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'Through a Mirror, Darkly'

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Even though he had agreed to this, Henry had misgivings.

He had many, many misgivings.

Not only was it a gamble, a risky gamble, but it verged so scarily close to the insane plot his Joey had concocted and subsequently lead to all this that it had taken much persuading from the other man for him to even listen. It was only Al’s calm interjections and Joey’s absolute insistence that no one needed to be hurt for the ritual to work that had finally calmed him.

He’d explained in excruciating detail how it all worked. The spell, the components, his theory on the Demon itself, all of it. What had happened in the past, and what could happen now if it worked. And Henry had to grudgingly accept his explanations, especially when the proof was there. Besides, they had no other options, not ones that didn’t come with the risk of other innocent people getting seriously hurt, or worse.

And . . . well, the Joey here was significantly easier to read than the man he had known. His face had been one of pure desperation, but of resolve, too. A resolve to see this through to the end, to fix things in a way his old ‘friend’ had monumentally failed to do.

All without involving anyone else. Without dumping the problem at another’s feet and expecting them to clean up the mess.

Henry had to admit, too, that despite his obvious fear, the man was more determined than he perhaps had a right to be. There’d be something admirable about it, if the thought of admiring Joey Drew didn’t make his stomach twist unpleasantly.

There was a lot that could go wrong with this plan of his. And, privately, he was still suspect of the man’s intentions. It was Joey, after all, and he’d learned his lesson the hard way that leaving him to his own devices was always foolish. So he had decided to stay as well, just to make sure. Joey had tried to argue with him about it, to convince to stay with the others, looking at his wounds with open and undisguised concern, a look that had made Henry uncomfortable. But he was stubborn now, too, and had adamantly refused.

Seeing the Ink Machine again had been . . . hard, though, he had to admit. It had taken a lot of self-restraint to not pick up his axe and chop it to smithereens. But, according to Joey, it would be monumentally helpful in improving their chances.

*

“I mean it!” Joey defended, holding up his hands plaintively, “It really would help! Plus, it gives a stage for us to use away from everyone else!”

“How?” Henry asked, now very much on edge after the man had brought up the Ink Machine. Just what was his obsession with the damn thing?

“That thing’s where the Demon came from,” Al said, wrapping her arms around her chest like she’d taken a chill, “What would the one here be able to do to it?”

“Well . . . not anything to it, per say,” Joey said in that frustratingly vague way.

“And what does that mean?” Henry inquired, frowning.

“The Ink Machine, at least here . . . think of it like a big conduit for all the ink, and the magic that enchants the ink. I’m hoping the core of it is still untouched by whatever it is the Demon did to the pipes, and we can use the ink from it. Taken directly from the source, it would make the spell far more potent. And . . .” the man trailed off, gaze dropping to the floor, hands lacing together.

“And?” Henry pressed, eyes narrowing.

“And like you said,” the man finally said after a long moment, “The Machine is where the Demon came from. A Machine, at least, but the principle is the same. It made the Demon, so it could also . . .”

“Unmake it?” Al supplied, looking hopeful.

“Unmake,” the other agreed hesitantly, before looking up at them all with a gleam in his eyes, “And more.”

*

And now, here they were. Beside the Ink Machine itself, Joey fiddling with its numerous knobs while Henry sat against the wall nearby, axe resting just beneath his palm and trying not to let it show just how tired he still was. Even just the journey here had been taxing, leeching at what meager strength he had restored. It was plain now that while he was still healing faster than a normal person, it seemed that whatever magic had facilitated it to absurd speeds was no longer in active play. And of course, that change couldn’t have picked a worse time to happen.

He took the time to watch the other man work, analyzing his every move carefully, warily. It’s ingrained into him by this point to not trust this man, and yet . . . now, he had no choice. Still, at the very least being present and watching for any foul play helped alleviate some of his own internal doubts.

“So . . .”

Henry blinked, frown deepening just a little as Joey spoke, “Is there . . . anything else you could tell me? About the Demon, or . . . well, anything?”

The man was glancing at him over what he was doing, looking awkward and a little uncomfortable, but apparently more discomfited by the silence than he’d appeared, enough to seek conversation with perhaps the last person who’d want to do it. Hmph, bold.

As silence stretched, Henry staring suspiciously at the man, Joey began to fidget a little nervously, pursing his lips together as he rubbed the back of his head, “O-or, you don’t have to say anything! I understand, I’ll-I’ll just, get back to work!”

He ducked behind the machine, out of sight, which was soon followed by the sound of soft clack and a muffled, “Ouch, ow!”

Tom, who was present as well and with a clearer view of that side of the room, rolled his eyes a little, shaking his head. Henry took the reprieve from the wolf’s distrustful staring gratefully, still unsure of how to broach the subject of his ink scrawling with the pair. A part of him almost wished he hadn’t said anything at all . . .

. . . he’d rather not think about it, honestly.

So, to distract himself, he spoke instead, “I already told you everything I know. Not sure what I could tell you that’ll help with this ‘plan’ of yours.”

“Oh!” Joey sounded surprised that he’d responded, but quickly took the opportunity to speak, “Well, I suppose you’re right. I just . . . want to make sure I have as many bases covered as can be, I guess.”

“A plan like this, you’re leaving a lot to chance. Not much to cover there,” Henry said, switching his gaze to the door to keep a watch.

