Root and Branch – 19.14

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We’d extinguished the fire, but the coals still burned.  Pride had a way of keeping them from admitting defeat for as long as there was an ember or a spark.

There was something about nights like this that exerted a kind of pressure.  It was dark, and that strained the senses, but that was the smallest part of it.  Every sound was a potential attack.  The air was thick with the taste of smoke and the residual chemicals and pollutants of the various weapons we’d deployed, from gunpowder to withering gases and airborne poisons.  I could smell the faint traces of old blood, shit, and death in the wind, even at the walltop.

The decorative crenellations at the edges of the path helped keep us out of sight.  Where smoke had taken to the air, it had come down and settled into the fine cracks and grooves in the wood and stone, making the grooves darker, while the ridges, rises, and bumps stood out in contrast.  My hands and the undersides of my shoes were vaguely greasy with the stuff.

We had three positions that we held, now, of the four major buildings around the perimeter.  The fourth was the admin building that was now out of order, swallowed up by builder’s wood and seed growth.  The issue and the challenge, however, was that any communication between the boys’ and girls’ dormitory buildings had to be done with the flash code or by messengers who made the long walk around the perimeter wall.  Too much use of the flash code meant that they could potentially decipher it.

We couldn’t give those embers of resistance a breath of air.  If we gave them anything, any kind of ground that they could use to convince themselves and each other that they could do something about their circumstance, then it could mean another day or two of dealing with them while they held out.

But the alternative was using messengers, and there was a risk that they could intercept any birds or beasts.  Small, but there.

We would change up the tap code enough to throw them for a loop.  The others in the girl’s dorm would have written records to go by.  We had Jessie.

“Hold on,” Lillian said.

Jessie and I dropped to a sitting position, our backs to the short wall that bounded the walltop path.  My shackles clinked as I settled.  Lillian took a seat to Jessie’s left.

“Back’s sore, stooping over, while carrying this bag.”

“I could take it the rest of the way,” I said.

“It would be awkward, with the chains,” Lillian said.

“Here,” Jessie said.  She dragged the bag to her side, then pulled the strap over her head, the bag resting against the side of her backpack.  “I’ve got it.”

“Thank you,” Lillian said.  “Give me a second.  I’ll need to take something later or I won’t be able to get up out of bed tomorrow.  For now, I just need a moment to rest.”

“You do know there are labs over there you can use,” I said.  “You don’t need to pack a small lab into a satchel.”

“I have my own equipment that I like,” Lillian said.  “Mary got me onto knife sharpening, and now I can’t use anyone else’s scalpels.  There are a lot of things like that.  It’s easier to bring my things with me.”

“I’ve got some books and a change of clothes,” Jessie said.  “Either this ends soon, or I’ll be able to unwind with you two.”

“Will you share your books?” Lillian asked.  “We can talk about them.”

“It would make my day,” Jessie said.

“I’ll look forward to it then,” Lillian said.

I wanted to join in, poking fun or making comments, but ambient sounds make me pause.  I nearly missed it, but there was a sound in the background, that I would never have given a second thought to if we were in a living city.  A flap of cloth, as the wind turned, and one sound I couldn’t decipher: gritty, grating and very brief.

I reached out, touching Jessie’s arm.  Jessie nodded, shrugging out of the strap of the bag, drawing two guns.  Lillian eased down to almost a lying position, drawing her own revolver.

We remained like that, tense, while several seconds passed.  There weren’t any more noises.  Jessie had heard just as well as I had, and I wasn’t sure if she’d been processing it or if she’d needed my nudge to go back and actually pay attention to the memory she’d filed away, but she knew what was up.  Lillian was taking our cues, and I very much appreciated that she was as willing to go with the flow, barely a second’s hesitation in picking up what we were putting forth.

“Did you manage to find new books?” I asked, casual.

“There’s plenty around the dormitory,” Jessie said.  “And there was a shelf where they collected books that students had left behind when they vacated the dorm.  I picked up a few.”

“Back when I read Jamie’s books,” Lillian said, “I had the hardest time keeping up with the dime store novels.  He would go through them so fast, I had to ask him to keep an eye out for the ones that continued long-running series or filled in gaps.  He was so good about that.  I still don’t know what happened between ‘The Golden Child and the Queen’ and the ‘The Destroyer’ one.  There was that fantasy book that aborted early because it didn’t get readers, too.”

