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  1. Chapter 54. The Fifth Webber's POV “Over there!” The boy rushed forward on clumsy legs before ducking behind a rock. “Shhh, they'll hear us,” the girl whispered, although she was having a hard time holding back her own giggles. The night was chilly, and both children were wrapped in puffy koalafant coats that hindered their movement more than it already was by their small size and chubby limbs. The boy shushed her back, which erupted into a short battle of hushes as the children giggled at each other's antics. Finally, they managed to get themselves under control, and the boy peeked his head out to look ahead. “They don't look too dangerous,” the girl said with a pout. “I think Mom and Dad are scared of them.” The boy didn't reply, only tipped his head and watched the creatures busy at work. Several yards on the other side of the rock they hid behind was a massive, towering structure of silk. He only knew it was silk because his mother often led the raids on these kinds of structures and often brought home the same material to weave into clothing or sell for money. She always told them that it made good money only because it was a dangerous job, and that the children should never ever ever go near this place. But curiosity was eating away at the twins. The creatures- the spiders- were big, but far from the biggest things the twins had ever seen. The family's goats were bigger, and totally harmless. The spiders moved with a kind of dexterity that their goats didn't share, though. They moved with precision and carefulness. Some were weaving thick silk over their home, while others were hurriedly crawling over some sort of animal carcass. Really all that was left of the animal was bones, but they still looked like they were trying to eat from it. “Hey!” The boy scowled. “That's a beefalo! That's our food!” “Mom and Dad did say that they ate the same food as us,” the girl pointed out. “We should teach 'em a lesson!” The girl suddenly looked uneasy. “But... Mom and Dad said they're dangerous.” “I'm not scared!” The boy announced. He stood up straight and put his hands on his hips. “Hey! Stop that! That's our food!” The spider stared glumly down at the remains of their last meal. Meals had become few and far between recently, with the advancement of the human settlements. No one was ever satisfied. He looked up at the sound of some loud human cry. He and his comrades immediately prepared themselves for a fight, but the spider relaxed slightly at seeing that it was a small human. Too small to pose a threat. But... not too small for a good meal. As the spiders turned to glare at him, twisted fangs bearing in hisses and snarls, the boy realized he had screwed up. His sister grabbed his arm and started to run. The spider gave chase. Hunger curled his stomach. The boy ran, his heart pounding in terror- The spider was close- -the boy fell- -the spider lunged- Next, heat. So much heat. We were burning alive. Every single inch of our body was ravaged by heat and impossibly stiff. Despite what we could only assume to be literal fire scorching away our fur, our body shivered violently with cold. Or maybe it was fatigue? We had to wake up, though. We were too young to die, and had too much to do. Too many people counting on us. We had to fight to gain consciousness, clawing violently away at the exhaustion crippling our limbs. Our hearing was shot, with only a roaring sound echoing in our head. Finally, finally, we managed to crack open our eyes, but we had to slam them shut a moment later. It was so bright. The ground was so bright. The next attempt was more solid, and we were able to drag ourselves up onto our hands and knees. The ground crumbled softly beneath our claws, which gave us the immediate realization that this was not dirt. It was sand. A quick look up confirmed that we were entirely surrounded by sand. Not rocks, not mud, not grass. We were somewhere completely unfamiliar to us. We didn't know of any place with this much sand. Maybe some at the bottom of the cliffs, but this was an entire beach. However long we had been lying out in the sun, our black fur had absorbed the heat and was now gleefully using it to cook us alive. Our head was throbbing, and every inch of our fur was caked in salt and sand. We made a weak attempt to call out, but our breath simply rasped against our throat without much sound. It brought attention to how ferociously thirsty we were. We shot an uneasy glance back at the ocean, which was gently lapping at the edges of the... island? This was probably an island. We doubted it was on the mainland, but it was definitely not anywhere near our home. How much salt water had we swallowed? As soon as the thought entered our head, our stomach churned unpleasantly. A moment later, several mouthfuls of water and sand came out in a painful retch. None in our lungs it seemed, thankfully, but far too much in our stomach. It took several minutes, but finally, we had emptied all the contents of our stomach. With a pained groan, we leaned back, hoping to see anything ahead other than sand. In front of us, not even ten feet away, there was an animal who had, presumingly, been watching us the entire time. A... monkey, perhaps? Yes, a monkey wearing a crown on his head. Its head was tipped, as if in curiosity. We ducked our head, embarrassed. It let out a string of strange noises, its head tipping to the other side. It prompted us to at least look back at it, and it said something else, this time with a completely different set of sounds. It slowly paced closer to us as it tried a third set of noises, a set of barks and growls. We inched away. If we were about to be mauled by this creature, we really weren't in the shape to fight back. “How about... spider?” Ah. Languages. “We'd prefer English.” “Nope! Sorry, can't help you there. Although, in hindsight, perhaps I should have tried spider first. You don't look the type to recognize Prime Ape, Dragoon, or Hound.” The monkey grinned, its long tail waving back and forth. It was clearly pleased with itself for finding a common language. “You are quite... ah, spidery. Is that offensive?” We shook our head, more to dislodge some of the stand stuck on us than to answer his question. He clearly took it as the other option, though. “Fantastic! Splendid! Wondrous! I do believe that sets us on the fast track to become BFFs. At least, probably not on the fast track to become mortal enemies, since that is likely what offending you in the first five minutes of conversation would do.” “What?” We frowned. Was this creature speaking nonsense? “Whatever. Listen, where are we? We're... not on the mainland, right?” “Nope! Thank the Heavens, right? The mainlands are an absolutely awful place to be. Welcome to the Archipelago, little spider guy!” He extended a hand, something that we had absolutely no intention of taking. He was clearly unhinged, at least slightly, and he gave us the feeling that he would throw us right back into the ocean just for fun. When we didn't take it, he sighed, reached forward, and snatched our hand anyway to shake. “That's how you do it. Before anything else, let's get introductions out of the way!” The monkey released our hand and placed it on his furry chest. “The name is Wilbur! I also answer to titles such as Your Highness and My Lord and Savior Wilbur, but I understand if its easier for you to just say the name. I won't execute you...... though it might be a tempting thought.” Was he serious? “...you're royalty?” I questioned dubiously. On the one hand, it would be quite beneficial to us if we had somehow ended up marooned on an island in front of a monarch. One who, for all intents and purposes, would be the most likely to know how to get back to the mainland. On the other hand, there was nothing royal about this creature. It seemed far more likely that he had taken on some sort of royal persona after finding that crown as beach litter. “The King, actually,” Wilbur boasted. His long tail swished the sand behind him. “Which means that I own everything in the archipelago. The sand, the birds, the trees... you.” He twitched his tail to point at us as he said that. “Not that I have the most... ruly subjects. Is that a word? Doesn't matter, it is now.” “A monkey king...” I murmured under our breath, something about that concept twinging the edges of our memories. “Whoa whoa, hey, let's get this settled once and for all.” He leaned forward, a frown settling on his face. “I am no monkey, I am an ape! A Prime Ape. My title might be The Monkey King but that's because The Ape King just doesn't roll off the tongue as well.” “You have a tail...” He scowled. “Irrelevant.” “The Monkey King,” I repeated. “That's your title? Like, the title assigned to you by Maxwell?” “Don't mention that name.” Suddenly, Wilbur looked furious. His personality switched on the dime, and we could see his muscles tensing under his thin fur. “That is illegal now. But yes, if you must know, that is what he called me.” “No way...” We shook our head. “That's not possible. You're... The One True Heir?” “Blech, it's been way too long since I heard that.” The tension melted away like snow on a hot summer morning, and suddenly, he was back to normal. “For the record, that name is completely wrong also. By the time I was called that, I had been King for centuries, which leaves me no heir to anything. Especially not that ridiculous, overblown, pompous, and incredibly stupid chair. That is up to the Young Heir, not me.” Our heart sunk in our chest, which honestly was the opposite of what we expected. Somehow, not only did we survive the plunge into the ocean and land on a totally unrelated island, but we washed up in front of someone who knew Maxwell, knew the titles the Ancient Guardian had spoken of, and was one of them? This was the fifth destined member of our group? A monkey!? We shook our head. “Well... that's us. And as heir... um... we really need to get back to the mainland.” With or without you, we added silently. No matter what the Ancient Guardian claimed about the five of us, just looking at Wilbur, we knew for absolute certain that we didn't need him. Another misdirection. “No way! You're the Young Heir? That is awesome!” Wilbur beamed. “Well would you look at that! Clearly, that means that destiny brought us together! And that means that you and I are absolutely set to become BFFs. Hopefully it works out better than the last group. Which, for the record, ended up very very badly. That must mean you know the others, right? The Martyr, The Host, The Sister?” Despite the heat of the sun, we shivered. The fact that he knew those names, something that felt unnaturally intimate for someone who didn't know them at all, felt almost inappropriate. We nodded, looking decisively away. “Ooof, touchy subject? You gotta understand my excitement though, at least a little. Doesn't destined to be best friends sound kind of promising? Especially if it's with, what I would argue, the coolest person or animal on, under, or around the world?” When we didn't say anything, he continued, seemingly unconcerned about our silence. “I'm assuming that they are why you are so desperate to get back to the mainland? Gotta fulfill that big grand ol' destiny of yours, right? Gotta admit, I'm jealous.” He placed a hand on his chest and let out a long, dramatic sigh. “After all, what's the King of the World to a lowly local King like myself?” “Can you help us or not?” I asked hotly. We were quite quickly tiring of this charade. “If not, we'll try to find our way home ourself.” Wilbur adopted an almost comically deeply thoughtful expression. “Well, there is a machine on this archipelago that is said to be a portal to the mainlands. Not that that theory has ever been confirmed. We don't really have visitors from the mainland here, see.” He motioned vividly with his hands. “Or the ones that we do get aren't- uh- alive.” “Lucky me.” “No no, I argue that I'm the lucky one!” Without our consent, the self-proclaimed ape launched himself onto our shoulders, balancing surprisingly easily. “Oooo, this meeting is the start of something new!” The last of our patience spent, we roughly shoved him off and bared our teeth when he tried to come near again. “We don't want anything that you are offering, we just want to get back to the mainland. If you can help us, great, but keep your paws off of us. Otherwise, leave us alone.” “Ouch, a bite. Alright, fine. I can help you, but you're going to have to be a little more cooperative than that.” He pouted. “It's only fair.” “Alright, I say we kill him as soon as his back is turned.” I internally winced. “Ah, come on, I think it would be great for your mental state if the last dead body you saw wasn't of your best friend! Don't you think?” I clenched my teeth so hard I worried they would crack. I tried to come up with a good response, but Wilbur beat me to it. “Hey, you never told me your name, by the way. Unless you prefer being called by your title. Which is a bit haughty if you ask me, but I can deal.” “No,” I said. Suddenly, the idea of giving him my name was thrilling. Like some sort of new start, one that I desperately needed. I raised a hand to touch the coarse fur on my face, then closed my eyes. Maybe this could be something new. Maybe I could be someone else. Not the one who was always too slow or too weak. Not the one who failed every time to save those who I wanted to save. Maybe, just maybe, I could be anyone other than Webber. Maybe I could try being me instead. I took a deep breath, and forced it out before I could think twice. “Tyler,” I said. “Call me Tyler.”
  2. Chapter 52. A Chance … Death always seemed to drain something out of people. Perhaps it was the strange definition of death in this world? No matter who the person had been in life, falling at the hands of the shadows always crippled them. Whenever Charlie appeared to retrieve the newly fallen ex-Survivor, they would be dazed and quiet. Their eyes would be distant, confused. And they would never fight her. A few times, having observed the Survivors long enough, Charlie worried that they would fight. More than once she considered bringing Nightmare to such retrievals, if only for a protective measure. However, she had stopped even considering it after some time. If someone as supposedly ferocious as the self-appointed Valkyrie or the oft misguidedly defensive strongman didn't have the strength or wits to attack her, she doubted anyone would. Although, on second thought, maybe she should've continued to keep her defenses up. Charlie saw him long before he saw her, but she could see the way he stiffened up as if sensing her presence. The second she stepped out of the shadows and made her presence known, she was on the receiving end of a rather vicious punch. She had to take a couple of steps back in order to regain her balance. Before the newly deceased robot could attack her again, she waved a hand a summon twin lengths of chains that sprouted from the ground and clasped around his wrists. She didn't like to use force, but she was also kind of afraid of being beaten senseless. He said nothing, but he did struggle at the restraints for a moment before resigning himself to simply glaring at her... although, if looks could kill, Charlie would be just as alive as he was. “Be thankful,” Charlie murmured. “That I didn't bring Nightmare along. There would be nothing left of your soul.” He shrunk back, although not in submission or fear. Rather, it looked like he was coiling, preparing himself to snap forward like a snake. “Listen,” she sighed. “I'm... just as unhappy about this as you are. But I am not your enemy. Come with me without fighting, and we might be able to save what little is left of you.” “I REFUSE TO BE A PART OF YOUR GAME,” the robot snapped, bristling. “LET ME DIE.” “Well,” Charlie started with a shrug. “You are dead, if that makes you feel better. At least... as close to death as you can come in this world.” He continued to glare at her. “You should know very well it's impossible to bring someone back from death. Luckily the Constant is very forgiving about it. Instead of 'dying' in a traditional sense, your body and soul became weak enough to cross the barriers. Landing you here.” She flourished her hands, beckoning to the dark landscape around them. “So, no, I can't just let you die. That would break the rules of the Game. Besides, if you completely disappeared, you would have no chance of coming back, would you?” “AS IF I HAVE A CHANCE NOW?” “Actually, you do.” Charlie smiled softly. “Once Webber takes the Throne, bringing you back is the first thing he will do. Then, it'll be his sister.” This time, the robot physically recoiled. A flash of uncertainty passed over his face. “HE WOULDN'T. NOT FOR ME.” “It's not like he can fight that destiny. I suppose he could have, if you hadn't taken that hit for him. But you did, and he survived that battle.” At that, his choice seemed to weigh on him. He looked tired, more beaten down, more like what was expected of someone who had just brutally died. “TAKE ME TO MAXWELL,” he finally said. By the tone of his voice, it was a demand, not a request. Then again, that had been exactly what Charlie was supposed to do in the first place. As the manacles around his wrists disappeared, Charlie prepared herself to be attacked again. Instead, the robot stumbled over himself as if surprised that he had actually been released. He shot an distrustful glare Charlie's way, but she paid no mind to it. Neither one of them spoke, instead settling on a crisp silence unbroken by wind or animals. In its place was the rhythmic taps of Charlie's feet on the cool marble. Even the robot's footsteps were completely silent, a far cry from what was normal for him. The narrow hall of darkness suddenly opened up. Torches blossomed to light as Charlie stepped into the Throne room. They were surrounded on all sides by glowing white eyes, blinking and wavering just on the edge of perception. Charlie chose not to pay any attention to Them, having grown quite used to Their presence. Instead, she fixed her gaze on the red eyes of Nightmare, standing just out of the flickering light. “Maxwell,” Charlie greeted coolly, dropping to one knee in front of the Nightmare Throne. Maxwell had one leg thrown over the other, and a thoughtful hand on his chin. Charlie could see the shadowy binds, pulling any parts of him not in direct contact towards the surface of the Throne. The Nightmare Captor regarded them both coldly. The robot, for his part, stood stiffly under the piercing glare, almost as if challenging Maxwell to make a move. Maxwell said nothing, only leaned back a moment later, appearing utterly bored by this game. Charlie could see the shift in the shadows as Nightmare took in the prisoner. Its presence swelled, its palpable rage boiling until the room felt icy. “What. Is. That?” The demon snarled. One by one, the torches around them flickered out and died, allowing Nightmare full control to slip out of the darkness. The robot continued to stand against it, but even he had to take a step backward as they were plunged into inky blackness. Charlie could sense his fear. “Leave it, Nightmare,” Maxwell said breezily. He waved a hand as if shooing Nightmare away, which only caused it to anger further. “This is not the spider!” Nightmare roared. The beast moved around the robot, a calculating glare taking in every detail of his body as if hoping that he would suddenly turn into the Young Heir. While likely completely blind in the darkness, the robot could clearly sense its presence. Remaining standing was a sheer act of defiance at this point. One that had to take a massive amount of courage. “He took the hit,” Charlie said. “The heir was not supposed to survive that battle,” Nightmare growled. “His path leads him directly to the fifth now.” Its claws curled into a fist, as if it was crushing another orb in the world between worlds. “We should have kept him far away from that cursed creature. Let both of their lives crumble into emptiness.” “The One True Heir can't climb out of what you did to him, even with Webber's help,” Charlie responded, an underlying layer of ice slicing through her words. “In case you forgot, you murdered the mother of his child in cold blood, and made him watch. I don't think you have to worry about any uprising from him for a very long time.” “That boy is too much like his daughter. If anyone can pull him out of his insanity, it is him.” “Nightmare,” Maxwell interrupted. “You are dismissed.” The demon bristled, clearly enraged at being cast aside so easily, but bound by the rules to obey its master, Nightmare slinked past Charlie and the robot and disappeared into the darkness. As it did, the lights flared back to life, and the robot blinked several times as if adjusting to the brightness. He kept his mouth shut, though, much to his credit. Charlie let her shoulders hang, her defenses wearing down quickly in front of the Nightmare Captor. “I'm tired,” she confessed with a sigh. “As we all are,” Maxwell agreed. His eyes flickered to the robot, who was doing a very good impression of someone who was not listening, even though he definitely was. “If he ever returns, it'll be after our reigns,” Charlie pointed out. “Ignore him.” “Everything is falling into place nicely,” Maxwell said. “Though, I wish it didn't take nearly this long. He has his eyes set on the Throne?” “I can't say entirely, but that spider is doing a very good job of convincing him.” Maxwell nodded approvingly. “And you will make sure that he finds his way to the archipelago?” The robot visibly perked up at this, his interest piqued. “Yes, of course.” “Good.” Maxwell leaned back, humming thoughtfully. “Now that the opening act is finally completed, it is time for the real show to begin.” Chapter 53. No Lullaby Webber's POV We were exhausted, and far lonelier than we had ever felt before. In fact, the only company comfortable with us was actually a trio of animals. Popsicle hated WX- since the day we adopted him, he had growled or barked at the robot every time he came near. The hound seemed to tolerate him only for our sake. Yet, even then, he seemed to understand our grief, and never wanted to leave our side. More than once, Popsicle had attempted to bring us food- uncleaned and uncooked, the only way a hound knew how to eat- but we had turned him away. Even the decent food, like what Wilson or Winona carefully offered us, never seemed to go down well and would sit in our stomach like a rock for hours. Chester was the definition of indifference. He rarely interacted with us and often stayed away from the fire and home during exploration. It seemed the strange creature had little mind past staying alive day-to-day, and little interest in games or play. However, he had stayed glued to our lap, oftentimes occupying the space when Popsicle wasn't. Pyrite was less interested in us and, as always, more interested in Popsicle. She stuck close to him, her warmth welcome compared to the frosty blue fur of the hound. She was the one taking most of Popsicle's food offerings, burning them to ash before happily slurping it up. At least it wasn't going to waste. The worst part, though, what made all of this so cripplingly lonely, was how Winona and Wilson treated us. Wilson had thankfully kept himself arms distance from us. He never looked us in the eye and spoke to us through Winona instead of directly. While his presence caused us to curl into a visceral defense, the idea that he was no longer even trying hurt. Winona was clearly nervous and unsure of how to speak to us. She wasn't purposely ignoring us, that we knew, but it was as though she could never come up with what to say. We ran our good hand through our fur, tugging at clumps formed by the salty spray of the ocean without much care. Even amongst the animals, the only one who would follow us this far was Popsicle, who was contently cleaning our fur with his tongue. Here, this close to the ocean, the battering waves viciously chased away other sounds and thoughts. We inched slightly closer to the edge. Not near enough to risk falling, but enough to jostle Popsicle from his cleaning and catch his attention. “We all took a plunge from this cliff once,” I said softly, gazing over the water. “In the middle of winter. I couldn't believe we survived it...” Popsicle twitched slightly and let out a low rumble in response. “That was only one of the times we almost died, you know,” I continued with a soft chuckle. “It was always something. It still is always something. Giants, evil trees, plunges into freezing water. We were always either sick or injured... WX said that there was no way we would survive past the first season. They were always looking out for us.” Our voice dropped to a soft whisper. “But we never did the same for them. They both...” They both died. Once because we weren't fast enough to stop it, and once because he gave his life for ours. A hiccuping sob rose in our throat, something that took all of our effort to swallow back. “They both died, Popsicle!” I cried. “Because we were too slow, too weak. WX is dead.” Even saying the words out loud, we couldn't believe it. Even though we had watched him die, had held him as he passed, we couldn't believe it. Even though we had held his heart in our hands, we didn't believe it. We pushed ourselves up and paced closer to the edge of the cliff. Popsicle whined softly behind us. “Are you happy now, Maxwell!?” I shouted to the sky. Maybe, just maybe, if I could scream loud enough, the wicked man would be able to hear me from his Throne. “He's dead, and I'm completely helpless! Go ahead Maxwell! Do your worst to me! Do everything that he stopped you from doing before!” There was no response. Nothing to suggest he even heard, or that he cared. I fell to my knees and screamed. When my voice turned hoarse and raw, it turned to heaving, dry sobs. Every fresh batch of tears tore something from me, ripped me apart from the inside until everything about me was laid bare for the world to see. It wasn't just for WX. It was for Wilson and Winona. For every Survivor that had been willed into this cruel game for Maxwell's amusement. For my innocence, long since taken away from me. For who I used to be. For all of the things that I had forced myself to hold back, every time I had swallowed back tears or shoved my pain down. I cried for my scars and wounds, for my missing eye and lame hand. I cried for my sister, murdered and consumed because of my own childish curiosity. When finally, after what felt like an entire season, I had nothing left to cry for, I finally, finally fell silent. My outburst had all but hollowed me out completely, leaving me little more than what I appeared on the outside. I was nothing more, absolutely nothing more, than a child. So young, too young, for any of this. For just a moment, I let myself imagine. Let myself feel like the child I was. I allowed myself to pretend, just for that one, singular moment, that I was a normal eight-year old, with a bright future to look ahead to. Someone who was destined to live peacefully, married to the love of my life with a family of my own instead of being destined to rot for eternity on a throne of shadows. But that moment passed quickly enough, and I shoved those thoughts somewhere deep inside, where I would hopefully never see them again. Slowly, almost painfully, I dragged myself back again, unwilling to look at the ferocious waves any longer. Popsicle, standing by our side during the entire breakdown, inched towards us and gently rested his head on our lap. “There's really no point, is there, Popsicle?” Our voice was destroyed, barely more than a whisper. “Our destiny is on the Nightmare Throne. There was never a home or family for us to fight for.” We felt a pang of pain deep in our chest, somewhere deeper than even my heart. It had somehow never occurred to me that the cursed spider who started this mess would also grieve for the loss of his home and family. We had torn that from each other years ago, and as punishment, neither of us would ever get it again. Forever each other's prisoner. Suffering from both our own pain and each other's, and helpless to stop either. “But... even though there might not be anything for us... we can still fight for the others, right? Even if we... become the king of the world... it wouldn't be so bad if we had Erika by our side, right?” We smiled ruefully. “The twin rulers. How does that sound?” Popsicle let out a long, low whimper, then let out a heavy exhale as his body settled more into our lap. “They wouldn't allow that, would they?” I murmured. “No, it's meant for us and us alone.” Why fight for such a lonely existence? The thought hit us, hard and painful. It didn't sound like the voice of me or the spider, but we felt it internally all the same. What would even be the point? This was the thought that encouraged us to look back at the ocean. The waves suddenly didn't seem so treacherous. “You have to be kidding me,” the spider scoffed. “We've gone through too much together for you to end it like that.” “I'm alone,” I whispered. “And it's by my own fault... it all is. I killed Erika. I killed WX...” “They both ended their own lives,” Webber snapped, causing me to flinch. “In case you forgot, you didn't force Erika to come with you. She went herself! The robot chose to take that hit for you. You're going to squander his sacrifice because you're lonely?” “Webber...” I winced and pressed a hand to my head. He was furious, and rightly so. And yet, I still stood, and took a step closer to that ledge. “He died for a cause that was never going to happen. He died so that I could be free, but in the end, it was for nothing. It doesn't matter what happens to my life now. He wouldn't want me to spend the rest of my life ruling the world that killed him.” I shook my head. “Even if it brought him back. Don't you understand?” The laugh that came from my chest was far from a happy one. “No matter who I surround myself with. Even if my family loved me again, if I brought my sister back, if I erased all my mistakes, I could never be happy. You took that away from me.” My voice broke as it rose. “Do you remember what happened when I tried to go home? They stoned me! My friends, my neighbors, my family. I saw my parents that day, Webber! I saw them, and they saw me, and they didn't recognize me. They hated me! They tried to kill me! They- they blamed me for killing their children-!” I let out another incredulous chuckle as it sunk in, as I remembered everything about that awful night. “They didn't recognize me,” I repeated, staring morosely at the ocean. “I thought they would recognize me.” They don't even miss you. “I bet they don't even miss me,” I echoed. Another step. Dangerously close now. Teeth met my lame hand, struggling to drag me away from the edge. Popsicle whined loudly as he tried to pull me away. A wave of anger washed over me, likely spawned from the pain of his teeth in my bad hand, and I tore myself away from him. His grip was not as strong as I thought it was, and as soon as he released me I had to take several steps back to balance myself. First step, ground. Second step, ground. Third step, air. My heart jumped into my throat and I lurched forward to make a desperate grab for the edge as the rest of my body fell over. My claws met rock and scrabbled desperately for a purchase. The lower half of my body slammed into the cliff face, effectively winding me. I could feel my body shaking furiously, both in fear and fatigue. My lack of food and sleep was not doing me any favors. “No no no no, please no.” I couldn't fall, couldn't die. “Please, please-” I planted my feet against the stone, but I couldn't get a good enough hold to push myself up. Choking back a whimper, I turned my attention to trying to use my upper body strength to pull myself onto solid land. The stone was slick at the edge, and worn smooth by the constant spray of water from below. But I was still holding on, and that had to count for something. I could see Popsicle pacing back and forth above me, too small to help and too stressed to get help. For once, I couldn't rely on him. Tears blurred my vision as the truth hit me- the only reliable hold was the one I was grasping now, and pulling myself up was impossible from it. I had to calm down. I had survived a fall from this very cliff before in the middle of winter. I could survive this. I had to. For Erika, still alive and well even if she was a full spider. For Wilson and Winona, who would surely be waiting for me back at camp. For WX, and the sacrifice that he made so that I could live. My claws finally gave, and nothing was able to stop me from plummeting from the cliff and straight into the ocean.
