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Roots

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She could do nothing but think.

Her memories were a jumbled pile of shit and questions. A mother, with dark hair and a raised hand. Another with blonde hair and a warm smile. Two fathers, no friends and all the friends in the world. Hatred and love, sadness and fear.

There was nothing about them that appealed to her. Even living in the moment was a nightmare. She watched as a little girl in a forest green dress stared at a picture in an isolated workshop, a drawing of a tiny girl and two taller figures with faces scribbled out. The picture was crumpled in a shaking fist, thrown against a wall and forgotten.

She couldn’t feel bad. The little girl was a monster. And she would do anything the little girl asked.

Still, the rush of blood and her fingers passing through flesh made it easy to daydream. Being in the town only made it easier. So they dreamed of a new life. Of watching a movie with a smile, their hand intertwined with someone else's. Of a walk through a park, their eyes turned to the sky. Of a dark and deep place, with no light and no sound, only sleep.

She wondered if she wanted to die. She wondered if wanting to sleep forever was the same thing.

Her daydreams were a net to keep her thoughts inside her head, and even then sometimes they didn’t work. Sometimes, when passing through bodies, she couldn’t think of anything at all. Sometimes she was just a monster too. But at least she was better than the little girl. There was guilt, at the end of it all.

The daydreams didn’t always work, but in the end it was all she had. And as the little girl began to cry, she wondered if all she needed were daydreams of her own.

Sometimes, however, the thoughts became too much.

She would think about how, in the end, the entirety of her existence was a joke. She didn’t know how, but it was. She would think about how much she hated herself, and the world around her for letting any of this happen. 

Sometimes she would beg, scream, for someone to save her. Or kill her. Both and neither. Nobody could listen to a thing with no words.

When the thoughts became too much, she would stop dreaming. Then the blood will fill her mind and her eyes and her mouth and she wouldn’t have to think anymore.

Then she’d do it all over again, because what else could she do?

Murder Rat licked her fingers, crouched in a corner and huffing. The blood would need to come back, sooner or later. 

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

Bee promised them safety, and Sam regretted ever doubting that she would deliver. 

The problem came in the form that ‘safety’ took.

The room she led them to was a strange cross between a shelter and a lab, a massive space filled with strange tinker-like creations and a singular giant drone that floated silently above them, all sleek metal and low buzzing. Sam watched It blink with pink and green lights from a catwalk near the ceiling, an eye-like camera attached to its front following the moves of everyone inside.

The lab itself was bathed in a warm and faint salmon light, and Sam couldn’t help but feel calm under its glow. They didn’t know how they managed to feel anything but a quiet creeping panic, but that was something they could think about after everything was sorted. Or, hopefully, something to not think about at all.

But nothing else was more eye-catching than the people. 

The room was packed with them, and Sam watched them all murmuring and whispering to themselves as they meandered around the lab. Two-hundred, maybe three-hundred people all terrified and lost. Depending on Bee. Some of them seem just as confused about that as Sam was.

But watching them was something to do. And Sam felt like it was a good way to nurture a distraction from the argument happening right next to their ear.

The argument, however, demanded to be heard.

“-All this? This is a lab, Beatrice. Full mad scientist shit. What, did String Theory owe you a favor?”

“I-”

“And don’t think I forgot about that weird pink thing you did. What was that? Why hide that from us?”

“I wasn’t hiding it.”

“You weren’t? So when were you gonna tell us you could do that?”

“I don’t know, okay?!”

Sam wasn’t good at this.

They tried to be, sometimes. The argument between Russel and Mathew wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and they figured they should be thankful for that. Defusing the situation was normal at that point, and watching the both of them tear into each other was expected. Not a surprise.

But Graf arguing with Bee? Mathew trying and failing to chime in? That was an entirely different, annoying animal.

One they’d have to get in the way of. Again.

“Guys.”

Sam was, admittedly, a bit surprised when the both of them stopped, turning and giving them a look. The anger was still there on Graf’s face, as well as the shame on Bee’s, but the silence already felt much better than the noise.

Now all that needed to be discussed was the giant, murderous elephant in the room.

“Just…” Sam started, rolling the words around in their head before pushing on. “What do we do? Seriously?”

Nobody answered right away, and Sam was almost thankful for that. The very idea of discussing such a daunting amount of bullshit, trying to put it into workable terms, was laughable.

Graf sighed, taking a deep breath before taking on their usual tone. “First things first, I guess. Bee? How is everyone else?”

Bee frowned, focusing on a strange touch screen on her arm and fiddling with it. “I...um, I don’t know. I had one of my drones lead them to...to somewhere safe. Then one of those spider things tore it apart while I was using it to look for survivors. I actually just sent another one out now, but they should be okay.”

“Fine. Alright. So that’s Cody, Russ, and Ev?”

“I-yeah. That’s everyone.”

Mathew shook his head. “Except for Hector. And Dana. And all the other people still running around in town. Probably scared out of their fucking minds, too. I know I would be. It-”

Yeah, that was enough.

“Mathew,” Sam interjected sullenly. “Can we keep the optimism going? Please?”

Mathew looked like he wanted to argue, for just a second. Then a second passed, and he suddenly looked tired. “Was just saying. We still need to find them.”

“We don’t.”

All eyes turned to Beatrice as she interjected, and Sam watched her peer over the railing with sunken eyes. Before anything else could be said, she continued. “I know where Hector and Dana are.”

