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A Lost Little Sponge

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Cyber City was a hectic world of neon colors, rushing sounds, always active, always bright, always on. The sewers beneath it, by contrast, were extremely dark, chillingly quiet and, surprisingly, quite damp. Why the heck would a city built from wires and circuit boards have liquid runoff? But between the dankness chilling them to their core and the moss clinging to everything, there was no question that moisture was coming from somewhere.

The real question was how Kris was seeing in all that darkness.

They'd been holding their sword aloft like a torch since climbing in through that manhole cover. It seemed to shine, and the gloom scattered before it like a school of fish beset by a shark.

But it wasn't the sword that was lighting the path.

Something about this place, this awful, wretched Dark World, had changed Kris. It wasn't enough to give them armor and weapons they never asked for, wasn't enough to leave a mark upon skin turned blue. Now they could see in the dark, too? Were they becoming one with darkness, with this world? What was next?

If they were, it might also explain why this was the longest distance Kris had been able to walk in this city without encountering anything. No strange people waited in the shadows to dole out sage advice or pithy quips. No shops offered questionable, overpriced wares. No wrecked machinery obstructed the tunnels or hid useful clues. There hadn't even been any monsters to fight, though occasionally, Kris caught sight of a rodent tail disappearing into cracks in the walls.

They're all hiding.

From me.

They know.

About the things that happened.

They can tell I'm a capital-M Monster, like I've got a sign on my chest.

Kris hadn't wanted to think about what had happened. They had done all they could to avoid thinking about it, but one little tap burst the dam, and the memories rushed back inside. Mind filled with crushing pain, they fell against a wall, holding their head in both hands.

The beat of their SOUL resounded in their ears. Their breath came in long, strained heaves. Sweat dripped down their face. Or maybe that was... tears?

Dammit.

They'd tried to push down all the fear and confusion and rage bubbling under the surface. But it wasn't working. And if they couldn't keep it in, then...

An ugly, choking sob escaped them.

God damn it all, they hadn't wanted to hurt Noelle! She was like their sister! The two of them had grown up together, them and their older siblings, too, like one big extended family! And even if she'd been a little more distant since her dad went into the hospital, that was no excuse to make her...

No. No, it wasn't me. It wasn't me!

That voice in their head. It had been overwhelming. Unquestionable. Inescapable. Inexorable.

Proceed.

Had Kris eaten anything since entering this Dark World, it would have painted the sewer wall. "Proceed." They never wanted to hear that word again so long as they lived.

Why couldn't I stop it? Stop that voice from telling me what to do. Stop Noelle from taking matters into her own hands...

At first, they had been stunned, almost mesmerized by what Noelle had done. Who knew she could cast spells at all, let alone which she had at her disposal? Back before Ralsei had taught Kris about Mercy, they and Susie had beaten monsters into submission, until they fled. But the frozen ones just... stayed. Forever. Like gleaming statues decorating the city.

But that was okay, right?

They're not like the monsters in Castle Town. I haven't talked to them. I don't know them. They're just...

Just obstacles? Just nobodies? Just what, just unthinking, unfeeling things with no families or friends to miss them now?

Really, who knows how Darkners work?

...What is wrong with me?

Then came the moment Kris realized they had lost all control. The... the ring salesman. Why had they said that to him? Why had they coerced Noelle into 'getting' the ring? She had done a fine job convincing herself that what had happened was just a trick of her imagination, but not Kris. Kris couldn't stop it, no matter how hard they had tried. They had told Noelle what to do, just like they could tell Susie and Ralsei what to do. Only, somehow it was far worse.

The ACT.

That strange, undeniable power that seemingly came from being the only human in this place. It helped direct Susie's more destructive tendencies to where they could be used most effectively. It made sure Ralsei didn't get overwhelmed by his responsibility as party healer.

It's good, right? It helps my friends...

To ACT was to cut through noise, doubt and confusion to turn it into clear, calm, practical action. The ACT imposed order over chaos. The ACT was true control.

So why couldn't I ACT and save Berdly?

He'd been such a smug, smarmy asshole about this whole Dark World thing. He had always been like that, always a thorn in everyone's side. But when confronted with a confused, terrified Noelle and a cold, puppeted Kris, his first and only thought had been to save his friend. He had worn that arrogance and bluster for as long as Kris had known him, but when the chips were down, when the situation was truly dire, his true, marvelous, selfless self had shone forth from beneath it.