  3. Chapter 51. Ice and Fire Part 2: The One True Heir Wilson's POV Faint quivers of terror continued to wrack my body long after we had left the Ancient Guardian's chamber behind. I wasn't one to pray, but I couldn't help but thank whatever higher power, benevolent or not, for not making the outcome so much worse. Heavy silence had fallen over us, the sort of silence that felt like a sin to break. It had been a struggle to leave the chamber behind, both mentally and physically. The collapsed wall made for an annoying obstacle, although one passed easily enough when not being pursued by a rhino demon monster. I couldn't help but glance over at Winona, cradling Webber in her arms. The boy had all but crashed, his body simply incapable of handling the trauma he had suffered. I had wanted nothing more than to scoop him up and comfort him myself, but he was scared of me. Terrified. I wasn't going to make this any worse than it had to be. Rather, he had pressed himself into Winona's hold, shivering and shaking and sobbing until he had cried himself out. Even now, unconscious as he was, his lone eye was puffy and his furry face was matted into damp clumps. Winona caught me looking and frowned. “Wilson... don't beat yourself up about this.” “He was my friend, Winona.” I hadn't been as close to the robot as Webber, but that didn't mean I didn't care for him. The three of us had been through too much together to not consider each other friends. Webber had called us family. I sighed, raising a hand and running it through my hair. Under my breath, I cursed myself for my stupidity. My heartlessness. “It was for nothing.” “No,” Winona protested. “It wasn't for nothing. The Ancient Guardian gave you information that you would never have had otherwise. This was... a tragedy...” Winona glanced down at the boy in her arms for just a second. “This shouldn't have happened... but from what I knew of him, I promise that WX-78 would not have wanted either of you to be discouraged. He saved Webber,” she added gently. “That was his choice. He knew he was going to die, and he did it anyway. It would only be a disservice to him to do anything else but continue forward.” There was a moment of suffocating silence. I wanted to say something, but I couldn't come up with anything to say. I didn't want to tarnish WX's memory, but... What would he rather I do? Continue towards our goal? Try to puzzle out the Guardian's cryptic “Doors go both ways” comment? Or keep Webber safe, the way he had died doing? Because we couldn't do both. I had begun to make peace with the idea that leaving, that going home, was fruitless. We had lived here for a year, now. It was almost tempting to just abandon the idea of going home ever. To stay forever in this makeshift Hell just to preserve what little life we had left. I felt like that wasn't an idea the others would appreciate, so I didn't mention it. But it was always there now. I shook my head, confused yet unwilling to break the spell of silence we had fallen under again. And so, Winona took it upon herself to break it. “Wilson... what the Ancient Guardian said about us.” I winced. This was the furthest from a discussion I wanted to have. “Why did he call you 'The Host'?” I shrugged, trying to come off as loose and calm but it probably only served to highlight my discomfort. “Ah... maybe it's best we don't talk about that. It's a long story, anyway.” “We still have awhile to go before we're back,” Winona pointed out. I debated brushing it off and telling her to drop it, but I glanced quickly at Webber and decided against it. “I hurt him,” I said softly. “No... Nightmare hurt him. He just used me to do it.” I shook my head. “So... the 'Host' of Nightmare, I'm assuming. Hah... what a title to be remembered by, right?” Winona still looked confused, but before she could ask the obvious question, I jumped in. “I don't know what Nightmare is. It's... some sort of demon, I know. Something with a vendetta against Webber, and apparently some sort of past. Nothing that I know about. What about you?” I pushed in hopes of getting the attention away from me. “It sounded like it was saying...” Winona nodded, keeping her eyes decidedly away. “That my sister is here? I've not stopped thinking about it... is she alive? Is she alright? Where is she? I don't know, Wilson, I really didn't trust that thing. Especially since...” Ah, the elephant in the room. “It called Webber the Young Heir?” I guessed. “Saying that he's destined to quite literally be the King of the World?” Winona scoffed. “No way. I'm not saying that he's weak, but he's so... small.” He shifted slightly in her arms as though aware we were talking about him, but Winona paid him no attention. “I think it'd be best if we just took everything it said with a grain of salt. That long in the shadows can't be good for your noggin, right?” “But don't you want to see your sister again? Wouldn't it be a good thing if she was here?” Winona cast her gaze down. “I... don't know. Do you remember what it said? 'She finds herself in the midst of darkness, running from a monster that only wants to give her answers. Fleeing from the same beast that she came here seeking.' What does that mean for Charlie? Is she the beast that it was talking about?” She paused. “Maybe I should've just... continued with my life like the rest of my family.” “No,” I responded immediately. “Just because everyone else gave up doesn't mean you have to, too. We'll find her, Winona.” She gave me the smallest of smiles from the corner of her mouth. “Thank you, Wilson.” “Hey.” I paused in my step, forcing Winona to do the same. She tipped her head at me. “Listen. You shouldn't think that you have to thank us for something like that. You are one of us now, and... well, there's nothing much else we can do, right?” I chewed at the inside of my cheek, looking past Winona's shoulder and into the darkness. “After all... it sounds like we're kinda stuck here for now.” She reached out a hand and placed it on my shoulder. The strength of her grip surprised me. “Let's get back home, and then we can discuss this more. Once Webber is up to it.” “Right...” It was optimistic, really, thinking that Webber would be up to talking any time soon. I would be surprised if he even woke up in the next three days. I think we all needed some good rest at that point. God, I was exhausted. “Wilson.” Winona snapped her fingers in front of my eyes, forcing me back to reality. “Let's get moving before the lantern is out. No use in letting ourselves die too, right?” I couldn't argue with that. Maybe I would also have more luck thinking once we all got some sleep... and some time to recover. We were all injured to some degree, and some down time to heal both physically and mentally was more important than anything else right now. I nodded at her, and once again took the lead. … Webber's POV “I warned you.” Even in my dreams, my head throbbed dully. Old tears stained my face, but for now, no new ones rose to add to them. I curled my arms around myself and looked away, unwilling to make eye contact with the arachnid who chose to haunt my dreams. “Get away from me.” My voice was low, lame. Completely emotionless and flat, rendering the typical anger of those words entirely moot. “You are still blaming me? You know you are kidding yourself. Just because you want to pretend that this is someone else's fault doesn't make it so.” I lifted my gaze to glare down at the spider. A heavy moment passed, and he sighed, his accusing eyes softening ever-so-slightly. “You will only continue to hurt yourself if you deny that, Tyler. Besides, however untimely your friend's death was, there is much to be gained from it. After all, I believe that the Ancient Guardian provided you with some helpful information, did he not?” Once again, I turned my eyes down. “Shut up.” He growled, clearly irritated now. “Ignoring what you know helps absolutely no one! Besides, Tyler, what does it matter? Your companions are nothing in the grand scheme of the world. Nothing at all like you. You are destined for the Throne! What a legacy! In the end, none of this matters. None of them matter. All that matters is that of which is immortal now. Nothing but you and I and Them, for as long as eternity lasts.” “Stop,” I snapped. Anger was quietly starting to boil up from the pit of my stomach. The only emotion that felt safe to feel right now. “Just... stop talking. I don't want that. I- I don't-” A sharp intake of breath came in as a hiccup. A dry sob. “It doesn't matter what you want anymore. Once you take your throne, you can have everything you want, for however long you want it.” The spider paused, tapping a clawed leg thoughtfully. “Well, except perhaps freedom from Them. But Tyler, think about it.” He grinned. “With the power of the Nightmare Captor... you can do anything in this world. You can walk the streets of your old home as a god, worshiped and feared by every single person who shunned you. You can make them pay for every rock, every piece of debris they threw at you. You can make your family immortal beside you. You can bring WX-78 back to life.” A shiver rose up my spine, and for a moment, I almost lost my balance. I leaned forward slightly to remain on my feet, one hand resting against my knee as I did so. “I... what?” “What do you think happened to Wilson? Who else would have the power to revive a soul, especially one who died so brutally?” He leaned forward as well, although in anticipation rather than shock and confusion. “Why stop at him, though? Why not think bigger?” He turned around so that his back was facing me. He started to walk away, but he paused just long enough to say one more thing. “Why don't you bring Erika back to the way she used to be?” Something snapped. I lunged forward desperately, trying to stop him from disappearing. “Wait!” But he was already gone, leaving me alone to fall fully onto my knees. I wrapped my arms around myself and blinked emptily at the ground beneath me. I could bring my sister back, to the way she was before she was killed and reborn into a spider. Shakily, I raised my hands and stared at them- furless, human, as always in my dreams. I could go back to the way I used to be. But, I argued internally. At what cost? My sanity? My hope? My freedom? What would I have to give up to take the Throne? Would I even be myself anymore at all? Would I even want any of those things anymore? “You know, I can't stop thinking about that hint it gave you.” My heart skipped a beat in my chest as I heard the spider speak up from somewhere behind me. I didn't turn to face him, but I listened nonetheless. “'Doors go both ways'. What a peculiar thing to say. After all, I can't for the life of me remember a door.” I raised my hand and turned my palm upwards. The scar was still there. It always was. The very scar that I had given myself over a year ago now, in a desperate attempt to regain everything I had lost. I still remembered my wish, too. Even as I thought it, the memory swelled over me, so harshly and suddenly that I felt as if I was there again. So scrawny that I could see my ribs even through my fur, hungry enough for it to hurt, and bleeding from multiple wounds of varying ages that refused to heal. How could they heal? I couldn't even sleep at night and barely ate enough to keep myself alive. I had grabbed the soft ground beneath me, my body heaving with sobs. For the last time, I told myself. I would never cry again, if I could just get it out now and steel myself against any other reasons to cry in the future. I had never seen Maxwell in person. I had felt him, had sensed him, but he hadn't come to me in any physical form. “You're so much... smaller than I imagined. Little more than a toddler.” I never looked up. Not once. “What do you want?” His voice had been strangely soft. “I... I just want my family back.” “That wouldn't be too hard. I would be more than willing to help you if you are willing to help me. I just need you to help me... build a simple door.” “If only,” the spider tutted, a sneer evident in the way he spoke. “If only I had any clue what door it was talking about.”
  4. Chapter 49. The Ruins of the Ancients Wilson's POV I absolutely, one hundred percent cannot believe I let them talk me into this. The caves were dark, we all knew that. That was basic knowledge. However, this, whatever this was, was completely different. Webber, WX, and Winona had returned late in the morning a few days before, and I found myself nearly passing out in relief seeing that they were all unharmed. Delicately, as if worried that he would drop it and it would break, Webber held the hilt of a beautiful blue sword that glowed faintly in the dark and put his old knife to shame. I had immediately debated whether to take the weapon away from him, but quickly decided against it. It was too big for him and definitely dangerous, but Webber had proven himself more than capable of wielding such a weapon. At least, he probably wouldn't poke his other eye out with it. Webber had hesitantly mentioned something by the fire that same night, about the Ancient Guardian. I had pointed out that we had agreed to fight it last, which WX had seconded. But the boy seemed so strangely eager, leaning forward until he almost fell and speaking his argument quickly. It didn't matter what order we fought them, he said. We were going to have to go to the caves anyway, he said. But it was something else. Something that he didn't say, but I could see in the way that he was clenching his good fist, and the fire sparking in his eye, that got me to agree. Webber wanted a fight. I couldn't imagine why, but it wasn't going to hurt us any. It was something we were going to have to do eventually. Getting into the caves had been easy, as finding the Bearger's corpse had been. A particularly ugly spider had confronted us by the corpse, but Erika had quickly appeared and disengaged before anything could happen. Now, the white spider was beside her brother, taking the lead of our pack. A handful of other spiders followed from a distance, only given away by the occasional glimmer of arachnid eyes or muted hisses. I couldn't help but realize that the spiders were specifically looking at me half the time. I squirmed under their watching eyes, knowing full well that I was not welcome amongst them. In front of us was a massive, high-walled labyrinth. I shivered as cool air blew from somewhere down the winding halls, knowing full well that whatever was causing that breeze was not natural. You know, maybe this wasn't worth it. Maybe it would be best if we turned back now. Even as the thought crossed my mind, I saw an uncomfortable expression on WX's face, hinting that the automaton was very much thinking the same thing as I. Winona seemed almost oblivious. She actually marched past Webber and Erika, crouching down by one of the walls and running her fingers down the smooth, golden material. “I've never seen anything quite like this,” she said, a surprised note in her voice. “Is this material natural here?” Webber tipped his head as he paced up to join her, resting his hand against the wall. “It's warm,” he observed. “Erika-” his voice degraded into a set of short hisses, which the white spider replied to. He nodded. “Thulecite,” he said. “That's what Erika says it's called. She said it's been here longer than they have, so who knows where it came from.” “THE FLUX IS STRONG HERE,” WX said. “IT IS... LIKE THE AIR IS THICK WITH IT.” He said the words with a sort of disgusted tone, as if they didn't sit right with him. “I mean, I suppose if we look at it that the Dragonfly is what caused the Summer to be so deathly hot,” I started, observing the surroundings without touching any of them. Warm, ancient walls in a dark, freezing cave was more than I wanted to handle. “Then we can also infer that the Deerclops is making the Winters significantly worse. And following that logic, it would make sense that the source of... the 'flux' here... could be the Ancient Guardian.” There was a long moment of silence between us, and with it a painful tension between us. “Well, we're not getting any younger.” It was Winona who broke the silence. She took her hand away from the thulecite and grinned at the rest of us. “Are we doing this or not? It's not too late to turn back, you know. The, uh, Ancient Guardian isn't going anywhere, you know.” Even as she spoke, Webber was shaking his head. I felt my stomach drop. I just wanted to get out of this terrifying place. “No, we should do it. Running now is just going to ruin whatever courage we've built up.” He took a look at me and grimaced. “Well, what little courage, that is.” “I BELIEVE YOUR SWORD IS REACTING TO THE ENERGY HERE.” It was true, I realized. The sword had been growing brighter so gradually that I somehow hadn't even noticed that it was becoming brighter than our torches. Webber's black fur was glowing silver in the blue light, and WX looked almost ghostly. “Maybe that means we're meant to be here, then,” Winona pointed out. “If we found that sword just a few days ago, and there is a decision almost immediately after to fight this thing- followed by the sword actively reacting to whatever is here? I say that means this is exactly what it wants.” Webber nodded in agreement. “Yes. Let's go, before we all chicken out.” Without waiting for us to respond, the boy broke ahead again, the sword's light following him. I kept a steady grip on my torch, not entirely trusting that light to stay. WX looked up, a look that was definitely concerned plastered on his face as his gaze traveled up the wall of golden mineral. Despite the brightness of Webber's sword, not a single glimmer of blue light reflected off of the wall. It didn't brighten or shine at all. Even when light was directly placed near it, it remained dingy and dark. It was like the walls were absorbing the light, or even rejecting it. I shivered, whether from the cold or fear, I couldn't tell. I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to quell the goosebumps rising on my flesh. The floors beneath our feet began to gradually change. I would see an occasional glimmer of red light seeping through cracks in the rock, and over time, these cracks grew larger and more frequent. The rock seemed to get darker with every step until it appeared as if we were walking on nothing. Winona occasionally reached over and pried pieces of crumbling thulecite away from the walls, or bent down to hold a piece of black and red rock in her hand. She was pocketing them, as if saving them for further observation later. I, however, kept my hands firmly at my side. Materials that rejected light were more than just materials, and I was afraid of what long-term exposure to it would do to me. Maybe I was just afraid of Nightmare using this as an opportunity to take control of me again. There were several times were we could come across several splitting paths, but Webber wouldn't even look at the others before choosing one. His whiskers were twitching furiously, occasionally brushing against the thulecite as they did. In some places, the ground was covered with vast expanses of sticky webbing. Dangling Depths Dwellers, like Erika, would stare at us from the ceiling as he walked through their territory, but none of them ever attacked us. Was that because of Erika being one of them, or did they, too, despise the cold touch of the flooring? I looked up uncomfortably. How long were these halls? “So, Wilson.” I nearly jumped out of my skin as I heard my name. I snapped into attention, turning my eyes to Winona. The mechanic had dropped a few paces back, matching my step. “You're a scientist, right? I don't think I've ever heard what branch you studied.” It was an innocent enough question, although one I hadn't answered in a long, long time, mostly because I didn't really have a good answer. I shrugged, struggling to hide how creeped out I was by this place. “I don't really study a specific branch,” I replied. “Mostly, ah, invention. But I've always been fascinated by the unknown. The things that scientists struggle to explain.” I found myself almost laughing at that, especially as Winona broke out into a grin. “Ah, so places like this must be your cup of tea.” “Not quite. I prefer things that are hard to explain, yes, but also things that... can be explained. Not walls that can eat light.” I beckoned to said light-eating walls. “Fair enough. But you know medicine and mechanics?” “Oh, no no,” I laughed. “I know basics of both, mainly just from classes. Keeping out infections and tending to injuries is one of the first things I learned. And, despite how complex WX is mentally, his inner workings are actually pretty easy to understand.” Winona nodded thoughtfully. “In fact, if you know your way around any kind of technology, I imagine that you would be able to read him like a book. Well,” I glanced at the robot, who was staring down at his feet so intensely I almost wondered if there was something upsetting him other than just the spooky surroundings. “You can read his structure like a book. Maybe not him.” She laughed. “Well, that makes sense. I kind of got that from him already.” “I mean, we've-” “Hush!” Webber hissed back at us. He had stopped abruptly ahead at what looked like a completely normal branching of the labyrinth. He tipped his head, then nodded, hissing something at Erika. “Is this the end of it?” I asked, confused. How could he possibly know it was any different than the rest? Other than the darkening floor, everything looked the same. “Mhmm.” He readjusted his grip on the sword, holding it awkwardly with his right hand. I felt a flash of panic in my chest. He could barely fight with his right hand, let alone use a weapon than he had never trained on even with his left hand. WX finally looked up, scowling fiercely. “IF THIS IS THE CENTER OF IT, I WOULD APPRECIATE KNOWING HOW YOU LED US HERE.” A look of confusion suddenly sprouted on the boy's face. “Um... that's... a good question.” He looked around, his eyes dancing around the faint designs on the thulecite walls. “Maybe it's just the way the energy feels. Almost... like it was helping us, you know?” WX did not looked satisfied with the answer. “It's definitely stronger here,” I agreed, although I had no idea if it actually was. I was too busy feeling like I was suffocating in the darkness to notice if it felt any more suffocating or not. The boy hushed me again, even though I was quieter than he and WX had been. He pressed his back against the wall and looked around one of the corners. Curious, I moved beside him, trying to see what he was looking at. As soon as I brushed against him, he recoiled as if he had been hit. He glanced sheepishly up at me before shying away. I had just enough time to be disappointed before I glanced around the corner. The halls of the labyrinth fell away ahead, revealing a massive platform that was surrounded on all sides by deep, dark gaps. Flowers tipped with glowing light bulbs illuminated the area so much that I could see everything inside of the platform- the deathly sharp stalagmites and stalactites, the occasional pillar formed by those rock outcroppings fusing together, the puddles of water that littered the pitch black rock. But most of all, it illuminated the hide of a huge, gray-furred beast. It looked like it was... asleep. It had two massive trunk-like feet tucked beneath its shaggy gray fur, and a terrifyingly sharp and terrifyingly sturdy, pale gleaming horn. The horn. That was our target from this creature. I swallowed heavily. It wasn't as large as any of the Giants, it had no claws or deadly sharp teeth. It had no fire or ice, no furious tornado minions and no roar that could send an entire army to its knees. And yet somehow, it was the most terrifying thing I had ever laid eyes on. “It's in there,” I whispered to WX and Winona, who nodded. Winona looked almost excited, and WX had a fierce grimace on his face. Webber's expression was mostly neutral, in the fact that there were so many different emotions struggling for control that no one stood out to me. “Let's do this, everyone.” I was the first to break away from the safety of the walls. My footsteps seemed unnaturally loud, especially since they seemed to grow louder as soon as I was away from the maze itself. Before I got too far, I glanced back at my companions. Webber was readjusting his grip on the sword as if he couldn't quite figure out how to handle it, and Winona was furiously wiping her nodoubtedly sweaty palms against her overalls. WX was the only one who stayed on my tail, as did Erika and a small group of the spiders, although they were a bit further away. At my look, the other two finally joined me. I don't know what it was- maybe it was the presence of strangers in its territory, or maybe it was the muttering hisses of the spiders. Maybe it was just the heavy footfalls of the robot directly behind me. But before we got much further in, the beast's blank eyes opened and its face twisted with rage. I didn't even have time to take a deep breath before it charged. Chapter 50. The Soulless Automaton Webber's POV No more than five seconds after the Ancient Guardian woke up did it rush to attack us. Our companions immediately scattered as it did, and we felt a hint of guilt as we noticed that more than one spider had been trampled before the battle even began. We caught Erika's eye, trying to express our apologies silently, but she shook herself and forced her gaze away from her fallen companions. “They knew the dangers joining this,” Erika promised, although we could hear the pain in her voice. We almost responded, but we were cut off as the Ancient Guardian let out a roar of rage as its attack landed in the high walls of the labyrinth. Its horn buried deep within the crumbling material, and we rushed forward to take our opportunity. Before we reached it, though, it tore away from the thulecite, pelting us with golden shrapnel as it did. We saw Wilson get hit with a sharp of stone, and he grasped his arm as a thin trail of blood leaked from the new wound. He looked furious. Erika was shouting orders to some of the spiders, struggling to keep the beast confused and occupied. A couple of spitters fell from the ceiling, landing heavily on the Guardian's back and hanging on like ticks. Without even appearing to notice them, the Guardian bucked into the wall again, sending out another spray of slices of rock. We took an uneasy step back, suddenly confused as to what the creature was trying to accomplish. It wasn't paying any attention to us at all. Again and again the Guardian smashed into the wall, each time sending larger and sharper pieces of stone scattering into the halls that we entered from. “It's trapping us,” I said softly. We brandished the sword and rushed towards the creature. We were intent on stopping it from causing those walls to go down. We didn't plan on leaving until it was dead, but the idea of being trapped in the arena with it horrified us. Before we could reach it, though, the wall groaned and started to crumble. Thousands of years of dust and debris was kicked into the air as the Guardian achieved its goal and caused the wall to fall into the exit. No way out. Okay, well, no problem. Once this beast was dead we could get out on our own time, assuming the light flowers stayed lit. “We're locked in here!” Wilson cried, backpedaling several steps away from the beast. He was shaking like a leaf, his eyes wide. “I knew this was a terrible idea! We need to find a way out now and come back when we're actually prepared!” “No!” I shouted back, bristling. “We got this far, this beast will die today!” “WEBBER, REMEMBER.” WX was beside us now, a cold hand resting on our shoulder as he spoke, staring straight at the Ancient Guardian. “NOTHING IS SOLVED IF YOU PERISH TO THIS CREATURE. IT IS NOT COWARDICE TO BACK OUT WHEN NEEDED.” “You think we should leave too?” I demanded, trying to keep the betrayal out of our voice. The robot hesitated for a minute. “NO,” he finally said. The Guardian shook itself free of the debris, its snuffling breaths echoing in the cavern. It stomped forward a few paces, roaring again as it did so. Its roar was so much quieter than the Bearger's was, but it drive icicles of fear into our heart. Winona was the first to break away from the shock. With a spear in hand, she met the Guardian's eyes with a fierce determination. Clearly angered by the action, she became the next target. It didn't rush her. Instead, it slowly, almost carefully, inched closer to her, its expression slowly becoming more and more enraged. Once it was just a few steps away from her, the Guardian swung at her, its horn glinting faintly in the light of our sword. Just before striking Winona, though, Wilson was there, slashing into the creature's face mercilessly with his knife. The same knife he had used to blind us. We struggled to take our eyes away from it. The Ancient Guardian whipped its head, smashing into Wilson's side with the side of its horn with such force that the scientist was flung away and skidded against the floor. As soon as Wilson had been disengaged, it reared at Winona. The mechanic barely managed to scramble away before facing a similar fate to Wilson, who was grasping his stomach as he struggled to regain his breath. “ARE YOU NOT GOING TO JOIN THEM?” WX asked. He flourished his arms. “THIS WAS YOUR IDEA.” We took a deep breath and nodded. “Let's do this together.” The robot nodded, and we both set off towards the beast. Its gray ears twitched as if noticing our movement. Its gaze swung away from Winona, one foot stomping furiously against the ground as if hoping the vibrations would shake us off course. It focused on us first, our black fur glittering in the bright light of our sword and the light flowers. And it charged. We ducked away, aiming our sword to slash the beast as it passed. Instead, the Guardian halted and tore the sword from our hands with its teeth. The weapon clanged uselessly nearby, completely harmless. Well, fine. We had claws. We leaped forward, flashing our claws. Then WX pulled us back before we could land a hit. “Hey!” I protested angrily, struggling away from him. He let us go immediately after and smashed the blunt end of his spear into its jaw. It shook itself furiously, an opportunity that both Winona and Wilson took advantage of to launch their own attacks. As soon as neither of us were in danger of being impaled, we growled at the robot. “What was that for?” “YOU ATTEMPTED TO ATTACK THE BEAST UNARMED,” WX replied, his voice pitching with annoyance. “WHEN ITS GREATEST WEAPON IS ON ITS HEAD.” Okay, yeah, that was an annoyingly good point. “That doesn't mean anything.” “FINE,” he huffed. “NEXT TIME YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE IMPALED, I WILL NOT SAVE YOU.” “Good!” I shot back. The Guardian was focused on Winona and Wilson, now, so we rushed to retrieve our sword. Surprisingly, even after smashing against the ground, it was completely intact. We wiped our weak hand off on our fur and raised the sword in our good hand. The spiders were working effortlessly at its feet, darting in occasionally and tearing away patches of fur. The Guardian seemed annoyed with its arachnid foes, turning its blank gaze away from the two humans attacking it to stomp the spiders into the ground. Most of them were fast enough to escape, but not all were as lucky. Figuring it was distracted enough, we gripped the sword harder and twisted to meet it from behind. We felt our heart skip a beat more than once as the Ancient Guardian landed hits on our friends. Winona received a nasty blow to her cheek that was still bleeding, and Wilson had multiple smaller wounds on his arms from moving slightly too slow more than once. WX had closed it on its other side, making a wide berth around the others as they fought the beast. He looked up and down its body, then dashed in to swipe his weapon at its ear. It roared, this time in agony, as WX's attack landed. There was a splash of blackened blood, and the gray ear was severed from the Guardian at its base. We wanted to congratulate WX on the good hit, but the robot had to immediately dodge another attack before landing another vicious hit that severed its other ear. It was absolutely enraged now. WX had to scramble away, nearly tripping over himself, as the Guardian attempted to crush the robot into the ground. He was beaming, clearly pleased with himself. Wilson whooped and Winona threw her first into the air. WX met our eyes and nodded a single time, as if inviting us to attack with him. So we did. Deciding that the sword was too heavy for a quick flurry of attacks, we retrieved our own knife and dropped the sword where we stood. With its furious gaze still set on WX, it didn't notice us until we had plunged the knife into its rough hide. The Guardian roared, bucking us off with such strength that we hit the ground on our side, still clutching the bloody knife. We started to drag ourself back to our feet, but as we did the Guardian was already over us and smashed the blunt part of its horn into our head. We tripped on our feet as we walked back a few paces, struggling to blink the stars from our vision. “You're going to die if you keep doing this.” “No I won't,” I snapped, holding our head in one hand. We had dropped the knife, and we were having a bit of trouble focusing our vision enough to pick it back up. Apparently taking notes from WX's attack, Wilson moved from attacking the Guardian's body to attacking the smaller parts of it. Particularly, he aimed for its eye. He reared his spear back, closing one eye, then threw it with all his might. It would have missed, but the Guardian must have seen movement from the corner of its eye and turned to face it. It lurched back as the spear buried into its eye with such force that it stuck, no matter how hard it tried to shake it off. We had to take that advantage, even if we could barely walk in a straight line. Unfortunately, the Guardian was too furiously shaking itself for us to get a proper hit. It twisted its head and hit us directly in the chest. We felt our feet leave the ground at the hit. Our heart pounded with terror. The ground came far too fast. We knew that it was coming and flung out our hand, but it was the bad hand that took the brunt of the damage. And the agony immediately wiped everything from our mind. As soon as we stopped rolling, we curled ourself around the hand, whimpering and struggling not to pass out. It happened too fast. I could've stopped it, if I had just forced myself up despite the pain tearing through my arm. If I had waited to regain my bearings before trying to attack it. If I hadn't begged to come down here to sate some sort of bloodlust that was starting to drive me mad. It just happened too fast. Sensing our weakness, the Ancient Guardian had turned its attention towards us. We didn't notice it. All we could think about was how much it hurt why did it hurt it was supposed to be better now why did it hurt so much?! And so we didn't try to defend ourself when it charged at us. We looked up, realizing our danger far too late. If we had been at our peak, we might have been able to dodge, but not like this. The thought hit us so hard that we nearly cried. We were going to die. It was going to kill us right here. And we were going to let it. “Tyler!” Something grabbed us, just before the hit came. We were shoved aside, pushed so roughly we hit the ground again and another wave of pain washed over us. So when we looked up, to see what had happened, we looked up just in time to see it burned in our head forever. It was WX. He stood strong, his gaze fierce and his arms wide as if baiting the beast. His face was twisted in a snarl, and he shouted at it so loud his voice hurt our ears. “COME AND GET IT YOU WORTHLESS BEAST!” It hit him full speed, its