It was a bad idea. This was absolutely a bad idea, but it was too late to stop it. Shiro and I had gotten separated, torn apart by whatever Captain Bones did in the foyer of his rooms. I wasn’t entirely sure what he’d done, but whatever it was left me feeling like he’d punched a hole in my chest. When I opened my eyes, he was gone and I was alone in the foyer. Shiro and Bag were gone, and I was alone at the foot of the staircase. With nowhere else to go, I headed up.
I started to wonder if something was wrong when I’d been walking for around two minutes with no sign of an ending. Had Bones trapped me on a never-ending staircase? The appearance of a door not ten seconds later disproved that, but my guard was already up. Something was going on here, and I was gonna find out what.
I slipped through the door, stopping dead in my tracks when I saw it led to my living room. I’d recognize that ratty couch anywhere, and for a moment I panicked, thinking I’d teleported to Startington on accident somehow. Quickly, I turned around and rushed outside, blinking in the sudden sunlight. I really was in Startington, but how? Cautiously, I walked over to Old Man Joe, who was blocking the exit to the rest of the mountains. “Mr. Joe, what’s going on?” I asked, tensing slightly. Joe had never liked me, so I was a bit worried what acidic remarks he had in store for my “ignorance”.
Instead, he smiled warmly at me, like I was
a beloved grandchild, instead of the freak orphan who lived in the shack. “Ah, there you are! Why not go join everybody up by Tanaka’s house, they set up a picnic, and they’re all waiting for you!” he said cheerfully, eyes glimmering with some emotion I couldn’t name. He must’ve misread my expression, because he continued speaking. “Ah, don’t worry about me son, these ol’ bones’ll make their way up eventually. You run on ahead, I’ll catch up,” he said, waving me off. Knowing there was no way to get past him once his mind was made up, I decided to just nod and check out this picnic. Sure, nobody in this town liked me, but I was never one to turn down free food.
I headed up the hill, stopping to talk to Vev. He, like Joe, seemed to want me to check out this picnic or whatever. “Don’t worry about me, Tyler. I’m just getting some water, I’ll be up in a minute,” he said, pausing his cranking for a second to wave me off. I nodded, shrugged, and continued on. There was no moving Vev once he had his mind made up, and if he was determined to get water out of the old well then I wasn’t about to try to stop him. I continued on, seeing everyone set up in the Fujinumas’ front yard. Tanaka spotted me first, greeting me with a large smile. Next to him were Shiro and Bag, the former already piling a plate high with chicken and stewed carrots. I frowned when I noticed Jonathan standing there, healthy as ever, next to Luke. Wasn’t he sick?
It felt like I was forgetting something, but Tanaka calling out shook me out of my thoughts. “Tyler, there you are! Now the party can really get started! Come on, grab a seat!” he said cheerfully, gesturing at the spread. I frowned, but grabbed a plate anyway. Luke grinned at me, the sight making my stomach flip. I blushed and ducked my head, busying myself with potatoes. Everyone was acting a little weird, but who cares? I was finally welcomed as part of the town, for the first time since my mom
died. A loud yell from behind me started me, and I dropped the bite of potatoes I was about to eat. Rushing up from the base of the hill were two faces I never thought I’d see again.
“Hey, y’all started without us? No fair!” Jason shouted, scowling. Theo puffed from beside him, face red from exertion. My face paled, and I dropped my plate, shooting to my feet in almost the same motion. Jason stopped at the base of the hill, confused. “Tyler? Hey man, you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” he teased.
“T....This isn’t right....” I gasped, hands shaking violently. I stumbled back, almost running over Harry. “Y-You’re supposed to be dead!” I hissed, whirling around and hopping the fence. This world......what the hell is wrong with the world?!
I darted to the Wourie house, spotting Mrs. Wourie standing by a bed in the middle of the room. She wasn’t moving or anything, and when I went to nudge her my hands came away covered in slime. She collapsed into slime, drips from the ceiling solidifying into waist-high green slimes. I panicked, hitting them with an overcharged Chain Lightning, but there were too many. They just kept coming, even as I was backed into a corner with manaburns sparking on my palms. I desperately swung at them with my wand, bashing so many slimes with it the pages were stained green. Finally the last slime disappeared and I was left alone in the dark, broken house. I collapsed to my knees, panting and shaking as a glittering card drifted to the floor in front of me. I grabbed it, doubling over as screaming filled my ears. It took me a moment to realize the screaming was me, repeating the same phrase over and over and over and over—
Collect them all.