“That’s a . . . fair point,” there’s a sudden sigh, and Joey whisked around into view again. His face was twisted with apprehension, looking to Henry with worry shining clear in his eyes, “Do you think this is too much to chance?”

Henry stared at him, “Why are you asking me? This was your plan, remember, I just agreed to it.”

For better or worse . . .

“I know, I know, it’s just . . .” the man heaved another sigh, turning to stare up at the machine he had built, a machine that had been the progenitor of so much suffering in his world that it was hard to imagine this thing helping them, “I’ve . . . made mistakes in the past, with things like this. I mean, who doesn’t! But they’ve never . . . they’ve always been easy to fix, after a little trial and error, and I always . . . well, I always believed I could fix them, given enough time. But all this . . .”

The man’s eyes dropped to the floor, shame-faced as he rubbed a hand over his eyes, crossing his other arm over his chest, “This is the first time its ever been so bad. People I care about have been hurt, and everything just keeps getting worse no matter what I do, and I . . . w-well, I’m having . . . some doubts . . . about how well I can actually handle these things . . .”

Henry watched the man before him with a steady eye. He watched him closely. Joey’s face is one of open and genuine guilt, the face of a man who’s knows he’s messed up, who knows he’s done wrong, and who wants to make it right. But it’s so hard for Henry to look passed who he is, to really believe what he’s seeing. The Joey he’d known had been good at playing on people’s sympathies, drawing them in with sweet words and even sweeter promises, they would be great, they would be successful, they would have everything they ever wanted, if only they’d just work a little harder . . .

He’d been a victim of it himself, far too many times. Too, too many . . .

As such, the only thing Henry can say to him now was a soft, “I think this is the wrong time to be having doubts, Drew.”

“Ah,” the man whispered, furtively wiping at his face before nodding, “I guess you’re right. Wouldn’t do to wax dramatic before the big finale, right?”

He tried to smile, but its shaky and small and barely a smile at all, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be dropping this on you so suddenly. You, uh . . . probably don’t want to hear it, especially from me . . .”

Some part of that is true. Henry would rather they get this over with and not mince words about it because everything is already stressful, and he could do without trying to sort through this man’s issues. But another, smaller part is almost . . . wondering at this regret. And, if regret was truly what he felt, and he actually wanted to make a difference . . .

“If you want my advice . . .” Henry started slowly, watching as the other man turned to him with surprise etched across his face. Crossing his arms, Henry leaned back against the wall, “Put down the magic completely after this is done. Don’t use it again. Its more trouble than its worth.”

Joey stared at him, and several emotions flit across his face. But there’s no anger at Henry’s words, no dissatisfaction at an answer that might not be what he wanted to hear. In fact, he would almost call it acceptance as the man nodded, turning back to the Machine, “Ah, that would be the obvious answer, wouldn’t it? But then, I have a tendency to be rather bad at those, and Henry has to point them out to me anyway.”

Henry didn’t say anything. If this man was any different at all, really meant what he said, he would listen like his Joey never did.

He’d hold back from hoping though. Hope, after all, would mean nothing but more pain should it be disappointed. And that was more than he was willing to deal with.

“If . . . i-if I could ask one more question . . .”

Henry blinked, face falling into a slight scowl as he looked Joey’s way, “What?”

The man looked away, idly rubbing at his elbow, “W-well . . . you’ve made it no secret you dislike me. Ah, probably a . . . a little more than dislike, that, that would be pretty obvious to anyone, I’m sure-!”

“The point, Drew,” Henry cut in, frowning.

Joey had begun to tap his foot restlessly against the ground, but managed to muster up enough courage to look his way again, “Just . . . why did you save me? Back in the department . . .”

Ah. That was it. To be honest, Henry had been thinking about that moment since waking as well, trying to come up with an answer himself. He wasn’t sure if it had just been a spur of the moment reflex, but even that didn’t quite explain why he would do that for Joey, of all people.

He had no answer. And because of that, the silence stretched for an uncomfortable length of time, until it seemed the only thing to do was to carry on like the question had never been asked.

Until . . . a soft whisper cut through it, “You almost died . . .”

Henry blinked, eyes widening just a little at the raw emotion on the other man’s face, haunted and horrified and looking just a little sick, “If the others hadn’t come back in time, you would have . . .”

Henry shifted where he sat, that same, uncomfortable feeling rising up again at the genuine worry he saw there. Anyone else, he could believe it, but from Joey . . . from Joey it’s not supposed to mean anything, because the man didn’t have the empathy to care like that! Yet there it was. And Henry honestly hated it a bit, because thinking that this Joey might truly care stung more than he would like to admit, in a way that left him raw.

“Let’s just get back to work,” he finally said, looking away from that worried expression, “We don’t have all the time in the world.”

If Joey wanted to say anymore, he didn’t see it, or hear it. After that, they waited in silence, until the door opened and a successful Al returned from her mission, book in hand. It and several words were exchanged, and it wasn’t long before he was watching as she made to leave with Tom, hoping they would see the rest to safety once the barrier was gone. Hopefully . . . hopefully this would be over soon.

He really did need to stop thinking it would be easy.

As it stood, as soon as he heard it’s voice echo from the doorway and saw Al and Tom go flying, all of Henry’s senses snapped into focus.

“Al! TOM!”