horn angled down and smashing directly into the robot's stomach. The horn cut through metallic skin like it was nothing. And pierced WX all the way through. Before we could even truly understand what was happening, WX was flung off of the horn of the beast, his body crashing into one of the stalactites high above before hitting the ground again in a shower of sparks and metal shreds. He wasn't moving. “WX?” I whispered hoarsely. I choked on the name, my physically pain suddenly forgotten. As I said his name, the robot turned his head slightly to look at me, a half-smile on his face. He was alive! I rushed to his side, crouching beside him and taking one of his hands in mine, almost unable to believe my own eyes. He turned his gaze down before letting his head fall back again. “WOW,” he murmured under his breath. “I SUPPOSE I LIED.” “WX... you're badly injured,” I said helplessly. The hole in his stomach wasn't by any means small. In fact, it was so large that it was almost a miracle it hadn't torn him completely in half. I took my hand back and traced the edges of it, wincing every time torn metal ripped through the skin of my fingers. “I don't know what to do. Maybe Winona. Winona can fix you, I know she can.” I stood up, shaking my head furiously to shoo the darkness on the edge of my vision away. As soon as I did, though, WX reached up and pulled me back down beside him. “NO, PLEASE.” His voice broke. “SHE CAN'T FIX ME, WEBBER. DON'T LET ME DIE ALONE, PLEASE.” His grip tightened so hard that I could feel pins and needles in my fingers. Who am I? Model WX-78, fleshling. “You're not going to die!” Even as I said this, I felt tears spilling out of my eyes. “You-you can't die! Robots can't die! We can fix you, I promise!” “ROBOTS CAN'T DIE. HA...” He shook his head, looking up at the ceiling for a moment. “WELL... MAYBE I'M MORE ALIVE THAN EITHER OF US THOUGHT.” Now that I was in no danger of leaving, he seemed to visibly relax. “WX...” I murmured. “Please, let me try to help you. I know we can, if we just-” “WEBBER.” I fell silent, hanging onto his words as if they alone could fix this. “PLEASE, I WANT... I WANT YOU TO UNDERSTAND... TO KNOW...” I would have smacked it off but i find it unfair to attack the crippled. I nodded, trying to focus on him, trying to ignore the tears and the way that they sparked when they landed on him. “I WAS BUILT... I WAS BUILT TO HATE. TO... HELP ONLY MYSELF. BUT THIS... THIS WORLD...” His gaze landed on mine, and he smiled again. “YOU. GAVE ME SOMETHING MORE. SOMETHING THAT NO AUTOMATON COULD POSSIBLY EVER HAVE.” His voice hitched as another shower of sparks erupted from his stomach. He curled himself slightly, as if trying to protect himself against what was already there. “YOU GAVE ME A FAMILY. YOU GAVE ME A SOUL.” Invigorating. Like I could outrun death. “WX, please, save your energy.” I gently touched the torn metal again, struggling desperately to figure out where to start. “I'm no one special. I'm no one at all. Why do you care so much for me that you would d-do this to yourself?” “WEBBER.” “WX, please, don't say any more. If you just spare your energy, I can get you out of here. I can get Winona and Wilson to help fix you. You just have to stop- to stop-” I sputtered on the words. “WEBBER, CAN'T YOU TELL?” His expression fell as his eyeless gaze examined my face. “YOU'RE YOU.” “No...” “BUT NOW... I AM DYING.” WX-78 focused on the ceiling now as he spoke. “NOTHING CAN STOP THIS. EVEN IF... IF I WAS STILL INTACT, I AM LOSING ENERGY AT A FAR FASTER RATE THAN I COULD REGENERATE IT.” “But even- even if you shut off, we can still fix you and bring you back, right? R-right?” WX reached up, his cold hand surprisingly gentle as he used his thumb to brush away the tears under my eye. “YOU KNOW THAT CAN'T HAPPEN.” The hound would not stop barking. I nodded, screwing my eyes shut and finally failing to keep my composure. I curled myself over him, my forehead against his chest, and started to sob. It was more than what I had done when Wilson died, and more than I had done when I had been stabbed, smashed, blinded, betrayed, crushed. My entire body shook, and my breaths were short and hitched, punctuated by high pitched whimpers and choked inhales. “Why, WX? Why did you do this?” I cried. “Not you, please, anyone but you...” I trembled as his hand rested on my head, gently petting my fur as if that could help anything. “OH, WEBBER... PLEASE DON'T CRY. YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SO STRONG.” I held him tighter and cried harder. I felt his hand, gradually losing its cold bite, pet the top of my head lightly again. I didn't want him to see me like this, but I couldn't hold it back. I will not apologize for trying to help... but I should apologize for failing to do so. I wrapped my arms around him and clung to him, holding him in a desperate hug that I tried to pour everything out in. My pain, my guilt, the way that I had really started to see him as family. That's what he was. He was my family. My closest companion. My oldest rival. Whatever he said, I promise it was a lie. “WILSON AND WINONA NEED YOU MORE THAN EVER. AND YOU WON'T FAIL THEM.” I slowly dragged myself back up to see his face again as he spoke. His words were becoming slurred. “I KNOW YOU WON'T.” “WX...” I shook my head and clenched my teeth. “I'm no one special. I'm just... I'm just a stupid kid.” He turned his head away. When he spoke, his voice was so soft that I could barely hear him. “YOU REALLY BELIEVE THAT, DON'T YOU?” I had to speak through a mountain of rubble. It felt like it was choking me, suffocating me, forever casting me into the darkness... “We could have been... such great friends.” His words were so faint, so blurred, that I barely even understood them. “I THOUGHT WE ALREADY WERE.” I forced myself to smile for him, so that he could see something, anything positive, in these last moments. “I... I thought so too.” And softly, ever so softly, I heard the smallest of off-key notes as he began to sing. “THE ITSY BITSY SPIDER…” I suppose it is a good thing that I am neither human nor spider. “WENT UP THE WATER SPOUT…” Am I speaking to a spider right now, or a human? “DOWN CAME THE RAIN…” Then why am I not happy? “AND WASHED THE SPIDER OUT.” I would rather die a hero than live to become a villain. “OUT CAME THE SUN AND… DRIED UP ALL THE RAIN…” “And the itsty… bitsy spider went up the spout again.” I barely managed to choke out the words, but I needed to. I absolutely had to. Because I couldn’t bear to let his song go unfinished. I covered my mouth and ducked my head into my chest, but even that was barely enough to muffle the wail of pain that I could no longer hold back. “Please, get up, WX. Please don't do this. Don't- don't, don't be gone. I can't... you were... please, please...” I screwed my eyes shut, and pressed my forehead against his chest. The sobs that tore from my chest ripped apart everything on their way out until my heart was in shreds and my throat was raw. I wasn't sure how long it was until the sounds of the battle returned to my ears. I wasn't sure how long it was until I heard Erika whispering to me, promising that they would keep the Ancient Guardian away. I wasn't sure how long it was until the tears stopped coming. Or how long it took for the sobs to subside. Or how long it took for me to finally be able to tear my gaze away from the body of my best friend. “Tyler, we can end this.” A voice whispered in my head. “We can end it.” I had spent so long refusing to give into the spider's demands. So long refusing to let him have any control. Quite frankly, I was tired of playing nice. It was as though my body was on autopilot. I stumbled forward, lifting the glowing sword in my good hand. “You're right,” I whispered. “I failed this fight. It's your turn.” The Ancient Guardian was certainly occupied with the spiders, Wilson, and Winona. The crushed corpses of several spiders lay at its feet, but somehow, more kept appearing, urged on by their leader. Wilson and Winona were playing far too much with fire, coming too close to being hit more than once. Next time you are about to be impaled, I will not save you. I twitched ever so slightly, a fire burning in my gut. I brought the sword up and smashed its tip into the ground. The sound was surprisingly loud, demanding the attention of everyone in the room, including the Guardian. I tipped my chin at it and bared my teeth. Which was all it took. It charged at me, a muted roar coming from his mouth. It had dislodged the spear in its eye, but the injured eye was closed and bleeding profusely. It had several other bleeding wounds, including the severed ears, but it was acting as though it was completely unharmed. Not for long. Instead of trying to scramble out of the way to dodge, I ducked between the beast's feet, and pointed my sword straight in the air. The Ancient Guardian's momentum was its downfall. It fell hard and skidded. I expected, almost wanted, to see blood pouring out of the wound, but there was none. Instead, black smoke poured from its stomach and eyes, and writhed around the sword. Almost as though satisfied, the smoke buried itself into the sword's blade. In response, its glow increased, and the bright blue turned a shade darker. But the Ancient Guardian was still alive. No. I refuse to let this happen. With a roar, I fell towards the Guardian, relentlessly slashing its bloody hide over and over and over again. The sword made no wounds, instead passing harmlessly through its body as if it was water. Without visible wounds, I couldn't even stop myself as I pressed harder and harder, swung faster and faster. It wasn't me, and I knew it wasn't. I didn't stand this way, or snarl this way. Despite my promises, I had completely allowed the spider to take me over. To tip me into that same darkness that had consumed me every other time we had fought some sort of monster. We were supposed to have more training. Slash. We were supposed to wait until next Spring. Slash. This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gotten hurt. Slash. This was my fault. Slash. It was all my fault. Abruptly, I was wrenched away from my prey, the sword clattering harmlessly as it fell from my hand. I let out a howl of despair. No!! I was not going to let anyone or anything stop me from erasing this creature from the face of the planet! I tried to tear myself away, to finish what I had started, but I felt a hand press against my back and another around my neck, just strong enough to keep me in place. Suddenly exhausted, I fell into the person holding me. I could tell without looking that it was Winona, and whether she was actually trying to calm me or just trying to stop me from brutally murdering the Ancient Guardian was beyond me. Either way, I needed that hold. I grabbed onto her and sobbed until I couldn't breathe. I cried and cried and cried until I could think about nothing else except for my pain, my loss. What else could I possibly even think about? Less than an hour ago, my best friend had been alive. I didn't have time to tell him anything that I needed to say. That I, too, was sorry for how we started. That he was my best friend. That he was the only one I truly trusted anymore. And now, I could never tell him any of that. Because he died for me. For me. “How badly is he injured?” Winona asked softly. I felt my muscles stiffen and I choked out another sob. I shook my head and buried my face in her shoulder. “Too much,” I hissed. My voice was hoarse. “He's- he's- he's gone.” “Wilson, give us a heads up if that thing gets back up or tries anything, okay? I think WX-78 is going to need some intense repairs.” I barely looked up enough to see Wilson. He didn't seem to respond to Winona for a long moment. Instead, he was staring at me, his face creased into a deep frown. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but he only looked away and nodded. Winona gently took my arm and brought me back to my feet. I could barely hold myself up, and she seemed to know that. She kept one arm around my shoulder, supporting me enough to stand. “We saw him get hit,” she said softly. “But I think we both figured the best thing to do was keep the Guardian occupied. Wilson was terrified.” “Can... can you fix him?” I winced at the hopefulness in my voice. How easily could I convince myself of the impossible? Winona smiled at me. “Well, I wouldn't be a mechanic if I didn't try, now would I?” It took all of my effort not to break down again as Winona settled beside the fallen body of my best friend. Even then, fresh tears still leaked from my eyes and I couldn't look at him. I heard Winona hiss under her breath, as if she hadn't realized the extent of the damage until now. I was shaking again- why was I shaking again? “Tyler, it's okay. This is... grief.” Why is it so painful? It didn't feel like this when Wilson died. I just felt... so empty. But... please, I don't understand. Why does it feel like I can't breathe? Like everything is crushing me? Webber, please... I dragged myself away, turning my back to Winona. I curled my arms over my stomach and hung my head, silently pleading for the spider's help. Please help me... please... make it stop hurting. “I can't do that, Tyler. This isn't something you can just shake off. And this isn't something I can shake off for you. The Ancient Guardian isn't dead, but it is incapacitated. And it should be until you decide what you want to do with it. If you need my help with it, then I will help you. But this is something we can get through.” “Webber.” I flinched at Winona's voice. No, it was the tone of her voice. I knew what she was going to say before she could say it. “Don't, I-” “I'm sorry, Webber.” She lowered herself to her knees beside me. She reached over and took my hand, then placed an object in it. I turned my eyes to the object she had given me. It was... a metallic box. Small, small enough that I could hold it effortlessly in one hand without fear of dropping it, but inherently intricate. It was borderline destroyed, large pieces having been torn apart from it. Half of the inside had clearly been gutted, exposing more wires and boards than I could possibly even understand. I choked again as she spoke, and it took all of my strength not to drop it. “This... um... this, I think, is what allowed him to... live. His heart, almost. It would have stored and recycled energy as he moved... which is why he didn't need any power source. If it was intact...” She hesitated, then shook her head and covered part of it with her hand. “Without it, it's impossible to fix him. Even if you did... if you gave him some sort of external power source...” “It wouldn't be him,” I said softly. He had said that himself. It couldn't happen. At worst, he would never even be able to wake up. At best, he would be completely reverted back to the way he was built. Nothing but ones and zeroes. “I'm sorry,” Winona said again. “I... I didn't get the extent of your relationship with him, but I know you were close.” “He was my best friend,” I murmured. As she dropped her hand away, I covered the box with my lame one, unwilling to see it but unwilling to part with it. “He was my brother.” “Uh, guys? Guardian alert? It's moving?” Wilson's voice snapped us both out of what felt like an eternity of silence. My gaze shot up, fixing immediately on the aforementioned beast. I instinctively went for the sword before remembering how entirely useless it was, so I shifted my hand to my knife. I placed the box ever so gently on the ground and stumbled forward. This beast was going to die no matter what. It had struggled to its feet, and there was something distinctly different about it. Nothing noticed by me, but rather noticed by the spider, who was almost forcing me to take note of the changes. “It's fur is no longer gray. Rather, it's closer to a pale orange, or more like a tan. It's skin looks healthier and, well, alive, rather than the sort of stony look it had before. It has pupils. It's moving entirely differently, slowly and meticulously. Almost like it is thinking about moving? Yes, it's definitely intelligent. Definitely thinking.” “Webber,” Wilson warned, but he seemed hesitant to near me. Good for him. I would not have hesitated to put him in his grave if he dared to interfere with me. “You killed him!” I howled. “Why him!? Why did it have to be him!?” I expected no answer. Which is why I nearly fell at getting one. “Young Heir.” Its voice was so deep, but smooth. Its words didn't come from its mouth, but I could hear them in my head as clearly as if they did. “The Darkness takes many victims. Your friend is not the first, and it will not be the last.” “It wasn't any darkness or monster,” I spat. “He was just trying to protect me. He was- he was-” I had to screw my eyes shut. I couldn't even speak properly. How weak could I possibly be? My anger was crumbling. My resolve was failing. I just wanted to go home. “Their presence has faded. The beast has lost one of its heads, but it has many more.” “What are you?” Wilson demanded. His voice broke. “No, it doesn't matter. You have to die. We need that horn.” I idly wondered if he positioned himself into a fighting stance or if he shrunk back in fear. “And- and we will get it, no matter what. Even if we have to cut it off.” “Ah, The Host. A man who stumbled upon a fraying world in pursuit of knowledge but found something more. A man who fancied himself a recluse, who hid from the world and swore that he needed no one, yet a man who dies slightly every single day because of his actions against another- one whose blood he does not share, but who means just as much to him as if he did. A man whose soul is slowly crumbling, even as he holds up a facade of strength. The Gentleman Scientist, a broken shell that will never be whole again.” I looked up, eyeing Wilson carefully. The expressions behind his eyes were unreadable, flashing between a million different emotions before finally settling into something blank and unsure. “And The Sister. A woman who sacrificed everything- her home, her friends, her life- in a desperate attempt to save the one she loved from a broken man. A woman who wold do anything to protect and save the one she shared a womb with, but who believed herself to have failed. She finds herself in the midst of darkness, running from a monster that only wants to give her answers. Fleeing from the same beast that she came here seeking. The Handywoman, a sibling who has succeeded in her one goal in life... but has a much bigger task ahead.” Winona wrapped her arms around herself, her eyes flickering over the deep shadows that edged the room. “Charlie is here?” She whispered. “The Martyr. Born to hate and be hated. A machine built to fill a void that could never be filled. A machine who came to a blackened land to flee from his past, from his mistakes, and from his purpose. A machine who fought, every second of every day, to become something more, but forever afraid that he would fail. Ones and zeroes, that is all he believed himself to be until the very end, where he was finally gifted his humanity and soul. The Soulless Automaton, truly no more.” My breath hitched at the Guardian's words. I expected to be angrier, but the way that it spoke was so solemn, so... broken... I couldn't. The Ancient Guardian was grieving for the very person he killed. “The One True Heir. An animal whose presence does not grace us today... but whose destiny is growing ever closer. The first, and one day the last. Birthed and raised in darkness with a heart spoiled with hatred. An animal who learned to love, but far too late. An animal who lost everything, everyone, because of broken promises and bloody deals. He roams aimlessly, his heart empty, his eyes hollow, waiting for the day that his only and oldest friend returns to him. The Monkey King, an empty heart that longs to be complete.” “There's someone else,” I whispered. Finally, I froze as the Guardian's eyes landed on me. Its gaze was soulful, pitying and grieving all at once. When it spoke, its voice was low, careful, as if concerned about what its words would do to me. “And, of course... The Young Heir. A boy marked by Them, whose fate is cast in shadow. A hybrid who spent many late nights on his knees, praying until his throat turned dry and his words turned sour that he would be found. That he would be found, loved, accepted. A boy who struggles to be the strongest, but wants nothing more than a family again. A boy born to a family that he knows no more, whose angry faces haunt him every night as he remembers the last time he laid eyes on them. A boy who fights and struggles in a futile attempt to get a happy future that he was never destined to have. Rather, his future falls into darkness... as his future lies sitting on the very Throne that has cast him into this Hell. The Indigestible, a cursed title for the cursed child destined to rule over a world of shadows- the Constant.” Ice crawled through my veins. I instinctively retreated into myself, pulling my limbs close to try to chase the chill away. A child. A pawn. A king. “You're wrong,” I whispered. “Destined to rule? Impossible.” A laugh erupted from my chest- a raw, rough one that tore my throat on its way out. “My destiny has always been to die. And if it weren't for...” I clasped my hands. “If it weren't for WX...” My voice cracked, betraying my youth. “Young Heir,” the Guardian said softly. “Your words come from a broken place, but your eyes cannot see the future. It is not a future of peace, but it is inevitable.” “We're not staying long enough for that to happen,” Wilson snapped. I winced, almost forgetting the others were there. “Because all we need is your horn and the eye of the Deerclops, and our freedom is secured.” “Shame... that such a brilliant group of Survivors is caught by the very same lies and deception that have killed everyone before you.” The Ancient Guardian drew itself up, its eyes moving between each of us carefully, as if trying to find something inside of each of us. “The Dragonfly, the Moose, the Bearger... all innocent creatures. Creatures who lived peaceful lives, but were unfortunate victims of the Nightmare Captor's schemes.” It paused, as if allowing for the words to sink in. Innocent creatures. Innocent creatures. “My friends... you have been fooled.” It was crumbling. I felt my knees give, my hands grasping the stone. It felt like the cave was collapsing around us. It was Winona who broke the silence, actually, as the only one who hadn't suffered through the fights. Through the injuries. Through watching her only parental figure perish. “If this isn't the answer, then what is?” She demanded. “I don't know the extent of everything, but I do know that- that my friends have gone through a lot to get here. Are you telling us that was all for nothing?” The Guardian looked thoughtful, then lowered its head slightly. “Doors go both ways.”
  5. Chapter 48. The Blade WX-78's POV I couldn't help but note that our travels were typically more quiet than this. Webber was silent, almost sulking, which I wasn't surprised about. However, Winona ahead of us hummed and whistled and sang small bursts of lyrics under her breath, as if she couldn't stand the silence. It was strange, as the only one of us with any interest in music was Webber, and even then he would rarely even hum and only sang to annoy us. Winona, however, was clearly unused to simply listening to the sounds of nature. I nearly said something on more than one occasion, but I managed to bite my metaphorical tongue. “You know, WX-78, I don't know anything about you,” Winona said during a small pause. “If you don't mind me asking, where were you built?” I winced ever so slightly. “I DO MIND YOU ASKING THAT QUESTION.” “Oh.” “IS THAT HOW YOU INTERACT WITH OTHER HUMANS?” I scowled. “NO MATTER WHAT YOU MAY THINK, I AM AS SENTIENT AS ANY OF YOU.” “I don't doubt that. You seem highly advanced.” A moment later, she added: “I've just never seen a robot like yourself. I've seen plenty of robotics, but none that can walk or talk or, well, think. You are a marvel of technology, you know.” “I KNOW.” That was the entire reason I was built, after all. I hated to admit it, but I did feel the slightest bit of pride in myself. 'Highly advanced' indeed. “It's a shame, though, that you still go by your model number. Even the machines I've seen, far more primitive than yourself, we call them silly nicknames. Sasha was one of my main machines, you see?” I thought about that for a moment, struggling to formulate a proper reply. Nicknaming machines? How peculiar. “IT IS MY NAME,” I said simply, unable to come up with anything better. “IT WOULD BE SIMILAR TO CALLING YOU BY A RANDOMLY GIVEN NAME. IT WOULD NOT FEEL RIGHT, BECAUSE IT IS NOT YOU.” She considered this for a moment, before bobbing her head in a nod. “That's fair. Well said.” She threw a grin over her shoulder. “Tell us about your sister,” Webber said, softly. I startled at hearing his voice, having almost forgotten that he was walking beside me. I don't even know how I could've forgotten, though- he was close enough to me that his whiskers brushed against my side with every step. “You mentioned that that's why you were here, right?” Winona nodded at me to continue forward and she drew back a bit to trade spots with me. I didn't know where we were going, but she would probably say something if we were supposed to turn or anything. So, I took the lead after a moment, and silently listened in on her conversation with the boy. I wanted to make sure I didn't stop hearing her, unable to admit that I was still afraid for Webber's safety. “My sister, yeah. Charlie. She and I- well, we were really close when she was little. I was an only child for so long, you know? We drifted apart as I got older, though. We had very different goals in life, but we never stopped keeping in touch.” Why was I afraid for Webber's safety? He was strong enough to handle himself, and if he wasn't, why would I care? Why did I defend him from Wilson in the first place? How could someone so fickle in the face of danger be someone that deserved to be defended? “I worked hard to become proficient in mechanics. I've always been interested in them. In fact, I've been taking apart and putting things back together since I was younger than yourself. Charlie, though... Charlie was the brightest, most creative person you could possibly meet. She was one of those people that you couldn't help but love as soon as you met her. She just had a way with people.” Why wasn't I able to kill Wilson? I should have been able to. I had every reason to. Yes, Webber had asked me to spare him, but why did I listen to him? What could he possibly do to me to force me to spare the scientist? He was a loose cannon, now. He wasn't safe, and he had never been useful. “Maybe that's why we got along so well, though. Charlie and I were polar opposites, but we complimented each other. When she met William, I tried to be happy for her. She was so in love with him, and he seemed so in love with her. They met by chance, you know. He needed an assistant for his magic show, and she was interested in stepping out of her comfort zone.” I was growing soft, wasn't I? I was... “It was supposed to be their final act together for awhile. They were going on a break, just to the family cabin for awhile. But... I don't know, something happened.” I was developing emotions. True emotions. I was built to emote, only slightly. But these were something different. What I wasn't built with was the ability to connect to living creatures. Which meant that I was evolving past my coding. Which meant I was more than just my coding. “I should have protected her.” I startled, hearing a second, softer voice echo Winona's as Webber whispered under his breath. “...should have protected her...” “I knew there was something wrong with him. I should have stopped her from seeing him again. She told me that something was happening to him, but that she still wanted to do that last show. She wanted nothing more than to be by his side. She really did love him.” “...really did...” “But now... she's gone. Something... some creature took both of them. That blasted man... he had played with fire far too long, and she suffered because of it.” “...she suffered because of it...” Winona was quiet for a moment, before saying in a soft voice. “Webber, are you okay? You're thinking about something... someone else, aren't you?” He twitched ever so slightly, as if he didn't realize he had been speaking out loud. “Huh? I, mmmm, don't worry about it. It's nothing, really.” He shook his head. “YOU ARE THINKING OF YOUR SISTER, CORRECT?” For the first time, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of interest. What exactly had happened with his sister? There was a lot of blank spots there. “Maybe I am,” he said hotly. It was the kind of tone that he used that suggested no further conversation on the topic. “WX-78, what about you? Talk about yourself a little bit. The best teamwork always happens when you know all your teammates.” Winona spoke with a hint of pride in her voice, as if this was an idea that she had come up with on her own. “NO.” “We don't even know all that much about him,” Webber said. “He likes to play Chess.” Surprisingly, I found myself embarrassed. Winona didn't laugh, though, or even break an amused smile. She only nodded, as if it was to be expected. “Oh, I'm not surprised at all. Anything else?” When Webber didn't offer anything else, apparently waiting for me to speak for myself, I finally admitted something. “I ENJOY BAKING.” This time, Webber laughed. “No way! Really?” “WHAT IS SO SURPRISING ABOUT THAT?” I snapped. “IT IS A PERFECTLY REASONABLE PASTTIME WHEN YOU ARE NOT CONDEMNED TO HELL.” “It just doesn't seem like something you would do,” Winona offered. “Nothing wrong with it at all. In fact, I find it neat.” She grinned at me, and I scowled back at her. How patronizing. “Obviously, I'm not much one for hiding stuff about myself. I'm a mechanic, and that's basically my main focus in life. Although, I'll admit, I've taken a liking to sewing when the situation calls for it.” She paused, reaching out to touch my shoulder as if to inform me that she had stopped. “Oh, hush hush, I think we're close.” I tipped my head curiously up, gazing at my surroundings. At some point, we had ended up in the birchnut forest that I often came to for things to carve. However, we were deeper in it than I normally went. The trees grew so close in some areas around us that I could barely even see the sky, which was glimmering with hints of dawn. “QUITE A WAYS AWAY,” I muttered. “It's closer to where I woke up, actually,” Winona said, spreading her arms. “I wandered around for awhile before deciding to build a fire before being caught out at nighttime. Which, as it turned out, was a pretty great idea. But it's where I woke up that you guys will enjoy.” She took the lead once more, beckoning us to follow her. I felt Webber's whiskers brush against my side as he came to stand beside me again. He was squinting ever so slightly as if struggling to focus ahead of him. “TROUBLE SEEING?” I asked softly- well, as softly as I could. Webber shook his head in response. “It's a bit harder when we're unfamiliar with a place, but we'll be fine.” Winona's careful steps took us into a clearing. Not a single tree stood in between the ground and the sky, bathing the ground in early dawn light. Webber paused beside me, his eyes widened as his gaze landed on the same thing I had spotted. “Whoa.” In the very center of the clearing, there was a statue that stood taller than any of us, but not by much. It was a stone pillar, with a carving of some sort of creature on the very top of it. On top of the statue was the very creature the statue represented, resting peacefully as if unaware of the others than were staring at it. I noticed Webber make a face as if he smelled something awful, but I had already prepared myself for the stench. There was a flower growing at the base of the statue, something I actually recognized as being incredibly similar to a corpse lily, hence the smell. However, I barely even glanced at it all- the creature, the statue, the flower- before my gaze settled decisively on the object that was piercing the flower to the ground. “Wicked, isn't it?” Winona whispered. “That creature was here last time, too, but it didn't move or anything. I figured it was asleep. It looks awake now, though?” “Is that...?” “A SWORD?” Winona grinned. “That was the thing I wanted to show you guys most of all. I couldn't get it out of the ground at all, but it's glowing a lot brighter than it was when I first saw it.” The blade had the flower pinned through the very center. It was a bright, almost intense blue, and it was certainly glowing quite brightly. “Is that the Glommer?” Webber asked, tipping his head at me. I nodded. “I BELIEVE SO.” Tentatively, Webber shimmied towards the creature, giving it a cautious look as he neared. It blinked its many eyes at him lazily, as if it couldn't care less whether they came closer or not. Frankly unwilling to let him stand up against a strange monster alone, even if strange monster looked wholly underwhelming, I stayed beside him. Finally, we were close enough that I was able to reach out and touch the stone statue. The Glommer burbled as I did so, but it continued to just look at me. Webber went straight towards the sword. The glow reflected off of his good eye and cast his missing one in shadows. He reached forward and took the hilt in his hand, then effortlessly pulled it from the flower. “Whoa,” Winona breathed, leaning forward. “It must be the full moon last night. At least, it looks like it absorbed moonlight.” She held her hands out, and Webber gently held the weapon out to show it without giving it to either of it. It was a breathtaking sight, and something about the sword looked like it fit the boy quite well, despite being too big for him. “It feels... alive,” Webber said in wonder, rubbing his thumb against the flat side of it. I placed a hand on Webber's shoulder. “COME. WE MUST BE GETTING HOME SOON, OR ELSE WILSON WILL NOTICE OUR ABSENCE.” “He definitely already has,” Winona said. “Let him hold it for a bit longer.” I shrugged. “I FIGURED HE WAS GOING TO KEEP IT.” “Keep it?” Webber asked hopefully, his eye lighting up. “We... we figured you would think us too weak to have a weapon like this.” “YOU PROVE US WRONG EVERY TIME WE SAY SOMETHING OF THE SORT,” I pointed out. “IF YOU ARE ALREADY HAVING TO RELEARN HOW TO FIGHT RIGHT-HANDED, IT WOULD BENEFIT YOU TO LEARN HOW TO USE A SUPERIOR WEAPON.” “Especially if we're going to be fighting the Ancient Guardian,” Webber agreed, smiling faintly. “We're terrified of the thought, but this makes us... excited.” “THE ANCIENT GUARDIAN?” We hadn't even killed the Deerclops yet, and I said as much. Webber puffed his cheeks out and looked away. “Well! It's not going to be Winter for awhile yet, and we still need to gather the Bearger's fur, which is in the caves,” the boy reasoned. “Plus, we would not be opposed to working with the spiders again.” I nodded. It didn't sound like that was his real reasoning behind wanting to fight the Ancient Guardian, but it was as good a reason as any. We would need to fight it either way, the order didn't exactly matter. “FAIR. I SUGGEST MENTIONING IT TO WILSON BEFORE ASSUMING WE ALL AGREE, THOUGH.” “Mhmm!” Webber didn't take his eyes from the delicate blade. I couldn't help but feel amused. He was acting like a kid in a candy store, and I couldn't help but enjoy that fact. Especially since this reaction was coming from him holding a clearly superior weapon to anything we had used before. “WINONA.” I turned to the mechanic, scowling ever so slightly. “I HOPE YOU ARE PREPARED. THIS NEXT GREAT BATTLE MAY BE SOONER THAN WE HAD ANTICIPATED.”
