EDIT: Hey, guys! Sorry about the long wait - I’m going to be totally honest with you: I forgot this even existed. I’ll be updating more often, I promise! Of course, Terraria 1.3 is up now, I’ve been playing the heck out of it, and will be adding many of the main elements into the main storyline - it’s going to take quite a different turn than I originally intended and that’s a good thing. Remember the three Rs! Read, Reply, Redigit! See you next time! Hey everyone! I'm going to be posting a Terraria fanfiction that was written by my older brother (thanks LittleZbot! ), with his permission. The only thing I do is review the chapters and add it to TCF. The world is a little bit different in this fanfiction. Slightly more realistic, and apparently everything's a lot harder to beat. Anyways, here it is: Chapter 1 "Day 1 Your World is 24% Crimson ... He stumbled over a rough patch of land and fell to the ground. He stayed there for a second, enjoying the brief moment of rest, the only one he had gotten tonight. But howls from somewhere behind him gave the reminder that he could not afford to stay. If he dared stop for more than a few seconds, they would catch up. And there were things in this life worse than death. Just a few more miles ahead there was a town, and where there were towns, there were buildings. And where there were buildings, there was safety. Safety. Now there was a word that no longer had meaning. When people said their houses were "safe," what they really meant was "There's a door separating me from the outside." Well, he had come from a place where there was no safety. There was nothing they could do. If they made doors, the monsters would break them down. If they made stronger doors, the monsters would learn how to open them. If they made underground houses, dark creatures from the depths would rise into them. If they made houses on one of the few islands in the sky, magically held afloat by no known means, the sky-snakes would come for them, and the devil-birds would hunt them down. Right above ground, and, well, they'd be back where they started. But that was in the past. Recently, IT had come. A mysterious force that they had heard of many times, and hoped to the death that their small village would never see. It was like a plague, spreading everywhere, absorbing all. Everything it touched turned to blood. The stones in the street, the wood of the houses, even the monsters that hunted them. But worst of all were the people. If you where unlucky enough to be touched by the plague, you would become part of it. A horrible monster so hideous that nobody could bear to look at you. A mind so narrowed down that it now only thought one thing: kill. None could enter the plague and live. None. When the watchmen saw it on the horizon, they instantly ordered the village abandoned. There was nothing that could be done, except flee. Most families had taken separate paths, some sticking together for strength in numbers. They would try to reach another village before nightfall, to spend the night there, and continue to travel when daytime came. Daytime had its fair share of troubles, but nothing compared to night. Night was when the deadly ones came out. Night was when darkness enveloped you, blinding you to the many attacks that came come your way. Nobody in their right mind would go out at night. Which, of course, was exactly why he was out there. He had to be. He needed to do something big, something crazy, something that no ordinary person would ever, ever do. He had no choice, except maybe to completely give up and desert all hope of this world being saved. So he had continued on after the rest of his group had stopped about midday. Unfortunately, he hadn't considered a few key things. A few key things like taking a weapon, a light source, or really anything else. A few key things like constant hordes of monsters, screeching in the night, eager to taste his blood. A few key things like the nearest town being more than twenty miles away. Well, now it was two miles away, it was the middle of the night, and he had a weapon - if it could technically be called that. It was, after all, just a branch he had broken off a tree. But out here, everything was of importance. A branch was better than nothing. If you no weapon, and no shelter, you died. Simple as that. But why did he do it? Why did he run off like that, not giving a second thought to taking anything of use, or of the fast-approaching nightfall? Because he was the hero. Well, he was supposed to be. Ever since birth he was different. In a good way. He didn't need to learn to fight, to build, to survive. He already knew. He had wrestled slimes to the ground, caught bunnies, and even once touched a fabled piece of rock that once belonged to the very plague that had just struck them down. He was the special, the chosen one. There were very few of him in the world, and at sixteen, he had thought he could defeat anything. He was quickly being proven wrong. He saw it now. He was looking down on a small village, much simpler than his old one. There were just six buildings, each one small. He guessed that the one nearest to his left was the resident nurse's, judging from the white banner waving out the front. He began to head there. Key word: began. He hadn't taken two steps when something pounced upon him, knocking him down. He rolled over to see his attacker. A wolf. Ugh, he hated those things. They never went for anywhere but the neck, never showed until they attacked, and never gave up. His hand grabbed for his tree branch, and he was relieved to find that it hadn't fallen out of arm's reach. As the wolf growled and pounced again, he swatted it aside with the branch. It landed on its side, but was quickly back up, snarling and lunging at him again. He tucked into a ball and rolled to the side. The wolf tried to jump on top of him, but he jabbed the base of the branch into its stomach. The wolf fell on its back, and jumped up once again. He wasn't prepared for the wolf when it leaped onto him. In a last-ditch effort to keep it away from his neck and certain death, he shoved the tree branch out horizontally. The wolf's jaw snapped shut on the branch instead of his neck. A struggle for power began, the wolf pulling one way, he the other. They were practically in a dance as they moved all across the terrain, each trying to push off the other. Finally, he shoved the branch above his head, ducking as the wolf went with it, flipping the other way around before slamming its head on a large rock. The wolf stopped moving. He slowly exhaled and pulled his branch out of the wolf's mouth. It was now practically useless, torn nearly to shreds from the wolf's strong jaws. He tossed it away in disgust. He instantly regretted that when he felt a knife up against his throat. All his body motions stopped, including his breathing. His face went white. His eyes slowly moved so he could see what was holding him there. He saw only a set of regular traveler's clothes, upright in the air, like someone had just put them on. Only there was no body. He knew instantly what it was. A restless, angry spirit, tortured by the underworld, only recently freed from his prison. It was going to take out all of its anger on anything it saw, including him. He shut his eyes, ready for the sound of the deft movement that would mean his demise. But instead he heard something else. The sound of rustling in the grass, and then the howling shriek of a spirit returning to its home. The knife dropped. Cautiously, he turned around. The clothes had now fallen in a pile at the feet of a young woman holding a large dagger. She grabbed his hand and pulled him along with her until they entered a house. She slammed the door behind him, then stood there, arms crossed. "Do you want to tell me what the heck you were doing outside at night?" "Not really." "Let me rephrase that. Tell me now or I'll throw you back out." "Well, isn't somebody angry, for talking to a guy who hasn't done anything wrong." "Well, isn't somebody confident, for talking to a girl that just saved his life." He rolled his eyes. "Fine. I was bored, so I decided to see how many monsters I could take out with a stick." "I see that your current record is 'one.'" "Look, it's a long story, and not one that I particularly feel like delving into after my throat was almost slit." "Fine, fine. Sorry." Well, he could tell this was going to go just wonderfully. He'd only seen this girl for two minutes, and they were already at each other's throats. She looked to be his age, and about his height, maybe a little shorter. Her chestnut-brown hair was loose and reached just past her shoulders, where it was braided tightly. Her face was locked in a scowl, which surprisingly felt unsettling. He looked around him. This was a simple, but decent home. It looked to just contain two or three rooms. One was probably a bedroom, and another the kitchen. He was likely standing in the living room now. He decided to attempt a different conversation. "This is your place?" Her scowl softened slightly, and she slowly nodded. "Any parents?" "Nope. Werewolves." He nodded slightly. "Wyverns." She started to nod back, then stopped halfway. "Wait, wyverns? So, you're from the sky islands?" "Was. Like I said, a long story." "Yeah," She glanced around and sighed. "Guess you might as well spend the night here. Don't expect the bed, though." He cracked a half-smile. "Trust me, I've had to sleep on a lot worse things than a wooden floor." "Good," She said, and stuck out her hand. He took it in a fim handshake. "Your name?" she asked. "Leanodro Melvin Harxwell. Friends call me Leo." "Alright, Leanodro," she said, being careful to say his full name to show that she was not a friend, "My name is Kayla Autumn Jynt. Friends call me Kayla." Leo raised an eyebrow. "No nickname?" "If you call me Kay, I will kill you." He raised his hands in surrender. "Sure. Whatever. Kayla works." They were both interrupted by loud banging on the door. Leo looked out to see a large horde of Zombies pounding it. He sighed in exasperation. A Shadow or Wraith was sure to come soon. He knew why they were there. A curse of being a hero was that every monster in the area was attracted to you, like bunnies to a carrot. "They're coming after me," he announced blatantly. "Why?" Kayla questioned. "It's part of that 'long story.' I'll take first watch." Kayla didn't disagree. She could already tell from the noise that there were more monsters outside than there had ever been before. Instead, she threw him a small sword, which he caught in the air. "Thanks." She didn't reply, just went straight to bed. Leo pulled up a chair and sat down. This was going to be a long night. ... Apparently "first watch" really meant "all night," because that's how long Leo sat there. One or two monsters had tried to come through the windows, but were quickly cut down. The rest stayed outside, until daytime came. Leo waited until he couldn't hear anything anymore, then cautiously stuck his head out. It wasn't instantly removed by a Zombie, so that was a relief. He glanced around the place to make sure all the monsters had really cleared out. When you were a hero, you couldn't afford to take chances. He had considered waking Kayla up earlier that night, but had decided against it. He had no idea how skilled with a blade she was. Sure, she had saved his life, but the Outfit possessed by the Shadow had been focused on him, and was surprised by her attack. He didn't know how she would have fared had it noticed her. Maybe she was ten times as good as he was, maybe she could barely use it. He wasn't willing to take the risk. Besides, he had a lot to think about. He had long since learned how to think over the Zombie noises outside, and now he was doing more of it than he had in quite a while. His main question was whether or not he still wanted to go through with this. From what he heard and what he knew, it didn't sound inviting. He wasn't even in the Deathland yet, and he had almost been killed twice. In the end, he decided, once again, that he had to. Otherwise things would forever remain the same as now. He couldn't let that happen, whether or not the solution was temporary. Next question - what would Kayla think? Would she want to come with him after hearing his story? Probably not. And since she technically had to, he was going to have to make up some sort of sob story on the spot. He wasn't very good at that. He looked back at the room she was sleeping in now. Well, if he was going to go on this insane adventure, he needed something to eat first. He got up and went to the kitchen to see what all she had stored in there. What he didn't notice was somebody watching him through a window. Somebody that was no monster, but if you could see his soul, you would not know the difference. And he was not there with the very best of intentions." Chapter 2 "Day 2 Your world is 25% Crimson The sky jiggles above you... ... It had been years since Kayla was last woken by anything other than her incredibly rude neighbor playing his "totally radical" music box and dancing in his living room. Today, though, she was woken up by something far more pleasant: the smell of frying fish. As she kept silent in her bed, she wondered why she couldn't always be this well-treated. Then she remembered last night. Oh. That was why. Of course, this "Leo" guy was making the breakfast. He wanted to do something to repay her for saving his life. Well, it wasn't going to be that easy. No way. Besides, that was still her fish he was cooking up. If he had really wanted to be even, he should have gone out and caught something himself. Well, it was still breakfast, and whether she wanted to admit it or not, just laying down and smelling the food was driving her crazy. So, she slowly stood up and began walking toward the kitchen. She didn't need to get dressed - she had gone to bed in her clothes. She tried to remember why, but her head was still too foggy. Well, there was the table, with two plates on it. On one plate there was already a wonderfully prepared trout that appeared to have been stuffed with something brown. It smelled delicious, but Kayla didn't want to just dig in to a meal prepared by a suspicious-looking guy who she had known all of one night, and talked to all of ten minutes. Speaking of which, there he was, a large spoon in one hand and a salt shaker in the other, wearing a chef's hat and an apron, both of which made him look absolutely ridiculous. She honestly had no idea how he had even gotten them in the first place. She never kept anything like that. She was only a little more curious to see how he flipped the fish using the spoon. Sadly, she didn't get the chance to find out, as he apparently decided the fish was done and dumped it from the pan onto the empty plate. "You missed your watch last night," he said blatantly. Kayla suddenly remembered. Of course! That was why she had slept in her clothes, because she was going to be up again in two hours and wanted to be prepared. "Sorry," she groaned. "Hey, no problem. You did sort of save my life, after all." He sat down, taking off the hat and putting his hands behind his head. He glanced at Kayla, then nodded at the other plate, gesturing for her to take a seat, which she did reluctantly. Even so, she just sat there, not saying a word, not taking a bite. Leo did the same. After a little more than a minute, he finally broke the silence by saying, "Aren't you going to try it?" "I am accustomed to letting the chef take the first bite," she replied shortly. He rolled his eyes. "Seriously? We let my world-famous trout get cold for that?" "If you would-" "Now, wait a minute, Miss Jynt," he interrupted, "No matter who you are, or how you were raised, or what food you're used to, you never let Leo's Trout get cold. Never. Now, pick up that fork and eat." Kayla was not used to being interrupted. She glared at Leo, but complied with his request, and carefully lifted a forkful of the fish to her mouth. She betrayed no emotion, but was surprised at how flavorful the food was. Whenever she prepared a trout, it was always tasteless, no matter what she did. This tasted like, well, how it was supposed to taste. She had never really eaten a good fish, but somehow she could tell that this was what the flavor of fish really was. "What is it stuffed with?" she questioned, after swallowing. "Wild mushrooms. Picked and washed them myself." A look of alarm passed her face. "Are they safe?" He chuckled. "They better be. I've been eating them for the past week or so. How is it?" "Why don't you taste it for yourself, and tell me?" "Because I like it when other people compliment my food." "And what if I hated it?" "You didn't." Now a look of surprise found itself on her face. "How did you know?" "Nobody ever hates my food. Besides, you just gave it away." She sighed. "Yeah, I guess I did." They continued eating in silence. When both plates were finally empty, spare a few bones, Kayla sat back and asked her question. "Now, tell me about this 'long story' of yours." He sighed a sad, deep, almost mystical sigh. While somebody else might have been fooled, though, Kayla knew it was fake. "My tale of woe," he began, "takes place many years ago. Back then, I was but a small child, living happily with both parents alive and well, in our simple dwelling, dangerously close to the caves of despair-" "Wait, you told me last night you lived on the sky islands." "Oh, yeah, I did. Uh, well, you see, we DID live on the sky islands, but that was years before this." "Then how did your parents die from Wyverns?" "Wait, I told you that?" "Yep. Also told me that they were killed by the Wyverns while living on the sky islands. So, how is it that this is many years later and they're both 'alive and well?'" she asked. Technically, that part was a lie, but it was a good enough guess, and it was pitifully obvious that this guy was lying himself. "Uh..." "Look, spare all the lies. I want to know the truth. What are you doing here, fighting monsters on the streets at night, and making up stories to cover yourself?" He leaned forward and answered with a less-than-satisfactory-response. "Look, it's a really long story, and I'd sure love to explain it to you sometime, but right now I'm running out of time. I probably shouldn't even be staying here chatting. What you need to know is that I'm heading to the Deathland, and I need you to come with me." As unsatisfactory as it was, the answer still shocked her at at least two different parts. She decided to deal with the most immediate one first. "Me? Why?" "Because you're a Guide." Okay, that was too much. She had long tried to keep that a secret. Yes, she was technically a Guide, but that didn't mean she was proud of it. She hadn't exactly had a choice in the matter, and would much rather have been something else. It wasn't that it was boring or she didn't like it, but rather that Guiding was such a...a...manly job. Ninety-nine percent of all guides, she guessed, were male, and she happened to be one of the lucky few female ones. Whoop-Dee-Doo, a free pass for endless teasing. "How did you know that?" she asked, barely containing her anger. "Another part of that story. I need a Guide." "Then find another one. I'm not helping you on a suicide mission. Why do you even want to go to the Deathland, anyway?" "Let's just say I have no choice, just like you." "No, NOT just like me! I have a choice, and I'm staying put." He got up, slammed his hands onto the table and stared her in the eye. "Not if you want to survive. The Plague is coming." That got her attention. "What?" He solemnly nodded. "It gets faster every day now. Nobody knows what's speeding it up, but I do know that it's going to reach here in less than two days." All of her anger was instantly replaced by fear. She had heard horror stories about The Plague ever since she was a little child. "But...that's just a myth...right?" Leo shook his head. "Trust me, it's no myth. I wish it were. But I've been racing it for the last two weeks. I've seen what it does to what it touches. It's worse than everything we heard about it. Much worse." Kayla jumped up and shouted, "We've got to warn them! The town has to be evacuated!" "This and all the others." Leo said darkly. "Until a solution can be found. Now, hurry. They might listen to you. I'll get some supplies for our journey - assuming you're coming with." Suddenly Kayla realized what Leo must be doing. His village had been touched by The Plague, and he was running ahead to warn all the towns and villages before it was too late. There was no way she wasn't going to help out. "Of course I'm coming," she snapped, "Now, let's hurry." ... Less than an hour later, the two met right outside town. "That was fast," commented Leo. "It's a small town. About a fourth of them didn't believe me. I'd hate to be them in a few days. So, what did you get?" "Not much. Some food and water, a grappling hook, a flare in case something really bad happens, three grenades, a decent sword for me. I assume you have your own weapon?" "You assume right." Kayla touched the base of the spear sticking out of her small pack. Leo nodded. "Good. We still have a few hours before dark. You're the guide, so where do we go?" Kayla called upon her instinctive talent of being able to tell what to do next. "Well, if you're going to the Deathland, you're going to need a key. As far as I know, there's only one key to that place, in a heavily guarded underground building. The guy who built the wall separating it from the rest of the world didn't want anybody opening that door. But, for now, there's another town about ten miles from here. If we set out now, we can reach it before dark." "Let's go, then. Night is NOT a time to be searching for shelter. ... They had been walking for about a half an hour, conversing about the upcoming journey for the last ten minutes or so. "If you're intent on this suicide mission," Kayla informed him, "You're going to need more people with you than me. I'd say that we at least need a nurse and a dryad." "I get the nurse, but why a dryad?" "Dryads are part of nature. They have some sort of special connection to it, meaning they know exactly how much The Plague has spread, and how close it is to us. They're also naturally good fighters, but the more The Plague spreads, the weaker they'll become. I'd recommend getting one sooner rather than later." Leo nodded, showing he understood. Then, without warning, he halted. Kayla began to ask, "What are you-" "Shh," Leo told her. She