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The End (For Now) - Parts I-III

The End (For Now)

xPart I Kei and Doug sat in their beat-up junker, just out of range of anything Abigail could throw at them from the syrup plant. Ahead, Aunt Marma’s hideously huge, cartoonish face smiled at them from atop the front awning. The washed-out, sun-bleached tinge, especially on her cheeks and hairline, made it even more unsettling. Impatiently, Doug pumped his leg up and down with enough force to shake the car. “Come on, come on, where is he?” he hissed, squinting through the bug-encrusted windshield. “Did you ever actually confirm Mike was going to meet us?” Kei sighed from the passenger’s seat. “Well, no, but why would he miss this?” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “Be quiet, Doug. You’re bringing down the IQ of the whole room. Did you ever consider that Abigail wouldn’t get, I don’t know, suspicious if not downright hostile if she sees him meeting with us? He’s probably trying to keep his cover. You should just go in already.” “I wanna wait one more minute.” “Fine, have it your way.” Kei went back to sulking out the window, while Doug tried his hardest to keep his anxiety down. They were closer than ever today, the three of them, leaning over his shoulder as if anticipating the slaughter. After this, maybe they would all go away. Maybe. Either that, or Abigail would join them. No. No way. This was one death that he wasn’t going to regret. Because he was in the right, justified. Not only had she ruined his life, but just how many others? How many kids had she tortured, or killed, or experimented on over the years? The bitch deserved to die. Yet the three still continued to stare him down. Stop staring like that, you know I’m right. Most of all you, Jilli. But no matter what he did, he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. He was just about to scream at them to fuck off when a pair of headlights cut through the bug-guts and into their eyes. They both squinted, trying to see who it was. But they really couldn’t tell until the car turned to pull up next to them. The side window came down, and much to Doug’s disappointment, it wasn’t Mike. “Well, well, never imagined we’d find you here, Bailey,” Niko Borozov smirked out the window. “You take the Bifrost to get here?” He had vague memories of Niko taking him to the hospital, and he remembered muttering some crazy stuff in the elevator. At the time he’d been convinced that Niko was the god Odin. In hindsight, it made sense, he had the eyepatch and all, but silly. This kid in no way resembled a god. “Yeah, very funny. Nah, a little raven told me,” Doug shot back. “You here to take down Hodge too? Who’s that in the car with you?” Though he’d only really met him once while in an off-gas-induced haze, Doug immediately leaned backwards. Paranoia was a very Niko thing, he somehow knew. “This is Kei,’ he gestured to her, and she waved pleasantly. The back-seat window of Niko’s car rolled down, and Tommy Miller poked his face out. Of course the other Miller siblings would be here too. “Wait, Kei?” he asked, looking confused, but his face fell when he saw her next to him. “Oh, never mind. Sorry, I thought you were someone else.” Though she was too far away for Tommy to see, Doug couldn’t miss Kei smile to herself a little. Cindy looked around Tommy’s head. “Oh, I know you. She’s good, Niko,” she nodded. “She helped me escape from the cult. Slimy though, be careful.” “Excuse you, I am devious,” she huffed, then proceeded to point a finger towards Niko. “He’s slimy.” “Anyway,” Doug cleared his throat before Niko could react. “Yeah, we’re here for the bitch. What else would we be doing?” Grinning, Niko leaned out a little farther. “Then it seems we’re allies for the time being.” He signaled to the others in his car, and Tommy, Cindy, her vampire boyfriend, and the weird spacy kid all climbed out. Something about this seemed kind of strange to Doug. “Why do you guys suddenly wanna off her so bad?” “We don’t really want to...” Cindy spoke up. “But she has, uh... something nasty in her head.” “Like a disease?” “No, like... a parasite. It’s latched onto her and we need to get rid of it. We won’t kill her if we don’t have to, but—” “I’m going to kill her,” Doug interrupted. “I don’t care about whatever supernatural bullshit is going on. I’ll let you guys come with me, but only if you let me do it.” The other group all glanced at each other, looking nervous. It seemed like something in particular passed between Cindy and Niko. They would try to talk him out of it, maybe even stop him, but he would need the help to get to her, especially if Mike wasn’t coming. Abigail had inevitably made Victor set up countless traps in there. “Fine,” Niko said finally. “But don’t lose your head. I know you don’t really care what happens to you, but if you do something that endangers the rest of us, I won’t hesitate to put a bullet through your skull. Capeesh?” Doug sighed, shaking his head. That was a mighty big stick up his ass if ever he’d seen one. “Capeesh.” “Alright then. It’s a deal.” Niko held out his hand, which Doug initially had a little trouble grasping because his own was shaking so badly. He shoved both into his pockets quickly. “So are we going then, or what?” he asked, unable to avoid seeing Niko’s wary look. Cindy rummaged around in the pouch