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There is no true beginning to fear. It has lurked in the abscesses of the hearts of living things since the dawn of time, and it will linger as long as life goes on. Even a foiled ritual is nothing but a mere reshuffle of the deck in an everlasting game of cards. A shrug and a promise of next time, always a next time. For endless entities, there is no value in impatience.

And yet, impatience thrums in the hearts of their servants, who are still human in nature. When Gertrude Robinson traps the Spiral, its avatar spins with crooked outrage through endless corridors, and when she douses the Desolation with a cold blow, its acolytes howl with white-hot fury. All eyes are on the Archivist—a delicious irony, that the ceaseless watcher is now the watched; a servant who serves nobody, not even her own god—and there are those who seek to defeat her, those who resolve to avoid her, and those who continue their path regardless of her.

So short-sighted, all of them. Those who fret about her grant too much significance to a single mortal. Those who ignore her overlook the threat that she truly represents—the god she resolutely does not pledge loyalty to.

The problem is not Gertrude; the problem is that the Archivist can be more than a mere observer with the right push, and that the Eye can be more than a benign witness than the other entities think. There will be no secrets, no lies, no traps in a world shaped by the Beholding's whims.

And thus the Web considers the Archivist: godless, fearless, mortal. Considers what could be possible with an Archivist’s loyalty and what would be necessary to obtain it. Gertrude herself is a lost cause—she’s a crusader who has made martyrs out of unwitting humans and has pledged her loyalty solely to humanity at the cost of her own. But she is only human, only mortal, and soon enough she will either die in the hands of her enemies or at the hands of her own god for her blasphemy. She is not the problem, and she is not the solution.

There have been Archivists before Gertrude. There will be Archivists after her.

There’s always an after. Always a next time.

It may take years. Decades, even, for this plan to bear fruit, but the Web has always looked to the future, more so than any of the others. It has always enjoyed playing the long game.

-

What does it take, the Web wonders, watching Gertrude Robinson with many eyes and following her footsteps with many legs. What does it take to ensnare an Archivist?

Force, deception, threats, seduction—they’re all meaningless before the eye that beholds all truths. Everything is meaningless before an avatar that has left its humanity behind, a servant that has pledged itself to any singular cause, whether it be a god or mankind.

The natural conclusion is that the trap must be set while the Archivist is still human down to their bones, that the lure must not be anything less than honest and sincere and completely innocent. Unmarked.

And thus, the Web chooses Martin.

-

Years and years before Martin Blackwood ever sets foot in London, when he is all but a newly fatherless young boy, he tangles his hand in a spider’s web and ruins it. It is an accident, a child’s mere clumsy gesture, and when he realizes what he’s done, he apologizes to the plump, eight-legged arachnid that sits atop the ruins of its home. The next day, he brings offerings to the mostly rebuilt web, dead little insects that he leaves like sacrifices to the altar.

The Web, many-eyed and many-legged, watches him wherever he goes.

Martin is a tragedy of a boy growing into a heartbreak of a man. He smiles at cold faces, offers tea to indifferent murmurs of empty gratitude, and perseveres for approval from those who will never, ever love him back. He gives and gives and gives, and his mother yields him not even an inch, and he still bleeds his love for her like a severed heart.

The Web pulls the strings ever so delicately, ever so carefully. It weaves the web over days and months and years. Nothing too overt, nothing that will leave too obvious a mark on him, but enough to nudge him in the right direction. He is not the only one the Web has made a candidate out of, but he is the only one who remains staunchly optimistic in the face of animosity, forever clinging onto hope in the face of despair, always trying to make a home in a place that will never welcome him. Others would call him foolish. Pathetic, even.

To the Web, he is perfect.

-

Meanwhile—it watches the strands of its web connected to the many children it has marked: the ones who will play a role further into the future, the ones who have no purpose yet, the ones who escaped. Children are so malleable. Easy to control. Useful . There is no telling which of them will ever become a favorable pawn at some point.

So the Web does not miss the trail of Jonathan Sims, the one who got away, the one with the insatiable need to know, leading away from his grandmother’s home to the centre of London to the Magnus Institute. And parallel to that trail, the Web lays its path by leaving a job application for the institute’s archives available on Martin’s laptop.

-

The risk of this game is that Martin is unaware of the fact that he is a part of it. It is the inevitable price the Web must pay to avoid the Eye’s notice, especially once Martin signs his contract at the institute. Any interference with Martin’s life from this point will have to be the bare minimum, otherwise the man who now calls himself Elias will see, and the game will be over.

So it all depends on Martin’s free will now.

