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'Through a Mirror, Darkly'

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          Every day at exactly six o’clock am, Bendy woke up from his slumber.

          Every day, like clockwork, as had been his routine for so many years now.

          Today was no different. One leisurely yawn and stretch, a comical cracking of a spine that may or may not be there, and the devil was up and ready to face whatever mayhem his studio had in store for the day.

          Except, as he threw off the covers and hopped out of his favorite drawer, he noticed that something was different.

          For one, the office space was a mess. Like, a genuine, atrocious mess that he definitely did not recall leaving here the night before he went to sleep, with papers strewn all over the floor, chairs overturned, drawers pulled from their places, ink stains absolutely everywhere, just a mass of disorder he never would have allowed had he been awake, and if this was someone’s idea of a prank, then that someone was definitely getting fired. But as Bendy looked closer, he began to notice . . . other things. Disturbing things.

          Like how the floorboards and the walls were not just strewn with mess, but were also sunken in, rotten in some places, creaking every now and again with sullen and dank disrepair. How the only window was completely boarded up in haphazard array, nails still jutting out from the boards, so tightly packed together that only a faint, feeble ray of light was able to filter through, igniting air that was filled with dust and other refuse that shouldn’t be possible in a well-run establishment. How every picture frame, every piece of memorabilia, was coated in a layer of dust and grime so thick you could barely make it out for what it was. Or how there seemed to be no sound whatsoever save for a constant and pervasive plink plink plink of liquid that seemed to come from everywhere, all the time.

          The unnerving sight immediately put Bendy on edge, a shiver travelling through his ink as he slowly rose up from his resting place.

          “What in blazes . . .?” he muttered, looking from one horrifically dilapidated object to the next, “I know Wally’s got a one track-mind sometime, but this is ridiculous . . .”

          It was like the lackadaisical janitor hadn’t been through in years. Bendy swallowed nervously, not quite liking the anxious chord that thought struck.

          He jumped at the sound of a door slamming shut nearby, and froze stock-still at the sound of running feet stomping by the room he was in. It wasn’t until it faded that it even occurred to him that that had definitely been a person, and he wanted to slap himself in the head for not calling out to them.

          If someone was here, then that meant this was some kinda set up, for sure. Someone who was definitely playin’ a joke on him, and lettin’ the studio pay the price for it.

He almost wanted to laugh a little in relief, wiping a hand over his brow to clean away the ink that had begun to dribble. Jeez, of course this was a set up! What else could this be?

          “A-alright, guys, if this some kinda joke, ya got me! Joey? Sammy!” Bendy called out, walking to the door. Out of habit, he reached up to flick the lights on, only to watch as the hanging fixture flickered erratically before sputtering out into darkness once more, a crack of static sparks flying out from the broken end.

          Bendy frowned, unamused, “ . . . okay, whoever’s responsible for this is gonna be payin outta their own pockets to fix this mess, ya hear me!”

          He pushed the door open, cringing at the old, rusty creak the hinges gave until it ground to a slow, faltering stop.

          The sight beyond made his heart sink.

          The hallways were in no better condition it seemed. Rotting floorboards, dust, the same black stains of ink everywhere, in some cases even flooding the floor, just one mess on top of the other. Whoever did this was lookin’ to lose their life savings, it seemed. Because someone had to have done this. Someone . . .

          Swallowing again, Bendy stepped out into the hall, looking back and forth for any sign of the person he had heard running. But there was only stillness. A stillness that did not match the vigor this studio was supposed to have, the energy of coffee-fueled animators and actors and music directors enthusiastically working toward their next deadline.

          And the silence made Bendy shudder.

          Creeping forward, this time more slowly and cautiously, Bendy turned and began to walk towards the rooms Boris and Alice slept in. They should be here still, they rarely left the studio at night, and he’d like a little back-up to get to the bottom of this nonsense.

          And to help make this place not feel so . . . abandoned.

          But as he walked, he realized that . . . this didn’t seem to be the studio he remembered working in just the day before. It looked similar, but . . . the layout was wrong. Older, less streamlined, without the renovations Joey had made so long ago. But there were still things he saw that didn’t make any sense. Like the pipes running every which way over the ceiling and the walls, significantly more than his studio, all pumping in time to a heartbeat with thick, black ink that oozed like sludge between the metal bindings. And more disturbingly, posters of his old animations were lined along the walls, covered in dust, but still disturbingly visibly. None of the newer ones were up at all, like they should have been. It was like . . . like this place had somehow gotten stuck in the past, and hadn’t left it in literal years.

          “Boris?” Bendy said, voice dropping just a tad, yet unsure why he felt the need to not shout, “Alice? Anybody?”

           Only creaking wood and dripping pipes answered him.

          Toons had no concept of hot or cold, yet Bendy found himself wrapping his arms around his torso like a sudden chill had come over him. Something wasn’t just ‘different’ anymore, it felt like. Something was wrong.

          Bendy turned a corner, only to nearly jump out of his skin when he came face to face with a cardboard cut-out of himself, the likes of which he hadn’t seen in years. He stared at it for a few moments, patting a hand over his heart before giving a wry chuckle to the hollow figure in front of him, “J-jeez, got me good there. Where’d ya even come from, huh?”

          It gave no response of course, just a plastic white grin that never changed, staring back ceaselessly with eyes that never blinked. Yeesh, now he remembered why they got rid of these things . . .

Giving the cold cut-out a wide berth, Bendy moved on until he came to the end of the path before him, said end splitting into a T-hallway that delved into further sections of this studio. He carefully looked down either one, not quite sure where he was now. The one on the right led to more twisting hallways, but the one on the left seemed to end in a room. A room without a door, the lights flickering on and off, on and off, one second bright and then the next drowned in dark, unseeable black.

          But there was a figure inside, Bendy could see whenever the lights flickered on. A tall figure, as grayscale as he was, with long, lupine ears that stood out, and Bendy felt his heart lift at the sight.

          “Boris!” he cried, running to the other toon, elated at finally finding a familiar face, even as the flickering lights bloomed into darkness again, “Boy, am I glad to see ya, pal! Can ya believe the state of this place?”

           More steps. The lights flickered on and off again in the span of a second, “Gonna have to have a few words with Wally about this mess, huh? If he wasn’t responsible for it, anyway!”

           Boris hadn’t responded yet. Bendy stepped over the threshold into the dark room, a little puzzled but hey, it was early in the morning and Boris had never been a morning dog, “Hey, Boris ol’ buddy, you still sleepin’ or-,”

           The lights flickered on, and there’s a moment of shocked silence as the scene in front of Bendy is revealed in incandescent clarity.

           And then he screamed.

           Boris, his pal Boris, one of his best and closest friends, is laying strewn across a table straight from a horror movie, wrists and ankles strapped down tight and head lolling to the side, and where his torso should have been was only a gaping hole that looked as if it had been viciously ripped into with surgical precision. His ribs are jutting from the cavity, shining white over disturbingly real monochrome innards that still gleam wetly in the light, eyes glassy and crossed with x’s, but it looked like they’d been cut into, and there’s no breath, there’s no life, Boris is dead in front of him, and how did this happen, how did this happen?!

          Bendy stumbled back, tripping over his own feet and crashing to the floor, unable to tear his eyes away from the horrifically grisly scene in front of him. Ink was running from his brow in rivulets, and he wretched hard, gasping for air that won’t come as his stomach heaved and churned. His eyes are burning, and black droplets splatter across his hands and the floor, and it was all he could just to rise again, to get up and stumble into the hall, clutching at the wall, bent over and heaving into his hand.

          This is a nightmare, it has to be a nightmare, it has to be a nightmare, oh god, oh god- his mind is racing, the image of what he had seen never leaving, turning tortuously inside his head, no matter how many times he tried to tell himself it wasn’t real, it wasn’t real, it wasn’t real-!

          The lights sputtered out behind him, darkness pooling around his ankles, smothering the grisly scene from sight. They did not come back on again.

          He couldn’t bring himself to go back, either. Not in there, not with . . . that. So instead, hand still feebly gripping the wall for support, Bendy stumbled away, stomach roiling with nausea and chest heaving with poorly restrained sobs.

          He fought with himself to think rationally, furiously wiping at his face to restore some modicum of decency to himself. There was no way that could have been Boris. No one . . . no one would ever hurt Boris, everyone liked him too much. It was . . .  a part of this prank. This cruel, mean-spirited prank that was no longer funny and he had half a mind to get Joey to call the cops on whoever was responsible for this. But who would do this? Who? Not anyone from the studio, surely. Sure, pranks had happened before, but never to this scale and never so appallingly malevolent in its set-up or execution. Someone else had to be responsible. A someone who was senselessly cruel, and didn’t seem to care about the trauma they caused. Just thinking about that, it made anger bubble up inside.

        Still, he needed to find someone. He needed to find anyone, because his nerves were shot and no matter how much he consoled himself with the idea that this was all still a cruel joke, the image of Boris strapped to a table with his insides ripped out would not leave.

        “At this point, I don’t get what Joey’s plan is for this company.”

        Bendy’s head snapped up, eyes widening when he heard the achingly familiar voice up ahead, hardly daring to hope, but hoping nonetheless, “. . . Wally?”

        “So first, Joey installs this ink Machine over our heads. Then it begins to leak. Three times last month, we couldn’t even get out of our department because the ink had flooded the stairwell.”

        “Sammy?” Bendy tried again, picking up his pace, to where the voices were coming from.

        “It may only be my second month working for Joey Drew, but I can already tell I’m going to love it here!”

        “Susie . . .? Come on, you guys, answer me!” Please answer me . . .

         He came to another room, the door half-hanging off its hinges, into a space that was old, choked with dust and in disrepair, but familiar all the same. The music room. The room where people sang and instruments played, never a dull moment to be had. Alice’s and Susie’s and Sammy’s and Norman’s department.

         And it looks similar. The old projector in the overhead booth, the chairs arranged in neat rows, the conductor’s stand, the instruments laying here and there . . . but Bendy found his steps faltering. Because no one was inside the room. No one except the old, whirring cassette players laid out in every chair, where the voices of his friends and coworkers repeated phrases ad nauseum. Words that made no sense to him.

        “Every day the same strange thing happens, I’ll be up here in my booth, the band will be swingin’, and suddenly Sammy Lawrence just comes marching in and shuts the whole thing down!” Norman.

        “. . . I can’t find my stupid keys. It’s like they vanished into thin air or something!” Wally.

         “Alice and I, we are going places!” Susie.

         “What is going on?” Bendy whispered, creeping forward to the canned apparitions that had played on his hopes, feeling both crushed and deeply unsettled. He knew these people. They’d never have been a part of this hoax, right?

         He took another step forward, the floor creaking beneath his foot, and right then, ever single cassette player present stopped.

         Bendy froze, feeling another uneasy shiver run down his spine as the silence rolled heavily over him. He became so deeply aware of how quiet the room suddenly was, descending like an oppressive shroud over the usually lively music room.

         He glanced around, feeling leagues more unsafe than he had before, when there’s a soft click, and a lonely cassette player half hidden in the shadows began to play its message.

         “He appears from the shadows to rain his sweet blessings upon me. The figure of ink that shines in the darkness. I see you, my savior. I pray you hear me.”

          Bendy stared, “. . . Sammy?”

          “Those old songs, yes, I still sing them. For I know you are coming to save me. And I will be swept into your final loving embrace.”

          No . . . no, Sammy would never talk like this. Never. It was so upsettingly unlike the ornery music director he knew that Bendy could believe some faker with a similar voice had made a recording just to freak him out. Hell, it may even be the guy responsible for this mess!

          “But love requires sacrifice,” the cassette player droned on in that disturbingly reverent tone, “Can I get an amen?”

           Click. The player fell silent.

           But words still played, right behind him, “I said, can I get an amen?

           Bendy spun around, stumbling back into the chairs when he saw the figure behind him, looming over the toon like a dark and malicious specter. At first, Bendy thought it was a human. Until he saw the ink running from their body in place of flesh, a sight he had seen before, had hoped he would never see again. And where their face should have been, Bendy’s own cut-out mask had been affixed, grinning down at him in a cold mockery of joy.

          “W-who-?”

          “My Lord,” the person said in quiet veneration, and Bendy felt another shiver as he recognized Sammy’s voice. But no, this couldn’t be Sammy, Sammy would never call him that!

          “I have awaited this day for so long, My Lord. To be graced by your presence is . . . most enlightening. Most wonderful!

           The man with Sammy’s voice moved closer to him, reaching out with an ink-stained hand, and Bendy backed away, snapping, “H-hey, back off ya nut! I dunno who you think ya are, but I ain’t no ‘lord’!”

           The man was not deterred, moving closer and closer, “My Lord, I knew you would hear this humble sheep’s prayers. I have spread your gospel most faithfully, I have preached your unholy name to all who would hear! And now, you have come to deliver me!”

           “I said back off!” Bendy yelled, grabbing at the nearest thing he could find and brandishing it as a weapon. A banjo.

           The man paused then, but if Bendy had hoped it was in fear, he was soon disappointed, for the strange loon suddenly dropped to his knees, spreading himself prostrate across the floor at the toon’s feet, “My Lord, free me from this prison of my own body! I beg you, Ink Demon, grace me with your mercy!”

           Ink had begun to run down his brow again, and Bendy didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t a fighter, and this guy was a few cards short of a deck, so who knows what would set him off. But on top of everything else he had seen, all of this was making his stomach twist in knots.

            “I-I . . . I ain’t-!”

            Something cold and slimy gripped his ankle, and Bendy’s eye shot to the floor behind him. Only to balk in utter horror at the sight of a ghoulish black face that stared back up at him with hollow, empty eyes, body an amalgamated mass of ink that oozed between the cracks in the floor, its viscous hand clutching desperately at his ankle.

           Nearby, a cassette player whirred to life, and the distorted voice of Norman Polk gurgled through the static, “Save us, My Lord. Save us, please.”

           Another hand grabbed at his elbow as another of those creatures rose from the ground, keening as if in great pain. Another click, another broken voice, another echo in the form of Wally Franks, “Have mercy on us, My Lord! Have mercy!”

           A third rose in front of him, choking on a sobbing cry, pitched with despair as Susie Campbell wailed at him through the speakers, “Don’t abandon us again! Please help us, My Lord!”

           Wailing, screaming, pleading, begging, pulling at his clothes, his arms, his legs, pulling him under with the weight of their misery, and in that moment, there’s a flash of very sudden, very painful clarity for Bendy;

           This. Was not. A joke.

           Jokes didn’t summon apparitions out of nothing. Jokes didn’t turn his friends into monsters. Jokes didn’t make horrors like this so viscerally alive. And if it wasn’t a joke . . . then what was left except for it to be real?

          A pair of cold, cold hands grasped his face, forcing his horrified gaze up to stare into a hollow mask with cutout eyes and a stained grin, and Sammy Lawrence breathed solemnly into his face, a reverent and pleading whisper that somehow eclipsed all other sound in the room,

          “Save us.”

          It’s a snap decision on Bendy’s part, fueled by the jolt of pure terror that suddenly electrifies his core, zapping life into his petrified limbs, and with a cry, Bendy swung his arm around and clocked the masked man square in the face with the flat side of the banjo. There’s a loud, strident ping as the strings snap and Lawrence is set sprawling from the blow, just as the hands around him suddenly vanish, the monsters spreading apart like a flock of startled birds. Bendy waited on nothing. As soon as he’s free, he was running.

          The chilling wails of the ink creatures chase after his heels, and the sound cemented the reality around him that this was real, this was happening, this wasn’t just a joke anymore! And that’s more horrifying than anything, even as he blitzed around corner after corner, running so fast the world around him was a blur, and mind racing no less quickly.

         What had happened? What had happened?

         But there is no answer here. No reason for why his coworkers are suddenly monsters, why the studio is in the state it’s in, why Boris is . . . oh god, Boris-!

         He slid on his feet to a stop, bracing a shoulder against the wall and sucking in lungfuls of air until the hammering of his heart stopped. But even as it slowed, the hiccup that worked its way up could not be stopped, just like the whimper that followed it.

         He’s trembling, and it’s from more than just exhaustion. Because now, he thinks he’s in very real danger. Because now, he’s very genuinely afraid.

        “Joey . . .?” he called out, as if the mere act would somehow magic the man into existence, would bring him here and make it seem not so impossibly bad. But no one came. No one . . .

         Was he really all alone here?

         The thought was enough to nearly send his already frazzled mind into another panic, because he’s at a very genuine and terrifying loss for what to do. There were monsters crawling around, there was a madman who had Sammy’s voice chasing him, Joey was nowhere to be found, and Boris was . . . Boris was . . .

         He choked, feeling his stomach flip, and the the room seemed to spin on itself. He bent forward again, fighting back the urge to vomit, but feeling tears burn anew in his eyes. If this was real . . . oh god . . .

         Thud thud thud!

         Footsteps. Loud, heavy ones, ones that were barreling closer with every passing second. Bendy was on his feet immediately, adrenaline surging, half-afraid that that demented Sammy is following him. But he’s still too tired to run, so instead, he gripped the banjo he had closer and held it up at the ready.

         Closer. Bendy’s fingers tightened, creeping closer to the edge where the two hallways met.

         Closer still, right around the corner. His shoulders bunched in preparation to swing.

         A figure bolted around the corner, stained dark with ink, and Bendy didn’t hesitate. With one swing, the underside of his improvised weapon smacked hard into the underside of the other’s chin, and the figure went down hard.

         Panting, Bendy backed away, just about to bolt to safety, when the figure groaned.

         It’s another familiar voice. A very cared for and trusted voice. And when he looked closer, Bendy saw that the ink on their body wasn’t oozing from their skin, because they had skin. Normal, human skin! And darker hair, streaked with grey, clothes suited to their broad body, and Bendy can hardly believe it, but the joy that radiated through him when he saw their face made him dizzy with relief.

         “Henry!”

         The man groaned again, and Bendy felt a flash of guilt at the sight of the man’s already bruising chin. Yikes, that . . . that was gonna leave a mark.

         “H-hey, sorry Henry, I thought . . . I thought you were one of those things . . .” Bendy said, and he was genuinely apologetic as he came to the animator’s side, “No hard feelings, yeah?”

         He reached down to help the old man up, bracing his hand against the other’s shoulder to act as leverage. But at the feel of hands on him, Henry started upright, faster than Bendy had ever seen him move before, and the man’s face snapped to him.

         Dark eyes met his own, and Bendy smiled, that same relief spilling over onto his face, so strong it made tears bead at the corners of his eyes.

         It lasts for only a moment, because that’s when a strong hand suddenly slammed into his chest and sent him sprawling to the floor, banjo flying off to the side and leaving him winded. Wincing, Bendy used his arms to push himself up, eyes searching for Henry, confused and lost.

         He’s not sure if he felt better when he found him, because the old man is glaring at him from where he stood, brandishing an axe his way, its silver edge streaked with black.

         “H-Henry . . .?” Bendy started, shocked, alarmed, not understanding why the person he trusted most aside from Joey himself was looking at him with such cold, angry eyes, why did he look so angry at him?

         “Stay away from me,” the man growled, and it’s so sharp and unfriendly that it left Bendy nearly speechless.

         “W-wha . . . H-Henry, i-its me!” Bendy tried again, but a paranoid fear was starting to sink in, making the ink run down his face again as he slowly clambered to his feet, “Y-ya know me, right?”

         “Hard to forget the guy who’s trying to kill me,” was Henry’s curt and cutting response, never once lowering the axe even a fraction. It was like . . . like the man didn’t even know who he was.

         That realization cut deeper than any axe blade could, it seemed, and Bendy stared at him in desperation, “What? N-no, no, I’d never do somethin’ like that! Henry, please, tell me ya remember me! The real me! Ya know I wouldn’t do that!”

          Henry’s eyes narrowed, disbelieving. But the axe blade dropped just the tiniest inch, “Hm . . . and how would I know that? Everything else in this place has tried to kill me.”

          Bendy’s eyes widened, and he took a slow step forward, “C-come on, don’t pull a guy over like that. Please, we . . . we worked together! For years! Ya can’t-ya can’t tell me that ya don’t remember!”

          Even as he said it, Bendy searched for any trace of recognition in the man’s face, any sign that Henry had just bumped his head and needed a little speech to get the memory juices flowing again . . . but the only thing he sees is that same wary distrust, that mark of a man who no longer believed in the face-value of things, no matter how honest it might be. It’s so . . . wrong. Just like everything else in this horrible place is.

          And Henry was already backing away from him, “Sorry, but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

          “H-hey, no, wait! Please, just, hold on a sec, okay?” Bendy pleaded, a sudden rush of fear percolating through his ink at the thought of being abandoned, “I . . . I don’t know what’s going on, alright? B-but I swear, I’m on your side!”

          Henry stared at him, and while he’s still wary, Bendy can tell he’s at least listening, “Really? You don’t know what’s happening?”

          “No. I mean, yesterday, everythin’ was normal, and then all of a sudden, here I am, and everythin’s just been turned on its head! Those things, Sammy, and Boris-,” he unintentionally chokes on the last word, feeling sick all over again.

          But something must come through, or Henry must see something on his face, because the furrow in his brow softened just slightly, and the axe dropped just another inch, “. . . Look, I . . . I don’t know if I can trust you. There’s just . . . too much going on.”

          “Then let me prove it!” Bendy pleaded. He doesn’t know who this Henry is, it had become increasingly and upsettingly obvious . . . but it was still Henry.  There had to be something there that was like the kind, reasonable animator Bendy knew and loved. Something, because if there hadn’t been, then the man would have used that axe a long time ago.

          Henry stared at him, and in that instant, he looked so much older than Bendy can ever remember, seeing for the first time how haggard and exhausted he is, shoulders dropping and eyes ringed by dark, heavy bags. How long had he been stuck here . . . ?

          “I-,” whatever the old man would have said, Bendy didn’t get to hear it, because then, a symphony of discordant, gurgling growls resounded down the halls, growls that were steadily getting closer.

          Henry’s gaze snapped behind him, cursing, “Shit!”

          The animator looked back at Bendy, and the toon returned it, just as alarmed but unsure as to what this Henry would do. The old man glanced back at the hallway, looking torn, before finally shaking his head and saying, “Ugh, I’m gonna regret this.”

          Before Bendy could question what he was talking about, the old man was suddenly running in his direction, switching his axe to his other hand and using the free one to grab at the toon’s shoulder, shouting, “Run!

          He didn’t need to be told twice, especially not as he saw the first deformed head of an ink creature slide around the corner. Still, as he turns heel and starts sprinting, he can’t stop the flutter of relief he felt inside that Henry wasn’t going to abandon him.

          The pipes running beside them gurgled, the metal rungs creaking as they ran. Behind them, it sounded like more of those things were gathering, giving chase, screaming all the while. He didn’t know if Henry heard the same things he heard, though; the pleas for salvation, the cries for mercy . . .

          He almost stopped when they rounded a corner and came to a room that was flooded with ink, the rippling black liquid lapping across the ground in waves. Beyond, he could see another door exiting into an adjoining hallway, but to get there, they had to enter the murk.

          Henry only grimaced once before throwing himself to it, the ebony liquid coming up to his thighs before settling, “Come on!”

          Bendy wasn’t keen, but in light of the very real danger behind him, he sucked in a breath and went for it. It felt like forever before the ink finally stopped rising, coming up to his chest, and he was practically swimming after the older man.

          There’s a growl, and Bendy’s eyes snap to the door behind them. One of those things perched there, watching with hollow eyes . . . but it did not leave its spot. All it did was watch. And in a matter of moments, others joined it, clambering at the entryway, hissing and gurgling, but never crossing over.

          “Hey, it ain’t followin’ us!” Bendy said, wary, but a little relieved.

          Henry did not feel the same way, face paling, “That’s not good!”

          Before Bendy can ask why, the ink in front of the older man bubbled.

          There’s a startled shout, and suddenly, Henry vanished beneath the ink, dragged below by something he couldn’t see.

          “Henry!” Bendy shouted, sloughing to where the man had been, pawing desperately at surface, searching, he’s gotta be somewhere, he’s gotta be somewhere! “Hen-!”

          The ink in front of him rose, a figure emerging from its depths. But it’s not Henry.

          It’s impossibly tall, looming over the toon and drowning him in its shadow. Its flesh is made of ink, its limbs are unnaturally long and lanky, and Bendy swallowed at the sight of hands tipped by wickedly sharp, sable claws.

          But that’s not the thing that leaves him speechless. That’s not the thing that leaves him terrified.

          Because the face that leered at him from on high, a face twisted by a crooked grin lined with malice, is familiar to him too.

          Familiar because its him.

          Before he can react, do anything, a hand suddenly grabbed him by the throat, lifting him up from the dark swells below and bringing him practically nose to nose with the eyeless abomination. Bendy coughed, grabbed at the hand holding him and tried to pry the cold, sharp fingers away, but they don’t give an inch. Instead, they only tighten, squeezing his air away and leaving him choking for it, and the thing’s smile seemed to widen.

          And then it spoke. It spoke like him.

          “Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of the mirror today,” it leaned in closer, and it’s grin is full of dark and vile mirth, even as it brought a clawed hand up and ready to strike, “Didn’t ya pal?

          Then it’s claws came down, and Bendy couldn’t even scream.

          -

          When Bendy woke, it was with a wild cry, throwing himself forward and swinging his fists in an attempt to beat off the thing using his voice.

          But hands grab his own, smaller hands, softer hands, hands that were not the claws that had held him before, and a slightly panicked but familiar voice starts speaking, softly, soothingly, “Bendy, Bendy, it’s okay! Everything’s fine!”

          For a moment, everything is blurry, vague shapes and distorted colors, but he zeroes in on the one who had spoken, and as he focuses, he made out the long, ebony hair and halo of a very familiar person.

          He hardly dared to hope, “ . . . Alice?”

          But the angel was nodding, banishing the shadows that obscured her face, lips breaking into a relieved smile, “Yes! Yes, it’s me! See? Everything’s alright!”

          Another hand appeared on his shoulder, larger and heavier than hers, but when he turned to look, the face he saw then was what made everything truly snap into focus.

          “You feelin’ alright, buddy?” Boris asked him, and the sound filled Bendy with so much relief, so much joy, because Boris was here, he wasn’t dead, he was alive-!

          He doesn’t even really register what he’s doing, but he can’t really bring himself to care as he threw his arms around the wolf’s neck, squeezing like he could vanish at any moment and trying very hard to keep his himself from crying like a baby.

          Boris grunted slightly at the sudden, unexpected contact, but he doesn’t push Bendy away. Instead, he comfortingly patted his back, saying reassuringly, “Hey, it’s okay, buddy. Everything’s okay.”

          He doesn’t pry himself away immediately, instead focusing on how the wolf’s chest is rising and falling like it should, savoring the sound of life that’s there. But as he listened, and as he finally relaxed, he became increasingly aware of the almost overpowering smell of flowers and wood smoke. Lots of wood smoke.

          Coughing slightly, he pulled back, wiping at his face hurriedly to hide any sign of tears. But he kept a hand on Boris’ arm, reluctant to let go completely.

          That’s when another voice spoke up, “Boss? You alright?”

          He glanced up, and his heart lurched in relief when he saw Henry crouch down beside them. Henry, who’s eyes are warm and concerned, not angry, not afraid, his Henry.

          It occurred to him then that now . . . now he was in reality. This was real. And while his head is still tangled with the memories of moments ago, he’s awake and aware enough now to realize that . . . it had just been a dream. A bad, bad dream.

          It’s enough to make a toon sag in on himself with relief.

          “U-uh . . .” he shook his head, and the motion helped clear his thoughts, “I . . . think so?”

          “Are you sure?” Alice probed, and while ordinarily he’d be annoyed, he can’t quite bring himself to feel that way yet.

          Then, a more chipper voice chimed in, “Well, there don’t seem to be any side effects! Thank goodness, I was afraid the incense may have been too much!”

          Bendy looked up, beyond the three around him, and smiled when he saw none other than Joey Drew standing a little ways off. There’s an incense stick in one hand and one of his . . . tomes in the other, but while he’s smiling as he was wont to, there’s an edge of relief to it. When Bendy saw him, the man smiled, “Hello, my devil. Glad to see you up again.”

          “Uh . . . me too?” he said, not quite sure how to respond to that, but glad he is up regardless. He coughed again, that same smell teasing his nostrils, and its only then he realized that the room around, while as he remembered it to be (clean and ordered and right), there are . . . a lot of candles and incense sticks around. Its enough to tease out his natural curiosity, “What uh . . . what happened?”

          At that, Henry rolled his eyes, “Joey got it in his head to experiment with lucid dreaming. But the ‘Joey’ way.”

          “Well, it was fascinating to me!” Joey defended, but he did look a touch more mollified than usual, “I thought just a tiny touch of magic would make it more sensible, easy to translate in the waking world! But, erm, I may have misread a few lines and directed the spell to . . . someone else.”

          The animator and his two toon friends all gave Joey a look he had seen the man be given many times before.

          But Bendy could only feel relief, “A dream, huh? It was just a dream?”

          But what else could it have been? As scary as it had been, none of that stuff could have happened, really happened. But it was so nice to hear someone else say it.

          He noticed the look the four of them shared, touched with concern, with worry . . . and with a flush of quiet embarrassment, Bendy held up his hands, “I-uh, I mean of course it was a dream! No way it was real!”

Unfortunately, not everyone looked completely convinced of his words, but good ol’ Henry (his Henry), ever the one to understand when he really did not want to talk about something, reached out and patted a consoling hand against the toon’s shoulder, nodding, “Yeah. Just a dream.”

          “But . . .” Alice started softly, “If you still want to talk about it . . .”

          Bendy immediately shook his head. No, he never wanted to think about it again, “No.”

          He sounded a little too hard then, so he tried to lighten his tone, “I mean, it was just a dream, yeah? Nothin’ real! So, no point in talkin’ about it.”

          Alice still doesn’t look convinced, but Henry gently drew her attention, “Hey, why don’t you go let the others know he’s awake?”

          The angel looked at him for a moment, then nodded. She still gave Bendy one last worrying glance however, even as she left.

          The others . . . Susie, Sammy, everyone.

          (-screaming for salvation, pleading for mercy, praying for an end-)

          Bendy sharply slapped a hand to his head, jarring his thoughts to a stop. No, it was just a dream. His coworkers were fine. Everyone was fine.

          “Everyone’s still here?” he asked, glancing at the two humans in the room and quietly searching for a distraction.

          Setting his incense stick aside, Joey came over then, kneeling down to be more level with the toon, “Well, it is the middle of the day. Prime work hours for all!”

          “The middle of the day?!” Bendy started, eyes widening. No, it could not have been that long! “How long was I asleep?!”

          Henry, Joey, and Boris all gave each other a look, very suspiciously looking like they were avoiding the toon’s gaze. Which wasn’t a good sign.

          “Not . . . too long,” Joey said, shrugging, “A day, at the most. But-!”

          “A day!” Bendy shouted, “I’ve been asleep an entire day!

          Boris reassuringly patted his hand, “It ain’t so bad, Bendy. Everyone made sure to do their part to keep everythin’ runnin’ smooth! You were just, uh . . .”

          “Indisposed,” Henry finished neatly, though it did little to calm Bendy down. Ugh, he was going to have to sort through so much stuff just to make sure nothing had been derailed!

          “Nothing a little magic and smoke didn’t fix!” Joey said, swinging an arm around in victory. But it suddenly and swiftly dropped away, and a more contrite look crossed the older man’s face, a look that very, very rarely ever made an appearance, “Everything else aside, though . . . are you feeling alright, Bendy? Unintended recipient or not, it looked like the dream was . . . quite the lucid one.”

          Privately . . . no, not quite. It was going to take a little time for him to get over it completely, to separate that nightmarish reality from the forefront of his mind to some background slot rarely visited. But Joey looked unusually apologetic, Henry still had that crease in his brow, Boris’ ears were low, and who knows what the rest of the staff were going to say.

          Besides, he wanted to get to work, and if he waxed dramatic on how awful some silly nightmare had been, then they’d never let him get back to it in a timely manner. Work was good.

          “Hey, it was just a dream,” Bendy told them, shrugging, “Nothin’ a bit of colored ink won’t fix, right?”

          “Well,” Joey pursed his lips, glancing at the tome in his hand, “The full translation was ‘window to a second world’, but it made it sound like-oof!”

          Henry dropped a heavy hand on the other’s shoulder, and Bendy may or may not have imagined the older man squeezing said shoulder a little more firmly than needed, “Yeah, just a dream. But if you need some time off . . .”

          “No, I have already taken too much time off!” Bendy said resolutely. He clambered out of his drawer (gosh, how long had he been in there?), quite eager to not be in bed anymore, saying, “So uh, anyone mind fillin’ me in on what I missed?”

          It’s a diversion, and he knows they all know it, but thankfully they oblige him. And thankfully after that, things become a little more normal.

          But if he spent a little more time watching his coworkers than before, no one called him out on it.

          If he checked up on Boris a little more than usual, the wolf took it good-naturedly.

          If he stayed up a little later working alongside Henry, the old man smiled understandingly.

          If he played piano with Joey a little more than usual, his creator would happily play along.

          Just until what he had experienced all became what he tried to tell himself it was since waking; that it was just a bad dream.

 

 

Chapter Text

          Alice’s steps were light and merry that day. Of course, how else was she to act after the successful release and reception of an episode starring her own self and Susie’s excellent voice?

          ‘Alice Angel in The Angel’s Choir’. A much looked forward to day in the limelight, and one that had even gained some wonderful traction. Aaaand, while she certainly would deny it, it was quite fun rubbing it in Bendy’s face. Now that he was, well . . . she guessed the most appropriate description was ‘feeling better’, even though he would never admit something was wrong. Oh sure, deadline stress and the like, but ever since Joey’s . . . ‘idea’ had backfired, the toon demon had been acting a little . . . strange. And while Bendy liked to think he was as subtle as he was suave, the truth was he wasn’t and everyone had noticed. But he certainly made up for that lack of subtlety with sheer stubbornness, because he hadn’t gone to anyone about it. Not even Henry.

          Which did trouble her, even though she knew openly saying it would only be met with a hand wave. Whatever dreams he’d had under that spell, they must have been . . . well, let’s just say the screams had been telling. She would have chewed Joey out over it privately, creator or not, but if how he’d looked throughout the ordeal was anything to go by, she’d say the man had learned his lesson tenfold. In fact, no occult shenanigans had happened in some time, much to everyone’s relieved sanity. Especially Henry and Sammy.

          Which was why it did her good to see Bendy improving, and settling everything back into true normalcy. This last deadline, while stressful, seemed to be just what the devil needed. And while she would certainly glow under this episode’s success, she looked forward to things going back to how they should be and forgetting about the upset that had rocked the studio for a time.

          The sound of approaching voices drew Alice’s attention back to the entrance hall, just in time to see Susie and Sammy round the corner. The woman had been wearing the biggest smile all day, and while her hair was a little grayer and the lines on her face a little more prominent these days, today’s success made her look ten years younger.

          “-and we’re all going out for drinks to celebrate, whether you like it or not. And you’ll like it, because you always do!” Susie said chipperly, one arm locked around the music director’s elbow and hauling him along behind her.

          Sammy was only putting up a token resistance, even if his face was sent into that permanent scowl of his. Sometimes Alice wondered if there was some law somewhere that stated Sammy wasn’t allowed to smile, or else the consequences would be dire, “Since when do I ever have a choice?”

          Before the two vanished out the door, most likely headed to the wrap party the others had planned, Alice held up a hand and called out, “Have fun you two!”

          Susie all but spun on her heel, face lighting up into an even bigger smile, “Alice! We were just about to leave! Why don’t you throw on one of those cute disguises and come with us? Boris and Bendy can come too!”

          Sammy side-eyed the woman, perhaps even slightly pleading, but Alice just laughed, “While I appreciate the idea, I think I’ll just pour myself a nice glass of yellow ink here.”

          Susie looked a little disappointed, but understanding all the same, “Right. It was just the end not that long ago. Well, I hope the three of you celebrate with us in spirit!”

          Alice smiled, “Always!”

          Susie’s open hand in front of her face had her blinking for a moment, then smile in fond appreciation before holding up her own and clapping it against the woman’s in familiar rapport. It had been their Thing to do ever since their first successful release starring them, and every release after that. True, Alice Angel was a familiar mainstay on the cast now, forever and always, but every time felt no less magical.

          Susie winked, “See you later Alice! And sometime soon, we’re going out to celebrate somewhere, just us girls!” a slightly more teasing smile crossed her lips, “And maybe Sammy, if he behaves himself.”

          Sammy, who’d only been half-listening at that point, suddenly snapped to attention, “What?”

          But Susie didn’t repeat what she said. Instead, with an amused chuckle, she waved at Alice and began to haul him back to the door, “Goodnight Alice!”

          “Goodnight Susie! Goodnight Sammy!” Alice returned in kind, waving until the two were out the door and out of sight.

          There’s a brief moment of silence, when another voice called out behind her, “Oh, there ya are, Alice! I was just lookin’ for you!”

          The angel turned around, smiling at the figure behind her, “Boris!”

          “Was that Sammy and Susie who just left?” the ever-friendly wolf asked, paws in his pockets and eyes glancing to the door.

          She nodded in reply, “Mhm. Just went to that bar everyone likes to go to after a release. Speaking of which, I promised Susie I’d open a bottle with them in spirit! Care to join me?”

          “Sure!” Boris said, ears perking up, “Lemme go find Bendy! It’s not a celebration without him!”

          Alice hummed in thought, trailing after the wolf with a hand to her chin, “Hm, speaking of that devil, where is he? I haven’t seen him all evening.”

          “Talkin’ with Joey and Henry about somethin’ in his office,” Boris replied, looking unperturbed.

          Alice, however, felt a tiny prickle of unease, “About . . . what? Do you know?”

          Boris glanced at her, and the uncertain gleam in his eyes was answer enough even as he shrugged, “Uh, no. Figured they wouldn’t want anyone pryin’, ya know?”

          Well, it was the recent end of a deadline and a fresh release . . . most likely, they were just doing a little preliminary planning for the next. Workaholics, and all that.

          Unfortunately, eavesdropping wasn’t possible, because by the time they made it to Bendy’s office, both the demon and the two animators were out and bidding each other goodnight. But everything looked normal, so maybe she was just being paranoid.

          Bendy noticed them first, “Oh, hey guys.”

          Boris and Alice waved back, with Boris offering a chipper, “Hi, Bendy!”

          “Oh, hello, you two! Good to catch you on our way out!” Joey said, looking happy. But he usually looked that way.

