantic palms. From his jaws came a long wail that sounded almost like sobs.
"Boy?!" the Heisenberg disincarnate voice sputtered. Karl snorted at that, looking a little coy in the dim light.
"You were quite an asshole", Ethan remarked as another voice joined the conversation. It was a woman whispering behind a door, asking if the right thing wouldn't be to call Mother Miranda and inform her…
"We're not disturbing the lady over this. He will be fine."
"It's not him I'm worried about! At least let me go and get Luiza…"
"The weather is too cold for her to sleep on the ground. Stop fretting, my love. She's safe there."
Karl sighed through his nose. Somehow, through all the years, Ethan didn't doubt it one second. That kid - the Luiza, maybe? - had probably never been safer than that night. Being trusted enough to watch over a child… To Karl Heisenberg, that must have mattered more than anything else ever could have.
The voices faded as the specks of light trembled and shifted, like constellations passing in the night sky. Had it not been for the mass grave and the stench of death, it would have been an enchanting sight. When they settled, another conversation broke the silence.
"Yeah, yeah" , Andrei's voice was booming in annoyance. "And if a man's dick is cut in the castle, the goats are having dinner."
"What ?" Heisenberg replied aghast.
"It's a local saying. You need to get out of that factory a little more."
"I am trying, in case you didn't notice!"
"I noticed. Give me a heads-up next time you try to run off, I'll ready the medicine kit. What do you even do in that workshop of yours?"
"Of course." Andrei sounded disappointed, and Heisenberg promptly added:
"On corpses. Just the dead. I'm not like the others."
"You experiment on… You know what? I am going to forget I even heard that. Pass me that gauze."
"I'm fine! And about that… goat saying. What does it even mean?"
"It means that it's ridiculous to always try and look at the bright side when something awful happens. So cut the crap about how getting your skin ripped off your arms by Mother Miranda taught you a valuable lesson, and let me put on the damn salve."
Karl's eyes were closed, his face frozen in a terrible yearning. Again, the fireflies drifted, casting dancing shadows on the stone walls. The giant lycan was still sitting on the ground, sobbing in earnest, terribly human sounds mixing with the canine keening.
"I heard about the crops. Did you manage to salvage anything?"
"Not enough. But we'll make do. We always do."
"Can I... do anything? Should I ask around? Hammer someone? Rumors say it was no accident."
"Oh, it wasn't." The man sounded massive and deep-chested. Ethan was starting to guess that the cadou had not made him that much bigger. "But I dealt with the culprit already. I broke both legs on that jealous prick and dragged him to the Moreau clinic."
Karl cringed, Ethan cringed, and throughout the memory, Past Heisenberg audibly did as well.
"Ah. Well. That should settle things, yes. Permanently. You are a ruthless man, Andrei."
"Heh. I was a soldier before, you know. God as my witness, I am not a violent man, but I am not above dirtying my hands when it comes to it."
Heisenberg hummed in approval. Ethan could almost hear his wry smile in the floating voice.
"I used to hate the army."
"As did everyone after the Great War. As does everyone, until the moment they have a purpose. Like a toilet plunger, you know? You don't flaunt it around, but you'd do well to have one in the back for when the shit starts flowing."
Heisenberg laughed, in that light, sincere chuckle Ethan had discovered in the last days. He could feel his chest clamp in anticipated pain. Andrei had been a good man. Down their heap of death, the giant lycan was whimpering in a low tone.
"See that tag? Third Infantry Division. That… was us."
Gold shone the flecks of light as the memory changed again. He could hear muffled voices in the back, and the sounds of crockery and food being passed around.
"We are so grateful to have you here, Lord Heisenberg."
"Maria, don't sweet-talk the man too much, my love. He will think he's forgiven for missing the summer celebration. Where the hell have you been?"
"Apologies. I got some… unplanned eye surgery."
"Your eyes do look lovely", Maria said anxiously.
"No, they don't. Nasty scars, too. What color even is that?"
"It's… Look, Miranda asked him to give me lycan eyes, alright? To fit my doggish nature or something. Salvatore insists he heard 'lichen' instead."
