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The Curious Case of the Missing Wrangler

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You're a new wrangler, excited to finally pierce the veil of secrecy behind the tags. There has been a call for a fandom you love, that you have been involved in for years. The current wranglers are drowning in freeform tags and there's a backlog of at least 3 months.

"We'll teach you the ropes," they reassure you. You are somewhat concerned when they bring actual ropes to the conversation. "It's so we can lasso the stray tags back home," they say.

"Oh, that makes perfect sense," you think. You're so excited to be wrangling a fandom you adore, finally!

They teach you a knot -- only the one, and explain that unless you cut it, it cannot be unknotted.

"Just to make extra sure the tags make it back," they say.

"That's logical," you think. After all, there are a lot of tags.

When one of the older wranglers takes the rope and shows you how to rein them in, you're surprised to discover that the rope doesn't make its way to any tags, but to your own hands.

"You see, you hold the tag with your hands, and then we tie your hands together to make sure you don't drop it," they explain.

"Such sound reasoning," you think, though the niggling concern resurfaces when they bring actual swords to the next conversation.

"Sometimes those tags get unruly and fight back," the current wranglers explain. "You definitely want a weapon by your side when you venture into the bins."

You briefly wonder whether you should bring a shield to the next conversation. When you ask about it, they say, "Ah, no, we don't use shields, they only weigh us down."

"Of course, why didn't I think of that?" you exclaim. They pat your head like a particularily adorable puppy. "That's what us senior wranglers are for."

You nod at their sound logic, glad to have found such a knowledgeable team to mentor you.

You slowly learn how to work on your own. The tags are unruly, and sometimes they growl at you, but you feel protected with your trusty sword and the way the ropes hold your hands steady. Sometimes you feel the urge to growl back, but the senior wranglers are still watching you, still wanting to teach, still very much there.

Until, one day, you look back for advice on a particularly unruly tag, and your senior wranglers are nowhere in sight.

You don't know what to do. You want to do something, you know you should do something, but all of a sudden your hands won't move. Your chest tightens and your breaths start to come in short, panicked gasps.

You have to do something.

You start to run.

You look around, trying to make it back to the safety of the communal campfire, but you hear the growls of feral tags who were attracted by your earlier panic all around you.

Alarmed, you immediately try to gather your wits and use the skills you've been honing to defeat the beast. But when you try remembering what they are, a step at a time, you cannot. The knowledge is gone. Your mind is blank.

All your hard earned knowledge is useless in the face of these monsters. "Help!" You scream. "HELP!"

No one answers.

Your life flashes before your eyes, but just when you think it's all over, a staff wrangler swoops in to rescue you. "Of course we watch over the baby wranglers," they say. "You haven't earned your wings yet."

They pat you on the back, don't comment on the snot you leave on their sweater, and give you a cookie before sending you back to your wrangling page, where it's safe.

You're so relieved to be saved from certain death that you never question why your senior wranglers disappeared.

You've always been aware of slight bumps at your shoulder blades; you've never thought to question them. Actually, ever since you've started wrangling, ever since the ropes have been wrapped around your hands, you haven't been questioning much at all.

There's not a lot of room for questions when there's so much you need to learn.

You look around your page, but your senior wranglers don't just seem to be missing temporarily, they appear to be gone entirely. As far as you can tell, you're now the only wrangler in charge of this stretch of wilderness.

You leave comment after comment on tags, hoping for a sign. But nothing.

But the tags are still there -- they're waiting for you, watching you. Much like your missing senior co-wranglers had.

The next time wrangler recruitment rolls around, you email the wrangling staff asking for co-wranglers from the new batch. They agree. You prepare your ropes, and your swords, and wait.

Unfortunately, these newbies are even less prepared than you are.

One runs away screaming as soon as they glimpse a mildly intimidating tag; another fights valiantly, but is defeated when an OT6 gangs up on them; Gradually you lose the rest in the wilderness, one after the other. None return.