stopped and listened, but couldn't make out anything. They stayed put for another few minutes, but no more sounds were made. Kayla looked up nervously at the sun. They didn't have time to waste. "The sun's not waiting for us. We should get going." Leo turned to her, probably to say something like "You're right, let's go," but froze in his tracks. "What?" Leo mouthed "Don't move," and continued to stare at her. Kayla wasn't sure what to think. She looked down at herself, but there was nothing unusual. Did she have something on her face? Why would Leo stare- "GET DOWN!" he shouted. Not waiting for her to obey, he jumped over and shoved her over. Kayla briefly caught a glance of something big and blue right above her. She swerved her head over to where Leo used to be standing. There it was. A huge, correction, GIANT blue slime with something strange inside its body that she couldn't quite make out was standing there. Not for long, though. Even as she watched, it jumped again, aiming for where they were now. "MOVE!" Leo shouted again. Kayla didn't need to be told twice. She rolled out of the way just as it landed where they had been. "What is that?!" Leo shouted. "Um..." Kayla, using her inherited ability to quickly review everything she ever read or heard about on something, scrolled through everything she knew about slimes. Finally she remembered. "That's a King Slime. Very rare, much smarter, much bigger, much stronger. Possessed by a Shadow, it thinks like a human, and rages like a monster." "Okay, that's fine and dandy, but do you remember how to kill it?!" "Not really." "Great," Leo said, "We'll have to improvise. Get out your spear." Leo himself took out his new sword. It was made of silver and glinted against the sun. Kayla's spear was simple, made of bronze, but it had protected her family for longer than she could remember. Until the day it no longer was enough... Kayla shuddered and shook her head to clear her thoughts. Now was most definitely not the time to be thinking of those things. She turned her head to ask Leo what his plan was, but he wasn't there. Instantly she turned back to the King Slime, and there he was, struggling to pull his sword out of its surprisingly thick body. Kayla made a mental note never to let Leo come up with the plans. She ran up behind the King Slime and shouted to get its attention. It was hard to tell, since slimes don't have a front or back, but it seemed to take notice, as it jumped over to her. "The Shadow! Hit the Shadow!" Leo shouted to her. Kayla saw his logic. If the Shadow were to go, the King Slime would lose its ability to think properly, giving it a severe disadvantage. Kayla jumped up on top of a rock behind her about half the size of the slime. Before it could follow her, she leaped on top of it, jabbing her spear down in an attempt to get through to the Shadow in the center. The spear stopped just inches away. Kayla tried to pull it out for another attempt, but was surprised by how hard it was. She grabbed the handle by both hands and jerked, but it stayed put. She now understood why Leo was struggling so much to get his sword out. Suddenly her whole body jerked, and she would have fallen off if she wasn't holding her spear so tightly. Looking down, she saw blasted hole in the ground where the side of the King Slime was. She looked over at Leo to see that he had taken off his pack and thrown a grenade. Bad idea. Apparently King Slimes were immune to explosions, and now it was ignoring Kayla and headed toward Leo. Then it did something that shocked both of them. The King Slime began to bulge on the left side, almost like something was pushing to get out. Out of that bulge grew a giant hand. "When could it do that?!" Kayla screamed. Leo didn't reply. Instead he backed off as the giant slime grew closer. It turned out to be futile, since the King Slime just stretched its hand out farther and shoved him onto the ground, pinning him there. Another bulge grew out of the slime's right side, and out came a hand, carrying a giant sword. Kayla had never heard of anything like this happening, but she couldn't think about that right now. She had to save Leo. Again. She jumped off of the King Slime and ran over to Leo's pack. There was the flare gun, the two remaining grenades, the food (Really? He couldn't have picked something besides Pad Thai?) and, last of all, the grappling hook. None of it seemed like it would have any effect on the King Slime. She looked over to see the King Slime holding his sword right above Leo, ready for the killing stab. Frantic, she decided to try something. She grabbed the grappling hook and shot it over to Leo. It latche donto the only uncovered part of him - his head. With some effort, Kayla finally got Leo out from under the hand just as the sword came down. "That's two you owe me," she said the moment he reached her. He unhooked the grapple and replied, "Yeah, and it's about to be three. I'm going in." "Wait, what?" "We're never going to get anywhere if we don't kill that Shadow. Here's what's going to happen: I'm going to go in with a grenade, set it to a timer of about five seconds, plant it right at his feet, and you're going to pull me out." Kayla gave him a look that even she wasn't sure what meant. "You're insane. You're going to die." "I guess that's up to you." Leo didn't wait for her approval, but just snatched a grenade and ran. Once he reached the slime, he headbutted it, and to Kayla's surprise, it worked. He went straight inside the King Slime. Kayla sighed. Why was she always left with the hard work? Whatever. She kept track of Leo as he set the timer and let go of it. Thanks to the gel-like insides of the King Slime, it stayed put. Kayala launched the hook, and as it came to Leo, he grabbed it. Kayla pulled back, clearing Leo of the slime a few seconds before it exploded. Gel flew everywhere, hitting both of them. A helmet landed at Kayla's feet, obviously belonging to the Shadow. She picked it up and wiped off the gel. "So that's why it was so smart." Kayla realized. "The Shadow - it was a warrior. This helmet has been used many times. Each badge he got, he painted on here." "That slime was the least of our troubles," Leo said, looking at the sun. Kayla grimaced. "We're not going to make it before sunset, are we?" "Nope. But that's not the worst of it." For a second, Kayla wondered what he meant. Then she got a glimpse of the moon, which was just barely beginning to appear. It was red. Tonight was going to be a Blood Moon. "Oh, joy," she muttered." Chapter 3 Day 2 Your World is 26% Crimson The Blood Moon is rising... ... Leo would have died three times during the first two hours that night if Kayla wasn't watching his back. He hated zombies enough as it was. Now they were quick, strong, and bloodthirstier than usual. Bloodthirstier. Was that even a word? Leo wasn't sure, but he decided now was not the time to find out. "Behind you!" Leo swung his sword around, knocking off the head of another zombie. "How many is that you owe me?" "Four, I think." "Wrong. Or have you already forgotten about earlier today?" "Oh yeah. Seven." "Much better." Leo decided it was unlikely that he would understand Kayla anytime soon. That was fine with him, so long as Kayla didn't question where they were going and why. He could owe her a few debts, so long as she didn't demand the payment in answers. That was one thing he would not be giving out for a while. It was best to let her think whatever she was thinking right now, at least until he trusted her more. Trusted her more. Huh, that was a funny thought. She'd saved his life seven times. If she wanted him to fail at whatever she thought was his goal, she would have let him die a long time ago. He'd technically trusted her with his life already. How much more could he trust her? He knew the answer. A lot. Yes, she'd saved him numerous times, but that was likely only for whatever cause she thought he had. If she knew what he was really working torward, she would never help him. Heck, she'd probably kill him. Well, one more reason to keep her in the dark. He whirled backwards just in time to stab a Wandering Eye through its disturbingly large mouth before it chomped down on Kayla's head. "Now it's only six," he announced. Kayla narrowed her eyes. "Just wait. Before the night is over, you'll owe me twice that many." "Is that a challenge?" "You could call it that." "Then I accept," Leo said, stabbing the air behind his back. Where he had just stabbed, a wraith became visible for a few seconds before dispersing to the underworld. "Five." Kayla hurled her spear past him, striking a large zombie holding an ax. "Six again." Leo grinned. A competition to kill the most monsters was a very effective way of keeping people distracted. He should know. I'm not helping you on a suicide mission. Those were the words she had spoken just that morning. Leo laughed softly. How ironic it was that she had said that. He grappled a blue slime and swung it into a zombie, knocking them both down. "Four." Kayla plunged her spear through a zombie's head and used it as a projectile, flinging it off into a zombie that crashed into yet another zombie. "Seven." Leo surprised himself by laughing. He was actually having fun. He turned around to face Kayla, and the smile vanished. "BEHIND YOU!" he screamed. Kayla instantly ducked and rolled to the left, narrowly avoiding an axe to the skull. Leo barely noticed the zombie wielding it; he just threw his sword at it. The sword stuck into the zombie's chest and knocked him down. Leo started running to retrieve his weapon. Then he stopped about four feet away and stared. The zombie got up. It proceeded to pluck the blade out of its chest and brandished it as a weapon. The chest had recieved relatively minor damage. Now Leo had a good look at the zombie. It was no larger than himself, but looked about twice as strong. Other than that it looked like a normal zombie, except for the strange top hat it was wearing. "Leanodro!" Kayla shouted out. Leo bent over backwards just in time for the axe to go flying over his head and get stuck in a tree behind him. The zombie had thrown it. With perfect aim, too. He didn't think about what he did next. He just grabbed the axe and lunged at the zombie. It grabbed his hand before it could touch him and twisted it around, flipping Leo onto his back and slamming him into the ground. Leo never wanted that to happen again. He shouted out in pain, sure the creature had broken a few bones of his. His right wrist was dislocated, and his whole arm felt effectively useless without it. His vision turned fuzzy and he could barely make out the creature standing over him with his axe back. The creature swung his axe down, but Leo managed to roll out of the way, though it jolted him so much he nearly vomited. He gathered strength into his left leg and kicked the zombie in the arm, causing it to drop the axe as it clutched its arm. "What is it?" he shouted to Kayla. "The Groom." Her voice made it sound like she was talking about Slenderman or something. "What?" "A legend. A story that mothers tell their children to get them to behave. He's supposed to only come out during Blood Moons, wear a top hat, and be strong enough to rip your head off your shoulders and just as hard to kill." Leo gulped. "I see." He dodged another blow from the axe. "How do you kill it?" "You don't. He's never died in any of the stories." "Seriously?" "Well, he's supposed to strike fear into kids' hearts! That's a lot harder to do if they know he can be defeated." "So he can?" "I don't know! All the information I have about this guy comes from those ghost stories you tell around a campfire." Leo scooted away as a blow almost hit one of his legs. "Lovely." He glanced back at Kayla and noticed she was fighting something else. Something with makeup, a wild outfit, and a bag of bombs that was riding on a giant ball. He blinked. "Is that a clown you're fighting?" Kayla glared at him. "Mind your own business. From the looks of it, you've got plenty." "Oh, yeah." Leo scooted away from another swipe and managed to finally stand up. He snatched a small sword from a nearby zombie corpse and sliced the handle off the axe. The Groom stared at it for a second before tossing the axe head high into the sky. Leo stared up for a few seconds. Holy crap. That thing would take at least three minutes before it came down. Was this how strong The Groom was? Leo quickly chided himself for asking stupid questions when he almost died as the sword missed his head. He jumped out of the way again. The Groom had missed that time (lucky for him), but had almost hit dead on with his axe when Leo was several feet away. Was it farsighted, maybe? Was that its weakness? Leo quickly thought up a plan. It was a stupid plan, and would probably get him killed, but it was a plan. He lunged at The Groom, attempting to get a hit in. The Groom blocked, which sent vibrations all throughout Leo's good hand. He never knew blocking could have such power. The Groom knocked him down and sliced down. Leo raised his own block, but he almost lost his hold as soon as The Groom's blade met his. The Groom kept applying more and more pressure, and Leo knew he wouldn't be able to keep this up. He kicked The Groom's hand, forcing it to stop applying so much pressure. Leo rolled out of the path of the oncoming strike. The Groom swung down, hitting the ground where Leo had just been. Angrily, it swung again toward Leo's new location. Leo dodged, but suffered a gash across his arm. He jumped back out of The Groom's reach, though the motion and thought of everything flying around him caused him to force vomit back down his throat. Well, that was useless. The Groom simply leaped over to Leo and swung again. Leo blocked the blow, but his weakened arm forced him to his knees. He tried to move his right arm, but found he couldn't. It was very lucky he'd trained in single-handed combat with both arms. He applied more pressure to his block, but knew that if he tried any harder, his sword would break, and then he'd be a goner for sure. He slammed his head into The Groom's Hand, causing it to stumble back a bit, which allowed Leo to escape this position. He rolled around behind The Groom and stabbed its leg. If it was anything but a zombie, it would have at least winced, he was sure of it. But zombies don't feel pain, which had caused him trouble in the past, and even more trouble now. The Groom kicked its leg back, hitting Leo's head, which sent him flying back several feet and struggling to keep himself awake. He landed on his wrist, spraining it. It was now out of the game for the rest of the night. He vomited out blood and tried desperately not to give in to his mind, which was beckoning him into the peaceful realm of unconsciousness. His vision was getting fuzzier, and there seemed to be three of everything. The Groom was slowly moving towards him. Gathering up his courage and strength, he launched himself at The Groom, landing right in front of it. He grasped his sword with his teeth and pulled it out of The Groom's leg. He attempted a slice, but, due to his failing vision, completely misjudged the swing. Instead, his sword hit a rock and flew out of his reach. Leo groaned. Suddenly he was on his back with all the wind knocked out of him. He felt a rib fracture. He wasn't sure what had happened, but he thought The Groom must've kicked him in the chest. Its foot stepped on his left arm, crushing it and leaving it out of the picture for good. Leo screamed, and the only thing keeping him awake were the explosions he kept hearing from Kayla's fight with the clown thing. The Groom triumphantly raised a foot over Leo's head to finish him. Please, oh please, let my timing b e right. Leo prayed. He was too sleepy to even know who he was praying to, but right now he felt it didn't matter. Whoever it was, they answered it. Thwack! The Groom stumbled back and forth for three seconds before it finally toppled over, dead. The axe head that it had thrown up into the air a little over three minutes ago had finally landed. And when it did, it split the creature's head. Leo sighed. He'd won. Right now he didn't even care how many more zombies and other monsters there were. He knew what he needed now, whether he died or not. The last thing he remembered was a shout and somebody picking him up before he fell into the bliss that was sleep. … When he woke up, the sun was in his eyes. Instantly he knew that was bad. It was past midday, and if he didn't move now, they'd be up another night fighting off monsters. But the moment he tried to get up, he decided it was a much better idea to lay down and hope he wasn't eaten tonight. "You're awake," he heard somebody say. He was surprised his ears were working. Often, after he took a beating, he'd wake up with a roaring in his ears that drowned out everything else, and he'd never been as beaten up than he was last night. He glanced around and saw Kayla cooking something over a frying pan. "Awake?" he asked. Everything was still a little fuzzy, especially with his memory. "How long?" "What?" "How long was I asleep?" She shrugged. "Two days, maybe." "TWO DAYS?" he screamed, and then instantly regretted it when it gave him a splitting headache. "Lie down," she demanded, "You're not ready to get up yet." He knew they'd wasted enough time. "I'm fine," he lied. "No, you're not. If you were, we wouldn't still be out here. We'd probably have already visited town, picked up supplies, and be well on our way to the next village. Right now, the town's still several miles away." Leo blinked a few times. He suddenly noticed that he was under some sort of shelter made of leaves and branches. It was sturdy, and would protect them from the weather, if not he monster attacks. The thought of monsters suddenly gave rise to a new question. "How'd we survive during the night?" She rolled her eyes, "I protected you, of course." "What?" Leo didn't quite believe it, but suddenly he noticed Kayla herself. Her arms and legs had at least six cuts and two gashes, each tied up with leaf bandages. There was a bite mark on her shoulder, likely where a Wandering Eye had caught her by surprise. Her hair looked like a bird had tried to make it into a nest, and her clothes were torn in several places. He particularly noticed a large burn on her forearm. He had no idea how she got that. "You…really did," he stammered. "What did you think I was going to do? Leave you out there for all the monsters?" "You survived two nights by yourself while protecting me?" "I wasn't going to let you die. Do you want some fish?" She brought over the pan. It had a sizzling, fresh bass in it. Funnily enough, it was the same pan he had used just a few days ago to make fish for her. "Yeah," he said. He tried to sit up, but as surprised when he couldn't move either of his arms. Then he remembered The Groom's crushing foot and shuddered. He wasn't surprised they wouldn't move. "You have at least ten broken bones," Kayla said, "Mostly in your arms and chest. Don't expect to be walking very soon, either. Two were in your left leg." Leo was suddenly very grateful for Kayla. There was no way he could have ever survived without her. If she had abandoned him for even a few hours he might be dead. He glanced behind him and froze. "What?" Kayla asked him. Then she followed his gaze lost her voice. Far away, the sky, plants, and the very air had turned red. The Plague was catching up. Chapter 4 Day 5 Your World is 30% Crimson … “Son of a biscuit eater,” Kayla muttered. Leo raised an eyebrow. “Been expanding your vocabulary?” Kayla ignored him. Staring at the Plague had become an obsession the moment she saw it. Not because she wanted it to be, or because it was beautiful, or anything like that. On the contrary, it was uglier than anything she’d ever seen. No, it was the mysterious feeling of dread that compelled her. Dread, and something more. Pain, misery, death. And blood - the entire thing reeked of blood. She couldn’t smell it, and she hoped she’d never be close enough to, but she could practically see the waves emanating off of every single red tinge there, and she knew, just knew, that it all stank of blood. That was partially why she was so drawn to it, like rain was drawn to a window. It doesn’t want to hit the window, it just sort of does. That was how she felt as her eyes went deeper and deeper into the red- “Don’t look at it.” She shook her head to clear it. “Why not?” “Can’t you see it? The entire place is filed to the brim with death, the perfect bait for a Terrarian. Just looking at it too long will make you want to go inside more than anything.” He shuddered. “Believe me, I know.” She blinked rapidly. “Death? The perfect bait? That’s disgusting! What kind of sick person would be attracted to death?” “Almost everyone,” he answered quietly. “You’re…you’re kidding, right?” He turned so that she could see how serious his face was. “Not a bit.” Kayla exhaled quietly, the air causing some of her hair up front to fly back into her eye. She moved it back. “I don’t believe this.” “That’s because you’re thinking of bait in the traditional sense. What do we use to catch bunnies?” “Um, vegetables?” “And what about fish?” “Worms, mostly.” “And what if you want to attract a human-eater?” “Another human. Of course, you kill the creature before it actually gets to the bait.” A small smile ran across Leo’s face. “Well, we try. Now what do all of those have in common?” Kayla thought for a few seconds before the answer came to her. “They’re food. Attractive foods for the creatures that we want to capture.” “Exactly. Each piece of bait is something they like, something they want. That’s bait in the traditional sense.” Kayla wasn’t sure if she already knew the answer to this, but she asked anyway. “What does the Plague use?” “I already told you. Death.” “But that…that doesn’t-” “Make sense? Miss Jynt, it makes perfect sense. It’s the ultimate bait. Tell me, what eats, or, at least, is attracted to, dead flesh?” “Scavengers?” Leo nodded. “And nearly every other carnivore. Of course, some prefer fresh meat, but in general, food is better if it’s not running away. That place always smells like something just died, attracting every predator in the vicinity, and once they enter, they turn into…” Leo suddenly stopped, his face growing pale as a memory apparently flooded it. Kayla didn’t want to disturb him, but she needed to know. “Turn into what?” He looked at her with an almost blank expression. “Let’s just say that when you see one, the picture will never leave your mind.” Kayla’s hair began to stand on end as she imagined dozens of different, horrible monsters that could be lurking in that crimson tinge. She couldn’t help but wonder if those from her town were among them- or how many. How many had survived the Blood Moon? Very few, she expected. She and Leo were trained warriors (at least, she assumed Leo was) and they’d barely survived it. The thought brought her back to the main question at hand. “That’s animals. How does it attract people?” “Terrarians are different from animals. Most of us won’t eat dead flesh, and we certainly aren’t attracted to the smell of it. No, the Plague uses death to take advantage of one of our most basic instincts: Curiosity. What happens when we die? Nobody knows for sure.” “There’s an underworld - that’s where the Shadows and Wraiths come from. You know that.” “But is that it? I’d hate to think that all the heroes and brave people end up becoming demons in another realm alongside murderers. And we know there are gods out there - they’ve given us some of our greatest weapons. I’d think they’d be a little more fair.” “We could all end up like that cursed guy.” Kayla offered. “Did you ever hear about him?” “Yup. Wandered around hell forever right? What did they use on him to turn him back to normal? Holy Water?” “Purification Powder. Did you hear what he did from then on?” “Yep. Every night, he’d sneak into people’s houses and steal some money from them. When caught, he’d always claim he was “collecting taxes,” whatever that means.” Leo grinned. “Apparently some of the underworld’s habits stayed with him.” Kayla said, smirking. They shared a laugh. Then Leo’s face grew more serious. “The truth is, we don’t know, so we’re curious. We’re curious about death. Then the Plague gives off an aura that enhances it, I guess. Makes it so that the curiosity is so strong that you want to go in, see what you can find. Then, well,” at this his voice grew a great deal heavier, “you never make it out.” Kayla knew that he must have lost some friends, or maybe even family to the Plague. She actually began to feel sorry for him, if only a little. “What were their names?” He knew what she was talking about; there was no need to ask. “Kevin, Finn, Iris…many more.” She placed her hand on his best leg, careful to pick a spot that wouldn’t hurt. “I’m sorry.” He said nothing. Kayla took another look at the Plague and stood up firmly. “We have to move. With luck, there’s a nurse in the next town.” He eyed her. “Any ideas on how to get there?” She sucked in her mouth. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I can’t move you, and if I leave, you’ll die in three hours.” Leo closed his eyes. “Okay, tell me what we’ve got left. Both packs. Maybe I can think of something.” Kayla had already tried that three times, but it couldn’t hurt to try it again. A new set of eyes could mean a lot. She began unpacking each item as she named it, starting with the things that were already unpacked. “A frying pan, a fishing pole, plenty of bait, my spear, your now-useless silver sword-” “Why’s it now-useless?” “It couldn’t stand The Groom’s strength. It’s been dulled and is now nearly broken. You’ll have to get a new one once we reach the next town.” Leo seemed slightly disappointed, but didn’t say anything. Kayla continued. “Three jugs of water, one grenade, a pair of wire cutters in case someone decides to guard their house and we want in, the grappling hook, quite a bit of money, a shackle or two, The Groom’s Top Hat-” “What?” She took out the Top Hat and tossed it over to him. “It’s a trophy, a sign that you beat The Groom. I intended to give it to you once you were fully healed.” Leo slowly moved his fingers along the brim of the hat until they met the gap between the fabric, where the axe head had hit. “Thanks.” Kayla stayed silent. Over the past two days, she’d nearly forgotten that Leo had taken on The Groom. And won. She’d never heard of anything so impressive. She actually felt ashamed for how much she chided him and argued with him. Anyone who could do what she’d seen him do should get more respect than that. He gestured with his head to keep going. “And an absurd amount of Pad Thai.” “You didn’t eat any?” “How could I? Why did you pack food that tastes like poison?” He shrugged. “I like it.” Kayla was about to roll her eyes and say something back, but she remembered to hold her tongue. “Is that it?” he asked. She double-checked. “Yes.” He furrowed his eyebrows. “Something’s missing.” “Okay, what?” “I’m not sure. It just feel like something’s missing.” He stayed quiet for a few more minutes before his eyes shot open and he cried “Of course!” Kayla hurried over to him. “What?” “The flare gun!” Kayla was confused for a moment. What flare gun? She didn’t remember them having one- And then she remembered. Leo had bought one at her town, in case of an emergency. Well, she’d say this qualified. “You must have dropped it during the Blood Moon!” “I’ll go find it,” he said, forgetting his legs didn’t work. “No, you’ll stay here and not die while I find it.” Kayla said firmly. “Got it?” Seeing that he didn’t really have an option, he said “Got it.” “Good.” Kayla left immediately. The sooner they found the flare gun, the sooner they could find shelter. The nearest town was seven miles away - they could only hope someone was looking in their direction. It wasn’t far to the site where they had spent the Blood Moon - only a quarter-mile or so. Zombie bodies dissipated about ten minutes after being slain, so Kayla didn’t have long to gather up as many things as she could from them while fending more off during the nights and the Blood Moon, which explained the small haul they got out of the whole time. If Leo just dropped the flare gun, however, it should be somewhere in this area. She was here. She saw, very clearly, the marks from the bombs that the clown she was fighting had thrown. She’d never fought a more fierce foe, nor one as deadly except for the King Slime from the previous day. He was fast, very fast, and threw so many bombs it was nigh impossible to avoid them all. One had exploded on her arm, sending it into waves of pain throughout the rest of the night and even now. Of course, none of it was nearly as bad as Leo’s fight with The Groom. If he wasn’t a hero, she’d eat her spear. Of course, not a hero as in I-just-saved-a-cat-in-a-tree kind of hero. He had to have been born a hero. Only a hero would be so stupid and yet courageous at the same time. Only a hero would come up with mind-blowingly idiotic and suicidal plans to bring down his foes - and have them actually work. Only a hero could have faced down The Groom and won. Heroes were rare, very rare; the chances of you ever catching a glimpse of one, even if you didn’t realize it, were microscopic, and here she was, on a noble mission of all heroic principals with one. And disrespecting him the whole way through. And beginning to like him. Beginning, mind you. He and she were on the same quest to warn people about the incoming danger because it was the right thing to do, but that didn’t mean she had to like her partner. Though, of course, it would help. She had to wonder, however, if what they were doing ultimately mattered. If the Plague was spreading so quickly, why send the people out of their towns and let them live the rest of their lives in a futile game of hide-and-seek, where the Plague was always the winner? Did it really make a difference? But he had talked about needing to get to the Deathland; maybe that was it. The Deathland had already been claimed by life (too much life, too dangerous life, but life nonetheless). Maybe it couldn’t also be claimed by death. Maybe reaching the Deathland would mean safety from the Plague. Of course, the Deathland would be no picnic, but it wouldn’t kill you just by existing. Obviously, Leo was hiding something. That was fine with her. She had a few skeletons in her own closet, and feared that if she demanded Leo tell her his secrets, he might demand the same of her. And she wasn’t going there. Not with Leo, not with anybody. She found it. The Flare Gun was lying right there on the ground. She’d almost stepped on it. Carefully, she picked it up and checked it. Yes, it still had a flare in it. Good. She looked around for a better point to fire it, someplace where the town would most likely see the flare, but this already seemed like the best place. It was a clearing with few trees and just a few miles away from the town. She aimed it high, fired, and watched the flare go up, up, and out. Now all they could do was wait and hope. Chapter 5 Day 5 Your World is 30% Crimson … “What did you do, stand in front of a speeding minecart?!” Leo winced. “I wish.” The Nurse, who’s nametag said “Allison” was none too happy with her patient. She’d had full days since the Blood Moon, as villages and town unlucky enough to be caught without a Nurse had piled in to see her. Every wound, every broken bone took up more power, and she’d had to explain to more than a few people why she couldn’t raise the dead, as they’d believed. She thought she was lucky to get out alive. All this she ranted on about as she was examining Leo. “And now, you come in here and have the nerve to ask me to heal you after you’ve been foolish enough to pick a fight with a battleship.” Leo had given up reminding her that they’d paid her three times as much as she would normally get for a job like this, instead replying “It wasn’t a battleship.” “Then what was it?! Tell me what in this good world could inflict so much damage but a battleship.” Luckily, she didn’t wait for a reply. “I mean, a wraith, I’d understand. A clown, those are tough. Wandering eyes are dangerous. With the Blood Moon two days ago, it could’ve been any one of those. But nope, instead of something nice and safe you had to go out and fight a freakin’ tank.” Leo couldn’t agree more. “If people would be smart and simply block off their doors with stacks of wood or dirt or something, then everything-” “We didn’t have ‘stacks of wood or dirt or something.’” Kayla shouted. Apparently, she’d had enough of this Nurse’s talk. “We’re paying you way more than you deserve, so just do your job.” Allison rolled her eyes and said “Fine. You have twelve broken bones and at least thirty cuts, three of which will be serious within two days. Do you want to be healed the fast way or the slow way?” Kayla opened her mouth to reply, but Leo hurried to get his words out before she could. He‘s barely said anything since he‘d been rescued, and felt he had a right to speak just as much as she did. After all, talking didn’t hurt him; screaming did. “The fast way. We don’t have long to wait.” The Nurse raised an eyebrow. “That’ll be twice what you gave me.” Both of them started. Kayla sprung up from her chair shouting “What?!” Leo almost did the same, but fell back down the moment he sprung. He wasn’t healed yet. “Rates have gone up since the Blood Moon. I don‘t work for free, you know.” Kayla grumbled but found another ten silver in her pocket surprisingly fast. She dropped the money into the Allison’s waiting hand. Allison clenched the money tightly and pocketed it. She went back over to Leo, placed her hands on his shoulders, and said, simply and quietly, “This is going to hurt.” It did. Leo screamed for about three seconds, and then it was over. He felt woozy and nearly fell, but Kayla caught him and dragged him back onto his feet. As she did, she whispered into his ear “Please, tell me we aren’t bringing her.” Leo shook his head. Even if they did need a Nurse, he’d never take Allison. She might prove to be worse than Kayla. “Well, get out of here,” the nurse demanded. “You’ve been healed, and you’re holding up the line.” “The line” consisted of one Arms Dealer, who didn’t even look to have any injuries of any sort. Nevertheless, both Leo and Kayla were happy to get out of there. Kayla steadied Leo for the first few steps before he shooed her hand away. “I can walk.” he demanded, though he really didn’t feel like walking at all. He owed her enough. He made it about half a step before crashing into the ground again. Kayla sighed and picked him back up, draping his arm over her shoulder to keep him steady. “You’ve been off your feet for nearly three days. I doubt you can swing a sword without stumbling, much less walk on your own.” Leo touched his chest and his left leg, where the most severe injuries had been. Completely healed. The broken bones had mended, the flesh had grown back together, the muscles again intertwined. It was as if he’d never been hurt. “Amazing,” he muttered. “You’ve never seen a Nurse’s magic before?” Kayla’s voice made her question sound more like a demand. “Of course I have,” he snapped back. “Just…not for a while.” “A while?” “Since…well…” Leo didn’t go on. Hopefully, he didn’t need to. Hopefully, Kayla would just assume that the Nurse had died to The Plague and not ask the obvious question. His plan worked, apparently, as Kayla’s facial expression grew softer, and she didn’t question him about it again. She led him to a bench in the Town Square (which was really just a large patch of grass meant for picnics) and they sat down. She’d been shopping. He had a new sword, this one made of gold. She held a wooden bow and a quiver of arrows on her back. Leo found this fitting, as Guides had a long history of being excellent with a bow. They both had small knives, but beyond that they had nothing - Kayla didn’t want to buy anything too expensive without consulting Leo about whether or not they needed it. It was a perfect scene in front of them. A large block of lush, green grass, with children playing tag and Kickball - the two games seamed to be part of each other, as a child would kick the ball and start running to no specific location, try to avoid being caught. The two games never seemed very similar to Leo before, but these children had somehow seamlessly integrated them together in a very childish way. Kayla was quiet. A bit too quiet. With the beautiful view of the whole town they had, he half expected her to say something sad, or poetic. Whichever fit the mood best to her. But no, she stayed silent for a full ten minutes. Then she said three words: “I hate this.” Leo was a bit surprised. He’d thought the town was a bit overwhelming, sure, but in a good way. Everything was neat and tidy, but natural all the same. It was a great place. “Why? I like it.” “Not the town.” She spoke slowly, like she was dreading saying what came next. “The idea that…all this,” she gestured to the kids playing in front of her, “will be gone in two days.” “Oh.” Leo hadn’t really expected that, but he should have. He should’ve known that Kayla would be concerned for the kids and the people here, whether or not she hated the actual place. It would have taken precedence in her mind. Kayla was like that. “I can’t imagine those little kids wandering around as zombies, or whatever that ‘worse’ is,” she stated quietly. Leo, unfortunately, could. He’d seen many children be absorbed into the Plague, and watched as they underwent the changing from human to monster. Just the thought made him nauseated. “It’s not a pleasant experience,” he said back in a similar tone. “That’s right; you’ve seen it happen, haven’t you?” Leo didn’t reply. He didn’t need too. It occurred to him that he and Kayla were having to reply less and less to each other. They both already knew what the other was thinking in response, after only three days. There was silence for a few more minutes as the sun slowly started to go down. It wasn’t sunset yet, but it would be within twenty minutes. “I think I can walk now,” Leo said, trying to stand up. With a lot of effort, he managed it, but wobbled constantly. When he tried to take a step, he did so very carefully. Slowly moving his foot up, across, and down, heel first. To his surprise, he managed it, setting his bare foot on the grass. He wasn’t sure when he had taken his shoes off (probably at the Nurse’s office) but was glad he did. There wasn’t much better than the feeling of green grass between your toes. On his second step he fell down and felt a dozen kids laughing at him. Among which was Kayla. It didn’t really matter - he admitted to himself he wasn’t quite ready to walk yet. Almost, but not quite. He joined in the laughter as Kayla pulled him up for the third time. “We’re going to need more supplies. How much money do you have?” Leo asked. “A lot. You wouldn’t believe how much money those zombies have on them. It’s astounding to think that so many people just went around with all their money on them when they died.” Leo nodded as he started to walk again, with Kayla’s arm supporting him once again. It was hard to think that every zombie they faced was the body of an individual who had died long before. Before now, before the Plague started to spread, before The Great Battle, the one that had doomed them all. “Excuse me?” said a small voice. Leo looked down to see the faces of three awestruck children who appeared to be seven to ten. “Are you the one who they found out in the hills?” one of them asked. It was the same one who had first said “excuse me,” a little girl with curly blonde hair and green eyes that glowed. They didn’t sparkle, but glowed, which was nearly as good. Leo let himself sink down to one knee to these children. “Yep,” he answered, smiling a little, “That was me.” “The one who had all the broken bones?” This came from a boy with light brown hair and blue eyes - an odd combination. “One and the same.” “And who had to be carried on the big stretcher?” the third child, also a boy, asked. He, too had light brown hair but his eyes were brown, not blue, and he was shorter than the boy next to him. “Nah,” Leo answered, grinning lightly, “I had to crawl all the way to the nurse’s office on my hands and knees because I was too broken to walk.” “You did?!” the second boy gasped. “No; I was carried on the big stretcher.” The girl tugged at his shoulder. “Tell us how it happened.” “I…was run over by a speeding minecart.” “Called it!” the taller boy shouted, giving the smaller one a high five. The girl just kept staring at him, with some sort of knowledge behind her eyes. She knew he wasn’t really run over by a minecart. She was smarter than that. “Um, Leanodro?” Kayla touched his shoulder and pointed behind him. Leo turned around to see one of the most incredible sunsets he had ever known. Purple and orange and red all mixed together perfectly in the sky, swirling around the sun like they were all dancing for joy, for the simple joy of being alive. But that wasn’t what Kayla wanted him to see. No, she was probably gesturing to the large, ominous black cloud of doom approaching. It was moving fast - faster than any wind could push it. Some evil force was controlling this cloud. Upon seeing it, all the children who were playing their game screamed and ran away. The three kids next to him were trembling, and then the two boys took off. Leo noticed all the windows and doors were shutting and locking, like the people inside were preparing for a Blood Moon or Slime Rain. Leo felt a small, trembling hand take his. He looked down to see the little girl - the only child, or adult, for that matter, who hadn’t fled. She pulled him down farther and whispered “You can do it, Leo. You can take him.” Leo felt his head spin a little. “Take who?” The little girl just kept trembling. The cloud reached the center of town square, where it settled. Nothing happened for a precious few seconds, and then the cloud was blown away. Where it had been now stood a skeleton, dressed in a blue cloak and a pointy, dingy, brown hat. The creature’s head raised up, and he let out a laugh. It sounded just like a child’s laugh, which made Leo all the more unsettled. Its mouth opened up, and its voice carried clearly all over the town. “Hey, guys! It’s me! How you doing? Marie, how’re the kids? Oh, so you’re still giving me the silent treatment? Come on, that was months ago, and he was so tasty! You really can’t blame me. Okay, seriously, is everyone gone again? Well, that’s fine, I’ll just find you like I did all those other wonderful times.” He glanced over at Leo and Kayla, who had their mouths hanging open. “Oh, hello. No need to stare. I mean, I’m awesome, I know, but didn’t your moms always tell you not to stare? It’s rude. Well, rude to them, I guess. Not to me! I like staring!” This was too much. Skeletons weren’t supposed to speak. They didn’t have voice boxes or lungs. They certainly weren’t supposed to tease people and rant on about nothing. And this one not only did so, but with a personality. Leo swallowed. “Who…are you?” “Wait, you don’t recognize me? See?” He turned to his side, apparently talking to nobody. “I told you, they never remember. Oh, wait, I don’t remember him either. Hah! I guess it’s fine then.” He turned back to Leo. “Don’t mind Millie, she can be like that. So, what’s your name, chum?” Leo blinked rapidly, trying to make sure this was actually happening. “Um, Leo.” “Hey, Leo! Like Smeo! I like it! And how about the nice lady friend you’ve got with you. The big one, not the little blondie. I already know her.” He waved. “Hi, Holly!” The little girl clenched Leo’s hand with all her strength. “Never mind me.” Kayla said, sounding a bit angry. “What’s your name?” “Oh, yeah, I guess I never told you. Gosh, I must be slipping up. No, Millie, I’m not losing it! You’re losing it! By the way, love ya. Oh, my name. It’s Tim, like Tim the Grim, Tim the Stim, or really anything else that rhymes with Tim. I never could think of anything.” “Tim the Slim?” the little girl, apparently named Holly, answered timidly. Tim did a massive show of giving himself a facepalm. “Oh, man, duh! What were you thinking, Tim? Congratulations, missy! You just won a free pass from tonight’s game!” Her face brightened unspeakably. “Really?” “Nah, that’d be too nice. But I’ll leave you alone for the first five minutes. How does that sound? Perfect! I knew it!” “Um, if you wouldn’t mind telling us,” Leo asked, still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he was talking to a skeleton, “what exactly is this game?” “I’d thought you’d never ask. See, every month or so I come here, steal a couple kids, and eat them! It helps me stay happy!” Kayla was aghast with horror. “You’re…kidding.” “Come on, Pumpkin. Would Timmy the Slimmy ever kid? Never, I kid you not!” “But…” “Of course, they can run away when they see I’m coming. That’s what makes it so fun! It’s like Hide and Seek, for