She was barely letting her nervousness show.  I was strongly suspicious that if our enemy was someone on Fray or Mauer’s level, they would have realized that Lillian was reacting to their presence, but we had no reason to think our enemy here was that good at reading people.

“I have some of those,” Jessie offered.

“I’ve… probably forgotten everything pertinent,” Lillian said.

“Easily handled,” Jessie said.  “We’ll recap.”

“Before we get that far, we actually need to get where we’re going,” I said.  “How’s your back, Lil?”

“I’m a little shaky, I wish I knew what I was in for ,” she said, “But I’ll manage.”

I’d caught the double-meaning implicit in her reply there.  I’m so very fond of that girl.

“Alright.  We’ll get moving,” I said, shaking my head slowly.  I shifted position, my chains rattling, and leaned forward so my hands were visible.  I gestured lie.

Jessie gestured stay with her hand on the grip of one of her revolvers, and I gave her a short nod.  She passed it on to Lillian with a gesture.

Extending my foot out as far as it would go, I scuffed the ground with my heel.

They appeared almost out of nowhere, dressed in dark clothes, graceful, with limbs twice as long as they ought to have been.  Scarves and hoods masked most of their faces, and the rest was a morass of tubing and metal.  If there were any eyeholes or metal, there wasn’t enough light to make them apparent.

There were four of them.  As the one nearest me appeared on the wall, I threw myself onto my back, sticking my foot out.  I hooked their ankle with my foot, and very nearly tipped them backward over the tall wall they’d just scaled, for a very long drop.  One of their companions caught them.

The scene froze.  The warm wind that tasted of smoke and had far too little moisture to it was making their cloaks and clothing billow and flap, but they were very still.  Lillian had the one nearest her at gunpoint.  Jessie had one gun trained on the two who held each other and another on the one nearest her.

“Watch where you step,” I said.  “We’ve known you were there for a bit, now, and we set out caltrops and a snare.”

I saw several of their heads turn, examining their environment.

“They’re new,” Jessie said.  “I didn’t see anything like them, unless they were contorted into luggage somewhere.”

“Yeah, no, they weren’t,” I said.  “You guys are new, aren’t you?”

They had blades, but the blades were made of opaque glass or ceramic.  The clothes, the more I was able to catch the details as the faint moonlight shifted, were closer to rags, multiple garments put together.  The sleeves and pants were multiple pieces of dark clothing torn to rags and then sewn together in a way that hugged the long limbs.

“Skewed proportions,” Lillian said.  “I’m guessing they didn’t have any alterations made to their heart or lungs, going by the way they’re breathing.  They’re not meant to last much lon-”

Stop,” the one closest to Jessie said.  Its voice was a hiss, and the ‘p’ sound at the end had a vibration to it as a tube sucked at fluid in the experiment’s mouth and gave it a dry staccato ‘pop’. Like a death rattle.

We stood there, and the wind blew harder, kicking up trace smoke dust from the crenellations.  The same wind made the wasteland out to my left swell with black clouds of dust that could have smothered a house.

“Three ways this goes,” I said.

None of them moved.  The one who’d saved the other from tipping over the wall wasn’t hugging its companion anymore, and the two stood together, hips touching, one hunched over slightly, as if to keep from falling over if the wind blew too strong in the wrong direction.

“The first way is that you work up the courage, and you attack.  You get shot, and you do some damage, but it’s far less than you’re thinking it’s going to be, and we both limp away in retreat, if you four don’t die outright.”

The one who’d spoken before raised its head slightly.

“It’s just the way it is,” I lied.  I mixed the lie with truth, “You’re not even used to those bodies.  So maybe you lose your nerve.  You go away just like you came, climbing down this wall, go back to the others with your heads down like whipped dogs.  It’s… well, I imagine nothing gets better and you’ve just got to wrestle with a lot of worse.”

“Modified bodies, bodies not meant to endure the loads and stresses those frames would put on them, they’ll need more food and nutrients to self-repair,” Lillian said.

“But it’s not going to go that way, because they’ll send you right back out, if some scary Professor doesn’t have some way to punish you,” I said.

I could see them react to that.  Could I read resignation in that body language of theirs?  It was hard, given the flowing coverings and their unusual postures.  I kept reading tension in them, but it might have been what Lillian was saying, that they had legs that were twice as long and trying to maintain balance like normal length legs did.  The arms weren’t in a position to grab anything and find support there, unless they wanted to drop to all fours, and they weren’t about to do that.