Andrei roared laughing while the woman profusely apologized. Ethan bit on his lip. That sounded like the kind of humor Salvatore Moreau was capable of pulling, but it was also a mercy, albeit a small one. Karl seemed to be thinking the same thing, guilt crawling up his face.
"You should leave this place. All of you."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Andrei growled. "No, really. Are you? Or do you really think we can leave any more than you do?"
"But… you didn't eat the piece of shit", Heisenberg said, completely aghast. "I thought…"
"You thought we were all happily sticking in this hellhole where pretty girls end up in the castle and babies with the wrong face have less of a life expectancy than a goat on Solstice Eve?"
"I don't know!" Heisenberg yelled while in the background, a kid started crying. "You all look fucking content enough! I don't recall ever seeing any of you fight back!"
"Fight?" Andrei snarled. "You are going to give me lessons in fighting, boy? Sometimes, all the fight you can do is protecting the ones around you. Forgive me for not butting heads with our Blessed Mother."
"Besides", the woman said with almost real conviction, "she provides for us. Our life is not bad. We are glad to serve."
Despite the silence, Ethan could feel the tension in the memory while the dots of light twinkled and drifted. There was music in the background this time, a soft piano tune that tugged at Ethan's heartstrings. It sounded a bit metallic, halfway between a street organ and a spinet.
"The kid is getting good."
"Thank god. I'm not a man to spit on a present, and we were all very thankful for your attention, but I've been through torture lighter than a ten year-old learning music."
"Don't say that. You'll give Mother Bitch some ideas. She's in… a mood, lately."
"Yeah, I saw what happened to the carpenter." Andrei's voice was dark then, and Heisenberg sounded hesitant when he replied:
"I will put him to good use."
"And I don't want to know. Pour us another one, boy."
There was a short, bashful silence and the sound of a glass getting refilled, before Heisenberg blurted out:
"By the way, I am making an army of corpse soldiers to overthrow her."
Ethan stifled a snicker, while Karl let out a painful chuckle.
"Yes." It was a simple word, but it sounded so heavy and so significant in Heisenberg's mouth.
"Well, I'll be damned. I take back everything I said about grave digging, then. Let me know if you need a hand for the shovel. I know where to find a trench with quite a lot of former pals."
"That would be great, actually. I'm running out of resources."
"Sure thing. That's what friends are for."
Karl exhaled painfully at that, his breath fluttering in the golden light. He had sat up too, crouching next to Ethan with his head resting between his hands. Again turned the lights, a glowing carrousel of memory.
"Thank you for moving that damn piano. My back isn't what it used to be."
"Sure thing, old man. I'm glad she's taking it with her."
"Yeah, yeah. The house is looking dreadfully empty already."
"They're going to live down the road", Heisenberg laughed. "She can't keep fucking her husband under her dad's roof, now can she? Ouch!" There was the sound of a punch hitting a belly, followed by more laughter.
"Maybe you should come and live in her old room, boy. Instead of making your bed among corpses and machinery bits."
A glass broke on the floor.
"Maria would approve. We worry about you, you know. That dreadful affair with the luthier girl…"
"I am fine", Heisenberg cut him in a voice that was not fine. "Just say you want someone in the house to lift you up when you'll fall and break your hip."
"Heh. Not all of us are blessed with eternal youth. Ish."
Karl folded in half then, grasping his hair in gloved fingers. His shoulders were silently clenching in sobs. Hesitantly, Ethan placed a hand over his back. The lights flickered once more, and vanished. Blackness engulfed them, and down the heap, the giant lycan threw his snout up and roared.
"It's the last time I saw him", Karl whimpered. "I said- I said I had to think about it. And then…"
Soft as a feather, loud as thunder, Miranda's voice echoed in the dark.
"So kind of you to finally join us for dinner, Karl. You are late. It doesn't matter, though. I know how dreadful these adult occasions can be for you. And this is why…"
The golden beam lit up like a theater projector over them. In the cone of light, the lycan lifted his head and locked eyes with Ethan. Well, fuck.
