Jon sat by himself in the end of the world, and tried to think of nothing.
It had been a lot easier to pretend that he wasn’t aware of something he knew to be true before his mind had become wired directly to the god of secrets and knowledge. He thought with melancholy of his early days at the Archive, when he clung to the veneer of a skeptic, even as it became increasingly stupid to pretend that the statements he read were not real. Now, the best he could manage was to avoid certain thoughts, for denying anything that came from Knowing was as antithetical to what he was as letting go of the guilt he felt about ending the world.
It hadn’t been that bad, once. (It had always been bad).
He hadn’t always been alone. (Don’t think of him, he never existed.)
At least he wasn’t hungry. (A lie. The being which had merged itself with him didn’t know how to be nothungry, and even when he lost all sense of himself and drowned in the fear of thousands, he still emerged with that ragged edge of more and want and that door in his mind was wide open and he could be everywhere and everyone and feel just about anything and-)
It had gotten worse. He hadn’t thought it possible, but it was the truth. It had been… months? Years? Time had lost much of its meaning, and yet the Eye still tried to let him Know, as best as it could, just how long it had been since time had last meant anything. It would have given him a better estimate, except that he had stupidly gotten lost in one of Helen’s doors, after she offered to help them take down Elias.
Neither him nor the Eye could say how long he had been there, because in the context of a world in which all the entities were merged with reality, there was literally no way for time to make sense in the Spiral’s domain, even when Jon and the Eye tried desperately to make it so. The best they could do was to get him thrown out of there, eventually.
He had never seen Basira again. (But he Know where she was.)
He had seen Martin again, but never for long. (He missed him more than he could bear.)
He’d tried to kill Helen, to little effect. All she had to do was stay away, and there was nothing he could do to compel her when she couldn’t hear his voice. He tried to understand why she had betrayed them, but as ever, understanding the Spiral was an exercise in futility, even for him. Especially for him.
He’d tried to save them. (A joke. He had never been a hero. He was even less of one now.)
He’d failed. Every time. His ill-conceived rescues only made everything worse. (He was so tired of trying.)
It turned out that Knowing where they were, and how they were suffering, didn’t mean he had any means to get to them or, worse, to keep them safe.
Because in the world he had brought forth, safety had as little meaning as time.
He lost himself, then, for a while. It was easier to let go of the threads of his self when he started to drown in self-hatred and loneliness. Once, there had been someone to hold him, to make it worth the effort to return. Anymore, Jon had a hard time convincing himself there was any point to fighting all that the Eye was more than happy to stuff into his brain.
He was walking, and he couldn’t remember when he had started, or where he was going. He couldn’t remember if he was asleep and dreaming—except he knew he didn’t sleep anymore, so that couldn’t be the case. He continued walking, trying to figure out if it was himself who was walking, or if something else was moving him. The fear that made his limbs go cold was all in the flavor of the Web, and with the memory of a certain Mr.Spider and his door.
He stopped moving, and only then realized it really had been his own decision, though the fear of being moved still clung to him. How unfair, he thought idly, a familiar thought, that I made this whole travesty of a world possible, and I am still not immune to the fears I heralded.
More than that, however, his thoughts had gotten stuck elsewhere. Despite everything, or more likely because of it, he hadn’t really thought about his childhood encounter with the Web in a long time. Not since before the world ended, really. There had been so many other things to worry about and obsess over than a single Leitner book which could only take a single victim at a time.
He wondered if the world wouldn’t have been better off had he just gone in that door. Would it have hurt all that much? It would have been terrifying, of course—there was no point to it otherwise. But really, in the grand scheme of things, getting eaten by a giant spider over the course of, what, a few hours at worse, didn’t seem all that bad.
The thought stayed, and over the next few stretches of lucidity wouldn’t leave Jon for more than a few minutes at a time. The Eye, helpfully, let him Know that it still existed, in a broken-down little bookshop in London. Jon tried to ignore it, but in truth he had little else to distract himself with. Maybe he could go get it and burn it, for an insignificant amount of satisfaction?
It wasn’t like he was had anything better to do. (Nothing that would make things better. Nothing would ever be better, and knowing himself he’d only find a way to make things worse.)