He scrambled to his feet as quickly as he could, but it took more effort than it ever should have, his body still not recovered from his last row with the Demon. His legs trembled beneath his own weight like a fawn, the axe feeling absurdly heavy in his hand, and things swayed as his shoulder struck the wall the behind him, leaning against it for support.

“Tom? Tom?!” Al’s frantic voice reached him, but in that same, terrible heartbeat, shadows gathered at the edges of the open door, right before a tall, dark, and familiar shape stepped inside.

“Well, well, well, lookie what we have here! Hahaha, oh, this is gonna be so much fun!”

The Demon’s chortling cut cold through the air, and Henry forced himself to stand upright even as his body protested, holding the axe up in a weak display of defiance. Nearby, he saw Joey grip the book tightly, glancing between it and the machine and the monster in seconds, face pale and filled with fear.

Henry managed to take a step forward, brow knit in aggression, but even that action felt like too much, knee nearly caving and sending him stumbling. Its only adrenaline keeping him together right now, and it must show, because the Demon turned to him, its grin alight with profound amusement.

“Wow, still alive, old man?” it asked, and Henry tensed as it stomped its way over to him, looming high above him, “I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. Although . . .”

It leaned down to his level, face mere inches from his own, and the only reason Henry didn’t swing was because he knew his own weak grip wouldn’t do anything against it. As much as he hated to admit it, Joey’s magic would be there best chance against this monster now.

“You ain’t lookin’ too good, Henry! Normally yer swingin’ that thing like yer playin’ for the Dodgers. Or, ya know, runnin. Seems like you don’t bounce back as fast anymore, huh?”

In the next moment, its claw lashed up and grabbed the axe he held, ripping it away all too easily from Henry’s shaking hands as the other grabbed him by the collar, slamming him back against the wall behind him.

“URK!” the pain struck him like an anvil to the stomach, wounds still so tender he was half-afraid they’d burst open again. White spots floating in his vision, Henry grabbed at the hand gripping his collar, fingers clasping so weakly against it you couldn’t even call it a squeeze. The hand holding him pushed back strongly, painfully, and he feared his clavicle would snap beneath it.

He froze, however, at the sensation of claws pressing warningly against his stomach, right where his injuries were, just hard enough to feel the sharpness in their tips. He swallowed, unable to move, completely at this thing’s ‘mercy’, pinned by its stare just as surely as its claws.

“NO! NO, STOP, PLEASE!” to his surprise, Joey’s voice rang out through the room, panicked and horrified, and he could see movement just out of the corner of his eye.

“HENRY!” he heard Al cry out from where she was attempting to stymie the blood flowing from Tom’s wounds, looking torn and desperate and not knowing what to do.

The claws against his stomach jerked, and Henry sucked air through his teeth as the tips pressed hard enough to prick the surface of his skin, thorn sharp and just as painful, “Khhh-!”

Joey halted, shaking his head, eyes glued to the claw threatening Henry’s life. A strangely misted look had appeared in them, and for a moment it seemed like he was looking at something else, “N-no. No, p-please, please-,”

“I’d sit still if I were you, Angel-face. And shut up, Drew,” the creature said, a snarl entering it’s voice, “You and I are gonna talk real soon, I promise ya that. But if you keep gettin’ on my nerves . . . well, I think you get the idea.”

Henry gasped when those claws sunk just a little deeper, a hand reflexing jerking down to grab its wrist and vainly attempt to push it back as the other hand clung to it’s opposite wrist. He could hear Joey gasp, but slapped hand over his face as if to smother his own voice, taking what the beast said to heart.

He blinked as the Demon tilted its head almost curiously, gaze probing, wondering, and Henry could only distantly wonder why it was taking such a long time.

“W-why the hold up?” he asked, glaring with as much fire as he could muster. He’d keep fighting to the end, and if words were the only weapons he was going to be allowed, then so be it, “You’re not one to- . . . to t-take your time.”

“That was when Joey was pullin’ my strings,” the Demon replied, “But now, I can do what I like! And that’s exactly what I’m gonna do!”

“So what’s this, then?” Henry asked through grit teeth, hand shaking around the claws that were a hairs breadth from puncturing clean through.

“Oh, I dunno. Maybe this is fun for me! Maybe I’m bored! Or maybe . . . maybe I’m curious,” Henry didn’t like the gleam in its smile as it peered down at him, “This world has all kinds of opportunity in it! So many . . . options. Sure, I could kill ya . . . but that’s kinda borin’. Since, ya know, I’ve done that dozens of times before already!”

Henrys heart thudded in his chest, glancing quickly at the others in the room, seeing their faces fill with confusion. No, no, the Demon couldn’t seriously be thinking of talking about that, could it?

“But I do wonder . . . if I did kill you now, what do you think would happen, Henry? Think you’ll just vanish into the void? Ink creature afterlife? Or . . .” The Demon’s grin was static in the dark, voice dropping to an almost whisper, one that sent a chill up Henry’s spine, “Or do ya think you’ll wind up right back in the studio, on Joey’s strings again?”

The shaking hand clutching the demon’s own stilled, eyes widening as his mind recalled the dream he’d had. It had just been a dream, but it had been born from a real and raw fear, and suddenly the claws prodding against his stomach scare him more than they had before. More than they ever have before, because what if? What if the Demon finished the job and he woke in that apartment again, was forced to go through the studio again, was just another doll to play out Joey’s mad visions again, again and again and again and again and again . . .