“You’ve got a third option,” I said.  I worked my way to a standing position.  “You’re going to take those weapons, and you’re going to throw them over the edge.  No games, no tricks, nothing underhanded.  Jessie’s going to undo these shackles on me, and we’ll shackle you four instead.  We walk you over to the boys’ dormitory over there, and we’ll take you prisoner.  Our doctors will look after you, start figuring out how to undo what was done to you, and you’ll be supplied hot, good food.  Water, wine, ale.  Baths.”

The looming figure ahead of me slouched forward a bit.  After a moment, it dropped, sitting on its heels, one hand on the crenellated wall.

“Beds to sleep in,” I said.  “I can’t imagine you slept well over there, with the higher-ups taking the few good sleeping spots.  But I’m going to go back to properly cooked food and tea here.”

Reaching out, it touched the blade at its waist, holding it by the pommel with thumb and one fingertip.

“Slowly,” I said.

It took its time drawing the long sliver of glass from the loop of its belt, and the moment the tip of the weapon was no longer in contact with the belt, it dropped, falling free of the fingers that held the pommel, into the city below.

The experiment divested itself of two more weapons this way.  One clipped the wall as it fell, shattering with the contact.

The others disarmed themselves.

“Walk along the wall until you’ve walked five paces, then step down onto the path,” I said.  “Hands in front of you, we’ll get the shackles ready.”

While they took the positions I’d ordered, Jessie undid the shackles at my arms and ankles.  She navigated caltrops and traps that weren’t there, and she shackled the enemy.

A part of me wondered if they hadn’t been modified to see in the dark, if they knew the caltrops weren’t there, and they were playing along because they wanted to eat that badly, because their current existence offered no hope, even if they did as they’d been ordered.

“Let’s get you something to eat,” I said.

There was no resistance.  They walked with bowed heads.

There hadn’t been much in the way of servants.  I wasn’t sure there’d been any that weren’t stitched that could be left behind.  Other experiments had been pressed into service, where possible, and these guys didn’t feel like experiments who’d been modified to fresh purpose.

That led me to the conclusion that with a scarcity of resources, these experiments had been made with materials drawn from the most available pool.  The aristocrats.  Possibly the most easily discarded, possibly the sons and daughters being called on to repay the Crown for the good lives they’d led up to this point, with dim promises that if they saw this through and served the Crown well, that they would be restored to normal.

It didn’t matter.  Their appearance marked just another scattered few burning embers from an extinguished fire.

I glanced over at the main building, fully aware that some keen eyes were watching us, trying to make out what was happening.  They would figure it out.  This wouldn’t be the last time they pushed back, but this effort had involved a lot of work on their part, and it had crumbled easily.  The next would crumble more easily still.

I stared at them without seeing them, knowing they were staring back and there was a chance they’d see me, and they’d get my point.

There was a crowd of rebels to welcome us at the door to the boys’ dormitory.  Davis, Bea, Red, Junior, Prissy, and several more besides.  They gave the aristocrats-turned-experiment some wary looks.

“Can you bring some hot food?” I asked.  “I’m imagining that they’ve had enough meat, since the only thing in rich supply would be warbeast meat, so maybe hold off on the bacon, sausage, or meatfruit, and have the kitchen staff put together something that’ll stick to their insides?  Oatmeal, fruit, veggies, tea?”

“Does that sound good?” Jessie asked.

Yes,” the smallest of the four experiments said.  “Please.

“Secure them somewhere, if possible,” I said.

“The small labs,” Davis said, still looking very wary.

“Somewhere with a bed?” I asked.

“…The overnight labs, that the students were using to nap in while keeping an eye on projects,” Mabel said.

“Sounds good,” Davis said.  To us, he said, “We converted some bedrooms, the beds are nice enough, if that’s what you’re going for.”

“It is,” I said.

The group of students at the door began to dissolve, and an armed escort saw the experiments off to their destination.

Davis hung back with some of the other lieutenants, waiting for the experiments to leave.

“You sure about this?” Davis asked.

“They’re surrendering.  They’re doing exactly what we want them to do, they get rewarded,” I said.

“Yeah,” Davis said.  “Maybe.”

“It’s good,” I reassured him.

“Yeah,” Davis said.  He sounded tired.

“Is there a lab I can drop my things off in?” Lillian asked.

“Go with the others, use one close to those four you just brought in,” Davis said.  “There’re a few spaces you could use.”