“So where would that be?” Graf insisted, stepping closer. “Because we really don’t have time to be sitting on our asses if you have all the answers.”

“I have drones still looking for survivors,” Beatrice responded, her voice quiet. “It’s just...It’s taking a bit, but I’m still finding some. My drones are leading them through places the spiders or the nine aren’t. Or at least I think so-”

“You think?” Graf interrupted.

Sam, too distracted to do anything else, shot Graf a look. Graf noticed, and was quelled with a mumble.

Beatrice continued, her voice even smaller than before. “They’re being led to places the nine aren’t. Which...which means I know where they are. Right now.”

That, undeniably, was good news. Sam watched Mathew perk up, as well as Graf’s sour expression soften just a bit. Offering a smile, Sam tilted their head and nodded. “And where would that be?”

“The Gallagher history museum.”

“And the nine are there?”

“Most of them. I don’t see Siberian, or Shatterbird. But...yeah. Most of them.”

A heavy pause was, seemingly, the only response anyone could think to give.

Idly, Sam figured something like that would be the case. Memories of visiting the place with Hector and Bee weren’t too faded, and Sam figured the museum itself would always stay a reminder of simpler times once they got older. 

And now it was being used, and as angry as Sam was about that, they found themselves even angrier about the fact that the nine would worm their way into every single memory. That, in the end, they’d tear anything even remotely quiet and peaceful out by its roots. It was what they did. The museum was just another corpse to add to the pile.

A part of Sam badly wanted to voice those quiet worries. Instead, they nodded again. “Thanks, Bee.”

Graf huffed, turning away. “Yeah. Sure. The only problem is we still need to go help them, don’t we? And that’s going to be a problem. Because right now there’s four of us, and...how many are over at the museum, Beatrice?”

“Seven.”

“Seven? Aren’t there-”

“There’s a...well. There’s a weird monster they have with them. A woman, probably a new member. I heard...I heard Bonesaw calling it ‘Murder Rat’, I think.”

Mathew smirked, looking over to Sam. “Guess these assholes don’t get any cool-points, huh? If we want to talk about lazy names, that’s a real good contender.”

"Except that's not what we're talking about," Graf murmured. "We're talking about saving our friends. Find some focus, Mathew."

As expected, Graf's words didn't help. Sam watched as Mathew's expression turned sour, yet the unmistakable note of hurt they say was far more troubling. "It's a joke, Graf. I'm lightening the mood."

"I'm not laughing."

“Good for you. Maybe that’s how I’m coping. What, do you think I’m not scared? That-”

“Stop,” Graf interrupted, “that’s not what I’m saying. You know it’s not. I know you Mathew, so I know exactly how you act when things aren’t going your way. But we really, really, don’t have time for jokes, or shit like that, not when we need a fucking plan. And we especially…”

Graf trailed off, and for a moment Sam was prepared to step in again. Instead, they only tried to keep the pity out of their stare as Graf slid to the ground with their back against the wall, letting exhaustion finally seep into their bones. “And we especially don’t have time to be dicks. I’m sorry, Beatrice. And I’m sorry, Mathew.”

Mathew only scowled, while Bee attempted a smile. “I-It’s fine-”

“It’s not. I’ll find a better way to apologize to you two later. I promise. But I do mean it when I say we need a plan. Now.”

Mathew shrugged his shoulders, his voice notably flat. “We don’t have a lot of options. We can’t exactly wait for them to leave; they could be holed up in there for the rest of their extended vacation. We take the fight to them, we’ll probably die. We can’t exactly get the others to help us right now either, too much time and too much risk. So what the fuck do we do?”

Then it clicked. Sam gasped, then felt their excitement get ahead of them as they snapped their fingers. “Ah! Wait, we don’t...fuck, okay...I have a plan.”

Nobody responded, and it took Sam a moment to realize they were waiting for an explanation. “Ah, sorry. So why even fight them directly, anyway? Maybe all we need is a distraction. Someone lures them out, and someone goes in and just...well, you get the idea.”

Bee’s eyes widened, before suddenly growing downcast. “And that someone...that would be you, wouldn’t it?”

Sam didn’t miss the expressions on everyone else's faces either, all hosting a strange mixture of hope and worry. For just a moment, Sam understood exactly what they were all thinking, and in that same moment the feeling was mutual.

But what else could they do? What other option did they have?

“My power is the best choice for this,” Sam replied evenly, stepping closer and closer to Bee until they were barely an arm’s length away. “I can get them out, you know I can. Nobody’s going to see me.”

“But what if they do?” Bee shot back. “What if they get you? And what if…”

Bee took a deep breath, and it was the only sign Sam needed to step in and wrap their arms around her in a hug. They felt their shoulder grow wet with each passing second, and they couldn’t help but smile. 

“What if I never see you again?” Beatrice finished, her voice muffled through fabric. “I hate that. I hate all of this.”

“I know,” they replied, a hand finding the top of her head. They looked over to Graf and Mathew, both giving the particular scene differing levels of attention. Graf cleared her throat, quickly walking over and wrapping an arm around the two of them.

“It fucking sucks,” Graf agreed, nodding once. “But we have to fight. We don’t have a choice anymore.”

At that, Sam watched her turn a low glare to Mathew. As much as he tried to resist, only a few seconds were needed until Mathew clicked his tongue and stood up, joining in on the hug itself. Sam took as much comfort in the warmth as they could, and they gave a shaky squeeze.