It hadn't been enough to stop the cold

He hadn't deserved to die for that.

Maybe if you die in the Dark World, you just... Wake up back home? Maybe this is all a shared dream, and we'll just... wake up...

The death of a classmate. Who could conceived of that? It didn't matter if they liked him or not, who could cope with that?

Not me. Please, not me.

Not now, not here, not in this dank, smelly sewer below a city that was a dark, twisted mockery of the computer lab where students were just trying to study for class, dammit! This wasn't the time to do that. No kid should ever have to do that.

Proceed.

Right. Enough thinking. It was time for action.

They brandished their sword and shield, and turned to face the endless, formless darkness. That voice was the problem! That voice had caused all of this! And anything with a voice had to have a body somewhere, right? If it had a body, it could be fought! All it had to do was show itself, then the two of them would settle this!

Kris dashed forward, heedless of anything but the desire for absolution. They cried out for justice. They demanded their free will back. They begged the voice to show itself, to explain itself, to prove it wasn't a coward, to spend one second attempting to justify anything it had done.

They screamed. They screamed themself into hoarseness, tasting the coppery blood at the back of their throat, just a tiny sliver of the vengeful fury coursing through their veins.

But no one answered.

Kris slid to a half in the quiet darkness. They had never felt so lonely as they did right then, alone in a sewer, their only company the voice in their head that wouldn't answer.

Some problems could be solved by fighting. Some could be solved with mercy. And some problems...

Some problems just can't be solved.

They collapsed, gasping, muscles on fire with stress and strain, against the wall, curling into a ball and weeping. Frustration. Helplessness. Despair.

It was a long time before they ran out of tears. When they stood, their head hit something hard jutting out from the wall.

A ladder to the surface, rusted despite the fact that this Dark World had existed for mere hours. Faint neon light filtered in around the manhole cover above.

They wiped their face and stood, rubbing their head. Sheathed their sword. Started to climb out of the darkness.

This isn't over.

Whatever that voice was, Kris would force it to reveal itself, somehow. A reckoning would come. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, in some other Dark World, that voice would pay for what it had made them do to their friend.

--

"Kris! Where the hell were you?"

A strong purple arm lifted Kris up out of the sewer and set them on pavement. They took a moment to catch their breath and wipe the muck off their armor. They were on the street, outside, above ground. If not for the red carpet stretching into the distant mouth of the Queen's mansion, it would have been like any other corner of Cyber City.

"We were searching everywhere for you..."

Ralsei giggled. "Even Susie was worried."

Susie was taken aback. "Huh? No I wasn't!" She tsked and turned away from the two of them. "Just, y'know, tell us if you're gonna..."

Kris stood on unsteady feet. Their shoulders slumped. A ringing tone filled their ears.

"Hey, Kris, you, uh... okay?" An uncharacteristic concern softened the typical harshness of Susie's voice. "You look kinda..."

"Aww, Kris," Ralsei piped in brightly, "if you're hurt, Susie can heal you!"

"Yeah, that's right!" She grinned and flexed one bicep. "I'm a healing master now, Kris!"

A healing what now?

Before Kris had a moment to reflect on how absurd that statement was, Susie loosed a tiny ball of energy from her hands into Kris's body. It didn't heal much, but at least it didn't taste like one of Lancer's godawful cookies. Somehow, that tiny tickle of warmth made Kris feel an awful lot better.

They're still my friends. They still care. They don't know what happened back there, and if they did, I'm sure they would forgive me. I wasn't in control.

Kris could have laughed, but they were afraid that if they started, they would never stop. There wasn't time for that; there was still a Dark Fountain to seal. Kris steeled their face in the stony, emotionless expression that had served them so well throughout these adventures. It helped to keep the pain at bay. It helped to keep them calm. It helped with the thoughts.

"Let's just go already!" Susie shouted. Just like that, they were off to the Mansion, the source of the Dark Fountain and the end of this particular quest.

But... something's wrong.

Sure enough, there was Ralsei, peeping at them out of the corner of his eye, glasses shining in the dim neon lights. His head snapped forward. Maybe he'd seen them looking back? Maybe he though they hadn't noticed him looking since they'd come out of the sewers?

Ralsei knows something.

Can I really trust him?

As the three of them proceeded to the Mansion door, Kris kept their grip tightly on their sword.