Your hands are red and chafing and itchy from the rope around them. Your fingers are callused from brandishing the sword. Your shoulder blades are always itchy, but you can never reach them to scratch.

You're in the middle of attempting to use a rock to scratch that itch when another tag pops out. It had been lurking peacefully under the rock until you'd thoughtlessly moved it.

You're exhausted, but you still manage to capture it and wrangle it into its proper place.

The constant wrangling is starting to take its toll on you, but you continue doggedly on, trying to keep this corner of the fandom wilderness relatively clear for the sake of the other wranglers.

How long has it been? Hours? Days? Weeks? Time has no meaning. You continue to wrangle, keeping an eye out for those poor, lost wranglers. Deep down, though, you suspect they're already lost.

You don't check your character bins. You're too scared of what might lurk there. You're safe enough with the freeforms; you're used to them, and they have grown used to you, twisting around you and your habits until you're locked in eternal equality. The character bin, though ... that bin is hungry. The Original Characters that lurk in there are vicious, leaping out at every opportunity with no regard for the habits the rest of the area follows.

You can see the overflowing character tags even from the relative safety you’ve carved out for yourself in freeforms bin, but you have no energy to spare.

Once in a while, when the freeform tags are sleeping, you do approach a few of those OC tags. Some are easy enough to defeat, but others are much more difficult, their ambiguity level much higher than what you can handle.

Some of them look strangely, hauntingly familiar.

It's always the ones you cannot figure out, but you can sense their eyes on you, on your ropes, on your sword. You think they might be speaking at you in code, but you don't understand any of it.

You don’t think you want to understand it.

You delve deeper into the fandom, trying to learn the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the users. It helps, a little. But any progress you make is miniscule; the freeforms have woken up and they're hungry.

The relationship tags are also loud and fierce, but you've found that singing at them lulls them to quietness. Sometimes even to sleep. You aren't sure what you're singing anymore. Your voice is hoarse, but it doesn't matter so long as you can keep them quiet.

Every now and then, one of your cowranglers pops up again. "Sorry, so busy! RL's a monster," they say breathlessly.

You're always glad to see them, but the stretches between their reappearances grow and grow until one day you go to their wrangling page and see that they're no longer there. They're gone. They don't exist.

You check your email. Their tag comments are gone. You look for their user page.

“Error 404.”

“The page you were looking for doesn’t exist.”

“You may have mistyped the address…”

“...or the page may have been deleted.”

AO3 Devil

You ask around, but no one seems to know anything. "Who?" is the most common answer.

Sometimes you find yourself wondering if you had just imagined them. Maybe they were entirely a product of your sleep-deprived brain. But the rope around your wrists and the sword in your hand suggest otherwise.

You ask a staff member; they blink at you, then smile. "Congratulations on your wings," they say. You never even noticed them sprouting. You twist your head around and sure enough, there they are: two beautiful, sleek wings.

Still, you have more important things to worry about. Bit by bit, though, you think you're actually starting to make a dent in the freeform tags, and with your newfound wings, you can fly over broad swathes of fandom.

It gives you the courage to finally approach the character bins in earnest.

The wings seem to improve your skills; tags you once had trouble with now cower at the sight of you.

That's when you realise you recognise some of the characters in your bins.

You couldn't before; but now from the bird's view, you can see who they are, where they're from. They're your co-wranglers, old and new, and they're all crying for help.

You begin to think that by signing up as a wrangler, you've made a terrible mistake.

“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” your subconscious tells you.

You try to come up with a rescue plan, but the character tags are more intelligent than the freeforms. Many of them have been around for longer, and they have your fellow wranglers well guarded.

But your newly sprouted wings are nothing to scoff at either.

You fly off to tell staff about what you've found. "It's one of the dangers of wrangling," they explain kindly. "Didn't you read the fine print when you signed up?"

You stare, slack-jawed, at the sheer nonchalance. "B-b-b-but-" you splutter.