He didn’t realize how stilted his own breathing had become, how much he was suddenly trembling, not until the beast pinning him leaned back just a little, and there’s a chuckle in its voice, but it came out uncharacteristically soft, “Haha . . . scares ya too, don’t it? I’d almost say it’s too cruel, even for me, and maybe that’s makin’ me a little . . . ah, what’s the word? Sympathetic? Or maybe I just wanna see where this goes! That’s the nice thing about this world. We got options here.”

Henry grew confused when the claws suddenly disappeared, taking their threat with them. But before he can move or vocalize or do anything at all, the creature curled those claws into a fist . . . and slammed it hard into Henry’s stomach, right over his wounds.

It was like taking a blow from a hammer that had been fired from a cannon, all the air jettisoned straight from Henry’s lungs as his insides roiled with agony, and his mouth opened as if to scream, but not a sound came out. His vision burst with strobes of white, before just as quickly swimming in and out of black, dangerously close to losing consciousness as his lungs fought desperately to suck in air, to just breathe! Then the Demon released him, let him bonelessly collapse to the floor, and it was all Henry could do just to curl his arms around his stomach, coughing and wheezing so hard his whole body shuddered from head to foot. It hurt so much, it felt like he would vomit.

“HENRY!” he heard two voices cry out in horror, but they sound muted and far away through the pain that’s hazed his head.

Above him, the creature growled, low and threatening, “Don’t think this is me bein’ nice. Frankly, I got bigger fish to fry, but if you get in the way after this, old man, its lights out for ya. Permanently.”

He could hear it move away, steps leading towards the Ink Machine, to Joey.

“Well, that sure is a sight, ain’t it?” he heard it say, “So, just what was yer plan here, Drew? Have yer new friends bleed threateningly at me?”

Henry managed to turn his head from where it was resting against the floor, hacking, just barely able to make out the pair nearby through his blurry vision. Then, he glanced down at the floor space between them, wincing. It was close . . . close . . .

Desperately, Joey held up his hands, book in full view as he took a single step back, begging, “P-please. Please, Bendy. You have to know this is wrong. You have to know you’re not supposed to be this way!”

The Demon idly rubbed the tip of its index and thumb together, examining it with faux interest as it replied, “Oh, sure, I know what I am and what I ain’t. I only had it shoved into my face for . . . what, twenty years?”

Joey swallowed nervously, glancing frantically in Henry’s direction before looking back, taking another step away, “It doesn’t have to be like this. It doesn’t, just-!”

“Oh, you ain’t gonna wheedle yer way outta this with words, Drew. I’m still a bit sore after yer last little trick. And frankly . . . I’m wonderin’ just how much I wanna put up with ya bein’ here,” The Demon stepped closer, looming over him with a dark promise in its never-changing smile.

Come on, come on . . .

“I don’t know how you lucked out so splendidly in this world, but I say its time for that luck to end.another step, another . . .

“Please. Please, just listen to me!” Joey pleaded, pressed again his Machine now, back against the wall, “What if it could be fixed?! I know something went wrong when were you created, but-!”

The shadows around the Demon pulsated suddenly, deepening so thickly it seemed the room was swallowed in a pulsing, unseeable void, the temperature dropping so quickly it felt like everything breath burned. Henry forced himself to rise, to sit up, panting. It’s so close . . .

“Wrong, huh? Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG! Is that the only word you know when it comes to me?!” anger coats the Demon’s voice like acid, burning and caustic, and it shambled forward even more, appearing a head taller in the gloom than it had before, “Guess what, Drew, I already have a way to fix it! And it don’t involve you! And it’s never gonna involve you again, not ever! Cause ya know what, who cares if yer here or not?! This is my world now, and I don’t need you in it! I don’t WANT you in it! So say goodnight, Joey, cause for you, its c̶̡͉͙̈̆͝ur̸̛̛̐̍̏̍̈́̾ta̷̔͗̀͝i̷̍́̏̒͘n̴s̴!̸̍”

That was when the Demon lunged, and Joey shrieked and held the book over his face like a flimsy shield as its claws came down, murderous intent flowing off the creature in waves. Henry held his breath, watching a moment that seemed to last forever as the proverbial penny dropped, throwing everything on a gamble and now left to see where the cards fell. And then-

All the darkness in the room . . . vanished. Sucked in like water in a vortex, collapsing towards a singular point; right around the Demon. A demon that has frozen still, its claws mere inches from the book guarding Joey’s face, and in the silence that ensued, it’s gaze slowly travelled down to its feet.

“Oh. Oh, how fucking clever.”

Hardly able to believe it, lips quirking up into an almost triumphant smirk, Henry reached around and grabbed his Seeing Tool, bringing it up to his face to see the large circle on the floor, runes and lines and interconnected shapes glowing a soft, familiar shade of gold.

*

“Hm . . .” Joey hummed, tapping his foot nervously as he looked at the bottle of ink in his hands.

“What is it?” Henry asked him, lifting an eyebrow at the display.

“Oh, just . . .” the man frowned hard, brow knitting together, “I remember the runes I used for this spell, but . . . I don’t know how we’re going to get the Demon on it! We can’t just . . . ask it nicely!”

Al frowned herself now, crossing her arms in thought, “That’s true. I don’t know what we could do though. Lure it?”