“Thank you,” Lillian said.  She looked at Jessie and I, “You two will be okay?”

“Yeah,” Jessie said.

“I’ll putter around on my own for a bit, then I’ll catch up with you two.”

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“It’s fine.  If this really is things winding down, then I’m content to take a few minutes, get sorted out and have my thoughts in order, and be ready for leaving Hackthorn.”

“That’s just a little ways off,” I said.

“It is, but can you promise me I’m going to get another few hours of peace and quiet after tonight?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  “No, I guess not.”

She smiled.  “I’ll catch up after.”

She took the bag from Jessie and departed in the direction that the four experiments and the armed escort had gone.

Jessie and I joined Davis in heading up to the building’s sitting room, a mirror to the one in the girls’ dormitory.  We settled into seats.  I chose one with a view through the window between bookshelves, where I could see a sliver of the main building.  The enemy.

“What’s the current take on things?” Jessie asked.  “There’s no wrong answer, I’m just curious.”

“Broad question,” Davis said.

“In conflict and casualty?” I asked.

“Doing okay.  The injured have been patched up.  Two dead, but…” he sighed.  “…their fault, mostly?”

“Their fault?” I asked.

“Say what you will, but a bulk of the student body is young.  Two sixteen year old boys, no prior experience with war, violence, sieges, plague, or any of that, they were put on guard duty, they slacked off, went for a walk.  Around the time the fog was lifting and the nobles left, they were out for a smoke or to, uh, enjoy a degree of privacy you don’t get with a couple hundred students in one building.  They didn’t make it back.”

“That’s a damn shame,” I said.

“Ammo’s good, we’ve still got a small few experiments in reserve to throw at any attackers, if we need to buy time to get organized.  Things were stressful for a bit, back there, but I think we sense that we’re through the worst of it.”

“Everyone’s working together?  No dissent at the bottom?”

“Might be a nice thing about being actively at war with a common enemy,” Davis said.  “Keeps us focused and working together.  No dissent at the bottom.”

“Red and I do what we can about the troublemakers, ensure they’re busy and content,” Bea said.  “There’s some minor drugs going around, made in the labs, but so long as it doesn’t impair anyone or get in the way of things being done…”

“Sure,” I said.

“Going by the rounds of questions you’ve asked before, you’re going to ask about resources.  Our overall supplies are good,” Mabel said.  “We’re fairly well stocked.  Not enough to create an army or brew another batch of the fog you used to limit access to the city below, but food, feed, water, medical supplies, a variety of supplies that would let us do one-off experiments, we’re good.”

“Good,” I said, a little unnerved that Mabel had paid that much attention to me.  “Ongoing projects?”

“Some gas, some warbeasts, some stitched, more than a few parasites.  More to keep us busy than to turn the tides,” Junior said.  “A lot of it translates to the next phase of things.”

“Good,” I said.  “Non-Academy projects?”

“We dug up schematics for boats.  Two weeks to make our first departure, once we’re good to go.  That’s assuming nothing more burns down, the stitched are available, and the schematics hold up.”

“Then we’re good?” I asked.  “Questions?  Needs, desires?”

“I’d be a little more at ease if we didn’t have enemies under our roof, but I’ll manage,” Davis said.  “I have to ask.  Are you good, Sy?”

“I’m… managing,” I said.  My hand went to my wrist, where the shackle had been removed.  I rubbed my one wrist with one hand, then switched to do the same with the other.  “Can you guys dig up some cuffs or shackles?  I think we’ll all feel a bit better if we limit the damage I can do.”

“I’ll get right on that,” he said.  “Where do you two want to set up shop?”

I looked at Jessie, then at Davis.  “Here?”

“Sure, Sylvester,” he said.

I remained with Jessie, dropping my bag of clothes beside hers.  Together, we approached the window.  There was a chair set next to it, with someone else’s old cup of tea resting on the sill, a half-inch of tea sitting in the bottom, gone bad.

Together, we sank into the chair, Jessie sitting on me as if to pin me down in place, to make up for the lack of chains.

“I’m glad you’re connecting with Lil,” I said.

“So am I,” Jessie said.

Her attention turned to the world beyond the window.  The main building had a great many lights on within.  The light and shadow suggested that they were all gathered at the long tables.

Late-night debates, hashing out the terms by which they would surrender.