strapped to her belt, and pulled out a vial of blue nail polish. “Not quite yet. Hold out your hand.” “Afraid you’re not going to be able to paint my fingernails, sweetheart,” he scoffed. “You’ll just make a mess with the shaking and all. I cry myself to sleep every night because I know I’ll never be the prettiest princess.” Cindy just glared at him, and held out her hand. He sighed, and laid his on top of it, but was startled when the air around his hand froze in place as soon as he touched the skin of her palm. “H-How did you do that?” he asked. “I thought you needed like, the books and the circles and things.” “Not anymore,” she smirked, but didn’t elaborate. She then turned to Kei. “Oh, no,” the daemon shook her head. “I won’t need it. Sorry to say I won’t be going in with you.” Cindy frowned, but shrugged her shoulders. “That should give you some minor protection from physical harm,” she explained, before turning back to Niko. “Alright, now we’re ready.” “Before we go in there,” Niko said, looking a little bashful. “Ya know, just in case something happens, I wanted to say that it was, uh, nice knowing you all.” “Are we gonna stand in a circle and sing Kumbaya? Or are we gonna kill this bitch?” Doug sighed dramatically. Niko looked about ready to sock him. “You’re on thin ice, Bailey. Yeah, let’s go.” The others went ahead, walking as calmly as they could towards the abandoned syrup factory. There was no point in hiding; Abigail would inevitably see them coming no matter where they tried to hide. But Kei held Doug back a step. “You know they’re going to try to stop you, right?” “I’m well aware.” “What will you do if they get in your way?” Doug paused, the only movement the shaking of his hands as he gripped the knife in his sweatshirt pocket. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “Just don’t forget our deal. I’ve fulfilled my end of the bargain, so this is your one shot.” “I know. Thank you, Kei.” He turned away, beginning to walk after the others. Kai giggled to herself, but of course didn’t follow. “It’s all up to you now, buddy. Just please, for the love of god Tommy, don’t get in his way.” ~~ o ~~ Cindy and Niko reached the door first, and hesitated. “What do you think is on the other side?” Cindy asked. “I have no idea,” Niko admitted. “It could be anything, knowing her.” “You think I oughta go first?” she said. “Or maybe Lucius, just in case?” Niko frowned. “I don’t know, she might be expecting that.” “Stop discussing and just open the damn door already,” Doug pushed them both aside and reached towards the door handle. “This is Abigail we’re talking about. She’s expecting everything.” And without a second’s pause Doug grabbed the front, glass door firmly by the handle, and pulled. The others held their breath, but nothing happened. “What the hell?” Tommy growled. “Are you trying to get us killed? That door could’ve been rigged with explosives, or other traps, or—” “It wouldn’t have,” Doug just laughed him off, stepping confidently into the factory. “Then we’d be dead. And she doesn’t want us dead yet. Then she wouldn’t get to play with us first.” Once they saw that Doug had made it past the threshold unscathed, Cindy and Niko followed suit, Marcell, Tommy, and Servus close behind. The room they entered must have at one point been the front offices and reception area, but now it was dark, the couches and other furnishings were faded or just plain missing, and everything was covered in a layer of dust. “You seem to know a lot about her,” Marcell commented. Doug laughed for about a solid minute. “You could say that,” he said finally, before holding out his shaking hand. “She’s the reason I’m like this.” He continued forward, towards a heavy-looking door. “Come on, Hodge,” he called upwards. “Come out, come out wherever you are!” He grabbed the handle and yanked it, but nothing happened. “What the hell?” Doug yanked it harder. Niko just sighed. “That’s not going to do anything, you know. Your arm’s gonna rip off before that gives.” “Well, do you see any other exits?” Frowning, Tommy looked backwards. “Maybe we went in the wrong way. There’s multiple entrances, she might have blocked this one off.” “No good,” Cindy shook her head, over by the entrance. “She locked it.” Meanwhile, while the rest started arguing about what to do, Servus wandered off. There was another room just off of this one, and the door was already open. He wondered what was in it. He’d never really felt curiosity before so thought it might be worthwhile to indulge it. “I could try melting the door,” Cindy suggested. “She knows what you’re capable of, at least when it comes to fire,” Marcell shook his head. “She’s probably Cindy-proofed this whole place.” Just then, Servus stumbled out of the other room. “Key?” he asked, holding the said object up for everyone to see. “Where did you find that?” Niko asked. “More importantly,” Doug interjected, “why the hell did you bring a kid along?” “He’s not a kid,” Tommy didn’t bother to explain, instead turning to Servus. “Where did you find that?” Servus pointed to the other room, and the others followed him. Inside was a small office, complete with filing cabinets, a desk, and a long fossilized potted plant. In the chair behind the desk was a mostly decomposed skeleton. There were still a few wispy bits of hair on its head, and a few tatters of cloth covered its lanky frame.