          “Are you both going to that party Susie and everyone went to?” Alice asked, curious.

          Henry smiled, but it was a little strained, holding up a hand and tilting it left and right, “Eeh, maybe for a little bit. But I’m not as young as I used to be.”

          “Oh, only if you let yourself feel that way, Henry!” Joey butt in, slapping a hand against Henry’s shoulder.

          The other man was still for a second, before very slowly bringing his own hand up and rubbing the spot Joey had hit, “Ow . . .”

          “Heh, well, you two have fun with that,” Bendy commented, grinning, “Meanwhile, I’m gonna go open up a few bottles myself.”

          “Celebrating my victory,” Alice added in cheekily.

          Bendy just waved a hand at her, and she was pleased to see that it was no less than she would expect from him after a comment like that, “Yeah, yeah, you’ve been tellin’ everyone all day, congratulations. But, I’m the one still in the lead!”

          Alice grinned, “But I’m catching up.”

          Both Henry and Joey chuckled at that, much to Bendy’s chagrin, and Henry said, “Well, just don’t burn down the building before any of us get back.”

          “That’d be troublesome, even for me!” Joey added.

          Alice clapped her hands together, smiling as her halo glowed just a little brighter for added effect, “Oh, don’t you worry about little old me! I’ll behave myself~.”

          “Says the gal with a halo and a pair of horns,” Bendy commented, arms crossed. There was a beat of silence, and then a soft ping as Alice’s halo connected with the middle of the devil’s forehead, bouncing up and away with a musical ring as Bendy reeled back, “Gak!

          The others laughed, and it wasn’t much longer before the two humans bid them all goodnight to make their way to the party where chaos had undoubtedly ensued in their absence. And, for her part, she certainly did make good on her promise of pouring a drink and celebrating with them in spirit. Or two drinks. Or three. Enough that by the time she hung up her halo for the night and bunkered down beneath her soft, warm blankets, she was well on her way to a happy slumber.

          At least, until a wonderfully loud thud outside her door had her bolting upright in her bed.

          She sat stock still for several moments, blankets drawn up to her chin and hair a comical fritz as she listened for any more disturbances. Then, with an irritated huff, she grabbed her halo and gave it a sharp shake until the light returned to it. Once done, she set it on her head and threw the covers aside, eyes narrowed in annoyance, “Really, Ben? I would have thought after the first boobytrap you would have learned those tricks don’t work on me anymore!”

          Really. And he liked to call himself original.

          With another huff, she flung the door open and stepped into the hall, eager to give the devil himself what-for . . .

          Only to find air where her foot landed, and proceeded to plummet into a pool of something dark, wet, and very, very cold.

          She flailed her arms in panic before her head burst through the surface again, coughing and sputtering, her halo’s light briefly obscured beneath the substance she’d landed in. Spitting, Alice could perceive the familiar taste of ink, but . . . it tasted wrong. Off and old and . . . tainted.

          She managed to find the floor beneath the pool, finally managing to stand upright so only her waist and legs were submerged. And, as the liquid dribbled from her halo and the light returned, she could see that it was ink she had landed in, albeit in vast more quantities than she’d first thought. The entire hall, as far as she could see, was flooded with the stuff.

          “What the . . .?” Alice murmured, looking around, “Did a pipe burst again?”

          That seemed to be the case. Flooding had happened before, once to the degree where Sammy and several others had been trapped in their department for hours. The music director had not been in a good mood for a while after that.

          Well, at least he’s not here for this . . . she thought. Although, looking at the ruined state of her pajamas, she felt no less miffed that she’d been the one to suffer the brunt of this latest breakdown. These had been a gift from Susie . . .

          Sighing, she squeezed out her hair and began to wade through the mess, calling, “Bendy! Boris! Ink alert! We’ve got another flood!”

          No answer. Of course. Boris was one of the deepest sleepers she knew, and Bendy, when he finally decided to entertain the notion of sleep, could snooze pretty deeply too. But at least he was sleeping.

          “Hey, come on you guys, we need to call someone before this gets too out of hand!” she shouted as she finally reached the end of the veritable river, clambering out gratefully onto the secure and wonderfully dry wooden floor.

          Except . . . the wood looked odd. Some of it looked warped and there were cracks running through it, and around some of those cracks she could see the onset of rot creeping through the boards. And now that she looked, she realized that the lights were actually on, they were just incredibly dim and dirty, some not even working at all.

          And the walls were covered in posters.

          Now, that on its own was normal, but . . . these posters were all very old, and as she walked down the hall and examined them, she saw that some dated back to their earliest episodes. Nearly all were about Bendy. Some of Boris, and . . . and one of her. At the very end.

          ‘Sent From Above’. Her premiere, and Susie’s too. She still had a poster in her room, for while the rest had gone by the wayside, she kept the very first for herself, to treasure the tender memory that it was. Reaching out, she touched the image with her hand, feeling the old, yellowed parchment crinkle and crack beneath her gloved fingers. It was . . . so old. Like it had never left. And yet, it shouldn’t be here at all.

          The wood groaned around her, stressing the silence that hung heavy in the air, and a trickle of unease began to travel down her back. Where were all the new posters? Why were the lights all broken, and the walls deteriorating? And where were Bendy and Boris?

          Shivering, the angel backtracked to where she’d come. Her room had been just down the hall, her toon companions must be nearby, somewhere!

          Except, as she turned the corner to that hall, her feet came to a dead stop.

          The river was gone. Like it had never existed. And where a hallway should have been was only a small nook impressed into the wall, with an iron wrought gate inside marking the existence of an old elevator.

           She stared at it. And stared some more. Then, “No. No no no no, th-there was a hallway here, I know there was a hallway here, where did it go?!”

          She paced back and forth before the elevator, as if doing so would shatter the illusion and bring the corridor back. But it remained, as real and fixed as he was, and made Alice genuinely wonder if she’d imagined it. But no, that couldn’t be possible. You don’t just imagine falling into a pool of ink! Her clothes were still stained, for heaven’s sake!

          She placed her hands on her hand and forced herself to breathe and calm down. Maybe . . . maybe she’d taken a wrong turn somewhere? It was dark, and she was rudely awoken from a brief slumber. Things could get a bit . . . disoriented because of that.

          But . . . an entire hallway . . . and her room was nowhere near the only elevator in the studio . . .

          What was going on? While admittedly prone to strangeness, the studio wasn’t that odd. Outside of the ink, most everything stayed where it was supposed to. And no amount of smoke and mirrors could do this, unless . . . was Joey responsible? But he had gone home for the night! Unless he’d done something before he left . . .

          A sudden knock behind her jolted Alice from her meditation, and she spun around on reflex. There was only a single door behind her, one she had only given a glance when she’d passed it, but the knock had unmistakably come from it. She remained where she stood, frozen, watching it warily, freezing again when a shadow passed over the window set into the wood. It was tall, easily the height of a human, but what human was here after hours? They had all left.

          The shadow didn’t do anything though, and after a minute of silent staring, Alice very, very softly, and after a slow, dry swallow, whispered, “B-Boris? Is that you?”

          At the sound of her voice, something very heavy and very strong suddenly began to bang against the door, hurling against it so hard the entire frame shook beneath the blows. Alice skittered back until she hit the grate behind her, heart thudding in time with every hard, angry shudder. Fear fueling her movements, her fingers found the button impressed into the wall and began to push on it frantically, hearing the old, rusty chains begin to whir and grind to life as the elevator responded.

          THUD! THUD! CRACK!

          Alice’s hands flew to her mouth to stifle a shriek as the glass from the pane shattered outward in a spray of broken pieces, scattering across the floor in front of her. The heavy thudding stopped, but the room beyond had gone dark, not a glimmer of light to be seen. The darkness almost seemed to pulse, like a grotesque heartbeat, before sloooowly, it began to slide through the shattered pane, spreading across the door, the walls, the ceiling, the floor, bubbling and roiling and stinking if ink.

          Behind her, she heard the elevator settle into place.

          And something was rising out of it, something tall and dark and very much not a human at all. But its familiar . . . so familiar . . . and she can scarcely believe her eyes when she finally placed why.

          Hands still clapped to her mouth, shivering now in very genuine fear, Alice choked out, “B- . . . Bendy?”

          She heard the grate slide open.

          The eyeless shape in front of her tilted its running, distorted head down, and while it was certainly smiling . . . there’s nothing friendly about it. For a moment, it seemed to regard her, study her, as if it didn’t know who or what she was. Its claws twitched.

          Then it lunged.

          On pure instinct, Alice screamed and dove back, hearing wood splinter and tear and the thing’s claws rent huge divots in the floor where she’d been standing. The shadowy ink around its body pressed forward, flooding the all with darkness and decay, chasing after her like a malignant specter.

          Without pause, her hand slammed against the buttons within the elevator, and the grate began to slide shut. But the creature was already up, and it pelted forward, shoving a long, spindly arm through before the grate could close completely. It swung at her, and Alice screamed again, flattening herself against the back wall as far as she could get from those swinging claws, shaking.

          There was a stuttering jerk as the box she was in came to life again, and, blessedly, the elevator began to go down. The available space for the monster outside continued to shrink bit by bit, a monster that looked like her friend, yet couldn’t possibly be. Its permanent grin was edged by malice, and she could almost say it looked frustrated and enraged that she was slipping away, so infuriated it refused to give up its chance, even as the elevator grew lower and lower and lower, until . . .

          The elevator jerked once, and there’s a loud, sickening crunch as the creature’s arm was caught between two unbending forces and was severed clean from the body. It landed in front of her with a wet thud, and Alice crouched and stared, hands over her mouth and fighting not to wretch as the arm dissolved into a black, shiny puddle of ink.

          Above her, she heard a terrible sound, a cross between a shriek and a growl, but within the animalistic howl, she could have sworn she heard her own name being spat like a vile curse.

          Its only until it faded completely, and that the danger itself had passed, that Alice dropped completely to the floor and sobbed.

          Where was she?! What was going on?! That couldn’t have been Bendy, it couldn’t have been! Sure, they pranked each other, and sometimes they’d get on each other’s nerves, but he’d never try to hurt her! He’d never! He’d never!

          But then who was that? What had happened? Was this all a dream? Was it a nightmare? This couldn’t be her studio, her home! Nothing like this was possible!

          But she received no answers. None at all.

          The elevator continued its descent, the light from the intervening floors washing over her in waves, the silence hanging heavy save the sounds of her sobs and the deep, rusty clinking of the elevator itself. After what felt like an eternity, a time which allowed her to recollect herself, it came to a slow, faltering stop, and the doors slowly slid open, washing the interior with light.

          Sniffling, Alice picked herself up and wiped at her face. As scared as she was, she knew she had to move. If that . . . thing was still up there . . .

          She shook her head. No, just . . . just go. Just move.

          Taking another deep breath, she stepped out into the space beyond.

          It was like no area in the studio she had ever seen before. Perhaps because her studio had no level ‘9’, for starters. Oh, she should have gone up, to the entrance! She doubted there was an exit down here! But then, to get to the entrance, she’d have to pass by the floor where that . . . thing was. What if it was still there?

          She didn’t really have many options. Slowly, carefully, she walked over and leaned over the banister before her, examining the floor below, to see if there was anything of interest. But nothing moved. It looked like she was alone here.

          Alice didn’t know if she should feel comforted by that or not.

          Quietly, she began to make her way back to the elevator. She couldn’t explain it, but something about this place rubbed her ink the wrong way. Something that made her want to leave, and not look back. Perhaps she could try her luck on a different floor.

          “And just where do you think you’re going, little thing?

          Alice froze.

          That . . . that sounded like . . . !

          “Do you think you can just . . . waltz in here, in my domain . . . and then just walk away? Oh, no, sweet thing, I don’t think so.”

          That was when the elevator whirred again, grate sliding closed, and Alice shouted in horror and ran to it. Her hands slammed against the iron gate and she attempted to pull it back open, feet digging into the ground, but to no avail. Slowly, helplessly, Alice could only watch as her only exit slowly rose up and vanished from view.

          Shivering, Alice backed away, looking left and right for any sort of weapon she could grab, because she could feel to the very depths of whatever made up her heart that she was in terrible, terrible danger. And that voice . . . it couldn’t be possible . . . It couldn’t be!

          “That’s it, come back. You have a special invitation, after all, and I always have time for a fan.”

          There’s a loud, heavy clang, and the lights suddenly went out over her head, casting her deep in shadow, so dark she couldn’t see a thing. Her body froze rigidly, feeling a renewed sense of terror as the darkness enclosed her completely.

          Shaking again, Alice choked out through her fear, “W-who . . . who are you?”

          “Oh . . . don’t you know anything? Here . . . maybe this will refresh your memory.”

          There was a cut within the static of the hidden speakers, the sound it made when the audio was being switched over to something new.

          And then a song began to play.

          A song she knew well.

          ‘I’m the cutest little angel, sent form above, and I know just how to swing~’

          “No . . .” she whispered.

          ‘I got a bright little halo, and I’m filled with love . . . I’m Alice Angel!’

          “No, no . . .!

          ‘I’m the hit of the party, I’m the belle of the ball, I’m the toast of every town’

          “Stop it!”

          ‘Just one little dance, and I know you’ll fall . . . I’m Alice Angel!’

          “Y-you can’t be, that’s not possible!”

          ‘I ain’t no flapper, I’m a classy dish, and boy can this girl sing~’

          Stop it!

          ‘This gal can grant your every wish-,’

          The audio abruptly cut out with a static screech, the room descending into silence, the lights flickering back on.

          But now, there’s a person standing in front of her, skin as pale as porcelain, clothes as black as night, and Alice can only stare up in utter horror at a woman whose face was a twisted, torn reflection of her own. And from her malformed lips, in Alice’s own voice, she sang a single, terrifying sentence, “I’m Alice Angel.”

          Alice couldn’t speak. She’s frozen, horror, shock, terror, confusion, all of it running together hopelessly, paralyzing her.

          “What’s this now?” ‘Alice’ purred, and the toon had to swallow back nausea as the torn skin and muscle around the woman’s jaw flexed and pulsated visibly, “Has my beauty rendered you speechless, little thing?”

          The woman stalked to her, like a cat before a mouse, and Alice jerked away, only for her foot to slip in the ink and send her plummeting onto her back. Panicking, she tried to clamber upright, scooting back, away from the terrifying creature in front of her.

          “You should be happy. After all, you get to see your idol up close and personal,” the woman said, leering, “But, the important question remains; what should I do with you, now that you’re here?”

          Her throat felt so very dry, but Alice forced herself to speak, fighting to keep her teeth from chattering, “W-who are you?”

          ‘Alice’s’ face dropped into an unamused frown, and she tried not to quail from it, “Haven’t you been paying attention? I’m Alice Angel! The little gift the devil himself sent from above!~”

          Her words leave before she can stop them, “No, you can’t be! I-!”

          A hard, painful slap is delivered to her cheek, leaving Alice stunned. It stung, badly, and she cupped it in her hand even as she dared to look back at the now glaring ‘angel’ looming over her head.

          “How dare you. You come crawling into my place, dolled up in my image, and yet you think can call yourself an angel?! You, some malformed freak who couldn’t even get her model right?!” anger is dripping from every word, and Alice knew now that she’d crossed a line she hadn’t even known existed. But in the false angel’s rage, the sickly sweetness had dropped, and she can hear another voice now, one that’s also familiar, but its trapped behind an echo, like another voice still is vying for control.

          Suddenly, a hand dug into the collar of her night-shirt, and Alice is yanked off the ground and pulled up face-to-ghoulish face with her terrifying other, whose single good eye is flashing with rage, “You were interesting, for a little while. I thought maybe you might help me ascend to my perfection. But you’re just another mistake, a sham pretending to be an angel! I’m the only angel here!”

          The woman sneered in Alice’s face, “But they do say impersonation is the poorest form of flattery. How about this, little thing, since you’re so keen on being me . . . I tear you apart, piece by piece, and I decide how perfect you really are!”

          Every word, every threat, is terrifyingly meant, and it left her shivering to the core . . . but this close, Alice saw something she hadn’t seen before. Beneath the horns and the twisted halo, this psychopath’s face is familiar too, in a different way. Her hair is black, her iris is gold, and half her skin is a melted, bulging mess . . . but it’s there, in the curve of her jaw, the shape of her eye. And without the veneer of fake sweetness, with that second voice so intimately close, it clicked together, and a horrifying realization dawned on her. And she wanted to believe she was wrong. She wanted to believe that so desperately! But now that she’s seen it, she can’t forget.

Because you don’t forget a face you’ve cared for, for so long.

          Looking again into that eye full of rage, all Alice can get out is a soft and mortified whisper, “Susie?”

          The only eye she can bare to look at widened, and suddenly, the fingers around her neck grow slack. Alice dropped back to the floor, and she wasted no time in shooting back to her feet, stumbling away from the demented creature-how can she be Susie?-even as the woman watched her.

          “Susie,” the other ‘Alice’ murmured, and it almost looked like she was in some kind of daze, “Susie, Susie, Susie, dear, sweet Susie.”

          There’s a giggle, one that gets progressively harsher and deeper until it sounds like a sob, the woman’s shoulders shaking as her hands come up and fist themselves in her long, black hair. Something inside Alice’s heart beats in sympathy, despite her fear; if this . . . if this is really Susie . . . good god, what had happened to her?

          But then, the sobbing suddenly rose in pitch, descending into a mad fit of laughter that’s anything but happy or amused. It had her shivering all over again, and reminded her that whatever horrible thing had happened here, whether this was Susie or not, she was still in very real danger.

          “Dreams come truuuuue, Susie . . .” the woman muttered, head lolling back, sounding more and more deranged by the second. Slowly, Alice began to back away, toward the stairs . . . a part of her wanted to help, get this woman the aid she clearly needed . . . but she knew there wasn’t anything she could do. Not here, not now.

          Alice-Susie’s head suddenly jerked back, golden eye locking onto the toon, and she froze in knee-jerk terror. The woman laughed again, “I’m an angel . . . I’m perfect! And I’ll kill anyone who says otherwise! You hear me, little thing? I’ll kill you! I’LL KILL YOU!

          Pure survival kicked in, and Alice turned and bolted. She could hear the other one’s footsteps behind her, and that only fuels her to run faster. But there are precious few doors open, save for the giant, open maw at the very back of the massive room, its iron doors like the hungry mouth of a giant beast beckoning its prey into its dark gullet. But considering what’s behind her, Alice took it immediately.

          Her fingers grab at a row of shelves just inside the doorway, and she pulled it as hard as she could, dislodging it from its place and sending it crashing across the opening. She did this to every object not nailed down, creating an obstacle course between her and the enraged ‘angel’ following at her heels, desperate to create some barricade between them so she could have time to hide.

          The smell of ink grew horrendously powerful here, so much so she thought she could taste it on her tongue. It was cloying, stinging, absolutely everywhere, and she wondered if she’d ever be able to look at the stuff again after this.

          She rounded another corner, pelting forward until she entered another huge chamber, and this one is filled with ink, crossable only by boards and planks that had been arranged across the dark, turgid swells. But instead of crossing to the other side, to hopeful safety, she stopped dead.

          There’s a table in front of her. It’s the only thing she’s aware of, and it’s the only thing she can look at. Hands going to her mouth, Alice let out a yell that’s half a scream and half a sob, because who was on that table, torn open and dead, was someone she recognized, “Boris!! Oh my god, Boris!!

          She stumbled back, still screaming, still sobbing, only to feel herself collide with something firm and cold. In an instant, hands dig into her shoulders like iron knives, hard enough to leave welts, and she heard the nightmare chasing her breath into her ear, “Do you like it? They made me so beautiful. A shame they won’t do the same for you.~”

          Then, one hand twisted itself into Alice’s hair and jerked her to the side, to the wells of ink that bubbled and churned below the wooden planks. The toon was shoved towards it, so close her feet scraped along the edge as she struggled to keep her precarious balance, and Alice twisted and writhed as hard as she could, but the woman held strong and fast.

          “Back to the ink with you, so I can return to my work. I have an errand boy I need to see to. And . . . do say hello to the voices for me.”

          There’s no dramatic chord or singing choir, or any fanfare at all. Just bubbling ink, a malicious giggle, and the tiniest little push against her back.

          Then her head is under the waves, pulled down by something she can’t see, but can feel, and no matter how hard she tried, Alice could only watch as the surface grew farther and farther away.

          -

          Her body jerked to the left, arms flailing as she fought to free herself from what she was entrapped in, only to momentarily feel weightless before hitting a hard, yet dry surface. The impact jolted her properly awake, and she sucked in a hard, terrified breath as she pushed herself to her knees, finding herself alone in her own room with her sheets wrapped around her legs. She was alive. She was safe. She was home.

And as soon as she realized those three critically important things, she sobbed.

          She curled in on herself, arms wrapped around her body and forehead pressed against the cool, hardwood floor, tears dotting the varnish beneath her.

          She doesn’t think she can recall ever having a nightmare like that before. She never wants to have one like it ever again.

          It’s that moment she heard her door suddenly swing open with a forceful thud, and she jerked upright in reactionary panic. The lights switched on, and she has to blink away the stars that appear, but when they do, she can’t help but sag in relief when she sees and recognizes the two shapes that are hurtling towards her.

          “Alice! Alice, are you alright?” Boris was the first to reach her, and her heart swelled at the sight of him, so relieved that she can’t stop herself from throwing her arms around him as soon as he’s near. He faltered for a moment, but he very quickly returned it, patting her back comfortingly.

          “Alright, where’s the mook at?!”

          Alice, after a very quick moment to wipe away some of her tears, glanced up at Bendy, who was standing beside them with his hands around a bat that’s almost as big as he is. But he’s unmistakably her Bendy. Running to her aid like a dashing hero, and had she been in the mood, she might have teased him about it.

          But right now, all she can feel is relief, as well as a hollow weariness.

          “Its . . .” her voice is throaty and rough, and she made an attempt to clear it before continuing, “Its fine, Bendy. I just . . . had a nightmare.”

          That has him looking at her, “A nightmare?”

          She nodded, but she didn’t feel like giving them a breakdown of it. One time was enough.

          Boris patted her back again, “Well, it’s over now. Everythin’s okay.”

          She nodded again, and she let the silence wash over her appreciatively. This one is different. This one is comforting.

          Then, “What kinda nightmare?”

          Alice looked at Bendy, brow furrowing. She almost lectured him on asking about things she clearly didn’t want to talk about, until she looked closer. His eyes weren’t filled with curiosity at all, but rather with worry, and . . . maybe even a little fear, and on his brow, the tiniest trickle of ink had begun to drip.

          It was then she simultaneously remembered and realized why he was asking, and she immediately shook her head, placating, “Oh, Bendy, no, its . . . it’s not like that, I’m sure. It was just . . . just . . .”

          She didn’t know what it was. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. But, the more she thought about it . . . could it have possibly been another episode like what Bendy had? But how? She had been sure Joey had learned his lesson.

          “Not like what?” Boris asked, puzzled.

          But Bendy only looked more upset, running a hand between his horns in exasperation, “Agh, I can’t believe it! I made Joey promise not to mess with that stuff again! What’s he thinkin’?!”

          “Joey?” Boris started, when his eyes widened in realization, “Oh . . .”

          “I swear, when I see him tomorrow, I’m gonna give him what-for!” Bendy promised, and Alice had no doubt he meant it. She had half a mind to join him.

          “Hey, Alice . . .” Boris started, and she saw that he was looking at her face in concern, “Does that hurt?”

          She blinked, “Does . . . what hurt?”

          “You got a nasty bruise on your cheek,” Boris said, pointing, “Ya want me to get ya some ice for it?”

          “A . . . bruise?”

          Alice lifted hand to the spot Boris had pointed to, cupping the area gingerly, only to wince at the ache the touch brought.

          When had she . . . ?

          There’s no noise in reality then, but almost like an echo, she heard the sound of slap ring in the back of her mind.

          Her hand dropped immediately, and she swallowed, feeling a shiver run through her body. No, no, she just banged it in her sleep. That was all.

          “Alice? You . . . okay?” Bendy asked tentatively.

          Taking a quick breath, she nodded, “Yeah, just . . . waking up still. I just need to . . .”

          At first, she didn’t know what she needed. But the more she thought, the more obvious the answer became.

          “I need to call someone.”

          Which found her at the public phone the whole staff used, a piece of paper clutched in her hand even though she had memorized the number by heart. She rung it once, then twice, then three times, waiting and waiting and waiting, until she finally heard a soft, unmistakable click.

          “Hello?” A tired voice murmured through the phone.

          “Susie?” Alice started softly, and the painstakingly familiar and warm voice nearly had her bursting into tears again.

          “Alice?” the woman asked, and maybe the angel hadn’t spoken as evenly as she would have liked, because Susie’s voice is suddenly much more aware and alert, “Alice, is something wrong?”

          The toon shook her head, even though the woman wasn’t physically there, “No, no, I just . . . I just nee- . . . wanted to talk to you.”

          There’s a moment of silence. Then, “Alice Angel, I’ve worked with you for over thirty years now, and I know when our resident songstress isn’t her usual chipper self! Now what’s wrong? Did something happen?”

          “Um, not really,” Alice started, and she felt more embarrassed by the second, “It was just a . . . a bad dream.”

          “A bad dream?” now, had she been anyone else, Susie would have been incredulous. But instead, there’s only the utmost seriousness as the woman’s voice dipped, “Now, are we talking the kind of bad dream brought on by too much ink consumption, or the kind of bad dream brought on because Joey did another demonic ritual again?”

          “We’re . . . debating that,” Alice answered honestly.

          Susie sighed. Then, with a much more cheerful lilt, said, “Well, looks like I’m coming into work early today! You wouldn’t happen to know any coffee places open at this hour?”

          “Susie . . .”

          “Yeah, you’re right, probably not. Guess I’ll just have to settle for that gloriously bad stuff everyone at work drinks!” there’s a rustle on the other end of the line, and a soft, clearly not meant to be heard, “Now where’d I leave my shoes?”

          “Susie, you don’t have too,” Alice said, but she knew the woman had already made up her mind.

          “Mm, too late! Already halfway out the door! And when I get there, we can talk!” Alice can hear the smile in the woman’s voice, “Just us girls!”

          The angel smiled, feeling warmed in a way she hadn’t been moments prior, “Right. Just us girls.”

          “See you in twenty!”

          Click.

          The line went quiet, and with a smile still on her face, Alice held the phone close to her chest.

          That was her Susie. This was her studio.

          And while maybe she wouldn’t shrug it off immediately, all she’d have to do was look at it all and know that her nightmare was only that, and nothing more.

Chapter Text

          Henry knew that being the unnamed peacekeeper in the studio came with a lot of unnamed and unnecessary burdens. Burdens that progressively got more and more wearisome the older he got. But, with who his boss was and his coworkers being who they were, he found that a little weariness was preferable to the chaos that could be unleashed if their temperaments were left unchecked.

          Still though, there were times he sincerely wished someone else had the job. Like right now, as he stood between an utterly irate Susie Campbell and Bendy, who were both glaring at a shocked and cowering Joey Drew, who seemed to be slipping lower and lower beneath his desk the longer the glaring continued. Henry can’t quite fault him. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Susie this angry.

          “Out with it!” Bendy demanded, pointing an accusatory finger at the man, “You messed with that dream magic again, didn’t ya?!”

          Joey frantically shook his head, waving his hands in front of his face, “No, I swear! I haven’t touched it ever since the first time!”

          Susie crossed her arms, her normally cheerful face full of thunder, “Then why is Alice having dreams now? You can be impulsive at the best of times, Joey, but I really thought you had learned your lesson the last time!”

          “I did!” Joey defended, only to sink just a little deeper behind his desk at the disbelieving and burning glare the woman sent his way, to the point where only his nose and spectacles were visible. Slowly, his hand rose up over the edge like a boy scout in training, voice soft but plaintive, “I promise, I haven’t touched it. I don’t know why this is happening, honest.”

          Henry felt the beginnings of a headache brewing, a familiar feeling, and he pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers to alleviate it as he sighed, “Alright, alright, everybody calm down.”

          Susie planted her hands on her hips and Bendy crossed his arms, foot tapping a mile a minute, but they both stopped yelling. Joey, after a moment to ascertain that he wasn’t about to be chewed out again, carefully pulled himself back up over the desk, quietly fixing his askew glasses.

          Dropping his hand, he looked at Susie, “So, Alice had a . . . nightmare?”

          The woman nodded curtly, lips pursed and glaring at Joey. Henry pressed the palms of his hands together, frowning.

          “And . . . you’re sure it was like what Bendy went through?” he questioned slowly, trying to pick his words very carefully. The toon devil still hadn’t really talked to anyone about what he had experienced, a sure sign in Henry’s eyes that even though it had been a few weeks since, he was still privately dealing with it. He didn’t want to dredge up any bad memories, but the animator had to be sure that this was really what that was and not just a knee-jerk reaction to something more simple.

          “Alice don’t get nightmares, at least not like that Henry,” Bendy said with certainty, “I’ve lived with the gal for years, I’d know.”

          A very solid point. Still, Henry wished he could ask Alice herself, if only to hear her side of the story. As it stood, she was currently in the studio watering hole with Boris, ‘recovering’ at Susie’ insistence.

          With another sigh, Henry gestured to the man who caused more headaches than anyone else combined, “Joey, is it possible you got into that stuff again? Even by accident?”

          The other man pushed at his glasses and fiddled with his tie, fidgeting beneath the withering looks Bendy and Susie were giving him, “Erm, well, uh . . . not that I’m consciously aware of?”

          “And what does that mean?” Henry asked.

          “Just that maybe I could have chanted something in my sleep or something similar? One time I woke up standing in my bathroom with a runic circle dawn entirely in macaroni shells!” Joey’s levity quickly deserted him when both toon and actress frowned, “But I’m sure I could remember a dream augury if that were the case!

          Henry sighed. Truly not the sort of thing he had expected to sort out when he had walked into work this morning.

          “Criminy . . .” Bendy muttered, pinching the space between his eyes in annoyance.

          Joey cleared his throat, “I could look into it. I just need the book I used back!”

          “Well, its with all yer other books, ain’t it?” Bendy asked, hand up in the air in query.

          Joey tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips, and Henry felt a rising dread, “Joey? What is it?”

          “Chm, well, you see, after that whole debacle, I decided it was best to put the book where I wouldn’t be tempted to use it, so I . . . might have thrown it down in the basement . . .”

          “Well, that’s not that bad,” Susie said, ever optimistic, “We just need to go to the room you stored it in, right?”

          “Uh, well, that’s the other thing . . . I may have,” Joey held up both hands, a nervous smile on his face, “. . . tossed it down one of the chutes?”

          Henry closed his eyes and tilted his head back. Now, an ordinary chute would ordinarily have just one destination, correct? Well, not at Joey Drew studios. To accommodate all the pipework the ink machine required, a lot of the internal structure had to be altered as well. Including the chute system, which was pretty much defunct after all the changes. Toss something down there, the chances of ever finding it again were nil. Most people used it as a sort of secret waste receptacle, though signs were put up to dissuade people from doing that. And now, well, the book they needed was in there somewhere too.

          “Fantastic,” he mumbled.

          “Why, Joey? The one time ya actually try to control yourself, ya gotta muck that up too!” Bendy said, unbelieving.

          Joey rubbed the back of his head, looking just a mite chastised, when the phone on his desk suddenly began to ring. The man had it up in a flash, pressing the phone to his ear and saying, “Ah, hello, Joey Drew speaking, how may I help you?”

          There’s a moment of silence as the person on the other end of the line speaks, before Joey’s eyes lit up, “Oh, Bertrum! Bertrum Piedmont! I was just waiting for your call! Can I call you Bertie? Oh, forgive me, wait one moment, if you will-”

          The man carefully covered the receiver, looking at Henry pleadingly, “Sorry, old friend, but I’ve been waiting for this call for days now! I promise, I’ll get right on searching for the book once it’s through!”

          “Joey-,” Henry started, but the other man was already back on the line.

          Henry sighed, then ushered the other two towards the door. He knew exactly what this call was about, and Joey hadn’t been lying when he said he’d been waiting for it for a while. There was no getting him off the line now. Internally, Henry wondered if Joey would actually make this new little enterprise work, and if he did, Henry couldn’t help but feel pity for poor Grant. Joey was truly going to drive him to madness in this studio one day.

          Outside, Susie crossed her arms and huffed, “The chute system? Really?”

          “I hear ya, sister,” Bendy said in complete agreement, looking annoyed.

          Henry nodded, “I know. We’ll just have to bear with it, though. Joey will fix it eventually.”

          “Ha, I ain’t waitin’ around for something else to happen, no way! I’m goin’ down there, I’m bringin’ that book back, and I’m gonna make Joey sit there and read through every page until he finds a way to fix it! Today!” Bendy’s declaration caught both humans off guard, and they shared a troubled glance.

          “But you might be down there forever!” Susie protested, “Remember when Wally threw those music sheets Sammy had made away by accident? It took almost a week to find them again!”

          “I know that, but I don’t want to be sittin’ on this,” Bendy said, with that utterly stubborn look on his face that said he absolutely was not backing down from his stance, “Think a how much trouble it would be if this startin’ hittin’ everyone else! Production would slow, moral’d go down, it just be one giant mess!
          “But-!”

          Henry cut Susie off before she could finish, “Hey, there’s no need to fight so much about it. Look, Bendy, I get wanting to get this sorted. We can look for a little while, at least until someone comes calling, okay?”

          “We?” Bendy asked.

          “Well, figured an extra pair of eyes would help,” Henry said with a small smile, “Even if they’re old ones.”

          Bendy smiled a little, looking touched, but hiding beneath a sarcastic reply, “Eh, I guess. Just don’t lose your glasses, okay? Don’t wanna be leadin’ you by the hand.”

          “You got it, boss.”

          Pacified, at least for now, the devil began to make his way to the basement door. Beside him, Susie sighed, “Well, I guess there’s no talking him out of it, is there?”

          “Not when he’s like this,” Henry said, scratching his head.

          Susie pursed her lips, looking a touch concerned, “Henry, do you think, since you’ll be alone for a bit . . . you could get him to talk? If its as bad as what Alice went through . . . this must really be bothering him.”

          “Alice told you?”

          “Only a little,” Susie shrugged, “But I hardly needed to hear more to get the idea. Speaking of, I should probably go and make sure she’s alright. Our girl’s tough, but even tough girls can get shaken up from time to time.”

          Henry nodded, “You do that. Let them know where we are too, so that way they don’t worry.”

          “Of course! And maybe later, we’ll join you! Just . . .” Susie glanced at Bendy’s retreating back, “Make sure he doesn’t overexert himself until then.”

          “I will.”

          At least, Henry sure would try.

          -

          The basement was . . . about what he expected it to be. A little dark, dirty, cramped, and kind of deserted. ‘Basement’, of course, referring to the space below what used to be the actual basement, before its renovation for the ink machine. Really, the whole thing was a convoluted mess, it’s a wonder nobody got lost.

          “Alright!” Bendy said, rolling up his sleeves, “Let’s start digging’!”

          Which they did. For a long while, it felt like. There were multiple rooms, each one full of unwanted or unused junk that nobody bothered to collect or move. But no book, as fate would unfortunately have it. Well, there were books, but not the one they wanted. No arcane symbols or demonic language to make it a clear give-away. Even when, true to her word, Susie came down with Boris to offer aid, it turned up nothing useful.

          “Holy moly, just how much stuff is down here?” Bendy asked, throwing an old, moldy book over his shoulder in the room he and Henry were searching. He then picked up something else, a plush toy made of dark cloth in the shape of one of the Butcher Gang. An older model from a failed product line, by the looks of things, “Huh, I’d wondered what they’d done with all these old toys. Couldn’t they have donated ‘em, or somethin’?”

          “Would’ve been better than shoving it all down here,” Henry agreed, furrowing his brow at what looked like a game board of some sort. Or . . . was it an ouija board? “I wonder how there’s even room anymore.”

          “Well, what we’re lookin’ for has gotta be at the top of the pile, so no need to go shovelin’ through all this junk,” Bendy said, hopping up onto a desk to peer above a large, rectangular object that was covered by a heavy tarp.

          “Uh, I’d be careful if I were you, Ben . . .” Henry warned, not liking the creak that accompanied the toon’s movements. Who knows how old some of this stuff was . . .

          “Hey! I think it’s here?” Bendy shouted, grinning. Using both hands to grip the edge of the tarp-covered object, the toon began to haul himself up to the top, disregarding the way the object ominously jostled.

          “Ben-!”

          Too late. The object began to tilt precariously to the left, and Henry lurched forward in an attempt to grab and bolster it. Bendy scrambled up and grabbed whatever it was that had caught his eye, but as Henry grabbed it to prevent it from falling, the abrupt halt caught Bendy off guard and the toon fell back with a cry. And landed right on Henry’s face.

           “Oof-!” was all Henry was able to get out as they both crashed back to the ground. Something else that was large and heavy fell on top of them as well, draping them in darkness as a loud clang echoed around the room, dust rising up in clouds.

          “Well, that coulda gone better . . .” Bendy commented softly, groaning.

          “You’re tellin’ me . . .” Henry said, sitting up and dislodging the demon off his chest. Something else rose with him too, something thick and smelling of mothballs, and Henry batted at it until it slipped off, freeing his head.

          Huh. The tarp. It must have fallen off with Bendy.

          Glancing around, Henry started for just an instant when he saw things moving in front of him and Bendy, only to realize what it was a moment later; a large, full-bodied mirror with their reflections sitting inside. It had gotten caught in the crook of some old painting pallets, propped on its side but no longer in danger of hitting the ground. The glass was dirty, and a crack ran through the top of it, its wooden frame full of chips and dents from old age and possible misuse. But the carved image of Bendy’s head crowning the top was still in remarkably good condition.

          “Huh . . . I remember this thing,” Henry commenting, standing up, “Joey used to have this in his office way back when.”

          He waited for Bendy’s comment, but when none came, Henry glanced down to find that the toon was still on the ground, nose deep in what he had grabbed; a book. A book with a heavy black cover and a bright red, decidedly demonic symbol on the front. The furrow between the toon’s brow was telling of how hard he was concentrating, his tongue out as he leafed through the pages. If not for the slight trickle of ink coming from his brow, Henry might just think he was working on another set of drawings.

          “Boss?” Henry asked, kneeling down to his level, “You alright?”

          “Mm,” The demon hummed, flipping to the next page.