The hug couldn’t last. 

Not when they needed every second they could get. Idly, Sam realized it was probably selfish that they were taking this much time at all.

Or maybe it was the one thing they needed to find some precious few seconds of bravery.

There was no way to tell, and maybe there wasn’t a need to.

Mathew was the first to step back, his expression uncharacteristically serious. “So. We go for a distraction, and Sam does their James Bond shit. Sounds like a plan to me.”

Graf stepped back too, nodding and looking at Beatrice. “Can you lead us there?”

“...Yeah. I can.”

“Then we’re ready,” Graf responded, looking over at the people below. “It’s probably a good idea to tell them to stay here.”

The scraps of the conversation continued, but Sam felt their mind wander away. How was anyone supposed to know if they were ready for anything?

How was anyone supposed to know if it was just a lie to keep the worries away?

Ready for a new chapter. Ready to leave a life behind. Ready to leave friends behind.

Ready to die.

But maybe it didn’t matter as much, all things considered. It was settled; they all had a plan and they all had the means to pull it off.

Now, all Sam could do was hope it didn’t fall apart too quickly.

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

The streets, twisted and shattered, reminded Sam too much of a broken body. A red sky watched them from above, staring down as they stalked through the streets. Graf, Beatrice, and Mathew were a ways away, not too close and not too far. They had to be, for the plan to work.

Sam gripped their borrowed bowie knife tighter. The irony of relying on a weapon to stay alive didn’t escape them, neither did the fact that using it made them feel sick. The need to defend themselves and their friends was clear cut, sure, but that didn’t make the knife feel any less like a bloodied weight, sans the blood.

What a joke.

“There,” Mathew whispered through the earpiece. “See em?”

Unfortunately, they did.

Sam watched the feed through the drone's camera, taking note of Jack and Bonesaw sitting on the steps leading up to the museum, joined by both Mannequin standing stock still and Cherish laying on her back near the entrance. Burnscar sitting so far away from the rest of them, her body closed off, was quickly overshadowed by the fact that Crawler had apparently escaped the light.

Another fucking problem. Another obstacle they had to ignore, because what else were they going to do? Leave?

Not now.

A little bit of luck fell through the cracks as Sam noticed that they were all mostly relaxed, all waiting for something that there was no time to puzzle out.

Yeah,” Graf whispered back. “I do. Remember the plan?

“Sure,” Mathew responded. “Just wish we could end this now.”

We can't,” Graf and Beatrice whispered back, one more harsh than the other. After a period of tense silence, Graf spoke again. “Not like how you’re thinking. We have to stick to what we have.

“I know, alright? I know. I was mostly joking anyway.”

“I’d appreciate that more if we didn’t only have one chance to do this shit. No distractions, Mathew. Please.”

Sam watched the nine, only half listening to their friends. Instead, their attention was captured by Jack and Bonesaw walking inside the museum, leaving the rest to their own devices.

-Using my ghost shit. I’m really only gonna be able to knock them off balance,” Mathew continued as Sam tuned back in.

Graf hummed, and Sam imagined she was probably nodding. “That’s fine. More than fine, actually. I’m going to be doing most of the heavy lifting. You and Bee are going to be support.”

“Sure.”

“I can do that,” Bee chimed in. “I-”

“Don’t mean to interrupt,” Sam began with a curse, skulking along the ground before finding themselves behind an overturned car. “But Jack and Bonesaw are in the museum. If you’re going to do something, you have to do it now.”

No immediate response came, and for a second Sam was worried they weren’t being heard.

That worry quickly fell away when a distant car flew through the air, aimed right towards Mannequin. It didn’t matter so much that it collided with Crawler instead, earning a monstrous laugh and panicked curses from some of the other nine. It was a distraction.

It was time. 

Sam watched as Graf, now a gigantic and snarling combination between a wolf and a bear, threw two more cars at the remaining nine. Crawler, Mannequin, and ‘Murder Rat’ barreled towards her, all with varying degrees of speed and excitement. Burnscar stayed behind, lobbing fireballs with a stony expression. Strangely enough, Cherish seemed more panicked than anything.

Sam waited for Jack and Bonesaw to make an appearance. For ten seconds, then fifteen, then a full thirty. Neither decided to come out.

No time to waste. They’d just have to keep out of sight.

They cautiously let their power expand.

A gaseous cloud the color of the night sky and visible only to Sam sprang to life around them before slowly flowing outward, expanding more and more until it agonizingly covered the distance of a city block, horizontally at least. It only went up ten feet above them, at any given time. That was the limits of their range, and as much as they practiced there wasn’t anything they could do about that.

It didn’t matter so much, because they could see.

Maybe seeing was the wrong word, and the more Sam thought about it, it was definitely the wrong word. They just became aware, vaguely, of where they were going. Their power would tell them if a wall was in the way, or if they would be seen. General layout and room contents were, of course, much harder to grasp, becoming easier to discern the closer they were to their destination.

But all they needed was a good spot. Sam focused, and their cloud told them of an empty space within the museum, prying eyes seemingly nowhere near. So with a deep breath, they mentally ‘jumped’-

-And suddenly, they were inside.

Sam failed to hold in a quiet gasp, stumbling as they tried to recapture a quickly fleeing balance. “You need to visualize, Sam,” they muttered, shaking their head. Whenever they teleported, they could be in any position they could think of. Standing, sitting, they could even be running if they put their mind to it.