“In his eye,” Servus shrugged, pointing to the skeleton’s empty eye socket. “Tragic, isn’t it?” came a voice from the old, squeaky speaker hanging from the wall. “He was such a nice man. Unfortunately, he decided it was a good idea to argue with me when I shut down the factory all those years ago. Something about all the workers losing their livelihoods? I don’t know, I didn’t really listen.” While the others’ eyes were still fixed on the skeleton, Doug’s lit up like Christmas lights. “There you are, you little skank,” he grinned. “Hey, I take offense to that,” Abigail’s tinny reply bit. “I am not little.” Doug rolled his eyes. “But my, my,” she continued. “I didn’t expect there to be so many of you. You heroic types just multiply like ants, don’t you?” “Consider that your fault,” Niko said. “You just can’t seem to stop making enemies.” She sighed. “I know, I know, it’s a problem I have. But it just makes life so much more entertaining. Because now I get to play with all of you!” “Is that what she’s calling it?” Marcell mumbled under his breath. “Anyway, you now have the key, so why don’t you use it? I’m waiting just ahead. I’m so excited to see you all!” Her laughter was cut off as the speaker cut out. Without hesitating, Doug snatched the key from Servus—who offered little resistance—and marched to the door. “Wait a second,” Cindy reached a hand out to grab his shoulder. “We have no idea what she’s planning. We need to take a minute to come up with a—” “There’s no point,” he interrupted, impatience etched into his features. “She’ll just outsmart us anyway. When it comes to her, the best plan is to have no plan.” “But—” Cindy started. But no one tried to stop him as Doug jiggled the old, rusty key in the hole. Deep down, they knew he was right. Doug cursed under his breath as the old door stuck from years of rust, but finally, he managed to wrench it open. They all crowded around, yet even Doug hesitated to enter. Beyond the room was dark, with only a singular lamp towards the back of the room as illumination. It rested on a desk, partially blocked by the person sitting in front of it. Her back was to them, but with the dark braids there was only one person it could be. “There you are, you bitch,” Doug reached a hand into his pocket and stalked across the room to grab her with the other. “Do you have any idea what I’m going to do with—the hell?” As the others followed him they saw what had made him pause. The person in the chair wasn’t Abigail at all. Its wig fell to the ground and Doug let the rest of it drop after in disgust. Just a dummy. “Oopsie!” Abigail cackled from the speakers. “Looks like you activated my trap card!” The door slammed shut behind them, leaving the room in near darkness. But out of that blackness came a sudden noise: a buzzing that only got louder and louder. Then the first buzz saw passed by Niko’s ear. “Fucking hell!” he growled, ducking out of the way. Cindy reached for Marcell, Tommy backed away from the noises. And then the floor fell out from under him. He screamed, but the sound was quickly cut off as the floor closed over him. “Tommy!” Cindy made to run forward, but another saw nearly sliced her nose off. Marcell grabbed her by the waist to pull her back, and as soon as they were together, they were gone as well. “Shit, shit!” Niko cried out. He realized then that the buzz saws weren’t intended to hurt them. “Bailey, don’t move if you can help it! She’s trying to herd us!” “Yeah, no shit,” he swore. “Wait, what about the kid, is he gonna be—welp, never mind.” Servus at that moment fell out of sight as well. With only two of them left, the saws got more aggressive. Niko tried to picture where they were forcing them to go and avoid it, but it seemed as if there was no particular place at all. “Alright, Bailey, you’re the Abigail expert. What do we do?” “Unless you wanna get killed, nothing.” “What do you mean, nothing? At this rate, we’re gonna—” But he realized a split second before it happened that it was all over. His shoe landed on something hard, a small panel in the middle of the floor, and as soon as it was pushed down, there was no floor at all anymore. He fell downwards, stretching his hands upwards to grab onto anything. But an instant later he knew that there was no hope as the floor closed above him. Part II Niko landed on cold concrete, and grunted from the impact. He hopped to his feet as quickly as he could, raising his arms over his head to get his breath back. Panting as his lungs struggled to fill with air for a minute, he tried not to panic. Wherever he was, it was pitch black, no lights at all. Was her plan to just keep him here until he died? Gradually, he regained the ability to breathe again, and the panic subsided. That’s right, nothing good ever came from panicking. First, Niko reached out in front of him, trying to find a wall to orient himself. He took a few, stumbling steps forward, and nearly bashed into one. Walking around the perimeter of the room, Niko quickly came to the conclusion that he was in a small, concrete box, one that didn’t have any exits, at least as far as he could tell. This wasn’t good. Unless she was pumping air into this box, the remaining amount of oxygen would only last him a few hours. But would she just kill him like that? Doug hadn’t seemed to think so. He’d been convinced that she wanted to toy with them first. And if Doug was right, then the best thing to do would be to wait. But did he really trust Doug? No. No he didn’t. Even if he hadn’t been like this in the past, all of the encounters Niko had had with him had been unsavory to say the least. Doug was delusional, deluded, and highly emotional. He could very well have made up everything he “knew” about Abigail as part of his revenge fantasy. Abigail was vicious. She would do anything to protect herself, and now she was going to kill him. “Breathe, Borozov,” speaking of the devil. “There’s no need to conserve oxygen. Did you honestly think I was just going to kill you?” Shit. “I mean, you are a psychopath,” he shrugged, unsure if she could actually hear him or not. “I don’t know what goes on in your head.” “Even psychopaths have a method to the madness, twisted though it may be. A pattern. Have you ever seen me just kill someone with no ulterior motive?” “Lila,” he muttered under his breath. Abigail coughed, and the speaker crackled. “Laila? Who’s that?” “What do you mean, who’s—?” Niko quickly felt his face turning red. “Oh, do you mean the weeaboo sword girl you liked so much? Well, you see, that still fits the pattern because it wasn’t about killing her, oh no. I wanted to see what you would do after she was murdered in front of you.” Niko’s blood turned to ice. “What?” he whispered.

