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Roots

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It seemed so long ago now, but he remembered wanting to be a dancer.

He never had a particular need to be good at it. It just came naturally. The hard work, the sweat, the pain. A chance not to express himself, but to step away from his life at home. It helped that Noah Fennel was in the same class, who always offered a warm smile and conversation he wasn’t good at returning. It helped that sometimes, they’d go out for ice cream.

It helped him ignore the fact that he would have to go home to the smell of alcohol and sunken eyes. Staring, always staring, at the screen of the TV. His dad did that on good days. His dad would make him bleed on bad ones. Pain was never temporary. It always lingered, somewhere in his body. It made him feel alive, even as a withering part of him hoped and prayed for a savior. One that would never come.

So dancing became an escape. And for a time, it was enough.

Until it wasn’t.

He didn’t bother keeping track of the days anymore, but he remembered the first time he had picked up a knife and sunk it into the flesh of his leg. It was horrible, and painful, and it made him scream.

He loved it.

It was easy to keep it a secret. Long-sleeves and sweaters wrapped him in lies, lies that he told his classmates. Lies that he told the dance studio. Lies that he told Noah. He never needed to lie to his dad, just because he never asked.

The pain was better. It was just like dancing. It was his, not his dad’s or anybody else's. It made him feel more alive than anything else had. It even made him feel human, sometimes. Human enough to schedule a faraway time to hang out with Noah and his friends.

And for a time, he figured that he’d get there. That he’d be a whole person, one day.

Then his dad found out.

He didn’t remember what he was angrier about. The dancing? The wounds? It didn’t seem to matter so much when he was curled up on the floor, a tiny part of him telling him that he was going to die.

It wasn’t the pain that bothered him. It was the fact that before, he felt that it made him stronger. He didn’t feel that way as his vision clouded and began to turn black.

And then he passed out. Then he woke up.

And as he gazed around the bathroom, he knew his life was over.

Ned somehow knew that his life as Ned was over when his dad was scattered across the room, in pieces. When teeth were no longer flat, but sharp. Sharp enough to tear into someone's throat.

A part of him said, then, that he could hurt himself as much as he wanted now. And he would be stronger.

It felt good. It felt bad. He wouldn’t be able to dance with Noah after this.

But those regrets had already been fading.

Crawler laughed as he charged forward. He was stronger.

And he dared someone to hurt him, now.


========================================

The Grafton Monster remembered blood.

It had been a warm summer in nineteen eighty-three when she had gotten her powers. She remembered begging her mom not to pull her from her college Aerobics class, the one with Scott Brown. She remembered feeling ridiculous that she was still in college while all of her friends were married, or had jobs, or were happy in some other nebulous, unknowable way.

She remembered waking up in the forest, as the demon chased her. Alice remembered embracing the monster. The need to be feared, for once in her fucking life.

And as she charged towards Crawler and Mannequin, she remembered The Nine.

And she wondered if they would remember her.

But she had a decision to make.

Rattlesnake and Fox?

Slim, fast, good at precise strikes. Not good at defense. One hit and The Monster would be nearly dead, then she’d have to turn back. Then there wouldn’t be anything stopping the two from finishing the job.

Bat and Owl?

The Monster would be able to fly well. But then what? She doubted it could carry everyone off fast enough without something going wrong. And she wouldn’t let it leave them here alone. She couldn’t.

Bear and Wolf?

It would have to do. She had collected meat from the latter for just such an occasion.

A small and terrible part of herself told her that it wouldn’t be enough, even as she fell into darkness and became one with The Monster.

Changing in Santa Mosemar always hurt. But the rush always made it better.

This form, she adored the most. It offered size, her body covered with a thick black and shaggy fur that did nothing to hide the red glow of her eyes, connected to a wolf-like snout. Three powerful limbs held three powerful, steel-like claws. A fourth limb was smaller, only the width of a barrel compared to the tree-trunks her other limbs were, but it was more dextrous and sported sharper claws. Sharp and powerful enough to easily cut through stone.

Act. Act.

The collision with Crawler rocked her to her very core, and she allowed a small amount of surprise to cross her mind as she began to push him back, almost too easily. She swiped at a charging Mannequin as an afterthought, snarling as his body contorted into a ring shape, easily evading her.

Blacklight paused, gave her a fierce nod, and took off after Mannequin, his body shifting black as he became more and more dense. She didn’t blame him.