  6. Chapter 47. Slipping Webber's POV We knew what we would see even before we opened our eyes. We debated not opening them at all, just letting the nightmare pass without a second thought or acknowledgment. However, we knew very well it wasn't going to be like that. We sighed, rolling onto our stomach and opening our eyes a crack. “What do you want?” I growled. “To lecture me again?” “I wouldn't call my advice a lecture,” the spider pouted. “You'd think after so long of being together you would realize that I do care about you. Some.” “You only care for me when it concerns you.” “Which, in case you haven't noticed, is all the time. Come on, Tyler, walk with me.” I growled, but dragged my body into a standing position nonetheless. We were in a place that I was unfamiliar with. The ground beneath my feet was smooth and golden, and there were high walls that reached far above my head completely surrounding the both of us. The walls and ceiling were plastered in jewels and gold, but the most noteworthy thing was the gilded throne towards the back. I reached a hand up and ran my fingers through my hair, relishing in the atypical but nostalgic feeling. “We have been through a lot recently,” the spider mused. “Haven't we?” “I have,” I snapped. “The last time I checked, you weren't the one getting mauled by your own teammate.” “No, but you weren't the one that had your mind and body stolen from you.” I threw my hands in the air in frustration. “It wasn't like I chose to be like this! I just woke up like this weeks after you ate me! In case you forgot this was entirely your fault!” “We do things without thinking when we're starving,” he snapped, his front legs rising as if preparing to attack. “It is basic survival. I would've thought you of all people would understand that.” I bit my lip, but I couldn't argue with that. The spider seemed to relax a bit. He lowered his legs and continued walking. “Tyler, I think it's time we had a talk.” “A talk?” I scowled. “What could we possibly have to talk about?” “Many things. I can think of a hundred topics at the top of my head. Why haven't you murdered the scientist? What do you think of this woman breaking up your group dynamic?” He paused for a moment. “Why haven't you told them to call you by your real name?” He twittered for a moment, a strange spidery sound that I wasn't even entirely certain I could recreate. “But... the thing I really wanted to speak to you about was us. Our relationship.” “I want nothing to do with you. It would make me happy to see you gone forever.” “Well, that's not going to happen, is it?” Webber snapped. “And I think we should begin to make peace with that. Tyler, I believe we should have a... a truce.” I startled, suddenly so confused I struggled to figure out how to respond. The spider crawled effortlessly into the throne and turned to examine my expression. He laid his body against it, holding his two front legs out and tapping them to a silent beat. “A truce?” I sputtered. “What kind of truce could I possibly want with you?” “Let me regain control. It doesn't have to be all the time... or even most of the time. But I can help you.” The spider's claws tapped faster and ever so slightly harder. His eyes were searching my own as if looking for the answer he wanted in them. “Why would I ever do that?” I spat. “You are a cruel and vicious predator at heart, and that's all you'll ever be. You would kill my family in a heartbeat.” “Family!?” The spider let out a howl of laughter. “Oh, you are kidding me! Is that still how you view them!?” He leaned forward, his white eyes glittering with cruelty. “Wilson tried twice to murder you. He forever crippled you, and what did he do afterward? Apologize? As if that could possibly make up for how he hurt you! He sliced your eye in half, he slit your throat, he pinned you against a machine with a knife through the palm and crushed that same hand, rendering it forever useless.” I clenched my fists, suddenly acutely aware of both of my functioning hands, something I no longer had in the real world. “And WX,” the spider continued. “He's even worse. He is a machine, Tyler. He can't feel love. He can't feel friendship. He can't feel anything except for hate. Because that is what he was built to do. He is not your friend. He knows that you are his only chance for survival, and because of that, he stays around. The moment he feels he can be safer elsewhere, he will leave without a second thought.” “You're wrong,” I whispered. “Wilson... it wasn't him who did it. It was something else. Something that... that wanted me dead. And WX-” I swallowed back the emotions that were threatening to choke me. “WX cares for me. He saved me from Wilson. Without him, I would've died. He... he found the spiders in order to help heal me. He sang me to sleep when I was injured.” I took a deep breath, then rose my voice defiantly. “You say these things about them because you've never known a home, or a family, or friends. You've never been loved before. You're just a spider.” “Tyler,” the spider murmured. “You don't understand, do you? Let me help you. Let me come out every once in awhile, just to help. My instincts are stronger than yours. My mind is sharper and my claws are faster. If they mean that much to you... then I will leave them alone. And the day they abandon you... the day you get yourself in trouble that will end with either your life or theirs... I will be the only one there for you.” “That's never going to happen.” “Really?” He folded one of his front legs under his body, but his other one remained stretched out in front of him, tapping the solid gold of the throne beneath him. “Do you believe they would risk their lives for you? Do you believe that you are just so important that they would die for you? Do you, Tyler? Do you really believe that?” He let out a spit. “Are you that much of a moron? You're just a foul... disgusting hybrid creature. A child who has already cheated death a million times too many. They are repulsed by you. They are disgusted by you.” I took a step back. Wilson's: No self-respecting creature would dare call you their own, human and spider alike. But... WX's: I SUPPOSE IT IS A GOOD THING I AM NEITHER HUMAN NOR SPIDER. “You are wrong,” I repeated, enunciating every syllable harshly. “I don't need you. I don't need you to survive, and I don't need you to act like you'll be there to catch me if I fall.” I straightened my back, glaring at the spider on the throne. “Because I won't fall. And if I do, they will catch me. And I will catch them. I will never let you have any control.” A moment later, a yelp exploded from my throat as the spider lunged at me, knocking me over with ease and holding two claws over my neck, each one pressed against an artery. I bared my teeth at him, but realized a moment too late that there was nothing intimidating about a small human child doing that. “You are blind,” he growled. “I am the only individual you can rely on. And if you won't give me control, then I will take it by force.” “Just try it!” I spat in his face. I tucked my legs against my torso and kicked him away, scrabbling to a standing position and preparing for a fight. “You never have succeeded, and you never will. I will always be stronger than you. And if I feel like you are somehow winning-” “Oh? What could you do to stop me?” He grinned as if catching a bluff. “I'll kill us both,” I hissed. “I wouldn't hesitate. The moment I feel you taking control, I will spend my last moments of consciousness putting a spear through my neck.” This actually caught the spider. He took a step back, then another one. There was a flash of fear in his white eyes. “You lie,” he accused, but I could hear the hesitation in his voice. “I value control over my life. If you think you're catching a bluff, just try it and see what happens. If I go down, I will drag you kicking and screaming into Hell with me.” “And if you don't notice?” He leaned forward, that all-knowing grin settling back onto his face. “If you just wake up one day... unable to move. Unable to think. Screaming to be let out, but thoroughly ignored. What would you do? Would you beg? Would you cry?” “WX already made me agree to kill him if he was being controlled by something and tried to hurt me.” I tipped my chin up. “I will force him to make the same decision.” “Do you think he would be able to go through with it? If he supposedly cares for you oh so much, what makes you think he would do it?” “Because he cares about me. Because he knows that it would be best for me. Because he knows that it wouldn't be me anymore, just a black-hearted monster posing as a child.” “What have I done to be called a monster?” The spider spat. “Spiders are predators, Tyler. We hunt to survive. You seem to believe that me attacking you was some sort of... personal vendetta. But what is so different from me eating you and you eating a rabbit you plucked from its home? A goat that does nothing but stand uselessly in the middle of a dessert? Face it, Tyler. You are just as much of a monster as I.” I ground my teeth, refusing to admit the truth in his words. “You killed the Dragonfly, Tyler, and the Moose. Did you forget how both died under your hand? But only after you embraced me for just... a moment?” I shuddered, forced to remember a feeling I didn't want to remember. The Moose's massive body shuddering in agony beneath me as I clung to her like a burr. Blood pouring out of a gaping wound in her throat, bathing us in its metallic stench. Our vision swimming, the salty tang clouding his senses and driving me further back, shoving my consciousness deeper and deeper, the urge... no, the craving to keep stabbing her, to soak our bristling fur in crimson liquid and to feed... our stomach or this intense, petrifying bloodlust, we couldn't tell. “Stop, stop,” I cried hoarsely. “That... that wasn't me. That was- that was-” “That was me,” the spider purred. “And just like that, the first Giant was killed! Isn't that exactly what you wanted?” “I didn't want that feeling. That... oh God...” Just the memory of it was bringing bile to the back of my throat. I held one hand over my neck and the other curled around my stomach. “But without it, you would have died. And then the Dragonfly...” This time, it was me. No otherworldly force was driving me into the throes of insanity, it was entirely my mind, my hand, gutting the massive beast like it was nothing more than a fish. I had been overcome with such a sense of rage... and so... so much pain. “Tyler, without me, you will die in this next battle,” the spider said bluntly. “I know you will.” “The next battle,” I echoed. “You're going to fight the Ancient Guardian, yes?” “...the Deerclops is the next seasonal Giant.” “But your plans lay elsewhere,” Webber finished. He twittered again, that same strange clicking spider-y sound that was so strange to me. “Because this time, you want your sister beside you. The others agree?” I stared at the ground. “Oh, I forgot, you haven't asked them yet. Because you're afraid they'll make you wait until the winter. Because face it, Tyler, you want the bloodshed. You feel empty without having some grand creature to fight. The Bearger went down without trouble, and now you just can't get rid of that itch.” He was right. Again. I absently ran a hand through my hair, frowning deeply. “But that itch will kill you. I have seen it. And... I worry for you.” “Why aren't you just a normal spider?” I exploded. The words came out faster than I intended, but the thought bit at me. “You're not! Spiders don't see things like that! Spiders can't give others visions!” “Because unlike you, I have embraced Them!” The spider spat back. “And I use Them to defend you as I can. Without me, without my influence, you would have died every time you encountered a giant. WX-78? The tree guard? Wilson? You would have died every single time. But I can't stop this, not unless you let me. You forget that you are a child. Fragile, small, incapable of holding up against these elements without help... without my help.” I said nothing, silently lamenting in my own memories. “You are going to die,” the spider said again, but this time, his voice was weary, tired. “No... no, I can't. If you can't understand that... then you can't understand anything about me.” He sighed. “No, I do understand you. I understand you far too much. And that is why I feel so bad hurting you like this.” “Hurting me?” The question went unanswered, because next, I was being shaken awake. I blinked several times, pushing the person away from me. Some part, deep inside of my head, wanted to lash out. To cry and scream and attack anyone who tried to get close to me. I had been close to getting answers, I felt it! I didn't know what kind of answers but... anything more than I knew would be enough. Luckily, my humanity beat that part down so that when I finally made eye contact with the person who woke me up, I was only glaring. And much to my surprise... it was Winona who had woken me up. She had withdrawn her hands to her chest as if concerned that I would lash out, and her eyes were alight with worry. I immediately felt my resolve crumble. This person... this person who knew absolutely nothing about me was worried about me. Had I cried out in my sleep? Was I thrashing about? Maybe I was just snoring and she wanted me to stop? “I'm sorry,” she blurted, holding her hands together. “I didn't want to- I just- you were-” she paused for a moment, then cleared her throat and tried again. “You looked like you were having a nasty nightmare.” “A nightmare,” I echoed, then found myself laughing. Why was I laughing? Maybe because it had been so long since someone woke me up because I was having a nightmare? Wilson had for awhile when we first met, but he had quickly grown to understand that my sleep was always riddled with nightmares, and that I would get more sleep sleeping through them than I would being woken up every time I started to whimper. I looked up, meeting her brown gaze as steadily as I could. Even the times that the spider and I had spoken on good terms (a rare occurrence completely) I would still wake up in a pool of cold sweat. There was a part of me that was terrified of him, had always been terrified of him. While interacting with him, or while awake, I was good at shoving that part back. “Thank you,” I said after a long, long moment of silence. “I... I was having a nightmare. It's pretty normal for me, though... it's something you get used to living here.” “Is there something you need to talk about?” With her? No. I shook my head. “It's fine. Nothing you should bother yourself about.” Winona sighed, then sat on the ground with her legs crossed. “If I'm going to stay here with you three, then I want to help in any way I can. Even emotionally.” The last part was said with a teasing note. When I still said nothing, she added: “ But-! I understand if you don't trust me enough to tell me anything yet! I just want you to know I'm all ears if you do need to talk.” I nodded gratefully. This was a nice change of pace... letting me talk only if I wanted to. And I really didn't want to right now. I turned my gaze towards the trees curiously. It was still nighttime, but the full moon was out, allowing for me to see through the dark. I sensed the spider's presence in the back of my mind, peacefully observing. We sighed, rubbing our eyes. “We're going to go on a walk... if you want to join us.” Winona perked up. She stretched her arms out until they popped, grinning wildly. “Great! I could go for a bit of a muscle workout.” “WEBBER.” We flinched so hard at WX's voice that we nearly fell over. The robot didn't need to sleep, but somehow, we had forgotten this fact. He had probably silently listened to all of that. “I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT IS SAFE.” We turned to face the robot, who was sitting beside the fire as he normally did at night. His expression was still distant, dazed, suggesting he had been staring, enamored, at the flames again. But now, he was looking up at us, a critical glint in his 'eyes'. “Don't worry, WX, I'll be with him.” “THAT'S WX-78 TO YOU,” the robot snapped. His shoulders had risen defensively. “YOU ARE NOT FAMILIAR ENOUGH WITH ME TO CALL ME A NICKNAME.” Winona winced. “Sorry, WX-78, I didn't know that counted as a nickname to you.” She shrugged. “If you want to come, too, you can. I have something cool to show you guys anyway.” “WX,” I said, letting a hint of warning enter our voice. “It's okay. We'll be okay.” “I AM NOT LETTING YOU BE ALONE WITH A PERFECT STRANGER SO SOON AFTER FINALLY HEALING FROM YOUR LAST ORDEAL.” The robot stood, taking a moment to brush away a scattering of dirt from his legs. “He makes a good point,” Winona said approvingly, nodding at the robot. WX scowled back at her. “I wouldn't have trusted anyone with Charlie when she was your age. Then again, I barely trusted myself.” She let out a small peal of quiet laughter. “The amount of times she nearly poked her eye out trying to play with my tools! I guess that's what happens when you're fifteen years old with a love of wrenches and have a mischievous four year old running around.” She grinned at us, then beckoned for us to follow her. “Come on, I think you two are gonna find this as cool as I did.”
  7. Chapter 46. Player Four Webber's POV We led the way, Winona trailing a few steps behind us as we walked. The closer we got to camp, the slower and slower our steps became. They would be mad at us for running away, especially when crippled as we were. We chewed at the inside of our cheek as we worried over it. Winona had tried a few times to ask questions, but the clipped, short answers we gave her was apparently enough for her to realize that we weren't in the mood to chat anymore. “Webber,” she finally said. We paused, frowning in the slightest. “Um... how much further? I'm not... used to this much leg exercise.” If only. We shook ourself off and quickened our pace again. “Not much more.” “Do... do you even want to go back?” This paused our step entirely, and Winona bumped into us as we did so. “...why do you ask that?” She motioned to our face, and we felt a hand reach up to scratch around the scar again. “You don't seem... enthusiastic.” We looked away, instead focusing on the ground beneath our feet. “They think that we can't handle ourself,” I said with a sigh. “It's tiring, constantly having to try to show strength. But we can't show weakness, or else we'll all die.” “Who said you in particular have to be serious and strong all the time, though?” Curling up with Wilson, purring, his hand scratching around our whiskers idly. “Everyone. The world. Ourself.” She nodded a few times, her face creasing into a scowl that she didn't seem to want to explain. We thought that was the end of the conversation, but she continued a moment later. “If you don't... want to go back to your camp, you don't have to, you know. Just knowing that there are other people here gives me hope. Especially people like yourself who have... well, survived for so long.” “The world has been generous to us,” I said with a sarcasm she didn't seem to pick up on. “Come on. Just... don't be too...” What word to use? We grimaced. “Annoying.” “You think I'm annoying?” “No, but...” We took a deep breath. “WX-78. He's the robot, obviously. He's very touchy and very quick to anger, but... he's trustworthy. He's protective, in a 'nobody can hurt you but me' sort of way. Wilson... he's going through something. And... he lashes out without reason sometimes.” We unconsciously scratched at our eye, but at Winona's strange look, we took to scratching at the palm of our lame hand instead. “It's... best you meet them yourself.” “...alright,” she said uncertainly. She didn't want to offend us, but she was also concerned now. Well, that was probably best anyway. … We could only imagine what must've been going through Wilson and WX's heads when they saw us. We uncomfortably realized how much we must look like a scolded child, given our height and moping posture, so we forced our back to straighten. We were leading Winona here; she wasn't putting us in time out. We stopped at the edge of our camp, and a long moment of silence passed between the four of us as Wilson and WX stared, uncertain and confused, at the person that we had returned with. Winona was actually the one to break the silence. “You must be... Wilson, right?” Winona asked the scientist. “And that makes you WX-78?” She nodded at the automaton, who gave a short nod in response. “My name is Winona. I bumped into Webber here directly before he got attacked by the Bearger.” We bristled at her words, even if they were true. They were going to think that we were stupid for running off. “Forgive my silence...” Wilson said after a moment. “But... I never expected to see another living human here.” Winona laughed a sort of stiff, uncomfortable laugh. “Yeah... I suppose it might get to you when your companions are a robot and a spider hybrid, right? Not saying there's anything wrong with that! In fact, it's rather awesome. But I can understand wanting to see another human.” She stepped forward, past us, and offered a hand to Wilson. He took it, his face still a picture of confusion. “WEBBER,” WX said, piquing our attention. “CONSIDERING YOU ARE IN ONE PIECE, I CAN PROPERLY ASSUME... 'WINONA'... SAVED YOU FROM THE JAWS OF THE BEARGER?” We opened our mouth to protest, but Winona got to it first. “On the contrary,” she said, a smile forming on her lips. “I dare say this boy saved me with nothing more than his knowledge of this world. You knew the ground was hollow there, didn't you?” Three pairs of eyes, or lack of thereof in WX's case, landed on us. We almost shrunk under it. “...not quite,” I answered. “We... um... we sensed it when we were running.” We fixed our gaze on Wilson. We almost enjoyed watching him squirm under it, as he often did when he saw our missing eye. “It's gone. It died in the fall.” “It what?” Wilson's eyes widened. “You killed the Bearger?” “If it was up to me, we woulda run for the hills!” Winona boasted. “But not only did he know that the ground wasn't going to handle the Bearger's weight, but he also straight up stood against it!” Normally, we weren't one to take praise, but we couldn't help but swell a little in pride as she spoke. “...maybe we underestimated you, Webber,” Wilson laughed. He took a step towards us, but we found ourself instinctively shying away from him and towards Winona. Something flashed in his eyes, which was quickly transferred to the rest of his face into a sort of injured expression. If WX saw any of this exchange, he didn't let on. “ARE YOU WANTING TO STAY?” She opened her mouth to respond... then snapped it closed. She looked beyond our two campmates and pointed. “...there's a... um... a hound? And...” Popsicle had risen to his feet, shielding Pyrite with his body. He wasn't snarling or making any noise, but his body was stiff and aggressive. We inched towards him, flashing our gaze between the hound and Wilson. “It's okay, boy,” I called. As we did, Popsicle's body seemed to relax a bit. We glanced at Winona. “He's our pet. His name is Popsicle. The others-” we motioned towards Chester and Pyrite. “Chester came to us when we found that eye thingy in his mouth. Pyrite is... our trophy for defeating the dragonfly.” Winona's eyes widened. “You've tamed a hound? How?” “He's just a puppy. He was even tinier when he came to us.” We clicked our fingers and Popsicle trotted up, throwing looks over his shoulder to make sure Pyrite was following him. His cold fur felt nice against our hand. “He's loyal to the end.” Our eyes flickered towards Wilson and back again. We winced back as a cold finger drew over our face. Instinctively baring our teeth, we glared at WX, who now held one blood-tipped finger up. “YOU ARE INJURED.” We grimaced. “We had an argument.” Winona opened her mouth as if to defend herself, but realized a moment later that we didn't mean her. “...I SEE.” There was something that we didn't like in his eyes- or, lack of thereof. Instead of continuing the conversation, he threw his gaze towards Winona. “YOU. FLESHLING.” We couldn't help but laugh a bit at that. It had been a long time since he had said that term. “YOU HAVE ALMOST MISSED ALL OF THE FUN, IF YOU PLAN ON STAYING HERE. CAN YOU FIGHT?” “Fight?” Winona's eyes widened, then she shrugged. “I mean... I've worked in a factory for years. I've never been trained in fighting but I think I have the strength.” WX examined her closely, as if taking notes. Under his scrutiny, Winona only stood straighter. “WILSON,” he said without looking. “I TRUST YOU CAN GIVE HER THE TRAINING SHE NEEDS.” Wilson immediately recoiled, as if unwilling. “I-um- I mean- I can, but-” “I WOULD, BUT I AM AFRAID I WOULD IMMEDIATELY KNOCK HER OUT. AND WEBBER IS LITTLE MORE THAN A PET, I BELIEVE.” We puffed our cheeks out in anger at the comment, but it melted a moment later when we noticed the teasing note in his voice. “NOW IS A GOOD TIME TO GET STARTED AS ANY. WEBBER, WHETHER YOU MIND OR NOT, I NEED TO SPEAK WITH YOU IN PRIVATE.” We felt our heart sink. The last thing we wanted was WX to scold us. He had never worried about yelling at us in front of everyone, though, which really confused us. Before Wilson could even protest, the robot grabbed our arm and started pulling us away. Immediately, a shock of terror exploded through our body, and the smallest of whimpers rose in our throat that we had to swallow down. We still ripped our arm away from him, though, staring down at our feet in hopes he didn't notice the panic response. If he did, he said nothing about it. Once the others were out of sight, WX turned back to us, his 'eyes' narrowed. “YOU HAD AN ARGUMENT,” he said. He didn't sound convinced. “I WAS NOT AWARE THAT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH EACH OTHER WAS SEPARATE ENOUGH TO ARGUE LIKE THAT.” We rubbed our arm unconsciously. So that's what this was about. “I HAVE A QUESTION.” We raised our head a little, but not enough to look at him in the face. “AM I SPEAKING TO A SPIDER RIGHT NOW, OR TO A HUMAN?” That was a question we weren't expecting. And it was a question we weren't sure how to answer. What kind of answer was he wanting? “A human,” I answered softly. “WEBBER IS NOT YOUR NAME, IS IT?” “... no.” He was silent for a moment. “I FEEL LIKE THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG,” he said. This was enough to prompt us to finally look at him. He was gazing into the middle distance, a strange look on his face. “I SHOULD FEEL EXCITED THAT WE ARE NOT THE ONLY ONES. THERE IS ANOTHER PERSON. SOMEONE ELSE WHO HAS SURVIVED. SHE CANNOT HAVE BEEN HERE FOR LONG IF SHE HAS NO FIGHTING EXPERIENCE, BUT... SHE IS ALIVE. THAT IS GOOD, IS IT NOT?” “I suppose.” “THEN WHY AM I NOT HAPPY?” What kind of answer did he want?? What was he even asking? We opened and closed our mouth a few times, but no words came out. WX... he was sad that there was another person. Something clicked. “WX... are you worried that we'll start to rely on her like we did Wilson?” “QUITE PERSONALLY, I COULD NOT CARE LESS ABOUT WHO YOU RELY ON.” We felt the smallest of smiles form on our face. “WX... thank you for everything that you've done for us. For me. We wouldn't be here right now without you, and nothing will change that. You denied it before but... WX, are we friends?” He let out a short burst of garbled static- a wry laugh. “MY ANSWER REMAINS THE SAME. FORTUNATELY, YOU HAVE BECOME QUITE PERFECT CANNON FODDER, WEBBER.” We only felt our smile grow a bit. “Just this once, you can call me Tyler.” “A TERRIBLE NAME,” WX proclaimed. “NO WONDER YOU GO BY WEBBER.” We laughed. It felt good to laugh. “Maybe, but you have to admit, it makes me seem a lot more normal.” “YOU ANNOY ME GREATLY. SOMEHOW, I MISSED THAT.” We let out the last of our mirth in soft chuckles, and as we did so, our eyes landed on our lame hand. We tried to turn it into a fist, but as always, our fingers barely touched the palm. Using our good hand to curl the fingers in, we look back up at WX. “Hit me.” He tipped his head, but he didn't question. We didn't expect him to. A moment later, we caught his fist with our good hand, stumbling slightly behind the force of it. Even though it was enough to knock us off balance, it clearly wasn't his best. “Don't go easy on me. You never have before.” WX smirked, and he threw another punch. This time, we dodged it and ducked around him, fast enough to catch him off guard and throw our own punch. It didn't hit- he had the advantage of two eyes and no muscles to atrophy, unlike us, but we didn't let that damper our mood. Without prompting him again, he moved to hit us again, this time throwing in a kick as well, both of which we dodged. “You keep aiming for my good side.” “THE LAST THING I NEED TO DO IS BRING YOU BACK INJURED.” We shook our head. “You won't hurt me. Pretend like I've never been hurt. Hit me like we are fighting, like we did back then.” We could see the conflict in his expression, which solidified our suspicion that there was more than just survival that kept him from hitting us with full force. What did he think of us? A friend? He denied it, but who knows how true that was? Someone to be protected? He always chastised Wilson for trying to do that very thing. A sibling? Would he even have a concept of siblingship? Finally, he seemed to get over his hesitance. The next hit he aimed at us was directed towards our right, on our blind side. However, without even the slightest bit of pause, our whiskers on that side stiffened and we dodged it. We didn't notice that he had also moved to kick us again, and the force of his kick in our abdomen expelled all of the air from our body. We stumbled back, wheezing, and we saw WX take an uncertain step back. Before we had the opportunity to regain our breath, we forced our body to slip around the automaton and push him roughly with our shoulder. We weren't strong enough to really push him, but his guard seemed to be low enough that he did stumble, and we managed to get him to trip and hit the ground with a heavy thunk. We grinned at him, panting, then offered a hand to help him back up. He didn't take it, instead pushing himself back and brushing the dirt off of his metal frame. “So, if we're not friends, then why did you save me?” I asked, dodging another punch from the robot and landing one of our own. “You could've let me die.” “ANNOYING YOU MAY BE, BUT I HAVE GROWN QUITE FOND OF YOU. MUCH LIKE A PARTICULARLY ADORABLE FUNGUS.” We laughed again. “So... like a brother.” WX paused for a moment, twitching ever-so-slightly as if he were malfunctioning. “IF A BROTHER IS COMPARABLE TO A FUNGAL GROWTH, THEN BELIEVE WHATEVER YOU WANT.” Despite his words, he definitely seemed flustered. Aha. After dodging a couple more attacks from WX and landing a couple ourself, we dropped our fighting stance and straightened up. “That's enough for now. We've not been on our feet enough for a long, drawn-out sparring session.” “YOUR REFLEXES HAVE NOT SUFFERED MUCH.” He sounded impressed. “Told you we could fight.” He almost looked like he was smiling for just a second, then his face fell. “THERE IS ANOTHER MATTER I WISH TO DISCUSS.” “Oh?” “THE BEARGER IS SLAIN, CORRECT? WERE YOU ABLE TO COLLECT THE FUR?” My own mirth drained from my face. “No.” “WE MUST ASK FOR THE SPIDERS' HELP IN RETRIEVING IT, THEN.” He nodded a single time, as if that had settled something in his head. “UNLESS YOU ARE FOND OF THE IDEA OF BLUNDERING THROUGH THE DARK.” “I mean, Erika has already done a lot for us. The last thing we want to do is make her help us more.” He nodded again, his face creasing into the smallest of frowns. “SHE HAS WILLINGLY HELPED. NOBODY HAS FORCED HER TO.” “We're not saying they did! But... maybe this is something we should just do as a group? It might be good... bonding?” It would take a long time for any of the others to trust Winona, especially considering she had missed many of the worst things we had gone through, but we had to start somewhere. WX sighed. “I SAID WE SHOULD ASK THEM FOR HELP SO THAT SHE CAN SEE YOU ACTING LIKE YOURSELF AGAIN. IT WAS AN ATTEMPT TO CARE.” The laughter bubbled back up in our chest. “Alright, alright, you got us there! Fine, we can go down, as long as we bring the other two as well.” “FAIR.” We tossed our head towards the direction of camp, encouraging us to go back. Without checking to make sure he was following, we started walking. “WEBBER.” We paused, tipping our head at him. He hadn't moved, simply stared at the ground. “MAKE ME A PROMISE.” “Huh?” “MAKE ME A PROMISE,” he repeated. “IF I PERISH AND RETURN, LIKE WILSON... AND I DO ANYTHING TO HURT YOU, DESTROY ME.” “WX...” We could feel our heart constricting in our chest. “Why would you even think that?” His gaze settled on ours, a serious fire burning deep inside of it. “I WOULD RATHER DIE A HERO THAN LIVE TO BECOME A VILLAIN. AND IF I WERE TO WANT ANYONE TO END ME, I WOULD WANT IT TO BE YOU.” “That sounds an awful lot like something a friend would say.” To our dismay, that didn't earn any sort of positive expression. “YOU REFUSED TO HARM WILSON. I WILL NOT STAND FOR THAT WHEN IT COMES TO MYSELF. IF I DIE, THEN I WILL DIE BY MY TERMS.” “Why are you saying this now?” We frowned. “Are you okay?” WX stared at us for a moment, and then another moment. We started to shift under his gaze before he finally responded. “MAYBE I AM NOT.” We opened our mouth to prompt him, to understand, but he finally started forward, pushing past us roughly as if to hide his vulnerability behind rudeness once more. We gazed after him, trying to come up with anything to say, but we couldn't. Instead, we followed him, albeit a few steps behind. WX was upset, and this was because of Winona. She hadn't done anything or meant to hurt him, but her existence here was enough to make him question things. Was he worried that we would like her more than him? And finally, something in our mind slid into place. No matter what WX said, no matter what he thought about us, if he didn't want our death on his hands or if he actually cared about us, he was really our best friend. And nobody could replace him.