“The way I saw it, there were two possibilities. Either you were made stronger and harder by it, and you came back and defeated your sweet sword girl’s killer once and for all, or you ran crying back to your daddy and eventually take over the family business just like you were supposed to all along. I had my bets on the latter, but I’m glad I was wrong. This outcome is much more fascinating.” “So...” he tried to get his shaking voice under control. “That’s all her death was? Just a tool to push me?” “In death as she was in life.” Abigail’s laughter was more muted that usual. “You’re wrong,” he glared up at the ceiling, hoping she could see him. “She was so much more than that.” “Was she really? Seemed to me like she was a good little puppet; you pulled her strings however you wanted. But I suppose that’s how it is with you mob types. Just like your father pulled your strings.” “Stop it.” “Look!” And at the word a pale, blue light lit up one of the concrete walls. And what Niko saw almost made him vomit. “I had her body preserved and everything. For old time’s sake. Does this remind you of your lives together?” It was her, or rather, it was her corpse, her pale skin eerily waxy, her red hair faded and lank. She was suspended from the ceiling, a small hook embedded into each of her arms. Hooked around the metal were strings, almost translucent except for the shimmer from the lights. “No, no...” Niko mumbled, shaking his head and backing away. “Is it not picture-perfect? Accurate. Only difference is that this time I’m the puppet master.” “Let her go!” he growled. “Just let her go.” “You never did, so why should I?” “I never forced her to do anything.” “She was your servant.” “She was my friend.” “Ooooo, look, I can make her dance.” Abigail cackled as Lila’s limp body flailed about pathetically. And then something happened. Maybe Niko just snapped. Maybe his mind had finally given into the madness of literally everything around him. Maybe Abigail wasn’t pumping any oxygen into the box after all, and he was simply hallucinating. Or maybe, just maybe, he’d been right about Lila all along. Because at that moment, he could have sworn she lifted her head. She stared at him, tears in her milky eyes. “Please, Niko,” she said. “Cut me down.” Her head fell, and Niko reached for the gun at his belt. Though his hands were shaking, and though Abigail’s laughter was splitting his head in two, Niko aimed, and squeezed the trigger. Bang! One of her arms fell to her side. Bang! The other string snapped and she fell. Just like she had at St. Adelaide’s. Abigail’s laughter abruptly cut off, and the lights went out. For a moment, Niko was left in darkness. And then the wall exploded. ~~ o ~~ Tommy sat in the darkness, frozen for a long time. He had no idea where the others were, or if they were even alive. How had they just allowed themselves to waltz into this trap so easily? What else had they expected to happen? Abigail to just give in? That wasn’t how she worked, no way, no how. It was Doug. He’d just been so utterly confident that Tommy had let him do what he wanted. Oldest trick in the con artist’s book. Tommy was getting rusty. This was probably exactly what Doug had wanted, to use them as bait so he could get to Abigail. Stupid, how had he not seen that one coming? After a few minutes of breathing—and after realizing that his eyes were not going to adjust to this pitch blackness—Tommy got to his feet. First step was to get out of here and find Servus and the others. If it wasn’t already too late. However, it quickly became apparent that he was not going anywhere. The walls were solid, and Tommy’s gifts didn’t lie in the explosive. At this point, he only had one way out: to talk. “Abigail,” he called out. “Abigail Hodge, I know you can see me.” “Ah yes, the oldest Miller spawn, I’d almost forgotten about you. I was going to let you stew for a bit longer, but what the hell.” Immediately, the room lit up, the illumination stemming form the ground. Tommy found himself in a concrete box, the only feature of note the floor, which was a metal grate that gave a revealing view to the water below. It was dark and seemed to be... bubbling. “What is all this?” he asked. She didn’t answer him. “You should consider yourself lucky. Most of your friends are at this very moment receiving the most devious of psychological torments. But with you, I just want to talk.” “Talk?” he asked, loosening his collar. Was it a little hot in here or just his nerves? “What do you mean?” “Well I know so little about you compared to your friends. And I haven’t had a decent chat with anyone in far too long.” He didn’t like this. Where was the catch? “Of course, I can’t let you off that easily. That’s not fair to your friends. So we’re going to play a little game. It’s called: ‘Tell the Truth or get Boiled Alive.’ Do you wanna know why it’s called that?” “I have a feeling I already know...” “Because of all the little lambs that have wandered into my den today, you are the one I understand the least. And when I don’t understand something, oh you don’t know how much it hurts me.” What in the hell was wrong with this chick? “So I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer them truthfully. If I think you’re lying, I pull one little lever and you get dumped into that boiling water below. Make sense?” “I take it I don’t have a choice to play this game?” “Not at all.” Tommy sighed, and leaned against the wall. “Alright,” he said. “I understand.” “Good! Now, you are quite the mysterious one, aren’t you?” “Am I supposed to answer that one? Because that seemed kind of subjective to me.” “No, that was rhetorical. But it seems you like it that way. In fact, you’re so mysterious that you almost just fade into the background. Is that what you want out of life?” “Okay, ouch,” he started. “And for the moment, yes.” “And just how long has that ‘moment’ lasted?” “I don’t know, a while.” “See, I think the real reason is because that’s all you know. All because of when you were a wittle chiwd. If anyone paid attention to you then it was to give you those cigarette burns you’ve so cleverly hid.” “I—” Tommy had no idea what