She could handle this.

Crawler laughed as she attempted to tear him apart, pushing himself into her further with a deep and ugly graveling cackle, as if to egg her on. Her claw sunk into some parts of his hide easily, while most parts resisted her full stop. It reminded her, briefly, of trying to rip kevlar in two with her bare hands. Or her single claw, in this case.

She could handle this.

And even if she couldn’t, that wasn’t a reason not to try.

But Crawler wasn’t so easily stopped. He regained his footing at once, biting into her shoulder. Pain had always been dulled and she had always been tougher when she became The Monster, yet the acid in his jaws was painful enough for her to rip her shoulder away and leave behind burning flesh. She screamed, the sound turning into a roar as it left her mouth.

Then the hunger came, impatient and vile, and she had to resist the urge to sink her jaws into his flesh and eat. To find purchase in black hide and rotted blood, to become something stronger-

“Graf!” Blacklight shouted, somewhere behind her. “Focus!”

Of course. She must have been getting too deep. The Monster inside of her smiled.

She made a point to thank Blacklight later. If they fucking survived.

Yet she couldn’t ignore how his voice was shrill and desperate. Afraid. She wanted nothing more than to turn around and help.

She pushed herself forward, telling herself that Blacklight could handle himself. That she could devour Crawler whole, and she’d be better than he ever was.

She listened.

Grafton crouched, ignoring the bits of acid still slowly eating away at her skin, and charged. Crawler stood still, seemingly ready to receive her attack full force.

Except she wasn’t attacking.

She collided with him, and pushed him back again. She made it a point to push him further and further, the dirt underneath them splitting as they struggled. In terms of strength, she only barely overpowered him, but it was enough to bring him to the edge of the forest and slam him into a tree, feeling satisfaction as it was crushed under their combined weight.

Crawler tore into her the entire time, taking chunks of flesh out of her as they moved, but never enough to stop her. She was suddenly very glad that she was so hard to hurt. To kill.

Hard. But not impossible.

She darted towards a tree as Crawler stumbled, ripping it from the ground just as he righted himself and hurling it his way.

The tree splintered into dozens of pieces as it met his hide. Crawler offered her a chuckle and pawed the ground. She did the same, glancing to the side.

And she didn’t like what she saw.

The van she had been sleeping in not even ten minutes before was now a mangled wreck of metal Architect was using to entrap and crush the cherry red spiders, two or three at a time being killed.

More and more emerged from the ground, Poltergeist doing his best to push them away while Blacklight and Sam, now Script, did their best to keep Mannequin busy. Grafton could see the frustration in Sam’s face from here. Their power wasn’t any good, not against Mannequin.

“Your claws bite deep.”

Her momentary distraction was interrupted by a pacing Crawler, mouth set into a monstrous grin as he began to circle her, his tone undeniably giddy. Even wanting. Grafton moved to keep herself in between him and the rest of the action. If he noticed, he didn’t care. The multitude of black orbs that passed for eyes were focused only on her.

She didn’t answer. Partly because it was hard to do when she was The Monster, and mostly because she wasn’t up to talking.

So instead, she charged. Hoping to push him further into the forest. Mannequin was good, and the spiders seemed troublesome, but Crawler was undeniably the heavy hitter. With him out of the picture, her family stood a chance.

They met in a clash of fang and claw, yet pushing him back was harder. He bit and clawed at her side and legs, threatening to topple her as pain began to flare again. She fought past it, an idea forming.

This wasn’t working. But why fight when she could kill?

She only wished she had taken something stronger than a wolf. And yet, more than anything, she knew now wasn’t the time for regrets.

She began to claw at his head, unable to find purchase except in a few choice spots. Namely, his eyes.

But that would have to do. With every wound she made, she pushed deeper, doing her best to not give them time to heal. Crawler tore into her body all the while, the acid in his jaws eating away at her fur, then her skin, then the muscle underneath. One leg gave out, forcing her to stumble. She turned that stumble into a roll however, pinning Crawler underneath her and continuing to dig deeper and deeper into his skull.

In the back of her mind, she could hear Crawler scream for more, his laughter loud enough to make her ears ring.

She laughed too. Tear, rip, laugh. It became unclear whose blood was whose. She felt herself get closer and closer as her body began to shut down, her vision turning blurry and her remaining teeth threatening to shatter as she bit.