“It’s smarter than that . . .” Henry said softly, looking between them.

Al winced, huffing.

“If only we had some invisible ink. Bendy loved using it to pull pranks, but I don’t if he’s restocked on any.”

Joey’s words strike a chord for Henry, and he found himself wringing his hands together as he looked between them. Invisible ink. Oh, he knows about that.

But . . . no, he can’t bring it up, can he? Not after so long, not with . . . Al and Tom here. Knowing that they would be suspicious of him, knowing they would ask questions, questions he didn’t want to answer, for their sake as well as his own.

“Are you sure there’s none we can find?” he asked, hopeful.

But Joey shook his head, “Not in a timely manner. Oh, shoot, I knew I should have kept some spare ones in my office . . .”

Well, damn it.

Henry looked around, at everyone here, and realized he had to concede the point to Joey. Even if there was some ink somewhere in this studio, they’d waste precious time having to find it. And all these people . . . they could die in that time. And this secret of his, it could solve it so quickly, so easily . . .

His eyes travelled to Tom and Al. They would ask, he knew they would. But . . . but this was just one secret. And it wasn’t even his worst one.

Surely . . . surely it wouldn’t be that bad?

“I . . . I might be able to help with that.”

*

Henry couldn’t believe that worked! But somehow, it did. And it seemed it was holding, even as the Demon attempted to thrust its way forward anyway, held in check by the invisible bonds of the binding circle. Joey, upon seeing that it worked, immediately turned and ran behind the machine, returning with candles and chalk. The man set a frantic pace as he placed them around the circle and drew even more long, confusing lines Henry didn’t understand, sweat dripping down his brow as he worked.

“Henry?”

He turned his gaze to Al, who hand both her hands pressed over Tom’s wounds, ink trickling down her own face, breath heavy and staggered.

Henry attempted to regain his feet, knees trembling as his torso pulsed with pain. He could feel blood seeping through his shirt courtesy of the Demon, cold and heavy. Cringing, he looked back up, waving at her, “Go, Al! Just take Tom and go!”

“But-!”

“Oh, you ain’t goin’ anywhere!” The Demon’s enraged cry snagged both their attention, just in time to see it slam its claws into an invisible wall that sparked and flashed like a sputtering livewire. Joey started back, dropping the chalk entirely and scrabbling for the Machine, pushing on a lever just above his head. But the lever did not move, a metallic clunk clunk clunk echoing in the room with every futile push Joey gave.

“I-its stuck!” the man shouted, panicking.

Behind him, Henry saw the Demon’s form waver suddenly, pulse and bulge and sputter like a bubbling tar pool, and just behind it’s lashing arm, he could see it pearlescent grin split apart into twin rows of sharp and lethal fangs.

Oh no. Oh no!

Knowing what it was trying to do, Henry forced himself to rise, using the wall for support and fighting through the pain as he made his way around. Its grueling, harder than anything he’s had to do in a while, but he can’t pause for air, let it stop him, because the Demon’s still growing, and the shield keeping them safe, keeping them alive, is beginning to bend beneath its claws.

“I’ve come too far to let you stop me, Drew!” the Demon roared, voice deepening to a near incomprehensible timbre, slamming an over-sized fist into the barrier, “And this measly little magic won’t protect you for long!”

Joey’s all but stopped moving, staring at the monster with nothing short of horror in his eyes, barely able to comprehend what he’s seeing. It was never delightful seeing the change for the first time.

Lurching for the Machine, Henry grasped onto the lever beside Joey, grabbing him by the shoulder and giving him a shake, “Get it together, Drew! Push!”

That seemed to do it, the man swallowing hard but nodding before returning his attention to the stuck lever that’s stopping them. And they both give it their all, straining to make the stubborn piece of metal move. And it does, but only a little, a short upwards jerk before grating to a halt again, and with his strength diminished as it is, it won’t go any higher.

There’s another shudder as the beast slammed its fists into the barrier again, and something must give, because darkness began to leak out from the circle like creeping vines, spreading out, searching for victims to smother and drown.

Shit. Shit!

Suddenly, a hand grabbed his shoulder, and Joey’s voice rang desperately in his ear, “L-listen, just go! Get the others and get out of here, please!”

Henry stared at him, at a face lined with desperation, earnest in it’s desire to see him escape despite the terror that lingered there. Telling him to leave.

“What about you?” he can’t help but ask, this request clashing so stridently with the image he has held of Joey ever since his imprisonment that he can’t believe it’s real.

“It doesn’t matter! We can’t get this going, but you can at least get a head start!” Joey said, eyes frantically glancing at the still raging demon, “Please!”

Henry doesn’t say anything. What is there for him to say? And should he listen? Make a break for it while there’s still time? It wouldn’t solve anything, but . . . but they can’t move this damn lever, and the Demon was close to breaking loose, there’s not much more they can do, not without a miracle!

Henry closed his eyes, knowing there wasn’t much time anymore, he had to make the decision now!

“I-,”

There was a rush of movement besides both of them, startling them into turning their heads.

Al stared back at them both, hands wrapped around the lever, and behind her, another shape stood.

“Al? Tom?” Henry started, amazed that the wolf was even standing. It looked like it was taking a lot to do just that, but Tom stood resolutely beside Al, remaining hand clasped firmly on the lever’s side.