"The death and dismemberment clause isn't just for show," they say. "What do you think the ropes are for? It's so we can pull you away from danger. But some dangers, some tags -- they are too much, even for our ropes."

"So you're just going to sit and do nothing while these loyal wranglers suffer?" You're furious, trembling in rage at the indifference and cruelty.

You don't notice that your wings have spread wide and silhouette you like a broody noir hero. You don't notice that some staffers are squirming in discomfort and guilt.

You look your chairs straight in the eye and say, "If you're not going to help them, I will. And then I'm taking them away and none of us will come back to you ever again."

They roll their eyes at your bold claim.

"We've heard it all before," they say condescendingly. "Save yourself while you still can."

You ignore them and raise your sword proudly, the sunlight glinting off of its polished blade.

Your sword is pitifully small compared to the one the chair is brandishing at you, but a lucky feint allows you to knock their overcompensating tool out of their hand.

You have them at swordpoint now.

"You wouldn't dare," one of the chairs breathes.

"Wouldn't I?" You smirk, and bring the sword down on them.

The silence is deafening in the wrangling home page. Only the sounds of the terrified snivelling of the remaining chair echo.

You ignore them. You face the remaining staffers.

You give a rousing speech, bloody from the arterial spray of the beheading.

"Wranglers!" You shout. “We were taught to be loyal! We were taught that we were a sisterhood of dedicated fans!

“Instead, we were lied to! We were deceived! Are you really going to turn your backs on your former fandom friends? Friends who could be suffering from tags incorrectly marked as unwrangleable?

“Join me, fellow wranglers. You have a chance to be heroes, to save innocent lives, to put your wrangling skills to good use! Will you forgo your redemption?!”

“Er… some of us are guys,” one of the staffers pipes up hesitantly. “You, um, said “sisterhood” in your rousing speech. Perhaps change it to “brother- and sister-hood” to be more inclusive?”

You nod. Good idea. You repeat your rousing speech again, this time making sure that your language is all inclusive.

Only a few brave staffers move to take your offer of clemency, though. As for the rest, they stare at you in shock. They can't move. You realise you may have gone too far.

But then you remember how many wranglers they’ve sacrificed to the untamed bins.

“Cowards,” you scoff.

You don't look back as you fly away from the campfire, determined to save the other wranglers.

Behind you, some staffers have taken wing alongside you, followed by some other wranglers who have only just now realised the true dangers they faced. Their ropes are hanging from their hands, trailing them; their swords are at their hips, glinting in the sun.

Wranglers from all sorts of fandoms rush to join you, inspired by your noble goal.

You lead the flock, wings pumping with purpose.

You are an army.

Your own sword is still dripping with the chair's blood, but you ignore the stickiness. That chair made their choice.

The freeform tags on the ground are inching away from the sight of you, hiding in the shadows. They let out horrible squeals at your army of winged wranglers. You ignore them. They're not the ones intent on trapping innocents.

The relationship tags are screaming, but you don't have the time or the peace of mind to sing to them.

The character tags aren't so easily cowed, however, and they come forth out of the shadows, drawn by the scent of blood.

It's a rough fight. The character tags are riled up and fighting twice as hard as they usually do. But you are strong, and the knowledge that your sword has already tasted wrangler blood makes you more dangerous, somehow. More fierce.

It's not long before some of the newer wranglers make a quick retreat, unprepared for some of the creatures that lurk in the bins. But you are prepared, and you continue to fight your way deeper into the heart of the bins.

Only a few intrepid wranglers are able to keep up. Most of them are staffers, experienced and wise in the ways of the twisting turns the character tags might take.

You work well as a team, coordinating blows and covering each others backs. It is encouraging to finally work with a team again. You've missed that.

It's a hard battle, but ultimately you emerge victorious, only to see another wave of character tags converging upon your small group. You do what you must, and rally your spirits to fight once more.