          Henry cocked an eyebrow, glancing at the book before looking back to his friend, “Anything in particular you’re trying to do?”

          Bendy nodded, “Yeah, actually. Figure there’s gotta be an off switch in here somewhere. Ya know, wave ya fingers, say a few magic words, and boom, everythin’ back to normal.”

          He waggled his fingers for emphasis, but still didn’t take his eyes away from the book, flipping through it one-handed.

          Henry winced, “Yeah, um, not to doubt you’re reading comprehension skills, boss, but I really think we should leave that to Joey.”

          “Why, so he can mess up again?” for the first time, Bendy looked up, eyes narrowed and sharp, “This whole thing started cause he didn’t do it right the first time!”

          “I know,” Henry insisted, placing a placating hand on Bendy’s shoulder, “But he’s also the only one who does this stuff regularly. And he is pretty good at fixing his mistakes, if nothing else. I don’t think messing with this stuff on our own is a good idea.”

          Bendy looked down, frowning, “But what if we could fix it right now?”

          “But what if we just make it worse?” Henry countered pointedly, “Bendy, I get that this is bothering you, but we have to be careful with things like this. Just be patient, and-,”

          Bendy shot to his feet, “No!

          Henry’s mouth fell open, completely taken aback. Sure, Bendy could get upset and annoyed, that was a part of being alive. But snapping at people? That was different. That was worrying.

          Bendy was pacing now, back and forth, flicking through the pages again with moves Henry could only call frantic, “I ain’t lettin’ this happen again, Henry! To anybody! I don’t care if I gotta fix it by myself!”

          “Ben-” Henry started, inching closer.

          Bendy had stopped on a page, looking it over with hawkish intensity, “Bad enough it sets work back, but ain’t nobody should have to go through this stupid, hokey dream baloney!”

          “Bendy-!”

          “Ha, I think this is it! Let’s see, this-,”

          Henry didn’t hesitate. Jerking forward, he grabbed the book by the edges and yanked it out of Bendy’s grasp, slamming it closed.

          “Henry!” Bendy shouted. Without warning, the toon suddenly jumped and clambered up Henry’s side like a particularly irate squirrel, reaching for the book Henry held out of reach, “Give it back!”

          Henry braced on arm on Bendy’s chest, pushing the toon back while holding the back away from him, “No, Ben! We don’t know what this stuff does!”

          “I can fix it!”

          “We don’t know that for sure!”

          The demon managed to scramble up to his head now, and Henry had to keep a stern grip on the toon’s shirt to keep him from launching himself in the direction of the book, “Just give me a chance, okay! I’m yer boss, yer supposed to listen to me!”

          “Unless the boss is making a really stupid decision! Come on, just calm down, alright?”

          “I can’t just ‘calm down’!”

          “Bendy!”

          “I have to fix this!”

          “Bendy!

          “You don’t know what this spell does! I have to-!”

          Closing his eyes, Henry finally reach around and grabbed the toon by the scruff of his collar and bodily hoisted him off before planting him firmly on the ground and looking him in the eye, “Bendy, that’s enough!

          Bendy froze, eyes widening in shock, but at last he finally stilled. Henry hated raising his voice, truly, and he regretted it almost immediately. But now that things had clamed down, and with much softer tone of voice, Henry kneeled down with a hand on the other’s shoulder and said, “You’re right. I don’t know what this spell’s doing, to you or to Alice. But I can see it’s bad enough to make you not act like yourself. You know that messing with this is a bad idea, and we need to leave it to Joey. It’s out of our league. You know that.”

          Now the toon looked ashamed, “Y- . . . yeah. Yeah, I know. I’m just-,”

          Bendy ran a hand down his face, mouth and chin cradled in his palm as his other arm crossed over his chest like a barrier, “I’m just tired of people suffering because of it.”

          Henry’s eyes softened with sympathy, “And I get that. Everyone wants to see this wrapped up for good. Everyone. But we need to be careful, too.”

          Bendy nodded, not quite looking Henry in the eye, “Yeah . . .” a rueful chuckle escaped him, “I’m, uh . . . I’m sorry Henry. Flyin’ off the handle like that, some boss I am, huh?”

          Henry finally let his shoulders relax, seeing that whatever fit had taken over had passed, “It’s okay.”

          “No it ain’t,” Bendy replied somberly, “But thanks.”

          A dismal silence settled over them, and Henry, feeling his knee begin to ache, rolled over to sit next to the demon with a groan, stretching his leg out in front of him. Laying the book next to him but keeping a palm over it just so he didn’t lose it, Henry glanced at the demon and his forlorn posture before finally, tentatively saying, “Bendy? Do you . . . maybe want to talk about it?”

          “About what?” Bendy asked evasively, but with the way his shoulders tensed, Henry knew the demon was already well aware of what he was asking.

          “You know what. You haven’t spoken to anyone about that dream of yours, and its pretty obvious now that its still eating at you,” Henry said gently, hoping to coax something out of the demon.

          Silence is his only reply, and Henry’s shoulders sag, disappointed. He glanced down at the book he had, frowning at it and wondering just what sort of magic it held to cast something so perversely powerful over the studio.

          Then, “Do ya ever have a dream, Henry, where everythin’s just . . . wrong?”

          Henry straightened, now listening attentively, “Wrong? Wrong in what way?”

          “Like . . .” Bendy drew a shuddering breath, “Like the studio. But . . . its not the studio you know. Somethin’s different. Off.”

          Henry’s brow furrowed as he thought, tapping the index finger of his free hand against his knee, “Hm, maybe? I once dreamt I came to work, but everything was in technicolor and Joey was making everyone carry maracas.”

          That wrings a chuckle out of the demon, but he sobered up fast, face falling, “Yeah, if only every dream was like that . . .”

          Henry let a moment of silence pass before pressing, “What made this dream different?”

          Bendy shifted so he was sitting too, pulling his knees up to his chest with his arms around his legs, chin resting atop them. He’s silent for a few seconds, his eyes far away, before slowly, very slowly, he began to speak, “. . . the studio was a mess. And, not like ‘Wally-isn’t-doin’-his-job-again’ kinda mess. Like . . . like everything had been deserted. For years.”

          “Uh-huh.”

          “And there were posters. Old ones. Back when Alice first debuted,” Bendy continued, “And nobody was around except . . .”

          Henry waited patiently, not wanting to rush this. But concern began to needle into his heart when the toon’s shoulders began to shake.

          “Hey, Henry?”

          “Yeah?”

          “Have you ever had a dream where . . . where somebody close to ya died?”

          At that, the man’s eyes widened, before very quickly creasing with sympathy. Reaching out, he placed a hand on Bendy’s back, firm but reassuring, “I have.”

          Bendy pushed back into it, maybe subconsciously, maybe not, but needing that comfort all the same, “It’s awful, ain’t it?”

          “It is,” Henry paused, mulling his next words over carefully, “Do you . . . feel comfortable talking about who?”

          At that, Bendy pushed his face into his knees, like he didn’t want to look Henry in the eye. The man was sure the toon wasn’t ready to talk about that, and that was fine, Henry honestly knew enough to know why something like that would upset the other so much, when a soft, muffled whisper had him turning his head, “What was that, Ben?”

          Bendy’s shoulders bunched a little more, ink beginning to run down the sides of his head, “. . . everyone.”

          Henry’s eyes widened again, but the toon still wasn’t’ done, voice growing a little more hysterical, “A-and I think . . . I-I think i-it was my f-fault . . .”

          “What?” Henry asked, taken aback. Shifting closer, he leaned toward the toon, putting on the best reassuring tone he had, “Bendy, whatever happened, it was just a dream, okay? You didn’t do anything wrong.”

          “I-I know! I know . . . but, whatever was in that dream did do somethin’ . . . somethin’ bad,” Bendy glanced at the mirror, to his own reflection, before shuddering and looking away, “Real bad . . .”

          More silence, and Henry hated that he was at a loss for what to do. Bendy was rarely ever one to be flustered or haunted by anything, and even if he was, one good talk and he was right as rain the next day. Biting his lip, Henry patted his shoulder, “Whatever was in that dream, it’s still just that. A dream. Not real life. You’re fine and so’s everyone else.”

          “A dream ain’t got no business feelin’ as real as it did . . .”

          “That’s the magic part, probably,” Henry supplied, patting the book, “And it’s magic we’re gonna undo. Eventually.”

          “. . . I still get ‘em sometimes . . .”

          Henry froze, “What?”

          “I mean . . .” Bendy shrugged, “They aren’t . . . as bad. I don’t remember 'em like I do the first one, but . . . yeah . . . wakin’ up thinkin’ yer in danger ain’t a nice way to start a morinin’.”

          Henry frowned. This had really stuck with Bendy, this dream of his. He knew there was undoubtedly much more going on for the toon to feel this way, but pressing for details . . . it didn’t seem like it would help.

          Gently, he gave the other’s shoulder a squeeze, “Well, if you ever need to talk about that, you know I’m always open.”

          “Thanks, Henry. To be honest, I was hopin’ they’d be gone by now . . .”

          “Do you still get them?”

          “Not as much. But the fact that it’s still happenin’ . . . and now Alice is gettin’ ‘em, too,” Bendy said despondently, “Honestly, what was Joey hopin’ to accomplish with this schlock?”

          “Something none of us sane humans can fathom, I’m sure. But we’ll fix it,” Henry promised. It meant having to hover over Joey’s shoulder, but if that was what it took to get this sorted, then so be it, “I promise.”

          Bendy nodded, but his gaze was still middle distant, and his mood obviously still low. Henry thought to himself for a moment, before very lightly nudging the demon in the shoulder, coaxing, “Hey, after we give this to Joey, whaddya say we break out one of those sumi sticks you’re always hoarding?”

          Bendy gave a soft snort, “What, you sayin’ you’re gonna eat one?”

          “Hah, well, everyone always says I have an iron stomach,” Henry said, patting said stomach, “Remember how many cans of bacon soup I ate on our tenth anniversary?”

          Bendy shook his head in disgust, but a grin was beginning to peek through, “Uck, everyone does! What were ya thinkin’?”

          Henry shrugged, “Well, I mean, we still had a lot. Seemed like a waste . . .”

          “Seemed more like a good way to get food poisoning,” Bendy retorted, unfurling just a little more.

          “I survived.”

          “Barely!”

          “But I survived,” Henry reiterated, smiling openly now.

          Bendy returned it, ink sliding back into place, “Pft! If this is to prove you can eat one of my sumi sticks, you got another thing comin’, pal!”

          “I think you, Alice, and Boris would all have something to say about anyone taking those,” Henry said, and he knew he wasn’t wrong. Those three guarded those things like dragons guarded their hoards.

          “Darn right!”

          Henry chuckled softly, inwardly relieved that Bendy was coming out of his somber state. Henry had hoped to learn enough so as to help the toon, and hopefully alleviate some of his stress. And he thought he had, to some extent. At the very least, he’d gained a better understanding of why this was so important to the other.

          With a groan, Henry rose to his feet, book in hand and stretching his back out with a crack. Bendy hopped up as well, straightening out his clothes, when he stilled for a moment, “Hey . . . Henry?”

          “Yeah?”

          “Thanks . . . for talkin’. I mean, it’s so . . . stupid. All this over some dumb dream, and-,”

          “It’s not stupid,” Henry said, gently cutting him off, “It scared you, and you’re worried about others going through that. You have every reason to be upset about this. But-,” Henry placed a hand on the toon’s shoulder, a small, comforting smile on his face, “We’ll fix it. We always do . . . eventually.”

          Bendy returned it, earnest and open, “Yeah. We do, huh?”

          Henry nodded, then glanced at the book in his hand. The sharp symbol on the cover made him uneasy, but he swallowed it down to crack the binding open and begin flipping through the pages.

          “Uh, Henry, what- . . .?” Bendy started, flummoxed.

          “Relax. I’m not planning on trying anything. Just figured we could bookmark the page so Joey can get right to it,” Henry explained, squinting through his glasses as he tried to make out the tiny, squiggly writing.

          “Ah,” Bendy nodded, understanding.

          With a little help from Bendy, they located it quickly, and Henry began to search his pockets for something to use. Only to turn up lint. Great.

          “Hey, would this work?”

          Henry turned to see Bendy pick something out of one of the boxes shoved along the walls, holding it up for him to see. It looked like a ruler, almost, but made of a polished metal he couldn’t identify and with a slew of little notches on the side that may have been numbers at one point, but had long since faded out. But it would work for now.

          “I think so. Thanks boss.”

          Taking the offered object, Henry quickly secured it between the pages, fitting it snug right between the crease.

          CRACK!

          Henry started, only to jerk his hand up when pain flashed through the underside of his thumb. Hissing between his teeth, he waved his hand before looking around to see what had caused all the noise, only to find that one of the box towers that had been supported by the mirror had finally fallen and scattered its contents across the floor.

          “Henry? Henry, you okay?” Bendy asked, looking up at him with concern.

          “Y-yeah. Just startled me,” Henry said.

          “No, not that! Yer bleeding!”

          Henry glanced at the demon, then at his finger, assessing the damage. Ah. Bendy was right. It was just a small cut, probably from when he’d jerked it along the edge of the old metal ruler, but the blood running down his thumb gave it the illusion that it was worse than it was. Stung something fierce, though.

          “Its alright. Looks worse than it is,” Henry reassured the other.

          “Yeah, well, let’s get it bandaged, okay? Don’t need ya bleedin’ on the artwork,” Bendy said, making light of it even though there was still a small glimmer of concern in his eyes.

          “Right, righ- . . .” Henry trailed off as he glanced down at the book, making to close it when he saw, very clearly, that a single drop of scarlet blood had landed on the open page and seemingly sank into the paper, vanishing from sight, “Aaah-”

          The sinking feeling in his gut told him that that was not good.

Bendy had seen it too, and in the ensuing tense silence that followed, they both exchanged a wide-eyed glance.

          “What are the chances of that makin’ things better?” Bendy asked.

          Henry opened his mouth to respond, when the ground suddenly and violently shook beneath his feet, knocking him to the floor instead, “WHOA!”

          Boxes jostled and fell, paraphernalia clattering across the floor as the lights overhead flickered. The rocking only lasted for a few seconds before dying away, but it left them both winded and terribly confused.

          Before they could even get their bearings, the door suddenly flew open, and Susie Campbell was standing in the doorway, wide-eyed and with an equally bewildered Boris behind her, “What happened?!”

          “Is everythin’ okay?” Boris asked, ears down.

          Both Henry and Bendy exchanged utterly befuddled looks, shrugging helplessly.

          Overhead, shouts of dismay and surprise suddenly went off in chorus, and everyone’s eyes went to the ceiling.

          “Oh no, now what?” Bendy started, clambering to his feet and running for the door in haste.

          Boris followed him, and Susie was about to when she looked at Henry, “Don’t forget that book!”

          Henry nodded, grabbing it almost out of reflex as the woman made for the stairs. God, just what had this done?

          He made several steps forward, ready to leave himself, when he heard the sound of glass crack behind him. Startled, Henry spun around, only to find that the mirror, while still on its side, was sporting several more cracks than before, the pane spider-webbed with jagged lines. His reflection stared back at him, his confusion apparent in the reflected face. But nothing more.

          And he would have left it at that and turned away, too, if he hadn’t caught sight of what the reflection was holding; an axe.

          Right where the book should be.

          His heart gave a thud, and Henry looked down at his hand to see that the book was still very much there. Looking back up, he saw the reflection do the same, like a reflection normally would.

          What the hell . . .?

          But now that he’s looking closer, he began to notice other differences too. Like the state of the reflection’s clothing, more worn and ragged and dirty than his own, with ink drenching the legs near completely. The cuts along his arms, the bruising, what looked like a black eye on his face, the fact that the other wasn’t wearing any glasses at all . . .

          Henry’s eyes narrowed. The reflection did likewise.

          His shoulder’s tensed. So did the other’s.

          Henry took a step forward.

          The reflection took a step back.

          A chord of fear was strummed inside him, fear and alarm and confusion all in in one. Bewildered, he met the reflection’s eyes, and he thought he could see the same feelings in them as well, a perfect mirror image . . . if not for the fact that Henry feels like he’s no longer looking at just a reflection.

          “Henry!”

          Henry jumped nearly out of his skin, a startled gasp escaping him as he whirled around. But it’s just Bendy’s voice, calling from a distance, “Henry, ya didn’t fall down, did ya? Ya comin’ or what?”

          “Y- . . . yeah, I’m coming!” Henry shouted back, but he’s already looking back at the mirror even as he spoke.

          . . . it’s him. Just him, with the book, the glasses, and all. Like that was all that had ever been there.

          Shaking a little, Henry backed out of the room slowly, unnerved. His eyes linger on the mirror for just a moment more, before shaking his head and finally turning away, closing the door behind him, “I’m coming . . .”

          -

          Its just another flood upstairs. It’s a bad one, one that required the studio to close a little early until repairs can be made and the ink cleared away, but nobody’s hurt.

          Henry’s relieved that’s all it is, even though internally, he’s still a little freaked out.

          You’re just going soft in the head, old man, he tried to tell himself, too many ink fumes.

          In front of him, Susie let out a pleased little hum as she finished bandaging his finger, smiling, “There you go, good as new!”

          “Thanks, Susie,” Henry said sincerely.

          “Don’t mention it!” even as she spoke, her face grew a little more sober, and she glanced at where the toons are gathered as they discuss where they’re going to spend the night, “Did everything go alright in there?”

          “Better than it could have gone, I guess,” Henry shrugged, “Still, its eating at him. Honestly, the sooner Joey fixes this mess, the happier we’ll all be.”

          “Amen to that,” Susie said in agreement, nodding. They both glance at where Joey’s sitting, already perusing the book they recovered as promised. Henry only hoped he found the answer soon.

          Inwardly, he knew at some point he’d have to tell him about the blood that got on it. Just to be safe. But right now, Henry honestly just wants to put this day behind him.

          “Hey, uh, don’t suppose anybody knows anythin’ . . .” Several people, including Henry, look to where Wally is. The man is looking around the lot with a perplexed expression, scratching his chin while his keys jangle in his opposite hand, and Henry bit back a sigh as he waited for the inevitable ‘where-are-my-keys’ question.

          “. . . but has anybody seen Sammy?”

Chapter Text

         Just from walking into the office, Sammy already knew today was going to be one of Those Days. From the chill up his spine just from entering, the subdued drawling from the workers he passed, and the overall malaise atmosphere, he could just tell. Never mind that he was still fighting off the effects of last night’s little party, a recipe for an already ugly start to the morning. Ugh, why did this studio hate him so?

         Oh sure, he could just quit. Find a new mode of living and spare his sanity. But, well, he was getting older and the prospect of trying to reestablish himself now just sounded like more hassle than it was worth. At least that’s what he told himself.

          Pushing into his office and hanging up his coat, Sammy rubbed at his eyes in an effort to quell the drumming behind them as he plunked down into his seat. And froze at the feeling of something cold and wet seeping through the fabric of his pants.

          With a barely contained growl, Sammy stood up and pushed the chair back, only to find that his worst suspicions were confirmed; ink was all over it. And unfortunately for him, not just the ordinary black ink, but a bright, sunshine yellow variety he knew for a fact was only ever really used for the toons personal consumption. Judging from the empty ink bottles he now saw strewn across his desk and floor, a deeply foreboding feeling was starting to settle in his gut that his office, his personal office, had been used as a party room!

          A feeling which was not a moment later confirmed when he saw the haphazardly written note sitting over his music sheets, scrawled in a clearly tipsy but legible hand,

          Heya Sammy! Sorry about the mess, Alice just remembered those nice tunes ya got sittin’ in your office and we figured ‘hey, we’re celebratin’, he won’t mind any!’ Not a bad set ya got, but I’d recommend some more jazz. Also, Chantilly Lace? Who woulda thought our own Sammy would be worship-

          That word was heavily scratched out, for some reason.

          -listenin’ to that devil music?

          Anyway, we’ll clean this up first thing tomorrow, promise! Just don’t sit in the chair right now and try not to blow a gasket, and everythin’ll be just peachy!

          -Bendy

          Sammy scowled at the note hard, already feeling the pounding in his skull throb just a little harder as his anger and embarrassment mounted, before turning on his heel, note in hand, and storming back out into the studio.

          Most everyone parted like the red sea before him, knowing better than to get in an irate Sammy’s way. But there were those who didn’t have a self-preservation instinct. People like Wally Franks.

          “Heh-hey, wouldya look at that! Tryin’ out a new look, Lawrence?” the janitor called out with a laugh, mop in hand and his ever annoying, stupid smirk on his face, “I dunno that yellow’s really your color!”

          “I will end you, Franks,” Sammy snapped without breaking stride. He could vent his wrath on the man after he’d yelled at a certain toon. The janitor just laughed like he was wont too, wholly unconcerned with his threat. A mistake he would rue, on that Sammy vowed.

          He’d gone to Joey’s and Bendy’s respective offices so many times now in a fit of vengeful peak throughout the years he could walk the path blindfolded now, but when he threw the toon’s door open (Bendy hardly had that courtesy for him, so why should he?), it was only to find an empty room. Eyebrow twitching, Sammy gave the office a seething once over, having to fight the urge to throw as much ink as he could onto the place in retribution because even still, the irritating little devil was his boss, and he wasn’t so enraged that he couldn’t think clearly. Yet.

           “Sammy?”

          That was a familiar voice, and Sammy turned to find several equally familiar faces in Susie, Alice Angel, and Boris, all who were standing just behind him, a medley of perplexed and slightly amused expressions being shared across them. Sammy grit his teeth as he turned to hide the bright yellow stain on his clothes, but he already knew it was far too late and Susie would undoubtedly bring it up at a less than opportune time. With a purposefully deep breath to compose himself-although privately still a little annoyed because everything-Sammy looked them over and said, “Susie. You haven’t happened to have seen Bendy anywhere, have you?”

          Susie pressed her fingers to her lips, poorly hiding her smile, “Pft, um, he and Henry went to the basement. They’re . . . snrk . . . looking for something.”

          “Don’t laugh.”

          “Hhf-who said-,” Susie forcefully cleared her throat, “Who ever said I was laughing, Sammy?”

          He just gave her a long, pointed look, which only made it harder for the woman to keep her composure. Behind his sniggering coworker, Boris plaintively rubbed the back of his head, “Gee, we’re sorry, Sammy. We were gonna clean it up . . .”

          Beside him, Alice nodded slightly, arms folded around several music sheets, “We just got a little . . . distracted.”

          Now, Sammy was not the greatest at reading other people’s feelings or even really caring, but he’d been around Alice long enough to notice the decidedly soft, distracted tone of her voice. And the bags under her eyes. And the slouch in her normally upright posture. And . . . was that a bruise?!

          “What happened to you?” he asked, a tiny little needle of concern piercing through his irritation, peering at the mottled monochrome mark on the angel’s cheek.

          Alice brushed a self-conscious hand over her face, like she was trying to sort out a mess, “Oh, nothing really. Just a rough night.”

          Boris patted her shoulder consolingly, and Susie’s chuckling had stopped completely to send the angel a worried glance. Unusual. And a little disquieting.

          Alice noticed, waving a hand at him, “Its alright Sammy. Joey, Henry and Bendy are working on it. Mostly. In fact, we were going to go help them right now.”

          That got both his curiosity and his dread going, eyebrow rising, “Working on what, exactly?”

          At that, the three exchanged a glance, which was just all sorts of foreboding and positively reeked of ‘It’s-Joey’s-fault-but-we-can’t-tell-Sammy’.

          He pressed his finger to his temple, massaging the ache. Ugh, he guessed the blessed silence on occult garbage couldn’t last forever. Much as he wished it would, “It’s something Joey did, isn’t it?”

          Aaaand there’s the collective wince. Fantastic.

          “Well . . . he’s claiming innocence, but we’re in the process of making sure,” Susie eventually said, pressing the tips of her index fingers together and looking at him in a way that said she didn’t really want to go into much further detail than that. Honestly, when it comes to Joey’s nonsense, Sammy always found himself dead center on that teetering line of not wanting to know anything at all and also desperately needing every detail if only avoid any sort of fiasco that involved ink and his own person. 

          “. . . of course.”

          There’s a moment of awkward, stuffy silence where the three in front of him fidget, before Susie puts on another of her showman smiles and said with a clap of her hands, “Well, we must be going now, Sammy! Time waits for no man or woman, and we have lots of things to do today! Good luck finding a clean pair of pants!”

          That has him scowling even as she collects the two toons and trots away, leaving him standing alone in the hallway.

“Sorry about the mess Sammy!” Boris called out, “We’ll make it up to ya!”

. . . a minor consolation. Very minor. Great, not even an hour into his shift and Joey’s back into his usual idiotic antics, Bendy and Henry are both m.i.a, and he had an office to clean in order to get anything done!

          . . . and just where was he supposed to get a new pair of pants!?

          He’s about to head back to his office when he noticed the group ahead of him has stopped. Alice has one of her hands wrapped around Susie’s, and she’s whispering to the woman almost urgently. Susie listened, then smiled and nodded, saying something back that Sammy can’t hear.

          He raised a suspicious eyebrow when the angel trotted back over to him, a small, contrite smile on her face, “Hey, Sammy? Is it alright if I maybe help you clean up?”

          The other eyebrow joined its twin, “You want to help?”

          Alice nodded, running hand over the back of her neck, “I do. It’s our fault your room’s a mess and, well . . . I might have been the one to accidently remind Bendy about your music collection . . .”

          Sammy’s eyes narrowed, and Alice held up both her hands, “I know, I’m sorry! But I really will help you clean! Promise!”

          Sammy stared at her. Then, he nodded, “Fine.”

          -

A half hour later finds Sammy Lawrence in a marginally better mood, if only because he had help. Stuck cleaning up another’s mess would ordinarily be a colossal chore, especially when he could be getting some actual work done. But Alice was always good at not pushing Sammy’s buttons, and she helped efficiently, which was all he wanted.

          Still . . .

          “I should get a raise for putting up with this . . .” he muttered, dumping another empty ink bottle into his waste bin. Bendy should count his lucky stars that none of that ink had gotten on his sheets.

          “I know,” Alice said, placing another neatly made paper stack on the counter.

          Sammy glanced at her. Now, he’s not the best at reading atmosphere, but even he could see that Alice was in an unusually subdued mood, halo drooping low and shoulders bowed. She’d said ‘rough night’, but what exactly did that mean?

          Clearing his throat, he made a show of sorting his music sheets as he asked, “So, what exactly did happen last night? Did Bendy dare you to eat the ink pens, or something?”

          Alice huffed a laugh, “No, I wasn’t that jazzed. It’s a pretty big rule not to get too loose with it when Bendy’s around.”

          “Wisdom is rare in this studio,” Sammy commented with a derisive snort. Then, with a little more of a grimace, he put it to question, “And . . . what exactly, did Joey do this time?”

          There’s a sound like air being sucked through teeth, and Alice slid the folder she’d been holding on the counter away, “That’s . . . it’s not anything you have to worry about, Sammy.”

          “That’s exactly the time for anyone to be worrying.”

          Alice opened her mouth, then closed it again, seeming to realize the truth of that statement. Running a hand over her opposite one, she looked down, “It’s . . . we’re really hoping to sort this out today. And I promise its nothing dangerous, just . . . irritating.”

          Sammy quirked a disbelieving eyebrow, and Alice sighed. She looked to mull something over for a few moments in her head, before finally saying, “Sammy, do you . . . remember what happened a few weeks ago? With Bendy?”

          “That could mean a lot of things with our ‘head animator’, but if you’re talking about something speci-,” Sammy paused, hand stilling over his music. He turned around in full to face her, eyes wide now, “Wait, are you talking about the . . . dream thing?”

          Alice nodded dismally, and Sammy frowned hard, crossing his arms. Well . . . shit. Word of that incident had spread pretty quickly through the studio. Yeah, most of the details were pretty hush-hush, most everyone just made a joke about Bendy sleeping on the job for once, but . . .

          But he’d been there, right outside the door demanding to know where half their management staff had gone, when . . . when the screaming had started. Disconcerting failed to adequately describe it.

          Pinching the bridge of his nose, Sammy growled, “Great.”

          “Mm,” Alice hummed, slouching.

          Sammy’s hand fell away, and he was struck with the lightning realization as to why Alice was so withdrawn, “Did . . . did that happen to you?”

          Alice nodded softly, but didn’t elaborate or explain. Hell, Sammy was not about to ask her to.

          “Damn . . .” Sammy said. If it was anywhere near as bad as it sounded with Bendy then . . . just damn.

          A knock on his door made them both jump out of their skin, and Sammy snapped out, “What do you want?”

          There’s a slight sigh, and Norman Polk answered, “Mornin’ to you too, Sammy.”

          “Polk,” Sammy replied, rolling his chair around to examine the damaged and figuring out how best to tackle it, “Rare of you to leave the music department during work hours.”

          “Yeah, about that . . .” the other man said, and Sammy can imagine him scratching at his chin as he spoke, “Don’t suppose ya got those music sheets ready to go? The band’s gettin’ antsy.”

          Sammy sighed irritably, giving Alice a pointed look, “Sure, I got the rough drafts, but nothing final because a few select individuals I won’t name decided to use my office as a lounge last night!”

          Another sigh, “Well, maybe we could use those? We’re on a time limit here.”

          I know that! he almost snapped. Instead, he managed to ground out a more civil, “No.”

          Like hell was he letting the band perform an unfinished piece. They had trouble enough with the completed script! Outside, Norman was beginning to sound put out. Too bad, “Then will you at least be coming down at any time to supervise what we do got? Or are you really going to let Jared run loose with the piano again?”

          “Who?”

          “Jared Thom- . . . you know what, no. I’m not playing that game with you again,” Norman rapped his knuckles on the door one last time, even as Alice stifled a smile, “Just get on down soon, or else even you can’t complain about what’ll happen!”

          Sammy ground his teeth. He hated it when others pointed out reasonable things, because it made it harder to dismiss it with a churlish reply. Besides, if he wasn’t there, he knew the band would botch what he did have anyway, then he’d really be in a bad mood, “Fine. But if I hear one word of comment from any of you, there will be hell to pay.”

          He angrily thrust the chair back in place, deciding he neither had the tools nor the time to do it now. Quietly, Alice did likewise, saying, “I’ll go on ahead. Make sure everyone’s behaving themselves.”

          “Alright.”

          He watched as she made for the door, but called out right as she put her hand on the knob, “Alice!”

          She paused, looking back at him curiously, and Sammy fidgeted with his sleeves as he looked away, “You know everything’s fine. It was just a dream. You’re . . . fine”

          Well, that fell flat. Honestly, one would think old age was supposed to make you better at earnestness, but no cigar.

          But Alice was smiling all the same, her eyes glimmering with gratitude, “I know. Thanks Sammy.”

And off she went, dainty footsteps fading until they were gone. Sammy gave his paint covered chair one last rueful once over before opening his own door, and put on his best scowling face to dissuade anyone from talking to him. He’d have enough nonsense to deal with at the music department.

          He didn’t even make it to the end of the hall before the whole studio suddenly began to shake beneath his feet.

          Alarmed, Sammy braced a hand against the wall, swaying on his feet as everything rocked. In the distance, he thought he heard someone cry out, but it got drowned away when the lights above him abruptly burst.

          “SHIT!” He shouted, covering his head with an arm to protect himself from the sparks. Most scattered around him harmlessly, a few bouncing off his sleeve before dying away. This parade of sudden chaos unfortunately did not stop there, either, because all the sudden shifting caused the pipes above his head to groan.

          Oh n-!

          Sammy didn’t even get to finish his internal panic shouting, the pipes choosing exactly then to erupt with enough force to knock him off his feet. Slamming his mouth shut, Sammy floundered in the sudden river that had formed, and for a few rather panic-inducing moments, his feet couldn’t find the floor no matter which way he turned, like he’d slipped through the boards into an actual pool of blackness. But then, his heel brushed against solid ground, and he was bursting upright again, shaking his head and doing his level best to not get any of the stuff in his mouth as he gasped for air.

          Clambering back to his feet, a few thoughts were running through Sammy’s mind.

          One – what the hell just happened?

          Two – how the hell did this happen?

          And three – this was absolutely Joey’s fault in some way, and when Sammy found him, the man was going to sorely wish he didn’t have eardrums. Or nerve endings. Or just generally be alive.

          Sammy glanced at the utterly ruined state of his clothing, annoyed and mentally wondering whether or not he should bother attempting to save it. He’d lost so many pairs of shirts to this damn job, it’s a wonder how he didn’t spend all his paychecks on replacing them.

          “Joey Drew, you are a dead man,” he seethed.

          He began his trek to Joey’s office, already planning his tirade ahead of time, when Sammy found his steps slow and falter to a stop.

          The hall in front of him . . . looked different.

          And . . . where was everybody?

          Sammy looked back, then ahead, but the dingy darkness wasn’t playing tricks with his eyes. This . . . this hall was all torn up. It didn’t look like any hall he’d been in, because ink problems aside, the repair crew did a reasonable job keeping everything up to par. But now it . . . well, it looked bad. And now that he listened, he realized that it . . . was quiet. Too quiet. None of the usual cries of distress and shouts of anger and general discontent whenever the ink valves burst could be heard, like . . . everyone had . . . vanished.

          Okay, okay, slow down, Sammy thought to himself, fighting off the sudden feeling of unease, this is just more of Joey’s ridiculous devil magic. You just . . . have to find your way back to the music department.

          Wherever it was . . .

          Swallowing, a little nervous now, Sammy made to backtrack to his office, looking for anything familiar amongst the dark, inky halls. His feet sloshed through puddles of ink, which were high enough to render the galoshes he wore as a preemptive measure completely moot. So now his socks were disgustingly wet and uncomfortable too, squishing with every step. Joey better reimburse him for this.

          He soon found, however, that backtracking the way he had come . . . did not take him to where he had planned. In fact, the more he walked, the more unfamiliar things seemed to get, like he’d wandered into some bizarre building Joey had failed to let anyone know existed. Its . . . unsettling. To put it very mildly.

That’s when the sound of stomping feet very quickly grabbed his attention. He looked to the left so fast his neck cricked, just in time to see something move out of sight around the distant corner. Something dark and thin and fast. Sammy stopped completely, muscles seizing up out of reflex, mouth very suddenly growing dry.

          “H-hello?” his voice comes out in a rather pathetic pitch, and he forcefully cleared his throat. Odd situation or not, he was still the most feared man in all of Drew Studios! He had a reputation to uphold, and acting like a little kid in a haunted house would certainly ruin it. So, with more control and a punch more annoyance for good measure, Sammy tried again, “Who’s there? Show yourself!”

          . . . Nothing. Of course.

          A little annoyed for real this time, Sammy spared another glance at the door in front of him, wondering what to do.

          Nothing made sense! It was like everything he knew about his job had just been torn up from the roots and dumped onto it’s head! Like a bad imitation set piece or hokey stage play! Or a-!

         Or a . . .

         . . . dream?

        A dream. Was this . . . a dream?

        Sammy glanced down at his hand, curling and uncurling his fingers. They felt real. Pressing his fingers against the door felt real, too. Real wood. Cold wood. And the air was stagnant, and smelled of ink and moldy wood. Could a dream even do that?

        But . . . this wasn’t his studio. Everything was wrong, and everybody was gone, and that just wasn’t possible, unless . . . it wasn’t real.

        And wasn’t Joey messing around with freaky dream magic, anyway? That had to be it! What else could it be?

        Joey, you will pay dearly. He vowed internally, anger burning anew.

       Sammy glanced back down to where the figure had been. If this was a dream . . . and it had to be . . . what did he have to lose? What else could he do, just stand around here and hope for the best? No. If he was going to be stuck here, he was going to do something! Maybe he could still beat answers out of a dream apparition, who knows?

         So he went after it. The halls were still dark, still dirty and creepy and wrong, but Sammy kept his head high, refusing to be cowed. It was just a dream. You’re always fine in a dream, after all, even a scary one.

          Rounding the corner, Sammy saw that same figure vanish again, and he shouted, “Hey!”

          He did his best to keep up with whoever it was, spurred on by annoyance and a desire to get to the bottom of whatever was going on. But as he goes, though the ground gets drier, the unfamiliarity grows even worse. Posters he recognized that shouldn’t be up at all, pipes the number of which seemed to have multiplied drastically, the sheer mess . . . whatever dream this was sure went out of its way to make the whole studio change rather dramatically. It made him uneasy to think about why.

          And still, he saw nobody.

          Another turn of the corner, and he saw a door nearby slam shut before him, the person evidently having retreated inside. Huffing, both tired and annoyed and with a headache rivaling the one he got whenever Wally bothered him, Sammy stomped to the door and banged on it, loudly, “Hey! You better open up and tell me what’s going on right now! Joey, if this is you, I swear, when I get my hands on you-!”

         The door clicked, and gently swung open.

         Sammy’s mouth snapped closed, hand still up in the air and suddenly finding himself very unwilling to go inside. But the person he’d seen had gone there, and maybe even in a dream it would have some answers . . .

         Swallowing stiffly and telling himself he was being ridiculous, Sammy gently nudged it the rest of the way open and cautiously stepped inside. When he crossed the threshold, it’s into a small foyer-style room that is completely unfamiliar to him, with two plush couches, a wardrobe with its doors missing for some reason, and a record player spinning on the only table, playing a little melody that’s soft and static-filled, but familiar. A small lamp sat in the corner, affording the room just a little light to see by, and even though most of the room was still draped in shadow, the light was oddly inviting after wandering around in the dark. Sammy walked inside the dark room, the door swinging automatically shut behind him, and when he tried the light switch, he really shouldn’t have been surprised when nothing worked. Things don’t always go your way in a dream.

        The figure seemed to have vanished, though, leaving only an empty room. There was no one on the couches or by the table, no one seemingly hiding in the dark. Which is a little disconcerting, to say the least. But the fact that nobody was around was foreboding still. And he hated that he was the only one here. Even in a dream, shouldn’t he be able to find a familiar face?

       He peered into the wardrobe, noting the rather sparse collecting of clothes inside. More like rags than anything, and ink-stained ones at that. The couches were threadbare too, like they’d been sitting in the same place for ages without having been touched.

       The record skipped a little, and Sammy examined it a little closer, eyebrow going up when he couldn’t see any labels on it. Why was it so familiar?

       “Why . . .?”

       Sammy near flew into the air at the very nearby voice that had spoken completely out of nowhere, clutching at the table with both hands and biting at his lip to keep from screaming. He looked at the room again, peering into the shadows. He hadn’t seen anyone there, though, not-

       Something moved.