But the Web has stacked the cards: it has been laying this path since decades ago, ever since that first offering of dead insects. Depriving Martin of meaningful relationships, destroying his job opportunities, driving him to desperation and isolation, offering him glimpses of hope to string him along until he does not know how to give up on the ones he loves, even if they never love him back.

It could be said that Martin could have had another choice. He could have chosen not to make a home out of a temple not meant for mortals. He could have chosen to refuse the call when he was promoted to the new Head Archivist’s assistant. He could have chosen to not let his heart flutter at the sight of Jonathan Sims, sharp-jawed and long-fingered and dark-eyed.

But truth be told—Martin never stood a chance.

-

As much as this game may be stacked in the Web’s favor, it does not mean that victory is guaranteed. And it certainly will not be easy . There are so many variables, because the human heart is both predictable and fickle all at once. Humans are simple creatures that contain multitudes, and to predict them and manipulate them accordingly is difficult, and doubly so to accomplish without drawing the Eye’s attention.

And then, of course, there are the decidedly non-human variables, such as the Hive, standing outside Martin’s door, possibly about to undo quite a bit of the Web’s masterful work.

It is too early in the game to openly intervene, because while Martin’s flat is a far cry from the well-scrutinized archives, there is no doubt that the man who calls himself Elias is watching. Without the Web’s intervention, Martin’s survival and continued usefulness depends entirely on his luck and the Hive’s persistence.

It doesn’t stop the Web from sending spiders through the cracks to devour some worms, though.

-

Martin survives, and the game continues. To help the odds, the Web surreptitiously drags a corkscrew out into the open for Martin’s eyes to fall upon.

Later, it sends a spider into the Archivist’s office as a warning just before the Hive’s invasion. It’s as far as it can meddle without incurring too much suspicion from the Eye, but it’s enough.

-

Even amidst growing tensions within the archives, Martin remains much the same. More scarred, more frightened, but still ever so loyal. Ever hopeful, ever loving. He digs in his heels and refuses to give up on the Archivist, despite the paranoia aimed at his own throat, despite his coworker’s angry exasperation.

“I know he’s being a prat,” Martin says into his recorder in the midst of reading out his own terribly middling love poetry. “I know he won’t ever really—it’s not happening. Ever. I know, I know, I know. But he already thinks he’s so alone. I can’t let that become true.”

He looks back down at the scribbled lines in his notebook, full of too-raw words and agonized stanzas, then rips the page out and shreds it. His laughter shudders out of him in wet gasps, like his ribcage is splintering open in his chest.

“God.” Martin wipes at his face, sounding wretched and heartsick. “It was only supposed to be a crush.”

-

There is not much the Web can do about the Stranger’s extension freed from the binding in the archives and the Spiral stalking the underground tunnels, but in the end, there is no need for the Web to do anything.

Instead, it observes the Archivist with many eyes over turned tables, gauging him. He has always been reckless and persistent, swallowed whole by the need to know, and now he is drowning in his obsession. He is so human and so foolish. He is hardly the formidable Archivist his predecessor was, but he could grow to be.

For now, he is still human down to his bones, with a tender heart of flesh that cares so much for his assistants that it aches. 

-

“What did he do to deserve our trust?” Timothy Stoker spits out, filled to the brim with bitterness and resentment. His mind is bloated with a thirst for revenge and clawing itself to shreds like a caged animal starving to death. “You have too much faith in him.”

Martin lifts his chin, stubborn and loyal to a fault. “He wouldn’t have done it. He can be, well, a prick, but it’s a bit of a leap from that to murderer.”

“Anybody can be a murderer with the right push.” Timothy paces the narrow length of the statement recording room. He is a faithless creature, exhausted by the tyranny of the all-seeing Eye he unknowingly serves, and utterly unaware of how the Archivist would bleed for him, for all of them. Unaware of how human Jonathan Sims is, deep down to those brittle bones. “And he was already pushed pretty far, what with the goddamn paranoia.”

“Well.” Martin hesitates, but he is more clever and more dogged than anybody gives him credit for, and he surges on with renewed conviction. “Exactly. It could be anybody. Like that thing in the tunnels, or even just any other monster, going by how often they seem to turn up nowadays. Or maybe just a human. It could literally be anybody!”

Timothy glares at him with a weary, dark resignation. “Anybody but Jon, you mean.”

Martin presses his lips together and crosses his arms in silent defiance.