“It’s been almost a day and a night since we faced off against their nobles.  I can’t tell if I’m surprised or very much not surprised that they’re being this stubborn,” I remarked.

“I’m not surprised,” Jessie said.  “But if I went by gut feeling-”

“You don’t really do gut feeling much.  You do precedent, miss Jessie.”

“If I did, just this one time,” she said, snuggling in closer to me, nestling into the gap between my shoulder and arm and where the back of the armchair curved in around us, “I would say that they’ll decide before dawn.”

“So their humiliation isn’t as visible as it’d be in stark daylight,” I said.

“Somehow I don’t think that’s where my gut feeling was founded,” Jessie said.

“It’s where mine is, you dingus,” I said.

“You’re the dingus, doofus.”

“You’re the doofus…” I said.  I trailed off.  We had company.

One of Davis’ subordinates, with chains and manacles.  I rested my head on Jessie’s shoulder while she directed the fellow in how to arrange it.  My left ankle and my left wrist were shackled.  The shackles were attached to the iron grille that framed the window, bolted securely into the stone of the wall.

“D’you need anything else?” the fellow asked.

“Blanket?” Jessie asked.

It was less than a minute before he returned with the blanket.

When he left, Jessie and I were left alone in the room, sharing a seat with a view, a blanket draped over our laps.

It seemed almost as if the black wood and plague had consumed Hackthorn after all.  The wind blew and it stirred clouds of dust and settled smoke like it would have stirred up the aftermath of black wood.  The city below was empty, without any lights on.

“It’s beautiful, in a desolate kind of way,” I said.

“I have to admit, I don’t get much out of the sights,” Jessie said.  “I’ve spent far too much time looking out windows for the past couple of days.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I should have grabbed a book before getting comfortable,” she said.  Rather than pull away, she curled up against me, her head settling against the back of the chair, her nose brushing my shoulder.

“I’d like to think I’m more interesting than a book,” I said.

“You’re very much more interesting than a book,” she said.  “Enough so that it can be tiring, I admit.  I might have to conserve my strength.”

“Well gee whiz, sorry,” I said.

I felt rather than heard her soft laughter.

“What if I don’t say anything?  Does that make me less exhausting to be around?” I asked.

“Then I’ll be bored,” she said.  “I’ll be left to dig through old memories, sort out more recent ones to make sure I didn’t miss connections, and anticipate tomorrow.  A night of mental filing.”

“Well, just proposing an alternative…” I said.

The arm that encircled her middle shifted position, my hand tugging on the side of her blouse.  It pulled her collar away from her neck, revealing one of the scars from the caterpillar implant.  This one formed a line from the nape of her neck and extended just a little ways over her shoulder.

I kissed it.

She kissed the side of my face.

My free hand moved, and my free hand didn’t need to roam, explore, or find their place to find what they were looking for.  My memory was shot, and there were countless things I didn’t remember like I was supposed to, but I knew where Jessie’s scars were beneath her clothes, and my fingers traced the scars.  At the stomach, in two places, at the chest.  Fingers brushed against fine fabric, tracing the lines.

Her hand moved up and down the left side of my body, before reaching up to my shoulder and finding a place there.

Distant footsteps approached, drawing closer.  We didn’t move to hide what we were doing, but the positions we held weren’t such that anyone would raise an eyebrow, unless they saw us in motion.  We were still, while a group of students with guns passed through the sitting room of the boys’ dorm.

“You alright?” one asked.

“Very good, thank you,” I said, smiling.

They moved on, heading into another hallway, carrying out the rest of their patrol.

Jessie’s fingers touched my lips.  “Nice smile.”

“You’ve seen it often enough.”

“Not like this,” she said.  “Not so devastating.”

“You keep using that word.  Are you being flattering for once?”

“I flatter you plenty, but with that damaged, devastating brain of yours, it’s in one ear and out the other,” she said, her voice soft.

“Hmm.  I think you’re trying to get a lie past me with distracting words in the middle of the statement, there.”

“Maybe.”

She kissed the side of my face.  I turned my head to face her and kissed her properly.

My fingers traced the lines, until her hand found mine and held it.

I broke the kiss.

“So that’s the famous, devastating Sylvester kissing, is it?” she asked.

“I’ve kissed you before.  Also, don’t think I don’t notice you pushing that button over and over again, because you know I like it.”

“It’s our word,” she whispered in my ear.  “Our wanted poster, our inside joke.”

I squeezed her hand.

“Kiss me again,” she said.