      Barely. A barely noticeable mass of darkness that blended into the shadows so neatly you could scarcely tell it apart. But with his senses now on very high alert, Sammy noticed. Just as it started talking again, a low, quiet, miserable drawl that strummed a very real chord of alarm, because somehow, whatever it was . . .

       . . . it sounded like him.

       “Why, My Lord . . .? I did everything you wanted, didn’t I?”

       “What the hell . . .?” Sammy muttered, sidling around the table and taking one cautionary step closer, trying to make out what the thing was. Was this a joke? He didn’t see how, or why, or who would do something like this. The last time he’d heard his own voice outside of himself was with a very unfortunate body swap experience, and last he checked, he still had all five fingers.

        He glanced at his hands, just to make sure.

        “What did I do wrong . . .?” it moaned again, despondent and sad, and let it be for the record, hearing your own voice from someone else, possible hallucination or not, is very disconcerting.

        “Who are you?” Sammy demanded, managing to keep his voice fairly even and controlled. When the thing didn’t reply, he spoke with a little more force, “Hey! I’m talking to you, so answer me, you-!”

         A single glowing yellow eye met his own, and Sammy’s voice died completely, and far too belatedly, he realized maybe he should have just left. But now the thing had noticed him, and something stirred inside its golden glow, something like recognition . . . quickly followed by sorrow and a deep, deep despair.

        “Why? Why does He show this to me now, when He’s made it so clear I failed?” the thing suddenly lurched to its feet, jerking forward far more quickly than was acceptable, the light from the lamp casting it in sharp relief.

         And what Sammy saw emerge made his heart pound.

         A mass of ink in the shape of a man, its arms and legs running into barely recognizable shapes, the only color or feature he can see clearly being the large, bright eye that glowed like a lantern. A form that stirred up all sorts of unpleasant memories, one that left him feeling cold all over even as sweat began to gather at the nape of his neck. In one of it’s hands, Sammy can just barely make out a piece of cardboard, a . . . mask?

        It lurched forward again, and Sammy sprang back in alarm, hip slamming into the table. The record skipped for a beat, then settled, and the audio quality improved just enough that Sammy can now make it out better than before. And what he heard was . . . was an old tune he’d worked on long ago. One of his favorites back then, one that still had a special place in his heart. He’d even managed to convince Joey to let him keep the name he’d come up with for it; ‘Sammy Jam’.

        It’s just a dream, Sammy kept trying to tell himself, inching back. But his thudding heart and sweating palms made it hard to listen to reason, especially with that thing just . . . watching him.

        The thing reached out, trembling, searching, wanting something that Sammy has not the slightest desire in finding out. And it still sounded like him. How did it sound like him?!

        “Is this a test? A-a punishment? Why has He sent you to me, to this forsaken sheep?”

        What the fu-?? “I-I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but you need to stay the hell away from me.”

        It doesn’t follow that instruction, and Sammy quickly puts the table and the record player between himself and this demented thing that keeps talking with his . . . his voice, “How can you not know? Our Lord, our Master, the one who’s taken these halls for His own? The Ink Demon himself!”

       The record skipped again, and Sammy stared, truly befuddled as well as unsettled. Not only did it sound like him, it apparently was a few cards short of a deck as well! If this was all just an unpleasant dream, he would really like to wake up now!

       “. . . what?

       But now it’s laughing. It starts soft at first, but it grew louder and louder with every second that passed. At least, Sammy think’s it’s laughing, but its much more hollow and high and strained than a real a laugh would ever be, and sounding instead very, very, very close to tears, “He was supposed to set us free . . . He was supposed to set me free . . .”

       Sammy began to inch back to the door, more than a little unnerved now-maybe, privately, even a little frightened-and wanting to be anywhere other than here. Though where too, he can’t even fathom, because its clear he’s nowhere he’s been before. Nowhere he’s supposed to be. He tried pinching himself, but no dice. He’s not waking up anytime soon, it looked like . . .

       The record was continuously skipping now, right over the same beat, again and again.

      “What more could I do? What more could He ask of me?!” The thing’s flailing around now, oily hands grasping at a black, tarry skull as it’s screaming continues to mount.

       Sammy’s back hit the door, and his hand scrambled for the knob, feeling like the room was growing darker and colder the longer he was there. He needed to get out-!

      “I sacrificed! I gave Him everything! Everything! Answer me, My Lord! What more do you want!?” it threw its arms into the air, pleading, desperate, and wholly unhinged, “Answer me, please!

       Sammy found the knob, its surface feeling slick as he turned it sharply and pulled the door open, flinging himself out into the open and breaking into a sprint.

       Only to slam face-first into something soft and cold and very, very wet.

       Staggering back, the first thing Sammy saw was an expanse of rising blackness that ran like water, ink splattering the ground in waves. Then his eyes travel up, up, to find a face leering down at him, a face that looks both familiar and utterly alien all in the same breath. A face that barely has room for the huge, pearlescent, malevolent smile that left him shocked and a little afraid, barely able to believe what he is seeing. Who he is seeing.

       “Ben-,”

       Sammy doesn’t even finish before a large hand suddenly grabbed him by the throat, cutting out his words and lifting him off the ground as if he were no more than an empty bag. His feet swing below him as they attempt to find purchase while his hands grasp at the cold fingers around his neck, choking, eyes blowing wide in panic. H-he couldn’t breathe! He couldn’t-!

       ‘Bendy’, if that was who this even was, turned suddenly, and pain hits him hard as he’s suddenly and forcefully slammed against the opposite wall, the malevolent hand keeping him pinned there. His vision is now full of stars, teetering on passing out, and he’s in more pain than he ever thought possible despite the cold, trickling ink he felt pooling over his shoulders, but Sammy can see that the thing holding him never loses its wicked smile. Sammy thinks it might be enjoying this.

        He’s aware of a distant wailing, or crying, or something that sounds like his own voice, but it can’t be, he can’t even breathe. Vainly, he tried to kick at the thing, beating a hand against the arm that held him, but the creature doesn’t even flinch, let alone release the terrible, crushing pressure it’s forcing on his throat. There’s a terrible, writhing knot that’s formed in his stomach, an amalgamation of anger, confusion, and terror that spurs his flailing fists, even though it does nothing to the entity holding him. With every second that ticked by, his body grew colder, weaker, harder to control, but his neck was scorching hot, like a ring of fire had been placed there and left to burn. It hurt . . .

       This is a dream . . . it shouldn’t hurt . . .

       Darkness is starting to swim in the corners of his vision, growing deeper with every passing moment, and with a sudden spike of raw terror, Sammy is suddenly acutely aware that he is dying. This thing is killing him, and he can barely even put up a fight anymore, try as he might.

          Please, please wake up! Somebody wake me up!

           Sammy tried to open his mouth, to speak, hell, maybe even plead, but nothing comes out. He can’t make a sound, let alone demand why this thing, why Bendy, is trying to kill him. It leaned closer anyway, it’s awful smile right in front of his face, and maybe while on the cusp of death he’s hallucinating, because he thought he could just barely make out a dark, evil whisper in his ear, “Sheep, sheep, sheep, it’s time for sleep . . .

          I’m supposed to already be asleep! This can’t be real! This can’t be happening!

          But his grasping fingers start to slip away, losing their grip, and he’s too weak to try again. Slowly, everything starts to grow far away. The pain, the fear, the screaming, everything . . .

          Plea se w ak e m e u p . . .

          Right before his sight failed him completely, something bright bloomed across his face, and he felt a splash of sudden warmth that might feel warmer if everything didn’t feel numb.

           And then the hand is gone and he’s hitting the ground beneath his feet, crumpling into a barely conscious ball. But once he does hit the floor and that first trickle of oxygen makes it to his lungs, Sammy coughed and sputtered and sucked in lungfuls of air. Feeling slowly returned, and the pain did too, everything hurting, his back, his chest, his neck, only barely aware of the roaring and hissing that grew more and more distant until he can’t hear it at all. A rational part of his mind informed him that he needed to run, to get away, but his limbs barely move to obey the sluggish command.

          A hand appeared in his shoulder then, rolling him onto his back, and he managed to pry his stinging eyes open long enough to see three blurry shapes above his head. They’re speaking, but it sounded muffled, muted, like he’s hearing it through water. One leaned down, close enough that he can just make out the face, a face that’s full of worry. A familiar face.

          Henry. Its Henry. Sammy laughed deliriously, and doesn’t think he’s ever felt more relieved in his life.

          It is just a dream then, right?

          He doesn’t feel more beyond that, though, for darkness took him mere moments after.

Chapter Text

          Hours.

          It had been hours, long enough for the sun to set and the moon to rise.

          And nobody could make heads or tails of where Sammy had gone.

          Even when, in desperation, several of them had gone back into the studio with the ink and all to search, it had turned up nothing.

          Just . . . poof. Like he’d gone up in smoke. He wasn’t in the studio, he wasn’t at home, he wasn’t at his favorite bar . . . he just wasn’t anywhere.

          And Susie was just about at her wits end.

          Well, she supposed that wasn’t fair . . . a lot of people were. Henry had looked like he had been going grayer with every hour, Bendy could not stop dripping, and poor Alice and Boris were beside themselves with worry. Not to mention the rest of her coworkers. Many had gone up in arms against Joey thinking he’d done something again, and while that may be at least partially true, the guilt on her manager’s face stopped her from joining in. Really, all she wanted to do was fix this problem now, and get Sammy home. Wherever he was . . .

          But that had been a while ago, and now she’s home with a tired Alice in tow. Indeed, most everyone was at home, away from the nonsense and exhausted after their fruitless search. She was exhausted too, but Susie felt that sleep was going to be elusive tonight.

          From one problem to the next . . . gosh, just what was going on?

          “Susie . . .?”

          The woman turned around to face Alice, who was hanging her coat up on the rack beside the door, “Yes, Alice?”

          The angel is downcast, and Susie felt her heart pang. The poor thing had already had one rough night, and now it seemed she’d have to go through another.

          “. . . you don’t think what Wally said is true, right?” Alice asked her, and Susie felt a tiny little splinter of ire rising. Oh, sometimes that janitor just didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.

          “Absolutely not!” Susie said with certainty, “Sammy wouldn’t just leave the job without saying anything to anyone! Besides, he might get a little annoyed from time to time, but he does like working with us! He’s been doing it for years, and that speaks louder than his rants do! And we should know! His rants are pre-tty loud.”

          Norman and several others had backed her on that, and she was absolutely positive she was correct. For all his blustering, she knew Sammy well enough to know he wouldn’t dream of leaving anymore, and while he would sooner chew his own tongue off than admit it, he liked his coworkers too. Toons, occult nonsense and all.

          “But . . . where is he, then?”

          Susie winced a little, pulling off her own coat to give her something to do, “. . . I don’t know, Alice. But we’ll find him.”

          She hoped she sounded convincing, for Alice’s sake. Poor angel didn’t need doubt on top of all these other troubles that had been plaguing them of late.

          Getting ready for bed was a mostly quite affair, a far cry from what it usually was whenever Alice needed to spend the night. Normally, they’d be talking, gossiping, telling each other jokes . . . but, well, conversation always falls a little flat when you’re worried about another person’s wellbeing.

          And worrying and worrying and worrying . . .

          Susie’s hand faltered as she brushed her hair out, feeling her eyes sting, and she furiously wiped at them with an irritated huff.

          Ugh, this would not do, not at all! If she worked herself into a fit, what would that do to Alice? She had to be strong right now, even if the anxiety churning in her gut made her mind race.

          Susie stepped out of her bathroom to look to the clock, finding the arms read after midnight. Well, it certainly was late, but . . . that hasn’t stopped her before when things were rough.

          Susie soon found herself in her kitchen, rummaging around in one of the cabinets close to the floor. Pushing aside a bag of oatmeal, the woman smiled and whispered victoriously as she pulled out what she was seeking; a single bottle of whiskey.

          Now, Susie is by no means a heavy drinker by any stretch of the imagination. But when times are desperate, she’s exhausted, and really just wants to dull her feelings down a bit, she found that a little alcohol went a long way.

          So, pulling out her favorite little shot glass, she poured a modest amount and sat herself down at the table to enjoy it, hoping it would, at the very least, take the edge off.

          “Susie?”

          Susie looked over the rim of her glass to the archway of her kitchen, where Alice was now standing dressed in pajamas she had loaned her for the night. The angel glanced at the chair opposite the woman with questioning eyes, and Susie smiled as she set her glass down, patting her other hand on the table invitingly, “Since when were you a stranger, Alice? Come on, sit down.”

          Alice smiled a little as she took a seat, but her fidgeting was an uncommon sight, “Oh, I’ve just . . . you’ve never drunken, that, before when I’d visit. I didn’t know if . . . you wanted to be alone for a bit.”

          Susie lightly twirled the glass in her hand, watching the fragmentary reflections of the alcohol within cast shadows along the wood, “True enough, I guess. But I think being alone right now wouldn’t be the best thing for either of us . . .”

          “Yeah . . .” Alice glanced around the kitchen before giving Susie a slight smile, asking off-handedly in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, “Don’t suppose you have any ink around here, do you? I could use a good yellow . . . or maybe a little blue . . .”

          Susie laughed slightly, though it came out soft and short, “Yeah, drank the last of it myself, Al. Sorry.”

          The angel laughed a little herself, a touch more openly than before, both knowing full well Susie didn’t have any ink here ever on account of what happened New Years of 1967. The bed frame had been unsalvageable. But it was a good memory still, “Of course! Silly me!”

          Susie herself took another small sip of her drink, the burn going down smooth. Idly, she began to turn conversation to lighter and more pleasant topics. Work mishaps, party blunders, singing songs together . . . anything that took both of their minds off of today. Alice happily indulged it, recounting the time when Bendy had once pranked the entire staff all throughout the days leading up to April Fools, while hinting at doing something BIG for Aprils Fools, and then deliberately not doing anything on Aprils Fools. He’d enjoyed the irony, and the eggshells everyone had walked on that entire day had been hilarious to the demon. Hilarious to her, too.

          “-everyone was so mad after that!” Alice said with a fond laugh, “Henry had to cool everybody down for days, it felt like, and Sammy-!”

          She stopped talking, the mood taking a very steep dive. Susie set her now empty glass down, face falling into a frown. There wasn’t a clock in here, but it must have been close to one now.

          But she still didn’t feel like sleeping.

          “He . . . is okay, right?” Alice finally asked, tracing her fingers along the wood grain of Susie’s table.

          “He has to be,” Susie said immediately, fighting down her own demons whispering doubts into her ears, “He’s Sammy. He’d fist-fight the Grim Reaper himself before he let him take him anywhere.”

          Alice smiled ruefully, “Yeah, probably.”

          Silence fell again, still heavy, still uncomfortable, and Susie thought of how best to move this conversation to better topics. Then, like gold, she struck it. A topic she’d been meaning to bring up for ages, but never got around to doing.

          “Sooo . . .” she started, tapping a finger against the glass in her hands, “Have you met Allison yet?”

          The angel’s face fell into a sharp frown, lips pursing into an almost pout as her hands tightened together on the table, a reaction that was . . . surprising . . . to say the very least.

          “I’ll . . . take that as a yes?”

          “I’ve . . . met. She’s in the recording booth a lot . . .” was Alice’s vague reply.

          Susie pursed her lips. Hm, it would seem this . . . wasn’t going to go the way she hoped it would. It wasn’t Allison’s fault, she was sure . . . the girl was very sweet, and had a talent for voice work and songs. Right now, she was where Susie herself at started, working with moving furniture and animals. But she had a feeling in her gut that one day the girl was going to rise up to the top. Just a feeling of course . . . but Susie had learned to trust her feelings in the past.

          One day . . . such a person might make a good replacement for an angel whose previous voice could no longer sing.

          It seemed Alice had caught on to that, too. And didn’t like it.

          “Alice . . .”

          “Stop, Susie, I know what you’re going to say. ‘I should talk to her, its good to get to know your coworkers, we’d be great friends’, I know,” there’s petulance in Alice’s posture as the angel crossed her arms, looking at some point to the left of her with narrowed eyes, “I just don’t want to.”

          “Well . . . why’s that? She hasn’t done anything to you, has she?” Susie asked, like she didn’t already know the source of the angel’s frustration.

          “No, but . . . listen, can we talk about something else? Like the time Wally got stuck in the ventilation shaft? Or when Joey broke all the windows with the new sound equipment?” Alice asked, tone practically pleading.

          Susie sighed. She’d only meant to bring it up to see if that ice had cracked yet, but . . . guess it was still several years too early for Alice.

          “Alright,” Susie agreed, placing a hand over the angel’s clasped ones, “We’ll talk about something else.”

          Alice’s shoulder sagged, and she looked very relieved as she softly replied, “Thank you. I . . . know I should talk to her. Just . . . not yet.”

          Susie nodded, “Fair enough. But let me just say one thing . . .”

          Alice looked at her, face pinching slightly with faint trepidation. But Susie only gave her a smile and a bright little wink, “I’ve still got at least another decade in me. But personally, I’m aiming for another three.~”

          Alice’s eyes widened a little. Then, slowly, she gave her own smile in return, face brightening with relief and gratitude, “I’m . . . glad to hear that, Susie. But just remember, I’ll hold you to that!”

          “Understood, ma’am. You know me, though, I hate going back on my word,” Susie replied, grinning.

          “Good. Then I won’t have to worry,” Alice’s words softened as she spoke, until anything she might have said after was swallowed by a heavy yawn. When it ended, she rubbed at her eyes, sniffing, “What time is it?”

          “Late, if I had to hazard a guess,” Susie said, glancing at the window she could see through the archway. It was still very dark outside, a small halo of light blooming over the slightly dusty window pane from the distant street lamp that lit the corner of her street, “Well past our bed time, I’m sure.”

          “Yeah, you’re right . . .” Alice smothered another yawn, “But I still don’t really feel like sleeping.”

          “Yeah . . .” Susie pondered over what they could do, tapping her fingers against the table, “I guess we could crack open a few books. Maybe see if the radio has any channels on.”

          “This late at night?” Alice asked incredulously.

          Susie shrugged, “We’ll never know unless we try.”

          With that, the two relocated to Susie’s living room. It was a quaint little place, with a singular floral couch her mother had gifted her, an arm-side desk with a radio on it, a lamp, and her only tv. Channels were all but dead this time of night, so she knew there’d be nothing for them there. She did have a few books squared away though, and her radio . . .

          Alice was already grabbing her favorites off the shelf, so Susie took it upon herself to fiddle with the radio. A fuzz of static burst through the speakers as she flicked it on, as if it was protesting having to wake up, a feeling Susie sympathized with. Fiddling with the antennae just to make sure they were in the right spot for a clearer frequency, Susie began to turn the dial, flipping through the different channels she had available. As expected, every one only blared back static to her.

          Susie jumped a little when Alice dropped a stack of books on the desk next to her, the heavy thud shaking the wood frame, “Careful, angel, I only have one of these.”

          Alice gave a nervous smile, “Sorry.”

          “You got your favorites?” Susie asked, but before Alice could answer, the woman leaned forward as the radio suddenly cleared up, the static blipping into something much more tuneful, though still colored by distortion, “Oh, I have something!”

          “You do, somehow,” Alice stared at the radio, surprised. Susie couldn’t blame her, she’s just as surprised as the toon is.

          Susie went back to adjusting the antennae, trying to get a clearer reception to clean out the gritty electric snapping covering the music, when . . . she paused. And listened.

          “Hey, Alice,” Susie started, glancing at the angel, “Does this . . . sound familiar?”

          The angel knocked her heads to the side, brow pinching in confusion, but she leaned in closer to better hear the music. And when she did, her eyes widened, “Hey, this sounds like-!”

          Bzt-!

          Both jumped and turned their heads to the tv, to find that, somehow . . . it had turned on. The screen was nothing but static, grey and black and white fritzing together in a jumble of chaos. Beside them, the audio from the radio crackled and snapped, the tune flipping between several different, distorted melodies, every one as familiar as the last.

          You don’t forget music from your very own studio, after all. But Susie knew for a fact that no stations played their music, let alone so late at night. So what was happening?

          As her discomfort and unease mounted, her hand traveling to clutch at Alice’s own, she genuinely wondered if she even wanted to know. But after everything going on with the studio, her nerves were shot and rattled.

          “S-Susie . . . ?” Alice started, clearly frightened as she leaned closer to the woman, all but pressing into her side, “What’s happening?”

          “Um . . .” the woman swallowed nervously, “Something probably not natural.”

          “W-well, how do we fix it?” Alice asked, shaking. Her hands had wrapped around Susie’s, squeezing so tight it actually hurt.

          It was then Susie remembered what Alice had gone through the night before, and how very disturbing this must be for her right now. And, supernatural or not, that realization rallied Susie to action. Taking a breath to steady her nerves, the woman reached over with a quick hand and tried to flick the radio off, only to find it didn’t seem to care if its power was cut, because it kept playing anyway. Huffing shakily, one part irritated, another unsettled, Susie hurried over to the outlets and pulled out every cord she could find. 

          Same thing . . .

          “Okay, do you have any sage or rosemary on you?” Susie asked.

          Alice gave her a look, and Susie inclined her head apologetically in the angel’s direction, “Right, sorry. Demonic ink. Uhm, hm . . .”

          All at once, the tv and radio and lights suddenly turned off, making both girls jump as the room was abruptly plunged into darkness. They stayed perfectly still, instincts urging quiet, because anything more would invite disaster. But nothing jumped out from the dark, and no unnatural noises hissed from within the shadows. Just an eerie stillness after a rather disturbing storm.

          “Is . . . is it over?” Alice asked slowly, not having relinquished her hold of Susie’s hand.

          “I . . . think so,” Susie exhaled, reaching around blindly until her hand brushed against the pole of her lamp. She breathed a sigh of relief as the light flicked on without complaint, shedding the room in a warm glow. Alice relaxed too when the light returned, though Susie can see the angel’s ink trembling uncertainly.

          In an attempt to lighten the mood, Susie said, “Well, that wasn’t how I expected that to go! But I guess the radio’s out of the question.”

          “But . . . why’d it do that?” Alice asked, looking worried, fretful, “You don’t think . . . whatever’s happening at the studio followed us home . . . do you?”

          “Well . . . I don’t know,” Susie pinched herself hard, flinching a little, but taking solace in it too, “But I don’t think either of us are asleep, either! So, this can’t be too bad! Maybe just something like bad feedback.”

          An idea struck Susie then, and she snapped her fingers, “Or, maybe Joey’s doing something with his book to fix his mistake!”

          That seemed reasonable.

          Alice must have agreed, for she slowly began to relax, “Y- . . . yeah. Probably.”

          The angel sniffed a little, “I wish he’d be a little more considerate . . .”

          Susie huffed a laugh, “Since when has he ever been?”

          Alice nodded in reply, acquiescing that point to Susie. The woman glanced around at her living room. Everything seemed to be in order . . . and both her temporarily possessed electrical appliances were off, so a plus there.

          Then her phone started ringing.

          Both jumped for the third time that night, Alice going as far as to wrap her arms around Susie’s middle in a vice squeeze, making the woman grunt. She didn’t push her away, though, just patted a hand against her back soothingly as the ringing went on.

          Both of them waited on pins-and-needles until it at last stopped, silence once again dominating the small house. But the silence was a little comforting now, and both sagged against each other in relief.

          Until the ringing started again, piercing like a siren’s wail in a desolate city street.

          “Why’s it ringing?” Alice whispered through her teeth.

          “W-well, maybe Joey’s calling us about the book? Or maybe Henry?” Susie supplied, honestly at a loss. This was really not how she’d been wanting her night to go.

          “But why now?

          “Maybe I should answer it.”

          Alice’s jaw dropped, looking (and not for the first time) at Susie like she was crazy, “Really, Susie? You want to answer the phone after what just happened?!”

          “Well, its not stopping! I might as well!” Susie defended, beginning to make her way to the angry appliance.

          Alice reluctantly followed her, arms still wound tight around the other woman as they both approached. Susie could hear her companion audibly swallow as Susie lifted the phone from its cradle, tentatively putting it to her ear, “H-hello?”

          At first, the only thing she heard was static, an incomplete connection or a frayed wire that made talking impossible. But then, through the messy jumble of crackling nonsense in her ear, she just made out the sound of someone grunting and mumbling, sounding frustrated and . . . scared?

          “Hello? Who is this?” she tried again, a little louder and more forcefully. If this was just a prank call, she swore to God, she’d find whoever was responsible and keelhaul them.

          There’s a minute of silence, and suddenly the sound of someone frantically scrambling with the phone on the other end assaulted her ears. She winced, about to pull away . . . when the voice that broke through the static made her stop dead.

          “Susie?! Susie, is that you?!”

          The voice is distorted behind a wall of static garbage, half of the words nearly lost in the white noise bridging the two of them. But she knew that voice. It was impossible for her not to.

          “Sammy?! Oh my god, Sammy?!

          Alice’s grip on her waist tightened tenfold, leaning in, and Susie thought her heart might explode from the sheer relief she felt. Sammy was on the other end! He was alright, and she really could have cried over it, if crying didn’t mean Sammy’s endless teasing in the future.

          On the other end of the line, a sound reached her ears, a cross between a gasp and a . . . a sob?

          Out of nowhere, Sammy began rambling, and it felt like he wasn’t talking to her at all, “I-is this . . . is this even happening? H-how am I talking to you? This-this just another fucking trick, isn’t it, i-it has to be, it has to be-!

          That’s when she heard a crack, but it wasn’t the static of the telephone messing with the call’s clarity. It was a voice crack. It was . . . Sammy.

          He was still going on, but she barely understood him, and she noticed then that whatever was happening, whatever was going on, the man was more than just frazzled. He sounded . . . scared. No, beyond even that. He was terrified.

          Sammy could work himself into a fit over a lot of things, but terror was not one of them, not like this. Which just meant that something was wrong. Terribly, horribly wrong.

          “Sammy? Sammy, its okay! J-just tell me where you are, okay, and I’ll come get you, I-I’ll get you!” Susie said, all but shouting into the receiver, hoping it would get across to the panicking man on the other side.

          And . . . it seemed liked it worked. The frantic babbling from before halted, replaced by hard, heavy breathing. It still settled wrong on her shoulders, unnerving and worrying all at the same time. But right as she was about to ask him if he was alright . . . there was a chuckle.

          Its not a happy one.

          “Y-you can’t. You can’t just come get me, I’m-,”

          “What are you talking about? Sammy, just, calm down, okay. I need you to tell me where to go,” Susie said, putting on her best comforting voice, a voice that always managed to calm their music director down even in his worst of moods.

          “No, you don’t understand, Susie! I’m not- . . . I-it’s like, I’m in the studio, but it’s not our studio!”

          Susie’s brow furrowed, “What? Sammy, what are you-?”

          “You have to get Joey to fix this! It’s not a dream, Susie, whatever this is, it’s not a dream!

          “Sammy-?”

          Just then, another sound breached through the call, one that is neither static nor Sammy. Its something else. Something that growled and shrieked, a cry that sent a mortal shiver down her spine.

          “Oh shit-!

          There’s the sound of the phone thudding harshly against wood, Sammy’s voice abruptly disappearing. Alarmed, Susie shouted, “Sammy? Sammy?!

          Another scuffle, a heavy splash, thudding, a second terrible shriek . . . and Susie jumped at the sound of something hard slamming into the other phone, a mad crackle of static and sound as the other end of the line was suddenly and brutally cut out.

          Beep. Beep. Beep.

          Susie’s hand is on her mouth, clasped so tight she could feel her fingernails leaving marks. Beside her, Alice was shivering, staring up at her with wide eyes, “S-Susie . . . what happened?”

          She didn’t know. She didn’t understand any of what Sammy was trying to tell her. But one thing she knew for certain; whatever had happened, he desperately needed help.

          So, slamming her fingers into the dial pad, she began to furiously wind in a number.

          She needed to call Joey.

          She needed to call everyone.

Chapter Text

         Consciousness returned slowly, so blurry and inconsistent that for several moments Sammy didn’t even register he had been unconscious. Just waking up from a simple slumber, to begin another day in the place many affectionately dubbed Hell’s Studio.

          It’s not until the bone-deep pain in his back and neck hit him that memory surfaced; of warped corridors, black ink, and a twisted, stained smile as a terrible pressure squeezed the life from his very lungs.

          As if in response to that phantom vice, Sammy gasped, only to cough as the pain in his throat ignited tenfold, lungs heaving as if the very act of breathing was an Olympic trail.

          He subconsciously rolled onto his side, arms curling around his stomach as he fought to control his breaths and keep from vomiting. God, his neck hurt, feeling bruised and swollen, and his back was no better off, like a herd of horses and trampled over him in his sleep . . .

          His eyes felt like they were glued shut with wax, hard to open, and his mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton. It was not a pleasant sensation. And all the while, his mind was racing, trying to set apart reality and dreams, what had really happened and what was too impossible to be real. The problem was, he was having a very hard time figuring out which was which.

          Suddenly, there was a pressure on his shoulder, heavy but warm, and a voice in his ear, calming and real and a fixture Sammy could focus on, “Hey, easy, its okay now. You’re okay. Just take some deep breaths.”

          That voice . . .

          “Henry-?” Sammy started, only to cough hoarsely into his hand. God, he sounded like shit. What had happened?

          There was a pause, almost like an uncertain one, before the hand on his shoulder gave him a slight pat, “Yeah, well . . . guess that’s not completely wrong . . .”

          The fuck did that mean?

          Shaking his head to banish the blurriness that had settled over his mind, Sammy brought a hand up and furiously rubbed at his eyes, forcing them open to finally get his bearings on where he was.

          Everything was fuzzy at first, but as everything came back into focus, it was to find he was not in any room he was familiar with. It looked like an office space, usually for one of those pompous execs that thought they ran the studio, but it looked . . . old. Not used in a long time at the very least, that was for sure. Also dark. Were the lights even on?

          Any attention he might have spared for it was tossed out the window when something moved next to him, a shadow leaning back out of view. Maybe it’s the vestiges of his dreams making him jumpy, but his eyes snapped to it with a lot more alarm than he would normally deign to give something.

          But then he saw who it was, and he relaxed, sinking into the hard, lumpy thing he’s laying on as relief swept through him. And beside him, Henry leaned back into the chair he’s sitting in, the wood creaking with age as the animator gave him a strangely awkward smile, “Hey. Glad to see you’re awake.”

          Sammy didn’t respond immediately, still coming to grips with relief. Thank god . . . if Henry was here, then that meant everything really had been just a dream. A . . . fairly terrible, awful dream. But it was over, he was awake, and he can put this nonsense behind him. Right after he got done with Joey . . . Wally was going to have a field day with that mess. He shifted a little where he lay, cringing a little at the feel of the aches over his body. Sure felt like it hadn’t just been a dream . . .

          Placing his right hand over his eyes, he finally asked, voice rough with an odd mix of sleep and pain, “So, what happened, exactly?”

          Now, normally Henry was very quick with explanations. Came with the territory of keeping everybody under control. But now, Henry was strangely silent, shifting in his seat for long enough that Sammy finally dropped his hand, knocking a confused glance the man’s way, “Henry?”

          Through the dim shadows of the dark room, Sammy can see the gleam of the other’s eyes as he finally looked his way, fingers tapping almost nervously against his knee before finally saying, “What do you remember?”

          Well, that’s a question, all right. But, deciding to indulge Henry for a bit, Sammy’s gaze travelled back to the ceiling, thinking back, “I . . . remember the pipes bursting again. Bit before that, the whole studio shook. I’m guessing Joey had something to do with that?”

          There was a sharp inhale, like Henry was suddenly in pain, and Sammy looked back at him, a little alarmed. There’s a grimace on the animator’s face, drawn with . . . aggravation? Frustration?

          No way, this was Henry. Sure, he got annoyed from time to time, but-

         “I’m guessing he did, yeah,” Henry said, cutting Sammy from his thoughts. His tone is . . . much more curt than Sammy had ever heard it before. Irritated, even, grinding the words out through gritted teeth. Like he was . . . angry.

          . . . holy shit, what had Joey done to make Henry mad?

         “What the fuck did he do?” Sammy said, a little concerned now, moving to sit up despite his muscles protests, “If you’re angry, it’s gotta be bad.”

          He went to lift his left hand up, to grip the wall as support . . . only to feel something cold and unbending tighten against wrist when he raised no higher than three inches from the cot he was on. Puzzled, Sammy looked down, only to have his confusion deepen when he saw the silver gleam of a chain around his wrist, tied tightly to the bed frame beneath him. There was even a fucking padlock on it, “What the fu- . . . why is this here?!”

          Henry grimaced, looking apologetic, “Sorry. Tom’s caveat to keeping you here. I tried to talk him out of it, but . . .”

          Sammy turned to stare at him, for once genuinely not knowing who that was, “What? Who the hell is Tom?”

          “Its . . .” Henry sighed suddenly, tilting his head down to rub at his eyes. And for a second, leaning into a brighter patch of light that illuminated him . . . revealing a patchwork of cuts and bruises along his arms and hands and a deep, dark bruise around his eye, like he’d been in some kind of nasty brawl. It’s immediately concerning.

          “And what the hell happened to you?” Sammy asked, feeling more and more confused by the second. What the fuck had happened while he’d been asleep? “Henry, what is going on?”

          “. . . A lot. And I think . . . I think everything just got a lot more complicated than it was before,” the other man finally said, voice soft and touched with worry.

          “Uh, alright?” Sammy said, not sure what to make of that. He fiddled with the chain on his wrist, trying to pry the bulky thing off, but even his slim fingers wouldn’t fit between the links, “Hey, mind takin’ this stupid thing off? I need to have a few words with Joey. And this Tom.”

          “I . . .” before Henry could finish, however, the door to the office they were in suddenly swung open, and two figures walked inside. Two figures who were both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

          “I think we’re in the clear here, for now. None of the-,” the one who was speaking looked like a young, dark-haired woman at first glance . . . but look any harder, you’d see some big differences. Like how her proportions were just a little . . . off from a normal person’s, or how her eyes shone a bright shade of gold, or how on her head a pair of small, cracked horns sprouted. The figure she cut was so familiar, Sammy almost said ‘Alice’ . . . but at the same, she was so far removed from the toon he knew it was uncanny. Unsettling, even. And when she saw him, up and about, she stopped walking completely, her had twitching to her side where . . . was that sword?!

          “He’s awake,” she said, glancing at Henry before shifting back to Sammy with cat-like intensity, the supernatural yellow of her eyes lending credence to that image.

          Behind her, the other figure stepped forward, a much more recognizable figure at first glance. He looked like Boris! But . . . there were differences here too. Like how one of his arms was made of metal, and how the toon’s face was knitted into a deep, distrustful glare, a look that was so unnatural on the kindly Boris’ face it threw Sammy for a genuine loop. Seeing the director look his way, the toon did another not-Boris thing . . . he growled. And began to threateningly smack the axe he was carrying into his open palm.

          The weird not-Alice looked at the toon, frowning, “Tom, please. He can’t do anything to us.”

          Still staring, Sammy pointed at the pair, yelling, “Who the hell are you?”

          Immediately, the woman shushed him, glancing at the door before she looked back at him, “Don’t. Yell. We’re safe enough here, but who knows how long that’ll last.”

          “W-what? Henry, what the hell is going on? Who are these people?! I swear, if this is Joey’s fault, I’ll-!” a hand suddenly clamped tight over his mouth, and that alone was enough to startle him into silence, because who was brave enough to do that to him.

           Then, Henry spoke, very low and very seriously, “You have to be quieter, Sammy. You’ll get us killed if you’re too loud.”

          Sammy’s eyes widened as Henry pulled his hand away, staring. If literally anyone else had tried to say some crap like that to him, he’d dismiss them out of principle. But this was Henry. And Henry was the absolute last sort to make jokes like that.

          “What?” Sammy started, too befuddled to even be annoyed.

          “It’s dangerous here. And you never know what might be listening,” Not-Alice ‘explained’.

          He stared at her, “. . . what?”

          Henry stepped in then, looking weary, “Sammy, you said you remembered the pipes bursting. What about after that?”

          After that?

          Sammy thought, fighting down the shiver that came with the memories. But no, they weren’t memories, they were just dreams. Just dreams.

          “Um . . .” he started, wincing at the way his neck pinged in pain, “I remember, walking through the studio. ‘Cept everything was a mess, like Wally and the rest skipped out on their jobs for a few weeks. Then . . .”

          He suddenly sighed, feeling annoyed for a reason he couldn’t actually comprehend, “Look, that part was just a dream, Henry, and a pretty stupid one at that. Could you just tell me what’s going on?”

          The other man stared at him, lips pursed, thoughtful.


          Then, “. . . you were attacked.”

          Sammy started a little. How did Henry know that . . .?

          The animator was continuing on, ignoring Sammy’s wide-eyed stare, “By a monster, right? A monster that looked like Bendy. After running into someone that had your voice.”

          “H-how . . . is this a joke? This a joke, isn’t it. Did Franks set you up to this?” Sammy demanded, feeling his ire rising. He had thought Henry was above this sort of juvenile idiocy, yet here he was, stringing him along like Sammy was just some gullible sap.

          Must have talked in my sleep . . . he thought, annoyed with himself for it.

          “I . . . really wish that was the case,” Henry replied, looking at his feet, “But it’s not.”

          He said it with such sincerity. Like he wasn’t lying. Except, he was lying, right? W-what else could he be doing? Because, there was no way what he had dreamed had been real!

          “Henry . . . if this were literally anyone else, I’d hit you,” Sammy finally said, “And you’re very lucky you’re not. So can you please just drop the act.”

          “He’s not acting, Sammy,” Not-Alice said, taking a step forward, “He’s telling the truth. And you’re very lucky he insisted on helping you, otherwise you’d be dead right now.”

          “Okay, who are you?!” he snapped, fed up with this nonsense and also not approving of these two weirdos that had seemingly come from nowhere just to mess with him further, “Did someone hire you to do this, or did Joey mess with natural order of things again?!”

          Not-Alice shared a glance with her glaring toon companion before turning back to him, looking almost wondering, “You . . . really don’t know who we are, do you?”

          He looked at her, confused beyond measure and a little irritated to boot, but managing to keep his voice to an annoyed hiss, “Wha-no! Of course I don’t know you! I mean, you look like Alice and Boris, but you’re clearly not!”

          “Hm, well that’s a first,” Not-Alice hummed, crossing her arms, “You sound like Sammy, but you’re clearly not like the one we know.”

          Okay, what?