to say to that. How dare this bitch dig around in his brain like that. How dare she assume anything about him or how he acted. “What do you think about that?” “I think you have no idea what you’re talking about.” “Don’t I? I was raised in an orphanage, you know. But this isn’t about me. If I’m wrong, just tell me so, but remember, this lever’s looking awfully easy to push.” He was just about to open his mouth to tell her she was full of shit, but stopped, holding it open. He really didn’t draw that much attention to himself, did he? Didn’t ever try to make waves. Cowell walked all over him, and Aurum tried to do the same. Mike never even seemed to notice his presence, and though Cindy cared about him, she seemed to take him for granted, and he’d only been back a little over six months. Was it because he didn’t make enough noise? “I...” he opened his mouth again. “I don’t know.” “These things take some time to wrap your head around,” Abigail sympathized. What was she, his shrink? “So we’ll move on for now. Because I’m curious, Tommy. I’ve looked up all the records, the census data and housing contracts, and I’m thoroughly stumped. It seems you lived here in Ede Valley for eight years, and then vanished off the face of the earth until six months ago. Where were you?” He really didn’t want to answer this. He hated talking about himself, but even now it was a little hard to breathe from all the steam coming from the water below. “I was living with a fortune teller named Remus.” “Did he kidnap you?” “No. Never. He knew the situation I was in and offered me a way out. So I took it.” “And you just... went with him? Even though you’d known him for such a short amount of time?” “Yeah, I guess I—” he cut off midsentence. “Wait a second. I never told you how long I’d known him for.” “Welp, you caught me,” she giggled. “Truth be told I already knew all that. I just wanted to hear you talk about it. But there is one thing I still don’t understand: why did you go with him? You were young, I suppose, but very clever. You had to understand the danger.” “I did,” he nodded. “I guess it was because... I admired him. He was wise and confident and kind. The first truly kind man I’d ever met. And I guess I just hoped that he really was that person.” “And he was, wasn’t he? He took you on so many amazing adventures,” Abigail supplied. “Showed you so many things, introduced you to so many people. You even made a few friends. Like Kei.” His gaze shot upwards. “How do you know about Kei?” “Ooo, hit a sore spot, have I?” Abigail asked. “You did cause her a lot of trouble, didn’t you? But do you wanna knew a secret? Oh, but I’m not sure if I should tell you.” “What do you know, Abigail?” “Your dear, old friend is still very much alive.” “What?” his eyes widened. “Where—?” But before she could say anything more, the wall exploded. ~~ o ~~ Servus sat in a box, not really thinking about anything. The floor above had given out on him and well, he guessed he was here now. He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there when Abigail cleared her throat. “So, are you gonna do anything, or...?” “No,” Servus shook his head. “Okay, well I guess I’ll just... take my leave, then.” He sat there a while longer, and then the wall exploded. ~~ o ~~ Cindy and Marcell landed in a tangled pile at the bottom of the shaft. They lay there for a moment, a little stunned. “Cindy,” Marcell finally muttered. “Your elbow is digging into my chest.” “Oh, sorry,” she scrambled off, but still clung to him. “Where are we?” “I don’t know, even I’m having a little trouble seeing. But it looks like we’re in... a concrete box?” He stood, looking around the room. Cindy, on the other hand, couldn’t see anything. She kept her arm firmly around his, for fear that if she let go she’d lose him entirely. “Of all the places that chute could have taken us,” she said in a voice a lot steadier than she felt, “that’s a little more... boring than I expected.” “It’s not about the aesthetics,” Abigail’s voice came from somewhere above them as the lights came on. “It’s about the functionality. Besides, you all didn’t give me a lot of time to prepare, you know.” “Prepare for what?” Marcell asked. “Pure, psychological torture, of course,” Abigail replied, chuckling to herself. “All of you are getting the best that I have to offer. Tommy’s learning a few hard truths, and Niko’s having a little reunion right as we speak.” “Why are you doing this?” Cindy asked. Following that, Marcell frowned. “And what can we do to get you to stop?” “The second question’s easy! Nothing! You wanna know why? Because the reason I do it is simply pure curiosity. No more, no less. I’m simply infatuated with the concept of breaking people, seeing what makes them tick. I suppose I could have separated you two, you’ve both got enough damage to take out a tank, but I was running short on time, so together it is.” “And just what are you going to do?” “Me? Nothing. I’m just going to sit back and—” Just at that moment, another small saw emerged from the wall and nicked Cindy’s arm before she could react. “Oopsies!” Abigail cackled. “My hand slipped! I accidentally pressed the button that shoots saws out of the walls. Now why did I put that there again? Oh well. It’s just a little scratch, it shouldn’t be a problem, right? Oh, wait. It is for you two! Have fun!” Cindy winced in pain, grabbing her arm. It wasn’t bad enough that she needed to cauterize it, she didn’t want to burn the skin around the cut is she didn’t have to. But if she kept bleeding like this... Marcell’s eyes roved over to the glistening blood. No matter what he did, he couldn’t look away. How had he gotten so weak? Before the cult, he could have handled far more of her blood than this without blinking. But even now without trying he could still taste the human blood on his tongue. And the magic that pulsed under her skin was so strong now. It would be ecstasy running down his throat. “Lucius,” Cindy said, as she saw his pupils dilate. They stared at each other for a minute, before she finally sighed. “Just drink it,” she held out her arm. “As long as you don’t kill me, I don’t really care. I