keeps!” “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.” “Well, you should. I heard once that if you believe, then you can fly. I have magic for that, but you don’t, so you should really believe so that you can try flying! It’s fun!” Tim checked his wrist as if he was checking a watch. “Oops, running late. Gotta go, have fun!” And just like that, he vanished. Kayla swallowed. “Please tell me I was hallucinating.” Leo wasn’t even able to speak anymore. He just sat there, shocked. “Leo?” It was Holly, pulling him farther down again. “I believe in you,” she whispered. Leo brought himself out of his stupor. “Wha-what was that?” “I believe in you. I know you killed The Groom. I know you can kill him. Please, Leo, please?” Leo didn’t know what to make of this, any of it. But there was a little child right next to him, telling him that she believed in him. How could he let her down? He looked at Kayla. “What do you think we should do?” Kayla answered after a moment’s pause. “I think we should hunt down a lunatic.” Chapter 6 Day 5 Your World is 31% Crimson … “Hey, come on! Is that any way to treat a lady? No, not me, her! What her? That her! That’s what I was trying to say! Do I smell waffles?” Kayla kept moving, heading toward wherever she heard the rambling voice of Tim, who was either talking to himself or had a child with him right now, scared senseless. Either way, it was a good opportunity to strike. He’d been teleporting all over the place, shouting out “Olly-Olly-Oxen-Free!” or “Yodelay Yodelay Yodelay Hee-Hoo!” every so often. She wasn’t sure where he was right now, but she must be getting close - the voice was louder. “Aw, man, who serves waffles without strawberries? Who would do something so mean? It’s like eating a cookie without whipped cream! Or peanut butter without marshmallows! Or choc- oh, come on, now I’m hungry, and I can’t even eat! What have you done to me? Curse you, random citizen-who-doesn’t-make-good-waffles!” Kayla hoped he kept talking. Finding a soundless skeleton in a large village who could teleport was more difficult than it sounded - and it sounded pretty difficult. That was why she and Leo had split up about half an hour ago, him taking Holly. They could cover more distance and follow leads faster if he covered one half and she the other. Bingo. She rounded a corner into an alleyway and found Tim, turning his head all around, looking for a child to snatch. He spotted her immediately. “Hey, Gretchen! How’re you? Me, I’m great, thanks for asking, you’re so nice! Is it alright if I call you Gretchen? You never gave me your name. That’s fine, I understand, you secret agents always need to keep your identity to yourselves. I can keep a secret. GRETCHEN IS A SECRET AGENT! Uh, oops. I mean, um, NO SHE’S NOT, I LIED! Is that better? Good, I thought so too!” Kayla didn’t reply. She just raised her bow and fired. Tim raised his hand, shooting out a purple ball that hit the arrow, destroying them both. “Cool! It’s like Monkey in the Middle without the monkey!” Kayla pressed her lips together. “So, you aren’t just a skeleton.” “Duh! I mean, no offense, but I’m way more awesome! I mean, I’m Tim! I have all the magic! At least, all the cool magic! So, I’m way more cool! Oh! Behind you!” Kayla whirled to look behind her before she even thought about it. Tim appeared, throwing out another magic ball. Kayla ducked to the side, the ball missing her and going through a wall. It didn’t burn through - it went through like the wall wasn’t even there. Kayla was suddenly rather happy that Tim was an idiot. Any good enemy would have fired at her back before she good respond. She wasn’t sure why she’d even turned around when Tim told her to. There was just something about him, a sort of aura, that distance her logical responses slightly. Facing any other opponent, that move would have meant certain death. “Woah, that was quick! You’re actually pretty good at this fighting thing. Me, I’m just getting the hang of it myself. Right now, actually. Mostly people just run away screaming for some reason, but you shot at me! That’s awesome!” Kayla didn’t fee like replying to this guy ever again. She dove for him, uncovering her knife as she went for a quick slash. But he wasn’t there. “Yoo-hoo! I’m back here! Like I said, quick! Quick, quick, quick, before I disappear again!” Kayla spun around to see an empty alleyway. “Aw, man, too late. And you were so close!” came a voice from behind her. She turned around again, once more seeing and empty alleyway. “Almost made it that time!” shouted Tim. “Keep it up!” He was playing games with her. Kayla’s anger sparked up considerably. She knew that if she turned around, he’d just teleport again. She hoped he was still stupid as she raised her bow behind her head, carefully listening to the wind direction and sound of his voice to tell him exactly where he was. She notched an arrow and pulled back. “Hey, it does look kinda like a hat! I see what you’re doing now-” Kayla released the arrow and heard it slam into something. She spun around to see Tim with an arrow sticking out of his skull, on the ground, looking very dead. She breathed a sigh of relief and surprise. She had no idea that she was actually that good with a bow. Her weapon of choice was always a spear, though Bows were hereditary for guides. She now knew why, and her face showed a twinge of understanding. And then shock as Tim got back up to his feet and put up a dramatic show of acting like he was dying. “Agh! Weapons! My only weakness! How did you know?!” He pulled out the arrow and threw it on the ground, the hole in his skull repairing instantly. “Just kidding! See, I’m fine! That was a great performance, though wasn’t it? If you were a judge, you’d give me a ten out of ten, wouldn’t you? Yeah, I knew it. I can see it in you eyes. Shut up, Millie!” “He…regenerates…” Kayla whispered, unable to believe she was so unlucky. “If it’s any consolation, though, it did kinda hurt. Like getting punched through a pillow. So, I guess I‘ll have to fix that. Sorry.” He threw out another purple ball headed directly for her. Kayla, still stunned, was unable to respond. At the last moment, she ducked and threw up her hands to block her head. One second later she realized her fatal flaw. Her bow was in her hands. It was too late, though, as the ball smashed into the bow, disintegrating it completely. She stared in unbelief at her empty hands before jerking her head up to check on Tim. He wasn’t there. “Gotcha!” Tim suddenly appeared behind Kayla, planting his bony foot into her back, knocking her forward several feet and stunning her. “Yo!” He appeared again, this time in front of her and kicking her back the same distance. “Hey!” He teleported back behind her, hitting her right back to where she started. “It’s like soccer, with one person!” Over the course of the next minute, Kayla was kicked back and forth between Tim and…Tim a total of fifteen times. She had tried to get out of the loop the last eight times and, as a result, had only gotten both her hands crushed. The only reason she stopped at all was because Tim was bored. “Well, that was fun. Now I’m off to go find some kids. Thanks for sticking around!” He said, sounding genuinely thankful. Kayla tried a last-ditch attempt by throwing her knife at him. He simply raised his hand, shot out a purple energy ball, and evaporated it. Kayla breathed in deeply. She was out of her league. Tim wasn’t a great fighter, but he was a lot faster than her, and his weapons were a lot better. Nevertheless, she still had to try. She jumped up, ignoring the pain that hit her from the multiple bruises around her body. She grabbed two arrows and threw them, then grabbed two more and started running, hoping to use them as a sort of knife and perhaps find a weak spot. Or something. Tim launched two purple balls at once, evaporating the arrows. Kayla swung at him, but he dodged perfectly, bringing his fist up to her neck for a devastating uppercut. “Whoo! Hand-to-hand combat! Let’s use that, it sounds fun!” Kayla was sprawled out on the dirt, shocked at Tim’s reaction time and speed. If The Groom focused on strength and insane durability, Tim focused on speed and projectiles. That made him an even more dangerous opponent - better one who can take almost all you have but still fall after too much than one who can just dodge it all and heal himself. That’s right, he had a healing factor. So now she was dealing with someone who was technically as durable, maybe even more so, as The Groom, had much better weapons, and was much faster. Leo was a better fighter than her, and he’d been nearly destroyed after fighting The Groom. They were dead. “Kayla!” She started at the sound of her name. Only one person in this village knew her name, and that meant… Crap. She got to her feet just as Leo rounded the same corner she had five minutes ago and shouted “RUN!” Leo didn’t listen. “Where’s Tim?” “Not on a floating island, relaxing in the sun, drinking fruit juice and watching Wyverns fly, sadly. But hey, this place is almost as good!” exclaimed a voice behind Leo. Leo turned around so fast he nearly fell down, bringing out his gold sword, only to be met with a deadly purple energy ball to the chest. It exploded, sending Leo flying through the air until he crashed into the side of a building. His shirt found itself with a gaping hole, his flesh sizzled and burned, and he passed out immediately. “Wha- what…” “Ouch, that looked like it hurt. I’d recommend some burn cream. It really helps the ankles.” Kayla glared at him. “What was that?! What did you do?!” Tim cowered back a little. “Hey, don’t worry! I didn’t even use my full power. I just used, like, twenty percent. He’s not even dead! I mean, why would I kill him? He’s pretty awesome once you get to know him. Right, Millie?” Kayla gripped her spear and pulled it out. She lunged at Tim, only for him to sidestep out of the way faster than she anticipated and teleport five feet away. “Goal!” he shouted as he threw a purple ball at her. Knowing it might destroy her spear, Kayla ducked and rolled, the ball just barely passing her and going through the wall of a house. She tossed all thought except aiming and precision out the window and hurled her spear at Tim. Tim threw an energy ball at it, expecting the spear to evaporate, but it went straight through the ball, destroying it and only taking some damage. Kayla grinned as the spear went straight into a surprised Tim’s skull. The spear may just be bronze, but it had a few magic spells on it that meant it wasn’t going to go down easily. Then her grin vanished as Tim plucked out the spear and began to reprimand her. “Gosh, you should really be more careful with that thing. I mean, I know it’s a weapon and all, but I almost felt that! Somebody could get hurt!” Kayla ran before she could think about doing anything else. Leo was down, and she was the only hope either of them had. To her astonishment, she actually grabbed the spear before Tim teleported away. He and her both ended up at least six feet north, where they began a tug-of-war. “You know, me and my pet rabbit used to play this game all the time with carrots. The only difference is that he always won, but we always made up because I’d give him my pickles. I don’t suppose you want some pickles?” “You don’t suppose right.” Kayla brought her foot up and swiftly kicked Tim’s skull, knocking it right off of his body. “Hey, I need that!” Tim’s skull jumped right back onto his neck. So much for that idea. He gave a surprise jerk, and wrestled the spear away from her. Before she could grab it again, he teleported. “Man, what a cool spear! What’s it made of, bronze? I had a squirrel made of bronze once. At least, I think it was bronze. It was really fragile, though. I remember that there was this big kid named Garval who was always picking on us. Well, one time, he grabbed my squirrel, and broke it right in half, just like that. Oops.” The spear broke in half in Tim’s hands. Kayla’s mind went numb. She’d had that spear since the day her parents had died, and they’d owned it for as long as she could remember. She had a thousand memories in that spear, from fighting against the horde of zombies invading her house when she was twelve to fighting a clown with it in her toughest battle ever just this past week. Suddenly, it was broken. Gone. Useless, forever. She screamed. And then, in absolute rage, with no mind to guide her, ran over to Leo’s smoking body, withdrew his Gold Sword, and ran at Tim. “Oh, is it sword-fight time? Goody, those are my favorites! Well, that and pie time. But not anymore, because pie time is the worst time because I can’t eat any of that pie! All I get to eat are kids! That’s lame! Oh, yeah, sword!” Tim raised his hand and purple energy surrounded it, creating a longsword with a razor-sharp edge just in time to block Kayla’s first blow. She attacked again, and again, and again, striking faster and faster, lashing out for all she was worth. Tim just blocked every time. He didn’t even need to strike, just block, over and over. “Your approach is all wrong. See, it’s not how fast you strike, it’s how you manage your strikes! See, if you’ve got proper footing, like me, and you can redirect all the blows of your opponent, like me, then it will leave them wide open, like me! I mean, not like me. Um, can we redo this conversation?” Kayla just grew angrier with every word and kept lashing out at him. Eventually, Tim appeared to actually get bored. “Well, this is great and all, but I really think I should speed things up here. Okay, let’s use…forty percent power! Yeah, there we go!” Tim’s sword lit up for a second, and dimmed down. But Kayla wasn’t thinking straight. She lunged again, and Tim blocked. And Tim’s sword cut right through hers like it was made of butter. She didn’t even have time to react, because the next second the blade was through her chest, protruding out the other side. Blood dripped from the blade, and Kayla couldn’t process what had just happened. She’d been stabbed. Stabbed clean through. Tim withdrew the sword and it went up in purple smoke. She fell to the ground, unable to move, blood pouring out of the open wound. “Well, that was fun, and oh, sorry about that. Complete accident. Probably. So, now I should-” “Yeah, you’re going to have to cancel those plans.” Kayla blinked, unable to believe her ears. She knew that voice. She’d heard it just today, when she and Leo were at the… No way. “See, when you go around hurting people, I get a lot of calls. I’ve been pretty full up with the whole Blood Moon thing a few days ago, so, with you on top of that, it’s not a good day for me. So, I’ll just have to get rid of one of the problems.” Kayla glanced up, trying to keep her eyes open. She didn’t feel any pain, which she knew was a very bad thing, but right now she tried to focus on the scene at hand. Sure enough, there was Allison the Nurse, holding up what looked like a crossbow that fired…syringes? Why would she come to their rescue? “See this syringe? It’s filled with a toxic formula that’ll eat you away slowly and painfully. Completely fatal, with no cure. And if you say one more word, I’ll shoot.” Tim began to speak as he was backing up. “Now, let’s be reasonable. You wouldn’t want to kill poor little me, would you? I could give you a puppy, or a lollipop-” Snap! Allison fired. The whole thing seemed to move in slow motion, with the syringe headed straight for Tim’s neck. It hit. Instantly Tim began to convulse, and dropped to the floor, turning all sorts of shades of purple. He moved and shook and kept shaking. Allison stepped over him over to Kayla. Kayla tried to stay awake, but she was losing too much blood. She muttered “Thank…you.” “Yeah, well, don’t count on it happening again,” Allison snapped. “Can you…heal…us?” She rolled her eyes. “Maybe. How much you got on you?” Kayla tried to process this. Surely Allison couldn’t be THAT greedy. “You…can’t…be serious…” “Look, I’m always serious about money. So either you turn over all you have, or-” She never finished that sentence on account of being interrupted by Tim jumping up, shouting “Psyche!” and jabbing the syringe into Allison’s shoulder. Her face paled, and she dropped down, shaking rapidly. “Man, was that a great performance or wasn’t it? I know, you don‘t have to say anything.” He watched for a few seconds as Allison began to turn green and lumps began to form all over her face. “Oh, fine. I’m mean but I’m not that mean. How ‘bout I make this a little faster, for your sake, huh? Okay, forty percent!” He raised his hand and a purple ball blasted out and exploded into Allison’s face. When the smoke cleared, Kayla gasped, and instantly regretted it because of the pain it caused her. She couldn’t help it, though, because where Allison’s head once was, there was nothing. Her head was gone. Her body still convulsed and turned green, but there was no denying it: Allison was dead. “Next time you try that, you should make sure that the guy you’re shooting at has some flesh. A little advice for the road. Wait, I killed her, so she can’t hear my epic comeback! Darn! You’re so stupid, Tim! Well, time to eat some kids. Bye, now, and remember: Pancakes are good, but Waffles are better. See ya!” With that, Tim vanished. Kayla glanced around with heavy eyes. She saw an unconscious Leo with burns that would take a week to heal and leave him with scars forever and the only Nurse for forty miles lying on the road, a virus eating up her body, with no head. The last thing she saw before passing out was her own chest, with a gaping hole that had cut through her spinal cord, was bleeding out profusely, and meant she would be dead in thirty minutes. Then she closed her eyes and welcomed the darkness. Chapter 7 Day 5 Your World is 31% Crimson … Leo wished he’d stayed unconscious. Okay, yeah, the town probably needed his help and he had to defeat Tim and Kayla was probably dying, but right now, nothing sounded as good to Leo as blissful sleep. He’d felt that way once before - only a few days ago while fighting The Groom. The Groom. That snapped him out of his shock. Memories of a foot crushing your arm and nearly vomiting every time you move tend to have that effect. Unfortunately for him, it brought him out so quickly he didn’t have time to register his surroundings, and, due to that, he smashed his forehead into a metal tube sticking out of the side of a house next to him. He heard a sickening crack, and felt blood roll down his cheeks. He fell back down immediately, and realized he was about to get his wish - possibly for forever. “Leo, you’re not doing this! Come on, open your eyes. I can’t help you if I can’t see your eyes!” Leo hadn’t even registered that he’d closed his eyes, much less who’s voice he was hearing. He muttered something unintelligible back. “Come on, don’t make me hurt you! Open them up!” Leo tried to open his eyes, but couldn’t be sure he’d succeeded. All he saw either way was black. And then pain. Leo screamed and felt himself snap his eyes shut. “No! Get them back open! Trust me, Leo! It’ll only take a few seconds!” He struggled within his mind, but found that he trusted the voice. He had no idea why, but something in his subconscious registered, and he wanted to open his eyes. So he did. Then the pain came again. To say it hurt badly was an understatement - this wasn’t the sort of pain that hurt. It was the sort that destroyed. It ravaged his entire body and it took his whole will to keep his eyes open with the knowledge that the pain would stop if he closed them. What was left of his will, anyway - it took second priority to the insane power of pain overwhelming him. Then he found something odd. In his mind, he found himself somewhere else - a field with black grass that stretched on for as far as he could see. Next to him, on his right and left, perhaps six feet apart, sat two lakes. The one on his right was black, the one on his left was white - and he felt a strange, compelling urge to drink the water of either one of them. The pain vanished as quickly as it had come. No, it didn’t - it was still there, only now he somehow liked it. The pain was there, in the background, but it didn’t hurt, despite being, you know, pain. It was an odd sensation, feeling pain without feeling it at all, and it pleased him. He stepped toward the white lake and reached down. In half a second his world shattered. The voice screamed “Don’t drink the water!” at the exact moment he touched it with the tip of his finger. Then there was unspeakable pain. Physically, he felt as if he were being burned alive and drowned at once - with neither force stopping the other. It was horrible, a thousand times worse than fighting The Groom or the explosion that had knocked him out. “Leo!” Then the lakes and the grass faded away and he was sitting on the ground in an alley with blood dripping down his face and a little girl on her knees in front of him, touching her fingers to his temples. “Holly?” Holly removed her small fingers from his temples and two tears dripped down from her eyes, one for each. “I’m sorry. I should’ve let go sooner. Are you okay?” He tried to blink away the last remnants of the pain touching the water had brought him. “Yeah. Sort of.” Holly suddenly surprised him by leaping into him and wrapping her arms around his neck. “Oh, thank goodness, thank God, thank everybody. You were going to die, I knew it. I knew it. You were going to die and then we were all going to die.” Still slightly shocked at what had just happened, Leo wrapped his arms around the nine-year-old and whispered “It’s alright. I’m fine, see?” She shook her head. “You touched the water. Please tell me it was the white one. Not the black one, please not the black one.” “Um, yeah. The white one.” She sucked in a huge breath and released him from her grip, attempting to compose herself. “Okay. Then you’re fine. I should’ve warned you, but you were dying. You’d cracked your skull open. I didn’t have time. I’m sorry, I’m really, really, really sorry.” “Hey, it’s okay.” But now Leo was curious. “Um, what exactly did I see there?” “Two lakes, right? And black grass, on both sides of both lakes, going on forever?” “Yeah.” “I’ll have to tell you later - maybe when I figure it out myself, really. I mean, I know, sort of, but I’d like to know for sure before I give you the wrong idea. It might affect it.” “Um, what?” Holly sighed, and shook her head. “Feel your head. And chest. Does it still hurt?” Leo did as he was told, surprised to find that both were cool to the touch and didn’t hurt in the