          “The hell does that mean?” he demanded, “Last I checked, I was the only Sammy in this damn studio!”

          “In your studio.”

          Sammy looked again at Henry, brow furrowing at the man’s quiet, barely comprehensible mumble. The other man rubbed his palms together, not quite meeting Sammy’s gaze, “Sammy, this might sound like a weird question, but tell me . . . what’s your studio like?”

          Sammy’s eyebrow rose up at that, perplexed, “Okay, that is a weird question. You work at the studio, you should know.”

          “Ah,” Henry mumbled, a very strange look crossing his haggard face, a look like regret, sadness, and anger all in the same breath, “And . . . how long have I worked there?”

          And the other eyebrow was up now too, “What? Did you hit your head or something? Or, I don’t know, inhale one of Joey’s bad incense sticks?”

          “Just answer. Please.”

          Sammy stared at him for second, spared a quick glance to the other two occupants who were standing beside them, then looked back. An uncomfortable knot was forming in his stomach again, not for the first time wishing all of them would just drop whatever prank they were pulling. But . . . at the same time, Henry looked very serious, more so than Sammy had ever seen him. For an act . . . he was doing a hell of a job . . . doubly impressive for a man who normally couldn’t act to save his life.

          “. . . a little over thirty years. Before I showed up,” Sammy finally replied, doing his best to swing his legs over the side of the cot despite the stupid chain around his wrist. Why was it there?

          Henry nodded slowly, very slowly, his eyes misting over, and Sammy got the feeling that the other man was looking at something far, far away, “I see. Is it still busy? Still . . . producing?”

          “Yes? As much as it can despite all the idiots running around, at least,” Sammy said, searching the other man’s face for any sign of treachery, any clue to give away the joke for what it was.

          But Henry’s face only grew more somber, more sad . . . like every word Sammy spoke was driving a nail into his heart for a reason he couldn’t fathom. Beside him, Not-Alice shifted, her own face pinching with something like melancholy as she watched, and her canine friend, while still looking unfriendly, spared the woman a concerned glance.

          Then, Henry asked, “Is everyone ali- . . . alright?”

          Sammy didn’t know how much longer he could indulge in this, but the way Henry asked that question . . . it made a sudden shiver go up his spine, and he didn’t quite know why.

          “Last time I was awake, they were. You’d know better than me, at this point,” Sammy frowned, a flicker of irritation rising, “Although, Joey sure won’t be by the time I get my hands on him.”

          A sudden scoff distracted him, and Sammy looked at Henry in nothing short of shock when he realized it had come from him. Unbothered by his look, Henry carried on, face significantly darker than it had been a moment before, grumbling, “Of course it’s Joey . . .”

          Still stunned, Sammy finally managed to speak, “Henry, what did he do this time? And could you please drop the doom-and-gloom act?”

“It’s not an act, Sammy!” the snappish reply completely threw Sammy, who stared at Henry with wide eyes. The man seemed to realize his own aggravation mere seconds afterwards, for he suddenly sighed, tension leaving his body as he ran a hand over his bruised face, “Sammy, I . . . I don’t know how this happened, or even really what’s going on, so I can’t give you an explanation that would help, but I . . . I don’t think this is the studio you think it is. Just like . . .”

          Henry finally looked at him, lips turned into a small, sad frown, “Just like I don’t believe I’m the Henry you think I am.”

          Sammy blinked. Stared. A sort of nervous silence fell over the three in front of him, like they were waiting to see how he reacted, even as Sammy’s mind ran confused circles around Henry’s words.

          Then, it struck him like lightning.

          Pressing his fingers to his temples, Sammy leaned forward and mumbled, “Oh my god . . .”

          Henry’s frown deepened, reaching out a hand as if to comfort him, “Sammy, I know this is probably a lot to take in, but-”

          “I’m still asleep, aren’t I?”

          “W-wha-?”

          “Ugh, damn it, I thought it was over!” Sammy carried on, angry and more than a little upset. But still dreaming was the only conclusion here, wasn’t it, because why else are there two strange ‘toons’ who looked like they’d just gotten off the set of some adventure film here while Henry sat next to him trying to convince him that all of this was somehow real? Not to mention all of them being wildly out-of-character?

          He continued on like that, grousing under his breath and internally debating if it was too late to quit his job, when a shadow suddenly fell across him. He looked up, a little startled to find the Not-Alice standing in front of him, her lips pursed as she stared him down, eyes narrowed in contemplation.

          Then, completely unprompted, she reached out and pinched his cheek. Hard.

          “Ow, OW, what the hell, lady-?!” he shouted, leaning away from her and just barely managing to stop shy of smacking her hand off.

          She let go, frowning, “That hurt, didn’t it?”

          Sammy glared at her, rubbing his check, “Of course that did!”

          “Dreams don’t hurt like that, do they,” Not-Alice said, and her words are so simple, so state-of-fact . . . but Sammy felt his heart thud just little harder than normal.

          Not-Alice continued, wrapping a hand around her elbow as she spoke, “I’ve had dreams, too, sometimes. And, sometimes they’re scary ones. But even when I’m in danger in those dreams, as soon as I wake up, its over. I’ve never been injured in one.”

          Her yellow eyes, piercing yet somehow strangely soft as well, lingered at Sammy’s neck, “And . . . I’ve definitely never almost died in one, either.”

          Sammy’s hand subconsciously rose to his throat, wincing a little at the tender pain the touch brought. But . . . h-he must have just banged it rolling around, or gotten it tangled in bed sheets or something, because . . . because monsters like that weren’t real. It was just a figment inside his head. His imagination. It couldn’t be anything else . . .

          “You remember what happened,” she said, watching him closely, “You do. And pretending that its not real will just put you in danger.”

          “But how could that be real?! How can any of that be real?!” he demanded, and his tone comes out angry, but inside his head is reeling back to before he woke up. To empty, broken halls and a monster with his voice and a white crooked smile as everything went dark . . .

          A hand appeared on his shoulder then, and he jerked his gaze to Henry. Henry, who just looked tired and worn out in a way Sammy had never seen before, “I wish it wasn’t. Believe me, I do. And like I said, I don’t know how this happened to you, but . . . you’re here. And it’s real. I’m sorry.”

          Sammy can only stare at him, mouth open, because this Henry was acting like he really, truly believed everything he was saying. They all did. Like the studio was just some empty, forlorn husk, like there was some person out there with his name acting like some insane cultist, like there was some monster walking in the halls, like all of it was real, except that’s impossible because it can’t. Be. Real!

          And if he’s not lying and it is all real?

          It was just one stray thought, but for a single, terrifying second, Sammy forgot how to breathe as panic suddenly bubbled up from within his core, choking him from the inside out. He leaned forward, bracing his only free hand against the bridge of his nose, struggling to smother his own emotions and stop them from blowing over, muttering with increasing pitch, “Okay, okay, okay okayokay, shit, shit-!”

          The hand on his shoulder tightened its grip as another rested on his opposite one, and Henry’s voice was low but firm as he spoke, “Hey, hey, deep breaths. In and out. Its safe here for now, there’s no need to panic.”
          And like that, Sammy was on his feet, wrist straining against the chain around his wrist, yelling, “No need to panic?! You’re sitting there telling me that I’ve somehow landed in some fucking topsy-turvy world where everything I know is apparently wrong, with no explanation as to how I got here, and even if this is just some fucked up prank you’re pulling, you except me to be okay with it?!”

          “Sammy-!” Henry started, standing as well and looking at the door with alarm in his eyes.

          Sammy did not care. Its been some time since he had felt this angry, but he was so tired of this, so tired of being told all the scary things he’d gone through had been real, because they can’t be real, they can’t! “How am I supposed to believe this shit anyway?! Everything was just some fucking dream, and let me tell you something, I’m not falling for it! There’s not some fucking monster out there that looks like Bendy, because Bendy’s just some annoying little gremlin that likes to prank people, not kill them!”

          “Sammy, stop-!” Not-Alice pitched in, her hand going for the pommel of her sword.

          He did not stop, too incensed to care, and so angry that they still weren’t dropping it, “And there is no other ‘Sammy’ in this studio, because I’m the only one in it! And even if there was, there’s no way he’d be some crazy, cult-spewing SYCOPHANT! It’s all bullshit, every bit of it because everything you said can’t be TRUE!”

          Any other tirades he had, though, were silenced when a fist suddenly collided with his jaw, hard enough to knock him back into the cot with a thud!

          “Tom!”

          There was a short, unapologetic growl, but Sammy’s face is hurting way too much to give it much thought. Groaning, Sammy tried to sit despite the stars dancing in his eyes, cradling his cheek with a hand. He could taste something metallic in his mouth, warm and coppery, and he cringed. He never really liked the sight, smell, or taste of blood. It always made him queasy . . .

          A hand gripped his shoulder and hoisted him back upright, Henry’s voice cutting through the dizziness, “You okay?”

          Was he okay? Of course not, that should have been fucking obvious. But the worst of his anger had been quite literally knocked out of him, leaving only an echo of aggravation and a sort of hollow weariness behind. And the pain. A pain that shouldn’t be there, but was anyway, because the universe just fucking hated Sammy Lawrence.

Henry was still standing there, waiting for his answer, but before Sammy could reply a new noise echoed through the walls . . . a strange, gurgling, unnatural noise.

          One that was coming from outside.

          “Oh no . . .” Not-Alice whispered in dread. She looked at Henry, alarmed, “They’re here. We have to leave!”

          Henry gave her a stilted, hasty nod before looking at Tom urgently, “Tom, give me the key.”

          The wolf frowned at the man, knocking his head to the left, a non-verbal refusal. Henry took a step towards him, a tinge of desperation in his voice, “Tom, please! Don’t do what you did to me, not now!”

          Not-Boris flinched a little at that, lips curling into the beginnings of a snarl . . . when it dropped away into defeat. The wolf fished inside one of his belt pockets before pulling out a small, metallic object, one he then extended to Henry. The man took it with a grateful smile, before ducking down to the chain around Sammy’s wrist.

          Outside, the creepy gurgling noises had seemingly doubled, the sounds of uneven footsteps drawing closer.

          “Hurry, Henry! It sounds like there’s a lot of them!” Not-Alice urged, drawing her sword. Inwardly, Sammy was beginning to grow more than little alarmed.

          “I hear them,” the man said, snapping the padlock off quickly. Just like that, the entire thing unwound, and Sammy was very quick to take back his wrist, rubbing the aching skin there as he stood up.

          Not-Boris had made his way over to the door, an axe hanging in his mitt as he braced himself along the side, ready to swing at the drop of a hat. Not-Alice had her hand on the knob, ready to turn it, glancing at Henry with a questioning look in her eye.

          Maybe it’s his nerves, or maybe it’s the recent head trauma, but Sammy almost jumped when he felt something be pressed into his palm without his awareness. He closed his fingers out of reflex, the object feeling cold, sturdy, and smooth against his skin. When he looked, it was to find a piece of a broken pipe in his hand, the tip stained with ink.

          “Keep hold of that,” Henry told him, shifting his grip on his own axe, “We might need to fight our way out if it’s bad.”

          “W-what? Fight?” Sammy echoed, staring at him.

          “Just stick close to us,” Henry said, stepping forward to the door. That was all he said too, leaving Sammy with a myriad of unanswered questions and a whole lot of uncertainty.

          The other man gave Alice a nod, and with a quick swing, she flung the door open and the three charged through. Sammy would say the display was idiotic, except he was seized by the sudden desire to not be left alone right now, and found himself quickly following.

          The corridors beyond . . . struck a very unpleasant chord for Sammy. Because they looked like the halls he’d been walking in in his . . . his dreams.

          They’re still dreams, aren’t they?

          He wasn’t given much chance to think about that, though, when a wet, burbling growl snagged his attention. His eyes snapped to the opposite end of the passage, where three shapes were tottering into view . . .

          Three horrible, decidedly inhuman shapes, a Frankenstein mix of mangled limbs and metallic joints, assembled into three vaguely familiar shapes he recalled seeing many a time before in the studio, albeit the differences are like night and day, and he wondered if the title even belonged to these things: the Butcher Gang.

          The sight of them sent an unapologetic thrill of terror through Sammy. Awake or not, they were horrifying to look at, their jerky, almost pained movements disturbingly real, their x’d-out eyes glassy and mindless. His heart thudded in his chest, a very real feeling too, and now . . . now, Sammy was starting to really doubt just how asleep he was.

          He didn’t get to contemplate his conundrum any further, for upon sighting the group, the creatures let loose an unholy chorus of growls and gurgles before beginning to lumber their way.

          “Run!” Henry shouted, and Sammy did not need to be told twice.

          Even as they ran, though, Sammy still had use of his voice, and use it he did, “What the hell are those things?!”

          “Bad news!” Henry replied, rushing around a corner with more speed than he’s ever seen the man move with before.

          Sammy followed, ignoring the way his back ached as he ran. This particular corridor ended in a t-hallway, the two passageways branching off into further unknown territory for him. Not-Alice spared a quick glance between each, then began to lift her finger to the right, “Come on, this wa-!”

          Before she could finish, the ground suddenly lurched severely, nearly sending them all collapsing to the floor. It was only because Sammy was used to this sort of bullshit he kept his balance. Behind them, the unnatural growling was growing steadily closer.

          Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the unpleasantness, for behind him he heard the sound of rupturing wood and snapping metal, the floor beneath him creaking ominously.

          At the same time, someone canoed into him and sent them both flying to the left, and Sammy felt the air whoosh right out of his lungs as he hit the floor. Gasping, Sammy pushed himself upright, fueled by the adrenaline coursing through his system. When he opened his eyes, it was to find that the place they had just been standing on completely shattered, the planks sinking into the dark swells of an inky pool. Not-Alice and Not-Boris were on the other side of that, and Henry was popping himself back up next to him, looking winded but mostly unhurt.

          “You okay?” Henry’s question was directed at the pair, who were both already scrambling to their feet.

          “We’re alright! Can you jump to us?” Not-Alice said, eyeing the gap between them.

          “I think so!” Henry said, rising as well.

          A chorus of turgid growls sounded off, much closer than before, and Sammy’s eyes shot nervously to the open corridor they had come from, “Well, hurry it up!”

          The dark waves of the ink rippled and rolled, like it was daring the two to jump across. A bubble popped in the mix, like a witch’s cauldron, and ink or not, Sammy very much does not want to fall in it.

          Henry was getting ready to go, muscles bunching in preparation, when a sudden chill swept over them all. A chill that brought a preternatural darkness with it, the walls seeming to ripple like the ink before them, pulsing in time to an unseen heartbeat.

          It was familiar. In all the wrong ways.

          “Shit!” Henry shouted. He thrust an arm out to the two across from them, yelling, “Al, Tom, get out of here!”

          Not-Alice and Not-Boris did not need to be told twice, their expressions rife with sudden fear. Before they bolted, however, Not-Alice shouted back at them, “Meet us at the front office!”

          Henry nodded. Then, turning and grabbing Sammy by the elbow, he proceeded to haul ass down the corridor, right as the ink pool began to shift and rise. And, right before the pair of them ducked around the corner, Sammy thought he caught a glimpse of a white and crooked smile.

          It was a sight that just sent him running faster.

          It felt like they ran forever, and by the time they stopped in some large, near empty room that had several open archways inside it, Sammy’s heart was pounding, and his feet hurt. That was more physical activity than he’d done in a while, and frankly, he was paying for it now.

          Henry was across form him, leaning against the wall, panting, “Well . . . could have gone better . . . but could have gone worse . . .”

          “What . . . the hell . . . is worse?” Sammy asked between breaths, looking at the man.

          With no hint of irony or humor, Henry looked him straight in the eye and said, “We could . . . have died.”

          Sammy snapped his mouth shut, a very uncomfortable shiver going down his spine. Henry said it so matter-of-fact . . . and he wanted to deny it, to say that that couldn’t happen, that you don’t die in dreams!

          But can I really say that anymore?

          The answer, he realized, is that he was no longer so certain he could. And that honestly scared him, it scared him so much. But he can’t lose his head here, no matter what. It was pointless, it was a waste of time, he’d look like a moron . . .

          But the thought has wheedled its way inside, and like a stubborn burr, it refused to come out.

          Swallowing, casting a nervous glance to where they had come, Sammy quietly asked, “Henry . . . what the hell happened here?”

          Henry’s face pinched, looking down at his feet, worrying at his bottom lip the same way he always did when he was thinking how best to explain something. And when he finally did speak, it was so quiet Sammy almost missed it, “. . . Joey. Joey Drew happened.”

          “What?” Sammy started, standing straight. Of course, the most logical, straightforward conclusion, the one he himself always came too when something even vaguely supernatural (or even just inconveniencing) happened around him. But . . . but this . . .

          “Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that the guy is a coot who doesn’t know how stay away from shit he shouldn’t be messing with,” Sammy admitted, pointing at himself, “But even I can say that this is a little extreme for him!”

          “. . . you said Joey was doing something that made you believe he was the reason you woke up here,” Henry stated, crossing his arms best he could with the axe in his hand, “Sounds like its right up his alley.”

          “Dream magic, yeah!” Sammy said. He waved a hand at the room around them, “Not . . . whatever this is! I’d honestly sooner believe he just fucked up somewhere over doing this . . . intentionally, because that’s usually what happens with him and his stupid ideas!”

          Sammy honestly could not believe he was even saying this, cause defending Joey Drew’s stupidity was not even the last on the list of things he would do. Normally, he was the one harping on the old man with a vengeance, and Henry was the one doing the defending, even if it was only to placate whoever their boss had happened to piss off that day. So to have it be the other way around was jarring and uncomfortable and very not pleasant.

          Maybe just went to show how . . . twisted everything here was.

          Henry did not look convinced in the slightest, his frown disbelieving, his eyes hard, and his voice very, very, very cold, “You sure? Cause it sounds to me like he didn’t care very much what happened to the people around him while he was messing with his magic.”

          It’s not Henry’s words that drove Sammy to silence. No . . . it was the man’s tone. It’s deeper, near a growl, colored with anger and rife with dislike, topped by the glare that has slowly formed on the man’s face as the conversation went on. And the look in his eyes . . .

          It’s so disturbingly close to hatred that Sammy truly was at a loss for words, because that look is so abnormal on the normally jovial, relaxed animator it’s genuinely distressing to see it.

          Henry took his silence to mean the conversation was over, giving a deep sigh before rising to his feet, “Nevermind. I guess it doesn’t matter in the long run, and we should get moving.”

          The man gave two perusing glances to the other pathways they had not taken, brow furrowed in thought before finally pointing at the leftmost one, “This one. It’ll loop back around to the front. It’ll take a little longer, but hopefully it’ll be a little safer . . .”

          Sammy just watched him, unsure what to say. Indecision’s not really a normal thing for him, but what the hell was normal here?

          So its quiet for a few seconds. Very quiet, broken only by the distant creak of wood and pipes, the crackle of a dying electric light . . .

          Quiet enough that he nearly leapt out of his own skin when very suddenly, a phone began to ring.

          He spun around to the source of the noise, finding it sitting innocuously on the wall behind him, one of those stupid Bendy-themed phones Joey had thought had been ‘cute’ in the beginning. The noise it gave was loud and piercing, echoing through the derelict halls of the studio, so loud that something somewhere probably heard it.

          Lunging forward on pure instinct, Sammy grabbed the phone and yanked it off its cradle, cursing under his breath as he fought to silence the damn thing. And it did fall silent in that it finally stopped ringing.

          But it was still making noise.

          “He- . . . o?”

          Sammy blinked, looking down at it. A . . . a voice?

          “He-lo? Who i- . . . this?”

          A familiar voice. It was familiar, h-he knew who that was-!

          Scrabbling with the phone, he pressed it to his ear and nearly shouted into the receiver, hardly daring to hope, “Susie?! Susie, is that you?!”

          There’s a moment of stunned silence on the other end . . . then, like a god-send, that same familiar voice came back, yelling, “Sam-my?! Oh my-. . god, Sammy?!”

          It sounded like her. It sounded so much like her, and Sammy wanted to believe this was really happening. But no sooner had his relief swelled did a darker undercurrent of doubt suddenly sweep in below it, dragging him down. For how could this be his Susie? In all this madness, this chaos, what the fuck was even real anymore?

          His free hand came up to run through his hair, tearing strands out with the force of it, nearly choking on the force of his own, fresh uncertainty, “I-is this . . . is this even happening? H-how am I talking to you? This-this is just another fucking trick, isn’t it, i-it has to be, it has to be-!”

          Then, his voice did perhaps the most mortifying thing it could have possibly done to him in the moment.

          It fucking cracked.

          He’s never done that before. Ever. Was he just that upset? Was he just losing his mind in this place? It sure sounded like it, with the way his mouth kept rambling seemingly without his consent. It wasn’t until a steady hand appeared on his shoulder that he remembered Henry was still standing in the room with him, right at the same time when Susie’s voice broke through he static again, sounding panicked and so very worried, “Sammy? Sammy, it’s okay! J-just tell me where you are, okay, and I’ll come get you, I’ll get you!”

          Tell her where he was . . .?

          She . . . didn’t know where he was?

          Doesn’t know because you’re not there. Doesn’t know because you’re not where you’re supposed to be. Doesn’t know because you’re not asleep.

          It’s the final nail in the coffin for any denials Sammy had left.

          He’s awake. All of this is really happening to him.

          And Susie’s asking him where he is like she can rescue him from it.

          How Sammy felt in that moment is impossible to describe. Terrified, confused, horrified, a mix of so much and so many emotions flooding in all at the same time. And maybe because if that his body genuinely had no idea how else to react, had no other avenue left to ventilate his erratic emotions through any other means.

          He laughed.

          It sounded manic, even to his ears, which really said just how awful everything was right now.

          “Sammy?” he heard Henry question softly, worriedly, sounding like he was very genuinely afraid for the director’s sanity.

          He can’t blame the guy. Sammy’s a little afraid for it too.

          Instead, he directed his words to Susie, if he was even talking to her, “Y-you can’t. You can’t just come get me, I’m-!”

          In another world? A terrible, awful, horrid world?

          “What are you talking about?” Susie asked, but she’s softening her voice, dropping it to a soothing lilt he knew she only used when he was in a really bad mood, “Sammy, just, calm down, okay. I need you to tell me where to go.”

          “No, you don’t understand, Susie!” he shouted, desperate to get across just how much trouble he was in, desperate to explain what was happening even though he had no real idea himself how it had happened, “I’m not- . . . I-it’s like, I’m in the studio, but it’s not our studio!”

          “What? Sammy, what are you-?”

          “You have to get Joey to fix this!” he said, ignoring the way Henry tensed next to him. Whatever Henry felt about Joey Drew here, for Sammy, the man might just be the only one capable of getting him out of this mess.

          “It’s not a dream, Susie!” he shouted, and saying it out loud, admitting it was real, was both liberating and damning all in the same go, “Whatever this is, it’s not a dream!”

          “Sammy-?”

          But their time had run out. Behind them, a terrible roar shook the room, and both Sammy and Henry spun around to see a tall, lanky shape lumbering into the room, it wide smile the only thing he could see. And it was charging straight for them.

          His heart practically seized inside his chest, screaming, “Shit-!”

          Henry had already grabbed him by the elbow, all but yanking him away from the phone and shooting for the arch beside them. The creature (Bendy?) slammed into the wall right after, crushing the phone to broken bits beneath a huge, gloved hand, growling like an animal.

          Sammy’s own hand went for his neck, the bruises their aching anew, reminding him of just what this thing was capable of, driving a fresh spear of terror through his core.

          It was a mad dash after that, hall after hall, room after room, running so fast it all passed in a blur.

          “There!” Henry shouted, pointing ahead of them.

          At first, Sammy had no idea what he was referring to . . . until his eyes alighted on a small wooden cupboard big enough for someone to stand in, a black halo drawn onto the door. With no preamble or explanation, Henry threw it open and all but shoved Sammy inside, squeezing in himself right after. It was a tight squeeze when Henry shut it behind them, the only light coming from the slit in the door, but Sammy could not complain.

          Especially when the walls began to grow dark outside, the terrible snarling of a monster drawing closer and closer.

          Sammy slapped a hand against his mouth to keep from making even an iota of noise, but he can’t quite quell the tremors racking his body, shaking so badly his teeth chattered. Beside him, Henry was breathing hard through his nose, hand gripping the handle of the door so hard it must have hurt.

          Movement along the slit drew his eyes up, and he couldn’t quite suppress the whimper that rose up in his throat when he saw the creature from before right outside their hiding place. It’s crooked smile was almost perfectly level with the gap in the door, growing closer, and closer, and closer still. The miasma along the walls pressed heavier on him, dense like a fog and twice as oppressive, smothering even the brightest light.

          He felt Henry’s arm push him back, leaning away from the slit until they’re both pressed to the very back of the cupboard. Henry’s arm doesn’t lower either, keeping it braced along Sammy’s chest like that would somehow stop the thing from ripping them apart as soon as it found them, because that’s what it was going to do, it was going to find them, it was going to fucking kill them-!

          Then, out of nowhere, a gurgle broke the tense silence that had fallen.

          Just behind the creature, Sammy saw one of those horribly deformed Gang members tottering into the open, its mouth hanging gruesomely ajar as it blindly stumbled forward. And the creature, upon hearing it, turned sharply and screamed in rage.

          Completely abandoning the cupboard, it leapt for the smaller ink beast, grabbing it by the head in one over large hand. Smile never fading, Sammy couldn’t tear his eyes away as those grasping fingers tightened their hold, tighter and tighter and tighter, until the other one let loose a horrible scream, like it was in pain, in horrible pain, oh my god, could these things actually feel-?!

          POP!

          Ink sprayed in nearly every direction as the creature’s head burst like a bubble in the creature’s hand, staining the walls, the floor, even the ceiling with dark stains, and Sammy felt his stomach lurch. The sickening plop the remaining body made as the monster dropped it, even as it dissolved, only made the churning worse, and he had to physically fight down the nausea rising in his throat.

          With one last growl, the monster in Bendy’s shape turned and began to walk away, its darkness fading until at last it was gone. After a second to ensure it was safe, Henry finally opened the door, carefully stepping out.

          Sammy couldn’t wait anymore. Pushing his way past the animator, he ran to the side with an arm wrapped around his stomach, and proceeded to vomit.

          He’d already been running on empty, so all that really came up was bile . . . but the sour taste and the smell of ink only made him sicker, his stomach clenching, his throat hurting, coughing, feeling wretched in a way he hadn’t in a very long time, “Fuck . . .”

          And all the while, his head ran everything that just happened on near-constant loop, all of it burned into his mind with sickening clarity, as a tiny little sadistic voice continued to whisper, you can’t wake up, you can’t wake up, you can’t wake up . . .

           He stumbled back until he hit the opposite wall, sliding down it when it felt like his legs were about to give out. Everything hurt, his body, mind, and soul, everything feeling hollowed out and fragile, on the verge of shattering. And maybe all of that in conjunction with having time to think about it, while being wrung out and exhausted and terrified out of his mind, was why his eyes began to sting.

          “Fuck-!” he whispered, pressing a hand over his eyes, biting into his lip hard enough to hurt.

          It doesn’t help. Not even a little. And even now, Sammy was mortified that he couldn’t quite stop the way his breath kept hitching, or halt the flow of liquid warmth that stubbornly persisted to slide down his cheeks.

          Beside him, there was a very soft and troubled sigh, reminding him that he had an audience to his breakdown, a fucking delightful thing to remember. And its worse, because now he knew that while its Henry, its not the Henry he knew, was it? It was just some stranger with his face.

          That realization only made the ache in his chest worse.

          But . . . even despite the fact that Sammy was undoubtedly just a stranger to him, too, it didn’t stop the other man from sitting down next to him in quiet solidarity. And even though all he does is press his shoulder to Sammy’s own, the contact was enough to help drive some of the anxiety whirling inside him out, because it helped remind him that, at the very least, stranger or not . . . he wasn’t alone in this awful place.

          . . . still . . . he hoped Susie understood what he had been saying. And, for all his misgivings about his boss’ occult hobby, he hoped that Joey found a way to fix this and bring him back.

          . . . it was the only hope he had.

Chapter Text

Bendy had been tossing and turning in his typical cupboard drawer, inwardly debating just getting up and doing something with his hands instead, when Susie’s call had come in. It had been entirely unexpected in the wee hours of the morning, but it was also sort of a god send, because it wasn’t like any of them had been sleeping beforehand. Even Joey, someone who usually slept like the dead when he was home, had answered it even before Bendy had made it to the living room.

Still, it had been urgent enough that it demanded a bit of an immediate response, and now he and his toon friends were crammed on the couch with Joey, Susie, and Henry around them. Sunlight was just barely beginning to peek through the blinds, a dull, deep gray, with the faintest whistle of wind rustling the leaves outside. Tiredness continued to pull at his body even despite the cup of warm ink he held in his hands, a feeling he could see shared by everyone present, from their sagging shoulders to their heavily ringed eyes. A promise of a long day, if Bendy’s ever seen one.

But maybe . . . a little hopeful? From the sound of it, Susie’s call had implied she’d gotten in touch with Sammy somehow. Although, from how stressed the poor woman looked . . . maybe not.

“So . . .” Henry started, sitting on a plush stool beside the couch, hands wrapped around a mug of still steaming coffee, “Take it from the top, Susie. What happened.”

Susie took a small sip from her own cup, leaning back into the chair Joey had offered her when she’d arrived, “Honestly? Its confusing. First my electric appliances started going crazy, then my phone rang, and when I answered it, Sammy was on the other end. But . . .”

The woman shifted a little in her seat, pursing her lips, “He . . . wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. He kept talking like he couldn’t believe it was really me, and that . . . what was happening wasn’t a dream? I don’t know . . . but he sounded scared.”

“Scared?” Bendy repeated, incredulous, “Sammy Lawrence?”

“Susie knows what she heard, Bendy!” Alice snapped, eyes narrowed in his direction. Sheesh, she was in a bad mood . . .

Bendy quickly held up a placating hand, waving the tired and irritated angel down, “Hey, hey, never said she didn’t! Just, you know, generally speaking . . . Sammy only ever has two emotions; angry and really angry.”

“Did he give you any idea of where he was?” Henry asked, steering the topic back to the matter at hand.

Susie twirled the cup in her hand, tapping her fingers against the ceramic, “Not very much. The only thing I could really understand was that he said he was somewhere like the studio, but . . . it wasn’t our studio.”

Bendy stiffened. Beside him, he felt Alice do the same.

The studio, but not the studio . . . her words struck such an unpleasant chord inside him that it reverberated throughout his whole being, and memories he’d been doing a pretty swell job of burying so far began to rise to the surface.

“And, um . . .” Susie spoke haltingly, unusual even the best of circumstances, her face filling with distress, “There was something at the end. Before I lost contact, I heard, um . . . shrieking. Like . . . like an animal of some kind, and . . .” she sniffed a little, and shock jolted through Bendy when he saw the woman’s eyes begin to water, “It sounded like he was being chased by something . . .”

Henry moved closer and placed a consoling hand on the woman’s shoulder, even though he looked a little distraught himself.

Bendy would normally chip in with something silly by now, to lighten the atmosphere and perk some spirits back up . . . except right then, he felt frozen to the seat, and he can’t quite make the words come like he wanted them to.

“Bendy?” Boris asked, sensing the other’s sudden distress.

Oh, relax, ya stupid ink blot, he told himself with a stubborn shake of his head, trying to loosen his fingers from where they had begun to strangle his cup, you’re overreacting!  

Nearby, Joey gave a very sudden, and very odd, cough, followed by the tiniest, most fearing murmur Bendy had ever heard from the man, “Oh dear . . .”

All eyes turned to the man, who was standing in the corner with his magic book clamped tight in his hands, a finger tapping nervously against the cover. He began to fidget when everyone looked at him, practically sweating bullets, and Bendy got the very distinct impression that the man would rather be anywhere else right then.

“Joey?” Henry asked in his very ‘what-are-you-hiding-now-Joey’ tone of voice.

“Erm . . .” their collective boss started, swallowing. He flicked a glance at Bendy and Alice, then down at the book he held, but instead of the usual expression of a child who knew he was about to be in a world of trouble . . . he just looked guilty, “Uh, well, I . . . looked through the book again. You know, trying to figure out how to uncast the spell, but, um . . . I found that the spell didn’t make as much sense as I thought it had the first time I read it. And . . .”

Bendy frowned hard at the man, not liking where this was going, “Why don’t the spell make sense?”

“Because, um . . .” Joey’s lips pressed into a very thin line, still fidgeting. Then, he popped the book open and the flipped the pages until he stopped on one, a page that needed no explanation as to what it was. He carefully pulled it up till it was held vertically from the rest of the book so everyone could clearly see it . . . then pinched the page between his thumb and index finger and dragged them together.

. . . pulling apart two pages where previously they thought had only been one.

In the silence that followed, Joey softly spoke, looking shamefacedly at the floor, “. . . because the pages were stuck together . . .”

“. . . Joey, are you serious?!” Bendy demanded, hopping to the floor and pointing at him with an irate finger, “Then what spell did you cast on us?!”

“That’s the thing, it was technically . . . both?” Joey floundered, looking anywhere but the demon’s direction.

A hand appeared on Bendy’s shoulder before the demon could snap again, and he looked to see that Henry was standing next to him now. The animator gave him a gentle squeeze and a nod before fixing his eyes on Joey, inquiring, “Joey, can you explain what that means in layman’s terms?”

“Well . . .” the man paused, seeming to think over what exactly he was going to say that would incur the least amount of wrath, “Like I said, there were . . . two spells. One was the dream spell, Morpheus’ Jaunt. It allowed whoever cast the spell to experience dreams they could control, which at the time sounded stupendous! I mean, being able to create your own worlds, however you imagined them to be, it could have-!"


"Joey,” Henry, Bendy, Alice, and Susie all intoned at the same time.

Joey stumbled over his last few words, “Ah-ah, right, right. Well, that was the first half I cast. The other one . . .”

He turned the page he was holding, eyes shifting over words Bendy knew none of them would really understand before looking back up, “It’s called . . . it’s called Mirror of the Fates. And its purpose was to . . . was to supposedly open a window that you could see through.”

“Why would you need magic to do that?” Bendy asked, a little irritated and worried all at the same time, “We got tons of windows! Nice, normal ones! And, get this, some of ‘em . . . open.”

“I don’t think it’s that kinda window, Ben,” Henry said, frowning.

Joey gnawed at his bottom lip, drumming his fingers almost indecisively against the binding of the book in his hands, “Well its- . . . To put it simply, its like a-. . . Well, more accurately, it’d be- . . .”

The man kept stalling, gaze flipping between Bendy and Alice rather erratically even for their loony creator.

“Joey?” Bendy started, brow rising in mystified confusion. Just what was going on inside the man’s head right now?

 Joey’s mouth closed, throat bobbing as he looked at the book again. Bendy saw several emotions flit over his face, so fast he could barely read ‘em before it finally settled on something that looked a little like determination.

And when he finally looked up again . . . it was with a smile.

“Well, the best explanation is that it’s a window into possibilities! Normally for prophecy and such!”

The complete one-eighty in behavior caught everyone off-guard.

“Uh . . .” Bendy stared, holding up a finger, “Did you just go senile in the last few minutes?”

“No, no, of course not! At least not any more than usual!” Joey said like that was normal. The only thing his reassurances did was make everyone trade a worried glance.

“Okay . . .” he heard Susie say, the space between her brows pinching together, “What does this have to do with finding Sammy?”

Bendy looked at Joey as he waited for his explanation to that, eager to have an answer to that problem. So focused was he on that, he failed to notice the gleam of suspicion shining in Henry’s eyes.

Joey cleared his throat, and Bendy heard the crinkle of paper as a page was flipped again, “Well . . . these two spells would be very unstable right now, seeing as how they were accidently merged and therefore not complete. As such, any number of things could happen! From the sound of it, Sammy accidently got displaced, but ordinarily, neither of these spells would be strong enough to do that to somebody. The only thing I can think of is maybe the . . . dreams grew strong enough to form a sort of . . . plane, right in our own studio, though how they got so powerful I can’t even begin to figure out! I was very careful to avoid using any blood this time!”

“. . . oooooh . . .”

Bendy didn’t even need to look up to know that Henry’s face had completely drained of color, but he did anyway. The man looked completely distraught as he stared Joey’s way, “I, um . . . I might have had something to do with that . . .”

Slowly, Henry related to them of when they had retrieved the book, and the accidental drop of blood that had landed on the open page. Joey’s face gradually grew more and more drawn as he went on, before he finally looking down when he was done, “Oh dear . . .”

“Okay, well, that doesn’t mean we can’t fix it, right?” Susie asked, looking between the two men for an answer.

Alice spoke up just after the woman, looking very, very worried as she pressed her hands together, halo dimming, “Sammy isn’t in any actual danger, is he? H-he’s okay, right?”

Joey immediately straightened, dropping the anxious look he’d been sporting fast, “Of course he’s okay, and of course we can fix this! In fact, I wager with this new knowledge, we have a better chance, because now I know what’s gone wrong!”

Little flickers of relief and hope began to eddy through their little group, and Bendy felt his own tense shoulders relax, “Ya mean that, Joey?”

The man nodded confidently, “I do. I just need to gather up a few, uh . . . accoutrements before we head over to the studio!”

“The studio?” Boris questioned, tilting his head to the side, “Why the studio?”

 “That’s the place where the effects of the spells are strongest! And that’s where Sammy was last seen! Its better to be closer to the source than far away when your attempting to reverse a spell’s effect,” Joey explained, closing his book and tucking it under his arm, “I mean, I know it’s a bit of a mess right now, but I’m sure there’s some dry ground we can use somewhere!”

“I guess you know best about this stuff . . .” Bendy commented, though his lips were pursed into a frown, not too keen on the idea of wading through the ink again, “Kinda . . .”

“Thanks!” was Joey’s oblivious response to that.

“So, what do we do?” Alice asked, anxiously fidgeting with the skirt of her dress.

At that, Joey faltered a little, “Erm, well . . . there’s not too much, unfortunately. I just need the components for the reversal, and uh, just a little bit of Henry’s blood.”

Henry stared at the man, and Joey held up a hand with his index finger and thumb pressed close together, attempting to be placating, “Just a little bit!”

“. . . why?”

“Well, it was your blood that amplified the spell,” Joey explained, looking a little sheepish, “So it will . . . take a little bit more to do the opposite.”

Henry closed his eyes and gave a deep sigh, reaching up to knead his fingers into his temple before finally replying, “Fine. If it fixes the problem, fine.”