never have. And I bet after you taste it it’ll lose all its mystique.” “No Cindy I—I can’t do that to you,” he shook his head, trying to clear it. “You mean you can’t do it to yourself.” He gazed into her eyes, as if the answers would all be there, and she gazed back. His eyes were filled with ruins, ancient, crumbling history; Ancient, crumbling people, and Cindy was afraid that if she looked for too long she’d become lost in them. “Drinking my blood or not is your choice,” she said finally. “Don’t fight against yourself. I’m leaving it in your hands, so don’t decide for my sake.” “I... you’re right,” he sighed. “This whole time, I’ve been using you as my excuse.” He thought for a moment, and much to Cindy’s surprise, the redness started to leave his eyes. Tearing off the bottom of one of his sleeves, he wrapped the scrap around her cut, still being very careful not to touch any of it. “There,” he said. “That should keep it from bleeding too much.” Cindy admitted that she was a little surprised. She hadn’t been certain what he would do. “Well, alright then,” she grinned. “Since Abigail seems to have hopped ship, let’s blow this popsicle stand.” “How do we do that?” Marcell asked. “Abigail probably sealed this place up tight.” “There’s only one way to find out,” Cindy held out her hand, and the wall in front of her exploded. Part III Doug stood alone now, only the fallen dummy and the fading whirr of the buzzsaws to keep him company. After the others had fallen, the room grew silent. Clearly Abigail had other plans for him. “Well,” he called upwards. “You got me alone. What do you plan to do to me?” His hand hidden in his sweatshirt pocket was sweaty. He hoped the knife wouldn’t slip through his fingers when it was finally time to do the deed. There was silence for a minute, not even the hum of machinery usually paramount in a factory was present. Then, suddenly, there was a distinct shift in the air. Entirely non-tangible, but Doug suddenly felt eyes on him. “A little impatient, aren’t we?” Abigail asked. “My apologies, I simply wanted to make sure your friends were all where they needed to be.” “Friends, sure,” he scoffed. “What are you going to do with them?” “Nothing dangerous. Well, physically dangerous. Just a little bit of psychological trauma for the road.” “That’s tame for you.” What was this Doug was feeling? Worry? For Abigail? No, no, disappointment was more accurate. It wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying to kill her if she wasn’t her usual, psychopathic self. She chuckled. “Well, you know, I can’t be outright brutal all the time. It just cheapens the effect. Would you like to see something really scarring?” If it got him closer to her, or even just kept her talking, then sure thing. “I don’t think I really have much of a choice in the matter, do I?” he said instead. “None at all,” her grin was audible. “Just step through this door and prepare for a wild ride.” There was another exit to the room, one that they hadn’t even seen because of the darkness. But now a light blinked on directly above it, just behind the desk. Doug didn’t think. That would cause him to second-guess himself. He just walked up and opened the door. What was the worst that could happen? He’d die? Better than this excuse for a life at the moment, anyway. The ground directly beyond the door was odd, he noticed right away. He couldn’t see it, of course, because it was pitch black, but it felt... soft and rubbery. A split second after the lights snapped on—and revealed that the ground in front of him was in fact a conveyor belt—two metal bands clamped themselves over his shoes. He struggled, but not only were his shoes stuck, the bands were latched so tightly that he feet were stuck in them as well.

The conveyor belt lurched to life as Abigail began to speak. “Welcome to Hodge’s Wacky Train to Pain. Remember to keep your hands and feet inside the err... track at all times. We wouldn’t want to get your little fingers chopped of, now would we?” Doug struggled to keep his balance as the conveyor belt stuttered unevenly forward.

“I thought you needed good balance to wear Heely’s, or are you out of practice?” “Maybe just a little,” he admitted. “Looks like your piss-poor excuse for a school did have one thing going for it: smooth hallways.” Suddenly, the conveyor belt slammed to a halt, nearly dislocating Doug’s ankles. “Brake check!” Abigail cackled before it started moving forward once more. “Sorry, now what was that about my ‘piss-poor excuse for a school’?” He rolled his eyes. “Absolutely nothing at all.” Ahead, the narrow room widened into a large work room. The belt was cordoned off with big plates of plastic, but below the space was filled to the brim with old, rusted machines, metal gears, and springs spilling from every orifice. Victor must have nearly pissed himself with glee. Wait a second, where was Victor, anyway? “This is where they used to package all the syrup,” Abigail explained. “Just imagine all those whirring machines, each one doing its own little task, day in and day out, never stopping. How utterly boring. Of course, this was before the company sold the factory to me and moved the whole operation to Taiwan or something.” “Why are you telling me all of this?” Doug asked, growing impatient. She sighed. “I don’t know, it just seems silly to me to spend all this money to build a new factory halfway across the world just to make two cents more per bottle. But then, I’ve been thinking a lot about futility lately.” The conveyor passed through an opening in the wall and left the packing room behind. Ahead of him, Doug gulped as he saw the belt tip downwards, and right before he reached it, the bands on his feet retracted into the floor, nearly sending him over the edge and onto his face. Instead he overcorrected, and ended up falling onto his ass instead. Abigail cackled as he slid into a heap at the bottom, but was abruptly cut off by a coughing fit. “Hope you enjoyed the ride,” she recovered. “Welcome to the old R+D Department. I’m in a room up ahead, but first I’d like you to see something. Third door on the left.” “And what if I don’t?” Doug