“God, you’re so—forget it.” It takes only Martin’s pleading gaze and silent patience for Timothy to fold like wet cardboard. Martin does not pull strings of web, but he has the gift to bend others to his will nonetheless. It is the ultimate weapon, his soft edges and soft heart, that even the sharpest of claws relent, refusing to cut him open. It is a human charm that would not appease any immortal entity, but it is enough for Timothy Stoker. “Ugh, fine. Let’s go see if there’s any evidence to clear the bastard’s name.”

Martin smiles, watery and bright. “Okay, yeah.” So guileless, so sweet. Only a human could love him. “Thanks.”

It will be enough for Jonathan Sims.

-

Some would say that it is a risky gamble, unlikely to bear fruit. That the Archivist may easily never take the bait, keeping Martin at arm’s length, perhaps never once tempted by soft edges and soft smiles and a soft heart. But the Web has seen the boy who had devoured books like he was starving for them, the boy who had gotten away only by sheer luck, the boy who had still followed to see the end of the story because he needed to know. The Web has seen Jonathan grow from a bruise of a boy to a festering wound of a man, alone and impatient and devoted to nothing but the pursuit of answers.

Perhaps some would be correct to assume that the Archivist would never take the bait, but Jonathan Sims will, because he is still more human than monster. Still clumsy, still fumbling, still wretchedly alone and hating himself for it.

And for him, just for him, the Web has sent him Martin, who will never lie to him unless it is to lie for him. Martin, who looks for love in those who will never love him back, who has faith in those who do not deserve it, who makes homes out of places that will never welcome him.

It doesn’t matter if the Archivist doesn’t love him back—what matters is that it is inevitable that he will need Martin, and that is enough.

-

As the true nature of the master they serve becomes clear, the Archivist beholds his own ebbing humanity. He is untethered, unraveled, coming apart at the seams to soon be remade into something else entirely, and there is no safe harbor for him. Timothy Stoker is too bitter, Melanie King too overcome with rage, and Basira Hussain is already serving as an anchor to the woman claimed by the Hunt.

There is only Martin.

And Jonathan, teetering between human and something more, buries his face in Martin’s shoulder and crumbles. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just need this. Just for a moment.”

“Of course,” Martin says, hushed, not knowing how he dooms his beloved Archivist with his warm embrace and soft heart. “However long you need.”

-

In the Archivist’s absence, the Lonely haunts the Institute, and all the spiders hide away from him. There is no telling of what he seeks as of yet, but there is little benefit from prying into him. His realm allows no spiders, no cobwebs, no secrets. For now, the Web weaves its plans far from his touch.

-

Somewhere between return and departure, between human and something else, Jonathan Sims says, “I don’t like this plan.”

“It’s not exactly like I’m excited about it either,” Martin huffs. “But it’ll work.”

“It’ll hurt you.”

Martin startles at the quiet devastation in Jonathan’s words but not the meaning of them. The Web may have whispered the inspiration of this plan to him in his sleep, but Martin is the one who built a maze out of bare bones. He already knew this would be unimaginably painful. “Well, yes, I’m not looking forward to that part. But it’s not like I’d be in any real danger—at least, I certainly hope not—unlike you, by the way, because you’re going back to infiltrate a supernatural circus cult that kidnapped you once already.”

“Small price to save the world, I reckon.” Jonathan’s sigh echoes through the tunnels. “I suppose I’d rather have you here than there.”

“I’d rather be with you.”

They stare at each other, neither of them daring to look away.

“Martin,” Jonathan says, slow and unsteady, “I’m possibly going to be dead in a few days, or quite likely not even be human in the near future—and I’m your boss.”

“You forgot the part where you can be an insufferable prat sometimes,” Martin adds, stepping closer.

Jonathan makes a noise half-caught between indignation and bemusement. He leans closer in spite of himself, like a moth to a flame. “Really, this is a terrible idea, and you deserve—”

“There’s nobody else,” Martin interrupts. “It’s just you; it’s always you.” Hands on Jonathan’s shoulders. “And who the hell knows what I deserve? I certainly don’t.” Eyes bright in the torchlight. “But I do know what I want, and what I want is you. It’s always been you.” Looking for love from those who would never, ever—

“I can’t lose you.” Jonathan crowds Martin against a musty cement wall and presses a hand to Martin’s cheek, his words spilling out urgent and pleading. “I need you to understand: if anything were to happen to you I wouldn’t be able to live with it.”

“I’m yours, “ Martin promises, unaware of how untrue it is. How true it is. “Only yours, as long as I live, please, Jon—” and he closes the distance between them and kisses him.

-

“You think I’m doing this for him?”