It was just something that Sam, even after all this time, never got used to doing. Teleporting around would have also been preferable to walking, but their power always and would always need to recharge right after using it.

But there was almost definitely a better time to lament about the intricacies of their power. They looked around, finding themselves in a simple room and ready to find a bloodbath.

Instead, the inside seemed surprisingly dull.

The inside of the museum wasn’t filled with bloodshed and sorrow. Instead, it was only a bit messy. Some of the exhibits were missing, and a lot of the glass was smashed, but otherwise there was nothing to write home about. There was some blood here and there, but only in the form of small dots. A far cry from the pools of red they expected. 

And, most worrying of all, it was quiet.

If not for the roar of fighting outside, now distant and muffled, Sam was sure that not a sound would make itself known. Of course, that was a bad sign, one they couldn’t ignore but one they had to. A nightmare made manifest. 

All of a sudden, Sam wanted to run. To jump away and start a new life, just one more time.

Instead, they took a step forward. Then another, and another, until they were shuffling through the museum, doing their absolute best to listen. With every step, their confidence somehow remained, and their fears faded to a low drone.

Hector and Dana were more important than fear. More important than caution, even. 

And yet, as Sam made their way through, they began to wonder if caution was even warranted.

With every room they peered into, they only found more and more nothing. The fighting outside seemed to move away, to shift, until the silence was their only companion. An errant groan or creak of the museum's foundation prompted Sam to release their cloud immediately the first few times, but every time after that the cloud came out slower and slower, until Sam stopped letting it loose at all. 

They were getting nowhere. They were worried, and they were bored. It was a bad combination, but what else could they do?

Then they paused.

Bored. How the fuck could they be bored? Jack Slash and Bonesaw were somewhere inside, waiting, and they themselves somehow found the time to be nonchalant about it.

It wasn't like they didn't feel the ever-expanding creep of fear, it was more so as if it just couldn't reach them. And the quiet didn't help.

Sam took the time to gaze up at a skylight, the evening sun just barely visible against the red of the sky. As they focused inward, an almost overwhelming sense of peace and calm made itself known, just underneath the surface. Bizarrely, they wanted to smile.

They heard a shift, nearly silent.

Nearly.

Bee's salmon light flashed through their mind, and Sam took a deep breath. Then, pushing through pleasant feelings, they drew their knife and slashed wildly behind themselves.

On another day, another time, Sam would have felt pride. Happy that they knew a trap when they saw one, even as they felt shame for falling into one in the first place. Determination would flow seamlessly into blood, into rage, and they’d be able to rid the world of one more nightmare.

But their knife found empty air. Their neck opened up to a sharp pain, debilitating enough to make them stagger but not enough to make them stop. They whirled around again, and their eyes widened.

A little girl, riding atop a cherry red monstrosity, and holding an oversized needle in her hand. Her hair was long and unkempt, messy, the gold falling over the forest green of a doll-like dress. Worst of all, worryingly enough, she looked almost bored. 

Caught by Bonesaw, at the worst of times. Sam took a step back, and another one, before they felt themselves collapse. It was only moments later when they realized they couldn’t move.

They couldn’t move?

They couldn’t move.

Sam willed their arm, their leg, anything to shift as they stared up at the ceiling, blinking agonizingly slow as they heard a sigh. A number of sharp clicks sounded out, trailed by slurred giggles.

The sky-blue of a hawaiian shirt entered their line of sight. The ponytail was unexpected, as well as the longsword carried lazily over one shoulder., but there was no mistaking the smile. Jack fucking slash.

It wasn’t fair.

“You can’t move,” Bonesaw began, stepping off of the monster and out of sight, humming. “I wonder how you got in, though! But also, why? Are you friends with Blacklight?”

“I’m not sure it matters so much,” Jack mused, joining in squatting in front of them. “Your friends aren’t coming now, aren’t they?”

Sam couldn’t respond. Even if they weren’t paralyzed already, they were sure words would absolutely fail them. Jack seemed only to grow annoyed by that fact, tutting before turning to Bonesaw. “I really wish you would have made that concoction of yours a bit differently. I’m interested in hearing what they have to say.”

“Sorry. I don’t know. It was hard to make.”

“Ah. Still having that inspiration issue?”

“I am,” Bonesaw replied, a hint of frustration seeping into the natural giggle of her voice. “It was the best I could do on such short notice. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“We all stumble on a stone in the road, sooner or later. What matters is how you respond.”

Sam, despite their own panic, didn’t miss the irony in Bonesaw not responding right away. Jack apparently didn’t either, and his own smile fell into a thin line as he stood up. “I responded,” he continued, the sword leaving his shoulder and gently resting on Sam’s neck, “with a change of pace. It’s not easy admitting that you’re running out of steam, and even when you’re having fun there’s going to be a time when you have to confront a question.”

“I know.”

“I know you know,” Jack fired back quickly. “But in the end, it’s such a useless question, isn’t it? You ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’, but the answer is right there in front of you. Because it’s fun. Because it makes sense, and because there’s a point to make.”

The sword pressed down, and Sam wanted to whimper. Maybe the fear was apparent in their eyes, because Jack smiled. “And you’re going to help me make that point, little bug. Won’t that be fun?”

Sam waited for the dark. They tried to be proud of themselves. In the end, they had gotten so far, hadn’t they? Someone else, someone smarter, would do the same thing and they’d actually get to Hector and Dana.