  8. Chapter 45. Phoenix Webber's POV We had to relearn how to walk. How to fight. How to hunt. How to see. We had to relearn how to live. The day we had woken from our pseudo-coma, we had been made incredibly aware that we were different. The injuries our body has sustained were nasty, and our dominant hand would forever weaken us. The spiders... my sister, and WX had done everything they could to save the hand, but I could tell there would be little use. The bones healed nicely, but everything else... everything inside, had been destroyed. We could curl our fingers, but not enough to make a fist, and independent finger movement was completely out of the question. Our depth perception was awful. During those first few days, after WX had brought us to the frog ponds and we had gotten a good, long look at the bloody injury slashed across our face, we immediately knew that our life as a fighter was coming to a close. With only one working eye, obstacles that were once minor inconveniences became major problems. And then there was Wilson. WX had explained the entire situation to us; something had taken Wilson's body and used it as a tool to hurt us. After two failures to end our life, it had given up. But every single time... “Webber?” Immediately, we found our body flying into a defensive position: fur bristling, fangs bared, and body curled to defend our stomach and neck. Wilson stood above us, his gray eyes turning into the smallest of frowns before he looked away. “Um... it's been awhile since you were out of camp... WX wanted me to ask you if you wanted to go hunting with us.” “Hunting?” Despite Wilson's presence, our whiskers angled forward and a surge of hope flooded our system. “We can hunt with you guys again?” “Well...” He shifted on his feet, staring down at the dirt. He never met our gaze anymore. Somehow, that hurt almost as much as everything else. “Um... I guess... you can try...? But... uh... I think it would be best...” Our shoulders fell. Of course... they wouldn't trust us to mess up a hunting trip. Even though summer, and the hunting troubles that came with it, had passed, we still couldn't be trusted for something like that. “Oh... of course.” Instinctively, we noticed that our good hand had reached up and was scratching around the scar across our eye. We forced our hands to fold together instead, not willing to remind ourself of the injury. “WILSON, WE CANNOT STAY HERE ALL DAY. ARE YOU COMING OR NOT?” WX's voice startled us. We turned slightly to see that the robot had come up from our blind side. When he saw that the scientist had been talking to us, his face creased into a deep frown for just a moment. “WILL YOU BE JOINING US, TOO?” What would be the point of us joining them? We would just be sitting on the sidelines again, watching them provide for us. Our stomach growled slightly, and we began scratching at the scar again. “...maybe we could... go on a walk... instead...” I mumbled. We wanted to be out of camp, but we didn't want to be coddled any longer. Maybe some fresh air away from any others would do us good. We tried to ignore Wilson and WX's shared gaze. There was something in both of their expressions that we really didn't want to see. Wilson's... pain, guilt. WX's... anger, fury. “Will you... um... be alright on your own...?” Wilson's eyes flickered to our injuries then back to the ground. “Don't do anything... urm... don't hurt yourself, alright?” “We'll... we'll be fine. You don't have to worry about us every moment that you aren't watching us, you know.” “DO NOT BE RIDICULOUS,” WX scoffed. “YOU MAY HAVE HEALED, BUT EVEN YOU KNOW THAT YOUR CURRENT STATUS IS UNDESIREABLE. YOU ARE STILL AT SEVERE RISK, EVEN IF YOUR WOUNDS HAVE CLOSED UP AND YOUR STRENGTH HAS RETURNED. WE ARE RIGHT TO WORRY.” Our teeth bared at the robot in fury. His words stung so deeply that we instinctively acted in anger, a deep growl rising from our chest. “Even half blind and lame we're stronger than both of you!” I snapped. We didn't want to see their expressions. We knew what their eyes would say. And so, before they could react, we flipped around and ran away, as fast as we could. We ran until we tired, which was much faster than we were comfortable with, then found a decent tree to lean against and buried our face. We took several deep breaths, trying to refill our lungs. Our claws reached upward again and began to scratch at the scar across our eye. We stared down at our damaged hand, closing the fingers as tightly as we could in an attempt to see if it was any stronger than the day before. It wasn't. We frowned, then used our good hand to close the fingers together. They felt stiff and tight, even when they weren't doing the work of closing. “What do you think, Webber?” I asked. “You're in this predicament as much as I am. What should we do?” “I'm surprised you would ask me.” “There's no one else I can ask,” I replied wryly. “You at least... understand.” The spider was silent for a long moment. “Well... it is true that our current condition is very disheartening. You should have killed the scientist.” An image blasted in my head. Fighting back. Ripping Wilson's throat out before he had the chance to injure us. I hissed, covering my head with my hands and shaking ever so slightly. “I couldn't,” I whispered. “Even if I could've... look at us now. We couldn't harm a rabbit.” There was a soft growl. “You're right! Because you keep letting those worthless creatures tell you that you couldn't do anything! What is wrong with you!? You have turned soft, Tyler. Pathetic. You never let injuries stop you before. You were so determined to live that you overtook the mind of a creature that tried to eat you. Where is that child!?” “You're... being surprisingly encouraging.” “I refuse to suffer in the way you are determined to make us suffer. You have to prove to yourself that you are still strong.” “You don't understand!” I snapped. “I'm left-handed, Webber! We can't even hold a weapon with my left hand anymore!” “You have two hands.” “Our eye is destroyed.” “You have another eye that works.” “That's not the point!” How could I get through this if even my own split personality didn't understand!? I took several deep breaths. “When a spider gets injured... when a spider loses a leg or loses an eye, they have seven others to fall back on. I've only ever had two eyes and two hands. You know that I can't use your legs, not like hands anyway, or your other eyes. I can't fight anymore.” “Because you keep telling yourself that you can't fight. If you can't use your left hand, then use your right. If you can't see out of your right eye, then use your left.” I looked up, whiskers twitching as I sensed something big nearby. “Are you going to live the rest of your life believing that you're just easy prey!?” I slowly got to my feet, smelling the air deeply. “No.” “....What are you doing?” “Exactly what you said. I'm proving that I can still fight.” There was a foul smell in the air. It was heavy, musky, almost sour. “Tyler, think about this. You can't go from being a deadweight for weeks to fighting a Giant. This is suicide! I... I can't let you do this.” “You can't stop me!” “I certainly can!” Against my will, I threw myself onto the ground, teeth grinding painfully against each other and claws digging into the dirt. “W-We-bber!!” I roared. “Get out... of my... head!” In a flash of rage at my other half, I reached up and dug the claws of my good hand deep into the skin of my cheek. I tore away at the fur, leaving a profusely bleeding wound in its place. “You c-an't con-trol me! You n-ever could!” With that, I tore another chunk of flesh from my arm. “I'm tired of being treated... like I don't know anything! I'm tired... of being a spider! I'm tired of hearing you!” “Tyler, Tyler, calm down! You're hurting us-” “I'm going to get rid of you if I have to tear you away!” “Tyler, please-” I could hear him gasping in pain. I couldn't feel it. All I could feel was his weakening presence, his desperate pleas- Arms grabbed me, pulling my arms away from myself and holding them together. Just as I reared my fangs to attack, someone started shushing me and pulled me closer. “I'm tired of being useless!” I struggled from the person's grasp, but they held me tighter. They were surprisingly muscular, the only thing that really keyed me in to... I didn't know this person. That was what finally forced me to relax. As the grip on me loosened, I struggled free and flipped to face the newcomer... And found myself incapable of speech. It was a human. Another human, another survivor. She had charcoal black hair pushed out of her face by a tied red headband. She wore torn overalls covered with dirt and grime, which also covered parts of her face and hands. A moment later, I realized she was staring at me just as intensely as I was staring at her. “...Who... who are you?” I asked. Webber had fallen silent. Before she could answer, the ground trembled beneath us. I felt my heart sink into my chest as the sour smell washed over us. “Watch out, kiddo!” The woman grabbed our arm and started pulling us along, away from where the beast was. Immediately, we felt a growl rise in our throat and we yanked away from her before she could take us too far. “What are you doing? That beast can and will eat you!” “Wouldn't be the first time.” “Seriously, kid, listen, it's too dangerous around here. I promise I'm not going to hurt you. I'm... ha, I'm too thankful to see other living beings here to even think about hurting you. But that thing? That thing will kill both of us without a second thought!” “No! We're not running. We set out to prove them wrong and we're going to do that!” With a twinge of regret, we added: “if you want to run, then do it. We don't need you anyway.” “...They? Are there others?” Her hopeful question was cut off as the Bearger made itself shown. Its gazed passed over the woman without issue, but those beady black eyes locked onto us with a sort of pure rage that we wondered if we had done something to it before. “Kid... kid, listen. Back away slowly, don't make eye contact. It will just pass on by-” “The name's Webber,” I informed her with a slight growl. “And we don't intent to let it pass by.” “Grrr, fine. But I hope you have a good idea of what you're doing...” We don't. We didn't have anything on us... no weapons, no tools, not even Popsicle. How did we intend to kill it? “What's your plan?” We didn't have a plan. It roared at us, yellowed teeth stained with faint red juice. Our fur began to prickle. It took another step forward and... We ran. The woman let out an indignant shout as we left her behind, but we could hear her footsteps faintly behind us a moment later. Further back, the Bearger was giving chase. Branches whipped at our face, tearing scratches through our fur and causing out remaining eye to water painfully. Without our depth perception, we couldn't even run. We couldn't get away. We just doomed ourself and this innocent fellow survivor to death. Then, we realized something. Our whiskers were twitching furiously, vibrating almost, as water began to block our sight completely. We could feel the wind brushing against the tips of them, cutting suddenly and reappearing with the flashes of trees. And we could sense the thickness of the ground below. Our light footsteps passed over the ground with ease and without even the slightest of creaks. The woman wasn't far behind, and we could sense the ground groaning slightly under her feet. The world was falling apart from the inside, and we had just stumbled across one of the weakest areas of the ground. We skidded to a halt, and the woman ended up running into us unceremoniously. “You can't stop to catch a breath! Come on!” “Wait,” I responded. The Bearger's huge size meant that it was having more trouble getting through the undergrowth than we had. It had resorted to swiping at thick foliage and tearing through the smaller trees in order to reach us. We could see the moment it realized that it had been lead into a trap. One foot hit the thin ground, and the earth groaned in pain. Its momentum carried it into the next step, and then a third. By the fourth, the ground was beginning to crumble at its feet. It let out an enraged roar, lunging forward, but its massive body was tipping backwards as it attempted so. And then, it was swallowed up by the darkness of the cave, its white fur blurring into nothingness as it fell down... down... down... “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” I said calmly, staring into the abyss as the woman's gaze stayed blankly on us. … “How long have you been here?” Nighttime had fallen, and we were back at the woman's camp. She had nothing compared to us, just a firepit and some strange contraptions that she brought no attention to. She had to speak loud enough to overtake the sounds of the crackling fire that we sat beside. We gnawed hungrily at a cooked rabbit as we thought of how to answer. It was a year now, wasn't it? It didn't feel that long. “A year... about.” It took her many moments to process what she heard. “A... year...? How...? How have you been here that long...?” She suddenly seemed to look at us through a completely different lens... one of mutual respect other than a careful protectiveness. “I see... did the Bearger give you those wounds? It couldn't have, could it?” She motioned towards the healed gash across our tightly closed eye and the various, still-bleeding wounds we had inflicted on ourself earlier. “No.” She said nothing, seemingly waiting for us to continue. How much did she want us to say? How much did we want to say? I wondered, and realized... we wanted to tell her everything. We needed someone to talk to, to understand... “No... our, um- our campmate...” We started scratching at the scar again. “There was an incident... he wasn't himself...” “Hey, hey, I understand. If it's too painful to talk about, you don't have to talk about it. Go ahead and unload whatever you want on me, but don't force yourself...” “Mmm...” “Come on... anything?” “We're not a full human.” What better place to start at than the beginning. “I can see that. I chose not to question.” How could she be so casual!? “We were eaten by a spider. We live as one, now.” “That explains the 'we' talk.” We growled. “Why can't you just react like a normal person? Scream, run away, or whatever you do. Don't patronize me.” “Hey, don't act like I'm patronizing you. Listening to you is not the same as patronizing you.” Change the subject. “How did you get here?” She sighed. “The same way I'm assuming everyone did... a promise of something you lost.” That piqued our interest. “Something you lost?” “My sister. I haven't seen her since the San Francisco Earthquake, back in 1906.” She scratched at her head, under her headband. “I haven't stopped in my research attempting to find her since the day she disappeared with that no-good rat of a man...” We had no idea what she was talking about, but nodded anyway. This felt... nice. Talking to someone we had never spoken to before. And despite our confusion and frustration that she wasn't reacting to us like most people did... it was nice. “I thought... I thought I saw her. But the next thing I know, I'm waking up here...” “How long have you been here?” How long have you been alone? Are there other survivors? “...a week, I think... tell me about the others.” “What?” “You mentioned others, and a campmate. Are they friendly?” Her gaze shifted to the scar across our eye, but she look away quickly. Why couldn't we figure out how to answer that question? There had been so much strife between all of us that we couldn't even confidently tell her that they were good people. Look at how much WX has helped us... without him, we would probably be dead right now. “...You can say that.” She frowned slightly. “Are you wanting to join us?” “Are you kidding? I'd kill to be part of a team again! As long as you and your group are okay with that...” We looked up at the sky. It wasn't quite dawn yet, but the sky was beginning to brighten up. “You can meet them... it's your choice if you want to stay with us.” We finished the meat we were eating and wiped our mouth. “You never told us your name.” “Oh jeez, you're right. We're both getting ahead of ourselves, aren't we?” She grinned. “My name's Winona. I've been looking for my sister, Charlie.”
  9. Hey, it's not a requirement to read! I'm glad you have been, but don't worry yourself if you can't/don't want to ^^ Well, gotta be devoted to work on such a long fanfiction! Haha!
  10. Chapter 44. Outcast She stood alone in a room filled with orbs. Her dress slid on the floor behind her as she walked, her bare feet making small patters against the marble, her delicate hands reaching out to brush against the glowing orbs that surrounded her. This was a place that only very particular... demons, she supposed, could enter. At this moment in time, only Charlie and her lesser half could slip into this world-between-worlds and read the source code of the world. Her face creased in the smallest of frowns as she turned her eyes to the edges of the room. The edges were beginning to unravel, almost like threads that had been tugged at far too much. Things weren't looking good. She normally had some control over events that transpired in the Constant, but humans were beyond her power. She could only watch helplessly as they wandered around for a few months before dying of starvation or falling prey to one of the many massive hound packs. So... she tried to stay away from meddling in their affairs, even if it wasn't always possible. Her other half, however, was not the kind to stay out of things. She let out a small, pained sigh. Together, her and Nightmare had brought the scientist back from death, a small victory in what eventually became a tragedy. Her hand rested on an orb, voices coming to her ears as she did so. “Then, I thought that feeding you to the spiders would be enough! After all, your sister perished exactly as planned with no intervention. But then you refused!” “I thought you could finally do it,” Charlie whispered. She paced forward slightly in order to move to another orb. The boy was still alive, and she had a feeling that this would not be his end, but the agony he suffered was enough to tear at her heart. The robot hadn't left his side for days, nor had his arachnid companions. Nightmare had done this, and she wasn't too stupid to know that. She just... couldn't do anything about it. But this latest attempt... Nightmare had been very angered by it's failure. Perhaps it knew that she had stopped anything worse from happening... perhaps it knew that she was trying to help them. Charlie finally made her way to the far side of the room, where some of the orbs had been caught in the unraveling seams. In there, her eyes grazed over bloodstained memories that she preferred to forget. The horrifying murder of a prime ape's innocent mate at Nightmare's hand, the rejection of his daughter followed by the quick degradation of his sanity. Charlie hadn't been able to save any of them, and she had tried so hard. What made her think she could save these survivors? Her heart twisted in her chest. It was days like this that made her wish that her sister was here. She always knew what to do and how to do it... if anyone could save them, it would be her. Charlie growled to herself, shaking her head. As she did so, she heard an earthshattering crash. Immediately, her mind pulsed with an event that had been erased from everyone's memories but their own: the Prime Ape princess attacking her father and leaving him for dead. If any event had to be forgotten, at least it was one better erased. Nightmare swooped in like a furious tsunami. Nightmare was a curious beast, always taking the appearance of whatever unfortunate soul had the burden of carrying it. In its current form, it looked much like Charlie herself, except if Charlie had been crafted out of red smoke and black shadows. Its eyes were blank, and fire burned at its hands as it glared down at the shattered remains of an orb. “Nightmare,” she greeted coldly. The beast didn't look up for a long moment, its shoulders heaving with... rage? Probably rage. When it did look up, it took all of Charlie's strength not to flinch. “How. Did. He. Hold back?” The demon snarled, enunciating every single syllable as if Charlie wouldn't be able to understand it otherwise. She struggled to push back the relief and glee that was threatening to cover her face. One person holding back Nightmare was nothing: the beast was something created by the world, tied to the world, and stronger than anything else in it. It could easily overcome anyone, especially a weak scientist with an even weaker will. But if, say, Charlie assisted said scientist in fighting the demon back... Nightmare was not able to complete its task. “I do not know,” she lied smoothly. It was easy for Charlie to lie, now. Her entire existence had become one smooth lie. Nightmare roared, and another orb fell victim to its rage. This time, it was an event that no one even remembered anyway: a warrior saving a mute, and both immediately falling dead afterwards. At least Nightmare wasn't trying to actively cripple the timeline. “He is pathetic!” Nightmare snarled. “No one! He should not have had the strength!” Charlie remained silent. It was best not to interfere with it when it was like this. “I will end that spider if it is the last thing I do.” Unnaturally long claws gripped an orb and held it in such a tight grasp that Charlie could see small cracks forming in it. “Why are you so set on killing Webber?” Those furious eyes landed on Charlie. She managed to hold her ground. “You are not stupid,” it said slowly, furiously. “You know who he is.” “The next Nightmare Captor,” she responded. “Maxwell's Heir. Of course.” It wasn't exactly a secret. Any creature could sense the sheer power of the aura he gave off, something that any Nightmare Captor needed above all else. He was going to be perfect. Perhaps the one to finally save this world. “You speak as if it is a trivial manner!” Nightmare shook with rage. The orb cracked further. “To speak such a way about the Master's usurper... I dare call that treason.” “Relax,” Charlie said breezily. “All will work out in the end. It always has.” She waved her arm towards the crumbling edges. Somewhere out there were faded, grayed out orbs, ones that had existed for longer than Charlie. It was enough to know that this wasn't the world's first timeline, nor would it be its last. And every time they failed. So why!?... What can I do to stop this disgusting cycle? She closed her eyes and thought... then thought some more. She tried so desperately to dig up old memories, but none came. Nobody would ever have that gift... the knowledge that they had lived through this a thousand times before. Even Charlie, one who could read the world's source code, could not conjure memories of events that had yet to happen. But maybe... maybe she could stop those events from happening again. She paused, then turned. Surely... no. Charlie knew she had the same power as Maxwell... to bring people into this domain. But she couldn't subject another innocent to this Hell. Especially not someone like her sister. But... she felt like she had to. Winona was the only person that Charlie could think of that would be able to fix this. She could fix anything... As Nightmare realized it had lost her attention, it let out yet another roar of rage and smashed the orb it was holding against the ground. It immediately shattered into a million pieces, shards of memories flying out in all directions. A random memory, one of a pair of twins playing in the snow, was lost to the pieces. … WX-78's POV I didn't see Wilson again for many days. It was a fact that I knew should be more prominent on my mind, but I forced it to the back of my mind every time it came up. During those days, I never strayed from Webber's side. His condition was so volatile that I did not dare risk it. After the first attack, he had been badly wounded, but nothing so terrible that good care couldn't solve. This time, however... it was impossible to tell whether we should've been more focused on his hand or his eye. Matters were only made worse by the speech barrier between me and the spiders, and the ice hound's many attempts to 'help'. Eventually, I gave up shooing the dog away: after all, its cold fur would do good for the raging fever that Webber had developed. The spiders made quick work of trying to save the hand, with many long hours spent cleaning and binding it once more. The initial stab wound had indeed been worsened, but Wilson had clearly done something more to it until I was tempted to remove it entirely. The spiders had disagreed with this notion, after I had finally gotten the intention across to them. The eye... there was no way to save it, even if we wanted to. That was the one thing I had completely entrusted them with, simply because I wasn't sure I could mentally go through with it: removing what was left. It was better to do that than to hurt him more trying to save it. Even then, if we had been able to save the eye itself, there was no way he would've been able to see from it ever again. It was completely ruined. Occasionally, I noticed him stirring slightly, usually marked by small whimpers and flexing claws. When the spiders weren't there, or when they were asleep, I would attempt to sooth him back to sleep. My voice was loud and robotic, not one for lullabies, but it usually seemed to do the trick. There was improvement, but it was slow. I knew he healed faster than Wilson or I did, but it was still many days before he actually seemed to have lucid moments. Surprisingly enough, I didn't find myself annoyed about becoming the boy's caretaker. It was almost... calming. I saw his good eye open slightly, and the whiskers on his face twitched slightly. He winced back against the sunlight, but a moment later, he had a focused and steady gaze on me. I tried to ignore the thick silk patch across the remnants of his lost eye. “YOU ARE AWAKE,” I observed. The dangling depths dweller- her name was Erika, wasn't it?- snapped awake and growled at him, waking her companion up as well. Webber hissed something back, his shaky voice obvious even in a different language. Finally, he looked back at me, his remaining eye round and... scared. “We're awake...” he said softly. His voice was hoarse and ragged, clearly showing its lack of usage. “WX... what... what happened...? Why can't we...” His good hand made its way towards the patch across his face, touching it gently as if trying to figure out what it was. Immediately, Erika snapped at him and I got to my feet. Webber snarled back at her, his fur bristling with agitation as his claws came out and he tried to tear the patch away. I jumped forward and grabbed his hand, pulling it away. “DO NOT TOUCH IT.” He snarled again, in the spider's language, and struggled against me. A wave of annoyance flooded my systems. Even coming out of what was essentially a coma, he was still going to fight with us every step of the way? I vaguely considered knocking him out again, but that risked doing even more damage. “YOU ARE INJURED.” Clearly. “THAT IS THERE TO KEEP OUT INFECTION.” Erika let out a spidery sigh and looked at me. As she did, I had a feeling that I knew what she was thinking. Just let him do it. He needs to find out one way or another. I released his hand, and he immediately went back to tearing the patch off of his face. I could start to see the ugly wound across his face before the eye was visible. I found myself looking away. I couldn't stand to look at it. “Why can't we see!?” He cried. It felt like a stab straight into my chest. I finally turned back to him, trying to avert my gaze from the massive wound. It was hard not to stare, though; even after the rigorous cleaning the spiders had done, it was crusted with blood and pus, and squeezed tightly shut. I slowly paced up to him and offered my hand. “I THINK YOU NEED TO SEE IT FOR YOURSELF.” He stared up at me, his good eye wide and confused. Finally, he took my offered hand and allowed me to pull him up. The second I released his hand, he crumpled to the ground and tried to catch himself with his marred hand. Immediately, he snarled in pain and fell sideways, clutching his injured hand. “Can't stand,” he muttered. “Sorry...” Erika hissed at him, and he shook his head, hissing back. I desperately wished that I could understand what they were saying, but he did look back up at me, his face creased with pain. I felt like he really needed to see the wound in order to understand the severity of it, and it wasn't like it was the worst idea to clean it again, so I crouched down and picked the boy up in my arms, surprised again at how small and light he was. He let out a small yelp of shock, likely at the chill of my arms, but he didn't struggle. I wasn't sure how long he would be able to stay awake: he was still gravely injured and it was surprising that he was this lucid. And so, I tried my best to keep conversation with him, hoping it would be enough to keep him from drifting off again... even if the discussion wasn't one I wanted to have. “HOW ARE YOU FEELING?” He let out a small growl. “...not well.” I tried to think of something else to say, but he got to it first. “WX... what happened to Wilson?” What was I supposed to say to that? What was he even asking? What happened to the Wilson we knew? Why did Wilson snap? Where was he now? Well... it would be easiest to answer the last question. “I HAVE NOT SEEN HIM FOR MANY DAYS.” Webber nodded slowly, visibly relaxing. He's afraid of Wilson. His gaze snapped to the side and his whiskers began to twitch again. “The frog ponds...?” He asked softly. “IT IS CLOSER THAN THE OCEAN.” His good eye turned down. “We nearly died, didn't we...?” At least that was an easier question to answer. “YES.” “...did Wilson do this to us?” Another easy question. “YES.” He fell silent for a moment. His claws twitched slightly, and I saw him reach up to scratch around his injured eye. I pulled his hand away from it before he could do any more damage to the injury. “WX?” “MMM?” “...was Wilson telling the truth?” I scoffed. “WHATEVER HE SAID, I PROMISE YOU IT WAS A LIE.” “He said that nobody would ever want us,” he said softly. His voice was shaky, as if he was on the verge of tears. “He said that... that all that ever mattered was escaping. He said that our p-parents abandoned us... knowing who we were...” He choked on his words, a sob forming in his throat. “He said that no human or spider could ever want us.” As he spoke, a frown grew deeper and deeper on my face. It sounded like Wilson, or whatever was possessing him, knew exactly what to say to hurt Webber. He had done more damage than I could see. “WELL.” I said after a long moment. “I SUPPOSE IT IS A GOOD THING I AM NEITHER HUMAN NOR SPIDER.” His gaze shot up, but I did not grace him with a look. Once I knew that we were safe from any of the massive frogs that populated the area, I lowered myself to my knees and placed him onto the ground. He immediately dragged himself onto his hands and knees and scrambled to peer into the reflection. I watched as his expression seemed to shift between a million different emotions. A claw reached up and touched the edge of the wound, then tracing the length of it. I could see the moment that he understood: his eye was gone, and he was never going to recover completely. He stared down at himself for a long, long moment. I stood beside him silently, allowing him to grasp the reality of his situation. When he finally looked away, it was to use his fangs to tear away at the bandaging on his hand. “WEBBER...” He ignored me, tearing away at bloody silk until he was able to fully see the state of his hand. It had healed since I last saw it, but I could already tell that it would never heal well. Unlike his eye, it would still be usable... just not as much. “We're lame,” he whispered after a moment. “Nono... nonono...” he slowly shifted back, decidedly facing away from the reflection in the lake in order to rest his pitiful gaze on me, as if I could do something. “Lame... lame creatures die...” he whimpered. When I had been injured severely enough to impact any of my senses, it had been a rather easy fix. Wilson knew robotics almost as well as he knew medicine, and he had been able to repair me fairly well. I still had some trouble from time to time, enough for me to realize that my hearing was not on par with what it used to be, but I had never suffered maiming of this extreme. His dominant hand was borderline useless and his eye had been destroyed. Whatever the future had in store for us, Webber would never lead the charge again. “LAME CREATURES MAY DIE, BUT THAT IS EXACTLY WHY HUMANS CREATED SOCIETY.” I shrugged, trying to brush off my own horror at the realization. “YOU CANNOT POSSIBLY BE MORE OF A BURDEN THAN YOU ALREADY WERE.” I thought it was a pretty comforting sentiment, but apparently Webber didn't think so as he immediately burst into tears. I considered my options- honestly, saying nothing and letting him cry it out was probably the best option- but before I could act on any ideas I spotted movement. Immediately, I angled myself in front of the boy and stared down the figure that was hesitantly approaching us. Wilson looked... pretty terrible, if I had to be honest. His gray eyes were empty, his shoulder tightly wrapped in grass-woven bandages and his broken arm hung from a sling around his neck. He kept his gaze cautiously down, but when he looked up, I could see the emotions sparking in his eyes. I didn't care. “I HAD HOPED THAT THAT HAD KILLED YOU,” I sneered. He winced, and looked back down at his hands. “ESPECIALLY AFTER HAVING NOT SEEN YOU FACE FOR SO MANY DAYS.” “I had to... prove to myself that I was safe,” he whispered, wringing his hands together. I stumbled slightly as I felt Webber grasp me from behind, shaking. His fur was bristling, and his claws were digging into the metal of my back to the best of their ability. “Nightmare is gone,” he said. “It's angry... so angry... but I can't do what it wants me to do.” He looked up again, tears glittering in his gaze. I scoffed. I hadn't even realized humans could cry this much. “Even when it is controlling me... I can't kill Webber.” “YOU MAY AS WELL HAVE,” I snapped. I hadn't brought a weapon with me, but I knew very well that I could easily defeat Wilson in a fist fight. In just a week, Wilson had gone from the one person Webber could trust above all else to his greatest fear. “GIVE ME ONE REASON WHY I SHOULD NOT END YOU RIGHT NOW.” I expected Webber to say something, to come to Wilson's defense again, but he didn't. He only let out the smallest of whimpers. “I wouldn't blame you,” he said, finally meeting my gaze. “I deserve anything... everything... for what Nightmare made me do. But... you know that it wasn't me. You know...! And it's gone, WX. I failed. I don't know what it will do next, but I promise that it will not be through me.” He exposed his hands. His fingers were rubbed raw to the point of bleeding. I said nothing. I trusted him last time, and he drugged me. “Webber, please...” Wilson turned to the boy, but as he did, his shaking became more intense and he bared his fangs. Wilson took a step back, his eyes wide. He had lost Webber's trust, and I didn't think he would ever be able to get it back. “YOU DESERVE WORSE THAN DEATH. IF I COULD DELIVER SUCH A PUNISHMENT, I WOULD.” I thought for a moment, then added: “BUT I BELIEVE THE WORST PUNISHMENT THAT YOU CAN FACE IS HAVING TO DEAL WITH THE CONSEQUENCES OF YOUR ACTIONS.” I took a small step forward. “HAVING TO SPEND EVERY DAY WATCHING THE CHILD WHO TRUSTED YOU SO MUCH SHY AWAY FROM YOUR PRESENCE. SPENDING EVERY WAKING MOMENT HAVING YOUR EYES TURN TOWARDS THE BLOODSTAINED WOUND YOU MARKED ACROSS HIS FACE, OR WATCHING AS HIS AIM MISSES BY A MILE BECAUSE YOU DESTROYED HIS STRENGTHS.” The more I spoke, the more tears appeared in the scientist's eyes. He didn't deny it: he knew what he deserved. “YOU DESERVE TO SUFFER, BY WATCHING YOUR HANDIWORK AT PLAY. BY KNOWING WHAT YOU DID, AND HAVING TO SEE IT EVERY SINGLE DAY.” Webber released me as I spoke, falling to the ground with a dull thump as he did so. I turned to look at him only to see agony scrawled across his face. This was a different type of agony than the pain he must have been experiencing from his wounds, though. “I really am worthless,” he whispered, his voice so soft that I could barely hear it. Ah... so my words had been what had hurt him. I suppose I had lied for long enough at this point. “COME ON,” I growled at Wilson, who startled at my voice. If we made him leave, he would die. And death was too much of a release for him to deserve it. Wilson hesitated, looking between me and Webber. I could see the pain in his gaze, but I had no proof that it was emotional pain. I had done a lot to him to keep Webber safe, but he would recover. I bent down to pick the boy up again, but he flashed his fangs at me and dragged himself to his hand and knees, his injured hand held tightly to his chest. I felt a strange ache in my chest as I watched him struggle to stand on his own, but he was fragile and weak, especially after just having come out of a coma, and couldn't keep his balance for even a second. I didn't try to catch him. It was important for him to fall to understand. He would be able to stand, eventually, but he needed to learn sooner rather than later that he was going to have limits now, and he couldn't push them. “WEBBER,” I finally said after I had decided that he had tried and failed enough. Any more and he would hurt himself. “Please,” he whispered softly. I couldn't stop staring at that eye. I had never seen him look so… his age. “Please, we can’t- if we can’t even stand- what’s the p-point of us being ar-round.” His voice was a low whimper, and there were tears welling up in his eye. “EVERYONE GETS INJURED,” I said matter-of-factly. “YOU ARE NOT EXEMPT, CLEARLY. THERE IS AN OBVIOUS RECOVERY PERIOD. ONE THAT REQUIRES THAT YOU RELAX AND DO NOT STRESS YOUR BODY ANY FURTHER.” The entire time, I found my gaze drifting back to Wilson, who I was sure I had never seen so still. I didn’t think that he had realized the amount of injuries the boy had sustained. “LET ME CARRY YOU, AND YOU CAN CONTINUE TO BE STUBBORN WHEN WE GET BACK TO BASE.” His entire body shivered, and he stared at the ground for a much longer time than necessary, but he finally looked back up at me and nodded a single, small time. That was all I needed anyway. Carefully, I picked him up once more, careful to keep my grip away from any of the injuries he sustained. I could feel the tension in his muscles, the aggravation that he was holding back, but he wasn’t stupid. Stubborn and frustration, yes, but not stupid. He knew very well that his body was too fragile to carry him right now. I didn’t look back to see if Wilson was still with us. I couldn’t care less. He could decide to turn around and jump off of the cliffs for all I cared at that moment. However, after a few moments I heard the soft sounds of his footfalls behind me, trailing after us. I still had no doubt in my mind that Wilson had been possessed by something. His outburst the day before, the full-body, heaving sobs that he had let out after he understood what he had done, was enough to prove that to me. But… he let it happen. If Wilson could let something like this happen, he didn’t deserve our trust. Webber whimpered slightly as my grip on him tightened, but I paid him no attention. Wilson deserved nothing. No, he deserved worse than nothing. He deserved to be pinned by his hand and tortured in the same way he had tortured Webber. But then… I forced my limbs to relax. Wilson was my last priority. Once Webber was stable, healthy, then I would give him what he deserved. “We’re lame. Lame creatures die.” What was the point in trying to save Webber? His words, although harsh, were completely true. It was the simple concept of Survival of the Fittest. The weakest, the slowest, the more injured, would always die. Webber would never get better. I knew this, Wilson knew this, and Webber surely knew this. His injuries would always cripple him and hold him back. Until one day… he would finally fall prey to the world, and something told me there would be no greater deity to bring him back like it did Wilson.