Martin draws himself up to his full height and squares his shoulders, clenching his shaking hands into fists, not bothering to hide his fear but instead drawing upon his anger to camouflage it. The air is full of smoke from burned statements, but it does not hide the irritation in the eyes of the Eye’s greatest servant.

“No,” the man who is called Elias very nearly sneers. “It’s just the sort of half-baked scheme he’d come up with, and I’m well aware that you’ll do just about anything for him.”

How correct those words are. How correct and utterly misguided. To presume that Martin Blackwood is a lovesick fool with a too-soft heart and unmerited optimism. Those presumptions are correct, of course, and the Eye is remarkably short-sighted when it comes to the obvious.

Martin’s unmerited optimism cloaks his stubborn determination to believe in the good. His too-soft heart hides the sharpest of minds. His lovesick foolishness disguises the truth that he was tailored to be the greatest gift and most damning downfall of the Archivist, gift-wrapped in cobweb with a mouth full of honey.

And the Eye had taken one look at him, little pathetic, harmless Martin bumbling his way through the Archives, and had disregarded him entirely. Just as the Web intended.

The Eye may see everything, but the Web knows how to hide in plain sight.

-

By the time the Archivist is in the hospital, breathless and pulseless, it is too late. The Eye finally sees the gossamer-thin strands of cobweb, but the Archivist is already trapped, the taste of honey on his tongue and his heart gone from his chest, in the ribcage of the man who sits at his bedside.

-

“I must admit I’m impressed, Martin,” the man known as Elias Bouchard says. “I knew you were all planning something, of course, but I didn’t believe you specifically would have the—ah—capacity for boldness that you displayed. Took me quite by surprise.”

Martin crosses his arms. “You didn’t just see it in me?”

“Honestly, I didn’t look.” He tilts his head, his gaze intent upon Martin, as if rectifying his mistake this very second. “For all my power, I will admit I am not immune to making the occasional lazy assumption. I presumed that I knew you thoroughly. By the time you demonstrated otherwise well, there was simply too much to keep watching over.” Finally, he glances up to the corner of the room, a knowing look in his eyes as the spider in the corner watches him back. “Only have two eyes, after all.”

-

The Lonely arrives at the Institute and banishes every cobweb, every spider, but it is too late for him to banish Martin. The Eye has always been possessive of its agents, and it would not allow for even an ally to dispose of one of its own.

At least, not yet, not until Peter Lukas has secured agreement from the beating heart of the Institute, and that’s all the time the Web needs.

-

“I can bring him back for you,” she says. Her speech and movements are jerky, still in the process of learning to mimic who she used to be. “You want him back, don’t you?”

Martin looks at her with distrust and fear, but the longing is unmistakable. “What do you want in return?”

She produces an apple, fresh green and ripe. “Just one bite.”

“This is insane,” he says, cupping the apple in both hands, fearful but so desperate. He knows that there is no return from this, that this will damn him. His fall from grace, from humanity. “How do I know this isn’t a trap?”

“Of course it is a trap.” The Web could lie, but it knows that sometimes honesty is the most devastating poison. The proof of that statement stands with an apple in his hands and agony in his eyes. “But the Eye will not lead him back to you, and of all the traps, ours is the only one that does not care to harm you or the Archivist.”

At least, not yet.

”The choice is yours,” she says, and it’s the most honest lie she's ever told.

Martin hesitates, but only for a second. He raises the apple to his lips. Bites down.

-

Martin Blackwood would do anything for Jonathan Sims. The Web made him that way, after all.

-

Martin watches as she takes a seat by the Archivist’s bedside, the door to the room locked behind them. She lifts the wig and prosthetic off her head and Martin swallows a gasp at her head, broken open, full of cobweb. She lays her head down upon the bedsheets, forehead nudging against the back of the Archivist’s hand, and closes her eyes.

Once upon a time, she used to be called Annabelle Cane. She had gained the power to feel the fears of others and control people with her mind.

She is much more powerful now.

Fear is the strand of the web to seize, following the nightmares and dread all the way back to the paralyzed soul deep in the abyss of dreams. It is only a matter of connecting the strands, weaving the web together, bringing the fear back into this body.

At the head of the hospital bed, Martin bends down and presses a kiss to the Archivist’s forehead. Whispers, “Jon, come back to me. Come back to me.”

And with a choked gasp, chest seizing, eyes flying open, scream trapped in his throat, Jonathan Sims does.

-

While the Eye is possessive of its agents, it isn’t protective, and it certainly would not hesitate to sever an unruly finger. So they make sure to get rid of that notion ahead of time.

“An allegiance,” the man called Elias says from his prison cell, unimpressed. “I believe it’d be more accurate to describe it as an unholy matrimony forced by a hostage situation.”