But walking a million miles and collapsing before the finish line only felt insulting. So Sam waited for the dark, and they did their best to feel nothing. It was the last bit of defiance they could muster.

Then, Jack raised the sword from their neck, and returned it to his shoulder. “I’m giving them to you, Bonesaw.”

“You are?”

“Of course!” Jack replied, turning to look in a direction Sam couldn’t face. “I’m just about ready to join the fun out there. And you’re in no shape to be saying hello to more new faces. No, I think you also need a return to form. It’s easier to smile, isn’t it?”

“Oh!” Bonesaw shouted, their giggle returning. “Do you think it’s going to help? Maybe I’ll have some ideas! Oh! What do you think their powers are? I mean, I dampened whatever was probably there, but maybe it’ll be something I can use?”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it all out,” Jack responded, already turning and walking away. “Just don’t get too into it. You still need to think of something to do with our friend Hector, don’t you?”

“Yeah!”

“Good. Keep that smile on, Bonesaw.”

And then, with only a few more languid and lazy steps, Jack turned a corner and was out of sight.

Sam, still paralyzed, unmoving, was left with another monster. Through the silence, Bonesaw sighed and stepped into their view, waving and giving a disturbingly wide smile.

“So, hi. I’m sorry, I’m just in a really weird mood! Started as soon as we got here. I really like this town though! And I really like that you figured out I had Joy gas in the museum. I’d ask you your name, or your powers, but...um.”

Bonesaw stopped, turning to look after where Sam had seen Jack go. Sam only waited, and with every passing second felt confusion rise steadily to the surface. Confusion turned to full bafflement when Bonesaw turned back around, her smile gone and her shoulders seemingly weighed down by all the weight of the world.

“I don’t know. It’s really hard to get excited about another body. I already have a lot of those.”

Bonesaw snapped her fingers, and Sam wanted to vomit as a number of out of sight hands grabbed them, hoisting them up until they were looking up at the ceiling. They began to move, slowly enough for Sam to look at passing glass cases, while the exhibits were too hard to see.

“There’s not a lot of people in your town, but there’s enough to keep my skills sharp. At first I tried to make them exhibits downstairs so Blacklight could appreciate them when we did a big reveal, but that doesn’t...it didn’t feel like I was doing anything new. I did that all the way back in Julian.”

Soon enough, Sam felt the things carrying them shift at a downward angle, and it didn’t take much to realize they were being carried down a flight of stairs.

“So then I tried the joy gas. It was kinda cool making it, and I tried my best to model it after how this town made me feel. But aren’t I just still being a copycat that way?”

The light from above faded, and Sam could only watch as their surroundings grew darker and darker. They figured it was probably better that way, as any ‘exhibits’ Bonesaw had created would go more than a little underappreciated.

That was really frustrating. So eventually I just said to heck with it! I took a lot of people, as fast as I could, and I just started doing what I do best. A lot of blood, bodies, and screams. It was enough to keep me going! And then I had to stop, I think to talk to Cherish, but that was enough. By the time I got back to it, I just…”

Sam heard a loud smack, and they all of a sudden stopped moving. Then, after a poignant pause, a snap of two tiny fingers signaled them to move again.

“It was so ugly. Too many eyes looking at me, all weird and sad, and I felt sick. And I tried to make it work, I really really did. But That’s the thing about art; you can’t force it. You think I would have learned by now. I did learn that. So why am I forgetting? Why is it forced at all?”

Bonesaw murmured something too quiet to hear, then spoke up again. The dark turned all encapsulating, and the only thing Sam could focus on was Bonesaw’s sullen voice and the gurgling giggles of the things that carried them.

“It got harder the more I looked at it. I added, and I added again, but there’s no nuance. No flavor. It’s just screaming meat. Just a mound of blood and eyes..”

They stopped moving again, only this time they were gently lowered to the ground, almost lovingly. The room they found themselves in was completely dark, save for a bright red beam of sunlight that passed through a cloudy skylight, Like a shining pillar in the abyss. Sam couldn’t help but stare.

Bonesaw’s footsteps echoed, and the room came to shape in Sam’s mind. Big. Were they in the basement? Were they somewhere else entirely?

“The Mound. That’s what I’m calling it now, because I can’t think of anything else. I can’t even think of what to do with you. Anytime I try I feel uninspired or sick or sad and I hate it.”

Another pinprick in their neck, slower this time. Sam’s body suddenly felt warm, as if they had been drenched in water kissed by the sun.

“I’m letting it have you. And I’m letting you move for a bit. I could just let it squash you but that doesn’t feel fair. I want to see if you can at least get away. Maybe that’ll give me some time to think.”

Bonesaw’s footsteps echoed as she walked away, and Sam immediately tried to move. Slowly, too slowly, a finger responded. Then another, until they could make a fist. By the time they could move their body, Bonesaw was gone. The dark of the room was stifling.

Sam pushed themselves up with shaking arms, gasping as they took in deep breaths of air. “Walk,” they muttered, pushing themselves to their feet. “Walk. You’re alive. Walk.

Then, in the black, it shifted.

Sam, frozen, only watched as a face emerged. Then another, and another, all attached to a hulking body that passed through that deep red. With only a glimpse, Sam saw it. Trapped in cherry red flesh, towering over them even on the other side of the room and moaning with too many voices. Speaking with distorted voices and screams, as if riding radio waves.