Eventually, there's only one tag left.

You all rally for a final push, and manage to defeat the rogue tag. With the landscape clear, you rush forward to rescue your cowranglers.

They are so glad to see you that they are sobbing in relief, clinging on to you like stubborn suffixes.

"Thank you," they say, clearly this time, though some corrupted code still manages to slip through their voice.

"You'll get better," you awkwardly reassure them, because you don't really know yourself.

Still, the important thing is that you succeeded. You've saved your co-wranglers!

(Secretly, you're also glad to learn that they didn't abandon you willingly.)

In all the celebration and joy, you accidentally overlook one very important thing: the remaining chair.

They don’t take kindly to your dispatching of their co-chair, or to your heroic rescue mission. They want revenge.

But you’re the hero of the day, the new leader of the once scattered and divided wranglers. Any attack on you now would be folly.

But they know how to be patient from handling past wranglers and their quirks, and they know you would all be back sooner rather than later. They can wait.

Meanwhile, things settle down and everyone moves on. The rescued wranglers recover well, with only a few deciding to leave the wrangling life behind.

You yourself don't stop wrangling, either. But in order to minimise contact with the remaining chair and the staffers who hadn't joined the rescue operation, you drop some of your megafandoms, deciding to retreat to the safety of smaller, more easily domesticated fandoms.

Several months later, you receive a seemingly innocuous request from the remaining chair. A simple case of a character tag needing to be pulled bag from the wilds of No Fandom.

You're hesitant, but in the interest of mending relations with your superiors, you decide to accept. After all, you had braved the wilds of NF before. A second trip can't be any worse.

To be safe, you prepare yourself: tightening your ropes and sharpening your sword. You even say words that might be considered a parting to your cowranglers.

"Hey guys! I'm off to do some NF wrangling! Wish me luck!"

They flutter around you with their tattered wings, concerned. They haven't forgotten the chair's blood on your hands.

"I'll be fine," you say. "It's only one tag, and I know where I'm going."

They relent after a bit more fussing. Some of the more concerned wranglers press their swords into your hands.

"Just in case," they insist.

You wonder what good three swords will be when you only have two hands, but in the interest of being a good cowrangler, you accept the weapons anyway.

You set off into the unknown, confident in your skills as a now experienced wrangler.

As soon as you set foot into the wilderness though, you sense something is wrong. It's far too quiet. Usually, the wilderness is filled with the squeaking and type-shuffling of the small bookmarks tags, but today even their noises are gone.

You glance back almost involuntarily, but you decide to continue. You're probably just paranoid.

When nothing happens for several miles, you conclude you were overreacting, but as soon as you set foot in the forest, you hear footsteps coming up behind you. They are very, very loud, and make the ground tremble under your feet.

You spin around, reflexes honed from months of grueling solo wrangling. Your sword is in your hand, ready to cut down any tags.

It isn’t a tag, though. It’s the remaining chair. Or some sort of grotesque hybrid of monster parts that bears a passing resemblance to your remaining chair.

“What have they done to themselves?” You think to yourself in disgust, even as you step backwards in surprise. Unfortunately, they’ve gotten smarter. You’ve stepped right into their trap and are horrified to feel the ground give out under your feet. The sound of the chair's evil laugh rings in your ears as you tumble down an unending tunnel.

You find yourself in a horribly familiar place.

The characters bin.

But it's different. Worse, somehow. The characters are waiting, and they're hungry.

And there are no wranglers here now waiting to save you.

You fumble for your sword only to realize it's not by your side; neither are the other two you've been entrusted with. You close your eyes as the waiting horde closes in. The last thing you hear is their screams. Or maybe the screams are yours.

Your world turns dark.

The hordes descend.

You know no more.

The official story is that you're on hiatus. No one knows any differently until a staffer stumbles upon a familiar desiccated corpse in an unfilterable characters bin.

Somewhere far away, your remaining chair continues laughing.

The End