There is nothing for him to do now. To dig Martin out of the Archivist’s heart at this point would damage him too greatly to be of use to the Eye, and to replace him now when the Watcher’s Crown looms ever closer would be a waste of time. To have one means to need the other. The Eye knows, and can do nothing about it.

She laughs. It is a jittery, disjointed sound. “We look forward to working with you.”

-

“I think they want me to be the death of you,” Martin admits, kissing the inside of Jonathan’s wrist, tasting the pulse there with joy and despair. “I don’t want to be.”

“It’s too late for that,” Jonathan murmurs. The knowledge flickers under his eyelids. He is not as human as he used to be, his heart not as tender, but Martin is shrapnel embedded in his flesh, lodged so deep that to remove him would mean to gouge out too much of Jonathan's self. He sees it now, that they are both tangled in cobweb, unable to detach without ripping each other apart. “I don’t think either of us have a choice.”

Martin closes his eyes, miserable. “You deserved to have a choice in this.”

“I chose you.” Only the Archivist will know how much of that is true. “So tell me, do you regret it?” His voice goes low, compulsion echoing in his words. The Archivist doesn’t need to compel Martin to hear an honest answer, but they both know that some fears can only be chased away by a gun to the head. “Do you regret choosing the Web?”

“No, Martin says fiercely, pressing Jonathan into the bed with his weight and his hands gripping unresisting wrists. “I didn’t choose the Web; I chose you. I’m yours, remember? Forget the Eye, the Web, all of them. I don’t care what they say. I belong to you first.”

The Archivist sees too much now, his power increasing by the day, and he knows that the truth is an entirely different matter, but he is still human enough to not deny Martin of his faith.

“You’re not the only one, you know?” Martin presses kisses to Jonathan’s temple. “I can’t lose you.” His cheekbones. “If anything were to happen to you, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.” The tip of his nose. “You’re going to be the death of me.”  The corner of his mouth. “I chose you, and I’d choose you again. I don’t regret any of it.”

“I don’t regret you.” The Archivist cannot compel himself, but he doesn’t need to. Martin will believe him anyway, because that is who Martin is. “Not a single moment.”

Martin makes a choked noise. Even though he carries the Web’s mark in his blood now, he is still soft, still hopeful. “We’re going to figure this out together,” he says, even though these promises are not his to make anymore. “If we’re going to be the death of each other, we’ll do our damned best to not let that happen for a very long time.”

It’s so very unlikely, the Archivist knows, but he doesn’t say a word. Instead he kisses Martin, licks into his mouth to taste the hope on his tongue.

-

Don’t think that you’ve won just yet, the Lonely chides at the network of cobwebs strung across the darkness. I’m not as hands-off as Elias, after all.

The strands of the web vibrate, like jittery laughter. The Web knows it will be a difficult game to win, but it will be an infinitely easier game to ensure the Eye does not, either. The Web has the Archivist’s heart in its grasp, and it is too late in the game for the Eye to throw out its deck to start anew.

And as long as there are no winners, there are no losers. As long as nobody wins this round, there will always be another game.

There is no true end to fear. There is always a next time.

-

Except, the rules are changing. There are more players and different pawns and a whole new deck of cards scattered onto the board.

The Spiral’s new avatar opens a maze of corridors that swallows a whole nest of spiders. The Desolation’s servants burn down an entire forest thick with cobwebs. The Hunt and the Slaughter flank the Archivist as he steps into a dark prison cell, and the man who was once the Eye's greatest servant curses aloud.

Martin looks up at the Web and it looks back with many eyes, but it has no legs anymore.

“Jon never likes my plans, but they always work,” Martin says. Determined and sharp-minded and the Archivist’s greatest gift. He is more clever and more dogged than anybody gives him credit for. “I learned from the very best, I suppose.”

The one who used to be Annabelle Cane speaks from where she is broken apart into pieces of cobweb and porcelain on the floor, “This might be the ruin of you.”

“I’ll take that risk.” He carries a knife in one hand, an apple in the other. “Better that than to be the ruin of him.”

Martin Blackwood would do anything for Jonathan Sims. The Web made him that way. Made him sweet and harmless and hopeful. Turned him loyal and cunning and stubborn. Made him to be underestimated, to be the most damning downfall of those who believe he is a mere pawn.

“You should be proud.” Martin’s words drip honey and his heart is full of cobweb. The perfect trap of the Web’s own making. “I’m exactly who you made me to be.”

(Even the best of spiders can be caught in their own webs, after all.)