Kids? Dammit you two, this isn’t funny anymore! Don’t die on me now!
I don’t know how long I sat on the floor of the Wourie house, but when I came back to myself there were deep gouges in the floor, stained with blood and slime. My hands were shaking and covered in scratches, my nails mangled beyond belief. The card was gone, and I could only assume I’d put it in my album whilst unaware. Furniture was overturned and shattered against the walls, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was real. There’s no way I did this, right?
I staggered to my feet, downing a health potion and shivering as the tingle of healing magic spread to my hands. I tucked away the empty vial on my belt, staggering back into the sunlight. I flinched when I noticed everyone watching me with worry and fear in their eyes, surrounding the door in a half-moon. I shivered feeling their glares on me, knowing that while this was normal, it was still strange to feel them all at once. Too intimidated to talk to any of the adults, I pulled Harry aside. Unprompted, he began to speak. “Hey Tyler........when me n’ Jonathan grow up, we’re gonna be just like Luke n’ Shiro! They’re just like you......but without the mean streak.” I flinched backwards, eyes wide. I always knew I was meaner than Luke, but to hear it laid out so matter-of-fact by his brother wasn’t something I’d been expecting. Speaking of Shiro, I turned to her next and almost fell over at the glassy, distant look in her eyes.
“Tyler, why do you have to do this? Why can’t you just be happy with what you have?” she pleaded. I gaped soundlessly at her, mouth opening and closing like a fish, before I turned tail and ran. I couldn’t handle this, not so soon after seeing Jason and Theo alive again. Alive, and treating me like an equal. Like a friend. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going, so when I stumbled into the abandoned house across from mine, I was shocked to find Tanaka already there.
“Ah, Tyler, there you are! Let’s practice Perfect Guarding, okay? Goddess knows you need the training. And hey, if you Perfect Guard hard enough, you might be able to bring back Charlotte!” he said cheerfully, his tone so at odds with his words that I stopped dead in my tracks. This turned out to be the worst possible thing I could’ve done, as the floor around me quickly crumbled to dust. I was left standing on a platform barely wide enough to put my feet on, surrounded by ghostly enemies. Startled as I was, I was barely able to get my shield up in time to block the ethereal Rabby flying at my face. Tanaka’s praise was drowned out by my own panicked breathing as more and more ghosts rushed at me.
Finally, they stopped, and I turned my attention back to Tanaka. “Pathetic. You want to bring back Charlotte, don’t you? Focus! You’re depriving Shiro of her mother!” he snarled, waving his hand again. Once more, the ghosts were upon me, more and faster than before. I couldn’t keep up, my shield’s barrier collapsing under the assault. I fell to my knees, unable to keep standing. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?! You useless child, it’s no wonder you got your mother killed! Everything you touch ends in ruin. Why won’t you help me get my wife back?!” Tanaka shrieked at me, eyes glowing in his hatred.
A shadow burst out of the sleeve with his missing arm, solidifying into a new arm with a staff. He levelled the staff at me, the tip glowing green. “Block this, or you die, like the worthless child you are,” he said coldly. Desperately, I raised my shield, cowering behind it like a frightened child. The glowing ball of magic ricocheted off of my shield despite the fact that I knew I hadn’t Perfect Guarded, impacting Tanaka and blowing a hole in the wall. Tanaka screamed, imploding in a flash of light and leaving behind a small wooden shield. The floor returned, though it too was broken and dingy like the Wourie household. Carefully, I picked my way through the rubble and scooped up the shield.
Come on! We’ve come too far for you to give up now. Please, wake up!
Once again, everyone was surrounding the door, with one notable exception. Tanaka, though I had just seen him die, was standing right there with his arm protectively holding Shiro’s shoulders as they shook. “Y-You! I saw you die!” I spluttered, pointing at Tanaka. He looked surprised for a moment, before glaring at me.