  11. Chapter 43. Among Us Wilson's POV I awoke to what was probably the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. My head was pounding in an intense migraine, and without looking I could tell that my nose was swollen and crusted with blood. When I attempted to drag myself to my hands and feet, a lightning bolt of pain shot through my arm and I found myself collapsing. Unable to do much else, I let out a low groan. I was alone and someplace I had never seen before. The hard, cold ground beneath me only drastically increased the ache that I felt all over. The pain seemed to radiate deep into my chest, so much so that even my heart and lungs felt torn to shreds. Using my good arm, I slowly pulled myself back up, using some sort of circular wooden machine to get my balance again. After I was standing, I dared to look at my injured arm, only looking away quickly a moment later as a wave of dizziness passed over me. My fingers were cold to the touch, but that was the least of my worries. The entire arm was swollen painfully and beginning to turn purple. What... happened to me? It took me a few moments before I decided that I was going to be able to stand with support. Even then, my head swam and the world tipped around me. I leaned up against the machine again, holding my head and trying to keep from passing out. “OH, SO NOW YOU ARE AWAKE.” The voice caught me so off guard that I jumped, but something hard and sharp brushed against my neck as I did so. I opened my eyes again to see a spear held up to my throat, barely an inch away. “What's the big idea!?” I cried, attempting to swipe the weapon away before realizing that it was my injured arm that tried to complete the action. I cradled it to my chest, hissing in pain. “I SHOULD BE ASKING YOU.” WX thrust the weapon even closer to me. Now, the sharp edge was digging into my chin, forcing my head upward with the only other option being impaled. My voice pitched with fear: “What did you do to me?” I cried. “Where did you take me!?” WX's hold on the weapon faltered a bit, but a moment later he shot the weapon forward, slicing what likely was a formidable gash across my cheek. I cried out in shock. “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!” He hissed. His limbs were stiff with anger, and even a deaf person would've heard the way his voice shook with unrestrained rage. “I SHOULD KILL YOU RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE LUCKY HE'S STICKING UP FOR YOU.” “I don't know what you're talking about!” My voice broke into what could only be described as a squeak. “Clearly there's some misunderstanding.” “CLEARLY THERE ISN'T.” He motioned to my broken arm. “You did this to me?” My fear was beginning to be replaced with anger. How dare WX injure me like this? And where was-? I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach. “What did you do to Webber?” The blow was immediate. One second, the spear was at my throat, the next I was reeling back with a fresh gush of blood from my already likely broken nose. I could feel myself shaking with agony now, waves of pain staining my senses until I could barely concentrate on WX in front of me. It was all I could do to stay upright, even with all of my weight on the wooden machine. A second later, another punch to the gut followed it. This was the one that sent me sprawling onto the ground, coughing heavily. I held my good arm around my stomach, trying to keep from retching from the sudden trauma. Before I could recover, a cold hand grabbed the collar of my shirt and yanked me up until our faces were less than an inch away from each other. “I COULD KEEP GOING,” he hissed. “YOU DESERVE WHATEVER I DO TO YOU HERE. YOUR ACTIONS WILL FOLLOW YOU TO THE GRAVE.” “I-I don't understand,” I sputtered. My actions? It appeared to me like I was the one being assaulted! WX let out a yell of frustration before throwing me back on to the ground. A moment later, his foot planted into my chest and held me there. He was far from pressing all of his weight into me, but I could already feel my ribs groaning under the pressure. “YOU WILL TELL ME,” he snarled. He leaned forward until my breaths were nothing more than sharp gasps. “WHO. YOU. CONTACTED.” “I-I can't- I can't.” I tried desperately to push his foot off of me. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't breathe. He let out a hiss of disgust, but the pressure suddenly left. I shot up and coughed loudly, swallowing as much air as I could. “I didn't- nobody-” His eyes were pits of rage, and his fists were clenching and relaxing as if he was holding back. “YOU'RE FEIGNING STUPIDITY.” “Where's Webber!?” I cried. He had done something, hadn't he? And now, I was next? “...FINE.” Immediately, WX grabbed my injured arm in a death grip and yanked me up. I choked out a sob, shaking in pain once more. He scoffed, but released it and instead grabbed the same shoulder. I had no hope of getting free from him, even if I wanted to. His fingers dug into my flesh, and I was sure that that spot was going to be bleeding soon as well. With no other option but coming with him, I chewed on my lip and stumbled along. … Before we even got back to base, I heard unfamiliar noises. Hissing. Spiders. I glanced at WX, who was deliberately keep his gaze straight ahead. I opened my mouth to ask, or to guess, but the sight of camp left my mouth half-open with nothing coming out of it. There were a couple of spiders there, a species that must have been completely different from whatever Webber was. One of them, the one who seemed to be snapping orders to the other, was a fluffy white one. As soon as its strangely pink eyes landed on me, its teeth bared in a snarl. Its companion immediately turned as well, this one dark blue in color with fur that looked as if it had been pulled through thorns. Before I could have both of them at my throat, though, WX sharply snapped at them and they both turned back to... Webber. “LOOK AT HIM,” WX snarled at me. “LOOK AT YOUR HANDYWORK. ARE YOU PROUD OF YOURSELF FOR NEARLY KILLING A CHILD? ONE THAT TRUSTED YOU WITH HIS LIFE?” I opened my mouth to respond, but he interrupted me before I could. His hand wrapped around the back of my neck and he forced my closer, and forced my face in the direction of the injured boy. “ARE YOU PROUD OF YOURSELF!?” His voice had risen to a yell. As he said this, he threw me aside again. His fists were clenched and shaking furiously. “GO AHEAD AND FINISH THE JOB! I DARE YOU.” WX was shorter than me, yes, but he seemed to tower over me in that very moment. “You're... saying I did that to him?” My voice was so tiny I would've been surprised if he heard it. He raised his fist again as if to strike me once more, but even as I was flinching away the white spider was snarling at him, and he dropped it. “GO AWAY, IF YOU KNOW WHAT IS GOOD FOR YOU.” “Let me help!” I exclaimed shakily. “I promise! I didn't do that to him! I wouldn't hurt anyone like that. Especially not... especially not Webber.” “YOU ARE LUCKY THAT YOU ARE MY SECOND PRIORITY,” he snapped. He turned his back to me in order to crouch in front of Webber. The dark blue spider, a spitter, if I could remember correctly, was wrapping layers of silk around the boy's hand, but blood was soaking through it faster than it could work. The white one, which I believed was called a dangling depths dweller was nervously pacing back and forth, looking very much like it was mumbling to itself. “IT TOOK US HOURS TO STABILIZE HIM,” WX said, his voice strangely soft. Maybe the outburst had taken it all out of him. “AND WE STILL CAN'T GET HIS HAND TO STOP BLEEDING.” He fell silent for a moment, staring down. “WHY DID YOU DO IT? I JUST... I CAN'T FIGURE IT OUT. WILSON, WHAT WAS YOUR PLAN?” “WX,” I pleaded. “I swear, I don't know who did his. I wouldn't- I couldn't-” the thought of doing something like that to any child, let alone Webber, destroyed me inside. I finally managed to catch his gaze, attempting to pour as much emotion I could into my expression. “I would never hurt Webber.” “THEN TAKE A LOOK AT HIS WOUNDS YOURSELF!” He snapped. “TELL ME THAT IS NOT THE CUT OF YOUR BLADE. THE CUT OF YOUR KNIFE.” “You have to believe me, please...” I saw his fist clench again, and he closed his eyes tightly. When he spoke, his voice was cold. “WHATEVER HAPPENS TO HIM, YOU WILL FOLLOW THE SAME FATE.” The meaning was obvious: if Webber didn't survive, neither would I. “IF YOU DON'T DO ANYTHING ABOUT YOUR ARM, IT WILL NEVER HEAL PROPERLY.” He turned his gaze away from me again. He wanted me to leave him alone. I nodded slowly, staring at the ground. The past day... it was nothing but fog. Was it true that I had done something like this? If that's true... I'll never forgive myself. I surveyed the camp, trying to ignore how ravaged it appeared. There must have really been a struggle if WX had allowed such a mess without cleaning it up. As I turned around, though, I heard a small scuffle, and a spiderlike snarl followed by a tiny voice seemingly repeating the same thing. “...Wilson?” Webber's eyes had flickered open, although they were glazed with pain and I wasn't even sure if he was looking at me. I tried to take a step towards him, but WX's gaze immediately snapped to me, and the two spiders bristled. Instead, I crouched down a few feet away from him. “Wilson...!” His voice rose in relief and joy, but when he tried to move, the white spider immediately growled at him. He hissed something back at it, and it stepped back, its gaze weary. “It's... you're back...!” His voice was weak and rough, as was the purr that followed. I couldn't help but wince. If I had done something like this to him, then why would be acting like this? WX seemed to have the same question. “HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN ALREADY THAT YOU ARE LIKE THIS BECAUSE OF HIM!?” He snapped. When Webber tried to move again, the robot grabbed his shoulder and held him in place. “YOU NEARLY DIED AT HIS HAND!” Webber's eyes unfocused, and his smile dropped slightly. He shook his head. “It... couldn't be... not him...” He trusts me, relief washed over me, so intensely that I nearly fell over. WX and the spiders both seemed pretty convinced that I had hurt Webber, but the boy himself still trusted me. I looked down at my hands. There was blood on them. The blank on my memory... had I actually done something to Webber? I couldn't have... I couldn't... I wouldn't... I reached out my hand to him, but before he could take it, the white spider got between us again, hissing. I drew back with a frown on my face, then turned my gaze back to Webber. He seemed to have fallen back out of consciousness. Good. Well, not good. If he couldn't stay conscious, that probably meant he was very nastily hurt, but at least he was getting rest. I could see a wound on his neck that had been patched up with silk, and another across his face that had stopped bleeding without it. What really concerned me was his hand. A substantial pile of bloody silk lay strewn around the dark blue spider, but it had only now just managed to staunch the bleeding. Trying to ignore the pain in my belly, I glanced at WX. “...Who are the spiders?” “FRIENDS OF HIS,” the robot replied. “THEY HEALED HIM WELL THE LAST TIME HE GOT INJURED.” I caught a side-glare from him, but tried to ignore it. “I WAS NEARLY EVISCERATED BY THE BEASTS UNTIL THEY REALIZED I WAS TRYING TO HELP HIM.” “I didn't expect to see cave spiders up here.” “THEY DID NOT WANT TO BE UP HERE.” He left the conversation at that. An awkward silence fell over us. I could feel the barely restrained anger emanating from my robotic companion, but he didn't seem to make any moves towards me. I moved to scratch my head, but winced painfully as I remembered the arm. Well, okay, he probably did enough to me to keep me occupied for awhile. I turned away from the boy, turning to the items scattered all over camp. That was... probably going to be a pain to clean up. I shrugged very slightly before settling down to fashion a sling for my arm and fasten something to help my nose heal properly. After several minutes, WX came up beside me. His face was a deep frown, but I couldn't tell if it was directed at me or the situation. “...HE SHOULD BE FINE,” the robot said heavily. “NO THANKS TO YOU.” “WX...” even I was surprised at the tightness of my voice. I moved my good arm to rub my eyes, and was surprised to feel an irritating wetness there. “...what happened? It's... it's all just a blur. I-” My gaze, unwillingly, shifted back to the injured boy. The spitter was now asleep a few feet away from Webber, whereas the dangling depths dweller was pacing back and forth in front of him, twitching. “I never would've hurt him.” Several tears followed the words and I looked down, focused on the hand that wasn't bound up in a sling. I clenched my fist and squeezed my eyes shut for a moment before looking back at WX. “Please... you have to believe me. Especially now... I wouldn't have hurt him when we had no more bond than a common goal.” I choked on my words. Was I a monster? I denied it, I refused to believe it, but I could recognize the look of my own knife wounds. Nobody else could have done that. “The bond we share... that we all share... it's so much deeper than that. Please...! I couldn't- I could never-” I couldn't say anything else. It was taking all of my effort to breathe, let alone speak. Some part of my mind was chastising my weakness: you are a grown man! Men don't cry, let alone sob! But I couldn't help it. The idea, the very implication of what had happened to Webber: what I had done to Webber. I did not expect any comfort from the robot, and did not receive any. He simply stared at me, his gaze turned into a deep, wordless frown. I didn't give myself time to fully recover. I was still gasping for breath between sobs when words started pouring out of my mouth. “I- I had a terrible nightmare and it wanted me to do something terrible but I couldn't- I couldn't...! But no matter how hard I fought it, it was w-winning and now it's u-using me and I don't know how to free myself. I never wanted to hurt Webber. I never wanted to hurt you! When I woke up I was so c-confused but the longer I see him and the longer I think about it I can't- I can't deny it. But I can't control it! Whatever it is it's inside of me and it's so, so angry and I can't get it out and I don't know what to do. It's all just darkness and fog and now Webber is on death's door and I wasn't even around to help him...” “THE MORE YOU SPEAK, THE MORE YOU EMBARRASS YOURSELF.” He didn't sound as hostile as I expected. It was all but a confession of guilt. He was silent for a moment before standing, still refusing to acknowledge my whimpering cries and shaking sobs. “POSSESSION- I WILL ADMIT THAT IT CROSSED MY MIND. YOU HAVE CONVINCED ME, WILSON. WHAT YOU HAVE NOT DONE IS SAID HOW YOU ARE GOING TO FIX IT.” I placed a hand on my chest, blinking away tears. I could feel something inside of my heart. It... I felt so cold. “I don't know,” I whispered. The first, and admittedly only, idea that came to mind was to kill me again. There was something that the monster... Nightmare... had said. That they wanted Webber to make up for losing me. I had offered myself then, but the idea of offering my life to WX was enough to force the darkness in my heart to twist, and the ice radiated out to my fingertips. I knew that, if I told him now, that killing me would fix this, he would. It was abundantly clear, in that moment, that WX constantly chastised me for trying to protect Webber, but when it came down to it, WX would defend Webber until the last spark of life left his robotic form. Webber may have viewed me in a more... parental sense, but WX was the true protector of the boy now. When WX didn't say anything, I could feel myself shaking again. I was already tired of shaking and cowering away, but I couldn't stop it. “WX, please, I really don't know...” He shook his head, never taking that eyeless gaze away from me. “HE TRUSTS YOU,” he said after a long, long moment. “HE KNEW THAT SOMETHING WAS WRONG. I SUSPECT THAT IF THIS PASSES WITHOUT ANY MORE PROBLEMS... HE WILL FORGET IT EVER HAPPENED.” I winced. His hand sure wouldn't. “HOWEVER... I CANNOT SAY THAT THE SAME MERCY WOULD BE GRANTED IF THIS HAPPENS AGAIN.” I nodded ever so slightly. I sniffled and rubbed my eyes. “I don't even deserve the second chance.” “IF IT WERE UP TO ME, YOU WOULD BE DEAD.” He frowned for a moment, wringing his hands together. “...I GRIEVED FOR YOU, WILSON. IT WAS HARDLY A WEEK THAT YOU WERE GONE, BUT I STILL RETURNED TO THAT BATTLEGROUND SO MANY TIMES.” His gaze turned serious. “BUT I WILL NOT SPARE YOU IF IT COMES DOWN TO A FIGHT.” “I know.” He nodded, just once, before returning to his watchful vigil. I sighed. Something was eating away at me, and I couldn't stop it. Maybe... maybe it would be better if I left them. Went as far as I possibly could and just give myself up to the wilderness. Maybe, if they had my soul, they would leave Webber alone. But right now... I couldn't bare the idea. I couldn't be alone, not again. And so, instead, I sighed and turned to the fire. WX was probably getting hungry, if he wasn't already, and Webber would certainly need something to eat once he woke up properly. That was probably the best thing I could do right now, even if it would be harder with a broken arm. I didn't even notice as my hand idly slipped a white-skinned vegetable into the food. … Webber's POV We found ourselves on a knife's edge between sleep and wakefulness. The sleep was light enough for us to hear some of the conversations around us, but we weren't able to stay awake for longer than a few moments at a time. The first time we had opened our eyes, we were somewhere dark. The air had been heavy and thick with the scent of mildew, and it had made breathing even more difficult than it was before. Cold arms had been holding us, carrying us... The next time, we were back on the surface, and a duo of spiders looked on. One, I didn't recognize, but the other had struck me so deep that I couldn't help but murmur her name in surprise. Erika had said something to us, using a name we had never expected to hear from her, but we had slipped back into darkness only a second later. The third time, Wilson's gray eyes had been focused on us. He turned away for only a moment until we managed to say his name aloud, first in a spiderlike hiss and secondly in English. It had been him, as he really was. His eyes were torn, his entire body shaking intensely with either fear, pain, or grief. It was that moment that we knew that the person who had attacked us wasn't him. The fourth time, we were completely encased in darkness. We were slightly more awake this time, awake enough to notice the thin blood crusted across our face, the silk that had been gently wrapped around our neck, and the significantly thicker and stiffer bandages around our hand. Our hand... Pinned against a machine, listening to Wilson's mad ravings. We instinctively shivered and tried to cower, but we couldn't. The fact that we were completely swallowed by darkness had not quite occurred to us yet, nor did the uncomfortable sensation of being slung over someone's shoulder. Immediately, we sucked in a breath of air and struggled, but before we could even try to move, we were thrown roughly onto the cold, hard ground. The impact sent shockwaves through our body, choking another whimper from deep within us. Wilson- whatever, whoever was doing this to him- was going to finish the job WX had interrupted the night before. Where's WX? Our mind cried, immediately shying away from what we figured was the most obvious answer. He was letting this happen. We tried to cry out, to yell for help, but we nearly choked on a swathe of something... some sort of fabric? Silk? That had been formed into a gag. We tried to ignore the spike of panic, forcing ourselves to think of one thing at a time. Get rid of the gag. That wouldn't be hard. The material seemed surprisingly flimsy and our fangs seemed to be able to cut through it just fine. Unfortunately, he seemed to notice that we were awake. “Surprising,” Wilson muttered. “I would've thought you would've been out for much longer. Hmm... perhaps I need to adjust the dose next time.” A final, solid twist of our jaw, and the binding fell apart. We took a few gasping breaths, trying to prepare ourselves for whatever was coming next. The last time, it had been out of a sheer unwillingness to harm Wilson to stop us from fighting back. This time, we physically couldn't. We tried to say something, to try to get through to him, but before we could, his fist crashed into the broken wooden machine. “Why do you have to be so useless!?” He shouted, gritting his teeth. The change was so abrupt, so similar to last night, that we immediately began to shake. We tried to move backwards, but the machine was to our back and our bandaged hand didn't allow for much use. Even the slightest touch of it against the ground sent pulsing waves of agony all through our arm. “Even when you're only purpose is to die, you can't even do that!” His gray eyes snapped towards where we were. “The Master would be disappointed in me if I let anything be half-done. And I'm not taking another chance with you.” His fists clenched again as he pressed them both into the wood, his glare never leaving me. “I was told to kill you all those years ago, before you were consumed. The only reason I didn't was because of the potential I saw in you. Clearly, that potential was nothing more than to be a pain in my neck!” I couldn't move. I so desperately needed to, to get away, to find help, whether it be from WX or from the spiders, but I couldn't move. All of my limbs, spider or otherwise, were locked in place, and it was all I could do to stare at him and take what he was saying. “Then, I thought that feeding you to the spiders would be enough. After all, your sister perished exactly as planned with no intervention. But then you refused!” His hand whipped out and held my throat, pinning me against the ground with nothing but his weight. I had fought WX before, and Wilson's weight was nothing compared to that, but it was nothing I could shake off at my peak, let alone injured and drugged. Last time, he had a noose around my neck which troubled my breathing, but this was more extreme. I couldn't breathe at all. I tried desperately to suck in breaths, but nothing could get through. Panic forced my heart to pound, which in turned made my body beg for more oxygen. It finally seemed like one of my sporadic movements landed a hit on his gut, which he immediately recoiled from, enough for me to be freed from his hold. I tried to call out again, but air was rasping against my throat so hard that all I could manage was a low hiss of air. His hand gripped my scruff, not quite freezing me in place but it was a grip that I couldn't afford to have. Before I could struggle out of it, the hand was around my throat again, this time before I was promptly slammed against the wooden machine. The dawn light was glowing behind him now, casing a heavy shade over his face. It highlighted his clearly broken arm and how he ignored it in favor of having a better grip on me. Erika was so close and I never got to know her as my sister again- Holding me tightly with one hand, his other hand had pulled out a knife, which glinted in the early sun. He ran his thumb across the dull side, his eyes flickering between different parts of my face, considering where to cut, where to dissect me like an animal. I hope WX will be okay and that he's able to be freed- The sharp end of the knife rested, almost gently, directly above one of my accessory eyes. I grabbed at him, pushed at him, struggled as hard as I could, but he never once even reacted like I was moving. His voice was so low that I could barely recognize it as his own. “Even if they save you now, you will never be able to fend for yourself again.” I hope- The knife was pressed down, slicing open skin and obliterating the useless eye as it went. I hope- My body felt the wound before my mind caught up. The hand on my throat meant I couldn't scream, but my vision immediately began to get swallowed up by black and red, and my legs kicked out on reflex. I hope Wilson gets better. The knife passed cleanly, effortlessly, through my eye. Immediately, fluid followed behind. Blood and tears poured down and soaked my cheek, but the knife cut down until the eye was completely split in half. Then, and only then, did Wilson withdraw to gaze upon his handiwork. The second he dropped me, I felt my body heave in a retch. I barely registered as the scientist took a step back. Even after I had lost everything I had in my stomach, I couldn't stop shaking. I collapsed sideways, desperately trying to look up at Wilson through the spots in my vision. The hands were gone but I still couldn't breath and I couldn't see anything out of my right eye and I was alone and- and- and- His head snapped to the side, a look of shock passing over his gaze before being quickly swallowed by anger. He discarded his knife in favor of his morning star and immediately pressed the weapon into my injured hand. “Take one more step and he loses it!” He roared. Everything was pulsing in and out of existence. My mind lamely murmured: looks like WX is here... But it wasn't him. In fact, I was able to make out a blur of blue fur and the snarl of a hound puppy. Popsicle, no! I couldn't help him, though. I couldn't move if I wanted to, and it had nothing to do with the mace slowly grinding the bones of my injured hand. I couldn't feel it at all- it was as if every nerve in my body was in full-blown panic mode, desperately trying to recover from the loss of an eye. The pressure on my hand lifted, just as the ice hound lunged towards the scientist. We had taken out dozens of hounds, both individually and together. One tiny puppy would be no match for him. As Wilson was raising his weapon for a single, quick killing blow, he suddenly stiffened, his eyes widening in shock. Another moment later and he pitched to the side. WX stood behind him, blinking intensely. He still had one hand up and a knife in his other hand. I wanted to say something, to acknowledge the rescue, but nothing would come out. I was drifting again, but this time I let myself. I sensed more than saw the robot crouch beside me, murmuring something surprisingly quiet. A moment later, he continued to speak, though this time, it was in a warmer voice. He... He was singing. He was singing a lullaby. I knew I was safe, in that moment. It was a lullaby I hadn't heard since I was small, one that had always calmed me down from the worst of fits and always put me at ease even with the worst of stress. And so... I let my body relax and let my remaining eye drift close into a hazy, miserable sleep.