“If we run now, it’ll just follow us!” Al shouted, more determination than he has ever seen in her eyes shining so brightly they glowed, “And I’m tired of running! We had freedom here, Henry, and we’re not going to lose it again! Now PUSH!”

Both she and Tom did exactly that. And, seeing them still try, Henry realized that . . . he wanted to try too.

Because they had a chance here, didn’t they? A real one, without another deciding every twist and turn on the road for them. Henry has long been lost in a malaise of apathy, born form knowing nothing ever mattered. But here . . . maybe it would. Maybe, just maybe . . . he could really do something.

And, with that thought in mind, Henry grit his teeth and pushed as well.

He can see Joey pause for just a moment, open his mouth as if to protest . . . then, he snapped it shut, took a breath, and began pushing as well.

Behind them, the barrier shuddered again, something like glass cracking beneath the beast’s hands, and, spurred by desperation, all four gave one great heave, and-!

CLANK!

The lever shot upright.

Immediately, the Machine thrummed beneath their hands, vibrating intensely as ink began to gush from its mouth, spilling across the floor and sloshing around their feet. But it doesn’t bring a painful burn or enervating chill. Its touch is calm and gentle, a cool, evermoving pool on a hot summer’s day. It completely bypassed the circle the Demon was held in, the magic pushing it back and leaving that part of the floor untouched. But the beast had grown significantly more agitated, words having devolved into incoherent roars that shook the room, making his heart quicken with fear.

Joey had already flipped the book open, finding the page he needed quickly, as if muscle memory spurred him on. His eyes roamed over the page in only a heartbeat, and no sooner had he done that . . . did he begin to chant.

Its sounded like nonsense to Henry’s ears, but there is an unquestionable note of power in them that shook him to the core, his words rising over the din of the monster’s roars as they rose ever higher. The Demon would have none of it, slamming one great fist into its cage, and with a thrill of horror, Henry saw something in the air shatter. The candles placed around the beast flickered dangerously, and Joey’s voice shook, but did not stop, not even as the Demon reached for him with one great hand, its murderous intent clear. Tom threw Al behind him, and Henry pressed back against the Machine, bracing himself for the worst, even as Joey’s chanting reached a crescendo.

Those claws are just about to make it to them, too, the tips a hairs breadth from touch, when Joey abruptly slammed the book close on the intonation of the final word, the candles going dark as if the wind the book had generated blew them out entirely.

And the Demon . . . froze.

There was a strange pulse in the air, then. A waver like water that swept over his skin, sending goosebumps across his arms and neck. And as he looked, Henry noticed the Demon hadn’t just frozen.

It was shaking.

Suddenly, a glob of ink fell of its arm, landing on the ground before them with a wet shluck. Then, more were falling, overripe fruit from a long and withering branch, its significantly enhanced size diminishing quickly as it stumbled back, its roars turning into wheezes.

“What . . . did you do?”

It hacked, hard, harsh, something black spurting out from its mouth and slapping wetly against the ground, “What did you do to me?!”

It screamed then, claws reaching up, digging at its chest and rending through its own flesh like it was trying to pull something out of it, more ink sloughing off its body like dead skin. All four of them watched in awed horror, unable to tear their eyes away as it thrashed, knocking things over in its stumbling, uncoordinated dance. Another screech, before suddenly it turned and bolted for the door, slamming into the wall outside with a hard and sickly thud!

It gave a strange, low keen, almost like it’s in pain, then vanished from sight, a huge, black trail the only thing left in its wake.

Above their heads, the lights flickered on.

Several moments passed, no one really sure what to make of what had just happened, processing everything that had just happened to them. The spell was only broken when Joey suddenly slumped to the ground.

Out of reflex, Henry grabbed him by the arm, gentling his fall so he was sitting on his knees instead of his face.

“Are you alright?” Al asked, looking him over in concern.

“Fine, I’m fine,” Joey coughed a little, waving at her reassuringly, “I think I’m just getting a little too old for this.”

“Did it work?” Henry inquired next.

“I-,”

Sudden footsteps distracted them all, and they looked up just in time to see several shapes burst through the door. Henry relaxed when he recognized the group they’d eft in Joey’s office, led by his own counterpart, the rest just behind him. Their eyes are all wild with fear, and it struck Henry that even from where they were at, they must have heard all the commotion. No wonder they had recklessly come.

Joey, for his part, stared, wide-eyed at their arrival, “Henry? W-what are you doing here, you-,”

“JOEY!” pretty much everyone shouted, and three shapes in particular broke away from the group. Joey had exactly three seconds to brace himself before all three toons slammed into him, nearly sending them falling back.

A little stunned, Joey looked between the three, “What in the world are you doing here? You were supposed to-!”

“We heard roaring,” Bendy said, not looking up from where he has his face pressed into Joey’s shirt, “W-we came to look for ya, and . . . and we saw that thing leave, and we thought it had . . . we thought you were . . .”

Joey’s face softened, and he comfortingly wrapped his arms around the three as best he could, “I’m alright. See? Not even a scratch.”

Tom grunted, as if to say ‘speak for yourself’.

“Oh, god,” Susie started, moving towards the wolf, “That looks bad! You should sit down! Here, I brought some ink!”

“She’s got a point,” Al said, looking pointedly at his wounds, but its softened by the genuine concern on her face.