The Monster sang, and it was home. If only-

A scream pierced the air.

The Monster looked lazily to the side, its vision failing.

Her blood ran cold.

It wasn’t the fact that Blacklight was no longer moving, or the fact that Cody’s arm was twisted and mangled in a way that made her feel sick.

It was the fact that they were on one of Evelyn’s platforms, speeding off and away. They raced towards the town, even as Mannequin chased after them, most of the spiders following after him and screaming.

They left her.

A twisted familiarity tore its way to her mind. Of camping with friends in college. Of being left in the woods, as a prank.

Of losing an arm to a killer, deep in the woods. Of being forced to eat meat, raw, until he was satisfied.

She had been alone then. And she was alone now.

And she was reminded of just how alone she was as Crawler’s claw pierced her chest.

She howled, pained and furious, and quickly began to back away. The spiders that had stayed skittered around her, cutting off her routes of escape and offering their tortured giggles and screams. Crawler himself only stalked forward, eerily silent as she sagged against a tree and attempted to regain control of her body, trying not to panic.

It became nearly impossible once she noticed she was shrinking.

She had no meat, and almost every other animal in the area had been scared off. There was nothing for her to do but wait.

Her body returned to her, moments later, and she sank to a sitting position beneath the canopy of the tree.

Crawler was a king, and his subjects were the twisted and mangled bodies of what she could only assume were the civilians, turned into monsters that held whispering pleas and strangled cries. With every testing step he took, he got close to crushing the cherry red monsters underneath six armored legs. Once or twice, he did.

Grafton glanced up at a red sky and a fading sun, then at the splintered wood and ruptured earth around her.

It was then she knew.

She was going to die.

A part of her couldn’t help but be afraid, but ignored it even as that same part told her to run, to hide. Moving wasn’t an option, not after taking that much damage. And she always figured it was better to go out staring death in the eyes.

It was enough.

She decided to make peace with the fact that Architect had left her behind. Thinking about it, she knew she would have told her to get the others to safety anyway. The fact that Architect had done so without her asking only meant that she saw what Grafton was trying to do. She knew that Grafton had been trying to protect them.

That was enough for her. No need for grudges or regrets.

A long life, lived how she had wanted to live it. That was all anybody could ask for.

She stared at Crawler as he towered over her, acid dripping from his jaws and painting the grass around them black. She smiled up at him, then slowly raised her remaining arm to flash him a very particular finger. If only she had one last whiskey.

She was ready.

Then Crawler spoke.

“Closer than most. That was pain. Real pain.”

She frowned.

“Would’ve gotten you too. All I needed was more time.” she muttered. In the back of her mind, she knew that killing Crawler had only been a distant hope. False Bravado was something she excelled at, however. “Get it over with.”

“Hurt me, then,” Crawler insisted. Even with how monstrous he sounded, she could see a hint of excitement creeping into his voice. “Tear me apart. Crush me. Why wait?”

She scowled. “No meat,” she answered. “No meat. I eat to grow.”

Maybe it was a bad idea telling him any of this at all. But being so close to death gave her perspective.

Was talking always so hard? Every word she spoke brought forth a pain in her chest, dull and aching.

Crawler paced, eyeing her and tilting his head in a pose that was much too similar to a dog for her liking. “Meat?”

She didn’t answer. Instead, she closed her eyes.

Then he spoke again.

“They’re ruining the fun.”

Crawler offered a rumbling growl of curiosity, and she opened her eyes again to see him looking down at the small, disgusting spiders. They giggled and wailed and seemingly waited for some kind of signal to pounce.

Then he began to kill them.

Grafton watched with a hanging jaw as Crawler crushed them, sliced them, even devouring some whole. Splintered bones and crushed meat were all that was left in time, a long dog-like tongue lapping at the mess he made. Did he even need to do that? Had he always had a tongue like that?

Her confusion grew as he turned to one of his legs and stared for a moment. She very nearly asked him what was taking him so long before he suddenly spat acid.

She couldn’t help it. A manic giggle escaped from her lips. Crawler was attacking himself. Melting himself.

A burning hunk of flesh fell to the ground as he tore into the wound and released it, letting out a keenly awful odor that Grafton had no choice but to smell. Like burning rubber and festering shit. She wanted nothing more than to cover her nose.

Then, Crawler pushed both his own hunk of flesh and the flesh of one of the spiders to her, seeming satisfied as they both rolled to a stop just beyond her feet.