least. They’d healed completely, almost like… “You’re…a nurse?” he asked quietly, amazed. Holly nodded. “I just discovered it last year. That’s when my name was changed to Holly. That was my favorite nurse name. I’m still figuring out my abilities, but…” she looked hard at Leo when she said this, and Leo found that he almost felt afraid of her glowing eyes now, the ones that he had thought were very cute not three hours ago. “They’re dangerous. More dangerous than other nurses. I’ll have to take only half as long with Kayla.” Then she shot to her feet eyes open wide. “Oh my gosh, Kayla!” She ran about twenty feet away where a figure had fallen down on the street. If it weren’t for all the blood, Leo would’ve recognized her right away. But it was nighttime, and nighttime in a dark alleyway tended to make blood look much darker than it was - almost like mud. And she was laying in a huge pool of it. “Leo, help me. I can’t hold her eyes open and use my power at the same time.” “Oh, yeah.” Leo got up on his feet and quickly ran over to where Kayla was, grimacing at the gruesome sight. He briefly glanced over a few feet to see a skeleton, and he couldn’t help wondering what exactly that was about, or who‘s it was. He pushed the thought from his mind and grasped Kayla’s eyelids, holding them wide open for Holly to work her magic. And work her magic Holly did. She pressed her forefingers into Kayla’s temples and stared her in the eyes - something odd for a nurse. Leo had met his fair share of nurses, and he’d been great friends with one at one point, not that he wanted to talk about that time with anybody ever, and he’d never met one who needed eye contact to work. Then again, he’d never met one like Holly, and certainly no nurse had ever caused him the pain that Holly had when she healed him. It was like she was tearing him down. And then rebuilding him. Holly’s eyes glowed, brighter than they normally did, but only just enough to notice. Then they grew brighter and brighter, and brighter still. Suddenly, he knew that if she continued for one more second, her eyes would turn into pure light, and instantly shielded his eyes with his hands, not even noticing that Kayla‘s eyelids didn‘t go down. But the radiant glow died down, and Holly slowly backed up. Then Kayla coughed up blood a few times and her eyes moved. She shook her head and slowly got to her feet, only to fall down on her face again. Poetic irony. She looked up. “Wha- what happened?” Her eyes moved to Leo. “You woke up? What’s she doing here? Tim could be back any second.” Somehow, Tim was the last thing on Leo’s mind. Holly’s strange new abilities outshined it by quite a bit. “Um, Holly? Think that thing would work on Tim? I mean, if we could get him to hold still, could it kill him?” Holly thought for a few seconds, the shook her head. “No,” she decided. “He’s already dead.” Kayla stared at them for a moment, confused, then noticed that she was no longer pouring out blood. “H-how-” “Holly,” was Leo’s answer. “Sh-she’s a nurse?” Leo nodded. “And a very powerful one.” “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” “I hoped that you wouldn’t need to know. I’m still learning, and could have killed you.” Holly replied, calmly and evenly, a few shivers betraying the fact that she had honestly thought that she would’ve killed them. “Killed? How? Nurses can only heal! They don’t even have the capability to kill with their powers!” “Yeah, well,” Leo answered for Holly, “she’s not quite like the other nurses. Let’s leave it at that and the fact that you should be glad you didn’t feel what I did.” Kayla looked over Holly, the ran a hand through her blood-stained hair. “Okay. Tim’s still out there, though. We need to find him and kill him.” “Easier said than done,” Leo replied. “He could be anywhere in the town, and even if we both happen to stumble upon him, look how easily he defeated us. We won’t last five seconds.” “Leo might last a little longer.” Holly said quietly. He turned to her. “How? I was one-shotted last time. Kayla lasted a lot longer than me.” “You touched the water.” “What does that have to do with anything?” “Wait, what water?” Kayla asked, but neither of them acknowledged her. “If you can survive it, the white water will make you more powerful. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “Okay, so how much more powerful did touching it make me?” “How much power did he use to get you the first time?” “Twenty percent,” answered a still-bewildered Kayla. “Then this time, to do the same, he’d probably have to use about thirty percent.” “Oh, well, THAT makes a difference!” Leo shouted. “Thirty percent of his power! My gosh, how horrible! I’m sure it’s far too much for him!” Holly lost her gaze and let her face fall down. Leo instantly felt repentant. He owed this young girl his life, and he wasn’t going to make fun of her for payment. “Sorry.” “So,” Kayla ventured, “you say that touching this white water makes you more powerful. So how about we just go and touch it some more?” “No!” both Holly and Leo shouted at the same time. “I said ‘if you survive it.’” Holly explained, “Leo almost died just from touching it for less than a second. And even if it did work, things wouldn’t turn out like you hoped. At least, not exactly.” “How so?” Leo asked. “’You want apples? You want carrots? You want pineapples? We got torches.’ Ever heard that? It’s a quote from a famous merchant. This is sort of the same. What you want isn’t necessarily what you get.” “You sound like you have a bit of experience with this,” remarked Kayla. Holly didn’t reply. “Well, we need something. We’re sitting ducks, absolute wimps compared to Tim.” Leo said. “What about the black lake?” Holly stared at him with her glowing eyes. “Never touch that lake. Never.” She didn’t elaborate. “Ugh, but what other-” Leo suddenly stopped, his face taking on a glow of his own. He snapped his fingers. “Guys- er, gals, I have a plan!” Kayla groaned audibly. … “Come out, come out, wherever you are! Okay, I know that’s a totally cliché thing for a villain to say, but seriously, it’s been hours, and I still haven’t found anyone! Darn, you guys are good! Oh, wait, this happens every time! Hah!” “Not every time, obviously.” Tim turned around and faced Leo, standing in the middle of the street. “Hey, Steo! I mean Smeo! Er, Leo! Yeah! It is Leo, isn’t it? I had this dream once where I called this one girl Barabra and it was really embarrassing. Hey, aren’t you dead? Or lost? Or something?” Leo tossed his head slightly and nodded. “Congratulations. You found me.” “Great! Where’s Gretchen? Is she found too?” Assuming “Gretchen” was Kayla, Leo nodded again. “Alive and kicking. On the other side of town right now, trying to find you. It won’t be long before she comes to check on me, though.” “Aw, how sweet! I used to have a sister too, but then she-” “Not my sister.” “That’s even more awesome! Girlfriends are the very best-” “Not that either.” “Oh, okay. Well, let’s see, that leaves three options - pet that magically turned into a human, mother, friend, or annoying cliché accomplice that you really want to kill but can’t because she shares your love of cheese and you just can’t kill anybody that likes cheese. I mean, they can’t be all bad if they like cheese, am I right?” Leo ignored the fact that Tim had just listed four instead of three, and just answered “Sort of a mix. Suffice to say I’d like to beat you before she can show up and claim the victory for herself.” “Sure, I can respect that. But wait, I saw her break your sword myself. A pretty silly thing to do, honestly. I mean, what’s the use of a sword if you go ahead and break it at the first opportunity? Especially when it’s borrowed. I hate borrowing things, because then I have to give them back!” “Um, thanks for your concern, but there’s no need.” Leo pulled out a large cloth and unwrapped a long, blue, glowing blade. He dropped the cloth and fell into a fighting stance, wielding the sword expertly. “A Muramasa. Best thing the shop had. With the merchant hiding, nobody was there to stop me, and it looked like I needed it.” “Aw, man. Now I have to kill you, because I hate stealing, way more than I hate borrowing. It’s dishonest. And, if you’ve noticed, I’m like, the most honest person in the world! So, drink some ale wrapped in bacon, ‘cause I’m comin’ at ya!” Tim snapped his fingers, a purple blade just as long as Leo’s appearing in his hand. Leo unwrapped a helmet - the very one that fell out of the King Slime, in fact, and placed it on his head. It was surprisingly comfortable, with a few loose cloths falling down below his chin. He grabbed them and wrapped them around his nose and mouth, and then went back to his fighting pose. If anybody else had seen him, they might’ve remarked that he looked a little like a ninja. “Prepare yourself,” he warned Tim. “I’m no pushover anymore.” “Anymore? It’s been, like…um, do you have a watch? I must’ve left mine on the other arm.” Leo jumped at him. The moment he was airborne, he felt himself carrying farther than he would’ve before. There was extra strength in his legs, and he felt himself ready to react to anything that came after him in the air. The white water was working. Tim vanished as soon as Leo was about to land on him, appearing behind him and jabbing his sword at the hero. Leo swiftly turned around and blocked the attack. He feinted right, and then drove his sword left in a sudden move. Tim easily blocked, causing a flash of light to emit from both swords. They began to glow brighter, and soon the entire area was lit up as the two fought. “You know,” Tim was saying, “I read a book once where the hero was in this super awesome fight with the villain. They were fighting on the moon, but then the villain exploded into buttercream. Or did I write that one? Not sure. It all becomes a blur when you’re my age.” “I’m pretty sure you wr-” Leo stopped mid-sentence and thrust his sword at Tim. An old tactic. Make your enemy think you’re about to say something, then strike instead. Apparently, though, Tim also knew about it, as he ducked and rebounded the blade with his own. “Hey, you almost hit my pancreas! You know that’s my favorite organ!” Tim spun around and tried for an overhead cut, which Leo blocked. He took advantage of the resulting backwards force and slammed the edge of his blade at Tim’s head. Tim was faster than he looked, though, and he redirected the blow before slashing diagonally. Leo dropped and rolled out of the way, jumping up behind Tim and bringing out his sword in the same move. Tim vanished right as the Maramusa was about to touch him, appearing three feet away and tossing a purple ball at Leo, who sliced cleanly through it. “Not gonna work. This sword is made of the same material. Fire doesn’t fight fire - it adds to it,” Leo claimed. To prove his point, he swung toward Tim, letting loose a quick blast of energy that came from the ball. Tim hit the energy back with his sword, and then Leo hit it again. “Awesome! I love Ping-Pong! I have to warn you, though, I was the champ at school for three years. Then I ate a waffle and never looked back. Waffles are magic, I tell you.” “I’ll take your word for it.” Leo ducked out of the way as the energy came toward him this time, and launched himself at Tim, who simply teleported to the other side of the street. As Leo landed, he swung around and threw a throwing knife at Tim, who disintegrated it with a sword strike and vanished. Three seconds later, when Leo was on edge, Tim suddenly appeared right next to him and thrust his sword up, going straight through Leo’s already tattered shirt, creating a gaping hole with blood seeping out. “See, now, that’s what I did to Gretchen. But she sorta got up and lived, and because you stole something, I can’t just leave you now. I’m real sorry, honest. But, as the lemonade said to the guitar, peace shall be made!” Leo didn’t feel the pain. He wasn’t sure whether that was because it was so bad his body couldn’t register it yet, or because he’d become nullified to normal pain after his encounter in the lake. Right now, however, it didn’t matter. He didn’t have a second to waste, not even by thinking. He reached into his pocket and brought out a star-shaped bottle with a silver stopper that was filled with a shining blue liquid. Tim stopped his sword halfway to Leo’s head. “Woah, that’s really pretty! I love blue! I had this blue goldfish named Charles once, but it didn’t work out. See, he was always way too sad to go hunting with, so I sat him down one day and said “Charles, we have to talk,” and he shot me. What’s that?” “I’ll give you three guesses,” Leo muttered as he threw the bottle against the ground, smashing it and causing blue smoke to rise up and surround both of them. In an instant, both had vanished, but if somebody was listening carefully, they might’ve heard the echo of Tim’s first guess. “A grilled-cheese sandwich?” Chapter 8 Day 5 Your World is 31% Crimson … “So, can you explain to me this whole thing with the lakes now?” Kayla asked Holly. They were both sitting on crates in the storage room of the biggest shop in the village. Leo had insisted that they stay there while he fought. That way, they’d be safe from the battle going on several blocks away and he’d know where they were when he came back. Assuming he came back. Holly folded her arms. “Only if you tell me what Leo told you,” she bargained. “What exactly is his plan, and why wouldn’t he tell me?” Leo had taken Kayla aside right after he claimed to have a plan and told her the whole thing. She didn’t like it, as she’d made very obvious to him, but it did seem like it was the only way to stop Tim. “He didn’t tell you for a reason,” Kayla said steadfastly. “Then can you at least tell me the reason?” Well, there wasn’t much harm in it, now that Leo was fighting. He’d probably already gone and done it. “You wouldn’t agree. Rather, you’d forcefully disagree. You’d say it was incredibly foolish and he’d die and you would try your hardest to stop him. That’s why.” “Okay. So his plan is really stupid. But his stupid plans usually work, right?” “Right now, he’s two out of three. Two being with King Slime and The Groom and one being rushing in to save me from Tim,” Kayla pointed out. “Not the best odds.” “Okay, so then we should help him or something. How do you know I won’t like the plan until I’ve heard it?” “Because of the way you acted around him earlier. I’m not sure you could live if he died in this fight, and I don’t even know why. Why is he so special to you, anyway?” It was obvious, though, that Holly had only heard the first half of that statement. Her glowing eyes bulged out slightly before returning to normal. Her breath quickened a step. “He could die? It’s that dumb?” “That seems to be the general rule of his stupid, but brilliant, plans.” Holly began to breathe deeply. “He can’t die. He’s not done yet.” Kayla thought for a second that she should ignore the comment and let Holly accept Leo’s ways on her own, but curiosity, as Leo had warned of just this morning, was gnawing away at her, and she found herself giving in. “Not done with what?” Holly seemed to contemplate telling her, but evidently chose not to. She got off the crate and began pacing. Moonlight shone in from the small window in the room. Every time Holly stepped through it, it seemed to blend in with her, making Holly a part of the light, or the light a part of Holly. Which one it was, Kayla wasn’t sure. “No. You’re not ready yet. He hasn’t even told you what he’s doing, has he?” “Of course he has!” Kayla rose, sounding almost indignant. Holly stopped right in the moonlight, creating the effect that cast some sort of dizzying spell on Kayla. Holly turned around to face her. “Really?” Kayla was about to answer, when suddenly she realized that he hadn’t. She’d jumped to conclusions. Solid conclusions, ones that were likely the answer, but conclusions based around circumstantial evidence nonetheless. Leo was going through towns, warning people of the oncoming plague, heading for the Deathland, where the Plague would stop. Of course, she was right, She knew that. It was all that made sense. Wasn’t it? Then something happened. Something that sounds subtle, but was actually anything but. Instantly both of them knew something had just happened. Something was wrong, or right, depending on how you looked at it. The moonlight vanished. Kayla’s first thought, oddly, was that the moon itself was gone or has ceased casting light. Something had happened to it, to make it go out, like a lantern in a dark house breaking. But that was ridiculous. Something was just covering the moon, that was all. But what was it? Holly had made that assumption first, apparently, as she ran back to the window and stared out of it. Kayla herself ran toward the window. The moonlight reappeared two seconds after it had disappeared, just as suddenly. By then Kayla was at the window and looking at the moon. Against the harsh light, she made out the traces of blue smoke. Leo had succeeded. With Phase One, anyway. Holly turned, shaking, her face pale. “A recall potion? That…was his plan?” Kayla saw no reason to hide it from her now. Leo had already gone, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it anyway. “Yep.” Holly shuddered and kept shuddering. “So that…that he would go…oh, no.” She slowly, shakingly, sat down on her crate. “Oh, no. Oh, no.” Kayla started explaining. “He threw it at Tim, knowing the smoke would engage him first, and then himself. If it hit Tim first, it would bring them both down into the underworld, where all Skeleton Mages are turned into skeletons, making that their spawn point. I know it’s pretty terrible down there, and no place to be without any armor, but he had a plan, so don’t worry.” Holly just kept groaning. “He was going to use the shock of the event to knock Tim into a small pool of lava - there are millions down there. He had a bottle of water for hardening the lava into obsidian, making it impossible for Tim to get up until he’d burned to a crisp, regeneration or not. And he drank a Flask of Nanites first, so when he hits Tim, he won’t be able to teleport himself out. Even if he tries, he’ll just teleport further down. And he took a Wormhole potion so he could get out as fast as he got in and get ba-” “Shut up, Dylan!” Holly screamed. It was as if a black hole had come into the room and sucked out all the noise. Kayla felt like she’d been smashed in the head with a war hammer against a concrete wall. Her mouth was open- she’d been in the middle of saying something, but, with that one line, forgot what it was. Holly brought her face up to meet Kayla. She’d been crying. “Ho-” Kayla began. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I know, you have questions, but they have to wait.” Holly took a deep breath and steadied herself. “Leo isn’t going to the underworld.” Kayla was at a loss between which statement was more shocking: this one or the one she’d just said six seconds ago. Holly breathed in again. “The potions here have impurities. That means they won’t be teleporting for another three minutes. Maybe four. We have to grab all the weapons we need to kill Tim now. Because if Leo is expecting the underworld when he comes back, he’ll be the one surprised, and that means that he’ll die for sure. I promise that.” Kayla felt the question burst out of her. “If he isn’t going to the underworld, where’s he going?! Where else-” “My house,” Holly said quietly. “They’re going to appear at my house.” … Kayla asked just a couple questions while on their way to Holly’s home, none of which Holly answered. She would have asked more, but it quickly became obvious that Holly wasn’t concerned with answering questions. Her thoughts were completely on Leo and Tim, and what would happen at her house when they appeared. They’d equipped themselves with several weapons - Kayla had taken a bow crafted with iron, a full quiver of arrows, two throwing knives, three healing potions, and an endurance potion. Holly couldn’t take that much, but had managed to ready herself with one throwing knife and a shortsword made of tungsten. It was small, maybe twice as long as a knife, but it was strong, and she was able to use it without too much effort - aside from not being skilled or even slightly practiced in swordplay. All in all, a pathetic match-up against a regenerating magician who could kill them at will only using thirty percent of his power. They had drawn nearer to Holly’s house (she’d pointed out a large potted plant in front of it and the odd roof color a street ago) when Kayla recognized a noise inside. Most other people would have classified that as just the adults at home moving around a little, but Kayla’s inherent guide instincts told her exactly what she was hearing: a child of around the same age as Holly tripping over what was probably a chair crying out for a split second. She stopped. “Holly, do you have any brothers or sisters?” Holly stopped a couple steps ahead and hesitated before answering. “One brother. Well, kind of. Maybe. It’s complicated.” Kayla thought the comment confusing, but didn’t bother to question Holly about it. “Is he around your age?” She shook her head vigorously. “Nine years older. Why?” “Because somebody is in your house, and it sounds like a child.” Kayla thought Holly’s first thought and expression would be confusion. Instead, it was concern. “Then we need to get whoever’s in there out, now! Tim will be here any second!” She sprinted toward the door and threw it open. Kayla arrived half a second later and peered in. There was nothing but darkness, with the moonlight from outside illuminating a few things, including a table, a furnace, and a chair lying sideways on the floor. Kayla looked at that last one again. So, her instinct had told her right. Kayla felt with her hand along the inside of the wall for a lamp or something to light. Instead, she felt a small switch. “Is the switch safe to flip?” she questioned Holly, whispering. As a guide, she knew the thousands of things switches could be used for in homes, from lighting fires to firing traps to destroying the whole structure. Holly nodded. “It’s just the light switch,” she whispered back. So Holly, apparently, was wealthy enough to have internal wiring in her house. Kayla stored that in her mind to question further about in the future, and flipped the switch. “HIYA!!!” Kayla found herself knocked down an being pummeled by two little boys with light brown hair. Two very recognizable little boys that had been with Holly when