asked. “Have you ever thought that someone at some point might just not obey you?” “Every second of everyday,” came the surprisingly sober reply. “That’s why I back my words with action. All the other doors in this hallway are locked up tight and rigged with explosives, including the one that I’m hiding behind. And before you get any smart ideas, I will not be injured by the blast. Besides, this is something that you will want to see.” Cautiously, Doug found the door she requested. “You didn’t like, preserve someone’s body to like, torture me with the sight, did you?” “Nope. Already used that idea today.” “Figures.” Well, there was nothing else he could do. Doug stood in front of the sloppily painted, grey door, and turned the handle. It stuck badly and Doug had to wrench it down to get it open. Once he did, however, he hesitated for the first time. Though he didn’t care what happened to him down here just as long as Abigail was dead, physical instinct still screamed for him to turn around and shut that door. The room inside was pitch black, but through the haze Doug felt something, a presence, and he didn’t like it one bit. “Hello?” he called tentatively, praying that nothing would answer. But instead of nothing, the response was the sudden sound of whirring fans, and a series of clicks and ticks, like an old computer booting up. After a moment, a singular pinpoint of light shone through the back of the room. “Is that... Doug?” An icicle shot up his spine as he heard that voice. He recognized it immediately, how couldn’t he? But there was something so wrong about it, so flanged and utterly inhuman that he was afraid to see just who—or what—had produced those sounds. “Come closer... I c-c-can’t see yo-ooo-u,” said the voice, and Doug felt compelled by morbid curiosity to take one step forward, then another. As he did so, the computer systems that surrounded the room began to glow and flicker. Soon the entire dark space was alight with humming mechanisms out of the corner of his vision. There was something in the center of the room, but Doug still couldn’t quite make it out, the illumination was still too dim. He didn’t want to come any closer, as the thing—whatever it was—was a shape suggestive of disturbing things. He would have to say his name. “Victor?” he asked tentatively. “Is that you back there?” “O-of courssssse,” came the response. “Come c-c-closer. I can’t really m-m-move.” Though something inside him screamed to run, Doug did what Victor asked, taking one step forward, and then another. Out of the darkness shot two wavy metal tubes, each with a lens attached to the end. They seemed to blink at him, the lens caps folding over and retracting. “D-Doug!” came Victor’s voice. “You look terrible!” “Where are you?” Doug asked. “I can’t really see anything.” “Oh! I’m so-o-o s-sorry,” he replied. “I entirely forg-g-got to get the liiights.” A dim light on the ceiling flickered on and as Doug followed the lens tubes to their source, he became numb down to his very bones. Victor was seated in a chair at the back of the room, or rather, what was left of him. The lens tubes were attached to wires that fed directly into where his eyes used to be. His head, neck, and shoulders were molded atop a computer processor lodged in his chest. A speaker was jammed into his mouth, and wires crisscrossed around and through his entire body like arteries. “W-what’s wronggg?” the thing that had been Victor asked. “You look really pale.” Before any words could come out, Doug almost barfed. “Did...” he finally managed. “Did she do this to you?” “She? Oh, d-d-do you mmmean Abigail? She did sssome invalub-b-ble research, led me ddown the right path-th-th, but I did this all myssself. This is my project, Doug! To c-c-create new life with technology.” Then is was too late. Abigail had her slimy hands in this, too. Just like she did in everything. This was just another life ruined, crushed, destroyed at her whim. She had probably wanted to see what would happen if he did succeed. What had Doug told him? All those months ago, when he could almost feel what was going to happen, even if he didn’t quite know it yet? He remembered, of course he did. They echoed in his head over and over again. “Hay, Victor,” Doug said, taking a few steps closer to the sad mess of wires and flesh that his friend had become. “You remember what I told you, when you said you liked Abigail? Way before we both knew what she was?” “Of course I do, Doug,” what remained of his lips stretched into a sort of smile. “I can recall any mem-memory instantly now. You told me to ‘not stick my dick in crazy.’” Doug shook his head. “Why didn’t you just listen to me? Why?” “I did,” he said. “I listened v-v-very carefully. But if you were implying Abby, I don’t know why. She’s not crazy, she’s brilliant.” He didn’t see the point in arguing with him now. It was already far too late. “Oh, but Doug, this is am-m-mazing. I can see everything, I’ve transcended humanity.” He’d gone beyond humanity, alright, just not in the way that he saw it. Doug reached into his pocket slowly. “So, how does all of this work? It this thing... keeping you alive?” he asked, trying to be nonchalant and failing. Luckily, Victor was denser than a sack of bricks. “W-w-why yes, in fact, with all the modif-fi-fi-cations I’ve made I should by dead. There’s se-ev-ev-eral tubes that handle my physical needs, and behind my head,” he wiggled the appendage slightly as his arms were strapped down with so many cords. “There wires keep my brain from feeling pain and becoming overloaded.” “So without them you would die?” “Instantly.” Feeling the cold metal in his pocket, Doug gripped it, and raised his hand. But it was shaking so badly. “Why?” he asked. “Why did you do this? What was the point? Damn it, Victor, you’ve thrown away your life!” “There’s always been something wrong with me, Doug. You know it, I know it, the priest who tried to exorcise me knew it. I’m a selfish, worthless person. So I thought, if I could contribute something to the world, maybe it’d all finally mean something.” Doug couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Victor, you’re not