"I found you a playdate." Miranda laughed aloud.
With a snarl, Andrei jumped up to them. Ethan had barely enough time to grab Karl's hand and tumble down the pile of corpses, cringing hard when his face got shoved into someone else's. They scrambled down to the ground while the lycan ripped himself free from the limbs entangling his moves and dove after them.
"She turned him", Ethan heaved. "She knew he was your friend, so she turned him."
"Yes." It was the same simple, obvious yes he had heard Heisenberg state a moment and decades ago.
Blinking in the bright light, Ethan stared at the man standing besides him. Karl had lifted his head up and was fixing Andrei with hard eyes. Goosebumps were climbing up his spine. That was a look of anger he had never seen on him before. Not even with the Duke sprawling in his elevator. Not even when they had been fighting.
"You fucking missed the point on this one, Donna", Karl stated in a cold voice, face roiling with fury. Andrei seemed to slow in his tracks when he noticed that his prey was just facing him, arms crossed.
"Miranda broke him", Karl continued as the lycan kept clambering down. "He ate his wife. He fucking ate Maria. But you know what I hear in those memories? He was always a fighter. He helped me on his own terms."
A massive muzzle opened in front of him and roared, sending drops of spittle on his face. He raised a hand to calmly wipe his brow. Facing down the furious jaws, he said between gritted teeth:
"I miss him. I'm sorry for him. But it was not my fault."
Ethan felt his heart swell in his chest, and when Karl turned his shoulders ever so slightly, like he was expecting confirmation, he raised both thumbs up.
"Really proud of you, buddy. No notes."
The hint of a smile shone on Karl's face, and in the golden beam, he was suddenly looking handsome as a god. Majestic and strong, he defied the giant with a lifted chin and smirked.
"Now what?" he asked, arms still crossed.
For a second, it looked like Andrei was wondering the same. Then, Ethan gasped as a massive hammer hit Karl full front. The lycan lifted it again and bawled with so much rage and ferocity that Ethan felt his knees buckle under him. Karl had flown off, straight into the rock wall. Shaking his head, he spat blood and rose on uncertain feet.
"Now", Miranda's voice said right behind Ethan, "he beats you to a pulp. Just like last time."
He was going to jump to him when cold, dead hands grabbed his legs and his waist, pulling him back into the roiling pile of rotting flesh.
"Fuck!" he shrieked, slapping at the cadaver limbs. "Karl!"
"Be patient, Ethan", Fake Miranda said without looking at him. "You can have him once he is dead. I will give you his crystal, and then you have that one more to save your daughter. I will help you better than he ever could. I am better."
She smiled at him over her shoulder, looking like an angel of death. Icy fingers were grasping at Ethan from all sides.
"Just relax for a while", the woman cooed, crossing her hands behind her back as Andrei sprang on Karl, claws shining in the blinding light. "Maybe I should take you out of here while I kill him. We could drink a cup of tea or something."
She sounded a bit skittish, and Ethan almost burst out laughing from the absurdity of the situation, biting his tongue hard instead. Karl did not have such qualms. He hooted in a cruel mirth.
"Really?" he spat, dodging the hammer that came pounding on the ground as he kicked hard in Andrei's beastly shins. "Flirting with my friend while wearing Mom's clothes? Oh, that's fucking grand. What a turn-on you are, Donna."
Fake Miranda sneered under her breath, and lifted her hand. Corpses started to drag themselves out of the pile, crawling towards Karl.
Feeling very cruel, Ethan coughed and said in an cringing tone:
"Yeah, no offense, but you are being a little… embarrassing. This is awkward."
Awful as it was, it worked. He felt the air leave the woman in front of him, saw red pooling at her cheeks before she hissed and vanished into a murder of crows. He slapped them off as they flew away under Karl's cold laughter, and yanked his leg out of the dead grasps.
He punched a livid skull with Gunny's barrel, gritting his teeth at the sickening crunch, and came to stand back to back with Karl. Andrei was prowling around, hammer in his gigantic palm.