she and Leo had first met her. The eldest, who looked like he was about ten and had blue eyes, noticed who he was whaling on first. He dropped his arms and stared. “Wait, you’re not Tim!” The younger, who had brown eyes and looked like he was maybe seven, took a few more seconds to notice, but his reaction was better. Instead of staring at Kayla like she was a Martian that had dropped from outer space, he got off of her and stated “Sorry. Thought you were somebody else.” Kayla sat up, a little surprised, but no worse for wear. The blue-eyed one got off, as well. “Tony, Merlyn, what’re you doing?” Holly demanded. They both stood up. “Waiting for you, duh!” the blue-eyed one, apparently “Tony,” said, as if it were completely obvious. “We were gonna all hide out together, but then you never showed up at the meetin’ place, so we figured Tim gotcha. So me and Merlyn talked it over, and decided we’d wait for you over at your place, because we know Tim always eats the kids here. Then, when he come in, bam, we jump him and overpower him! We could do it easy!” Merlyn nodded emphatically. Holly shook her head. “That was stupid. If he had gotten me, you would’ve died. All that would’ve happened would be Tim getting two more snacks.” “Maybe,” Merlyn said, timidly, “But that doesn’t matter. Remember what we promised, last year, when all this went down? We knew he’d come after you, so we promised we’d protect you, or die trying. I mean, you’ve got no folks left to do it.” “You…remember that?” Holly sounded almost stupefied. “’Course we do!” Tony shouted, puffing up his chest. “And you know, we’ve never broken a promise in our whole lives.” “But you have to go!” Holly shouted. “He’s comi-” She never had the chance to finish that sentence. Light blue smoke suddenly rose up on the bed in the corner, and Leo and Tim both appeared, Leo dripping blood from his chest, Tim in the middle of talking. “Or a white trash bag WITH a grilled-cheese sandwich in it! Yeah, that’s gotta-” he stopped talking, something Kayla had yet to hear him do, and gazed around, looking a little stupefied himself. He whistled and shouted “Jackpot!” Suddenly Kayla realized that she was in a room that held three children and a child-eater who could overpower any of them in one second. “Get back!” she shouted, holding her arms out to block the kids. All three had faces as white as bed sheets, and Merlyn was trembling. The truth of facing Tim was a lot scarier than the imagination. “This is fantastical!” shouted Tim. “I mean, I was almost worried these guys would fight me so much I couldn’t eat anyone! Not even one tiny kid! It made me cringe in fear to think of it! But, as all cookie-dough sandwiches know, good things come to those who eat kids! All I have to do is cut off Gretchen’s arms, and then it’ll be the most awesomest-” Merlyn ducked under Kayla’s arm and ran forward a pace. To everyone’s shock, he interrupted Tim. “No!” he shouted. Tim stopped, the second time in one minute. Kayla was sure that was a world record. “Um, no? No, like what? No cereal before breakfast? Yeah I can do that, especially since I can’t eat cereal! Hah, I made a fun-” “No more eating kids!” Merlyn screamed, knuckles clenched tightly. “I won’t let you! You killed my first best friend, and I won’t let you kill my brother and my new best friend.” He drew in a breath. “Tim, I challenge you to a wizard’s duel.” Three things then happened, all of them reactions to the statement. The first was that Tony gasped and looked nearly dead. The second was that Holly fell into a dead faint with no warning whatsoever. The third was that Tim, perhaps for the first time in his life, stood speechless. When he finally spoke, all traces of the odd, almost hilarious character he’d shown himself to be were gone. “A wizard’s duel? You sure? I mean, if you lose, you know what that means? I know being eaten isn’t very pleasant, but it’ll be far better than what’ll happen when you lose.” Merlyn’s whole body shook. “Then I won’t lose.” “I’m twice as strong as all of the guys in this room combined. Why do you think you’ll win?” “Because,” Merlyn said, obviously trying to keep his lip from quivering and still the rest of his body, “I know…I know your weakness.” “Are you sure?” Oddly, Tim almost sounded concerned for the young boy. “Yes.” “In that case…” Tim spread out his arms, sweeping his robe out. “I accept your challenge. Isa sapatha badhyakari hai!” “Isa sapatha badhyakari hai,” repeated Merlyn. Instantly, a red light blazed over both heads, and then swallowed them up. When it passed, both Merlyn and Tim glowed with a red tinge. Kayla was a guide. That meant she knew what a wizard’s duel was. That also meant that she was too shocked explain it to Leo, who was looking very confusedly at the two with blood pouring down his shirt. A wizard’s duel was when two wizards agreed to duel to the death, the loser’s spirit being eternally tortured in the underworld, the winner receiving glory from the gods. It was binding, sworn to be kept by the gods, and lasted until one of them died. Wizards took the matter more seriously than anything else in the world. Which could only mean that Tim and Merlyn were both wizards. “Fifty percent!” shouted Tim, and vanished. Leo stumbled over to Kayla. “Wha…what happened? Why are we here? What’s happening?” “Merlyn’s throwing his soul away,” was all that Kayla managed. Tim appeared behind a frantically-looking Merlyn, stabbing his purple blade through Merlyn’s back, snapping the child’s spinal cord in half instantly. Merlyn fell deeper inside the blade in pain and his upper body began to convulse. He’d just been paralyzed from the waist down. “What are you doing?!” shouted Leo, and jumped to try to help. Kayla grabbed him arm and held him back. “Trust me,” she said. “You do not want to get in the way of a wizard duel.” He grit his teeth, but held back. Kayla handed him two healing potions, one of which he immediately took. The bleeding began to stop and the wound began to close. Tim appeared before the boy, sending him sprawling into a wall with a kick. He stopped for a moment, as if hesitating before killing the obviously-losing child. The next second he vanished again, appearing next to Merlyn and sending his sword into his leg. Merlyn screamed. Tim left his sword there and just teleported in front of the boy again. “So, tell me, Merlyn,” he said, his voice not unlike ice, “what is my weakness?” At this point Holly woke up. As she slowly rose from the floor, she asked, “Is it over yet?” “No,” Kayla simply replied. Holly stood up and buried her face in Kayla’s shirt. “He-he’s my best friend,” she cried. “Why…why’d he do this?” Kayla couldn’t do anything but watch and awkwardly put a hand on Holly’s shoulder, rubbing it in a comforting way. “That idiot,” Tony whispered. But he looked like he was about to cry as well. Merlyn’s head rose up, and he stared at Tim. He breathed in heavily. “I won’t let you, Tim. I won’t let you kill my friends.” “Then how will you protect them?” Tim questioned. He didn’t sound condescending or angry, but genuinely curious. “With me,” Merlyn said quietly. “I saw it. When Holly showed me it. She showed me the truth, who I was, why I’m here.” His face turned into a scowl. “I’m my own best weapon. And I won’t let you kill her. No matter what. I made a promise, and I‘ve never broken a promise.” He slammed a hand into his pocket, and brought out something. A doll. Holly looked like all her breath had been knocked out of her, and she burst into new tears. Even Tim looked shocked. Merlyn pointed the doll at Tim and began to glow with purple energy. “This is me! This is my life, my future, my legend, my ambitions, my spirit! This is purity, and this is life! I was going to be a wizard, a powerful one, but with this, I don’t need to be! With this, I fight, and I die! With this, I kill you! You who are death, now, taste life!” Kayla had never heard a seven-year-old say anything like that, never mind with such ferocity. And such power. A purple beam shot out from Merlyn’s very being and split into six different beams, each of which engulfed Tim in ghastly light. And Tim screamed. It sounded just like a child’s scream, which planted terror inside Kayla’s heart. She knew then what weapon Merlyn was using. “What’s going on?” Leo asked, astounded. “He’s…using a Hex Doll. He’s carved his face into it.” Leo’s face showed he didn’t understand. “Hex Dolls are vessels for power, any kind of power - including souls,” she explained. “When you carve a face into the doll, you’re using the power of that person’s soul through the doll.” “And he’s carved his own soul…” Leo’s voice trailed off. “He’s a wizard. His soul will be very powerful. And he’s an innocent child, which means it will also be pure. That’s what Tim’s weakness must be.” “He’ll never reach the heavens. Or even the underworld. He’ll stop existing.” Leo’s face was filled with anguish. Holly cried. Tim was struggling against the purple flames with what appeared to be all his power. He created a purple energy barrier around him to prevent from being hit, but it shattered after two seconds of pressure. Tim screamed as the light drowned him and he wasted away, forming durst on the floor. Until nothing was left but white dust and black ash. Merlyn collapsed, his soul being spent. He would hang on for a couple minutes, Kayla knew, but then he would vanish, never to reappear. Tears flowed freely from both Holly and Tony, and Leo looked like he was going to be sick. Leo had seen enough children, enough innocent spirits, die. It hurt him like maybe nothing else, she guessed. Then the dust stirred. As Kayla’s mouth fell open, unbelieving, Tim began to reform. In less than a minute he was back to his regular self, including robe and hat. He prodded Merlyn with his foot. “It was a noble effort, but also a futile one. Better luck next time. Oh, wait, you won’t have a next time.” Merlyn didn’t reply, couldn’t. Leo screamed and was gone in a flash. He slammed his Muramasa down at Tim, who deftly knocked it out of his grip with one move and drove Leo through the concrete wall in another. As Merlyn’s body and soul faded away, the red tinge around Tim vanished. Tim turned around and glared at the hole he had sent Leo through. “YOU!” he screamed, every fiber of his words seething with hatred. Gone was the Tim that joked, that made no sense. This new one was angry and determined. “YOU INTERFERED WITH THE WIZARD DUEL! I’LL KILL YOU! I’LL KILL ALL OF YOU!” “NO!” shouted Tony. “MERL! YOU CAN’T BE GON-” Tim whirled around and shot a blinding ball of energy at Tony. In the time it took for Kayla to blink, Tony was a headless stump. Tim didn’t even contemplate it. He turned around and was met with Leo’s fist flying at him. He teleported three steps away and let Leo crash into the furnace. “It’s all over, Smeo,” Tim spat. He lifted his arms up. “ONE HUNDRED PERCENT POWER!” Tim began to glow purple, and then purple flames burst into view all around his body. They glowed fiercely, and gave Tim a deadly aura. Tim’s power was so great the house began to shake, as if it were going to collapse. Leo launched a punch at Tim. He looked battered and bruised, but surprisingly well for being thrown through concrete. The white water must be working. Tim dodged the punch so quickly Kayla didn’t have time to notice it before he landed one directly in Leo’s gut. Leo was launched into the air and smashed through the wall again. Instantly he got up, rage in his eyes, and picked up a large piece of dislodged concrete, slamming it over Tim’s head. It hit and shattered into the thousand pieces, without a scratch on Tim. “Not gonna work,” Tim cackled. His voice sounded demonic. “You can’t hit me. You can’t scratch me. You think you can kill me? Even if you could, I’d just get back up. Let me tell you a secret.” He whipped out his arms, long swords shaped exactly like Muramasas appearing in each. He vanished. Leo jumped up, kicking off a picture frame and into a stairwell, right as Tim appeared. Kayla saw the genius in the plan immediately from the angle of the stairwell, Tim would have been in the perfect position to catch Leo off-guard with a quick slice, which would have been followed up with an immediate knockout punch - provided Leo had stayed where he was for that one second. But that didn’t seem to deter Tim at all. One sword instantly vanished and with the empty hand he grabbed Leo’s foot and swung him down, smashing the back in his head into the concrete floor. He flipped him up into the air and stabbed him through the chest. Tim grabbed Leo’s shirt and jerked him toward himself, forcing Leo’s body further down the blade, cutting further around his chest. Tim jerked the shirt up, bringing Leo face-to-face with him and driving the sword deeper. Then he finally spoke. “You can’t kill death.” The sword vanished, and Tim flung the gasping Leo into the ceiling, which caused a loud crack that Kayla was sure was the roof breaking. And then the fight became a blur to Kayla and, she was sure, unbearable torture to Leo. Three seconds later, Tim emerged, having teleported at least sixty times in that short amount of time, and Leo’s face was revealed. Kayla put her hand over her mouth and was glad Holly still had her face buried. Leo’s face was almost unrecognizable, with thousands of cuts bleeding out all over. Tim had even signed his name with one of them. One eyelid was closed and marred, and he’d been impaled at least half a dozen times. He was coughing up blood. Kayla grabbed Holly and ran. Out the door, into the street. She had to get Holly away, someplace where she might be able to get back to them and heal them after all of this. Where, she didn’t know, and she really didn’t care. What she did know was that Holly had just lost her two best friends and she needed to get out, now. They had just made it out the door before Tim appeared behind them. “And where is it you’re headed off to in such a hurry?” Kayla turned around, holding her hands firmly. She was nowhere near his level of power, and she knew it. But she couldn’t take standing here and letting Tim kill everybody. “We had no part of this,” she said defensively. “Oh? Didn’t you? Forgive me for assuming so, but as I recall, it was you who first tried to kill me. Obviously, you did a very poor job of it. I highly doubt we would be here now if it weren’t for you. Which means that Smeo’s mistakes are a result of your mistakes, Gretchen. Which means I’ll be killing you in the same manner.” Kayla stared at him. It was hard to remember the way he had been not ten minutes ago, laughing and joking about nothing. That Tim was long gone. This one didn’t sound gleeful; it sounded sadistic. What had happened? Leo had overstepped his boundaries. There was almost nothing as sacred to a wizard, dead or not, as a formal duel between magicians. If you interfered with that, you died. Apparently this applied even to Tim. She couldn’t find words to express this, but she found herself saying the old cliché. “You’re insane.” Tim laughed his child’s laugh. “Am I? Well, I suppose that I probably am. Not that it’s any surprise. Tell me, Gretchen, what would you do if you had to live with yourself every day, knowing you were the thing that kids whisper about at night? If death itself had put itself in your body, and you had accepted it? Or if you knew that, no matter what you do, you can’t stop hurting, can’t stop killing? That’s who I am. I am the boogeyman. I am The Groom. I am the terror that lurks in the darkness. I’m what everyone fears, and what ultimately is their undoing. I’m death. And my curse even went so far as to make sure I couldn’t kill myself. If you were all that, well, I wouldn’t be able to blame you for being a little screwed up. Something like that will make anybody insane.” Kayla felt her throat constricting. She couldn’t find it in herself to respond. “But enough of that stupid soap opera stuff. I may not be able to kill myself but I can kill you. And right now, that’s good enough.” Tim’s empty hand created another Muramasa. The another Muramasa, coated in blood, plunged through Tim’s back. Tim let out a quick cry before composing himself. His head spun around on it’s collarbone to face the one who’d stabbed him. There was Leo, blood dripping from the thousands of wounds all over his body, flowing down his arms and onto the glowing sword. “But…” Tim sounded shocked. “You’re covered in wounds! You’ve been stabbed clean through at least seven times! You’re missing an eye! How…how did you-” “I’ve been through worse,” Leo muttered, sharing a look with Holly. He swung the blade up with all his might, Tim’s body sliding cleanly off up and flying high into the sky. Leo spun around and started talking fast. “You only have a few seconds. Run. Get to the Deathland, and bring Holly. Find a man named Harold, and tell him Leo said to initiate Plan B. I can stall him for a couple minutes while you get out of town. I don’t think he can leave. Run, now!” “Without you?” Kayla wasn’t sure when it happened, but sometime today the thought of heading out without Leo had become terrifying. Just this morning she had admitted that she was beginning to be able to tolerate his presence. Now it was nearly indispensable. “It’s the only chance you have!” They heard a clunk as Tim fell to the ground behind the house. “NOW!” Leo shouted. Kayla was surprised to find her feet moving, but she kept going. She turned and fled, Holly streaking tears right behind her. They were almost out of town when Holly collapsed. She had wasted nearly all her energy crying, and couldn’t make the last few jumps out of town. Kayla though for half a second about leaving her, but immediately rejected the idea. Holly had saved their lives. She didn’t deserve to be abandoned. But that’s exactly what you just did to Leo, a voice in her mind said. She ignored it and stopped next to Holly. “Listen,” she told her quietly. “I know it’s hard, but you need to suck it up for a few seconds. We need to get out of town. We need to get away from here.” “But…I can’t!” “I know, I know, you’re sad and probably horrified. The was a terrible way for Merlyn to die. But that’s already been done, and it can’t be undone. Now-” “That’s not it!” Holly shouted, hot tears splashing on the ground. Kayla was confused. “Then wh-” “He’s my brother!” At first Kayla thought she meant Merlyn, then the terrifying truth dawned upon her. “You don’t mean-” “Tim! Tim’s my brother! And We’re linked! Wherever I go, he can go! Why do you think I’ve never left?!” “But…how-” “The black lake,” sobbed Holly. “For wizards, it means death.” “He...touched it?” “He drank from it!” she shouted. “To give himself power; to defeat the Plague! He was going to get so much power, he said, he would overwhelm the Plague and destroy it! But it destroyed him! I can’t go! I can’t get out of here! I gave him his power, so now wherever I go, he can go! He‘s the plague now!” Kayla dropped onto the street, dizzy. Suddenly, everything began to make sense. “Your name, before it was changed…it was Millie, wasn’t it?” Sobbing her heart out, Holly nodded yes. “He has a weakness. The power came with it. But I don’t know what it is. I thought…well, I thought that maybe if he was fear and evil, then maybe it would take a hero to kill him, because that’s what heroes do. So I thought Leo could do it. If he ended one nightmare, why couldn’t he end another?” She burst into a fresh set of tears, and Kayla found herself wondering if she ever ran out. “Now I’ve killed him! Him and you! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Kayla tried to think about what this meant, about how they could still escape, but her mind kept wandering to what Holly had said: He’s the plague now. Yes, he was. The plague of death. He’d said so himself. With that thought, a thousand others presented themselves. Memories, tidbits, things that he had said or others had said about him. It’s Tim, like Tim the Grim. I’m hungry, and I can’t even eat! I’m Tim! I have all the magic! Agh! Weapons! My only weakness! How did you know?! I almost felt that! Somebody could get hurt! …sorry about that. Complete accident. Probably. Completely fatal, with no cure. The next time you try that, you should make sure that the guy you’re shooting at has some flesh. No. He’s already dead. They’re going to appear at my house. One brother. Well, kind of. Maybe. It’s complicated. Then I won’t lose. I know your weakness. She showed me the truth, who I was, why I’m here. You who are death, now, taste life! He’s a wizard. His soul will be very powerful. It was a noble effort, but also a futile one. You think you can kill me? Even if you could, I’d just get back up. You can’t kill death. I am the terror that lurks in the darkness. I’m what everyone fears, and what ultimately is their undoing. I’m death. I can’t kill myself. If he ended one nightmare, why couldn’t he end another? Then Tim appeared in front of her, and Holly screamed. “Hello, Gretchen,” he said, scowling. “I’m finished with Smeo. Your turn.” But Kayla wasn’t listening. She was staring at a hole in Tim’s skeletal chest. A hole that hadn’t regenerated. The hole that Leo had made when he stabbed Tim. And then everything fell into place. “Holly!” Kayla screamed. Holly caught the glint in her eyes, and instantly knew what to do. She pulled out her tungsten shortsword and stabbed it into one of Tim’s spinal bones. Tim howled in surprise and turned. He hadn’t expected an attack from the back. Then Kayla grabbed a throwing knife and plunged it into her leg. She winced from the sudden pain, but made no noise as to not warn Tim. She stuck the bloodied knife back into the sheath, but kept a grip on the handle. Tim screamed at Holly and sent her flying into the wall of a house with a kick. She passed out right away. He turned to Kayla. “So, is that your plan? You can’t get enough enjoyment from killing yourself, so you have to get everyone killed with you. Just to show one last point of holding out. To show that you aren’t a total wimp if you can surround yourself with wimps just like you. Honestly, that’s a pathetic way to die, especially for you. You’re always the silver medal. I’ve heard the stories. You can’t stand up to The Groom, so you fight a clown. You can’t hurt a slime, so you act as a sentry for the guy who can. You can’t protect a little girl, so you run away with her. You’re always second-rate compared to your friend. You always finish second. Guess what? Second place is just a fancy way of saying first loser. And you just lost big-time.” Kayla stared at him in the eyes. Then she slowly let her head down, and whispered. “Who said I was racing?” With that, she jumped up and plunged the bloody knife into Tim’s skull. And he shrieked like nothing Kayla had ever heard. The purple flames evaporated instantly with a shockwave that knocked Kayla down. Tim convulsed and dropped to the ground. “No! I can’t die! I’m not dying! Not to a second-rate like you! I swear, if you think this will kill me, you’re wrong! If I get up now you’ll wish you’d never been born!” Kayla trotted over and dropped to one knee to speak right into Tim’s ear cavity. She said one word. “If.” Then Tim began to disintegrate. His bones became ash, and his ash became smoke. And the smoke faded into nothing. And, with one final, tortured scream, Tim vanished forever, leaving only his hat. Kayla nearly fainted with relief. She had guessed right. Blood was Tim’s weakness. Blood affected him not only physically, but spiritually. Blood was life, and life countered death. He couldn’t kill himself, because he had no blood to do so. He didn’t die from Merlyn’s soul, for that simply turned what was spirit into something tangible. As long as Tim’s spirit remained, he lived on. By killing him with blood, Kayla did both at the same time. Kayla fell on her face and began to cry. Chapter 9 Day 5 Your World is 31% Crimson … When Holly woke up, the first thing she saw was Kayla lying on the ground, motionless. Naturally, then, the first thing she thought was Oh gosh, what did he do to Kayla? Well, actually, it was Why do I have this horrible headache, but then her memory came back the moment she saw Kayla, and with it, the thought. It didn’t even enter her mind that Kayla might be alive, until the roaring in her ears stopped and she heard a muffled cry. Almost immediately after, she noticed a slight shift in Kayla’s position and let out a sigh of relief and thanks. Then it occurred to her that, somehow, Kayla wasn’t dead. She knew Tim would never leave her alive, unless… Unless he wasn’t able to kill her. Holly slowly crawled over to the figure on the street. The sobs that came were quiet, muffled, but undoubtedly crying. These past months, Holly had learned how to tell the difference between laughing and crying exceptionally well, the hard way. And Kayla was crying. As she drew closer, she noticed a few of the lamps in the windows of houses being lit. Undoubtedly, most of the town’s residents had been huddled in their houses all night, but likely would have been overcome with curiosity when they heard Tim’s exchange with Kayla and her. They would have squinted through the windows, still hiding in case Tim happened to glance their way, but in full view of whatever had happened here under the bright moonlight. But she still wasn’t sure why they had lit their lamps. Obviously, Tim would head straight for them, unless… And then her eyes fell upon an object clutched in Kayla’s hand. An old, brown, wizard hat. One that had belonged to Tim. She stared quietly, unmoving, as the truth dawned upon her. Kayla had killed Tim. That was impossible. Tim was unkillable. He didn’t die to Leo, he didn’t die to Merlyn, and he didn’t die to Allison. He’d killed all of them. But she’d done it. She’d defeated death, and destroyed the destroyer. Out of nearly a hundred warriors, two heroes, several strategic geniuses and dozens of powerful swordsmen and wizards, this lone, sixteen-year-old stay-at-home-guide girl had been the one to kill the creature that had haunted every step everyone in this town took. For a brief moment, Holly wondered if she had been wrong. Was it possible that Kayla was the hero, and not Leo? No, that was impossible. Her gift had never been wrong. Kayla hadn’t even taken any of the white water. Whatever Kayla did, she did it using her own wit, her own strength, and her own ability. That night, Holly regarded Kayla with more respect than she had ever given to anyone. Now more lamps were lit, and people were beginning to come out of their houses. Doors slowly opened, as if the people inside were afraid Tim would suddenly appear out of nowhere and take their kids, and the Terrarians inside were stepping out onto their porches. Holly reached out and touched Kayla’s shoulder. “Kayla?” Kayla sat up very slowly, like she was held down by iron chains. “Hey, Holly.” Her voice was distant, and she was staring out at the horizon, as if distracted by something else, another world that had just opened up. “You’re okay?” Holly could have asked the same question back to her. Instead she just answered “Yeah. Just a bruise. A bad bruise, and a headache, but I’ve been through worse.” “I killed Tim.” She stated it matter-of-factly, with the same tone of voice that she had just been using. From her tone only, one might have suspected that she was stating that she had bought some butter today, or slept in that morning. “I know.” “Did I- did I actually do it?” Her voice was growing smaller. “I’m pretty sure you did.” “I didn’t die?” “Not unless I hit my head harder than I thought.” Kayla still seemed distracted and far away, but managed a smile. “You’re a strong little girl. You’ll be fine.” “But will you?” Holly’s tone, she hoped, expressed all the concern she couldn’t really put into words. Kayla shook her head. “I’m not sure.” Neither was Holly. Something had changed in Kayla since she had seen her last. It might have been a boost in self-confidence, or a burst of pure shock, or something else. Holly didn’t know. But she did know, from a single glance at Kayla’s eyes, that it would be a while before Kayla said something was ever impossible again. And not only that, but her tone and perspective had shifted a little. Holly wasn’t sure she’d be belittling other people, scoffing at even the stupidest things, or looking out for number one anytime soon. Something had happened while she was knocked out that had deflated Kayla’s balloon a bit, that had adjusted her way of looking at things. Even with her abilities, Holly didn’t think she’d ever quite know what it was. Now nearly all the lights on the street were on, and most of the people were outside. Some were staring, some were fidgeting, some were moving, but all were looking at them. Holly smiled a little. After all that crying, it felt good to smile again. She nudged Kayla and said “Looks like we have company.” For the first time, Kayla seemed to notice her surroundings and the masses of people beginning to surround them. She blinked a little, and the side of her mouth curled into a partial smile. Several individuals began to stray from the main group and head directly toward them. One man, an Arms Dealer with dark skin and huge muscles, reached them first. He hesitated, unsure of what to say or do. He finally scratched his head and declared “I wouldn’t believe it for a second if I hadn’t seen it myself. In fact, I’d probably still convince myself it was a dream if it weren’t fer that hat in your hand. I dunno how you did it, but you killed that son of a biscuit eater and I couldn’t be happier for it.” Kayla’s half-smile widened slightly and she murmured “Nice to know I’m not the only one who says that.” Slightly puzzled, the Arms Dealer asked “Says what?” Kayla shook her head. “Nevermind. I think I’ve seen you before. Were you at a nurse’s office earlier today?” The man chuckled. “Had a bit of a cold. Think it’s passed now, though. You, uh, wouldn’t happened to have seen that nurse who took care of you around, have ya?” Holly noticed Kayla grimacing. “Yes. Sort of.” “Oh.” The Arms Dealer was obviously relieved. “Good. That’s good.” “Not so good,” Kayla countered. “She was dead.” The man was stricken. “Wha-what do ya mean, dead?” “Tim killed her.” He clenched his fists and flexed his muscles. “Why, that-” he let out a stream of curses about Tim. He turned away for a moment and then turned back. “We were, uh, sorta going out, I guess. I’m real sorry you had to hear that. Suppose I should thank ya double for avenging her, though if you hadn’t I surely would’ve.” “You would’ve died.” He shrugged. “Heat of the moment, don’t think I’d really care. I really do thank you, though. Anything you need, just call up old Willie.” By this time, the crowd had grown to the residents of several streets, most of whom were probably curious about the lights on everywhere, and it had moved far closer to the two. When Willie said that, somebody else stepped out. It was a man dressed in a blue shirt and wearing a long brown cloak. He held two children by the hand, and a third was sitting on his shoulder. “My kids are alive right now. If you hadn’t been here, they might not be. I owe you for life. Anything you want from me, it’s yours.” There were a lot of nods and several more people stepped out to offer their thanks and hospitality. In five minutes, Kayla had become a praised and revered hero. But she shook her head at all the praise. “It wasn’t me who killed Tim. Well, it was…” she began. “But I wouldn’t even be here right now if it weren’t for the one who came into town with me. He’s the one who deserves all your thanks-” suddenly she remembered. “Oh my gosh,” she stuttered. “Where is he? I mean, how, er, wha-” “Tim,” Holly muttered, remembering. “He stayed behind to fight Tim, and then Tim came here-” she looked up at Kayla, horrified. “And said he was done with him.” “We have to go back. We have to see if anybody can heal him!” Instantly, the people at the front of the crown began yelling at the people behind them, and suddenly everybody was spread out, searching. Less than a minute later, Holly heard a “Here! He’s here!” and, along with nearly everyone else, rushed over. She was soon blocked off by the crowd, and the closest she came to seeing Leo were the gasps of the people who did see him. “Let ‘em through! Let ‘em through!” came an angry bellow from the back, and almost immediately everyone began to scoot off to one side, leaving a path for Holly and Kayla to walk through. And when they caught sight of Leo, they both gasped along with everyone else. He no longer looked like a person, much less alive. There was barely a spot of his body that wasn’t covered in blood, and he looked more mangled than a broken and beat up test dummy. They all stared in silence for a few seconds, and then Kayla rested a hand on Holly’s shoulder. “Can you do something?” she asked, obviously trying to keep her voice from failing. Holly opened her mouth and found herself struggling with the same problem. “Maybe,” she forced herself to say. “The brain can be restarted up to half an hour after dying. If he has his eyes. I’ll need to look into them. Even then, I- I’ve never tried something so hard.” Kayla’s face went even whiter. “Didn’t Tim say he was missing an eye?” “Hopefully Tim’s definition of “missing” is just being unable to see with it.” They quickly started searching through the blood for the eyelids. When Holly finally found them, she held her breath and opened them. The moment she saw what was there, she gasped involuntarily and closed them again. “So…he really is missing an eye?” Kayla asked, her voice trembling. Holly clenched her teeth. “Half of one.” “Oh…” Holly sighed quietly. “I’ve never done anything like this. Everyone I’ve used this on has had both of their eyes. But…I’ll try.” Kayla nodded, though she looked sick. “Excuse me, miss,” a male’s voice from behind them spoke up to Kayla. “You might want to know that this girl is the reason Tim-” “I know!” Kayla shouted. She threw back a glare at the man who had spoken. “Do it, Holly.” Holly drew in a breath, opened the eyelids, and plunged herself into Leo‘s soul. There, she searched. She searched everywhere for something. A hint or a spark of light. She threw her whole meaning into searching running through the entire soul. When she didn’t find one, she started over, combing everywhere. She was determined not to give up until she found something. And then she found it. A small piece of his being left. A single spark of life. She instantly focused all of her healing on it. She tore it down and rebuilt it, trying to make it bigger, stronger, until it was fully life again. But she couldn’t. Maybe if he had both eyes, she could, but not with only one. So she tried something else. She brought the spark to the lakes. It took an extreme amount of power with only the one eye, but she managed to. Once there, she began screaming at it. “THE WHITE LAKE!” she shouted, both inside and outside the soul. “GO THERE! INTO THE WHITE LAKE!” The spark moved slightly. She kept screaming, kept yelling at it, kept nudging it closer, until she lost her voice. Then she tried to keep it going through sheer willpower. With every shout, it nudged slightly closer, until it finally fell in. And then there was a scream so intense it could shatter glass, and Holly was kicked out of the soul. She physically fell down, only to be helped up by Kayla. When she looked at Leo, blood still covered him, but it was no longer seeping out. All his wounds had healed, his eyes were open and whole, and he was breathing heavily. Leo stood up and wiped the blood off of his mouth. Holly smiled weakly at him. “Just warning you: I don’t think I can ever do that again.” Leo blinked rapidly before speaking. “Guys, never make me do that again.” Suddenly, everyone was laughing. Kayla ran up and grabbed Leo for a hug, a move that obviously surprised him. Then everyone was surrounding him and renewing their promises of debt. “At least stay the night,” someone begged. Leo shook his head. “The Plague’s coming. We all have to move, get out of here as fast as possible.” That brought a few surprised murmurs from the crowd. “It’s true!” a man yelled out. He’d been at the campsite, carrying Leo’s stretcher. “I’ve seen it. It’s way too close for comfort.” “Still,” a large man bargained, “It can’t overcome the whole town in a single night. AT least rest before you set out again.” Suddenly, Kayla dropped to the ground, passed out, drawing several shocked faces from the crowd. “Oh, yeah.” Leo said, remembering. “I’d forgotten that she stayed awake these past four nights in a row fighting monsters.” He looked at the crowd. “ I guess we’re resting.” … At 6:00 the next morning, Leo, Kayla and Holly were called to the mayor‘s office. The mayor, who turned out to be a fifty-something year-old man with a white, bushy mustache, wanted to hold a potluck feast in their honor, but Leo declared adamantly that they didn’t have time. “The Plague will be here sooner than you think,” he told the mayor. “The best thing you can do for us is to evacuate the entire town as soon as possible.” The mayor nodded. “A noble quest. Heading out to warn all towns of the Plague’s arrival. You should be proud.” Leo hesitated, then nodded. “We’ve encountered more than our fair share of problems along the way, and, being a hero, I’m fairly sure there will be more. We’ll need a nurse and a dryad for the rest of our quest.” “Well,” the mayor responded dryly, “I’m afraid there are no dryads around here, and the only nurse for fifteen miles was killed last night. I can’t help you there.” “Not the only nurse.” Holly looked up in surprise. Was he saying what she suspected? Leo turned to her. “Holly, last night Tony and Merlyn said you have no family left. Is that true?” Holly nodded. “My parents died years ago. After Tim drank the black water, I was left without anybody. And nobody would take me in, because Tim would kill them first. Tony and Merlyn were my only friends.” Leo looked confused. “Tim drank the black water?” “How do you think he got so powerful?” “Oh. Um, I see.” Leo stayed quiet for about two seconds before continuing. “So, would you rather stay here or go with us?” “With you? But I’m only nine!” Leo nodded. “And you raised me from the dead. Name another nurse who can do that.” Holly bit her lip, contemplating. Both her and Leo knew the true nature of the mission. She wondered whether she really wanted to be a part of it, to be there when it happened. Or she could take the easy way out and stay here forever. But she didn’t want to do that. She didn’t want a boring life. Sure, she could do without being constantly outmatched and nearly dying and seeing her best friends beheaded, but she wouldn’t be able to stand here with her powers and not do anything. Besides, when she was given the powers she had, she’d made a promise to use them everywhere she could. And here certainly wasn’t everywhere. “Yeah. I want to go with you.” Leo grinned. “Then we leave now.” “Now?” The mayor was shocked. “But it’s so early!” “If we wait till everybody’s up, we’ll be saying goodbye until the Plague says it for us. The sooner we leave, the better,” Leo announced. Holly saw Kayla nodding in agreement. The mayor shook his head. “I can’t say I’ve ever met somebody like you. Very well. Goodbye, and thank you for everything.” Leo shrugged. “We got a new team member out of the deal. I’d say we’re even.” The three left town fifteen minutes later. … Johnny Abraham entered the town in the late afternoon, whistling a tune he’d made up himself. It was a strangely somber, yet beautiful melody that suddenly became choppy halfway through, and took a trip through several styles before returning to the original version, yet it all flowed perfectly. In some ways, it was like Johnny himself. Not that Johnny Abraham was his real name. Rather, it was the names of his first two victims. They’d annoyed him a bit too much, and regretted it right away, as people who annoyed him generally did. They were two unknowns, disgraced, forgotten. He’d felt rather bad that nobody would notice they were missing or build a memorial to them, so he decided to do so in his own way. How ironic that the only person who cared about those two was the person who killed them. Before this, he’d spent some time back up at the hill, standing right next to the Plague, drinking it in completely and grinning. He loved it. He loved the feeling of death, of blood, of hatred soaking into his skull and making its way through every fiber of his being. He stayed there for a long time, eagerly accepting all it offered him. Of course, to him, it was no plague. Rather, it felt almost like a remedy, offering soothing to the pains of his soul. He did not fear it. He commanded it. That’s why he didn’t use the term most did now for it. He never believed it to be a plague. Would you consider science or mathematics a plague? No, they were simply facts that changed your way of thinking. So was this. So he far preferred the original name for the Plague, the name that people originally called it before they fully understood it. The Crimson. Crimson was the color of blood, and thus was the color of both life and death. That was what the “Plague” really was. Life and death, merged together in a bloody mess of destruction, mayhem, and danger, consuming all it could, soaking what it absorbed in the bloody color that defined it. It was no plague, but it was crimson. Oh, yes, it was crimson. And right now, he was overjoyed with the thought. The twenty-eight-year-old’s eyes constantly wandered, never focusing on any one thing for more than two seconds. Someone watching might have commented that he looked distracted from everything, edgy, and a little glazed over, perhaps not altogether there. He stumbled through the streets, yet even he stumbled were smooth and precise, like they had some sort of purpose to them. His auburn hair was choppy and imprecise, looking like it was cut with a knife, and his stubble was extremely small, almost nonexistent. He swayed a little as he walked, as if looking everywhere to catch everything. He looked constantly tired, overworked, and yet his eyes were fully alive, dancing constantly, but not in a happy way. Rather, the dances felt far more sinister, like he was planning your demise with a glance. He wore an old brown jacket over a frayed shirt and ripped jeans. Everything about him looked, in general, off, like he’d been constantly running and living in the wild his whole life long. Which, in fact, he had. He had seen everything last night. And the night before. And the night before. In fact, he’d been following Leo for weeks now. He’d been watching him while he was guarding Kayla’s house, in particular. And he was pleased. Sure, he would have preferred if Leo had found Tim’s weakness himself, and not, you know, die, but the young nurse had fixed that, so it wasn’t a complete loss. Briefly he wondered exactly how much the people here praised him now. He decided it might be fun to find out. He slowly crossed over to one side of the street and stopped a man walking there. It was, in fact, Willie, the Arms Dealer Kayla had been talking with. But he knew that. Right now he was interested in something else. He looked around a bit to see if anyone was around. When he determined nobody was, he turned back to the man with bulging muscles. “Yeah, what can I help ya with, stranger?” Willie asked suspiciously. Johnny smiled. His smile had just enough genuinity and crookedness about it to instantly set himself apart and make many believe him to be insane. Which, in this case, it did. “Did, um…” Johnny appeared distracted, like he was struggling to find and put words together. “A guy come here? A guy and…a girl?” “Whadda mean?” he demanded gruffly. “Oh…you know…a girl…and a guy? Um, one was a hero…” “What’s it your business?” “They’re…friends, I guess.” “Prove it. Until then I ain’t telling ya nothing.” Johnny’s smile widened. So, they’d left quite an impression. Good. He’d learned all he wanted to. He turned away. “Nevermind.” “Hey!” Willie grabbed his shoulder. “You ain’t leaving ‘till I know whatcha want.” “I said nevermind.” “Not good enough.” Johnny shrugged. Willie had overstepped his boundaries without knowing it. Ah, well. He wasn’t the first. Then, without warning, Willie screamed. “My eyes! I can’t see! What happened?” “No, I guess you can’t.” Johnny turned around. “You! You did this! You fix this right now or so help-” Willie didn’t get any farther. His words topped in his throat as he began to choke. Johnny stuck both his hands in his jacket pockets as Willie continued to choke. “And now…you can’t breathe. What a shame.” Willie managed to get out two words. “You…lunatic.” He collapsed on the ground and passed out. Though he’d passed out, he continued to choke. It took twenty seconds for him to stop breathing entirely. Johnny sighed and turned around. He’d already felt the boy watching him, and now he saw the twelve-year-old racing away, likely to warn the townspeople. Johnny sighed and turned away. The kid wouldn’t even make it another street. A shame, as he didn’t prefer to kill children. There was always a chance of them growing up and making something of themselves. Once in a while, though, it couldn’t be helped. He began to walk away, heading out of town straight ahead of where he went in. The man had called him a lunatic. Well, he wasn’t wrong. As he passed the street the boy was running down, the poor thing suddenly came down with a very bad case of bleeding to death. What a shame. Chapter 10 Day ??? Your World is ???