As he made his way towards that abandoned book shop and the little book that had first set him on his cursed path, he began to have an idea. It was a terrible idea. It was an idea that Jon, in his right mind, would never have entertained.
Jon hadn’t been in his right mind for a very long time.
The crux of the matter was that Jon really, really didn’t want to keep going. Alone, forever, watched and watching, with only different flavors of fear to break the monotony of terror that had become the world.
A part of him was disgusted that he was thinking of giving up. (His friends, he Knew, were still alive, if out of his reach. Could anyone really die anymore, if the entities who played with them did not wish for them to?)
Another part of him felt it was futile, that there was no way Beholding would ever release its Archive now that it had what it wanted. (Only the Eye never interfered with anything he did, except to watch).
The largest part of him started to feel a sickly hope. The trick of it was the never-ending competition between the entities. Even now, with them all an integral part of reality, their avatars still plotted and fought against each other, and all of them against the Eye, which by the nature of Elias’ ritual had come to exist above them all. It meant, ironically, that in this world, it was the avatars who were in real danger of death, or whatever permanent end could be reached in this reality.
Jon had thought about this before. The other avatars had little affection for him, but they preferred to toy with him rather than risk his death. None of them were willing to risk having something go wrong because of his death, seeing as the ritual had been summoned by him. They would throw him into endless mazes, trick him into houses filled with people who looked like friends but were decidedly not human, burn down buildings where he tried to hide the couple of times he had reached someone he knew and tried to help them. Hunted, always, but never with the intent to kill.
With a Leitner book, though… there was no real will behind those, was there? Nothing beyond what it was created to do. If Jon didn’t fight it, was it possible that it could kill him? Out of all the other entities, the Web was the one that had marked Jon the earliest, the one he suspected had a far deeper hand in what he had become than he was aware of. Not that even the Eye could tell him the depth of its involvement.
He stood in front of the half-collapsed building for what felt like hours, too scared to commit and go in or to change his mind and leave. Contradictory thoughts refused to leave him alone; he was the only hope his friends had—which amounted to nothing since hope was false and nothing he could do would work. He might be able to find a way to reverse the ritual, as Martin had tried—only Martin was the only one who had ever believed it could work, and look where it landed him.
(He had to spend another length of time on his knees, throwing up and crying, at everything he Knew Martin to be living through now, so far away he might as well be on another planet.)
For all Jon knew, all those other avatars had a point, and his death was the thing that would finally undo this nightmare. It felt… poetic. There was no flash of Knowing that let him know if his thoughts were true or not, but he figured there wouldn’t be. How could the Eye know what would happen, when nothing like this had ever happened before?
And if it didn’t work, well, it wouldn’t leave him all that worse off, would it?
(His imagination, now ripe with the terrors of thousands, supplied many scenarios which would, truly, be much worse. He chose to ignore them.)
When he stood back up, he was almost sick with the desire to see it all end. He was too weak to do any good, he knew. He would have to hope that his death did what he alive couldn’t, and that someone else would figure it out if it didn’t.
He just wanted it all to stop.
And if he couldn’t save his friends, save… save his love, then he would rather not be alive in a world where he couldn’t escape from his mistakes.
He knew that made him a coward, on top of everything else. He couldn’t bring himself to care.
He found the book easily, picked it out of a bookshelf that hadn’t been buried in rubble when the rest of the building had fallen. He flinched when he first touched it, as the feeling of a thousand little legs crawling up his spine warned him of its nature. As if he didn’t already know.
It looked familiar, but not exactly how he remembered it. It had grown in his memory into something ominous and terrifying, but holding it in his hand now, it looked like any other children’s book. Well, any other children’s book where the eyes drawn all over the spider cartoon on the back stared back at him, intent.
Maybe its my standard for ominous and terrifying that has become unreasonable, he thought, half-smirking. He felt calmer now than he had standing outside, and a little more pessimistic. He had survived so much already, become the Archive of fear that Elias had named him. It seemed silly, with the children’s book in his hands, to believe that it could end him where so many other things could not.