‘It hurts’, ‘so bright’, ‘why?’, it slurred.

Sam didn’t scream. They tried, but their voice sat dead in their throat. They tried, but all thought was washed away when they realized that the voices were familiar.

A local bookstore owner, who always wore a small smile on a rainy day. A highschool cheerleader, who Sam always overheard laughing and sharing jokes as they walked through town. The museum curator, with a story for every piece when Sam found the time to visit.

All melted into a pile of slowly drifting agony.

‘Save them,’ a voice drifted from their mind. For a moment, Sam tried their best to listen, if only for a moment. Yet as it began to scream, Sam could do nothing but take a small, terrified step backward. The dark was a shield.

As it lumbered toward them, Sam could do nothing but run. The cloud, newly crippled as it was, provided a quickly diminishing sense of safety. Sam concentrated, feeling for range.

Four meters, four fucking meters. Barely.

They would have to make do. Sam jumped through a wall to their right, into the next room. A collection of toppled chairs and a rapidly blinking light greeted them, barely illuminating a dark brown substance in the corner. Sam felt their breathing lose rhythm, the seconds needed for a recharge seeming like days.

Then, Sam gave form to a shrill scream once the wall behind them groaned, then buckled, too close to falling apart entirely as dozens of hands reached through the cracks. Sam only caught a glimpse of a grotesque, sobbing face before they dove behind a desk and rapidly let their cloud expand-

-Before finding themselves in the room above. Completely dark and hosting an awful smell and a low, unidentifiable sob.

They couldn’t let themselves stop. A few moments later, the cloud expanded, Sam jumped, and they were in the room above that one.

Further and further away they went, trying any direction they could think of to confuse it. It never seemed to help, because as fast as Sam went, they could feel the shaking of the building as somehow, beyond all reason, it seemed to know where they were.

It took entirely too long to get to the top floor, and soon enough Sam found themselves standing on a bench with unsteady feet, resisting the urge to vomit but not the urge to curl into a ball. But finally they were fucking out. They had to leave, to find Russ and Evelyn and Cody and bring them here. Bring them up to speed, then go down and fucking kill the thing together.

It was Sam’s best option. Their only option, because what the fuck could they themselves do? No, it was better to find friends. 

Sam listened keenly, the shaking of the building dying down even as the battle outside continued to rage. 

It didn’t matter. They were done. All they had to do now was-

Their blood ran cold.

Dana.

Hector. 

It suddenly became overwhelmingly clear to Sam that, no, they weren’t done. They’d still have to go looking. And Sam wouldn’t leave until they were found.

Even as the monster waited below.

Every cell in their body screamed, pleading for a retreat. There was still hope for a regroup. If they could find the time, they could make a better plan with the others. If the nine hadn’t killed Hector or Dana yet, then they wanted to keep the both of them alive for something, right?

The reasoning was there, but it was hollow and bitter. It felt like giving up, abandoning a friend in their time of need. Deep dark parts in their mind told them that they were used to that. Seeing friends die was just another Tuesday, even before Santa Mosemar.

An exaggeration, but it rang true. What were a few more bodies to add to the pile?

“It’s everything,” Sam whispered, feeling a false courage seep into their veins. “Everything.”

They stood up again, still unsteady but with the knowledge that they could die. It didn’t help. But it did give some clarity.

“This is so, so, supremely stupid,” Sam said out loud, glancing over to a stone head taller than them, incased in glass and painted blue. They figured that if it could, it would be nodding along in agreement. So, so stupid.

Sam let the cloud extend anyway, and found themselves in a room below. Then again, and again, until finally they were back in a different part of the basement. 

Only silence greeted them. It did nothing for their nerves.

Sam glanced around quickly, finding themselves in a small room filled with ornate picture frames stored on metal racks, all empty and all covered with dust. Sam held back a cough as they looked around, taking note of what was apparently the only door in and out of the room. 

They had almost died, twice, and they still had no idea where to start.

Sam approached the door, wincing as they grabbed its grime-covered handle and opening it to reveal a spacious, if mostly empty room. A set of stairs that more than likely led up to the first floor sat on the other side of the room, while four doors to their left and right seemingly led to other parts of the basement itself. Unlabeled, of course, so Sam would have to go looking.

But first, they listened.

Through the silence, and the distant clashing outside, A groan sounded out from the stairs, echoed by a number of voices all speaking in unison. Sam took the time to listen for three heavy footfalls before picking a door at random, quietly jogging to their left and opening one, slipping inside even as their fear followed close behind them.

There, a hallway cloaked in red light greeted them, and Sam felt more than a bit disturbed that the blood on the ground didn’t bother them as much as it should have. They stood still for a moment, listening once more. Nothing. Except for a soft metallic whir that stopped and started again, every few seconds.

Sam pushed themselves forward, drawing their knife once more. The blood led to a room to the right, doing away with the presumed safety of its white light battling the red of the hallway. Sam took a deep breath, pausing to look inside.

They found themselves equal parts confused and horrified.

A deep basin sat in the corner of the room, filled with red blood and pale viscera. The flesh twitched, every so often, and Sam did their best to avoid imagining why. A strange, bulky device occupied the wall to their left, several flailing medical tools attached to it by means of long, metal ‘arms’. A buzz saw connected to the machine whirred to life on its own, only to power down once again and continuing the cycle every few seconds. 