% Crimson … Leo woke up in a quilted bed, lying down on the most comfortable pillow he’d ever felt. The blankets were purple, red, white, and felt amazing. The moment he woke up, he felt like he wanted to go back to sleep, just to experience the comfort of a real bed again. But instead he sat up and looked around. He was in a room that looked fit for a king. There were velvet chairs surrounding a smooth oak table, portraits of famous and not-so-famous Terrarians hung up on the walls, an entire library of books next to the bed, and a red carpet that looked to be as comfortable as the bed. There weren’t any windows, but there was a chandelier lighting up the room and a single gold-edged wooden door leading out of the room. He was wearing a white bathrobe, and there were a pair of slippers, a lamp, and a silver bell on a small stand next to him. All in all, he was in a more comfortable place and position than he had ever really known. He would be feeling pretty great, but there were five things that bothered him. First, his weapons were nowhere to be seen. Second, he had a splitting headache. It felt like his brain had been hard-boiled and was now loosening up. Third, there were several mysterious scratches and bruises all over his arms and legs. Fourth, neither Kayla or Holly were here, and he didn’t know where they were. Fifth, and most disturbingly, he didn’t remember a thing after leaving the town where they picked up Holly. His last memory was of stepping past the town gates, and then suddenly, he was here. He forced himself out of the bed and put the slippers on. His normal clothes weren’t here, either, but that was of less priority. With a good weapon, he could fight in anything. Somewhere around here was the Muramasa he’d used against Tim, he was sure. The mayor had formally gifted all the weapons and items they wanted from the shop to them as thanks for defeating Tim and to help them out on their journey. Leo didn’t know how, but he could feel that the Muramasa was here somewhere. And that he’d need it, later if not sooner. He wandered about the room, lifting up things to look behind and under for his blade. He noticed that, thanks to the white water, he was able to lift large chairs coated with real gold with ease. This place, if it turned out to be hostile, would still be easy to break out of without any weapons. He could simply break down the walls and run through. But he wasn’t about to lose a Muramasa. Those were rare, and excellent swords. He’d even stood up to Tim with one. For a split second, he mused over the fact that he had nearly lost to The Groom. Somehow, defeating him now seemed significantly less impressive. He’d probably be able to end the fight in a single punch, and that wasn’t more than…how many days ago? Leo frowned as he realized that he had no idea. How long had he been here? A day? A week? A month? Was the world already completely consumed by the Plague, and they were surviving in the Deathland? Leo didn’t know, which scared him. Well, he would find out soon enough. He’d make sure of that. In the meantime, he had a weapon and teammates to find. There was a cabinet nearby, which was locked. Leo would have broken the lock, but he didn’t feel like his Muramasa was in there, and he didn’t want to go breaking things that didn’t belong to him, just in case his host turned out to be a nice guy. He searched and searched, but couldn’t find it. Yet he knew it was near. He just knew. He glanced around the room, then paused when facing the wall to his left. Something about it bothered him. It looked perfectly normal, and it probably was, but there was something different, something odd about it that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Then it was suddenly obvious to him. The wall was glowing. He stared at the wall for a while, taking it in. Yes, the wall was definitely glowing. It shone brighter than the other walls, and he felt strangely attracted to it. As if he needed to look at it. He shut and rubbed his eyes. After he did so, the glow vanished, but the attraction was still there. Then Leo knew, so abruptly that it shocked him, that his sword was on the other side of that wall. Leo looked around. Besides the bookshelf, which contained some of Leo’s favorites, there was nothing left to be explored here. He decided it was time to try the door. He slowly stepped toward it, half-expecting an assailant to come crashing through at the last second. When none did after fifteen seconds, he grasped the door handle and twisted it. He was mildly surprised when it opened easily. This whole thing was too…normal. Too easy, to comfortable. Experience had taught him that often the most comfortable things were the likeliest to turn incredibly uncomfortable at a moment’s notice. But there was no assassin, no locked door. Just him, his weapon, and a glowing wall separating them. He finally opened the door. It swung outwards easily, revealing a hallway styled similarly to his room, with portraits and red carpet. The hallway ended a short distance from his room, which was to the right-hand side at the end, and continued down a staircase that turned a sharp left. There were three doors besides his that led into other rooms, and none were open. He immediately noticed a door next to his glowing like the wall in his room. He instantly knew that it led to the room that contained his Muramasa. He tried the handle, but found it locked. Figures. They wouldn’t exactly leave dangerous weapons where just anybody could get them in this place. Well, the lock was useless, really. He could easily snap it with one hand. He silently thanked Holly and his dip in the white water. Not only had it brought him back to life, but had likely been the cause for his newfound, immense strength. He grabbed the handle and twisted with quite a bit more force. The handle hit the lock…and stayed. Leo furrowed his brows. He twisted with all his strength now, but the lock stayed put. It should have crumbled the first time. Leo tried once more with both hands and all the strength he could muster. With this much force, he might be able to decimate a city block and everything on it. Yet the lock stayed. Fine, he decided. He’d just break down the door. It was wooden; it would fall easily enough, even if the lock was amazingly durable. He drew back a fist, charged it with plenty of power, and hit the door. The result was one unharmed door and one very sore hand. Leo was shocked. This was physically impossible, yet it was so. He suddenly began whaling on the door with both fists, using all his effort to try to break it down, but it didn’t let loose one splinter. Ten minutes later, he gave up. His arms were remarkably sore and he wasn’t sure he could turn a normal doorknob without any pain now. The door looked as solid as ever, as if it hadn’t even felt what must have been city-level destructive power. “Are you done?” a kind voice behind him asked. Leo spun around, surprised. He hadn’t heard anybody walk up to him. The voice belonged to a black-haired man of some thirty-some years. He wore glasses and a black suit that looked suspiciously like a tuxedo, and his hair was neatly cropped. He held a serving tray with an array of breakfast foods on it. Basically, he was exactly what Leo imagined a butler would look like. Fitting, as it appeared he was, in fact, a butler. “Who are you?” Leo snapped. He regretted the sharp tone in his voice, but didn’t take it back or apologize. He felt he had the right to be snappy right now. “My apologies,” the man said, bowing in a very butler-like manner. “My name is Toknoyo Kyannes. Or, rather, that is the name I was given in Mr. Welch’s service. I have no recorded birth name.” Leo wasn’t sure how to respond, so, naturally, he said something remarkably stupid. “Can I call you Tok-Tok?” Toknoyo raised an eyebrow. “You are technically allowed to call me anything. It’s really a matter of whether or not I’ll thrash you for doing so.” “So…is Tok-Tok good?” Toknoyo tilted his head to his left and straightened it. “I’ve heard worse.” “How about No-No?” “Well, that, I’d thrash you for. But it seems like you’re doing a rather good job of it yourself.” “Oh, yeah.” Leo looked at the door that refused to budge. “I was just…uh…” “Trying to break down a door with an unbreakable spell on it? Yes, I am quite aware of that.” Leo felt his face flush a bit. He’d almost been throwing a bit of a fit, and it was embarrassing to think that somebody had seen him pounding away at the door. “My weapons are in there, aren‘t they?” “Why yes, they are, though I’m rather surprised you remember.” “Yeah, about that, why can’t I remember the past…however many days? I mean, why am I here?” “Your amnesia was a part of the agreement. You’ll be regaining all of your missing memories within the next week.” “What agreement, exactly?” Leo was quite confused. “The agreement with Mr. Welch,” Toknoyo elaborated. “In exchange for the stay here for three days, you agreed to have your weapons confiscated and memory of certain recent events erased. Both of those conditions were your ideas, by the way - and excellent ideas they were. Mr. Welch agreed immediately. Your group was very lucky. Mr. Welch only has nine guest rooms, and six were already taken.” That explanation clarified a few things and created a few more mysteries. He was glad to know that Kayla and Holly were here, but confused about his agreement. Why would he want his memory erased? And staying three days anywhere could spell doom for him and everyone else. He had to leave before the Plague arrived, assuming it hadn’t already. “But why would I want to be here three days? If the Plague caught up-” “When you arrived at this location,” Toknoyo informed him, “The Plague was the last of your worries.” “What? What happened?” Toknoyo pursed his lips. “You weren’t exactly in the best condition. That’s all you told me to tell you. You will remember very soon, so I wouldn’t worry about it.” “Why do I have a headache, or the cuts?” “The headache is your memories trying to compensate for the gap. It will stop when the wiped memories return, and you came here in your current condition, cuts included.” “Kayla and Holly?” “Miss Jynt is on the second floor, sleeping, as you likely were a half an hour ago. Miss Keith is on the first floor, eating her breakfast, having already had this conversation with me, as you should be doing as well.” So, Holly’s last name was Keith. Leo decided to put that in the back of his mind, just in case it came in handy somehow. He started to move past Toknoyo and toward to staircase. Toknoyo immediately dropped one hand from the tray, balancing it carefully on his remaining hand, and blocked Leo’s path with his empty one. “I’m afraid I can’t let you down just yet, Mr. Harxwell. Seeing either of your friends in your current condition may stir up a few of the erased memories prematurely, and that could cause considerable damage to your brain. Miss Keith has been informed on this as well. Tomorrow, it should be safe, and you may rejoin them at your leisure. Leo was disappointed, but couldn’t argue. “As you can see, I’ve brought your breakfast. I suggest you return to your quarters and eat.” “I’m not hungry.” Toknoyo looked at him skeptically. “Yes, you are.” His tone left no room for negotiation. Leo resigned himself to returning into the room he had only just left. He might’ve been able to fight off Toknoyo, but things were different than they appeared in this place. The butler could be just as strong as him, and he wouldn’t know it. He sat down on one of the chairs facing the table, and Toknoyo placed the tray in front of him, standing to the side so as he could take the tray when Leo was done. Without thinking, Leo began to eat. He quickly finished his eggs and toast and lifted the small chalice filled with orange juice to his lips. But he was suddenly overcome with a desire to put it down. Something in his brain kept screaming at him that something in the orange juice wasn’t right. He stopped and stared at it. And then, a short burst of pain overwhelmed him and he was thrust into some sort of white abyss, where he saw a pill falling into a large pitcher of orange juice. He was thrown back into his normal place just as suddenly, and now he could immediately tell there was something unnatural in the drink. He looked into it and saw several glowing specks. He put the orange juice back down, trembling. “Something wrong, Mr. Harxwell?” Toknoyo asked, sounding genuinely concerned. Leo shook his head. “No. It’s just…have you tasted this orange juice?” Toknoyo rose an eyebrow again. He seemed almost as fond of the gesture as Kayla was. “Have you?” “Not exactly. But…it’s just…try it.” Puzzled, Toknoyo dipped a single clean finger in the orange juice and lifted it to his lips. The moment he tasted it, his eyes shot open wide. He grabbed the juice and poured it into a potted plant Leo hadn’t even noticed before - surprising, considering how thoroughly he had checked the room. What was even more surprising was when the plant suddenly shriveled up and died. Toknoyo ran out Leo’s open door. “Where are you going?” Leo called out. “To make sure nobody else has drank theirs!” he called back. … It was only twelve minutes later when Toknoyo came back in, far more composed, but with a face of white. “Did they?” Leo asked, afraid to hear the answer, especially for Holly. Toknoyo nodded. “Nearly all of the ones who are up. But I tested each chalice, and only two were infected, including yours. Nothing seems to have happened to the young lady who drank from the other infected one, but I have injected her with a general poison antidote nonetheless. I only wish I knew what kind the venom was.” Leo’s heart skipped a beat. “Holly?” Toknoyo shook his head. “Miss Keith’s chalice was not infected. From what I can initially see, everybody’s chalices were of normal orange juice except for you two.” Leo stayed quiet for a moment. “What was it?” “Some sort of poison, I’m sure,” replied Toknoyo, “Though I have no idea who could have put it in there or exactly what type it is. If I did know the type, we would go without risk as I could simply have the proper antidote on hand.” “Holly could heal her,” Leo suggested. “She brought me back from the dead. I’m sure she could remove the poison.” Toknoyo hesitated before replying. “Miss Keith’s powers…no longer function.” “What?!” Leo jumped up in surprise. “They were connected very tenderly to her mind. When we erased her memory, her powers vanished. However, we have looked into it, and she will regain them by tomorrow, when all of your minds have settled some.” “Who, exactly, has looked into it?” Toknoyo seemed not to hear him, only taking the now-empty tray and meeting his eyes. “You know, I’m curious,” he questioned, “Why are your eyes that way?” “What way?” Leo asked, puzzled. Toknoyo strode over to the left wall and pulled down a large mirror as if it were a toothpick, and carried it back. “This way,” he announced, tilting the mirror toward Leo. Leo’s breath caught in his mouth. His eyes were no longer the normal brown color he always knew, but now the pupils were bright red, and the white around his eyes was golden. “I…don’t know.” “Could it have happened during the time period we wiped from your mind?” “I guess.” It seemed the only real explanation. Toknoyo shrugged. “I suppose it’s not my concern, then.” He put the mirror back on the wall and turned to leave. “There are a selection of your favorite books brought up from the library on the first floor on the bookshelf, to help pass the time. There’s a change of clothes inside the wardrobe.” “It’s locked.” Toknoyo snapped his fingers. “It isn’t now. Please try to avoid going downstairs. If you run into one of your friends, you could be permanently damaged. I‘ll return at lunchtime with a meal, but you may ring the bell on the lampstand if you need me sooner. Don‘t worry; I‘ll hear it.” He began to move out the door. “Wait, Tok-Tok!” Leo called out. Toknoyo stepped back into the room but didn’t face Leo. “Yes?” “Have you ever seen these walls…glowing?” There were several seconds of silence before Toknoyo answered. “No, I don’t believe I have. It’s a bit silly, actually. Perhaps a side effect of the memory eraser. Goodbye.” He stepped out and shut the door rather abruptly. It was closed for perhaps one second until he opened it again. “Oh, and if you desire companionship, the girl who drank the infected orange juice is up and happens to be on this very floor. Right across from your room, in fact. Miss Amy Mulligan, I believe her name is. If I remember correctly, you may know her. Goodbye.” He stepped out again, and this time did not come back. But Leo’s thoughts about the glowing walls and his eyes had completely stopped when he heard the name Amy Mulligan. No, it couldn’t be that Amy Mulligan. There was no possible way she and him could have crossed paths after…that. But if she had… Leo suddenly was extremely curious, and also incredibly nervous. He wondered if he really wanted to know if it was really who he suspected. Then he decided he did. There was no way he was going to be left in the dark about it. If it wasn’t her, well, he could just say he was wondering how everyone else was doing and was bored. And if it was…well, that’d be a bridge he’d cross when he came to it. He got up, opened the wardrobe, which was, true to Toknoyo’s word, now unlocked, and changed into his new clothes, which felt surprisingly comfortable, and yet made him look like some sort of priest. The large robe didn’t really help, but when the entire outfit was taken together, he actually looked pretty good. Then he noticed another thing - he was clean. He’d apparently taken a bath the night before or something. He even smelled clean. But that was trivial. Right now he had something much more important on his mind. He slowly walked out the door and grasped the door handle of the one opposite to him. Then he thought twice about it. If Amy was still changing, he didn’t want to walk in on her. So instead he opted for a sharp knock. “Toknoyo, if you’re back with another needle, I’ll turn the tables and shove it into your arm!” came a familiar voice from the other side. Leo bit his lip. It was her, no doubt about it. It was now or never. He drew in a breath and called out “It’s not Toknoyo. It’s…a friend.” There was a silence at the other end of the door for half a minute. Then it opened to reveal a girl of sixteen, four inches shorter than Leo, with red hair in a Dutch Braid. She had already changed into a sleeveless yellow dress that went past her feet and swept behind her on the carpet. Her green eyes gazed into him, unbelieving. She didn’t even seem to notice his strange eye color. Finally, she whispered “Neil?” Leo felt his mouth go dry. “Hey, Amy.” Amy suddenly jumped up and grabbed him in a giant bear hug, which might have crushed him not so long ago. “How did you get here?! I seriously thought you were going to die out there by yourself!” Leo surprised himself by hugging her back. “I wasn’t by myself for long. And I was going to ask you the same thing.” “I don’t know,” Amy replied, not letting go just yet. “I had my memory erased. Apparently something happened and nobody wanted to remember it.” “Also apparently, that was my idea.” She finally dropped from the hug. “It would be. Only you would think to do something like that in exchange for something like this.” She gestured around the room and then brought her sparkling eyes back to Leo. “I’m so happy to see you again! I mean, I know it’s a cheesy thing to say, but I really am!” Leo smiled a quiet kind of smile back. “Me too, Amy.” Amy stepped back and sat in a chair at her table. Her room was furnished almost exactly like his, though Leo noticed she had far less books in her small library. She never was much of a big reader. “So,” she began, “How’s your quest to save the world going?” “I’ve only died once so far.” He let into a full grin now. Amy grinned. “Then you’re doing better than I thought you would be.” Then her face lost its overjoyed expression and replaced it with one of concern and sadness. She brought out a silver necklace from under her shirt and began toying with it. When Leo saw it, his heart stopped in his throat. “You still have that?” he asked, almost whispering. She rolled her eyes. “Of course I do, Neil! I’ll always keep it, and one day, I‘ll die with it on. I told you that after what happened.” “Yeah, but…I would’ve thought you’d forgotten about ‘what happened.’” She raised her eyes to meet his. “You’re kidding, ri- oh my gosh, Neil, what happened to your eyes?!” Leo shook his head. “I really wish I knew. It’s starting to freak me out. And my name is Leo, remember?” “Well,” Amy stated firmly, “It’s already freaking me out. And I’ll always know you as Neil and nobody else.” He shrugged and made a terrible attempt to hide a smile. “Can’t say I didn’t try.” “Oh, shut up, Neil. You know you like it.” Her face was happy for a moment, and then grew sad again. She continued playing with the necklace. “You know I hate this whole thing. What you‘re doing.” “You think I don‘t?” “Well, no, but, I don’t know, it feels so…sad. Like this world is completely helpless and we can only do one thing to fix it.” Leo slowly shook his head. “I’d say that’s a pretty accurate picture.” Amy looked downcast. “Did you find her?” Leo nodded. “Yeah. She’s just like they said she’d be. Or, at least, she was.” “Oh?” Amy was interested. “What happened?” “She killed Tim, and I think it shocked something loose in her.” “Tim?” “The guy who killed me.” Amy blinked. “I thought you were joking.” “It gets better.” Amy pulled out another chair next to her. “Sit down. You’ve got a lot to tell me, and I want to hear all of it.” As Leo sat, he found it difficult to look away from her eyes. It wouldn’t so bad if they didn’t always bring butterflies to his stomach. But they did. Wanna support the future of this story? Here's an awesome banner made by @DarkAwesome to paste in your signature! Let us know if you use it! 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