  12. Chapter 41. Someone Else WX-78's POV While the others slept, I busied myself by searching the entirety of Wilson's book, curious as to what it was he had been so desperately writing in it before brushing it off like it was nothing. There had been a look in his eye when he was writing it; his eyes had been wild and his expression tense, like he was someone forcing his hand to write. It was most likely nothing of importance, I knew, maybe a drawing of something he had remembered, but I had nothing better to do. I sat by the firelight, alternating between searching through the book at staring at my companions. I knew very well that Webber had sort of adopted himself as Wilson's; he was terrible at pretending. Yet, I didn't expect the sort of raw emotion in his eyes when Wilson had returned to us unscathed. Unscathed... there had to be something more behind that. Maybe I could find something in the book about that, but I doubted it. One of us would've found it by now if that was the truth. And so, I didn't keep my hopes up. At first, my page turning had been slow, my eyes grazing over each word written by an unknown hand, but the longer I read, the quicker I began to turn the pages. Charcoal wasn't a precise written tool by any means, and I figured it would be easy to see. I had just reached the section where each of the survivors were listed when I stopped, staring at Wilson's page. Written in thick, heavily marked charcoal, two words had been written over and over again. Someone else. Someone else. Someone else. Someone else. Someone else. … Webber was the first to wake up. I could tell because he was stirring more than usual and he would occasionally blink up at Wilson to see if he had woken up yet, but he seemed perfectly content to lay there, and he may have drifted off again. I honestly didn't care less. The words Wilson had wrote were turning over in my head. Someone else... what is he talking about? Someone else had been there with him? Someone else killed him? Someone else what!? Why be so cryptic! As the sun was just beginning to graze the treetops, I was struck by something. It was a similar feeling to what I had directly before Wilson returned to us. I looked up to see something standing over the scientist. If I had breath to lose, I was certain that I would have. My limbs felt held in place, and I found the idea of sleep paralysis running through my mind despite me not having sleep nor a mind to be tricked. I couldn't rightly describe it as anything other than a mass of shadows. A large portion of its body was wound around Wilson, while its claws gripped his head in order to stay upright. As fast as it had appeared, the sensation went away, and Wilson was waking up as well. He yawned and stretched, then spared a few moments to stare at Webber before hesitantly reaching around to scratch around his whiskers. When he caught me staring at him, his eyes narrowed. “WHAT DID YOU JUST DO?” “What are you talking about?” He hostility in his eyes immediately cleared, and his voice tinged with confusion. “It's too early for this, WX. At least let me wake up first.” He seemed totally normal. He blinked several times and rubbed his eyes. “It's beautiful, isn't it? Being dead for a few days really makes you stop and think about how beautiful nature is. Like, when was the last time you just appreciated what it felt like to have the sun on your skin?” As if to emphasis his point, he stretched out his arms and sighed blissfully. I frowned at him. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?” He tipped his head at me. “What did I do this time? I should probably be able to guess with you at this point, but I'm lost.” I shook my head. I couldn't explain it, and I didn't know what it even was. Wilson shrugged and nudged Webber until he was able to stand. “What are we doing today? There's not really much for us to do until the Bearger comes back...” he shivered. “Although, I'm not looking forward to facing off against that again. I'm just excited for when we get to leave.” I hummed, but said nothing. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't say what. I knew that there were strange hallucinations here, but none of those hallucinations directly interacted with any of us. That shadow was hovering over Wilson, was curled around Wilson. “Mmm... can we not work today?” Webber asked, his voice still slurred with sleep. I felt a twinge of annoyance in my chest. Wilson was glad that the boy was becoming more comfortable around us, comfortable enough to act like himself, but it frustrated me to no end. He was a survivalist first and a child second, there was no room for error, youth, or weakness, and certainly no time for play. Wilson gave him a pitying look, a look that meant I want to let you be a child but I can't let you be a child. I huffed. “Well, I like that idea a lot... it would be nice to relax after what we all went through with the Dragonfly... but we can't really take a break. Not with another battle like that on the horizon.” He shook his head very slightly, earning a disappointed growl from the boy. “YOU KNOW HE IS RIGHT,” I snapped. “OUR DAY-TO-DAY SURVIVAL IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN FUN AND GAMES.” Webber sighed. “We know. What are we going to be doing today, then?” “WE ARE LOW ON MOST THINGS. I WAS UNABLE TO KEEP UP OUR STOCKS WHILE YOU WERE MOPING AND WILSON WAS... INDISPOSED OF.” I wasn't going to admit that the only reason I fell so far behind was because I couldn't stop returning to the scene of the battle, beating myself up and cursing myself for not being fast enough to save Wilson. It didn't matter now, and I certainly wasn't going to bring it up to make it matter. Webber brightened, if only slightly. “Foraging... we can do that.” He just didn't want to fight. Funny. Webber is the last one I expected to get cold feet. “What are we lowest on?” Wilson asked, the question directed at me. I thought for a moment. “FOOD, PROBABLY. AND FIREWOOD.” “Firewood,” Webber immediately said. His whiskers were twitching slightly, and his brow was furrowed. I saw Wilson give the boy a strange look. “YOU CANNOT FORGO KILLING FOREVER,” I warned him. “KILLING IS NECESSARY FOR OUR SURVIVAL.” “WX, you wouldn't mind hunting, would you?” Wilson asked hopefully. “Why don't you bring Popsicle and Pyrite?” A deep frown appeared on my face, I knew, but I couldn't stop it. Pyrite... the name they had given the Dragonfly hatchling. What a perfect name, I had remarked. Fool's gold, for a bunch of fools. Since her hatching the day before, she had done absolutely nothing but sleep. Occasionally she would wake up in order to find something to set on fire and eat, but that was the most we had seen from her. Popsicle had apparently given himself the title of Protector of the Stupid Bug, and he refused to move from her side or even let us get too close. I mentally cursed at myself for thinking of the creatures as anything other than that- creatures, that would one day undoubtedly become our food, if I could find a good time when both of the others' backs were turned. I suddenly noticed that I was receiving just as harsh of a glare from the ice hound puppy. Did it understand Wilson, and hate the arrangement as much as I did? Of course not, I scoffed. A dog is no human; it can't even feel if it wanted to. “YOU CAN'T PROTECT HIM,” I said instead, glancing deliberately down at Webber. “HUNTING IS IN HIS NATURE.” “I can do what I like with him,” Wilson snapped. “The last time I checked, you weren't the one that all but adopted him.” “Stop talking over me!” Webber barked. He pushed away from Wilson to stand between us, his fur standing on end. “I'm still here, you know! A spider takes a break for a few days and suddenly everyone pretends like he was never there in the first place! If you have something to say about us, you say it to us!” He shifted his narrowed gaze from me to Wilson and back. I couldn't help but let out the smallest sigh of relief. Good... he does still have a bite, even against Wilson. But then I almost shivered. Me? I? A spider? Who is talking to us right now? The spider? “We don't want to hunt, but we will if we have to, because that's survival. However, when there's three of us, all perfectly capable of hunting, we don't see why we would have to in the first place. Tame us all you want, but the facts will always come back to we are just as capable as either of you. There is nothing to protect.” “Yes there is!” Wilson cried. “I've seen it now! We saw it yesterday!” “Yesterday was an exception,” Webber protested, but I almost see the flush of embarrassment on his black-furred cheeks. “A moment of weakness does not make us weak.” Wilson caught my gaze and I was surprised to see frustration in his. However, I could understand. Just when we think he's figured out, he does something like this. Finally, the scientist let out a deep, exhausted sigh. “Would you still prefer to collect firewood?” Webber nodded. “But that doesn't mean we can't hunt!” He added hastily with a small glare at me. I glowered back instinctively. “Then you and I can go do that while WX can hunt.” I opened my mouth, ready to protest. Webber was the best at hunting, and Wilson knew it. His speed was unmatched between us. In fact, I would even argue that I was the worst. Wilson's trying to get him comfortable. But why? Wilson seemed to catch my expression and he waved it off. “Any of your shortcomings can easily be made up by Popsicle.” “THEN WHY THE INSECT?” I decided to say, which took a great deal of self-restraint. Shortcomings!? My mind roared. “To protect you if you're out too long. We don't want another attack now, do we?” He asked, tapping his ear. I covered the bolt that had been severed by the Night Monster and gave him the nastiest glare I could manage. “Come on, Webber.” “WHAT IF YOU TWO ARE OUT TOO LONG?” I demanded, but I earned no response. Great, that left me in a conundrum. Either do what Wilson told me to- infuriating- or let ourselves starve. And, unfortunately, I couldn't really let that happen. I motioned at the dog aggressively and started walking away without even checking to see if it was following me. Knowing the bug, it would follow right behind him. … As I walked, I was able to think. Particularly, about Wilson and Webber. I knew that my mind was better occupied with other things, but I felt like I needed to figure them out. Something had happened with Wilson. Something that I couldn't quite answer, but something that could prove quite troublesome in the future at best, deadly at worst. It hadn't happened immediately after his reawakening; he seemed just fine the day before when he came back to us. Webber had seemed to immediately cling on him yesterday, but today, he seemed a bit off as well. Not off as in something happened to him, but he was clearly on edge about something. Did he sense what happened with Wilson? I carefully turned over a few theories in my head. The obvious answer was that Wilson was not who came back to us. That was the idea I wanted to stick with, particularly so we could kill him and get the situation over with, but something told me it wouldn't be that simple. Besides, the person yesterday had certainly been Wilson, which means that the exchange would've happened some time between last night and this morning. But that wouldn't really make sense, either. What could want to pretend to be Wilson and why? I would think Maxwell, but he seemed to have no interest in directly causing our deaths and was far more amused by the idea of us running around like headless chickens. Plus, why Wilson? If he was an imposter, then he would lose his brain, which was the only thing that actually made him useful. But that didn't mean... Suddenly, it felt like a block of pure lead had dropped in my non-existent stomach. No, that was impossible, right? Surely Wilson wasn't being possessed by something? The more I thought about it, the more terrified I became. There was a reason he wanted me to be separated from them. He's going to do something to Webber. The knowledge hit me like a brick and I came to a full stop. Despite myself, I could feel waves of terror pulsing through my circuits. One of them gone, I could deal with. If Wilson had to be eliminated or if Webber was killed, I would be able to get by just fine. But if Webber was killed and all that I was left with was a possessed Wilson... “COME ON, DOG!” I snapped. Immediately, Popsicle froze and stared at me. Pyrite bumped into him with a little trill, and a puff of steam appeared between them. “IF YOU CARE AT ALL ABOUT YOUR OWNER, YOU BOTH WILL FOLLOW ME.” Without checking- I didn't need to- I turned on my heel and sprinted as fast in the direction that they had gone. I don't know what's going to happen tonight, but I'm going to stop it. I'm coming. Chapter 42. Turning Point Webber's POV We followed Wilson, although confusion was starting to tinge our senses. We had long since left any forested area behind, and we were now walking through grassland. However, we still followed him, certain that he at least had a purpose for bringing us out there. We jogged to catch up to him. “Wilson... um... what are we doing out here?” We noticed that he pursed his lips and let out a low hum, but he didn't actually respond. His face was creased in an unrecognizable expression. What did that even mean? Did we do something to anger him? A wave of frustration flooded over us. Why couldn't he just tell us? Finally fed up, we dug our feet into the ground and refused to move. Wilson almost immediately noticed that we were no longer following him and turned around, a scowl planted on his face. “What are you doing?” “You won't tell us why we went out here.” “To get wood,” he said as if we were the dumbest child he had ever encountered. It took all of our strength not to flinch back. “If... if this is about yesterday, then you can just say that. We were emotional and transparent. That's not how we usually are. If you want to... pretend it never happened, then you can. You can go back to seeing me as the dumb, incompetent child you think we are.” “This has nothing to do with yesterday,” Wilson snapped. “Then what is the deal?” “You'll know when we get there.” “Get where!?” We knew that our voice was pitching with frustration, but he wasn't giving any answers. Wilson only looked away. “It isn't far now.” Our whiskers twitched. We knew we could take him if he attacked us. It would be that hard- a sharp gasp escaped our throat as a length of something scratchy and thick wrapped around our throat and tightened. Immediately, terror washed away all of our senses, but we quickly realized that we could still breathe, albeit a bit uncomfortably. Wilson held the other end of the rope, glaring down at us while holding it high above his head. Our claws brushed over the knot he had formed. A noose... “Where did you get this?” I hissed, afraid now of him tightening it. We hadn't seen it at all on the way here... he must have had it hidden, but already knotted. “Doesn't matter. Now you have to follow me.” He pulled on the rope meaningfully, and it tightened ever so slightly in response. The smallest of whimpers escaped our throat. Whatever Wilson had planned for us, we had walked right into his trap and with no backup. We stumbled after him, a quicker pace now that he knew he couldn't lose us. We were unable to contain another whimper and we barely managed to swallow back the tears threatening to rise in our eyes. He had planned this all along, a voice whispered in the back of our head, but whether it was my own petrified conscience or Webber himself, I couldn't tell. The ground started to become wetter, as if this particular area had experienced recent rainfall, but the trees around were completely dry. Awful, gurgling sounds came to our attention, as well as what sounded like distant growls or grumbles, and not from any spiders. We gripped the rope around our neck with all of our claws stretched out, trying to worry away at the material, but it didn't even look frayed no matter how much we clawed at it. This was much stronger than any ropes any of us had woven to get simple jobs done. This was a rope designed for something else. Soon, the ground changed abruptly again to a hard, surprisingly clean marble. Wilson's shoes clicked against the flooring like a deadly clock, counting down to our inevitable maiming or worse. Our footsteps were much softer in comparison, both shoeless and muted by coarse fur, but to us, they were far too loud. Our heart was struggled to climb out of our throat and run, but somehow, it stayed put. In the very center of the marble was what looked like a destroyed machine. It was made out of wood, but carved so finely that the wood it was built around would be fit for the dinner table of a king. The mud itself seemed to fear the machine, keeping a wide berth around it and creating a large spot of completely clean tile. The nearness to the machine immediately put us on edge, and we once again began to struggle. This time, Wilson didn't even seem to notice the extra burden of our movements. He made his way straight for the machine and placed a hand on it, before withdrawing a long, perfectly carved knife made out of flint and wood. It was such a well-made weapon that, if we didn't know any better, we would've expected it to have come from Maxwell's calloused hands themselves. He twirled the knife in his hand for a long moment before looking at us with a murderous glint. There was something deeply off about him now. His eyes, once gray and kind and caring, were now as hard as stone and betrayed nothing but his intent to use that knife on us. His body movements, his posture, it was all different. His grip on the rope loosened very slightly, something we tried to take advantage of, but a quick twist in order to make a break for it tore it free from his hand and opened it up to his foot. He immediately stomped on the end, yanking us backward and tightening the rope even further. Now, we were struggling to breath. It pinched the skin around our throat and tore at the skin there, as well as obstructing our windpipe and forcing us to take small, quick breaths. “What's going on?” I cried. I was able to notice that the spidery growl had completely fled it, leaving nothing but my own small, scared voice behind. “After much deliberation, I have decided to accept a deal with someone,” Wilson said. He ran his finger along the back of the knife, never taking his cold eyes away from us. “A deal that scores the freedom of two of us. A deal that involves the sacrifice of the third.” “Sacrifice?” I whimpered. It was the best I could manage. He intended to sacrifice me? To who? Why? What happened to Wilson?! Tears welled up in my eyes again, and I swallowed several times to keep them back. “Wilson... papa...” “Shut it!” He snapped. “I hate to hear you beg.” “I'm not begging, I just wanna know what happened to Wilson!” I could barely register anything other than the pure, fierce heartbreak that was ravaging my insides. I could see his shoulders rising, but whether defensively or offensively, I couldn't tell, nor did I care to. “The Wilson you thought you knew never existed!” He barked, his voice sharp and angry. “It has taken me a long time to gain your trust enough to bring you here. I mean, really, have you looked at yourself? No self-respecting creature would dare call you their own, human and spider alike.” My heart was torn to shreds. I could barely breathe, but now it wasn't even just because of the rope. I could feel my chest heaving with sobs that I only barely managed to swallow back before they could fall down my cheek. “No wonder someone as young as you is out here. Your parents must have thrown you out as soon as they saw you.” I couldn't help it now. It was all I could do to cover my eyes to hide the first tears that wetted my fur. “All that matters to me- all that ever mattered to me- is escaping. I want to leave this godforsaken land behind, and all of its creatures.” I almost didn't register the way his eyes narrowed at me as he said that- he was referring to me. “Saving WX is a bonus, one that I didn't expect.” He waved his hand as if it was a trivial subject. “But I always knew you would be useful to keep around. Useful to keep around and to soften so much that he can barely stand up for himself, even when he's being actively attacked.” He was right. If I was who I was when we first met- was that almost a year ago?- I would have easily torn out of my restraints and fled as far as I could, probably taking Wilson's life with me. Now, I wasn't even sure my legs could hold me up long enough to stand, let alone to fight or run. And not Wilson. Especially not Wilson. “Th-this isn't y-you,” I sputtered, choking back another fresh wave of tears. “Wilson wouldn't d-do this! You're lying!” He finally seemed to notice the change in my voice, or something of the like, because his mouth turned upwards in a sneer. “Even Webber abandoned you. I guess that means I'm talking to no one but Tyler, aren't I?” “D-Don't use that n-name.” My voice was so small, yet it took all of my energy to speak. The sheer amount of effort it was taking to not fall apart before his very eyes was killing me far faster than any wound could. “Why not? Does it bring back too many painful memories?” He jeered. “Wilson... Wilson can use that name. Not you...” He let out a frustrated roar and lashed out with the knife. Immediately, a line of fire seared across my face, just barely missing one of my eyes. Against my will, a cry of pain erupted from my chest and I fell back. I felt Wilson's weight shift away from the rope, but before I could even attempt to stand he grabbed the loop that was around my neck and pulled at it, pulling me up with it. Now, our faces were only inches apart. The person I was looking at... there was no way it was Wilson. This was not the same person that had let me call him my father only a day before. “Please,” I whispered. He let out a sort of scoff before dragging me towards the machine. My muscles locked with terror. Even if I had the energy to run, I just couldn't... But then his head turned, as if he had heard something. The second his gaze left mine, I struggled free and tried to run, but before I could even get my footing I was being dragged back. This time, Wilson's eyes were alight with fire. “How dare you!?” He snarled. “There will be no escape!” To punctuate his words, the knife came back at me, but it didn't go for my face. Instead, white-hot agony seared through my entire arm as he pinned me by my hand. My first thought was that it was a stab wound, that there was no way it was any worse, but when I finally managed to tear my gaze away from him, I could see that the knife had been thrust straight through my hand and out the other side before burying solidly in the wood. I was completely pinned in place. The terror I felt previously exploded into utter panic. I gripped the handle of the knife and struggled to pull it free, but my already-diminished strength was quickly failing me. Blood pulsed out of the wound, hard and fast to the pounding of my heart. A moment later, a blade was biting into my neck, smoothly sliding through skin and sinew until blood poured from it as furiously as from my hand. A keen, wailing sound developed in my throat, but I couldn't do anything else. My awareness shifted to the fact that Wilson had vanished only long enough before it was slammed back into the pain. I had felt pain before- quite often, in fact. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that could possibly compare to this. I gasped desperately for air, the noose around my neck preventing me from getting more than the smallest breath at a time. My vision was quickly turning black, but whether I was going to pass out from blood loss or from my inability to breathe was both unknown and unimportant. I couldn't pass out. There was a lot of things that shouldn't happen, that would only make this worse, but I prayed to any force looking down on me to keep me awake. I heard voices, but I didn't know who they belonged to. Raised, angry voices, belonging to people that I should recognize. Unfortunately, whoever had come had come far too late. I didn't need to be a medical expert to know I was only seconds away from going into full-blown shock. I was going to die here, far from my family and alone. I had to stay awake. I couldn't let myself fall into shock, I couldn't pass out. The thoughts paced in my mind in a sluggish circle, so different from the speed of my racing heart and aching lungs. Those thoughts, the ones attempting to prevent this very thing, followed me as my vision went black, and my muscles fell limp. … WX-78's POV I knew immediately that I was too late. Popsicle, despite being a puppy, was called a hound for a reason, and was easily able to find the trail of his owner. However, it was much slower moving than I would have liked. Pyrite slowed us down as well, since it took half of my effort to keep her from setting anything on fire. Literally anything could be happening right now. For all I knew, Webber was perfectly fine and all of this was just my mind finally snapping under the pressure. Yet somewhere, deep inside, I knew that my presence would mean life or death to the boy. I heard them before I found them. Well... more like I heard Webber. It wasn't until I was closer that I was able to hear Wilson's low, angry, and quick speaking, but what I had heard from Webber was a kind of pain I had never inflicted nor seen inflicted on him. It was a cry of pain, but overflowing with so much heartbreak it would be impossible for even the most callous of individuals to ignore. “WILSON!” I called out, unable to keep the rage out of my voice. A moment passed before there was another pained cry, though this one was more of a screech. It carried despite the muddy bog and bore directly into my chest. I closed my fists around my spear, which may or may not have been hastily crafted into a halberd at some point, and pushed through the mud until I was able to find solid ground. That solid ground happened to be marble. For me, that meant it was completely impossible for any kind of sneak attack. A human would cause a ruckus walking on such well-kept tile, someone of my composition and weight would be deafening. Which is why I wasn't surprised to see Wilson already waiting for me in the center. There was a large wooden object that he was next to, but my eyes immediately skipped over it in favor of staring at the boy who had been pinned against it. I had to physically tear my gaze away from him in order to rest it on Wilson. The scientist had been staring steadily at me as if gauging my reaction. Upon seeing what must have been the most raw, unfiltered rage he had ever seen, I saw his eyes narrow. Fine. He wasn't going to back down. At least I wouldn't feel bad about killing him again. “Make your choice now, WX,” Wilson said before I could even get close to him. He flashed a weapon at me, and it surprised me to realize that it was the top half of his morning star that had been destroyed when we fought the dragonfly. Except now, it looked much closer to a mace in size. There was no way he snuck that out of camp. Because he didn't, my mind supplied glumly. Because it was waiting here for him. “CHOICE?” I was deeply surprised by how tight my voice was. I almost saw the scientist falter under the sound of it. It took me a moment to control it, before attempting to speak again. “YOU ARE RIGHT. THERE WAS A CHOICE. AND YOU MADE THE WRONG ONE.” He brandished the weapon again, although this time in a more battle-ready stance rather than just showing that he had it. “A choice to free us both,” he snapped. “You never heard what the plan was, WX. It was going to end with us finally free to go home.” “AND HOW WAS IT GOING TO END WITH WEBBER?” He shrugged and motioned at the wooden machine. “The way it's ending now.” That did it. Before I could even think out my next action, my spear was colliding with his morning star. I could immediately tell that his weapon was the stronger of the two, if not the heavier, but the opposite was true for us. Disarming him was easier than it should have been, though that should have been a given since his weapon was far from properly weighed for something of its current size. It was designed to be held as a long weapon, and shortening the handle did not make an equally competent but shorter weapon. No longer than a few seconds after engaging him, he was at the mercy of my halberd. He bared his teeth at me as if he were some sort of animal. “Do it then. Kill me.” “Don't.” The voice was so tiny that I would not have noticed it if it weren't for the complete silence otherwise. I turned my head in disbelief, meeting Webber's gaze. His white eyes were completely glazed over with pain, and I could see him wheezing from here, but he was staring at Wilson. “Don't- kill him. Not him...” I stared at Webber for only half a second before sensing Wilson's movement again. I grabbed his fist as it came and used it to push him back, if only slightly. “I WILL NOT KILL YOU. NOT YET. I WILL KILL YOU WHEN HE SAYS SO.” Wilson's eyes narrowed, but before he could say anything or retort at all, my other fist came down hard and fast on his elbow, bending it the wrong way with a definite crack! of snapping bone. I could immediately see surprise and agony wash over his expression, but as soon as I dropped his arm, my aim was for his face. The second my punch landed, he crumpled. Blood welled up under his nose, and I could see his chest rising and falling with his breaths, but he was completely incapacitated... for now. Which gave me time to turn my attention to Webber. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, but I couldn't help but feel relieved that it didn't seem as if he had gone into shock. Yet. I crouched down to his level, examining his face. His fur was damp with sweat and his chest was moving rapidly up and down, but I could hear him wheezing loudly. There was a rope around his neck, tied much like a noose, that was painted red with the amount of blood pooling from his neck. Luckily, it seemed Wilson had not cut his carotid artery given it was a steady flow rather than a hissing stream of blood. The worst of it was definitely what had happened to his hand. It was his left hand, which I knew by experience was his dominant one. He was slumped against the wooden machine awkwardly, the pinned hand held high above his head. At least it's above his heart, I thought. That will slow the blood flow a bit. I glance behind me to make sure Wilson was still unconscious before turning all of my attention to the knife. I couldn't imagine the strength it had taken to stab the knife straight through. “SORRY,” I murmured before taking a hold of the grip of the weapon. I braced myself for a moment, then yanked it free with all of my strength. Webber let out another heartrending cry as he crumpled under the weight of his own body. I caught him before he could hit the ground. He was a complete deadweight in my arms, his fur unnaturally warm with a fever already setting in. I hesitated for a long moment, simply staring helplessly at the unconscious boy in my arms. I may have stopped any immediate threat, but the truth was, there was still a very real chance of dying if I didn't staunch the blood flow and keep the wounds clean. I stood, still holding Webber in my arms, and stared at Wilson. Webber hadn't wanted me to kill him, and he was in no condition for me to ignore his wishes. And yet, this was so deliberate, so precise, that it terrified me. Had something really possessed Wilson? How were we going to get him back, if so? Webber let out the smallest of whimpers, which forced my attention back to him. Wilson could wait until later. The first thing I had to do was staunch the blood flow. We didn't have anything for a wound like this. Grass, maybe, but that would definitely cause infection to set in... There had been someone who had helped Webber before. Someone who had bound and healed his wound without question, and had done it so efficiently it had barely scarred. “HOLD ON, WEBBER,” I murmured. “WE'RE GOING TO FIND ERIKA.”
  13. Chapter 40: Nightmare Wilson's POV Trying to fall into sleep was an odd feeling for me. True, my death has lasted all but a few days, but I hadn't had to sleep a single time during that... I thought. I wasn't sure. I didn't remember much about being dead, but the things I did remember I didn't want to talk about. I was always cold. I was always empty. I remembered feeling lost, being a soul without a body, and heartbroken. My entire life, I hoped to die for a good cause. I hoped that I would go out with a bang, accomplishing something great. But... I didn't want to die so young. It was so sudden that I didn't even understand it myself. WX's voice still ringed in my ears, the very last thing I heard in those last moments. “DODGE!” I didn't know why I didn't. I remember being totally paralyzed, watching her flame-wreathed claws descend. I had blocked, but not ran, and wood does not hold up against fire. Seconds after I had been hit, I was still aware. I didn't hear anything, and I couldn't feel anything, but I was still able to see. Maybe I had died on impact and those few moments were before my spirit was taken. (I didn't like to believe this, however. Despite the clear evidence supporting otherwise, I couldn't come up with any plausible answer as to what a soul was. I had always been a firm believer of nothing after death. Humans were nothing more than a series of electrical signals in their brain, nothing that could be held in a supposed ball of pure energy. I stood by this idea for my entire life, which is another reason why the sensation of being dead caught me off guard so badly). I remembered looking down and seeing... myself. But it didn't look like me. The Dragonfly's attack had borderline eviscerated my body, and blood from the gaping holes pumped onto the sand for only a few seconds before slowing to a trickle. I knew that was the moment my heart had stopped beating. And yet, I had been aware enough to see my friends' reactions. I had seen Webber tapping into some force beyond my knowledge in order to kill the Dragonfly in a single, devastating move. And... it terrified me. He had appeared feral like that once before, when we were fighting the Goose, but this wasn't him at all. His eyes were different, hatred and malice glowing in the white orbs where passion and determination usually rested. He was different. And I was there when WX had buried me, the robot collapsing beside the grave afterward and hanging his head in pain. I knew this is something he would never share with me or Webber, which is why I never brought it up to him. But most importantly, the one thing that really stuck with me, was Webber's reaction. He had written in the mud, referring to himself as my son. Things seemed to swell up in my memory as I watched him write this, until I found myself silently crying. It was after that event that things became... fuzzy at best. I remembered some sort of red beast, and I remembered chains around my wrists, but nothing else. Words bounced emptily in my mind, making little sense to me without the context. The only one that really stood out to me was five. Finally finding sleep was a blessing. Webber had been particularly clingy to me, but I found I didn't mind. It seemed as if I was seeing a different side, the side opposite of that that had come out during the fight with the Dragonfly. That day, he was not a battle-scarred warrior or a child trying to pretend that he was much older than he really was; he was just a little kid. He was a lost, scared little boy, who wanted nothing more than someplace to call home and someone to call family. The fact that I had been that family to him was still baffling. My mind was still reeling from the entire scene. When we had begun to settle in for bed, Webber had wasted no time in coming up to me and falling asleep in a ball with his head on my lap. I mindlessly scratched around his whiskers in my own attempts to sleep. When I opened my eyes again, it was completely black. Immediately, terror swamped my system as warnings about the darkness crowded in. I glanced down at my hands, however, to find that I could see them perfectly fine. A quick glance over the rest of myself revealed the same thing. It wasn't dark, I was just in a black void. When I took an uneasy step back, my feet splashed as if I was standing in an inch of water. “There you are.” I let out a yelp of fear at the voice. I felt as if I had heard it before, but I couldn't figure out where. The memory felt distant. “Don't be afraid,” the voice purred softly. I felt a claw gently run over my chin, not sharp enough to cut it but enough to force my chin upward. Eyes met mine, glowing red without any corporeal form for them to cling to. My breath immediately caught in my throat, and I found myself instinctively shaking. “You are doing well in your quest,” it continued. “I watched you defeat the Dragonfly.” “Who are you?” I managed. The question took the rest of the breath from my lungs and moisture from my mouth. It was quiet for a long, long moment. The silence lasted for so long that I thought it had left. However, finally, a whisper sounded in my ear. “Nightmare,” it said. “You may call me... Nightmare.” “Nightmare,” I repeated. 'Nightmare' chuckled at the shaking of my voice. “Why are you still afraid? You now know my name. We are no longer strangers, are we?” “I can't see you,” I said hoarsely. “Many cannot.” I took another step back as the eyes blinked at me. “What do you want from me?” “Blood for blood, scientist. If you have not guessed already, I was the one given the job of bringing you back.” “Y-You?” I stuttered. “Of course. I am the only creature in this world capable of such powerful magic, after all.” I nodded slowly, trying to make sense of my sluggish thoughts. “I see...” “However, doing so has upset a delicate balance. This world is always on the very edge of destruction, you see. One mishap, one wrong step, and the world would unravel. Therefore, in order to keep this balance, the trade must be completed.” “...okay.” I tried to think of what this creature, a creature apparently capable of great enough power to bring someone back from the dead, could possibly want from me. Its voice dropped, as if its words held a great weight. “I revived you before They could consume your soul, the unfortunate end for many of the world's victims. However, you were here just long enough for Them to get a taste of your soul, and now they demand a sacrifice to satiate their hunger.” My hands began to tingle. I looked down and saw an ugly black fluid clinging to the tips of my fingers and crawling up my hand. I cried out again and tried to shake it off, but the fluid held fast. “They want a powerful soul. They want... a soul so strong it is closer to two souls, that have long since been fused together by time and circumstance. To make up for losing the soul of the Gentleman Scientist, they want the soul of the Indigestible.” I heard that name before. It was a title, one that I knew well. When the name of its owner finally came to my mind, I felt the blood drain out of my face. “Webber,” I whispered. “I am too weak right now to stave their hunger. You must complete the deal, Scientist.” “I never agreed to that!” I cried. “I-I can't do that! I-I have to refuse.” Nightmare's entire mood seemed to change. The eyes narrowed and two sharp rows of teeth appeared bared in a snarl. I tried to step back, but hundreds of cold, slimy bodies were beginning to press in and forced me to face their master. When it spoke, its voice turned the blood in my veins to ice. “You are not allowed to refuse. They demand a soul greater than the one they lost, and that is the only one.” “No!” I shouted. I tried to ignore the way that my voice pitched with terror. “If the price for me being brought back is Webber's life, then just take me again.” “That is not an option.” The black fluid was almost at my elbows now, and I could feel my vision pressing at the edges. “You will bring us the soul of the Indigestible!” It roared. “No!” I could almost feel the eyes of the beast staring through my soul. It felt like those eyes were stripping away everything and reading me from the inside. After a long moment, in where I could feel my heart progressively getting close to pounding out of my chest, Nightmare seemed to relax slightly. “Fine. I know what you truly want, and I will give it to you if you provide this. You want freedom. I am a generous creature, and I can do this for you. You mission to defeat the beasts that call themselves the Giants will be completely forgotten. I will free you and your robotic companion without the need for the trophies of the Giants.” The black muck had reached my shoulders and was now beginning to gather on my chest. I opened my mouth, but I wasn't sure what to say. I did desperately want to escape, but... “Can I call you papa?” I had to say no. “I can't,” I choked. “Yes you can,” Nightmare purred. “I am promising you everything you want. Without this, the world will fall into pieces.” Falling asleep in a ball beside me, purring. “I would rather let the world fall apart,” I growled. It felt like cold tendrils were trying to crawl through my veins. The colder I became, the more I began to see from Nightmare's side. “I can see the gears turning in your mind. What are you thinking?” I shook my head. “I don't...” “You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” The liquid had reached my face now, quickly covering my mouth and crawling towards my eyes. Some part of my mind, the emotional part, was screaming at me to continue to deny, to scream and shout and attack the demon for even suggesting such a thing. However... there was something else that bit at the back of my mind, as if there was some greater force beginning to control the words coming from my mouth. “Okay,” I whispered in the last few seconds before it completely took over my vision. “I'll do it.”