"I'll be having that back", he heard Karl snarl before the man thrust straight towards the lycan, shoulder first. Ethan looked, mouth agape, as he slammed into the giant. Karl Heisenberg fought hard and dirty. He used his body without any regard for personal harm, prudence or size difference, elbowing into ribs and viciously kicking joints off. There was a mess of furry limbs and trench coat, canine yelps and sounds like meat pounded by a butcher, then he rolled out with a bloody nose and the dogtag firmly squeezed in his palm. Big Boy Gunny tingled in Ethan's fingers, and suddenly, he knew what to do.
"Bullet", he said. "Make me a bullet."
Karl looked at him like he was insane, opened his mouth to say something, then turned his gaze to Andrei. Grabbing the tip of his leather glove between his teeth, in a move that was improbably enticing, he pulled his hand free. Ethan peeked at his naked fingers with a curious feel of voyeurism, so rare it was to see him without the gloves.
It was a nice hand, calloused and strong, but nothing that justified blushing like a teenager. Shaking his head, he felt a sizzle in the air, hairs rising on his arms as the familiar feeling of electricity ran around them.
"Come on", Karl muttered through gritted teeth, pressing his skin against the dogtag as Andrei popped his shoulder back in with a muffled grunt and crouched low. "Come on, inner magnets."
It smelled like ozone and warm metal, and he looked so concentrated, face crunched in a painful scowl, that Ethan felt almost guilty tackling him into the ground when Andrei charged in with the massive hammer. He felt the spikes brush against his neck and rip through his shirt and shoulder. Groaning in pain, Ethan rolled away and yanked on Karl's arm to drag him out of the trajectory of the giant.
A strong palm clasped on his, and his skin felt like a furnace. Greyish eyes locked on him as he felt a hot bullet slip into his hand.
"Make it count", Karl whispered before shoving him aside and into the corpse pile. He trailed Andrei away, as Ethan fumbled with the barrel. A vicious claw tore at Karl's torso and he fell to the ground, scrambling on his back to get back up with his gloved hand pressed on his side.
The hammer lifted in the air like a godly threat. Ethan pulled the trigger at the exact moment when it came thundering down. Time seemed to slow, and he saw the spikes plunge towards Karl's head. A hoarse shriek escaped him ; the spikes stopped just short of his skull as the bullet pierced through Andrei's heart. The lycan stumbled backwards, staring in surprise at his immobile mace.
There was a crackle of blue static along the spikes.
And with a nauseating buzz, the lycan was thrown back, shaggy fur raised all over his body. The smell of fried hair rose to Ethan's nose as Andrei took one last step, blinked slowly, and fell to his knees. He stayed like this, head slumped over his broad chest like a man falling asleep mid-prayer. With his eyes closed, he looked almost peaceful.
Karl slowly crawled backwards until he hit Ethan's legs. He pulled him up by the armpit, staring at the hammer hovering over the ground. It vibrated slightly, and Ethan felt his eyes prickle just by looking at it.
"Magnets back on?" he asked feebly as Karl scrambled up.
"They were never off", he growled. "I just let her get inside my head. But I am done."
The golden light drew sharp shadows on his face. He strode to the fizzling hammer and grabbed the handle in his naked palm before flinging it onto his shoulder.
Ethan had thought that he looked like a smug asshole the first time he had seen him do that. He was very contrite to admit that this time, he looked like a smug, fascinating, kinda hot asshole.
"My powers", Karl snarled, lifting the hammer over his head and pounding hard into the ground. It trembled and cracked under Ethan's feet. Stumbling away from the point of impact, he stared as the man raised it again. Fury was emanating from him like a halo of heat, making the air quiver.
"My memories", he barked. The spiky head sent a shockwave that shoved Ethan ass-first to the ground. A strong smell of coal and fire filled his nostrils, like a spicier version of that homely scent that he usually sweated.
His voice was a metallic shriek, and the ground shattered. Ethan only had time to gasp before they both fell down. For a second, he expected another endless fall through a nightmare abyss, but they actually crashed through a ceiling and right into the living room.
With a major difference.