The floor’s carpet was almost completely red, and the entirety of the room was a steep contrast to the presence of a smiling doll with golden hair that sat on an otherwise barren desk, opposite from the strange machine.

And yet, with every horrible thing they saw, Sam couldn’t help but feel like they were looking at a discarded mess, rather than a slaughterhouse

From the tiny basin, to what looked like a barely functioning machine on closer inspection, to the strangeness of a doll so idly sitting by, as if observing. A deep sense of loneliness settled on the room, which Sam only felt even more as they realized that the doll was dressed almost exactly like Bonesaw.

This was too much to unpack, and even if Sam cared enough to think about why this was here, they were on a time limit with nothing to show for it.

In any case, it seemed the room was a dud. Sam resolved to check the other rooms before they made their way to the bigger room again. If they could keep this up, if they could be quiet, then maybe-

A knock sounded from the other side of the wall.

Sam froze, almost instantaneously jumping through their cloud before they forced themselves to wait. Silence reigned as they slowly made their way back into the room, their cloud seeping through the wall. On the other side, someone lay in a bed, a leg nearly ruined and chained to the wall. They raised a hand, again, to weekly knock once more.

Sam didn't dare hope. Instead, they extended their cloud as far as they could, beyond the supposed bars of what seemed like a cell, all the way around the corner from it. With a quiet huff, Sam jumped through the wall-

-And found themselves in another hallway entirely, staring blankly at a number of cells embedded into the wall, seemingly empty except for the one to their right. Sam pushed the obvious ‘why are there cells in a museum’ question from their mind and peeked around the corner.

All at once, they felt something approaching an insurmountable joy.

There, in bleak light and with a pained expression, lay Hector on a bed. He knocked on the wall, turning back to look at it, and away from Sam.

With a quiet gasp, Sam pulled themselves fully into view, trying desperately to think of something to say before settling on a quiet “Hector?”

He froze, but Sam didn’t wait for a response. With a jump, Sam was inside the cell before he could turn around. And when he did, his eyes were filled to the brim with warring emotions. He looked Sam up and down, his words seemingly failing him until he whispered their name. 

“Sam?”

Sam nodded, and the dam broke.

Sam wasn’t sure when the hug started, and they especially weren’t sure which one of them started crying first, but it didn’t seem to matter too much, in the end. Sam embraced him, one hand wrapped around his torso and the other deep in his hair, telling him it was okay as they both cried. 

They found him, safe and sound like they had promised. But they didn’t have as much time as they needed, not while the nightmare shambled through the halls.

Clearing their throat, Sam pulled back and gave Hector a watery smile, nodding once. “You’re safe. Okay? You’re safe. We have to get you out. Where’s Dana?”

“Dana?” Hector muttered, before glancing at his leg. “She’s...she’s not here. She got away, promised to come back for me. It’s...the chain. I can’t…” 

“I know,” Sam interrupted, glancing outside. “Just, your powers, can you use them still? Can you feel them?”

Hector frowned, and after a few moments he nodded. “Bonesaw did something to me, a while ago. Injected me with something, but she hasn’t done it again. They're weak, but...I can feel them. I can use them.”

Perfect. Perfect. Dana was apparently already out, and Hector was right in front of them. Now all they had to do was avoid fucking this up. 

Sam’s smile widened as they sat on the bed with him. “Okay. So. Here’s the plan. You boost me, And you take some of my powers. We both jump out outside the museum, and...Fuck, I guess we wait. Everyone else is safe, okay? We just need to be safe too.”

He nodded again, and finally returned the smile. “And we’re...we’re okay? Have you seen my mom?”

Sam, truthfully, didn’t know how to answer that. Sure, their friends were maybe fine, but what about everyone else? Sam didn’t know how to tell him that, no, they weren’t okay. That they were alive, but the same couldn’t be said about every life lost in the town so far.

It was a thought that pulled their spirits into an abyss effortlessly, and it was a thought that threatened to lead to ones that were somehow worse. A spiral, neverending.

Honesty was all they had, so Sam shook their head. “I...we’re alright, I think. But I haven’t seen your mom Hector. I’m sorry.”

“Oh.”

There was no life in that voice, no acceptance, and Sam couldn’t have that. “But we’ll find her, okay? We will. Trust me. Please?”

Hector only nodded, but didn’t say anything else.

Desperate to talk about anything else, Sam glanced around the room. “Did the nine build these...cells?”

“What?” he questioned, before his eyes widened. “Oh. No, this was...this was supposed to be an exhibit. The curator told me about it a few months ago. They were talking about building an accurate representation of an old-timey dungeon. I think?”

“Makes sense. Leave it to the nine to turn everything into a horror show,” Sam tried, attempting a joke. Hector tried to smile in response , but it never reached his eyes.

Right. There was time and place for everything.

“Hector, I need a boost,” Sam began. “Take some of my powers, alright? Do you remember how my power works?”

“I do.”

“Okay. Good, okay. Go ahead then. I’ll tap your shoulder when It’s time to move. Ready?”

Hector didn’t respond, and instead Sam felt a rush fill their entire body, the exhaustion so prevalent in their bones fleeing and being replaced with a newfound energy. As good as it felt, Sam was sure they’d never get used to it.

Sam bit back a cheer, feeling their cloud expand past four meters, to ten, and finally to fifteen. Nowhere near what they had before, but it would prove to be a lifesaver. Their surroundings became clear, and the cloud even reached past the door leading to the bigger room, mapping out-

They froze.