worthless, or selfish, you’re a fucking genius.” “But that doesn’t really matter, anymore,” he continued on as if he hadn’t heard him. “There are more important things now.” “Like what?” “Like Abby. I want to help her, Doug. She’s dying.” Though Doug opened his mouth, nothing came out. “It’s that thing in her head. It’s going to kill her.” So she had used him. She used Victor as a sacrificial lamb to keep herself alive a little longer. His veins were burning, his cheeks bright red. Doug was going to make her pay. But first he needed to take care of Victor. For whatever reason, he felt like it was his responsibility. “God, things have become so complicated,” he began, moving behind Victor. “Can’t believe it was less than a year ago that we were playing D&D in Jilli’s dorm room.” “Y-you mean when-n-n you raided our D&D session? I do. We had fun, and laughed and laughed.” “That we did, Victor,” Doug’s vision was getting blurry as he gripped the wires at the back of Victor’s head. “That we did.” Doug pulled, and the lights went out. ~~ o ~~ “I take it by the look on your face that it’s over,” Abigail said as Doug stumbled out of the now-empty laboratory. His whole body was shaking. The hallway, which had been so dim before, was bright enough that he had to squint, and the background hum of the factory rumbled through his head like thunder. “You... bitch.” He slurred out. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll freely admit that I used you, but you did what I couldn’t do.” “You... never... stop using people, do you?” Doug collapsed against the wall, trying to keep himself from throwing up. She coughed, the sound making the speaker squeal. “A habit to the end. Why do something myself when I can manipulate someone else to do it for me?” “You’re sick,” he spat. “You should look in a mirror sometime, Doug.” “Shut up.” She was laughing at him now, of course she was. Always, always at the back of his mind. Laughing at him. “Oh boy, am I glad you found me, Doug. I got to have one good, last laugh. I’m in the room at the end of the hall whenever you’re ready.” Doug heard an audible click from the door on the far side of the corridor. It was a big, dark door, and it seemed to laugh at him too, like he would never in a million years walk through it. Fuck that door. He didn’t give a shit what it thought. He stood, legs shaking. Slowly, slowly, as the world became a little clearer, Doug walked up to that door and yanked it open. The room beyond surprised him. He expected a hulking laboratory, filling with bubbling beakers and instruments of torture, like the one she’d had at Adelaide’s. But this room was small, simple, with cheaply painted white walls. It had probably been a floor manager’s office at some point, but now its only contents were two metal tables. One of them had four different recorders on it, each set up to broadcast through a different speaker. On the other was a laptop, which a hunched figure in a blanket was working at. She turned, and Doug could see that Victor had been telling the truth: she was dying. Her face was thin and sallow, clenched in pain, and her whole body shook from cold, though the room was quite warm. If it was anyone else, the sight of her would have made him sad, pity her. But with Abigail, it just made him angry. “You bitch,” he snarled. “How dare you try to die before I got to you.” “I’m still alive, aren’t I?” she smiled weakly. “Though I didn’t realize we had an appointment. Alright, I guess you’d better get it over with.” She stood, flinging the blanket aside. Doug paused. “Is that it? No monologues, no tricks?” “And give you the kill you so desperately crave? Now why would I do that? No, Doug Bailey, I will not give you the satisfaction that you seek. You don’t get to feel the pleasure of watching your victim’s terrified eyes fade from life.” “Why?” he whispered. “Why do you keep doing this? Torturing me endlessly? Why me? Haven’t you done enough? More than enough? What will make you satisfied?” “Nothing,” she smiled. “Absolutely nothing. You’re the most fascinating being I’ve ever met, because no matter what I do to you, how many loved ones of yours I kill, you just don’t lie down and die.” “Fuck. You.” Doug slid the knife from his pocket. “I don’t care. I don’t need triumph or satisfaction. All I need is for you to stop breathing. All I need is for you to say one little thing.” He grabbed her, and threw her against the wall, knife at her throat. “Say it.” “I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about,” she managed to cough out. “How could you not know? Those words echo in my head every minute of every day. How can two little words make me so scared? You know exactly what I’m talking about.” “I don’t.” “Say it!!” And she laughed, low at first, but rising higher and higher until the air was electrified with sound. And then there was silence. “Fuzzy pickles,” she said finally, and Doug stabbed, over and over again, her blood staining his hands, his sweatshirt, his shoes. After a solid minute he let her limp body drop to the floor with a horrible squelching thump. It took him a long time to actually process what he’d done. He’d killed her. Abigail Hodge was dead. ~~ o ~~ Long after Doug had stumbled out of the office, long after Cindy and crew had run in to find that they were too late, Mike slunk from the shadows. The office was dark now, quiet, the only light coming from the dim screen of the laptop, just as Abigail had left it. Mike stepped over her body towards the laptop, letting the quiet sink into his bones. He tried to savor this moment. He might not get another for a long time. After a while, someone cleared their throat, and with a sigh, Mike turned to the laptop. “You were just going to let me sit here and rot, weren’t you?” “I would never do such a thing.” “Well, hurry it up. I need something to do. Watching her die was rather... unfortunate.” “You really are dramatic, aren’t you?” Mike said, picking the laptop up and beginning the long walk out of the factory. “Why of course,” the laptop chuckled. “We have to keep the audience entertained, don’t we?”

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