She only stared at him, baffled.

“Eat.”

She felt sick.

“Not allowed to kill you,” Crawler continued, the deep rumble in his voice leaning towards disappointment. “But I can have fun with you. I can do that.”

Her mind lingered on ‘not allowed to kill,’ and as she spoke she struggled to find the right words to explain just how fucking confused she was. “I...you’re not allowed?...”

“Eat.”

There was that word again. A demand, really. She stared down at the meat from the cherry-red spider, and fought down the urge to gag.

She wasn’t stupid. The spiders all had human faces. Slicked with blood, but all different enough for her to come to the obvious conclusion.

Never again. She had promised she’d leave that part of herself behind. The thought gave her pause, and enough for Crawler to rumble a warning, impatience somehow clear in his growls.

“Now. Or I lick the flesh from your bones. Then your friends. I can be careful. You’ll still be alive. And you’ll feel every part.”

She panicked, and she wanted to scream. He wasn’t giving her a choice.

She was ready to die. But she wasn’t ready for this.

But she had to be.

With a heave, Grafton pushed herself into a kneeling position, her body begging her to stop, to rest. She ignored it.

The Monster stirred as she fell on her stomach, dragging herself along the ground with her arm and opening her mouth. She had learned a long time ago that if it was flesh of any kind, she could eat it. Holding it would only hurt her. But if she got it near her mouth or her face, she’d be fine. Relatively.

Would the same rule apply here?

She spared one last glance at Crawler as he watched her, a grin forming on his face once more. She silently promised she’d give him as much pain as he wanted she stared at the flesh in front of her. The smell was overwhelming, forcing her eyes to water and drawing gags from her throat.

She was ready. She had to be.

She sank her teeth into the flesh of the spider, and bit back a scream.

It tasted all the parts of rotting meat and inedible waste as she swallowed, and she forced down the urge to spit when the meat burned. She didn’t think as she moved her head to bite Crawlers flesh as well, realizing it to be noticeably harder to chew. But still possible.

Then, as she concentrated, her flesh began to change, and she once again became The Monster.

The form felt wrong, and it hurt even more to draw out. Her arm and legs began to form a jet black carapace even as four more legs sprouted from her sides, ripping through her body and growing larger, larger, yet larger. Mandibles grew, the makings of acid beginning to form from what felt like a million prickle teeth stuffed unevenly inside of her mouth. She kept her hair, and as it cascaded down her face she noted that its usual gray had changed to a cherry red blonde. She didn’t want to think about where the color came from.

She towered at least five feet over Crawler, and she hissed. Her voice felt too much like his own. He barked, and she recognized it as a laugh as he began to speak.

“Now-”

Grafton lurched forward, her form complete.

She hated it. And it was all she had.

Power.

They met in a crash, Grafton skittering to position herself under him and slamming him onto the ground, displacing dirt and grass as they bit and snarled and tore. Grafton wasted no time in violently chewing into Crawler’s neck, even as they both broke and bled. Maybe, if she could fight fast enough, maybe she could end it quickly.

But maybe wasn't good enough.

He laughed, and she screamed.

The form was new, inexperienced. She didn’t know how to move it.

Everything was already falling apart.

An exposed leg was suddenly caught in Crawlers jaws, wrenched away with a spray of pink-white blood. She spat acid at him in return, spurred by the way it ate through his armor. The Monster screamed at her to rip him apart. To tear. To kill.

A flash of pink, blinding, and then-

It was beautiful.

Why was she fighting? What was the point?

An orb of rose and light swirled beautifully, held aloft and illuminating the sky. Vaguely, she could feel the form of Crawler slump in a heap next to her. He must have been looking too. She relaxed, leaning against him.

She had seen this somewhere before, hadn’t she? The first time she found Santa Mosemar. She had been the monster for over a week, and there was a hunger she couldn’t quite place. The local wildlife wasn’t satisfying her anymore. She needed something smarter. A new taste, a different smell. She saw fear in the face of the hunter that tried to kill her, and it had felt delightful.

Then she saw the orb of rose.

She remembered how it saved her. That was the day she woke up, and a girl with full moon glasses was asking if she was okay. As if she needed it. It felt nice to have someone new though. Then she met the rest, and they became her family. Better than the last. Much better.

The orb was a reminder of that.

It was beautiful.