  14. Chapter 39: Bonds Webber's POV There was a fire in the pit of our gut. It felt purely as if someone had taken our very soul and tore it in two. We felt like we wanted to scream in agony, but we couldn't. Had the book done this to us? What happened to WX? Was he okay? Pulling out of sleep was one of the hardest things we had ever done. It felt like we were fighting an uphill battle just for control of our own waking self. The struggle was enough that when we finally managed to open our eyes, our vision was still painfully blurry. We sucked in several deep breaths and rubbed our eyes furiously. Slowly, we were able to drag ourselves to our knees. It felt like there was a heavy weight on our back. We were dazed, the world was tipping around us, even though we were still on the ground. “Webber?” We couldn't even correctly recognize the voice. It could've been anyone, likely WX, but there was something about it that immediately brought tears to our eyes. We swallowed them back and looked up. “Webber!” The voice was now dripping with relief. We stared up at the person in front of us, our throat raw. A hand rested on our head and another wrapped around our back. “What happened?” Our voice was small, so small we almost expected him to be unable to hear it. However, he smiled at us. “No, we- we didn't... we can't die... we were supposed to avenge you...” “...Webber...?” “I'm sorry, papa.” “Wake up, you're speaking nonsense.” He shook our shoulders, and we shook our head at him. “No, no, I don't wanna wake up. We can't stop thinking about how badly we failed you during the battle against the Dragonfly. We were supposed to be a team and get out together, but you-you...” We bit furiously at our tongue, struggling to keep tears from flowing. “She killed you and we didn't stop her in time and- and- and-” “Please, calm down, I'm really here, Webber. Please, it's okay, I promise.” He pulled us into a hug, running a hand through the fur in the back of our head. We instinctively pressed our face into his shoulder, shaking like a leaf. “I'm sorry, Wilson,” I whimpered. “WEBBER? WHAT ARE YOU...-” A distinctly robotic voice broke through our conversation. WX was pulling himself off of the ground. At first, his words were directed at us, but his voice abruptly stopped when his eyeless gaze landed on the scientist. His mouth hung open for a long moment, and he scrambled to a standing position to take a step closer. “...WILSON?” His voice pitched in confusion. He looked up and down, clearly taking in every detail of their supposedly fallen friend. Wilson slowly peeled us away from him and took a step towards WX. He wrung his hands together and stared at them for a long moment. “I... I want to explain. I really do... but I don't know.” WX shook his head, his mouth still hanging open. “WE WATCHED YOU DIE. WE- I BURIED YOUR BODY.” Wilson smiled and wiped a forming tear away from his eyes. “I know you did.” We growled to ourself. “N-No, don't do this to me. Do anything you want, Webber, but please, not this... this is torture.” We covered our eyes, our breaths ragged. Wilson offered us a hand, and we took it. His hand was warm, almost unnaturally so. “Webber,” his voice was thick with emotion. “I really am here right now. I don't know what happened.” He looked into the distance, staring at something beyond their range of vision. “I... I remember fighting the Dragonfly with you guys. I remember seeing her claws coming down, and then... darkness. I think there was someone else... I...” His eyes suddenly glazed over, as if he was thinking of something terrifying. “Where's my book?” He demanded, his voice changing on a dime. Our gaze snapped back up to him, but he seemed deeply distracted. “I-I need to write something down.” WX, his confusion having not dropped in the slightest, pulled the dark book from his bag and extended his arms for Wilson to see it. Wilson said nothing, only snatched it hastily and ripped a piece of charcoal from the fire. We felt our whiskers twitching in confusion, but my emotions were everything but confusion. In fact, I couldn't care less about how he came back, only that he was really here right now and he wasn't dead and- “What!? No! I- this can't be- but- fate-” Wilson was writing furiously in the book, his gray eyes narrowed and the charcoal making sharp and almost violent strokes across a page. Hesitantly, we edged closer. What could be more important than the fact that he was alive? After he finished writing whatever it was he was writing, he crushed the piece of charcoal into dust and he stared at whatever words he had written with a sort of ferocious intensity. When he saw us looking at him, he clamped the book closed before we could see what he had written inside. “It doesn't matter,” he growled to himself, shaking his head. We could see thick bands of bruises on his wrists, as if something heavy had once been attached to them. A moment later, though, he seemed to snap out of it. He blinked several times as if to clear something, then looked at us again. His eyes immediately softened. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I'm just... I'm trying to process everything.” We smiled sadly, and blinked up at him. “I don't care,” I said softly. Before he could open his mouth to ask, we wrapped our arms around him. We felt safe, safer than we had felt in so many years. Wilson didn't even seem to mind it. Actually, he seemed to embrace it, bending down to hold us like a child again. A soft purr rose in our throat as we rested our head on his shoulder. “I was so scared,” I whimpered. “I... I thought I had lost you forever...” Wilson was silent for a long moment, his gray eyes desperately pained but also so, so hopeful, as if he was finally getting to see a side of us that he had never seen before. We wanted to be strong. We wanted to be independent and dependable. But more than that, we wanted a family again. “Can...” I began, but cut myself off. No, that was stupid. We were nothing but a scientific anomaly to him, nothing else. We were teammates, not family, and we had to remember that. But at the same time, the look Wilson was giving us was so familiar and so proud that the question desperately bubbled up in our chest again. “Can... what?” We looked down at the ground, then at WX, who was still standing several feet away. His mouth had finally closed, but the confusion in his gaze hadn't lightened up any. When we finally looked at him again, it took everything from us to keep from crying. “Crying is weak we are not weak we are strong and we always have to be strong-” “Can I call you papa?” I asked in a tiny voice. I almost expected him not to respond, or to abruptly drop us or anything of the like. It was such a weird question, such an uncomfortable question, one that nobody could agree to- “Webber...” his voice faltered. We felt ourself begin to shake again, and we grasped onto his shirt desperately. “It's been so long since we've been wanted and- and we kept telling ourself that our family was gone and we didn't need them anymore but- but-” it was hard to speak. We could barely get the words to form in our mind, let alone speak them aloud. “You're not my papa and I know you're not but we just- we want-” “Webber.” Wilson's voice was more firm this time, but it had taken on a note that was so familiar it ached. There were tears running down his cheeks, and he rubbed them away with his wrist as he gently placed us back on the ground. He stayed crouching however, to stay face-to-face with us. “You can call me whatever you want to.” We let out a cry of pure happiness and hugged him again, even more furiously this time. The purr in our throat had become much louder all of a sudden, but we didn't try to hide the obviously spider trait. Everything from the past several years of our lives: my consumption, the rejection from my family, the years of starvation and living on our own, it didn't matter. All of it led to here and now and we had the best friend in the world and the best father a child could ask for and he was alive and real and right here. “What, I'm not a good enough friend?” “WILSON,” WX broke the silence. He crossed his arms and narrowed his 'eyes' at the scientist. Wilson hesitated for a long moment, then let us go in order to face Wilson. We let out a small whimper, but he turned his head to look at us for a quick second as if to promise that he wasn't going anywhere. “THIS IS VERY TOUCHING, BUT YOU HAVE NOT EXPLAINED A SINGLE THING.” The robot spread his arms out as if waiting. “YOU DIED, AND CAME BACK TO LIFE. AND YOU MADE ME DEAL WITH WEBBER THE ENTIRE TIME.” Wilson looked at the ground and shrugged helplessly. “I told you, I don't know. I don't know if they stripped my memories or...” “IT DOES NOT MATTER IF IT IS DISJOINTED, WHAT ALL DO YOU REMEMBER?” He sighed impatiently. “I said this already. I don't remember anything. I remember getting killed... and I remember that I was in someplace dark. But I don't remember anything else.” We walked up to Wilson and pressed against his leg, purring. He startled, but upon seeing it was us, he rested a hand on our head and scratched around our whiskers. WX frowned. “WHY DID YOU NEED THAT BOOK?” “I remembered something,” he snapped. “I thought it was important, but it's not. Just nonsense.” He kicked the dirt. “But all that matters is that I'm back, right?” “YOU ARE THE SCIENTIST. YOU SHOULD BE THE ONE TRYING TO FIGURE THIS OUT.” “I tried to, I really did, but the truth is, I can't really figure out anything about this world. I mean, come on, I just adopted a literal spider-human hybrid, I think that's a bit weirder to me than coming back to life.” We let out a small laugh. Wilson was right. It didn't matter how he came back, only that he was with us now. A sharp cracking noise stole our attention away. We perked up and turned our head, trying to find the source of it. Near the fire, the loot from the Dragonfly's hoard had been haphazardly thrown on the ground. One of the objects, one that we had vaguely noticed immediately after her defeat but never paid attention to, had developed a long, sharp split across one side. Popsicle, who had somehow remained sleeping during the entire ordeal, seemed to snap into alertness at the sound as well. The ice hound had primarily remained by our side after the fight with the Dragonfly, but we could tell that our emotions were simply too strong for the pup to be able to handle. He had been spending most of his time sleeping lazily under a tree, trying to absorb as much of the coolness of the shade as possible. This was the most alert we had seen him in awhile. Instead of breaking away from Wilson, we tugged on his shirt and pointed towards the object. He tipped his head at us, then at the object. “Is that an egg?” WX shrugged. “DON'T KNOW. IT WAS THE LEAST OF MY WORRIES THESE PAST FEW DAYS. I UNDERSTAND YOU FORGOT A LOT OF THINGS, BUT SURELY YOU DIDN'T FORGET THAT PART WHERE YOU DIED AND WEBBER NEARLY BURNED TO DEATH, RIGHT?” “I'm not being judgmental,” Wilson protested. “It was just a question.” Popsicle was the first to trudge over to the object. Almost immediately, his tongue lolled out from the heat and soft steam began to rise from his fur. However, he simply sat next to it and then stared at us, as if we were supposed to do something. We turned our gaze to Wilson, who hesitated for a long moment before pacing towards the egg himself. We heard WX let out an audible groan, but he followed us anyway as we gathered around. Wilson was the one to step up to the egg fully, placing his hand on it for just a second before abruptly snatching it back to his chest. “Holy mother of Science that's hot!” He shouted. He furiously shook his hand while watching the egg with a weary eye. We heard WX prepare his weapon. We didn't know what kind of creature would come out of this egg; it could be literally anything. Popsicle let out a short bark at Chester, who growled in response. The other creature seemed to care less, as usual, and was lounging on the edges of camp. Popsicle whimpered before turning his attention back. “It's okay, little fella,” Wilson encouraged, holding out a hand but no longer attempting to touch it. As if on cue, another long crack split the surface of the shell. Popsicle leaped to his feet and his tail began wagging in excitement and puppylike wonder. After a long, tense moment of silence, the egg seemed to split in two, and a tiny, bug-eyed little creature tumbled out alongside the contents of its egg, which appeared much more like a tight bubble of lava around the creature rather than a proper albumen. This was only reinforced by the fact that it did not fall away from the creature, and instead remained around it like a protective shield. The creature itself was tiny, about the size of our hand, and primarily black, with a body like a plump worm and a single, sharp tooth poking from its mouth. We took a hesitant step back, an unsure frown settling on our face. “When danger is afoot, then that's where my job comes in.” “What is that?” “Did this come from the Dragonfly?” Wilson asked WX, who nodded. “Then... um... I guess it's a Dragonfly larvae. Or lavae, haha. But gosh it's tiny...” “YOU KNOW MY STANCE, AND I KNOW YOU WILL IGNORE ME.” “WX, calm down,” Wilson said with a scowl. “Don't you see how small it is? I highly doubt that we will ever see the day that this little thing even becomes our size, let alone a fully-grown Dragonfly.” It let out a small buzz, blinking its big coal-black eyes at Wilson expectantly. “Is it a boy or a girl?” We asked after a moment. Wilson shrugged. “It's harder to tell with lizards. I might be totally wrong, but it feels more feminine to me.” It buzzed again, this time stretching its tiny body. It yawned- possibly?- and as it did, the sharp tooth in its mouth fell off and plopped onto the ground in front if it. We immediately recognized it as the kind of tooth that baby birds used to break out of their shells, but Wilson's eyes widened as he set eyes on it and he immediately grabbed it. “The- the Dragonfly's tooth!” He cried in ecstasy. “Really?!” A bubble of excitement lit in our chest. Wilson lowered it to let us see, and our eyes widened. “It is!” WX inched closer as well. “WE DID NOT FAIL AFTER ALL,” he mumbled. “WHAT ABOUT THE CREATURE?” We looked back down at it. It appeared to have fallen asleep, the brightly glowing bubble around it melting away in a puddle around it. We crouched down, a fondness immediately growing in our chest. Popsicle seemed equally fond, his tail thumping against the ground as he looked up at us with his tongue lolling out. Wilson looked at WX. “Don't tell me you're scared of her.” WX scoffed, almost offended. “I AM NOT SCARED OF IT. I AM JUST WANTING YOU TO REALIZE THAT THIS IS AN INFANTILE DRAGONFLY, THAT, MIND YOU, WOULD BE JUST AS LIKELY TO ATTEMPT TO KILL YOU AS ITS MOTHER.” “You always say that you don't want them, but you know we're gonna keep them anyway,” Wilson pointed out. He palmed the tooth, his gray eyes glittering, then crouched down to examine her closer. He put a hand on our shoulder and we found ourself purring again. “She's a hatchling,and she's so tiny that there's no way that she'll ever grow to that size in our lifetimes.” “MAYBE NOT YOURS,” WX mumbled. “She's asleep right now, so we can figure everything else out later.” Wilson straightened up and gave WX and I a huge grin. “We did it. We have the tooth.” “Does that mean she was also just a mum protecting her baby?” I asked after a long moment. We had defeated two giants, and neither seemed to give us much enjoyment. Both were nothing more than mothers. We shook our head. “We have to take care of her baby for her.” WX grumbled beneath his breath, but he knew that he was outnumbered yet again. We had many good days and even more bad days in this world, but it was pretty safe to say that this took the cake as the best day so far. Someone, whether they be from above or below, had brought Wilson back to us, and there was a new, tiny creature under our protection. Most of all, though, our heart felt so full that we weren't entirely certain we could express it properly. Our spider was mostly keeping his mouth shut and was allowing us to enjoy these moments, and for the first time since we were five years old, we felt like we had family again. We closed our eyes and felt the purr rise in our throat. Being a spider, it was rough and ragged, and almost sounded more like a growl, but the look in Wilson's eyes suggested that he knew exactly what it was. And that was all that mattered.
  15. Chapter 38: Awakening … Her footsteps echoed eerily in the long hallway. Her long, black dress gently brushed against the cool tile behind her as she walked. Her body was thin and beautiful, and her face could've been described as such as well if it weren't for the empty, dark shadows swirling in the depths of her pupils. Darkness swarmed her body, demonizing her beauty into something sinister. Behind her was a man, limping painfully with his wrists tied together with rough rope. He had deep bags under his eyes and scars lacing his body. While he wore a shirt when he had woken up, he had almost immediately abandoned it due to it having being shredded and barely hanging on to him anyway. His hair, which had always been fluffy and rather clean in life, was now tangled and messy. “The Gentleman Scientist has been killed,” Charlie announced as she finally entered the Throne Room. Hundreds of white eyes watched from the darkness, but none were as prominent as the glowing red eyes that hid amongst them. The air was still and stale despite howling wind echoing from somewhere in the distance. As soon as she was close enough to the Nightmare Captor, she dropped into a bow and dumped her charge in front of her. He let out an audible oof as he tumbled onto the ground on all fours. Maxwell was perched on the Nightmare Throne, just as he had been for as long as anyone could remember. While Charlie's corruption tainted her natural beauty, Maxwell looked as if he had never been handsome. His limbs were thin and atrophied, his face so thin that his cheekbones and jawline protruded almost unnaturally from his form. Charlie felt a twinge in her chest as she gazed at the man she once loved, but she didn't let anything break past her exterior. Maxwell leaned forward as far as the binds of the Nightmare Throne would let him. He stared at the prisoner for a long moment, his expression slowly shifting before he sat back. “We didn't need him. Where is the boy?” Charlie winced and almost found herself shaking under his empty gaze. She took a deep breath, then answered: “Maxwell, the boy is destroyed without him. It can't be long before he follows.” “But the robot is alive.” “...yes.” “Then he has something to live for.” “I...” Charlie swallowed. “Yes.” Suddenly, something seemed to flip in Maxwell like a switch. He raised his index fingers to his temple and massaged it for a moment. “There has to be five of them.” “Yes, I know.” “There must be.” He sounded desperate. The prisoner looked up slowly, staring at Maxwell with empty gray eyes as if resigned already to his fate. “I do not want him.” The prisoner winced as if he had been physically hit. “What do you want me to do, then?” Charlie could feel the air shift as something drew closer. Maxwell blinked slowly at her as if hoping to get some sort of message across. Charlie felt dread settle in her stomach. Maxwell rarely tried to get messages across without alerting Them, and even though she was usually able to read minds, Maxwell's had a veil of shadows around it. However, she understood this time. There was only one thing that he would want her to do that They couldn't know about. She bowed to her king, feeling her heart pounding softly beneath her clothes. “...Yes, sir.” You're in there somewhere, William... I miss you so much. Maybe you will be with me again after our roles are passed down. She smiled faintly as the image of their heir came to her mind, but she immediately shooed it away. Soon. “How... is the fourth?” She asked after a long, painfully tense pause. “It has been a long time since I was in the archipelago. Not since...” “He... has been worse.” Maxwell waved her off. “But that lies in our favor. If he finds it difficult to live a day to day life, anything above that will be impossible.” “I see.” Over the many years together as Nightmare Captor and Servant, Charlie had learned that Maxwell seemed to act similar to an on and off switch. It was a talent to pick out what words were from Them speaking through him and what words came from William. Then again, she sometimes found it hard to believe that William even existed anymore. What if They were trying to force Charlie into a state of comfort? She swallowed her discomfort and pressed on. “And the fifth?” “...I don't know.” “They are still invisible to you?” When Maxwell said nothing, she felt herself jumping in to fill the silence. “It can't be for much longer, sir. After all, you were able to see the others once they came into the world, couldn't you?” “What are you talking about?” Her prisoner cried. Ah, she had almost forgotten that he was still here. It didn't matter much. He was likely still too out of it to comprehend much of what they were saying, let alone remember it. “Five... who are you talking about?” He sounded like he was trying to be angry, but his voice pitched towards the end, betraying his terror and confusion. Charlie whispered softly, just loud enough that her prisoner could hear her words- “The Reign of Giants will come and go Shipwrecked will he, we'll never know When finally, the end of lives Begins with the fall of five” “...what?” His voice was quiet, too. Maybe he understood. Maybe he didn't. “You should know more than anyone that the future is fuzzy.” Maxwell's response showed that he either didn't hear or didn't care. Then again, it was probably the least of his worries, even if he had heard. “After all, it was wrong last time, was it not?” Charlie winced. “Dismiss yourself, Charlie. You have work to do.” She hesitated, then forced herself into a bow. “Yes, sir.” Staying around any longer would only cause more problems. She turned, tugging on the rope around her prisoner's wrists. She heard him stumble to keep up with her, but she was paying more attention to the murmurs behind her as They whispered her words over and over again. … Webber's POV “Erika!” I cried. “Please!” Our voice echoed in the darkness of the vast cave system. It came back to our ears without response or acknowledgment that it was heard. Pain rose in our chest and we slowly lowered ourself to the ground. “Erika, I need you!” We hadn't seen her since the flood. Terror rose in our chest. What if something happened to her? What if I lost her before I got to see her as she was? The caves were silent: no pattering of spider footsteps, no distant hissing of conversation, no eyes shining in the darkness. If Erika was lost in the flood... we really did have no family left. We should have checked earlier. But... if spiders had died in that, wouldn't their bodies still be here? There had to have been at least enough alive to clean up any bodies. Right? But then... what happened to their sentries? We took a deep breath and released it. No, we had to keep believing that she was okay. There was no way that she knew anything about our past. If she was busy, it would only make sense that we would be the least of her worries. We lowered ourself to the cold stone, almost relishing the feeling against our skin, and wrapped our arms around ourself. We felt bad for getting angry at WX the way we did, but every word he said just seemed to burn the hole in our heart. We couldn't blame him; it really wasn't his fault. However, it didn't matter whether he meant to hurt us or not. We needed time. To readjust, to cope with what we had seen and who we had lost, to just get ourself back on track. And... to reconsider our goals. Was it worth it trying to fight these beasts without Wilson? Could WX and I fight any of them without him? We didn't want to let Wilson die in vain, but he wouldn't want us to put ourselves in situations that would end up badly. He was too smart for that. He also really wouldn't want us moping in a cave. We let out a harsh laugh as we remembered how upset he got when we had been taken in by the cave spiders the first time. We didn't want to make WX worry the same way. This time, we were smart enough to tie a rope to a tree in the surface so we could get out. Our past experiences in the caves had taught us that, at least. We climbed back to the surface in a few quick moments and took a moment to look at the sky above. We had time until autumn- plenty of time to prepare and to reconsider the future. We took our time walking home. It was beginning to turn dark, but we knew we still had plenty of time until the Night Monster emerged. I wonder what the Night Monster looks like. It had to have some sort of physical form, right? WX had said that he had been able to sense it moving and that it definitely seemed to have some sort of physical presence, but none of us had seen it. “Of course she has a physical form,” a voice hissed in the back of our mind. “How little of a spider do you have to be to gain her attention? We have all seen her, but she never attacks us. We're her allies.” “I'm not her ally,” I snapped. “And I don't claim to be a spider. Why would I want to be you?” “I'm certain that if you fought against survivors rather than for them, she would love to work with you,” he purred. “After all, you could very well pass off as one of us instead of one of them.” “I would rather fight against everything the world has to throw at us than be anything like you.” “That's harsh. I don't recall doing anything to you.” “You ate me!” “That was in the past. I learned my lesson. We've been together for so long, though, that I would've thought you would've learned to trust me more.” I took a shaky breath. “You never do anything other than torture me.” “I showed you the truth, didn't I?” I felt my blood suddenly freeze in my veins as an image pounded through my head. The bodies that he had shown us, during the winter. The blood. My voice broke. “You knew.” “It's only destiny, you know.” “You knew that Wilson was going to die, and you knew he was going to die in that battle!” I felt my step falter and my heart begin to pound painfully in my ears. “Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell me so that I could've stopped this! I could've stopped the battle before it happened!” He scoffed. “Nothing could've stopped that battle. No matter what you said, fate would've won out in the end. I would be less concerned about the past and more concerned about the future.” “WX,” I whispered. “Soon, you'll be alone.” “I won't! I-I'll stop it.” “You can't.” I growled, deep in my throat. “Leave me alone.” “Fine. But me staying quiet won't change anything.” I didn't give a response, but I could tell that he could sense my anger and fear and was amused by it. It would be impossible for me to try to come up with anything to combat him; I knew he could hear my every thought. The last thing I wanted to do was give him the enjoyment of having me continue to think about him, so I forcibly cleared my mind of nothing but the grass beneath my feet and the feel of the wind through my fur. We didn't expect a welcome home party from WX, and we certainly didn't get one. He had built up a fire and was staring into the flames. We hesitated at the edge of camp, almost hovering at the edge of the light for a few moments. We weren't sure what to say. “I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR TRYING TO HELP,” WX said with a glance at us. Ah, yes, what a conversation starter. “We didn't expect you to.” “-BUT I SHOULD APOLOGIZE FOR FAILING TO DO SO.” We blinked. He shrugged. “I COULD USE YOUR USELESSNESS AS A REASON, BUT FRANKLY, I WOULD RATHER BE HONEST. I THOUGHT I DISLIKED YOU BEFORE, BUT THIS IS SOMEHOW WORSE.” We let out a soft laugh, surprising him as well as ourself. “At least you're being honest with yourself.” He almost seemed to puff up. “I AM NEVER DISHONEST WITH MYSELF.” “Sure.” We shook our head slightly. “You're known for only speaking the truth.” Our gaze drifted to something sitting beside WX- something black and red. “...wha... that's Wilson's book.” “IT IS.” “Where did you find it?” We never saw it unless Wilson was actively looking through it. If WX had found his hiding place before, he definitely would've stolen it much more often just to be a nuisance. He shrugged. “IT WAS JUST HERE, BY THE FIRE.” “It wasn't before...” we took a few steps closer to it but winced away. There was something wrong with it. “Don't you feel that?” “WHAT?” “That... I dunno, darkness?” We inched closer again, bracing ourself against the sensation. Our fur prickled as we lifted the book off of the ground. It made our hands tingle and quickly numb, but we forced ourself to keep a hold of it. After all, it was the last thing we had left- A surge of adrenalin forced us to drop the book, and we snapped our gaze back to WX, who looked equally terrified. Something happened. We couldn't explain it- we probably never could. Before we even had the chance to properly try to understand it, our body limply crumpled forward, missing the fire by only a few inches. It felt like something was dragged out of our soul. … The book. Something had happened with the book. It was supposed to say everything about the world, but it never said anything about raising the dead. It was illogical, impossible. But then again, I couldn't think of any other reason. I refused to call it magic. Magic was the opposite of science, and therefore impossible. Death was supposed to be permanent, wasn't it? Then what was this? It couldn't be life. Death was permanent. This was the basis of everything that we as humans do. Once we died, there was no going back. No, this was something else. Something that had to be scientifically plausible. After all, what kind of scientist would I be if I accepted anything as it seemed?