Henry’s counterpart came forward, looking down at Joey with a look of pure relief on his face, “I’m glad you’re all alright. Thought my heart stopped when I saw that thing leave the room.”

“Is it . . . gone?” Sammy asked, staring warily at the door, looking profoundly uncomfortable being out in the open.

The four who had been present shared a look, until Joey straightened up a little, “That’s . . . what we need to find out.”

“Joey, no!” Alice shouted, pulling back to stare at him, “We should leave!”

“Yeah!” Boris said, agreeing completely.

“Don’t you know if the spell worked?” Al intoned, looking at the man.

“Spell? Joey, what exactly did you do in here?” his counterpart demanded, and Henry can tell by the look in his eyes that he was growing suspect.

“Ah, well, it’s a long story that, but-,” Joey tried to rise, only to slump back to the ground, blinking rapidly as he tilted precariously to one side, throwing an uncoordinated arm out to steady himself.

All the toons grabbed him, exclamations of concern rising up from them as his counterpart came down to his level, “Jeez, Joey, are you alright?!”

Joey attempted to smile, to alleviate their concern, but it came across dazed instead, “Ah- . . . might have, uh, pushed myself a little too hard, there. Spreading myself thin, and all that . . .”

Henry hadn’t noticed before in the midst of the danger, but looking now . . . the man looked exhausted. Was this spell truly that taxing?

“Well, stay still,” his counterpart said, helping him lean back against the Ink Machine, “You need to rest.”

“We all do . . .” Susie said softly, and Henry had to concede her point. That had been exhausting in a way nothing had been in quite a long time for even him. Not even speaking of the others. It would be wise to recuperate, to not tempt fate.

But . . .

His eyes wandered back to the door, the group’s conversation fading away as he stared. He glanced once at them, seeing them all distracted by his tired and injured companions, all speaking amongst themselves, trying to decide the best course of action.

But Henry found he wasn’t content to wait, this time. Before, he has always been at the ‘End’, whatever that happened to be. He wanted . . . needed to be there now. Call it conditioning, but it felt wrong to not be.

So, when he’s sure nobody’s watching, Henry quietly began to make for the door. If Joey had spoken true, and had completed this spell successfully . . . then he should have nothing to fear. He just had to see . . .

He’s made it maybe ten feet down the hall, following that black trail, when a hand on his elbow stopped him.

Henry turned, startled, to find a pair of mismatched eyes staring in return.

He blinked, “Sammy?”

The music director stared for a moment more, then shook his head, allowing his restraining hand to fall.

“Ah. Sam,” Henry turned to face him in full, “I was, uh . . .”

“Don’t,” the man said, “I know what you’re doing. Don’t.”

Henry’s shoulders drooped, giving the man a searching stare. He doesn’t look anywhere near as panicked as he had been. Just tired, drained, a little spooked . . . like they all are.

“Do you believe it’s still dangerous?” he asked him.

Sam was quiet for a moment, gaze rising up to the ceiling in what many would mistake for thought, but Henry knew different. He was listening.

Finally, he said, “I don’t hear it anymore. Its voice, its song . . . its gone. But just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean it’s not there, and the Ink Demon doesn’t suffer defiance lightly, Henry.”

There’s a slight tremble that ran through the man’s body, and he lifted a hand up to cup his palm against his left eye, speaking so softly it’s a whisper, “I should know . . .”

Ah, he realized now what was going on; Sam was worried. Henry almost smiled at it. It was just such a pleasant change of pace from the years of weathering the brunt of manic insanity, born from both trauma and a script, and it was still so refreshing in its novelty. It genuinely made him happy, to think that at least a part of the Sammy Lawrence he had known had survived despite it, could recover now even if the circumstances . . . weren’t exactly ideal.

Still, he needed to see this through. So, placing a comforting hand on the other’s shoulder, he said, “It’s alright, Sam. I won’t try to bite off more than I can chew. But I need . . . need to know.”

Sam looked at him, visible eye narrowing while his lips curled into a frown, “There’s nothing I can say to convince you?”

“Nope.”

The man’s frown deepened, consternation clear on his face. Then, he closed his eyes for several seconds, opened them again, and suddenly those eyes carried a steely glint as the hand fell away, frown changing into something surly, “You’ve got ten minutes.”

“Ah. Understood Sammy. I don’t intend to be gone long.”

They parted ways, Henry boldly following the blackened trail before him, set on his goal.

*

“When I first made Bendy, it required three things. Ink to serve as vessel, magic to bind it together, and . . . well, this next bit is going to sound bad at first, but . . . a soul. And before anyone gets mad! I only mean a piece of one.”

*

Rents began to appear in the walls Henry walked, where claws had scored deep, leaving a trail to follow as surely as the ink.

*

“I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but our souls are what give us life. Give us drive. It’s the same concept for the toons. Even just a piece of one gives them the spark that makes them who they are. Makes them individuals capable of their own thoughts. And, from the sound of it . . . your Joey failed to give the Demon that. That's its weakness.”

*

He followed it all the way to the stairs leading to the music department. There’s a break in the line of ink as it flowed down the wooden slats, appearing in splotches intermittently on the stairs themselves, like something had fallen down them instead.

*

“And what did you do? You didn’t sacrifice someone, did you?”

“No, no! If that ritual had required something like that, I would have abandoned the project!”

“Then what?”