“You saw me in that house? I was out here the whole time, comforting my daughter. Why must you constantly lie?!” he snarled. Shiro flinched slightly, the motion drawing my attention to her. Shiro never flinched, she was as fearless as they come. What I saw......it was more horrifying than any monster. Her face was wan and pale, dark shadows under her eyes showing like bruises. Her eyes were a dull, glassy blue, more like a doll’s eyes than anything belonging on a human.
“Tyler......just stop this..... please. Can’t you see? You’re hurting us!” she whispered, pleading. The words rang hollow though, like wind rasping through a rotting log. I flinched back, her voice shaking me to the core. Frantically I glanced around the circle, almost screaming when I laid eyes on Jason and Theo. Where they were once healthy, now they looked like they should be in the hospital. Jason’s face was a mess of burned, half-scarred skin, hanging on by a thread. One of his eyes was sealed shut, and every breath came in a rasping, rattling wheeze. Theo wasn’t much better, his face and arms covered in branching wounds weeping pus. His eyes were clouded, red and weeping from burst blood vessels, and he kept twitching. A wet cough sounded from behind me, and I glanced down to see Jonathan collapsed on the ground, heaving for breath.
I wanted to scream. Everyone was looking at me in disgust, the same way they did when Mom was arrested. Like I was tainted, ruining everything just by existing. I wanted to burn them all, but one look at Jason stopped me, a harsh reminder of what happens when I lose myself to the flames. Instead, I just barreled through them again, needing to get away. I found myself in Luke’s house, the floor taken up by two beds and a massive keystone puzzle. A statue from Tai Ming blocked one corner of the puzzle, smiling serenely like my whole world wasn’t crashing down around my ears.
I took a second to catch my breath, noticing the keystone rune was right next to the spot it needed to be. I pushed it, and.....nothing. I heard a scraping noise, but the rune didn’t move. Instead, another block appeared to have moved up. Curious, I made my way to the block, the quiet puzzle solving calming my nerves. I pushed it to the right, hearing more scraping. The block didn’t move, and neither did the rune, but the third block had, scooting to the right. “Oh, I see how it is....” I muttered softly, sighing and scooting around the statue. I pushed the third block to the right, but nothing happened. I smacked my forehead.
Of course, the rune block is stuck. Instead, I pushed down on the third block, hearing the scraping. I went back to the rune, pushing it to the left so I could get at the other side of the second block. Once there, I pushed up on the second block, freeing the third from its confinement. One more hard shove, and the keystone was in place. It flashed again, just like Not-Tanaka had, imploding and taking the form of a wooden sword. I picked this one up, now a bit better prepared for the darkness that washed over the house.
Kids, please.......Please! I can’t lose you too. Going on this adventure with you two, no matter how rough, it......it’s.....it’s the most fun I’ve had in years. And when I say years, I don’t mean two, or ten, or twenty. I mean a literal thousand. So please.....
When I left, everyone was gone. All that remained was a black-robed Bishop, standing near the well. All the houses were broken down and abandoned, looking more like the ones in Tai Ming than the true Startington. It was then I realized the truth of the nightmare I’d been trapped inside. I walked to the Bishop, wordlessly turning over the three items I’d picked up. I hesitated over the card, but a flash of phantom pain in my hands had me almost ripping it off the page. They examined the items silently, before turning their face towards me. “For most, this spell is inescapable. A paradise, tailored to their every want and desire, where their heart finds solace.” I said nothing. “And yet.....you tore through it like paper,” they added, voice amused.
I shrugged, laughing hollowly. “It was too good to be true. What really tipped me off.......it was too perfect. I mean.......once you’re dead, there’s no coming back, right?” I muttered, exhausted. The Bishop eyed me for a minute, saying nothing. Then, without responding, they tossed the items in the air, and the illusion crumbled around us. I closed my eyes against the flash of the light, and opened them to Bag sitting on the ground next to me, weeping quietly.