Bendy pat the man’s leg sympathetically, quipping quietly so only Henry could hear, “Well, at least its not a ritual sacrifice.”

Henry only hummed in response, his mind clearly occupied by other things. Like having to donate his blood to a probably demonic spell.

“I’ll run upstairs and get my things!” Joey declared, half-turning in preparation to do just that. Then, he snapped his fingers, “Oh, I know something the rest of you can do!”

Everyone immediately perked up, Bendy himself highly interested in the possibility of actually doing something useful. He’d never liked sitting on the sidelines when something important needed doin’.

“If you can, try to find something of personal value to Sammy. The stronger, the better!” Joey told them, and at everyone’s slightly puzzled stares, he went on, “Since a part of this, er, ritual, will sort of act like a reverse summoning too, something personal to the one in question helps improve our chances! A photo, an important piece of memorabilia, something like that! I’m sure there’s something like that in the studio!”

Bendy rubbed the space between his horns, murmuring, “I don’t know, is Sammy that type a guy?”

Alice huffed, hopping from her seat after setting her cup down, “Sammy cares about things, Bendy, he just . . . has a unique way to of showing it.”

“Uh-huh,” Bendy hummed in mock disbelief, “And even if he’s got stuff, we sure he’d keep something like that at the studio? You know, the place that’s made it it’s personal mission to drench everything he owns?”

Alice pressed a hand to her mouth, brow furrowing, “Hmmm . . .”

“What about music?”

Everyone turned to Boris, who’s ears were standing straight as he returned their gazes, “Sammy loves music, don’t he? He’s always workin’ on it, and playin’ instruments, and singin’, and he has all those records he keeps in his office in water-proof bags!”

“You’re right!” Alice replied, her eyes starting to sparkle, “Joey, would those records work?”

“If they’re important to him, then yes, absolutely!” Joey nodded, grinning now.

Bendy lightly nudged Boris in the side, smiling approvingly at his friend, “Good thinkin’, big guy.”

Boris smiled widely, always one to adore praise like the big ol’ dog he was. Privately though, Bendy made it a new little mission to figure where exactly Boris went to hear Sammy singing all the time. That kind thing would lead to some great opportunities for a good little teasing. Oh sure, he wouldn’t be too hard on the pranks and what-not when the director initially got back, but Sammy owed him for makin’ ‘em all worry like this.

“Why don’t you all go on ahead and collect those,” Joey said, “I promise, I’ll be right behind you! Just need to get together those things I need!”

Another round of glances, but this silence lasted only a handful of seconds before Susie took the helm. The distress that had filled her before had been replaced by renewed vigor, eyes shining with determination, “Well, what are we waiting for then? No time like the present, and I’m sure Sammy’s sick of waiting for us, so let’s get started!”

Alice and Boris were already nodding in agreement, looking eager as they followed the woman to the door.

“This is the second time you’ll be into work early,” he heard Alice comment, a touch of wry humor in her voice, “Two days in a row.”

“I know, I should start asking Joey for overtime!” Susie replied, loudly and giving the man in question a purposeful glance over her shoulder.

Joey rubbed the back of his head, giving her an awkward half-smile until she opened the door and ushered the two toons outside. It was only when she was gone that he finally he dropped it, shoulders sagging.

“How long will it take you to get everything?” Henry asked, crossing his arms.

“Oh, no time at all! But you and Bendy go on ahead!” Joey replied, waving dismissively at the two of them before tromping up the stairs to the second story, to where Bendy knew he stored most of his occult . . . things.

A hand appeared on his shoulder, and he glanced at Henry, wondering what he wanted. The man smiled slightly before gesturing to the door, “Hey, Bendy . . . think you could hitch a ride with Susie instead? There’s . . . something I wanted to ask Joey.”

Bendy blinked at him, curious, “What about?”

Henry shrugged, “Oh, you know . . . just trying to make sure he’s not gonna use too big of a knife when he does . . . whatever he’s going to do.”

He awkwardly bent and unbent his elbow, looking uncomfortable, and Bendy looked at him sympathetically as he set his mug down, “I mean, I’m sure it’s not gonna be bad, Henry. Joey said it himself, he only needs a little bit, so its not like he’s gonna cut any arteries or anythin’!”

Silence sat over the pair for a little bit, Henry rolling his lips inward and closing his eyes in quiet dread. Finally, Bendy slowly nodded his head and pressed his hands together, pointing them the man’s way, “You’re right, that was absolutely not the right thing to say, and I apologize for that.”

Henry just sighed, “Don’t worry about it. Really, I just want to make sure Joey stays on track and not do anything too . . . Joey-like. You know.”

“Yeah. I know,” Bendy said meaningfully, remembering how this whole fiasco started.

“We’ll be right behind you guys,” Henry said reassuringly, “I’ll make sure we are.”

Bendy nodded, taking Henry’s word a lot better than Joey’s. Not for nothin’, but his creator could get . . . distracted sometimes. Easily.

Henry released his shoulder, nodding to the door, “You should probably get going before she leaves.”

“Sure you don’t want an extra pair of hands?” Bendy asked, holding up his gloved ones and flexing his fingers for show.

Henry laughed a little, “I think we’ll be fine. Besides, its not like either of us know what to look for.”

“Heh, true,” Bendy said with an incline of his head, “Still, make sure ya make it snappy! Sooner we get this all squared away, the better!”

“Of course,” Henry promised.

The sound of a car revving snagged both their attention, and the two shot each other a panicked look before Bendy ran out the door like a bullet, frantically waving at the car that had begun to pull out of the drive-way.

Susie was understandably a little confused when he pulled open the door to the backseat and clambered inside, taking a seat next to an equally puzzled Boris, “Hi, Bendy. Weren’t you riding with Henry?”

“He’s stayin’ for a little bit. Make sure Joey does what he’s supposed to,” Bendy explained as he clicked in his seat belt. Safety first, kids.

“Well, that’s probably for the best. Can’t have Joey slacking off right now,” Susie commented, adjusting her rearview mirror.

“. . . he can fix it, right?”

Everyone looked to Alice, the angel’s halo still a little dark with her forlorn thoughts. He can’t see her expression from this angle, but Bendy was sure it was a sad and anxious one.

Boris reached over with a long arm, gently patting her shoulder, “Aw, don’t worry angel. Joey knows what he’s doing, right? And he sounded really confident!”

She didn’t sound too reassured, head lowering, “He said . . . that Sammy was ‘displaced’. But what did that mean, really? A dream spell and a fortune-telling spell couldn’t really do that, could they?”

“Well, he did say Henry’s blood accidently made them stronger,” Susie reminded her, rapping a finger against the steering wheel.

“Even with that . . . something just sounds . . . off,” was the angel’s quiet reply, “Don’t you think?”

No one really had an answer to that. And yeah, Bendy guessed he could see her point. But . . .

“Hey, come on Alice, yer supposed to be the cherub that brings the cheer, not the gal the brings the gloom!” Bendy chipped in, reaching around to flick her halo upright, “Sides, even if this magic’s gone all weird, Boris is right. Joey did seem pretty confident he could undo it!”

“He did! And while Joey Drew is phenomenally infamous for causing trouble, he’s pretty good at fixing his mistakes! Just look at Bendy!” Susie added with a smile, ignoring the look Bendy gave her. Then, with a little more tenderness, she reached over and gently brushed Alice’s bangs out of her eyes, “Don’t you worry so much, hun. This time tomorrow, we’ll all be laughing over this. If Sammy hasn’t killed somebody by then!”

That got a round of soft laughter, Alice’s halo brightening up again and shedding the car with a warm golden light.

“Alright,” Susie said, squaring her shoulders, “Everybody buckled in?”

“Yes ma’am!” Boris answered faithfully.

Bendy gave her a thumbs up, and the woman began to pull out of the driveway, tires squeaking as they crossed over the slight lip. As they back onto the road proper, Bendy noticed Alice’s hands tighten on the sides of her seat, an action that momentarily puzzled him.

He was about to ask her what she was doing, when Susie suddenly piped up, “Brace yourselves though, I’ve had seven cups of coffee and I take no prisoners.”

Then she peeled out onto the road like the four horsemen of the apocalypse themselves were chasing after her heels. Later, gripping the seat for all he was worth, Bendy sincerely wished he had just waited for the other two to get done.

_

Henry waited until the sound of the car faded into the distance, before sighing and turning to the stairwell. It was dark all the way up until the top, where the light from whatever room Joey was in shone brightly above. Quietly, Henry began to ascend, his joints creaking as assuredly as the wood beneath his feet.

He heard the sounds of rummaging and quiet muttering as he reached the top, turning to the left and into the hall. The second door to the right of him was slightly ajar, light spilling through the crack, and Henry went on over and gently nudged it open.

Joey was inside, no surprise, pulling out knick-knacks and utensils Henry had no idea what their purpose could be for, murmuring quietly to himself as he worked. Henry watched as the other man reached into a drawer and withdrew something long and silver, and his muscles seized a little when he realized that it was an oddly curved dagger the length of his entire forearm. Joey stared at for a few seconds longer than Henry was comfortable with, before finally shaking his head and tossing it back.

Thank god.

Taking in a quiet breath, Henry closed the door behind him and cleared his throat, finally announcing his presence.

Joey started upright much harder than Henry had anticipated, spinning around so fast his hip slammed jarringly into the desk. Henry winced in sympathetic pain, watching as the other man danced slightly as he grabbed at his hip, obviously in pain.

“H-Henry! Wha-wha-what are you still doing here?!” Joey asked, apparently not having anticipated anyone sticking around.

Henry raised an eyebrow, a little perplexed by the strong reaction.

Although . . . if his hunch was right, it might not be so surprising after all. He felt bad for lying to Bendy, but . . . he wasn’t sure if he wanted to rock the boat there, not when the toon was already so stressed. Besides, it . . . could be nothing. It could be nothing . . .

“To talk,” he replied, stepping closer.

Joey closed the drawer behind him, still rubbing his hip as he walked over the box at the center of the floor, “Well, not much to talk about! I’m almost done here, Henry, promise!”

“Not about that,” Henry said, attempting to meet the man’s eyes, an attempt met with failure since the other man kept avoiding his gaze. It became clear that Joey wasn’t going to come clean on his own, so Henry just dove right into the heart of it, “Joey, downstairs, when you were talking about the spells . . . you weren’t telling the whole truth, were you?”

Joey picked up the box and set it on the table just behind him, carefully placing the tome Henry had helped retrieve the day before inside, purposefully keeping his back turned, “I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about, Henry. Those are the intended purposes of the spells, so I don’t-,”

“Joey,” Henry cut him off, stepping closer until he stood only an arm’s length away, “You’ve always been good with words. When it comes down to it, you can be a good actor too. But I’ve worked with you for thirty years . . . and I know when you’re not saying everything.”

Reaching out, Henry placed a hand on the other’s shoulder, hoping to tease something out, anything at all, “So what is it you’re not saying?”

“I . . .” Joey closed his mouth, glanced over his shoulder, then just as quickly looked away. Henry could feel the way the other’s muscles tensed under his hand, Joey’s fingers grasping tightly to the flap’s dangling from the box, so tight his knuckles turned white.

Time felt like it slowed to a trickle, a breathless handful of minutes that moved at a snail’s pace as Henry waited.

Then, “Henry . . . when the blood hit that page, did anything . . . strange happen?”

Henry blinked, “Well, the studio started shaking . . .”

“And . . . anything else?” Joey pressed.

Henry thought. And then he swallowed. Oh yes, there had been one other thing. He remembered it very clearly. But it had all happened so fast, and it was so outlandish . . . he felt silly bringing it up.

“Henry?”

Pursing his lips, feeling his heart drum a little louder than before, Henry spoke, “Well, um . . . there was one other thing, but I thought I was just hallucinating. While I was down there, we found a . . . a mirror. And right after the shaking stopped, I thought I saw . . . god, it’s stupid . . .”

“. . . you saw something in the mirror, didn’t you?”

Henry’s heart gave a hard, unpleasant thud.

“I . . . I did. I thought it was me at first, but-”

“There were differences, weren’t there? Little things, that made you think you weren’t looking at a reflection.”

Henry stared at the man’s back, growing more disturbed by the second, “H-how . . .?”

Joey gave a sudden and weary sigh, tremulous and shaking as the man suddenly slumped forward, one arm braced along the edge of the table while the other came up to cup a hand over his eyes, knocking his glasses up, “Oh no . . .”

The sheer level of anguish in Joey’s voice immediately put Henry on edge, and he leaned closer, placing his own hand on the table without removing his other one, trying to look Joey in the face, concerned and now a little fearful. The only time he’d heard his friend ever sound so distraught was when they had brought Bendy home after his accident with the church, “Joey, what is it?”

The other man exhaled again, “I . . . I wasn’t lying when I said the other spell opened a window to other possibilities. But . . . but it’s not for prophecy, Henry. Its real purpose was . . .” the man swallowed hard, “It’s real purpose was to open a window to other realities.”

Something very cold traveled up Henry’s spine then, an icy talon of dread that made his entire body shiver, “. . . what?”

“Realities . . . just like our own, but with differences that set them apart from us. That’s the second spell that got mixed in,” Joey faltered for a moment, leg beginning to bounce erratically, “What you saw, Henry . . . and what Alice and Bendy dreamed about, I . . . I’m afraid that it might be possible that it . . . wasn’t just a hallucination. That they weren’t . . . just dreams.”

Henry’s mind reeled back to that moment with the mirror, the disconcerting reflection he’d seen within, his instinctive urge to say it was just a trick of the light battling furiously with Joey’s words. It had just been a mirror, and he’d been tired and stressed when he had looked at it. But . . . it had looked so real, too. It had felt like he’d been looking at more than just a mirror then, and . . . and that was actually supposed to be truth? Another reality? Another world? Another-?

Another . . . him?

“How . . . how is that possible?” Henry started slowly, still not able to fully believe it.

“. . . the spells are unstable. Neither of them of them were fully complete, and because of that, neither of them have a proper . . . ending to them,” Joey explained slowly, “So they’ve just hung static over the studio this whole time. What Alice experienced was the backlash of that. It probably would have stayed that way too, until . . .”

The man trialed off, but Henry already knew what he had been going to say, “Until my blood hit the page . . .”

Joey nodded, “Yes. With the way Mirror of the Fates describes it, your blood’s now acted as a sort of . . . anchor. The dreams were already giving glimpses to the other side of the window, but after that, its more like its . . . torn a sort of rift between us.”

Henry stepped back, holding up his hands, “Okay, okay, hold on. S-so are you trying to say that there’s some sort of . . . hole in the studio right now? To-to some other . . . what, dimension?”

“. . . its not outside the realm of possibility,” Joey answered softly, “And I think . . . I think it might be possible that’s where Sammy’s ended up . . .”

Henry had no idea what to say to that. He really, truly didn’t, because it’s so . . . impossible! But . . . he knew Joey isn’t withholding anything now, is telling the full truth, and the evidence Henry had seen with his own eyes . . . god, his mind was reeling harder than it had even when Joey had first summoned Bendy.

Have you ever had a dream, Henry, where somebody close to ya died?

His heart had been pounding before. Now, remembering that faintly whispered memory, it felt like it froze.

“Joey . . . how much of those dreams could have been true? All of it?” Henry asked, dreading the answer.

Joey finally turned to him, clutching the box close, looking helpless, “I . . . I really don’t know, Henry. At least part, I would imagine.”

Do you feel comfortable talking about who?

. . . everyone.

With a sense of quiet horror beginning to worm its way under his skin, Henry stared at Joey and said with no small sense of urgency, “Joey if . . . if even half of it is true, then we need to get moving! Sammy could be in serious trouble!”

Joey’s eyes widened slightly. That’s right, Bendy never spoke to him about even a little about the dream he’d experienced, and Henry never told him what he knew. But the other man must see he’s not kidding around, because then he was nodding, “Alright. I have everything I need here.”

Henry nodded, even as his shoulders sagged a little in relief at Joey’s words, “So, you do have a way to fix it? All of it?”

“I do!” Joey replied, this time with a small, encouraging smile, “I wasn’t lying about that, either! Hopefully by this afternoon, we’ll all be sharing a good . . . well, something!”

Henry nodded again, feeling a little emboldened by the idea. He just . . . had to stay positive until then.

“Although . . . just one thing, old friend.”

Henry frowned a little as Joey’s shoulders tucked slightly, looking at him pleadingly, “Please, don’t tell Bendy and Alice about this. I want to put all of this behind us as soon as possible, and I don’t want to scare them any more than they already have been.”

Henry looked to the ground. Out of principle, he never liked lying to people, and he didn’t like being lied to. But that wasn’t to say he didn’t understand exactly where Joey was coming from. Just from the scant few things Bendy had told him, and how he had reacted to it even under the knowledge that it was just a dream . . . what would happen if he found it was possible some of it had been real? Henry truly didn’t want to find out.

So, after a deep, weary sigh, he looked up and nodded, “Alright. We’ll keep this quiet. But let’s go finish this before anything else happens.”

Joey sagged, looking so very relieved, “Thank you Henry. I promise, I’ll get all of this sorted out.”

The man walked by him and out of the room, and Henry turned to follow, though not before he caught sight of the lone pane of reflective glass hanging on Joey’s wall. He stared at it for a moment, his own reflection looking back . . . and wondered what exactly it had been that had looked back instead that day in the basement. He tried to imagine it, that the face in the glass right now was in fact an entirely separate person from himself, who shared his face and . . . possibly nothing else. He tried to imagine the reflected world within, a world like his, but different. A bad different, if everything that had happened so far had been any indication, but a real one all the same.

. . . it’s hard to believe it still. Very hard. And really, all it did was make him profoundly uncomfortable to try.

So, turning away, he left and tried to focus instead on what they had to do now.

He hoped it would all be over soon.

_

Joey is . . . a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Oh sure, he can be a little scatterbrained, but he wasn’t completely oblivious to other views of him. And, regardless of popular opinion of his impulsivity (which he was, no doubt), he really did try to be a little careful when it came to his magic practice, especially as he grew older.

That’s why this mess they were in right now weighed on him so heavily. And why he was particularly determined to fix it.

He had all the things he needed, laid out around him on the points of the inverted triangles and lines he had drawn inside the circle. Three black candles (a staple), a record of Sammy’s (which Susie had asked him not to destroy), and a small silver dish with a small droplet of red inside (sorry Henry). And, in front of him . . . a large cracked mirror, with a sculpture of Bendy’s head crowning the top.

He’d asked all the others to wait outside. In verbatim, it was for quiet, and so no one could accidently knock anything over or disrupt the circle. Which was all true!

But . . . there was another thing he hadn’t told them. Normally, at least according to the spell proper, only the side that cast the spell could influence it. Nothing else could. And while the rift itself was a little unusual, and more than likely unstable, it ultimately would be harmless since without anyone to guide it, it remained dormant and therefore, for the most part, closed. The only reason Sammy would have gone through was one-part Henry’s accidental influence opening it in the first place, and two-parts his sheer bad luck. He still hadn’t completely canned his personal theory that Sammy had been cursed somewhere down the line by a particularly vindictive witch.

He supposed he should be grateful more people hadn’t gotten pulled through . . .

Still . . . for Joey to be able to pull Sammy back from wherever he had gone, Joey had to crack open the rift again. And while it wouldn’t be for very long, at least in theory . . . well, an open door is still a two-way street. Even a magical one.

Joey just really hoped it wasn’t as dangerous as Henry believed it to be. Or, if it was . . . that nothing else came through until he closed it again. For good.

But this was the only option he had. So, cracking open the book to the correct page, he took a deep, deep breath and said, “Well, here goes nothing.”

And he started to chant.

Chapter Text

          Sammy doesn’t really know how long they sit there for, but its for long enough that the twisting terror and panic he’d experienced settled into something . . . well, not normal, but at least a little less extreme. He didn’t feel like he was about to teeter into a panic attack, at the very least.

          That doesn’t mean he felt good. Physically, his stomach hurt, and there was a dull throbbing in his head that came and went in waves, like the aftermath of a particularly loose party. And, while he’d . . . regained some of his composure, his face felt sore and there was an aching, empty hollowness inside his chest, like everything had been scooped out then dumped haphazardly back inside. He still hadn’t removed his hand from his face, the dark helping him process his new and terrifying reality, a fact that teased at him so relentlessly that a constant undercurrent of fear was running through his body. Even now, every sense was hyper aware, picking through the sounds of ink and creaking wood for anything out of the ordinary. Anything that could be . . . dangerous.

          And he was exhausted. A heavy weariness that settled so deep Sammy could feel it in his bones, and if not for his own sense of self-preservation and the very real fear of something finding him, he might have just fallen asleep on the spot.

          But there came a definite end when Henry-a stranger, not the man he knew-finally shifted to stand, apparently deciding they’d lingered for long enough. Sammy hadn’t realized how heavily he’d been leaning against the other in the time they had sat there either, having to catch himself with his free hand as Henry left to keep from falling onto his side. The abrupt movement and the coldness against his shoulder was like a splash of water to his face, knocking him out of the fugue state he’d entered, and Sammy finally allowed his hand to slip away from his eyes, blinking as they adjusted to the faint, feeble light.

          Ink-spattered walls were all that greeted him, just one more grim reminder of the situation he was in.

          Beside him, Henry spoke softly, “Come on. We should get moving, try to find Al and Tom.”

          Right, the two toon creatures that looked like Alice and Boris, but obviously weren’t. At least, not any iteration he was familiar with, unless the Bendy cartoon here had a very different take on the characters than his own did. But Sammy could see Henry’s point. There was safety in numbers, and if they stayed here, how long before something found them?

          Even so, the thought of wandering in this twisted version of the studio filled with genuine monsters made an unpleasant shiver go up his spine.

          . . . maybe not the best line of thinking right now . . .

          Still, he slowly nodded his agreeance, even as he let out a shaky exhale. Fuck, just why did the universe have it out for him like this?

          That was when a hand appeared in his vision, a clear, unspoken offer of help. Sammy stared at it for solid few seconds, before finally muttering a quiet ‘fuck it’ and accepting the hand before him. This Henry was no less strong than the one he knew, hauling Sammy to his feet with next to no effort. He wobbled only a little as he straightened, ignoring the way his legs protested standing and how his own tiredness pulled at him. He kept this gaze firmly fixed to some point to the left, not looking Henry in the eye as he took his hand back and began to awkwardly knead it into his shoulder.

          There’s a moment of silence, until a hand was placed on his other shoulder, Henry’s words soft, but understanding, “It’s not something to be ashamed about, what happened earlier.”

          Sammy’s lips pursed, shaking his head as he shrugged the hand off, “That doesn’t really make me feel better . . .”

          A little rude? Yes, but then he’s never really been known for acting any other way. And while maybe he meant well, Sammy was still embarrassed, and no amount of consoling was really going to soothe that, no matter how understandable it might be.

         Henry doesn’t seem to take any offense to it, though. Instead, all he said was, “I know.”

         The other man turned away, fishing something off of the ground before holding it out for Sammy to take; the pipe he had dropped when he’d been shoved inside the closet. He looked at it with nothing but distaste, but he accepted it with a begrudging frown, knowing it was better than walking around defenseless. The metal was cold in his hands, a little slick from the ink, but the weight of it was a little reassuring. The thought of using it though . . .

         A sudden swell of bitterness rose up inside him, curdling sour with the fear already churning in his gut, “This is really happening, isn’t it?”

         He still doesn’t look at Henry, but he could hear the solemnity in the man’s voice very clearly, “Yes. It is.”

         Sammy sighed again, running a trembling hand through his hair like that would somehow chase away all his distress. It doesn’t, of course. In fact, feeling the crusted tangles in his hair where the ink had dried might have only made him feel even worse.

          After giving him a moment to come to terms with that, Henry eventually shifted his grip on his axe and asked, “Ready?”

          Sammy glared at the wall, “No.”

          Henry huffed slightly, “Me neither. Let’s go.”

          The man began to walk, and Sammy trailed after him, beginning to glance at his surroundings with a wary and uneasy eye. Just what else was out there? He shuddered to think. Not to mention the state of the place. Pipes, ink dripping everywhere, rotted walls and floorboards . . . how long ago had it been since this place had gone to hell? And . . . what had happened to everyone in it? Had they . . . made it out? Or were they . . .?

          He shut that line of thought down immediately. He knew he was a pessimist who griped about his coworkers day-in and day-out . . . but even he didn’t want to think like that.

          “Try not to think about it too hard,” Henry’s voice cut through Sammy’s own worried thoughts, apparently having read them, “It won’t do you any good. Trust me.”

          “Tch,” he groused, gripping the pipe in his hands a little harder, “Easier said than done . . .”

         “I know,” Henry said again, checking around a corner before moving on, “But telling you now means it’ll be in the back of your mind every time you try.”

         Sammy grunted, glancing at his companions’ back. Alright, so maybe this Henry had the same simple sense his coworker had. But questions still pricked at his mind like little thorns regardless. Questions that . . . weren’t very good, but were there anyway. Its hard not to think about . . .

        “Do you still write music?”

        That caught him by surprise, and he gave the man in front of him a bewildered stare, “What?”

         Henry shrugged, inquiring again, “Do you still write music? That’s all.”

         Sammy quirked an eyebrow, growing a little suspicious, “. . . why are you asking me that?”

         The other man gave him a one-armed shrug, “Well, we can talk while we walk, can’t we?”

        “You sure you want to be talking now?” Sammy asked, giving a very pointed look at their surroundings. He wasn’t sure what had come over the other man, but a Q & A in the middle of a cursed studio seemed almost unhinged.

        “So long as we keep it quiet,” Henry said, “But . . . if you’re not comfortable answering, that’s fine.”

        Hmph . . .

         Sammy glanced around again, just to make doubly sure it was just them, before finally deciding to answer with a hushed, “Yes, I still write.”

         Henry kept his eyes forward, but he sounded pleased when he replied, “That’s good. Is it . . . still for your studio?”

         Sammy nodded, remembered Henry couldn’t see that, then said, “Of course I do. Anybody else would just botch the job.”

         Henry huffed what almost could be taken for a laugh before continuing, “Still protective of it, I see.”

         “Not protective, just rational,” Sammy defended.

         “Ah, of course,” Henry conceded, sounding amused. Then, he asked, “I know it’s probably a dumb question, but are you still gunning for Broadway?”

         Sammy paused, surprised. Oh sure, there may have been one or two times he’d thought about it, but eventually he’d decided he didn’t even particularly want that sort of stardom. For the most part, he was fine where he was at.

         But he had never really told anybody that . . . so why did this guy know?

         “Why do you ask?” Sammy questioned, trying not to sound suspicious.

         “Well . . .” Henry suddenly sounded awkward, rubbing the back of his head, “Here, at least, Sammy would talk about it when we shared a smoke break. Said he couldn’t wait to get out. I thought, maybe, it’d be similar?”

         Henry waited for his response, but Sammy’s mind was now very far away from his question.

         Here, he’d said. In this world. Another world, with another Henry, in another Drew Studios, and it should have been obvious from the start, but it was only now that he really, truly considered it; the very real, very disturbing fact that there would be another Sammy in this world too. Another version that looked like him and spoke like him and moved like him, a reflection without the glass. A version this Henry obviously knew.

          A reflection that he had . . . already run into . . . a crazed reflection that believed Bendy, of all things, to be some kind of god (even though that thing can’t really be Bendy, it was . . . too vicious, too monstrous, to be), so removed from any kind of reality he understood that Sammy genuinely doesn’t want to believe its him at all, just some dark, inky specter that happened to have a similar voice. Because accepting that, accepting it to be true . . . what the hell did that say about him?

         “Sammy?” he heard Henry ask, having ceased walking because Sammy now realized he had stopped walking, looking at him with concern.

          Shivering a little and compulsively glancing behind him, feeling suddenly paranoid, Sammy swallowed down his nerves and inquired, “Henry . . . back before you . . . before you found me. In that room, there was a, a thing. A monster . . .”

          He can see by the sudden gleam in Henry’s eyes that the man already knew where this was going, and his expression flipped between sorrow and pity, “Sammy . . .”

          “That wasn’t really me, was it? Sure, it sounded like me, but I’m not some raving cultist! How could I become some raving cultist? I make it a point to not stroke that devil’s already overblown ego, and that’s gotta be true here, you said yourself I wanted to leave this place, leave the show! That thing couldn’t be me, it couldn’t!”

          But even as he went on, Henry’s face doesn’t change at all save for a small frown darkening the corners of his lips. He doesn’t interrupt Sammy, oh no, he doesn’t say anything at all . . . but somehow, that sad silence spoke so much louder than any words possibly could have.

          And already, he felt his hope flagging, even as he waited for Henry to tell him to calm down, to tell him it was fine and that it wasn’t what he thought it was, “Its . . . it’s not me, right? That thing isn’t me . . .”

          Henry closed his eyes, like he was mulling something over in his head, planning out what to say like Sammy had seen him do hundreds of times before when tensions were on the high-strung side of things. And when he finally opened them again, the melancholy there was almost overwhelming, “Sammy . . . down here, nobody’s in there right of mind. Nobody.”

          That was all he said as he turned forward again, gesturing with his axe to keep following. And, after a moment, Sammy does follow, because what else can he do? Even when it felt like his skin was crawling, his thoughts whirling around a faceless creature that believed a demon to be its savior. The dark, musty corridors were already oppressive and threatening before, but now there was an added air of anticipation. Like at any moment, a madman with his voice would spring out from the shadows, an honestly terrifying thought in its own right.

          “W-where-,” Sammy winced and forcefully cleared his throat, hating the way his traitorous voice shook, “Where is it now, then? The other . . . me.”

          Henry shrugged, voice low, “He ran off. I don’t know where.”

          Not encouraging.

          “How?” he mumbled quietly, still unable to come to terms with the fact that some babbling sycophant could possibly have any connection to him. Was supposed to be him, “How does something like that even . . .?”

          “I don’t know,” Henry replied, sounding like he wasn’t even talking to Sammy anymore, “All this happened . . . after I left. I don’t know . . .”

          Sammy stared at him, the words ‘leave’ and ‘Henry’ making him backtrack, “You left? As in . . . you quit?”

          “I did. A long time ago,” Henry replied, but he made no further elaboration on that point. No whys or ands or hows about it.

          Its . . . utterly bizarre to hear. Henry, quitting the studio. Every person back home knew that the man was the most loyal out of any of them, who’d stuck through the highs and lows since the beginning, weathering everything no matter how bad it had gotten at times. And yet, here, in this strange and frankly unnatural mirror world, it was all turned upside down.

          It really didn’t do anything to alleviate his anxiety about a crazy and unhinged duplicate of himself running around in an already dangerous place. God, what he would give to just . . . wake up. To have it all really just be a bad dream.

          But it wasn’t.

          “Sorry for bringing it up . . .” the sudden apology has him looking up at Henry, brow furrowing.

          “What?” he asked, genuinely perplexed.

          “I meant to just . . . take your mind off of what was happening,” Henry explained quietly, head bowed, “Not remind you of it.”

          Sammy sighed, too tired to be annoyed, too anxious to pretend to be annoyed, “Does it really matter in the long run? All I have to do is look at a wall, and I remember I’m not home.”

          “Hm, I guess that’s true,” Henry replied, “Still . . .”

          “Look, just . . . forget about it,” Sammy said, frowning a little, “It’s not like it’s your fault I’m here.”

          “Hm . . .”

          Henry stopped walking then, and Sammy could see that they had reached the end of the hall, an old, rickety door blocking their way. Henry waved him back before moving towards it, hefting his axe as he put his other hand on the knob. Nervously, Sammy held his own pipe at the ready, not sure what the hell he was going to do with it, but deciding he’d at least try to aim for the head if something nasty came through.

          With a slow twist, the door clicked open and swung forward with a soft creak. Henry’s body blocked most of the room from view, but with the way the man suddenly inhaled, Sammy was immediately on edge.

          “What, what is it?!” he whispered urgently, fingers tightening around his only weapon.

          Henry didn’t respond, but the hand holding his axe dropped weakly to his side, shoulders stooping. The man glanced back to him, and he looked indecisive, troubled . . .

          “Henry?” Sammy questioned, growing more than a little concerned by whatever was happening, attempting to peer over the man’s shoulders to see what was going on, “Are we in danger or not?!”

          Henry looked away, back into the room, then sighed and let the door swing the rest of the way open, “. . . no, we’re not in any danger. But . . . but try not be afraid, alright?”

          Oh, well, that just made him feel loads better, didn’t it? He was about to ask what the hell he meant by that, when the man suddenly stepped to the side and afforded Sammy a clear view of the room beyond.

          Only to see at least a dozen pairs of glowing yellow eyes staring back.

          A rather undignified noise rose up in the back of his throat, his whole body going rigid even though his knees felt suddenly weak, locked unbendingly between fight-or-flight as he took in the sight of the vaguely humanoid shapes of several ink-creatures standing listlessly in the room beyond. Black residue continually sluiced down their bodies, their frames looking near-skeletal beneath the sludge, the only clear defining features on them the supernatural glow of their eyes. They made absolutely no sound, save for one small creature curled against the wall, the sound of soft sobs trickling from them in an unbroken stream.

          The hand that appeared on his shoulder made him start, whirling to Henry with wide eyes. The man himself hadn’t looked away from the creatures within, his face sad, “They’re not dangerous. I promise. Just stay close to me.”

          And, like a madman, Henry walked into the room.

          Sammy held his breath, half-expecting the creatures within to surge forward with mindless abandon as soon as this intruder entered their domain. But instead, they do nothing except stare.

          Henry looked back at him, “Come on.”

          Sammy gave him a disbelieving look, which elicited only a slight eyeroll and a shake of a head as Henry carried on. But as it was becoming clearer that this Henry wasn’t going to see reason like a sane person, and deciding he didn’t want to be left alone in the hall, Sammy took a deep breath.

          Just act like you’re in the studio. He told himself, Everyone left you alone there.

          The second it took to step over the threshold was the longest second of his life, it felt like, waiting for something to shriek and roar and attack him out of the blue. But . . . it was the same as before. Nothing except those eerie sobs, with empty eyes that only stared at him as he entered.

          Still very nervous but a little emboldened that he hadn’t been immediately assaulted, Sammy hurried to catch up with the other man, doing his level best to keep at least five feet between himself and every other creature in the room. A hard task, since the room itself was fairly small.

          But as they walked to the other side, the questions began to rise in Sammy’s mind.

          Keeping his voice very low, he put it to out there, “So . . . what are these things?”

          “. . . they’re called Lost Ones,” Henry answered, glancing at one of the creatures in question.

          “And . . . what is that?”

          The man seemed . . . reluctant to answer, thumb running over the course wood of his axe handle as he worried at his bottom lip. Then, with a weary sigh, he replied, “They’re . . . they’re what’s left of those who were . . . trapped in the ink. Souls of . . . of people. Humans . . .”

          Sammy’s stomach clenched, and even to his ears, his voice sounded very small, “. . . humans?”

          His gaze wandered to his right, straight into the golden eyes of one of the ‘Lost Ones’, eyes that were filled with measureless unhappiness. It stared back, not saying a word, maybe unable to say a word, but beneath all that ink and unnaturalness, it was a . . . a person? A person, who could have been anyone in the past. Someone who worked here? Who?

          Is it someone I know?

          It was just one stray thought, one tiny little thought that graced him only in passing. But the sheer horror it brought hit him like a truck, leaving him feeling winded, short-of-breath, throat suddenly constricting as his thoughts began to spin with horrible hypotheticals.

          There was another him here, somewhere. Another Henry, standing just beside him. Who’s to say it wasn’t possible that others were too!

          And the eyes, staring at him, hopeless, despairing, it was completely possible somewhere in there was a coworker he had worked with before! Someone from the band? The animation department? Could the eyes staring at him now be Wally, or Norman, or, oh god, could they be Susie?!

          “O-oh my god . . .” he whispered, covering his mouth with a shaking hand, feeling sick.

          Something grabbed him by the elbow, and suddenly he was being dragged away, breaking contact with the creature he had been looking at. He stumbled a little, a string of confused and half-hearted protests leaving his lips until they both entered the adjoining room, one that was empty. It was only then Henry let him go, and Sammy moved away from him, but for once, anger is the last thing he was feeling right then. Because all he can think of is a pair of despondent eyes, and who, exactly, lay beyond them.

          “W-who are they?” he asked shakily, voice coming out raspy, thin, a tinny he couldn’t control, “Henry, who were they?!”

          Henry closed his eyes, face turned to the ground like he was too ashamed to look up. He didn’t answer.

          And that . . . that just made him even more upset, “W-what the hell happened here? What the FUCK happened to them?! H-how are many other people are down here?!”

          Henry was silent for a very long time, and he thought he wasn’t going to reply again. But when he did finally speak, its with a heaviness to his voice that no man should ever have to carry, “. . . Are you sure you want to know the answers to those?”

          Henry let that question hang. And Sammy realized, with a shiver, that he already had the answer.

          No.

          He doesn’t.

          _

          The journey progressed in sullen silence after that, Sammy’s mind bogged down by his thoughts and constantly checking over his shoulder, every nerve on edge. Henry didn’t try to break the quiet, and neither did he, although he honestly can’t tell if that’s for the best or not. Small talk was never really his forte, but stewing in his own anxiety-ridden thoughts wasn’t exactly pleasant either. It made every unnatural creak and groan of metal sound so much louder, and it never failed to put him on edge, like some mouse that jumped at every shadow.

          They were fortunate in that they didn’t encounter anything like what they had run from before, or anymore . . . anymore Lost Ones . . . but he still nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice suddenly called softly from a nearby door, “Over here!”

          He had his pipe up at the ready instantly, whirling to the spot it had come from, only for Henry to wave him down as the man stepped forward despite the telling grip on his axe, “Al? Is that you?”

          Beside them, a fairly plain wooden door creaked slowly open, and the familiar-ish shape of Not-Alice stepped through, looking relieved, “Henry. Thank god, I was afraid the demon had caught you!”

          The man gave her a half-shrug, smiling faintly, “Well, he’s failed every time so far.”

          The toon(?) nodded before glancing down either side of the hall, questioning, “Nothing’s followed you, right?”

          “Just our new friend,” Henry replied, nodding Sammy’s way.

          The woman’s eyes ghosted over to him, narrowing a little, “Right. And has our new friend learned not to yell in the studio?”

          The question was very obviously aimed at him, and Sammy experienced an emotion that was so rare for him to feel it honestly caught him off guard a little; guilt. Because his yelling had put them all in danger, he realized now, had drawn all that attention to them and almost gotten them killed.