Coughing and spitting, Ethan wiped a thick layer of cobwebs away from his face and jumped to his feet. The room was just as he recalled, but shrouded in sheets of spider silk, reminding him of that aunt who used to cover the furniture before going on holiday. It was everywhere. The armchairs looked like cocoons splattered with dead bugs, and around the gaping hole in the ceiling, lumps of mesh were floating sadly.
"So", Ethan pleasantly said. "A literal breakthrough. No complaint. Where the fuck are we now, though?"
Karl turned to him and tilted his head to the side.
"Back", he simply replied. With a powerful swing, the hammer shattered a nearby table as he looked up and screamed.
"Get down here, you little bitch!"
Up flew the hammer, pulverizing a framed painting on the wall. A porcelain doll turned its head towards him, and was promptly wrecked as Karl stomped around whacking at the decor. Ethan heard something skitter over his head and he spinned on jittery feet.
"There you are", Karl purred in an awful voice. Ethan didn't have time to see exactly what was there before it dropped right onto him, throwing him to the carpet of sticky webs.
"No!" a shrill voice shrieked as the hammer pounded down between Ethan's legs. He got a glimpse of a massive black mass scrambling away as he rose to his elbows, feeling viscous lumps stick to his forearms.
Karl ran after it into the next room, disappearing from view. Ethan got up with extremely mixed feelings about following them. Screams and crashes were coming from the door, and he waddled through the webs with a longing look to the main entrance.
"Stop! Leave me alone!" Donna's voice sounded like it was coming from multiple mouths at the same time, chittering in panic.
"Not so fucking smug now, are you?" Karl yelled with horrible fury vibrating in his throat. Ethan barely dodged a bit of mantelpiece that was ejected his way. The hammer crunched into the ground like thunder.
"This is my home! I'll tell Mother, I will! Leave me be!"
"You bring her here and I swear to god, the things I will do to you will make her puke on the spot!" Karl bellowed in an icy tone.
He still couldn't see where Donna was in the cacophony of broken furniture, but she was wailing in terrified sobs. Down and down and down hit the hammer, crushing wood, porcelain and dried flowers. In the midst of it all, he could see Karl's silhouette pummeling around like an angry god of destruction.
"Come here already! Stop making this so hard! I am killing you, you horrible bitch, so we might as well get it over with!"
The skittering and peeks of the massive black shape under the draped webs were not nearly as harrowing as the hysterical shrieks drilling through Ethan's ears. This feels wrong, he thought looking at Karl smacking his hammer around. That Karl Heisenberg was not the one whose hand he had held through the mansion of horrors. It wasn't the man whose company he had come to enjoy, whose darkest memories he had strode through, and whom he kept staring at with a strange ease for some reason.
"Stop it! You can't hurt me! Please! Plea-ea-ea-se!"
Karl raucously laughed at that pitiful shriek, and slammed his mace down. Nope , Ethan thought. He didn't like that guy one bit. Maybe it was that realization, and the guilt creeping in his throat, that made him ignore Karl's scream of warning. Maybe it was just exhaustion. In any way, he felt something trample him to the ground again from the side, and he wrapped his arms around it in reflex.
Coarse hairs stung his forearms and his face, as a chitinous mass writhed in his embrace to escape. He promptly let go and jumped to his feet with a shriek as the creature disappeared under the cover of webs, Karl striding towards them.
"What was that?" he yelled in disgust, rubbing at his arms. His skin felt puffy and irritated already. "What the fuck did I just touch?"
"Duck!" Karl screamed.
"That was not a du…"
Agony pierced through his chest like a bolt of lightning. Looking down, he saw, completely aghast, a sharp appendage poking through his ribs. Long, thin and barbed, it was a bug leg covered in black hairs, contracting its multiple joints while it tried to wrench back out from him. Blood was pouring down his shirt and his trousers, soaking a cascade of red down between his legs.
He screamed. Karl did as well, grabbing at the pointy end of the limb and yanking back.
Behind Ethan, Donna was clicking and chittering in panic. He could see two other spider legs on each side of him, horrifyingly long.
"Let me go!" she begged.