“—wake up!” he begged, like he was on the verge of a breakdown. I sat up slowly, joints stiff. He jerked back, eyes widening and what I swore would be a blush if he were human on his cloth face. “Tyler! You, uh.......well. If you heard someone who sounds like me saying some sappy shit, you ignore it, okay?” he said, looking away from me. I laughed, too drained to properly tease him about it.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t hear anything,” I assured him. I glanced over, eyes widening when I saw Shiro collapsed against the wall. She was breathing, thankfully, but she wasn’t moving. Did she get trapped in the same spell as me? If so then......would she be able to break free? If what the Bishop had said was the truth, then......there wasn’t much hope. Apparently, I was only able to break through because I knew the fantasy was just that—a fantasy. Shiro, blessed as she had been, wouldn’t be so lucky. For her, the fantasy would feel more and more like her normal life, and I wouldn’t be able to help her from out here. I didn’t have time to sit around and wait though, as Luke was already ahead of us and probably had the artifact already. I had to go on alone. I stood, clenching my fists to hide the shaking. “Bag, anything you hold goes in stasis, right?” I asked, voice dull.
“Yeah, but what......no. Kid, no! We have to wait for her to wake up!” he snapped. My shoulders tensed, and I turned to glare at him.
“There’s no time! You heard what Captain Bones said, Luke already has the artifact! We have to get it back, we have to stop him!” I yelled, voice cracking. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes, hot and desperate. “Please, Bag, just do this one thing for me. I don’t want to leave her here, but......I can’t lose Luke too. I.....I know Tanaka is right, about what magic does to you. I’ve felt it for a while, but I ignored it. That spell, it made me realize what I’ve done, what I’ve become.” I hiccuped, scrubbing my eyes roughly on the sleeve of my pilfered kimono, probably staining the silk. “I saw Jason and Theo again, Bag. I saw them, alive, and then......then I saw what I made them. I don’t wanna be the reason any more people die, so please....” I begged, dropping to my knees. “Please let me save them!”
He was silent for a long moment. I didn’t dare to look up, in case I saw disgust in his beady eyes. But finally, finally, he sighed. “Alright kid, but be gentle. I can hold her in stasis, but that only starts once she’s actually inside,” he warned, opening wide. The mouth of the bag stretched wider than I thought possible, and I carefully carried Shiro over, using a few thornless vines to lighten the load. Once she was safely inside, Bag closed his top again. “Okay. Looks like I’m riding with you, so get ready,” he warned. I nodded, straightening up. He hopped up onto my belt, attaching next to my own, less powerful bag. I sniffled, wiped my eyes again, and steeled my resolve.
It was raining on the deck, the harsh winds plastering my kimono to my arms. I bemoaned the work I’d have to do to fix it, but I didn’t have time to think about that now. I was too focused on Luke, who was staring out to see like he wanted to jump in. “Luke!” I called out, shouting to be heard over the wind. He turned to me, a wide smile on his face, but it felt..... wrong somehow.
“Oh, hey Tyler! Say, do you uh.....do you have a Teleportation Thingy? I lost mine, and now.....I’m stuck!” he shouted back. I moved closer, shivering slightly.
“Yeah, we have one. Be willing to trade for an ancient artifact, whaddya say?” Bag said, eyeing Luke’s wrist. Only then did I notice the gaudy golden bracelet adorning it, the chunky jewelry looking more like a too-tight shackle on Luke’s muscular arm.
“An artifact? Yeah I have one of them, but um.....” Luke trailed off, looking embarrassed. “We’ve kinda become pals, and.....I don’t really wanna give her up. That’d be a crappy thing to do to a friend, y’know?” he asked. My heart clenched, and I grit my teeth.
“She’s not gone, just sleeping,” I reminded myself, focusing back on the conversation. “She’s not your friend, Luke! The artifact, she’s possessing you! She’s messing with your mind!” I cried. He stopped, eyes wide.
“My.....mind?” he said. Suddenly, his face morphed into a scowl. “That’s rich, coming from you! Besides, she’s the closest thing I have to a family!” he snarled. I froze, a wave of anger roaring in my ears.
“You HAVE a family, you ungrateful BASTARD!” I screamed, seeing red. Almost without my bidding, a charged Fireball slammed into the pillar behind him, flames sputtering in the sheets of rain. He stumbled back, shocked. “Give me the bracelet, or I’ll take it from you by force,” I snarled, glaring at him as the heat dried my sleeves just as fast as the rain soaked them.