Beyond the door, leaning against it, was a towering wall of moving limbs. The plaster and brick around the entrance was giving way, too quietly to bring alarm, too far to be a problem. Until it was too late.

The door at the end of the hallway burst open, the walls above and beside it falling apart, and Sam squeezed Hector’s shoulder. Without a word, the both of them closed their eyes and jumped to the room above. Ready to jump again almost immediately after, even as they both stood on uncertain and shaky feet. No time to visualize, no time to rest.

No time at all. One second too many.

The ground beneath them buckled as something impacted it, before falling away entirely only a few moments later. Sam kept their eyes sealed shut, shouting through the roar of the collapse for Hector to jump again, to get away. Then, they landed.

Sam screamed as they felt their leg break,  twisting before finally giving way, but they kept their eyes closed. Even as they desperately tried to jump to safety and found they couldn’t, the cloud refusing to make its presence known, they kept their eyes shut. 

Sam knew The Mound was watching, and it was only getting closer. Hector babbled, and Sam had a decision to make. Keeping their eyes closed wasn’t going to help, not if it could already see them.

It didn’t make it any easier to pry them open. It didn’t make the scene in front of them any less terrifying. 

The monster could barely fit in the hallway, the top and sides of it being crushed by the ceiling and walls, and yet it continued to move effortlessly. Closer and closer, still moaning and shouting and whispering, sliding past and leaving a trail of pink viscera. Hector was stuck under an errant support beam, screaming. And there was light, too much to hide from, blinking and bearing down on them from too many sources.

With a start, Sam realized they couldn’t do anything. 

They couldn’t jump, they couldn’t walk, they couldn’t even help Hector get away. They could only watch as it got closer, the voices reaching an agonizing crescendo. As quickly as they held hope, now only desperation filled their mind.

They couldn’t do a fucking thing, and yet they had to. Against all odds, they had to. A plan formed in their mind, one guaranteed to fail. And it was their only option. 

Sam refused to see another corpse. The stares from before had been too much. It couldn’t happen again.

With a heave, Sam dragged themselves back into the cell. They ignored the white hot agony that soared through their leg, screaming the entire way until they were barely, just barely, out of sight.

The cloud expanded, and Sam forced themselves to wait as the Mound got closer to Hector. They ignored the pleas for help, both from Hector and the monster, and waited. As it passed by another cell, just barely, Sam jumped straight into the cell, already reaching around the corner desperately, and grabbing onto a soft mass of flesh.

They had it. Finally, they had it. With their other hand, they carelessly drew out their own large bowie knife as their body was dragged around the corner, ribs colliding with the corner of the wall. The new pain was easy to ignore as they came face to face with a mass of faces, all staring at them as the Mound paused.

With a scream, Sam brought up their knife and stabbed forward, toward one pleading face and babbling face that held the expression of a young woman. It slid to the right, finding purchase in a dangling leg instead. But it found purchase, and that was enough.

“Stop!” Sam screamed, bringing out the knife as quickly as they could and bringing it down again. “Stop! Get the fuck away from him! You can’t have him!”

But the creature surged forward.

Sam screamed again, their voice hoarse and barely hanging on, and continued to stab. They dragged their body as close as they could to the screaming pile, stabbing again and again, faster and faster. They felt hands, too many hands, grab and begin to squeeze. It didn’t matter. A distraction was all Hector would need, and he would be safe. 

A hand grabbed their neck, beginning a slow choke. 

Another grabbed their hair, pulling painfully and violently.

Another grabbed their broken leg, and the pain was nearly enough to make them pass out. Only nearly. 

Sam, through the agony, made themselves continue. They somehow found rhythm in their weapon, until it became the easiest thing in the world to slash and hack. Until it became all too simple to let go of their thoughts and their fear and their worry. 

They were the only thing standing between Hector and the voices. They were the only thing standing between themselves and the memories of a body on the concrete, covered in flies on an impossibly hot summer day. On that day, Sam made a promise.

No more corpses. No more stares. Hector wouldn’t die, and Sam wouldn’t let themselves endure the same disappointment from their new family.

All they had to do was fight, through the blood.

Their vision flashed white, then black, then white again. All they could do was continue. 

And then, after seconds or days or years or centuries, they finally felt nothing.

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

Sam opened their eyes.

As the silence greeted them, they couldn’t find the energy to stand. Their brain felt as if it was underwater, garbled and blurry and without sense. They couldn’t find the energy to question when Graf and Dana and Mathew had found them, all surrounding them with grim expressions on beaten and bruised faces. They found it less appealing to wonder, through the haze, where Bee was.

So instead, they posed a question. “Hector? Where’s?...”

They all glanced at each other, but it was Dana who spoke up. “He’s not here.”

Sam frowned. “He’s…”

It was the wrong answer. 

Sam looked around, haze quickly turning to panic, which quickly turned to an overwhelming, crippling shame.

They failed. Dana had escaped before they even found her, and Hector was gone. Again. Maybe he was dead, maybe not, but he was gone. And so was the Mound. It was almost too much. 

Being used to failure didn’t make it any easier to deal with.

But there was a light that shined, deep within, that gave hope that they’d be able to find him again. That they would beat back the nine until they were nothing but a distant memory.

That light was gone once, after a long and heavy silence, They felt themselves begin to cry.

Another corpse to add to the pile.