Why was she fighting? What was the point?

An orb of rose and light swirled-


-on? Grafton!”

The Grafton monster blinked twice. And turned.

A crying Sam and a bleeding Mathew were both dry-heaving, leaning on a tree.

Had they come back? Had they been hiding?

She wanted to ask. She wanted to scream at them for being so close to the danger.

And then she saw the creature Sam held in their arms, mewling and friendly.

Poppet. That meant Beatrice. But where?

Her eyes shifted back and forth, landing on Crawler. She hissed and brought one of her claws above herself, raking down into his flesh yet barely piercing. He regenerated near instantly, and she scuttled backwards on six legs, forcing her body to fight, like she had so many times before. She was ready.

In less than a second, he was healed. Better than healed, he was stronger.

And he didn’t move.

Grafton stared him down, her chest heaving as the claws at the end of her legs clicked, waiting. Watching.

Crawler still didn’t move. But he spoke

And his words gave her pause.

“...To dance. I remember that. Made me feel alive, before the pain did it better…”

It took her only a few moments to realize he was still staring at the pink orb, illuminating their surroundings softly. She glanced over to it again, a part of her unsatisfied with the fight, and realized that there was a hunger she couldn’t quite place. The local wildlife wasn’t satisfying her anymore. She needed something-

A pressure pushed against her leg. Small, but uncomfortably hot.

She looked down to see Mathew, and a...machine. It looked somewhat like a turbine, only painted green, and with a central ‘eye’ that looked up at her curiously. Two ‘arms’ attached to its main body, and it floated almost three feet off the ground. The arms emitted a pinkish light that felt like it was burning her skin. Then, she realized it was healing her, slowly, but surely.

Then she heard the machine speak. In Bee’s voice.

“You can’t look at the light,” it said. “If you do, you’ll have to stay put. It won’t let you go. I-I built it that way.”

...What?

“Bee?”

“I’m sorry,” the machine continued, quieter. “I couldn’t stop them. I was...I was working. They caught me by surprise. I’m sorry.”

By surprise. Okay. That explained some things.

It didn’t explain how Bee was talking through a machine. She made small animal fusions. But if that was true, what the hell was she looking at now? And how was it healing her?

It especially didn’t explain why Bee was claiming she ‘built’ the pink light she had seen all those years ago, when she first got to Santa Mosemar.

It didn’t make sense.

However, as Grafton looked at the still mesmerized Crawler, still mumbling and whispering to himself, she figured she could ask questions later.

“Where are you?” Grafton rumbled, eyeing Sam and Mathew. The former had gotten a hold of Poppet again, stroking it and seemingly swallowing down the mess their body threatened to make. Mathew leaned on her leg, and she stood as still as possible to avoid knocking him over as he wheezed and groaned.

The machine didn’t answer, before it clicked once, twice, and Bee’s voice came through again. “In the woods. I...I told Evelyn to run, told her to follow one of my watchdogs somewhere safe, because I had a plan. She didn’t want to leave you alone.”

That made Grafton feel better. She doubted Evelyn would abandon them anyway, but being sure lifted a previously ignored weight from her shoulders.

Then she thought about being ready to die. About being forced to eat the spider.

A younger her would have cried. She was old enough to only be tired.

“-Follow my watchdog,” the machine explained as she began listening again. A pause, and Grafton heard it emulate a nervous giggle. “Um. That’s what I call the robot.”

Grafton hissed, surprising herself, Sam, and Mathew. “You two,” she began, looking down at them. “Why didn’t you leave?”

Mathew only shook his head, and Sam spoke up. “We did. But we...I mean, we couldn’t leave you behind. We figured you’d need help,” they replied, uncertainty staining their voice.

Grafton didn’t need to ask to know that Evelyn hadn’t been happy with that, if Sam’s expression was anything to go by.

Later. Later.

She had to rest.

Grafton nodded, and turned to the robot. “Get us somewhere safe, Bee.”

“I can do that! Just-”

“And,” she cut in, with a rumble. “We will talk. Promise me.”

“...Okay.”

Grafton sagged. It would have to do.

She glanced at Crawler one last time before quietly scooping the last of the flesh he offered into a gnarled claw, limping into the forest after the hovering ‘watchdog’ with Sam and Mathew following her closely, and leaving behind a still mesmerized Crawler.

Things weren’t okay.

And she didn’t think they would ever be again.