          So, running a hand on the back of his neck and looking away, he muttered, “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’ve learned.”

          He can imagine the two trading a glance before Not-Alice spoke again, “Well . . . okay. Just make sure you apologize to Tom, too. He’s . . . not very happy with you right now.”

          Sammy grimaced, but didn’t contest her words. He’d probably be pretty pissed too if someone had almost gotten him killed.

          She opened the door just a little further, gesturing, “Come on. Me and Tom found a place we can hole up in for now. Sturdy walls and a sturdier door.”

          “Sounds good,” Henry agreed, looking relieved as he took her up on her offer. Sammy trialed after him, glancing at Not-Alice (Al?) as he passed. She was looking back, her expression not as hard as he would have thought. Rather, she looked more curious than anything, even though she didn’t ask him any questions at all. Her eyes were yellow . . .

          Suddenly feeling very uncomfortable with her stare, Sammy hastily looked away.

          He didn’t want to think about that anymore . . .

          The shelter she spoke of wasn’t far away at all, thank god, a small room tucked away in a dark, lonely corner with a heavy metal door and an even heavier lock. Why was it metal? Who knows, and frankly, he couldn’t care less if it meant momentary safety. ‘Al’ knocked on it with a soft but noticeable rhythm before opening it, ushering them both inside.

          Beyond, the room was small, with stacks of worn crates and old tarps and rough carpets scattered all over the floor. There was a singular table in the back, empty aside from several pipes and a broken cog, as well as a tall, lanky figure of Tom standing over them. The wolf’s head turned immediately as Al shut the door, glancing over Henry and settling on his toon companions for a little longer, ears twitching forward.

          Then the dog’s eyes flicked over to Sammy, and his lips curled into a snarl, an angry growl rising in the back of his throat.

          Furiously, the toon pointed harshly at Sammy, turning to Al with a heated expression on his face. The woman held up her hands, voice calm, “Its alright, Tom. I think Sammy’s learned his lesson.”

          The wolf huffed, clearly not convinced, looking on the verge of throwing Sammy out himself. Wary, he took a step back, ready to put the nearest heavy thing he found between him and the wolf.

          “And-!,” Al interjected before the other toon acted on it, “He has something to say to you. Don’t you, Sammy?”

          Ah . . . that.

          “Um . . .” he met the angry toon’s stare, fighting with his own internal embarrassment as he fiddled with the pipe in his hands, “Look, I . . . I’m . . . sorry, okay?”

          He left it at that, because apologizing was not exactly something Sammy was good at. But if it meant he wouldn’t get kicked out then . . . small sacrifice.

         The wolf cocked an eyebrow, frowning. Beside him, Henry added to Sammy’s case, “He didn’t know what was here, Tom. He didn’t know how dangerous it really was. I know you’re upset, but if he really hadn’t learned his lesson, do you think I’d be here?”

         . . . thanks, Henry . . .

         Tom snorted, crossing his arms, and while it was clear he was still displeased, the fur along his shoulders was starting to flatten. Looking at Sammy once more, the wolf pressed the tips of his thumb and index together, placed them at the corner of his mouth, then dragged them purposefully over his lips, glaring pointedly at him like Sammy didn’t already get the message.

         “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Sammy mumbled, feeling a stirring of annoyance he usually felt when someone treated him like an idiot.

         The wolf huffed, then purposefully turned his back, busying himself with the objects on the table. Al gave a quiet sigh before turning and turning to the door behind her, driving the heavy lock home. As soon as it clicked shut, Sammy felt his muscles relax just a little.

          No sooner had they done that did his exhaustion suddenly sweep through him as if to remind him just how tired he was, his eyelids drooping heavily as his shoulder sagged.

          A light nudge to his shoulder snagged his attention, and he glanced back to see Henry staring at him. The man gestured to one of the carpets on the floor, “You should probably sit down. It’s been . . . a bit of an eventful day.”

          That was putting it very lightly.

          Still, with a grunt, Sammy did just that, not even caring if the thing he was sitting on was probably several decades old, hard, and pretty uncomfortable. He leaned back against one of the crates with a sigh, letting it take his weight as he closed his eyes, the aches and pains in his body feeling far away. Around him, he heard movement and low whispers, Henry and Al, and the clattering of metal bits as Tom did . . . whatever he was doing.

          Fuck, he was tired . . . so tired even the worst of his thoughts were drifting away . . .

          . . .

          Its an indeterminable amount of time later when a nudge to his shoulder startled him awake, not even realizing he had fallen asleep in the first place. He looked around in alarm, only to find Henry crouching next to him, a can of . . . something in his hand. Behind him, he could see Al and Tom sitting together across the room, the woman talking while the wolf listened, even though his eyes were firmly fixed on the door.

          “Hey, it’s just me,” the man said softly, “Thought you might be hungry, and there happened to be a few cans in here.”

          He held said can out to him and Sammy wrinkled his nose at the contents he saw within, “Is that . . . bacon soup?”

          Henry shrugged, “Yeah . . . its all that’s really down here.”

          Sammy frowned at it, making it no subtle thing his distaste for it. He had never liked this stuff, finding its consistency gross whether warm or cold, horribly over salted and with bits of ‘bacon’ meat as tough as old leather.

          But his hollow stomach, even after all it had been through, now had that aching pang associated with hunger rolling through it, and the smell of the soup, though it was its typical burnt bacon smell, teased at it.

          “Is there really nothing else?” he asked pleadingly, looking at the man.

           Henry grimaced, “Yeah.”

          Sammy gave the can a last, loathsome stare before grabbing it, resigning himself to his fate . . . only to abruptly realize he had no utensil to eat it with.

          Henry had apparently read the look on his face, “Sorry. No spoons.”

          He stared at the man, “So I’m just . . . supposed to drink it out of the can.”

          “Yep.”

          Sammy gave the man a hard stare before sighing, glaring down at the can in his hands. He gave it a swirl, grimacing when he saw the chunks floating in it. With a shake of his head, he held his nose, closed his eyes, and took a swig.

          Uck, it was just as bad as he remembered!

          Grimacing, he forced himself to swallow, coughing a little as it went down, “Ugh . . . how do you eat this stuff so regularly?”

          “If it makes you feel better, I’d rather eat literally anything else by this point,” Henry said, not a hint of a joke in his voice.

          Sammy huffed, “Finally admit how disgusting this stuff is?”

          “Well, it loses its charm after the first fifty cans or so,” Henry said, grousing a little.

          Sammy rolled his eyes a little before looking at the soup in his hand, debating whether or not to try for another ‘drink’, when Henry suddenly sat next to him, knocking back the soup he had in his own hands, “Uh, yes? Did you need something?”

          “I . . . just wanted to ask how you were holding up,” Henry said, “You know . . .”

          Sammy leaned back against the crate, eyes falling to the floor, frowning hard, “How the hell do you think? I’m in another world where the studio I work at is filled with monsters, I’ve been almost killed twice, and I have no idea how to get home! I’m doing just fucking peachy.”

          The other man’s eyes were sympathetic, “Yeah, I guess it is a dumb question when you phrase it like that.”

          “Yeah, it really is,” Sammy grumbled.

          “. . . well, at least we’re safe enough for now,” Henry said, “And after everyone’s rested, we can start planning out what to do.”

          “Are you meaning to tell me that you’ve been walking around this entire time without a plan?” Sammy said, staring at him in disbelief.

          “We did have a plan. Still do, I guess, but . . . it didn’t exactly count for you,” Henry told him, setting his can on the ground, “Believe it or not, but you’re just as much of a surprise to us as we are to you.”

          Sammy stared a little longer. Then, “Alright, touché.”

          With a wince, Sammy rolled one of his shoulders back, feeling it give a relieving pop, when he noticed a pair of golden eyes staring at him from across the room. Al was watching him, her gaze hawkish in intensity, and he could see a burning curiosity in her eyes the kind of which he’d seen in newbie hires who had just learned their studio’s little secret.

          “What?” he asked her, eyebrow lifting.

          Al straightened a little, looking slightly embarrassed about having been caught before idly beginning to toy with the tool belt around her waist, “I’m sorry, I just . . . I was just curious about you.”

          Sammy blinked. That wasn’t exactly a line he was unfamiliar with, but anyone who had ever been ‘curious’ about him quickly had it curbed when they were only met with dry and oftentimes rude remarks. Still . . . a tiny part of himself wondered what exactly this toon here would find curious about him, “About what?”

          “Just . . .” Al glanced at Henry almost uncertainly before shifting it back, “Just that, you’re from someplace completely different from this one. A different studio . . . a different world. What’s not to be curious about?”

          Ah. Well, that was indeed the obvious answer, wasn’t it?

          “I guess,” Sammy finally said, ignoring the suspicious glare Tom gave him.

          “Could you tell us about it?”

          Sammy sat up a little straighter, surprised, “Huh?”

          Al continued, leaning forward enthusiastically, “Could you tell us about your studio? What is it like? Are there other people there? Can you go outside? I really . . . really want to know.”

          Normally, Sammy would say something along the lines of ‘get lost’ to an interview like that . . . but while this toon is not the Alice who knew, there was still just enough in her that the sudden hopeful sparkle in her eyes was very hard to say ‘no’ to and genuinely mean it. Quietly, he glanced around at the other two occupants in the room. Tom was watching the door again, but Sammy could see one of his ears was swiveled in his direction, perhaps more interested than he let on, and Henry . . . well, he was watching the door too, the angle making it hard to see his face.

          Running a hand through his hair, he huffed a semi-annoyed sigh before grumbling, “Alright. Not like I have anything else to do . . .”

          Al scooted forward on the crate she was sitting on even more, listening intently, all her focus on him. And, though he started a little stiltedly (he was never the story-telling type), the more he went on about his occupation, the easier it became to talk about it. He started with his own job, then branched out to the departments, the people, the bullshit of some of those people, so on and so forth. Al never interrupted him either, absorbing everything like some vaguely human-shaped sponge, and at some point, even Tom had begun to switch his attention between him and the door.

          It reached a head when he told them about the toons, Al’s mouth dropping open completely in shock, “The Ink Demon’s alive in our world?! That’s dangerous, it could kill somebody!”

          Sammy waved her down, “Hey, hey, hey, he might be an obnoxious little ink blot, but . . . he’s not a killer. Not like . . . whatever the fuck that thing out there is.”

          His hand unconsciously rose to his neck, massaging the still-bruised flesh there, feeling that familiar shiver travel down his spine again.

          “Are you sure?” Al pressed, alarm still gleaming bright in her golden eyes.

          He narrowed his eyes at her, “Yes, I’m sure. He’s worked there for thirty years, I think something would have happened by now if he was dangerous!”

          “. . . he works there?”

          Sammy turned his head to the right, looking at Henry with quiet surprise. It was the first time the man had said anything since he’d started talking, and the look on his face was that of a child who’d just been told Santa Claus was actually the neighbor next door.

          Not that it was so surprising that they would be . . . taken aback by that.

          “Yeah, he works there. All the toons do,” Sammy explained, “When Joey first summoned him, he . . . kinda got it wrong, but he wasn’t dangerous. In fact, Bendy was pretty pissed off with Joey for neglecting the show in the time he’d been wasting fiddling around with satanic magic. So pissed he actually appointed himself the head of the animation department just to get things back on track.”

          Henry looked gob smacked by this, “He . . . he made himself the head of the animation department. Bendy.

          Sammy nodded, “Mhm. I mean, Joey’s still technically the boss, but the little ‘dancing demon’ is really the one making sure everyone does what they’re supposed to. It was actually . . . sort of nice at first. We actually got things done on time.”

          Then he frowned, hunching in with crossed arms and an angry scowl, “And then he started the pranks . . .”

          It was dead silent at first, Al staring in shocked wonder, Tom . . . well, not speaking like normal(?), but not growling either, ears standing straight up, and Henry sitting stock-still and openmouthed beside him. You’d think he had said something obscene, to elicit these sorts of reactions.

          And then, out of the blue . . . Henry snorted.

          Everybody’s gaze snapped to him, but nobody looked more surprised than Henry himself, who had slapped a hand over his mouth, staring around in shock . . . and just a little bit of wonder. And he must still be thinking about what Sammy had just said, because the man’s shoulders started to shake, his eyes crinkling the way the way Sammy had seen them do before when he was on the verge of completely losing it, the edges of a smile peeking out behind his hand as barely restrained chortles slipped between his fingers.

          Al and Tom look utterly bewildered by it, staring at Henry openly, wide-eyed. The whole picture, two clueless toons and an animator who was barely keeping it together, was . . . amusing.

          And by god, he needed amusing.

          So, with an almost impish smirk, he carried on, “I hear he gets into fights with the P.R department a lot. Never seem to agree on what the promotional material should be, especially after Joey made him wear a sailor suit and a lifesaver for a summer special.”

          The chuckling rose up into full-on guffaw before Henry could quell it completely, coughing as he fought to stymie his own laughter.

          “Aaand he wear’s the stupidest disguises when he goes out. Trench coat and gag glasses. Fake nose, mustache and everything, and he thinks its clever.”

          Henry’s other hand went up to his mouth now, as if the double reinforcement would somehow stop what was coming. By now, Al’s face had softened entirely, pressing her fingers to her lips as a smile teased its way out, while Tom settled for simply watching in bemused wonder.

          Sammy’s smirk grew just a little more, “Oh, I almost forgot! He likes to think he’s over it, but most everybody knows for a fact that he still likes to ride around on Boris’ shoulders because it helps him feel tall. And he haaates when you call him out on it.”

           Henry couldn’t hold it back anymore. Throwing his head back, the man laughed uproariously, so hard honest-to god tears started forming in his eyes, wrapping one arm around his stomach while he clapped the other against his head. Sammy found his own lips pulling just a little bit higher, a little more genuinely, and maybe the fact that he doesn’t think he’s seen this Henry crack even one real smile before is making the effect stronger. But then, no matter where, Henry’s laughter has always been what one would call ‘infectious’. Maybe that was just true even in another world.

          Either way . . . it made him feel a little less worse.

          “Th-that-!” Henry tried to say, nearly losing it again as he rocked back against the crate, “That is . . . so ridiculous!”

          Sammy inclined his head to him, finger-quoting, “Trust me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg at ‘Hell’s Studio’.”

          “Hell’s Studio, huh?” Henry echoed, “Got a name for it and everything?”

          “Well, I don’t know who coined it, but its stuck,” Sammy replied, shrugging but feeling strangely satisfied.

          “Ha . . .” Henry leaned back, laughter dying down but his smile standing firm, looking more at ease than Sammy has ever seen him, “Man . . . I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in ages . . .”

          “It suits you,” Al said with a smile, “And . . . your ‘Hell’s Studio’, Sammy . . .  well, it sounds wonderful.”

          Tom grunted, and Sammy wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be discouraging or not.

          “Hm, I’d tell you to see it first before you say that,” Sammy said.

          “I’d like to, I think,” was her reply, and he can tell she meant it, “I really would.”

          The silence after that is a little more sobering, until the toon woman leaned forward again, a little sheepish but excited, “Can . . . I hear more about your Alice? I’m curious.”

          Sammy leaned back against the crate behind him, deciding to indulge her. And, in a strange, roundabout way, indulge himself, because while talking about his home was a little melancholic . . . it was also a little good.

          And for a while, maybe just for him, maybe for all of them, it made the monsters and the sad eyes of the Lost Ones seem far away.

Chapter Text

           His steps carried him forward to a destination he didn’t know, the ground feeling solid beneath the soles of his shoes yet rippling like water with every step he took. The dripping of ink was the only sound, but there was a melody in the tinkling, a soft song so familiar that he almost remembered what it was right before it slipped out of reach.

          He kept walking, pace quickening.

          He’s . . . trying to find something? Someone? It’s all on the tip of his tongue, tempting, tantalizing, tortuously close . . . what was it?

          Faster now, a light jog. He needed to get somewhere, somewhere that wasn’t here.

          The melody in the ripples grew louder, rising up with falsetto symphony. The voices inside whispered, making promises, promises he wanted to trust. Somewhere, he heard his name be called . . .

          Where am I supposed to go?

          He was running now, chasing after that ephemeral voice and all its little promises amidst the old songs he doesn’t remember. It’s the only thing he can do.

          He has no other choice.

           Sammy woke to the sound of something clattering against the ground, a sound that immediately snapped his senses into overdrive until he heard a soft curse from Henry. Which only further grabbed his attention anyway, because Henry doesn’t really curse. There was the drag of something metallic as it was picked up off the floor, followed by soft muttering before everything settled back into gentle silence.

          But Sammy was already too awake to drift back to sleep. So, with a tired huff, he rolled onto his back and sat up, rubbing at his eyes as they adjusted to the light.

          “Hey,” Henry murmured quietly from where he sat, throwing an apologetic glance his way, “Sorry for waking you.”

          Sammy grunted before stretching, wincing a little at the lingering soreness in his back and legs. He might have been exhausted, but old and potentially moldy carpets weren’t feather beds, that was sure.

          “How’d you sleep?” Henry asked, gaze falling back to the object he was fiddling with in his hands; some strange little hand-held widget with a piece of glass strapped at the center, one he vaguely recalled dangling from Henry’s belt. Must have been what he dropped.

          Shifting off the linen sheet he’d used as a blanket, helpfully accosted from the back of the room by Al, Sammy replied, “. . . better than I thought I would.” 

          And that much was . . . mostly true. But his dreams had been . . . strange. Not even disturbing, just strange. A rippling darkness like he’d been walking in a lightless pool, and . . . whispering. A lot of whispering . . .

          Henry smiled a little, “That’s good. Do you feel any better?”

          Sammy stared at him, his eyes slits, and Henry conceded with a nod of his head, “Alright, dumb question.”

          “Where are the other two?” Sammy asked, glancing around to the room starkly bereft of two toons.

          “Exploring,” Henry said, “Getting a feel for the layout of this level and maybe find a few useful supplies.”

          “Ah . . .” he supposed that made sense. Though, what you could find that was useful down here, he didn’t know.

          Sammy watched as the other man held up the thing in his hands, looking through the glass with narrowed eyes. Curiosity roused, Sammy leaned forward and asked, “So, just what is that thing your holding?”

          “Oh, this?” Henry started, glancing his way, “I call it a Seeing Tool. It lets me read hidden messages on the walls.”

          “Hidden messages . . . on the walls,” Sammy said, and while his voice was flat, inside he was just a little worried by that.

          “Mhm,” Henry said, nonplussed, “There’s one in this room, actually.”

          Sammy pursed his lips into a thin line and looked around at the seemingly blank walls very warily, just a little bit creeped out, “Uh-huuuh . . .”

          “Here,” Henry said, holding out the ‘Seeing Tool’, “Take a look for yourself.”

          Sammy stared at it, glanced at Henry once, then back at the object, almost like it was personally offending him. Then, his potentially morbid curiosity ultimately winning, he sighed and took it, “Alright, so . . . what do I do?”

          “Just look through it. You’ll find it soon.”

          Ominous. Still, after a protracted sigh, Sammy held it up and looked through the unusually polished glass affixed to the widget’s heart. At first, all he saw were the same blank walls, empty of anything save the grime and the inky markings Al had started to draw seemingly to pass the time.

          Until a glimmer of gold caught his eyes, drawing them up close to the ceiling, where several words had been written by a neat hand, completely unseeable before;

          It’s Alright To Laugh.

          Sammy stared at it, both curious and a little creeped out by the implications of it being there, “Uh . . . who, exactly, is leaving these?”

          Henry chuckled softly, for reasons Sammy could not understand, “Nobody dangerous, I think it’s safe to say.”

          Sammy’s eyes narrowed, frowning, “And how can you be sure? Do you know the guy?”

          Henry just smiled all mysteriously before holding out his hand, and Sammy gave the strange device back, eyeing him suspiciously. Not that he necessarily distrusted this Henry (the man had saved his life twice, after all), but when people said things like that without elaborating or explaining, well . . .

          He didn’t get to ponder it longer, for the door suddenly jerked open with a metallic whine, startling him.

          He relaxed a little when Al and Tom stepped through, the wolf toon shutting the door behind them while Al made her way to the table, arms laden with various things.

          Standing up, Henry made his way over to her, looking over the things Al deposited on the table, “Any luck?”

          “A little,” she replied, already sifting through the mess, “Two cans of soup, a wrench, a few bolts in case Tom breaks his arm again, and-!”

          She grabbed something from the pile, a small, clear bottle of liquid that she brandished proudly, “Some acetone!”

          Henry’s eyes lit up, “You found some? Great!”

          So said Henry. Sammy himself only felt alarm tingle across his skin, clambering to his feet, “Wait, acetone? Isn’t that dangerous to you two?”

          Anyone who worked at the studio knew that the stuff was as close to acid as could get for the toons. He very distinctly remembered the time when Boris had accidently splashed some on his hand. Poor wolf hadn’t been able to play his clarinet for a few days until it had healed, and purportedly it had been pretty painful too. Frankly, they could do without that here.

           “Oh, good morning, Sammy!” Al said, turning to face him with a glow in her golden eyes like she wasn’t holding a pot of deadly acid in her hand, “The acetone? I suppose it can be, if we don’t handle it properly. But the same could be said for anything else we do here. You know, with the ink, and the monsters . . .”

          Sammy glowered at her with crossed arms, not appreciating the teasing tone, “My point stands.”

          Al only smiled, “Its alright Sammy. I know what I’m doing. But its sweet of you to worry.”

          His eyes narrowed even further, refusing to acknowledge the faint burn he felt in his cheeks, “It’s called being practical. Why can’t Henry use it?”

          “Ah, well . . .” Henry rubbed the back of his head, “Tom’s the only one who knows how to make the bombs, and Al has a better throwing arm . . .”

          “. . . bombs?”

          “Well, I guess its more like a Molotov cocktail,” Henry explained, “It already hurts the monsters here just on its own, but the stuff’s pretty flammable too. Its kind of genius, really.”

          Beside him, Tom grunted, in a way that hinted he might be pleased by the praise.

          “What about the level?” Henry asked, turning his attention back to Al.

          “About what you’d expect,” she said, shrugging, “Twisting halls and a lot of searchers. Didn’t see anything of the Ink Demon, but that might not last.”

          Henry nodded, “Right. We should probably get moving soon.”

          “Agreed.”

          “Go where?” Sammy asked, not too fond of the idea of traipsing around outside, “An exit, I hope.”

          The two glanced at each other, Henry answering, “Well, that’s what we’re trying to find. Not exactly easy.”

          “We’re . . . hoping that if we turn off the Ink Machine, it’ll make it possible,” Al said. Then, in a softer voice, added, “We hope.”

          “The Ink Machine . . .” Sammy growled, not the least bit surprised it was an obstacle. That damn thing had been the bane of his existence for years, of course it would plague him even in another world.

          “I . . . see you already have an idea of what that is,” Henry started cautiously, perhaps seeing the angry light in his eyes.

          Sammy grunted, “Yes. I do.”

          “It’s important we destroy it,” Al reiterated, strapping gear to her tool belt, “The sooner the better. It might even help you out, without its corruption in the way. And we can look for something along the way that might give you an idea of how to get home.”

          Well . . . ramshackle thought it sounded, at least it was a plan. That was more than he had at this point.

          Tom gave a growl of agreement, snatching his axe back up and holstering it to his side. Henry did likewise, making sure his ‘Seeing Tool’ was properly strapped and checking the axe blade’s durability with deft fingers. It was then Sammy realized that he . . . should probably do the same.

          Suddenly uneasy, he went to pick up his pipe, only to be stopped by a slim hand on his shoulder, “Hold on, Sammy.”

          He turned to her, only to furrow his brow when she held out the wrench to him, “This is a little sturdier. Heavier too.”

          Sammy glanced between the wrench and the pipe, able to see for himself that the wrench was ideally more suited to combat that the dented piece of rebar he’d been carrying around. So, pausing only for one moment, he finally accepted the offered weapon, “. . . thanks.”

          Al smiled, looking pleased, “You’re welcome.”

          “Did you want to eat something before we left, Sammy?” Henry asked, eyeing the cans sitting innocuously on the table.

          Sammy’s glare was all the answer the man needed.

          “Okay then. Everyone ready?” Henry asked, taking place by the door.

          Tom and Al nodded, clearly leagues more prepared than Sammy would ever feel. Swallowing, he held up the wrench, as close to a ‘ready’ as they were going to get. Henry understood, then turned the handle on the door and pulled it open. Henry and Al stepped out first, eyes wary and focused.

          Before he could follow, though, a larger and far rougher hand grabbed him by the shoulder, forcing him to a stop. Turning, he saw Tom giving him a particularly mean stink-eye, the wolf pointedly placing a finger to his lips, almost threatening in how aggressive it was.

          Glaring right back, Sammy quietly hissed, “I get it!”

          The toon growled, but released his shoulder, stepping by to follow the others out of the room without another glance. He was really starting to dislike Tom . . .

          Deliberately brushing off the shoulder the toon had touched, Sammy spared their momentary shelter one last glance, eyes trailing over the post where those invisible words rested, before finally departing himself.

          “So, how exactly do you plan to . . . destroy the machine?” Sammy asked when he caught up, keeping his voice low.

           “We’re . . . not really sure,” Al admitted, looking troubled by it, “We’re hoping we’ll find a way to do that when we’re there.”

          “Great,” Sammy mumbled, “And where is it?”

          “Down,” Al replied softly, “To the deepest parts of the studio.”

          There was a heavy ominousness in her words, one that pricked uncomfortably at his skin. He didn’t get to ask anymore questions, though, for Tom waved a hand for quiet.


          It’s a good thing the others seemed to know where they were going, because Sammy had no clue. It all looked the same to him, the place far more maze-like than his own studio, a labyrinth of ink and rotting halls.

          Out here, in the open, it was easy to remember just how much danger the were all in, his eyes furtively glancing around and trying to ignore just how keyed up he felt. Talking was all but nonexistent save for wary questions and soft observations, and anything beyond that was quickly silenced by Tom. It made the eerie groaning of the place sound so much louder.

          Beside him, a small puddle of ink bubbled a little too close to his foot, and Sammy’s lip curled in disgust. True, its not like any more ink would do much to his clothes now, but it was the principle of it. The dripping of the ink came from everywhere, all around. It was a little annoying. But . . . with nobody talking, he could almost hear a rhythm to it. Like the ink had a set tempo to fall to, a beat to follow. There were even moments to it that sounded familiar, like a song that came on the radio and played the beginning of a melody you’d heard right before it changed into something unfamiliar.

          Al and Tom had taken point, Henry just behind them with his axe out, glancing around with a serious eye. Sammy, for his part, just kept glancing behind them, one part of it paranoia, feeling like something in the shadows. But another part . . .     

          It sounded so familiar . . .

          Turning back, he was about to ask if the others heard what he heard, when a familiar tool was suddenly held out to him.

          “Here, why don’t you see if you can find any messages around us,” Henry said, a slight smile on his face, “It’ll give you something to do.”

          “The . . . creepy, invisible messages?” Sammy reiterated, just to be sure they were talking about the same thing.

          “Yes, the creepy, invisible messages,” Henry said, sounding amused.

          Sammy huffed, but took the widget thing anyway. Henry was right, it was something to do. Sides, it wasn’t like the thing that left them was around.

          He hoped . . .

          Shaking his head to banish that thought, Sammy held up the device and looked through it, squinting. There didn’t seem to be anything here, it looked like. Just blank, barren walls.

          Idly, he focused forward towards the group, wondering if maybe there were some on the walls up ahead. And, to his surprise, he did see a sparkle of gold right in front of him. But it wasn’t from a set of words on the walls. It was above Al’s head! A halo, like the one his Alice had! Quietly, eyes wide, Sammy lowered it until the lens was gone, and saw that without it, he couldn’t see anything at all above her head. Just the band that kept her hair in place. Lifting the tool back up again, the halo reappeared. It was completely invisible to the naked eye! Did she even know it was there? Was it to do with the fact that she was a toon?

          Tom turned to her when she asked him a soft question, his ears perking just a little, and Sammy couldn’t quite stymie the quiet snrk when he saw the glowing bone dangling in the canine’s mouth. The wolf’s ear swiveled, soon followed by his eyes, lips turning down into a suspicious frown. Sammy looked away, but didn’t bother to hide his smirk. He heard Tom snort, clearly displeased, but didn’t try to wring an answer out of him. He wouldn’t have gotten one anyway if he tried.

          He noticed Henry glance back at him, looking a little bemused, eyebrow cocked in silent query. Sammy just held up the ‘Seeing Tool’ in response, shrugging. Then, just because he could, Sammy focused it on Henry. He didn’t know what to expect by doing that. To be honest, he didn’t really expect anything at all.

          So when he looked through the lens and saw Henry’s eyes flash a bright and brilliant gold, ‘surprise’ was a pretty subpar word for what he felt.

          He dropped his hands fast, lens falling away and taking that supernatural shine with it, staring in open and undisguised shock. Henry’s eyes were normal again, and a part of him wondered if he had just been seeing things, the stress of what he’d gone through getting to his head.

          Henry stared back, and he noticed the other man’s eyes widen just a little, lips pursing into a tight and almost worried frown.

Then, he looked back up ahead, his voice light, “See anything useful in that thing, Sammy?”

          Sammy blinked, glancing at the tool in his hands, not sure what to say, “U-uh . . . no. No, nothing.”

          Henry didn’t respond. Sammy didn’t try to make him.

          Great, he thought irritably, Now I’m starting to see things . . .

          On the journey went, silent once again. It felt like they had been walking for forever, but made no progress, like the studio itself was trying to impede them in their goal. After a breath, Sammy tried looking through the tool again, this time avoiding the group up front. But nothing seemed to be around them still. Nothing save for all this disgusting ink.

          Who you callin’ disgusting?

          Sammy jumped, yelped, and spun around so fast he almost tripped over his own feet. He stumbled straight into Henry, who caught him by the shoulder, alarmed, “Sammy, what happened?”

          Sammy stared at the man, unbelieving, “You didn’t hear that?!”

          Al and Tom had moved in front of them, weapons drawn, staring down the seemingly empty hall with narrowed eyes.

          “Hear what?” Henry asked, staring down the hall. It was dark behind them, empty space.

          By now, Sammy was starting to doubt himself. God, just what was this place doing to him?!

          “I-I . . .  damn it, I thought I heard something,” he muttered, frowning.

          “Try to keep a clear head,” Al said, looking at him sympathetically, “This place makes you see things sometimes. Hear things-,”

          Tom suddenly grabbed her shoulder, not having looked away from the hall. He growled, long and low, ears straight up and angled forward. Like he was listening for something . . .

          Al’s shoulder grew taut, turning back with her sword angled out, at the ready. At the same time, Henry stepped forward too, nudging Sammy back while he did so. And it wasn’t much longer before their behavior was explained, when a long, low wail echoed to them from down the hall.

          Other voices joined it, until a chorus of howling was resounding all around them, eerie and frightening. And within the shadows, he could see shapes begin to emerge. Dark, slimy, crawling shapes reaching towards them with horribly distended arms, their barely discernible faces and hollow eyes still somehow able to reflect a deep misery. And their cries . . . why did it feel like he could almost understand it?

          “Searchers!” Al shouted before shooting forward. Her sword glinted once in the dim light, a flash of silver, right before slicing one of the creature’s heads clean off.

          Sammy was immediately revolted by the sight, even as Tom joined the fray, dropping his axe square into another’s face. He pulled it out with a sickening squelch, its amorphous body melting into a black and formless puddle. On they went in a murderous metronome, it was all he could do to just not throw up again. He’s honestly a little grateful that Henry stayed close to him, but he can tell the man was ready for anything that came.

          Something gurgled beside them, and Sammy tore his eyes away long enough to see ink rising up through the floor beside them, bubbling like a witch’s cauldron. In the next instant, Henry was shoving him back right as that same sudden pool exploded upwards in a spray of black, another creature throwing itself at the man. Henry caught it’s blow with his axe, shoving it back and swinging. But even as he cut that one down, more were rising up behind it. Oh shit-!

          “AL, TOM!” Henry cried out, raising the alarm. Both toons heard, and after a brief nod, Al came running back through the herd of monsters that had appeared out of nowhere. But several more than Henry could handle were already bearing down on him, and she was still fighting through the horde just to reach him.

          One was in front of Sammy right now, growling like an animal. Its malformed claws were reaching for Henry’s turned back, about to strike a low blow, a potentially lethal blow!

          Maybe his adrenaline was higher than he thought. Maybe he was just that fucking sick and tired of everything this place had thrown at him. And maybe he has no real idea what’s he doing, and he was terrified, and this was reckless, but none of that seemed to really matter as he took the wrench in his hands and swung it harder than he had ever swung anything before.

          The end collided straight into the creature’s head, and it felt like striking at rubber that bent and caved beneath the metal, squishing like tar. The creature groaned and turned to face him, sliding towards him with jerky limbs, and Sammy swung again, smacking it right where it’s jaw would be. That seemed to do it, because then it dissolved, dispersing into a black and oily puddle. He stared at it for just a second, stunned, almost unable to comprehend that he had just done that.

          In the far distance, it sounded like something laughed.

          Then Al was there, sword flashing, and the tide turned. And, shaking himself from his own stupor and bolstered by his victory, he joined in. He tried not to think about what he was hitting, what might be beneath all that ink.

Right now, it was just a matter of surviving.

          The creatures were numerous, but slow and stupid, and it wasn’t long before they were all gone. Panting a little, hands shaking as the adrenaline subsided, he did his best to try and straighten out his appearance before anyone noticed just how frightened he had been.

          A hand appeared on his shoulder, and he looked up to see Henry standing next to him, smiling a little, “Thanks for help. Saved me from a nasty injury back there.”

          Sammy nodded to him haltingly, Henry’s genuinely appreciative tone both warming and a little embarrassing, “Well, what else was I supposed to do, let it take a chunk out of you?”

          Henry chuckled softly, “Fair enough.”

          “You did a good job for your first fight,” Al chimed in, looking approving as she wiped off the edge of her sword, “Keep it up, and we’ll have no trouble at all.”

          Tom grunted, arms crossed and as surly as ever, but at least he didn’t disparage him for his efforts.

          “. . . right,” Sammy said, fiddling with the wrench in his hand.

          “Let’s keep moving,” Henry said, “Never know when they’ll come back.”

          The man scooped down to pick up the tool Sammy had dropped amidst the fight, fastening it to his belt before the four of them moved on. He understood the man’s point. He didn’t like the idea of staying in one spot for too long. But as they left, Sammy couldn’t help but glance back down the hall. Had he . . . really heard something then? Or was he just hallucinating?

          Shaking his head, Sammy forced himself to follow.

          Unaware of the shadow trailing after their heels.

          _

          It was a quiet journey once again, Sammy keyed up in new ways, feeling anxious at the thought of another attack. And, after several close calls, it seemed they had finally reached the destination the others had in mind; an old, rickety elevator to take them down.

          Except . . . it didn’t work. Al had tried to the buttons only for the elevator to groan in protest, and when Tom attempted to look at the wires to see if anything had gotten stuck in the cables, he almost lost his other arm as it jolted.

          Since it had grown obvious that it wasn’t going to take them where they wanted to go, and tired after the trek through the halls, they made camp in another abandoned room. Al made short of work of barring the door, and Tom, using his nose, found several dusty cans of soup hidden in the shelves.

          Joy.

          He had taken up residence in the corner, rolling out his wrists, when Al came over to him, her eyes glimmering in the dark, “Hey Sammy. Are you doing alright? This was your first fight.”

          “Not my first fight,” Sammy corrected, because he is definitely not a stranger to confrontation, “Just . . . the first against a horde of monsters.”

          “That’s fair, I guess,” she said, nodding. Then, she held out the can, “Here. You’re probably hungry.”

          Sammy frowned at it, for a second debating just how long he could go without eating. Then, simple sensibility caught up with him, along with the realization that running around in this place on low energy was a recipe for disaster.

          With a sigh, he accepted, saying grudgingly, “If I die eating this stuff, I will find a way to haunt Joey.”

          Al chuckled a little, one that sounded so similar to Alice’s own bell-like laughter that he had to blink and remind himself that she wasn’t actually here.

          “Your Joey . . .” she finally said, face turning thoughtful, “He sounds . . . different.”

          Sammy cocked an eyebrow, curious himself now, “How so?”

          “From everything you’ve said, he just . . . doesn’t sound like that bad a person,” she explained, shrugging.

          Sammy frowned, debating on whether or not he should speak, before finally deciding this was another world and there was no way it could possibly come back to haunt him, “Well, he’s . . . not. In fact, I’m sure there’s a lotta schmucks out there who’d be all taken in by his weird uncle habits. Really, he’s just a moron.”

          Al nodded, listening as she always did when he talked about his home. Then she glanced behind her, her eyes settling on Henry, “I asked Henry about the Joey here. All he told me was that he was responsible for everything and . . . nothing else. I don’t think he likes him very much.”

         Sammy pursed his lips and took a drink from the can, evincing only a little this time. Yeah, he was very well aware of this Henry’s aversion to the topic, and how the few things he’d had to say about the man here . . . weren’t exactly nice. Like everything here, it was bizarre. Unnatural, even. You’d be hard pressed to find as close a pair of friends who couldn’t be more opposite to each other in personality and temperament back home. If not for their similar passions, they might have never even met.

         And even if he could disregard Henry’s dislike for the man here . . . he found it even harder to believe that every horrible thing here was the man’s fault, not intentionally. Sure, Joey was a reckless moron, but he wasn’t . . . an evil man.

         “I’ll be on watch first,” Al’s voice pulled him back to the present, the toon turning away, “Try to get some sleep soon. We still have a long way to go.”

         He grunted as she moved away, a little disheartened by the fact that she was probably right. Who knows when they’d find the machine, or find an exit, or how he would find a way home . . .

         His eyes found Henry’s almost subconsciously, finding that the man was looking his way anyway. Softly, so just he could hear, he asked, “Henry? Will destroying the machine really get us out of this place?”

         It was something he had been wrestling with all day. Because how does destroying a machine end all of . . . this? How did it really solve anything?

         Henry’s face sobered up, shoulders sagging at his question like it weighed far more heavily on him that Sammy would think, and for a moment, just by seeing the way his frown teetered, Sammy could tell that the man was debating telling him something important . . .

          Then it was gone. Replaced by a smile, “We won’t know unless we try.”

          The man left it at that, turning back to Tom. But Sammy was bothered by the note of bitterness in the man’s voice, like saying that had been like taking a bite out of a sour fruit for him. Frowning himself now, Sammy leaned back against the wall, falling into his own thoughts.