I did.

“I’d forgotten just what that was like,” she said.

The wind whistled outside.  The voltaic lights overhead buzzed as the structure flexed and the wiring was jostled.

My blood ran cold.

“Jessie,” I said.

She squeezed my hand, not making eye contact.  “It’s nice, forgetting and being reminded.”

“Jessie, what’s going on?  Did you drop a fourth memory?”

“Shh,” she said.  Fingers touched my lips.

I knew Jessie as well as I knew anyone.  I could see it, hear it, feel it in the way she pressed against me.

“More than four.”

“Shh, Sy.  Please.”

“More than ten?”

She moved her fingers and kissed me again.

I only went with it because I needed to get my thoughts in order.  I could feel my heartbeat thudding like it was trying to break free, and I could feel hers doing much the same.

As she broke the kiss, she moved her head, so it was beside mine.  Not facing me, not facing the question.

Words caught in my throat as I tried to organize them.

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“Hmm,” she made a noise, as if she was mulling it over.

I waited for the response, and she didn’t provide it.

“Jessie, I know I probably deserve it, I know I’ve teased you and everyone else that matters more than I’ll ever be teased in return, but don’t leave me hanging on this one.  Can you just explain?”

She was silent.

My heart pounding, my throat a lump more than it was an airway, I shifted position.

Jessie had fallen asleep.

“That’s not fair,” I said.  My voice broke with the sentence.  “And I know I more than deserve that too.”

I shook her.  It didn’t rouse her.  I slapped her lightly, then a little harder.

I raised a hand to hold it near her nose and mouth, so I could feel if she was breathing.

I waited.

The lump in my throat swelled, and I had to cough to keep from choking on it.

“Jessie,” I said.

I felt the breath on the back of my hand, and I barely felt better at that.

My voice was barely audible to myself, “Jessie, I refuse to let you pull this fast one on me, okay?  You’re not going to leave me hanging for hours now, waiting to see if you wake up as you.  You don’t get to do that.  Not when we’re so close to everything we’re trying to do.”

“It was always a war of attrition.”

I closed my eyes, wincing.

“You’re operating with little time, holding the position of power.  They’re operating with very little power, but they have time on their side.  It might not feel like it to them, as they starve, as they want for water and proper rest, but as pride compels them to negotiate their surrender among themselves before they extend it to you, they’ve been whittling down a clock with your collective deadlines on it.”

“Infante,” I said.

The figure loomed before me.  A pillar of a man.  A monolithic entity.  He stared down at Jessie and I.  He wasn’t wholly the Infante, and he wasn’t wholly me either.

“Not now,” I said.

“These things are never convenient,” he said.  “The most important moments of clarity and decision come when you’re most pressed by circumstance.”

“Not now,” I said, quieter.  Then, abruptly, realizing that I was losing ground, I writhed my way free of the chair and of Jessie, pushing her back into the seat to keep her from tumbling to the ground.  I stood, and my wrist and ankles jerked with the chain that connected me to the wall.  I roared the words, “Someone!  Anyone!”

He stared at me.

“Lillian!” I called out.

He turned his attention to Jessie.

If I lost ground here, if I snapped like I had before, and if I ended up working against everything I’d been trying to do…  If, somehow, in a warped perspective, I found myself justifying horrible things and the greatest of betrayals, what would I do, when only Jessie was in arm’s reach?

If Jessie was still there.

“No,” I said.

“The only way you don’t have to see her eyes open and not recognize you, is if they don’t open,” the Infante said.

“That’s- no, that’s bad logic.  That’s not sensible at all.”

“You’ve seen a lot of death without even blinking, but one blank look with nothing behind it nearly destroyed you the first time.  It would be a question of self preservation.”

“Anyone!” I screamed the words.  “Help!”

How were there no patrols close enough?

“Can you really endure it?” he asked.

“I have to,” I said.  “Clearly.  I- whatever you’re representing right now, whatever thought processes and fears… I’ll concede the battle here.  You can have this win.  I’ll compromise, I’ll give you whatever you want.”

“Oh, Sylvester,” the apparition spoke, reverberating to the core of my being in a way that nothing in reality ever had.  I now knew that the countless nightmares and fragments of madness, the dozens of figures, the visions of the world breaking down had never stopped- they had only found a singular, indomitable form that would stampede through my being in a way I couldn’t ever stop.

“There was never going to be an ending where you didn’t,” he said.

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