“Well . . . like I said, you only need a piece of a soul. And, ah . . . let’s just say I always put a little piece of myself into my work, no matter what.”

*

The trail carried on, but its growing smaller, and smaller, the claw marks growing less frequent and far more shallow the closer he got the to the basement.

*

“And what are you planning on doing, exactly? What does this have to do with stopping the Demon?”

“The Demon is . . . missing that part. I dare say the most crucial part. But, if we were to . . . introduce that missing element to it . . . it might just trigger a backlash that could stop it.”

*

Down the next set of stairs, the trail almost growing cold.

Except, in the distance . . . he thought he could make out a sound. Something low, and soft, and keening . . .

He followed it.

*

“Will that destroy the Demon?”

“Ah . . . see, that’s the thing. I’m hoping . . . I’m hoping it doesn’t quite destroy it, per say.”

*

It’s a lonely little room Henry walked into, the door hanging ajar, smears of black staining the handle. He found the source of the noise immediately.

And can scarcely believe what he saw.

*

“I’m hoping this will fix it.”

*

 There. Right in front of him, surrounded by a pool of ink, a figure sat before a cracked and dirty mirror. It’s small, unintimidating, and Henry can see from his place by the door the small, gloved hand that’s reached out to touch the glass, as if in a trance.

Stunned, mouth dropping open in disbelief, Henry took a step forward, the wood creaking beneath his feet even through the aged carpet on the floor.

The figure immediately spun around, and a pair of wide and visible pie-cut eyes met his own, a once inflexible grin fallen into a true and distraught frown, and those same, new, unblinking eyes swimming with what were unmistakably tears.

Henry felt his breath catch completely in his throat, hardly able to comprehend what he is seeing, but seeing it nevertheless.

That crazy bastard did it . . . he couldn’t help but think, taking a tottering step closer, unbelieving.

He froze again, however, when the figure spoke, in a voice bereft of the unnatural reverb that had coated it before, empty of poison, of malice, replaced instead by shock and uncertainty, choked, “H-Henry? W-what did you do to me?”

Something moved rapidly behind the crouched shape in front of him, something thin and long that wrapped around the bowed figure’s knees, and Henry has to do a doubletake when he saw what looked like a tail flick into view. That wasn’t right, was it?

Small, white hands went up to clasp at his chest, a tremble going through the creature’s small body, “It hurts. It hurts . . .!”

It was pained, overwhelmed, and it stirred something in Henry’s heart, equal parts confusion and disbelief and a tiny splash of something else that spurred his steps forward, until he, too, is crouching on the floor before the Demon he had once feared. Although, one could hardly call this a demon now . . .

The toon’s eyes-for a toon this was now, wasn’t it?-snapped up to him, like he hadn’t realized Henry had gotten closer, and this near, he can see the emotions in them clearly. Fear, panic, pain, shock, grief, wonder, so many, perhaps too many, flitting by one after the other with no way out save the tears falling down his face.

One missing piece . . . just one missing piece, and that had made the difference between the monster he had known and this? It would be laughable . . . except the situation isn’t funny, and Henry’s in no mood to laugh.

Slowly, experimentally, Henry lifted a hand up and reached out, pausing when the toon flinched away from it, squeezing his eyes shut. Expecting a strike, some form of retaliation no doubt.

So it must come as a surprise, when instead Henry simply rested his hand on top of his head, right between horns no longer mangled and bent, and nothing more. Slowly, the toon’s stunned gaze turned back up to him, staring.

“W-why?” he finally asked, not understanding, “Why aren’t you attackin’ me? Y-you, you want to hurt me right? I-I hurt you, I hurt so many, don’t you hate me?!”

That’s a good question. Right now, Henry’s more confused than anything else, still in disbelief that this is really happening. But . . . but . . .

“The Demon did hurt people,” he said, slowly, softly, “It hurt them, even when it wasn’t even being told to do that anymore.”

The toon flinched and looked away, even as Henry continued, “And you’re right. I did hate the Demon. But I guess that’s the thing now . . .”

Henry gave the creature before a meaningful look, applying gentle pressure to turn his gaze up, and the man saw again the raw emotions swimming chaotically inside them, emotions the Demon never had, “You . . . aren’t the Demon anymore, are you?”

Then, quietly, tentatively, like putting forth the word is tantamount to stepping on a minefield, Henry wet his lips and said, “Bendy.”

The other’s pie-cute eyes widened, eyes that were on-model, as they were meant to be, before Joey messed it up, messed everything up. There’s a moment where the all the toon does is stare, uncertain, like he can’t believe the man doesn’t hate his guts, doesn’t blame him for everything that had gone so horribly wrong in his life.

But Henry has only ever blamed one person . . . and the toon certainly was not him.

In front of him, Bendy gave a sudden and odd sound, halfway between a choke and a whimper, and suddenly he was diving face-first into Henry’s chest. The man’s arms reflexively jerked up, half-expecting an attack, when the feeling of smaller hands clutching his shirt and something wet beginning to soak through it along with heavily muffled but still clearly hysterical words made him pause.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry-!”

It devolved from there, barely understandable, and Henry can only watch. This scenario here was . . . more than he ever thought possible. More than he could imagine.

But sitting there, a sobbing toon against his chest, staring at his own cracked reflection in the mirror before him, Henry found he only had one, singular question on his mind;

Now what?