"Let her go!" Ethan begged.
"Don't move!" Karl barked, as if that had even been a possibility. He set a foot on Ethan's chest and pulled. With a horrible crack and a shriek of pain that ringed through his skull, the leg gave away. Something yellow and viscous gushed out of Ethan, mixing with his blood, while trembling spider legs crawled back and Karl swayed around the ripped limb.
"One down!" he cheered. "Seven to go!"
"No!" Donna wailed, pushing back against the wall. Ethan managed to turn around before his knees gave under him.
There was the hint of a human silhouette in the arachnid shape, like there had been with Moreau and lady Dimitrescu's other forms; but horrendous as she looked, Donna did not seem half as threatening as they had been. Her gigantic black, bloated abdomen was bigger than the couch, her legs long and spindly, but she was cowering in a corner of the ceiling hugging her weeping wound with lanky fingers.
The thought that yes, that was it, he definitely had arachnophobia now was pushed back in Ethan's mind by the excruciating jolt of pain through his chest.
He couldn't hear his pulse pumping in his ears anymore. The rhythmic gushes of blood pouring from the hole - the fucking hole where he had just been stabbed - in his ribs were dying.
And so am I. The realization hit him with full strength, and he managed a pitiful whine, inaudible over the commotion of the fight. The sharp prong had stabbed him exactly through the heart. He was dying. He was…
He was just going to lie down for a bit and let things flow. Just rest his head for a while and yield.
His eyes snapped open and he found somewhere the strength to cry: "Karl. Help." It came out gurgling and pitiful, but it did get his attention. The hammer stopped mid-air as Karl sneered:
"I'm kind of in the middle of something here! Heal yourself, I need a minute!"
"Yes", Donna clicked in a shrill voice. "That works too. Let him die here. Then nobody needs one more Lord. Let him!"
"He'll be fine! He got sliced in half by Sturm and he was eating my buttered toasts the next morning! Just get some booze on that!"
Ethan could feel his tongue slacken in his mouth, a strong taste of earth and rot climbing to his palate. Kneeling on the wooden floor, blood soaking the carpet of spider webs under him, he stared at his hands splayed on the ground. If he faltered, if he let go, if he laid down for just a moment…
He could rest then. He could stop clinging so hard to the fight and he could just be. He could yield.
His saliva had a strange texture, viscous and clammy. It was lapping at his teeth from the inside.
"Get oozing, Ethan! I've got a psycho spider woman to beat into a pulp!"
The hammer resumed its clanking as pain flowered in his bones, spreading like circles on a pond after a ricochet. His skin felt like fire, his limbs like lead. Very slowly, he dipped forwards. His lips parted, and something black and thick dropped in rivulets from his mouth. It splotched on the ground in the pond of blood.
"Leave me alone! He's dying anyway! Look, he is! Let me go and I won't tell Mother, I promise! Please!"
"He needs-one-more!" someone hollered, very very far away. "I'm sorry, but it's going to be you!" Little stars were clouding his vision in brown patterns. His chin felt cold and wet from the stuff pouring from his agape mouth.
Lie down. Just lie down and yield.
"Wait, shit. Ethan?"
A clasp on his shoulder, and the smell of metal cutting through the ambient rot.
From the deepest parts of his mind, where lived the soft face of his daughter and the twinkle of her curious eyes, he managed to pull one last strand of willpower. He couldn't die. Not here, not now. Not while she needed him. Not even if his heart had gone silent in the tomb of his body.
"Do not. Let me. Lie down."
He slurred the words in a voice that wasn't his own, so low and deep it sounded like they came from an abysmal well. Hanging to the threads of consciousness, he felt strong arms grab him and heave him up. Everything turned upside down, and a sneering woman clambered out of the way and onto the ceiling.
"He will die because of you, Karl! They all do! You break everything you touch! "
The words sounded like a curse. Ethan blinked once as a door was pounded open, exploding into splinters. The light of day felt like a blessing on his face, and he drank it with a content stare.
A veil of black rot fell over his eyes, and he heard a distinct voice whisper inside his gaping heart.