He turned the book over in his hands, pressing one finger down against the web design on its cover, tracing the letters of its title. Silly or not, he knew he was going to do it. For the first time in what felt like forever, he felt a measure of peace. Here, he had made a decision. He wasn’t wandering aimlessly, waiting for the next time he succumbed to the monstrous nature he had adopted.
He always felt better when he had a goal in mind, even if that goal was to get eaten by a giant spider.
The story was exactly as Jon had remembered it. Static rose and a tape recorder clicked on, as his mouth opened without any intention on his part, and he began to read out loud. His hands were steady as he turned the pages, and he didn’t try to fight any of it.
“Knock Knock,” he started, his voice shifting. “Who is it, Mr. Spider?”
Jon can almost see himself in the face of the anxious fly on the next page. “It’s Mr.Bluebottle, and he’s brought you a cake. Mr. Spider Doesn’t like it.”
Jon can’t help his eyes from hovering over the stains below the door in the book, a distant part of him wondering if that’s all he’ll be, soon. He feels the faintest brush of fear, familiar, but he’s caught up in the performance, and still riding the wave of sick hope, that this will work, that the Web will decide to take him as a way to hurt the Eye.
“Knock Knock,” he continues, “Who is it, Mr. Spider?” And this time it’s Martin’s face he sees when he looks at the fly’s frightened face. He would have stopped then, if he had been able to. “It’s Mrs. Fruit, and she’s brought you some flowers.” It didn’t mean anything, did it? It couldn’t. Martin was nowhere nearby, and he wasn’t in the grasp of the Web. This was just- it was just the book messing with him. It was just-
“Mr. Spider doesn’t eat flowers.” It was just his own messed up brain, and he was already half-crazy and he would Know if he had just somehow gotten Martin killed, wouldn’t he?
The stains on the spider’s mouth draws his attention now, and his hand shake as he turns the page.
“Knock knock. Who is it, Mr. Spider?” The two flies in this page look like Tim and Sasha, and he almost feels relief. They were long dead, weren’t they? It really was all just in his mind, and didn’t mean anything-
But they had all been pawns of the Web, and sacrificed for its design and Beholding’s ascension.
Jon wants to throw up. He wishes he had never opened the damn book. To think he had believed he could find any kind of comfort in this world. He truly was stupid, and incapable of ever learning his lessons.
“It’s Mr.Horse, and he’s brought you his son.” The words feel raw in his throat. He goes to the next page, the static louder, his mind frantically fighting back, finally. This was stupid. This was a mistake.
The entities have no concept of mercy. Things can only ever get worse.
“Mr.Spider wants more.” He turns the pages, unable to look away. The grey threads in the page extend past its boundaries and go everywhere, including a thick one straight into Jon’s chest, which splinters into a thousand small threads that are tied up all around Jon. Had that always been there?
“Mr.Spider wants another guest for dinner. It is polite to knock.” He finishes the words of the last cutaway panel. His body aches, painfully, as though he’s just finished swimming for his life, and when he looks up, he’s not surprised to see a door on the side of the bookstore that had not been there before. When his bully had read it, he had to follow him for hours before they had come to the door. He supposes the Web doesn’t have to be nearly so patient, now.
His feet move him to the door, and Jon Knows that he is caught. He swallows, tries to open his mouth, tries to use the power that he usually curses, but his mouth stays shut, his words dead in his chest. He can feel every unnatural twitch of his muscles, every forced movement, and though he tries to remember that it had been his idea, he can’t help his instinctive struggle, the growing horror of knowing exactly what was happening, and that there was nothing he could do about it.
His hand lifts, all on its own, and pauses just over the doorway. Savoring his fear. Creating torture from anticipation and doubt. Jon knows it’s a trap, but he still clings to that pause, tries to pull his arm away.
He can feel his god Watching, and curses its uselessness, because of course it wouldn’t interfere, not when it was being fed. His knuckles push forward and tap twice on the door.
The door opens.
Jon’s eyes widen. Thin, black, hairy limbs reach for him, at the same time that a familiar, inhumanly large and pointed hand does. He barely has time to think Helen? Before each grabs him by an arm and pull him inside.