“By.......force?” Luke muttered, shoulders shaking. He threw his head back, eyes alight with a mad glint I’ve only ever seen in the mirror, and started to cackle. “Force! That’s a great idea!” he laughed, before flinging his axe at me with such speed I felt it cut a few hairs off my ponytail that didn’t get out of the way in time. The axe impacted one of the masts, the wood splintering loudly. “I’ll make a stage, and it’ll be like a real boss fight!” he said giddily, calling the axe back to his hand. If I hadn’t known already that Luke wasn’t himself, that alone would’ve raised enough red flags to open a carnival. Luke never used magic, not even to get his weapon back. Called it “cheating”, stubborn bastard never carried potions for the same reason.
One more time, I tried to appeal to reason. “Luke, we don’t have to fight! Just give me the artifact, and we can both go home!” I pleaded. He laughed, brushing his hair out of his face with one hand.
“Leave?! But this is finally my chance! I’ve been wanting to fight you since we all became Collectors!” he said, and honestly I believed him. “And since you’re one of my very best friends.....” he said, twirling his axe. “......I won’t hold back!”
I’m not sure how long it took, but I finally managed to beat him. Luke collapsed to one knee, clothing smoking slightly where I'd singed him with flames. “Luke, it’s over. Give me the bracelet,” I said softly, reaching a hand out. His grip tightened on the handle of his axe, and he struggled to his feet.
“Over? I’m just getting started!” he snarled, artifact gleaming. He reared back and screamed, a ghostly figure appearing behind him. I swore violently, quickly chugging a health potion and preparing to fight for my life. I hit him with a Fireball, and he stumbled before charging me again. After about twenty minutes of running, hiding, potions, and potshots, I finally managed to make him stop again. He collapsed once more, wheezing quietly.
“Luke, please! Just give up kid, the only thing keeping you going is that artifact! Without it, you wouldn’t just be defeated, you’d be dead!” Bag yelled, a barely-detectable pain in his voice. Luke paused, looking up.
“What? The bracelet......is keeping me going?” he muttered. I tensed as he glanced at it, eyes hard.
“Uh, yeah? I told you, ‘with me on your side you need not ever fear the Reaper, for my power dulls his scythe eternal,’” said a new voice. Luke blinked, staring at his wrist.
“I don’t even know what half those words mean!” he complained. The bracelet sighed, rolling its eyes.
“You can’t die! Not while I’m helping you!” it bragged. Luke froze, glaring at the artifact.
“You mean......you’ve been helping me cheat?!” he snarled, ripping it off his wrist. I screamed out to stop him, but too little, too late. Luke collapsed, limp on the deck. Frantically, I rushed over to the bracelet, trying to shove it back on him.
“It’s too late! My power only holds things together, not puts them together again!” the bracelet yelled, voice muffled by my frantic attempts. I tossed it aside, shaking Luke frantically. He didn’t move, and at a last-ditch attempt at healing him, I poured the rest of my healing potion down his throat. I waited with bated breath but......nothing. I screamed in rage, scooping up the bracelet and running to the side of the ship, ready to hurl it over the edge. My eyes were blinded by tears, shoulders tensed as I prepared to get rid of the thing that destroyed the boy I loved.
“Tyler, wait!” Bag yelled. “You throw that thing over the edge, then what? It washes up on shore in another hundred years to ruin some other sap’s day?!” he yelled. I clenched my eyes shut tight, hands shaking. “Tanaka was wrong, kid! Gathering these artifacts.....nothing good can come of it! We need to get them all together and destroy them!” he shouted. I froze, slowly lowering my arm.
“You’re right.....” I muttered, voice cold. “I don’t care what Tanaka does. I don’t care who tries to stop me. I’ll destroy every single one of those artifacts, even if I have to become a monster to do it......” I said softly, tucking the bracelet into my own bag. I didn’t want that thing anywhere near Shiro, even in stasis. “Bag, I’m sorry, but I need to ask you one more favor.....” I whispered, glancing over at Luke’s body. Thankfully, Bag understood without me having to put it into words. He hopped off my belt and opened wide, allowing me to carefully lower Luke’s burned body inside. I sniffled quietly, wiping my eyes. I knew I had to get going, but......for now, I let myself grieve for the friends I’d lost today.
I was never coming back to this accursed ship.