          They weren’t exactly good, just going in circles around his own anxieties. So eventually, he focused instead on the sounds he could hear. There was the activity inside, obviously, but outside, he could still hear the ink as it bubbled and dripped, just like it always did in this miserable place. But listening now, he could almost make out that rhythm to it again, the melody coming right back now that silence reigned supreme again. It could just be his musical ear and his desire for a distraction feeding into it, but even so, he idly began to tap his fingers against the floor in time to it. It was just to occupy his thoughts, really . . . just until his nerves at last settled. That’s what he told himself.

          As time ticked by and the others settled, two into slumber and one to keep watch, Sammy kept up the rhythm, finding it surprisingly easy to fall into. If he was by himself and actually feeling a little relaxed, it was easy for him to just . . . get swept away in music. Which one would think now would be the opposite time he would do that. But . . . it wasn’t hard at all. Surprisingly. It helped that no one made a comment about what he was doing. And it was . . . something to focus on. At the very least.

          Something to focus on . . . until at last his eyes slipped shut, dragging into slumber. But even then, the melody seemed to follow him into his dreams, reverberating around him as he walked in an empty darkness that should have been frightening but . . . wasn’t.

          . . . when did he start humming? Wait, no, he wasn’t humming. Was it the pipes? It must be . . . but when did the groaning of the pipes start to sound like a song?

          Were the others here? He should ask them if they heard it too, because he’s fairly certain that’s not normal. That’s the reasonable thing to do. But reason . . . seemed so small right then. So instead Sammy remained silent, his eyes travelling to some point ahead of him, an invisible goal he couldn’t see, but felt he had to reach. And still . . . it sounded familiar.  So familiar. Where had he heard this before?

          He took a step toward it, closer, ears straining to catch every note. Another step, another, another . . . he’s heard this before . . .

          But where?

          Like a machine, he kept following it, trying to pick apart every note, every semblance of song, and in his head playing it alongside the melodies he’s heard before, had made before. Its so close . . . on the tip of his tongue . . . he felt like he couldn’t leave it alone until he remembered, the thread of every chord pulling him deeper in, like a siren’s call. Almost like a whisper, whispers, all of them clamoring for his attention, and-

          Sammy.

          A singular word, one with a smile in its voice, and suddenly, the fog he hadn’t even noticed had settled on his mind was abruptly blown away. Eyes blowing wide open and now very, very awake, he gasped like he’d just been punched in the stomach, stumbling back only to gracelessly trip over his own feet. His back hit the ground with a dull thud, and he groaned, head spinning with confusion. Blinking rapidly to clear the stars from his vision, the sudden blurriness he’d experienced subsiding, he forced himself back up, sucking in air through his teeth at the twinge his shoulders gave. Doing his best to ignore it, Sammy looked around for the others.

          Only to feel the blood completely drain from his face when he saw he was someplace he had not seen at all before, a cavernous space of rock and twisted piping with only a single wooden pier to serve as solid ground, because the rest of the room was nothing but a black, rippling lake.

And nobody else was around. He was completely alone.

          O-oh shit, he thought, panic beginning to bubble beneath the surface, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit-!

          Scrambling to his feet, knuckles turning white as he clenched his hands, Sammy turned this way and that, looking for anyone he recognized. But nobody, nothing was around! H-how had this happened, when had he gotten separated?!

          “Fuck . . .” he whimpered, feeling himself start to shake. This was bad, this was bad, this was so bad-!

          “Okay, okay, okay, calm down, calm down,” he muttered to himself, near frantic, patting a hand over his wildly thudding heart. He tried to focus on his breathing, regulate it with those stupid breathing exercises Susie had absolutely insisted he learn. He barely remembered most of them, but a few, just a few, had stuck . . .

          It helped. Just a little bit. His heart was still pounding, his hands shaking terribly, but it at least helped him focus a little.

          Swallowing, Sammy looked around again, taking proper stock of his surroundings. The semi-circular pier he was on was fairly sparse, ramshackle wooden boards arranged around the walls in haphazard array, inky symbols painted all along their sodden lengths. Benches were arranged along the floor in a circular pattern, almost like pews, and at the heart of it was a small pillar with a smiling statue of bendy crowing the very top. Several candles were lit around the base, smoky plumes trailing gracefully in the air, and a collection of discarded items were gathered there as well; cans of soup, plush toys, dead flowers, a record player, and an old, cracked mirror as big as a small human. It was . . . like some kind of shrine. A shrine before a mass . . . or a creepy cult.

          Thankfully, nobody seemed to be attending right now.

          But he saw with relief that there was a tunnel behind the strange set-up, a hole that curved into dimly lit shadow, but hopefully a way out of this awful place and into the building proper. He just . . . had to follow it. Hope it led him back to the others. I-it had to.

          Giving the pews a wide berth, Sammy began to inch his way around it, hoping to leave this frankly creepy place behind him. Then he could-

          Saaaaammy.

          He spun around so fast his back popped, Sammy’s eyes frantically shooting over the ground, only to find nothing standing in the empty, frightening place. No one was there . . .

          Breath quickening, he leaned forward and pressed a finger to his temple, hissing to himself, berating, “God damn it, knock it off. There’s nothing here, you’re hearing things!”

          Are you sure about that?~

          He snapped right to attention once again, fear trickling down his spine, but still he saw no one. Nobody was there!

         No one you can seeeee.

          Something laughed, something, but it was like laughter inside his own head, for no voice echoed around him. Dark, insidious, mocking laughter, the kind that sent a shiver down your spine . . . but it was also . . . familiar?

         “W-who’s there?” he asked, inching back, moving for the only exit that was there.

          But nothing answered save for the splashing of the ink that lapped against the pier, like nothing was all that had ever been present in this cold and empty shrine. And maybe that was the simple truth, because maybe this place is messed beyond all reason, but there’s no way he can really be hearing voices in his head, right?

          With a shaky breath, Sammy realized this place was really starting to do a number on him. Shit . . .

          Shaking his head, he turned to leave, eager to put this place behind him.

          . . . and froze when he saw the dark figure standing at the threshold of his exit, barring his way, a grinning, stained mask of a familiar demon affixed to it’s face.

          Cold horror squeezed at his heart, and he found himself backing away until his heel struck the back of one of the benches, unable to tear his gaze away from the figure standing in the shadows. Slowly, it moved forward, ink dripping off it’s body, trudging slowly towards him like a wolf circling its prey. And axe dangled from one hand, the tip dragging against the floor, leaving a thin, splintered line in the wood with every step.

          But the worst part was . . . he recognized it. And now, he could no longer comfort himself with the illusion that this was just a dream.

          “S-stay away from me!” he shouted at the corrupted man that was supposed to be his counterpart, realizing how empty his hands were without his wrench, how defenseless he was-!

          His counterpart was hardly deterred, carrying on like the threat of bodily harm wasn’t there. Sammy scrambled back, maneuvering the bench between himself and the entity in front of him. And finally, horribly . . . it spoke just like it did when they first met, like the broken playback of a twisted recording, “How queer, to find you here in this place that was once our most holy sanctum. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. It led you here, didn’t it?”

           Shit, what the hell was he supposed to say?! Can you reason with a madman?!

          “W-what?”

           “You can hear it. It’s whispering thoughts, calling you to the fold, to serve. Just like it called me,” it crept closer, and Sammy stepped back, passing the decrepit shrine to a toon that was no longer the mischievous creature he was supposed to be.

           “And I answered. It took time, but I answered!” the other’s voce was rising, growing more irate, and Sammy realized that that was definitely not a good thing, “I gave It my faith, my trust, my love, I gave It everything to prove myself worthy! And it promised!”

           All of sudden, it lunged, and Sammy scrambled back when he saw it lift the axe in preparation to strike, his own fear spiking.

          But instead of hitting him, the man dropped it squarely on the statuette sitting atop the pillar, the metal edge cracking through the stone toon’s uplifted arm with a loud ring. And he kept going, striking it again and again and again and again, mincing through the small idol until it was barely recognizable, ranting all the while;

          “It promised an END for our faith!”

          THWACK!

           “It promised we would be FREE!”

          CRACK!

           “It promised me, It promised ALL OF US!”

          SHING!

          “And IT LIED!”

          With one final swing, the statue’s head shattered, falling into broken pieces on the floor. The axe head dropped to the floor, the ink-covered crazy man’s shoulders heaving, the air growing frightfully still like the room itself was holding its breath. And Sammy couldn’t help but wonder how this man, how . . . how this other self . . . had fallen so horrifically far into madness.

          Desperately, his eyes shot around to find anything to defend himself with, when the shfft of the axe grating against the floor grabbed his attention again. The man had straightened, turning, just able to see the golden glow of its left eye as it fixed its gaze on him once more.

          The other’s voice was bitter, angry, just like his own on a bad day, and it made his gut twist, “And now . . . he’s picked another. Another who has everything, everything I sacrificed for to get back! Just to mock me!”

         “H-hey, I’m not serving anything here, alright! This isn’t even my studio!” Sammy protested, scooting back even more. He’s beyond the pews now, out on the pier, and he can hear the lake splashing behind him.

          The other laughed disbelieving, free hand shaking as it brought it up to clasp at its head, “It doesn’t matter. None of that matters! The sheep always return at the shepherd’s call, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter . . .”

           . . . he needed to get out of here. He needed to get out of here right now.

           Slowly, Sammy tried to scoot to the right, around the deranged man. If he could just get around him, he could make a dash for the exit.

           It was a plan that quickly fell short when the other, with a sudden, terrible roar of rage, shot across the ground at a speed that was wholly unacceptable. And, panic coursing through his limbs, Sammy shot back just to avoid him . . .

           Only to feel his heel hit empty air.

           If not for the cold, ink-covered hand that grabbed him by the collar, he would have fallen straight into the lake. But its not a better situation, because now he was being pulled almost nose-to-nose with the abomination that had his voice, a voice seething with sudden rage, “Why, WHY?! WHY DID HE PICK YOU?! WHAT MADE YOU WORTHY?!”

           Sammy grabbed the other’s arm out of reflex, eyes shooting fearfully to the axe still hanging in the other’s grip, shouting back, “I-I don’t know, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!”

           “LIES, ALL OF IT LIES!!” the deranged specter screamed, shaking Sammy by the shirt. The backs of his shoes scraped against the end of the pier, dangerously close to slipping again and it was all he could do just to keep his balance.

           In the distance, he thought he heard something laughing.

           Desperately, Sammy pushed back, trying to throw the other off, “Get OFF ME!”

           The other, not expecting the resistance, stumbled a bit, giving Sammy more leverage. A glint of silver in the corner of his vision drew his gaze, and his stomach flipped when he saw that the other had raised the axe, ready to hit him straight in the hand. Out of pure reflex, he grabbed it by the handle just before the other swung, a game of tug-of-war ensuing as both struggled to control it.

           Below them, the wood creaked, and the laughter grew louder. And then-

           Ah, yer so ungrateful, Sammy-boy. Ya really, truly are.

           Both of them froze. Sammy’s eyes met the other’s and for a second, he thought he saw the exact same fear he was feeling completely replace the anger that had been there moments ago. The sound of feet thudding over wood echoed from the entryway, and Sammy looked just in time to see three familiar shapes burst through-

           And the wood beneath him shattered, and they were sent plummeting to the ink below.

           There was singular splash, and then the waves were closing over his head, thick and suffocating and eclipsing all light. It was far colder than he could have imagined, sucking the warmth right from his body.

           You want a body so badly, Sammy? You want to have back what you think the world owes ya?

           He floundered in the waves, tried to swim back up to the surface, it had to be close-!

           Then have it.

            All at once, it was like the ink slammed back down into him, and he could feel it, he could feel it, seeping back through his skin, invasive tendrils of ice and fire pushing through his pores, through his veins, and it hurt, it hurt-!

            He gasped, choked when ink flooded his mouth, thick and viscous, so cold it burned.

            And it somehow only grew worse, for suddenly, out of nowhere, it felt like something else slipped inside his skin as well. The ink was black as could be, smothering, unseeing . . . yet his vison went completely white as his mind was suddenly flooded with memories, memories of before, memories of things he rememberedforgotthesearen’thisyestheyareitfeltlikehisheadwassplittingithurt-

           . . . he was sitting in his usual office space, brow squinted as he worked through another music sheet, trying to ignore the dripping of the ink outside his room, he should take a break . . .

           . . . another smoke break with Henry, just to get outside for a little while. “I just want to get out of this place, you know? Maybe try for Broadway . . .”

          . . . a cup was placed in front him, and he glanced at the beaming woman beside him, her voice trilling and bright, ‘Morning, Grumpy McGrumperson!” . . .

          . . . He passed Susie on his way to his office. There were tears in her eyes, and he knew what they meant. He tried not to let it get to him. There was too much work to do . . .

          . . . the bucket landed on his head before he had time to react, ink soaking through his shirt as Bendy’s obnoxiously loud laughter rang in his ear . . .

          . . . head bowed to the ground, prayers tumbling past his lips, he can feel It’s eyes on him, and the pipes above his head laughed in rapture, the demon’s voice for all to hear . . .

         Who’smemoriesarethesewho’smemoriesarethese?!

         There was pressure around his wrist, and suddenly he was being yanked out of the black that had swallowed him, out into the open air. He hacked and wheezed as whatever grabbed him hauled him back up over the side, collapsing against the pier, limbs laying inert, numb to any feeling like a potent venom had been injected into his blood.

         Something grabbed him by the shoulder and rolled him onto his back, and through his hazy vision, he can see a familiar face.

        “Sammy?!” Henry shouted, looking alarmed, frightened, “Sammy, talk to me, are you okay?!”

        HenryHenry.

        . . . the animator held up a glass full of that spritzy champagne Joey had gotten for the anniversary, the man smiling wide, cheeks just a little red “Well, twenty years ain’t nothing to sneeze at, Sammy!” . . .

        . . . he walked by the animator’s desk again, the desk Joey hadn’t bothered to remove. There’s still concept art resting on top of it . . . Sammy can’t help but feel envious for the man getting out when he did . . .

        The sensation of a red-hot nail being driven into his brain hit him hard, so intense it made his hearing white out into a ring, unable to even hear his own scream.

         . . . “Henry, I’m going to kill our boss.” “Well, it’s not the first time you’ve said that . . .”

         . . . “Wait. You look familiar to me . . . that face . . .” “Sammy, its me!” . . .

         Another face crossed his vision, a pale white face with golden eyes. Alice?

         . . . She sang loud and beautifully before the rest of the band, and when they stood up in resounding applause, he doesn’t think he’s ever seen her look happier . . .

         . . . mangled, malformed, a creature of malice. Even up here, he can hear her victims screams . . .

          “We have to go, Henry!” she cried, “There are searchers coming!”

          A wolfish snout entered his vision. Boris?

         . . . Boris always played his heart out when he was on his clarinet, and on the rare occasion Sammy would say something that might be construed for a compliment, the wolf's tail would wag for the rest of the day . . .

         . . . Boris always ran away from him, should their paths cross in these decrepit tunnels. A shame. He would have liked to . . . talk . . .

          Henry looked at her, then down at him, before gritting his teeth and grabbing his arm, hauling up him onto his back, “Come on!”

          Everything moved in a barely sensible blur, the world spinning by, black arms reaching for them, trying to drag them down. They ran passed something bright, something silver, something that reflects, and he saw himself for just a brief second inside the glass.

          And, for a scary second, he’s not sure who that person is supposed to be.

          Its then the world went momentarily dark, and for a moment its nothing but screaming voices and distorted cries, his vision fading in and out, in and out, seeing the world from a sideways slant from where he’s suddenly on the ground, when had he fallen . . . ?

          Henry and the toons were fighting, searchers clamoring around them, searching for what they lost, searching for their hearts . . .

          The walls feel like they’re growing darker, colder, and with a start that sent his heart drumming with terror, he realized he had felt this before. He knows what coming, He’s coming-!

          Still as observant as ever, ain’t ya?

          It felt like ice crusted over his heart, freezing, as darkness spread beneath his body, darker and darker and darker still, and he can feel it, He’s there, He’s behind me-!

          But he can’t move. In the distance, he saw Henry turn, alarmed, crying out and running to him. His axe is up, and he swung mightily, recklessly, foolishly, only to be knocked back by a blow Sammy couldn’t see. The darkness around him shifted, slid over him like a frozen wind that him shivering, as a specter of black passed by and brought It’s malformed foot down on Henry’s chest. Behind them all, the nest of searchers writhed, surging forward and bowling into the toons before them like a tidal wave of black. Both cried out, pinned beneath the beasts, wallowing in darkness, in ink . . .

          In his ear, his head, all around, laughter echoed in the cavern’s shrine.

         Well, ain’t this a sight!”

          A clawed hand grabbed him by the front of the collar, hoisting him up with no effort. Sammy swung listlessly in it’s grasp, deadweight, a doll, only able to stare at the twisted white grin he was now level with. A grin filled with a dark mirth.

         My, Sammy, you don’t look so good! Did ya drink too much bacon soup? Take a tumble down the stairs? Blaspheme against the one who gave ya any meaning in yer wretched life?”

          Sammy’s thoughts are nothing but a chaotic jumble, fighting between terror and sudden, irascible rage, get away from me, I trusted you, you lied to me-!

         “Oh, but I didn’t lie to ya, did I? I came through, didn’t I, even though you were SO unappreciative before? Ya got a new body and everythin’! Although, I admit . . . it must be awful crowded up there right now, what with yer new roommate and all!” the creature’s delighted crows eclipsed all other sound, the demon tapping the tip of a claw against Sammy’s forehead.

          RoommateRoommate?

          There wasn’t any time to ponder the demon’s words, for that was when the beast dragged its claw down his face, pain trailing after it’s twisted finger, cold welling along the cut to drip down his skin. The only resistance he can give are a wince and a pathetic moan.

          “No, stop it! Bendy, STOP!” He can hear someone shouting, pleading, aware of movement just below his gaze. Henry?

          The demon paid it no mind, something like wistfulness percolating through the ink that ran inside them all, “You know, this story’s stale, my little ‘prophet’. It’s been stale for years. But now . . . here’s something new! Something to shake it up a little, that not even old Joey could see comin’!”

          Joey-

          . . . “Welcome aboard, Sammy! I’m sure this is the beginning of a long and magnificent partnership! Can I call you Sammy?” . . .

          . . . “Welcome to Drew Studios, Mr. Lawrence. I’m sure this is the beginning of a good deal . . . for the both of us.” . . .

          Idiot. Liar. Reckless. Traitor!

          More pain lanced through his skull, white hot and blinding, and he can feel his throat straining even though he can’t hear a thing.

          “I knew if I just waited long enough, somethin’ would happen! You should be happy! You all should be happy! This is good! Cause now, this stale old story is a finally freshening up again!”

          There was a grunt, and he could just hear Henry through his fog-laden head, “A-and . . . so what if it is? This isn’t our world, its Joey’s!

          He talked to it . . . like he knew it. Like he had always known it . . .

         “He always did,” the creature rasped inside his head, sandpaper over his mind, “Every story needs a villain and a hero, Sammy-boy. And everyone has somethin’ to hide, especially down here. Ain’t that right, Henry?”

          He barely heard Henry’s reply, “. . . you’re right. But it doesn’t matter. Once Joey realizes what’s happening, it’ll be over!”

          "So?" It asked, "It ain't over yet! And don't try to play the reasonable one here, I know you've been having just as much fun! Or was I just supposed to ignore the laughin'?"

          There was a glare in the man's voice now, "I guess you would consider this fun now, wouldn't you?"

          The creature’s ink rippled, and with snap realization, he knows, The Demon’s displeased-!

          The demon shifted it’s weight, pressing down with it’s foot, and-

          CRACK!

          There was a terrible scream, followed by a horrified cry and a wolfish howl, but all Sammy could understand was the beast, Be quiet, old man.”

          Then the rage softened, a dour understanding taking its place, the demon cocking its head to the side, “But ya got a point. It don’t matter what we do in the long run. Eventually, we’ll be suckered into dancin’ to the same old song again. But just cause you’ve given up, old man, doesn’t mean I can’t have my fun!”

          The hand holding him suddenly went loose, and Sammy hit the ground like a sack, landing on his side. He barely felt it.

          “We’re all gonna be here for a long, looong time. We ain’t got a choice! But this is the first time it’s been different in years! I’ll take my kicks where I can get ‘em! Even if it means breakin’ all my toys, old and new, I don’t care! Like you said, Henry . . . it don’t MATTER!”

          He can just see Henry across from him, his vision so blurry it was a wonder he could see at all. The man was looking back, face filled with pain as he struggled to hold back the demon’s crushing foot. And the all the while, the demon’s jovial and delighted voice rang over them all as its sweeping darkness rose ever higher. The only light refracted by the single silver mirror they all have forgotten.

          “So what do ya say?”

          The searchers howled in the distance, Al and Tom struggling as more and more of their bodies were submerged.

          “Before we’re put back on our strings.”

          Black ink was rising up around Henry, creeping like malevolent vines up his body as the demon held him down.

          “Before we’re locked back into our cages!”

          Sammy can feel it creeping up his legs, his arms, his whole body, his mind torn between two different thoughts, two different perspectives, two different lives. Who am I who are you amIyoumewe-?

“WH̷Y D̵̽͂O̵N’̶T WE S̵͝E̶E̵̛ ̸̾WH̸A̵T ̴͓̓͊W̷͊̉́͐̕E̷̍̾͝ CA̶͆̇̃̃N̸ B̶̑͆̈́̃̊ ̸̃ R ̶͛̋̔E̴̿̐̓̑ ̸̪̻̌͗Ã̷̛ K̶̀̏͐̌̔͝?̸͗̉̊͐̾”

Chapter Text

There were a lot of mistakes Henry had made in his life. But there were only two that had truly been pivotal, the ones that haunted him now more then any of the others.

His first mistake was never speaking up to Joey Drew, even when it had become clear intervention had been needed. Instead, Henry had quietly packed his bags and left, and never once looked back. At the time, he hadn’t wholly regretted it, because Joey Drew was never really one to listen to reason when it came to the acquisition of his goals. So, why try? Now, though, he wasn’t so sure. Not after everything he had seen.

And his second mistake . . . well, his second mistake was simply not burning that damn letter he got in the first place.

Both of these mistakes were why things had turned out the way they had. Why so many people were suffering, why the character he had put his heart into had become a monster, and why the limbo they were all trapped in was virtually inescapable.

Henry had given up believing there was a way out a long time ago. At least, one that mattered. It hadn’t been for lack of trying, at first, when he’d finally become aware that this story was exactly that . . . a story. A story none of them had a choice but to play out, to fulfill the roles Joey had written for each of them.

But nothing worked. Nothing changed. And, after so many months, years, of reliving the same tired events over and over again, it was easy to feel like nothing mattered.

So the sudden inclusion of a living human that not only had the face of a man he had once known, but was also from a place entirely removed from this cursed studio, had been completely and utterly earthshaking. And, for this first time in years, Henry hadn’t known what to expect.

And, though a small part of him hated that he felt so, it had been . . . kind of wonderful. Because it was new. A break from this dull, never-ending monotony, a change of pace, something refreshing. And god, how long had it been since he had last had such a long and genuine laugh? But the larger and far more reasonable side of him felt terrible for Sammy, and terrible at himself for feeling even an iota of enjoyment from this sudden turn of events. He had to force himself to remember that this was not a part of the story, that for once, his decisions might actually matter.

For once . . . that his decisions might actually save somebody. And maybe, possibly, if they found some way of reconnecting this Sammy with his home, that . . . that maybe it could be way out for all of them . . .

And yet, he was still making mistakes. Forgetting that just because you want something bad enough, it doesn’t mean you’ll get it, because wishing and wanting and hoping don’t count for anything in this place. This world had an iron lock on all its characters, after all, and hoping for anything as superfluous as freedom was a pipe fucking dream.

And dreams don’t come true down here.

He really was an idiot for forgetting that . . .

Aw, what’s with the long face, Henry? Ain’t ya excited?”

Henry bit back a scream as the creature that had once been a character he’d poured his heart into added just another smidgen of pressure against his already screaming chest, feeling like something was moving just underneath his skin, on the verge of breaking further. He doesn’t even really know if he had bones anymore, but when the narrative called for it, it certainly liked to deliver.

Looking up into a face twisted with malice, Henry tried one last time to reason with him, “Bendy, if you want this story to be different so badly, then why do you keep doing this?!”

Well, ain’t that a funny question,” Bendy answered, not sounding the least bit humored, “What else am I supposed to be now, huh? The ‘villain’ is the only role I got! Might as well enjoy it! Me and Angel Face might not have seen eye-to-eye, but she had the right idea there.”

The creature leaned down low, its white grin filling Henry’s vision, “And the ‘hero’ is supposed to stop the big bad ‘villain’, ain’t he? So what’re you waitin’ for?”

Bendy laughed before Henry had a chance to answer, waving a flippant hand, “Oh right, the story’s broken right now! So, the ‘hero’ don’t get the advantage of bein’ the ‘hero’ anymore, does he! Which only means that this time, the villain gets to win!”

Henry can feel the ink creeping up his skin, cold and heavy, and he knew what was coming. He’s done this dance thousands of times before, and dying and the fear it was supposed to bring has really lost its hold on him.

"Ah, we’ve done this all before! Not like dyin’ ever lasts long for you!” Bendy commented idly, “But, your little friends on the other hand . . . this’ll be the first time they go, huh? Think it’ll stick?”

With a thrill of horror, Henry realized Bendy was right. Al and Tom had never been in this sort of peril before! If they were killed, would they-?!

Frantically, Henry tried to crane his neck up, searching for the pair. But all he could see was the writhing mass of the searchers. He couldn’t even see them.

“T-Tom!” he tried calling, ignoring the pain building in his chest, “AL!”

No one answered him. It might be they no longer could, and Henry felt his heart quicken at the thought of them being dead, because they have never been dead before! Forcing his eyes away, squeezing them shut, he tried to remember that, eventually, it would all go back.

“Aw, too bad, so sad!” Bendy crowed, And after all your hard work in keepin’ em around, too!”

Over the demon’s delighted laughter, a weak gasp reminded Henry that he wasn’t the only ‘human’ here anymore. Opening his eyes again, Henry looked to his left, to where Sammy now lay.

The man looked to be in bad shape, eyes half-lidded and completely glazed over, breathing so faintly you could barely tell he was breathing at all. If not for the sporadic twitching in his fingers, Henry might just think he was dead. The cut the demon had left on his face was still bleeding, blood that appears black to his eyes, stark against ghostly skin, and while it may just be the result of this world being the way it was, it was still a very worrying sight. Just what had Bendy done to him?

Not that it would matter for much longer . . . not if that creeping ink is any sign.

Belatedly, Henry realized he had no idea what would happen to this Sammy should he actually die here. If he’d be trapped like the rest of them. But either way, its just one more mistake to his name, isn’t it? Someone else was going to suffer, and there was nothing he could do about it.

“Oh, Geeze Louise, quit bein’ such a sad-sack!” Bendy demanded, bracing an elbow against his bent knee, “And stop worryin’! I wasn’t plannin’ on killin’ all of ya!”

 That got his attention, and though the demon’s smile never shifted, he can feel its mirth, “I didn’t bring those two together just to kill ‘em straight off the bat! That’d be, oh, what’s the word . . . counterproductive! Sides, I wanna see the fall-out a this little union.~”

Henry’s brow furrowed, hissing through gritted teeth, pain coloring everything, “W-what . . . did you do to him?"

“Oh, nothin’ much,” Bendy tapped a claw to the side of his head, “Just gave our old Sammy what he wanted! And so what if the body sort of already had an . . . occupant! That’s what makes livin’ together fun, right? At least, that’s what all those sitcoms like to say!”

Henry’s eyes widened with horror when the realization dawned, gaze snapping to Sammy in newfound alarm, “Sammy?!"

There was barely any response, just a twitch as the other’s eyes slid to him, unfocused and bleary. They didn’t linger for long, and Henry wondered if the two warring minds within even understood him.

“Soooo, what do you think, Henry,” Bendy asked conversationally, even as the ink trickled higher up his body, “Think two heads are better than one? Or, do you think they’ll tear each other apart before you find ‘em again? I know I can’t wait to find out!”

Henry fixed a loathsome glare on the creature, not for the first time doubting that there was even a trace of the fun-loving toon he had created so long ago inside it. Nothing that knew empathy or compassion, just a monster wearing a similar grin.

“Fuck you,” he spat, livid and wishing he could stick his axe into it to remember him by.

“Hey now, watch the language!” Bendy chastised, This is a kids show, after all! But I guess it is time we wrapped this up!”

Henry could only watch as the demon raised his claw, preparing to strike, and he fixed his glare on it, refusing to let it think it scared him anymore.

“Nighty-night Henry!” Bendy said as the ink crawled up his chin, as cold as ice, “Or whatever the hell it is Sammy likes to say!”

With nothing else to do, he braced himself for the familiar feel of sharp, blinding pain followed by deep, whispering darkness, the bone-deep shock of dying and coming right back . . .

When the whole world suddenly lit up around him, a panoply of stuttering light that pierced straight through the gloom. Bendy roared in shock and pain, and the terrible pressure on his chest vanished. Gasping, Henry rolled on to his side with a pained cry, squeezing his eyes shut against the brightness as he struggled to breathe.

“No way, there’s no WAY he can know already!!” he heard Bendy scream, voice full of wrath.

The cold of the ink covering his body vanished as a hot, prickling, uncomfortable warmth took its place, zapping life into his limbs. With a groan, Henry forced his eyes to open, squinting through the glare, the color and intensity of it familiar. All around him, he can see the ink dissipating, the searchers melting back into obscurity as their tormented howls faded to silence. And behind him, he can see Bendy crouching low, thrashing wildly, furiously, the ink that made up his form slowly burning away like paper.

The light pierced through Henry as well, and with a glance at his hand, he can see his own skin was beginning to peel, embers of light trialing off his body. He’s seen this before. But normally, he’s the one responsible for it . . .

Huh, who knew Joey could force a reset himself if he wanted . . .

A groan next to him has him looking down. Sammy had squeezed his eyes shut, face turned to the ground like that would stop what was coming, tremors periodically wracking his whole body as the same embers rose up around him too. For a second, Henry didn’t understand why that would be, because this one isn’t involved in this story like they are. But then, if Bendy was being truthful, and the two were really now one . . .

Face pinched with regret, Henry placed a hand on the other’s shoulder and squeezed, as sorrowful as could be, “I’m . . . sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen to you . . .”

Sammy doesn’t respond. Perhaps he can’t. There was no telling what would happen to him. Henry is honestly afraid of finding out.

“. . . H-Henry . . .”

He blinked once, slowly, then turned his head to see that two dark shapes were laying nearby, where the searchers had been. And it’s with a mixture of both relief and sadness that his eyes met a pair of familiar golden ones. Al was still alive, and so was Tom.

But it must have been by the skin of their teeth, because neither of them are looking well. Al was surrounded by ink running from her own body, her eyes ringed heavily by exhaustion, looking like it took every ounce of her strength just to brace herself up on her elbows, arms trembling. And beside, Tom looked to be completely unconscious.

Not that it mattered. The light is burning them away too, slowly but surely. It wouldn’t be for much longer now . . .

“H-Henry, w-what’s . . . happening . . .?” Al wheezed, golden eyes sheened with confusion, even a little fear, and Henry wished he could soothe her with just his words alone.

As it stood, all he could do was sadly hang his head, “I’m sorry . . .”

Nearby, Bendy had ceased his thrashing, perhaps realizing the futility of it, hunkering down to the floor as the light scoured and seared the world to pieces, “Guess he figured it out faster than I thought he would, huh?”

Henry’s frown hardened, tone cold, “I told you he would.”

The demon chuckled darkly, dryly, “Maybe! But at least I got us something new for the show, yeah? Make the next few runs . . . interesting. Before it all grows stale again . . .”

Henry doesn’t give it a response. There was no point. There was only the wait now, until it all went back to the beginning again.

So Henry is very surprised when another light suddenly washed over him.

This one was soft and silver instead of the harsh sepia he’s grown familiar with, banishing its scorching light to wrap him in a cool shroud. At the same time, the embers that had been torn from his body gently floated back, filling in the holes that had been burned away beneath the glare. And, even more amazingly . . . this strange new glow brought with it a feeling of lightness, of calm, of shackles once bound so tightly to his soul falling loose and free . . .

Stunned, Henry sought out the source of this strange light . . . and saw, with a sense of wonder, that it came from a place not too far from where he sat . . .

A silver mirror that lay forgotten beside the shrine.

Its glow was growing brighter, but it wasn’t painful like the other kind was. It didn’t sear through flesh and ink, didn’t scorch away the remnants of an unwanted world. If anything, it felt . . . inviting.

Perhaps he was more entranced by the light than he realized, because he hadn’t even noticed that he’d stood or taken a step towards it, reaching for the glowing pane of glass with wonder. Not until the sensation of those same shackles suddenly constricting agonizingly tight in a place deep inside him, sending him crashing to his knees with a scream.

Arms wrapped around his middle, Henry pressed his forehead to the floor and panted, trembling from head to toe at the impression of chains tightening around his very soul. It’s horrible, violating, like nothing he’s ever felt before. It felt like they were wrenching him back, demanding he submit, demanding he obey.

And, with a moment of complete and perfect clarity, Henry understood that they did not want him approaching that light.

It gave him more than enough reason to try and do exactly that.

So, with a grunt of effort, he forced himself back to his feet and carried on. The chains tightened, pain flooding though every inch of his body, but pain was something he was used to fighting through. And every step he took, every inch of ground he covered, it felt like their hold on him loosened. He doesn’t know why . . . but he would take it.

It’s a herculean effort to make it those last steps, reaching out to the glass even though his limbs feel like they’re suddenly being weighed down by anvils. But he fights it, because fighting was all he was really good for anymore, and finally managed to brush a finger against the silver pane before him.

The flash that spreads throughout the shrine is blinding, and for a few seconds, it felt like Henry was floating in a nothingness of white, disconnected from anything and everything that made up the real and physical world.

Then those seconds passed, and sensations rushed to meet him once again as he suddenly hit hard and sturdy ground. The world spun for a few dizzy moments, feeling wood grain beneath his face and the scent of . . . candle smoke?

With a groan, Henry forced himself to rise, feeling like his insides had been scrubbed raw, exhaustion pulling at him so strongly he felt he was on the verge of collapse. Blearily, he blinked away the fuzziness, the stars . . .

And he noticed his hand.

Its not that its different. Ever since he’d . . . awakened to the truth, his whole world had appeared in grayscale, the color of ink and emptiness. His own form did too. That’s how it looked now, unnatural gray skin that any could easily see was inhuman.

What made it stand out now was the fact that the wood beneath it was brown.

It . . . it was colorful.

He didn’t get to ponder this strange and wonderous change for long, for someone groaned next to him, drawing his attention. With a start of relief, he saw Al and Tom, and looking to his other side, he saw Sammy, who looked to have finally and mercifully passed out. They all were here. They . . . they were all okay.

He . . . he was okay?

The tiniest creak of wood sent that question scampering for the hills, and all of Henry’s past experiences rise up to the surface. He grabs the first thing he can reach, which happened to be Al’s sword, gripping the hilt firmly as his eyes snapped to the center of the room.

Dark eyes met eyes of bright hazel, and time came to a complete standstill as Henry saw that none other than Joey Drew himself was standing right before him. The man stood in the middle of an occult looking circle, candles and objects strewn about it, staring at him in open and undisguised shock, mouth hanging shamelessly open like he was surprised to see him there. A book was in his hand, a black book that made an uncomfortable shiver travel down his spine, and Henry can feel the unnaturalness around it like a dense fog. His spectacles are slightly askew, his clothes are little crumpled, his hair a little unkempt . . . but it was unquestionably the same man he’d once called his friend.

The same man who had trapped and tormented so many innocent people. The same man who turned so many dreams into dark and twisted nightmares. The same man who’d cursed him to an eternity of reliving the same story over and over again, and all at once, every ounce of rage and hatred Henry had ever felt for Joey rose up with a vengeance.

“You . . .” he hissed, feeling like whatever passed for his blood now was boiling.

Joey’s lips pursed together, glancing to the left, looking sheepish as he held up a single finger and said, “Um . . . I think something’s gone slightly wrong . . .”

Henry does not give him a chance to elaborate or explain. He won’t give him a chance to do anything at all ever AGAIN!

Ignoring the way his body protested, the pain that lingered deep inside, he lunged for the man, sword point straight at his chest. But either he’s slowed down, or Joey’s gotten a lot more spry, because the man jumped out of the way with a very startled cry, narrowly avoiding Henry’s vicious stab. Growling, he swiped at him in a wide arc as he’d seen Al do, the weight of the sword throwing him off a little as he moved. His foot knocked into a bowl, sending it flying with a loud clatter.

Joey stumbled away just in time, thudding into a cloth-covered drawer. Bracing one hand against and waving the other wildly, he stammered out, “W-w-wait, I think there’s been a misunderstanding!”

Henry didn’t care at all for anything the man had to say, murder pulsing through his veins, fingers tightening around the hilt. His chest hurt, feeling brittle, still not recovered from Bendy’s abuse. He’s always healed unnaturally fast in that place, but even he had limits. Still, he won’t let this pain deter him. Joey can’t run forever . . .

Eyes narrowing, urged on by a desire for blood that would have been frightening to him if he had been thinking straight, Henry readied himself to spring again, determined not to miss this time-

The door slammed open, a medley of voices flowing inside, and Henry is very suddenly and jarringly derailed from any train of thought he had when he heard his own voice shouting over them all, “Joey, are you okay?! What hap-!”

Henry turned even as stunned silence fell heavy over the room, to find an entire group had come crashing through the door, black and white and colorful too, for two were humans and three were anything but. Toons, real ones, ones that were startlingly familiar even though they looked just a little different from what he remembered, an angel, a wolf . . . and a demon as well. A human woman who he doesn’t recognize at all plants herself in front of them very suddenly, her warm brown eyes filled with shock and alarm as she looked between him and the other man who had entered the room.

A man who looked exactly like him.

A man who looked just as startled by Henry as Henry is of him, and all at once, the anger he’d been carrying is knocked out to be replaced by alarm . . . and maybe even a little fear, because now he doesn’t fully know what’s happening. And he’s outnumbered if they mean him harm, and he’s tired, and he’s weak, and the sword suddenly feels so heavy in his hands, his adrenaline fading . . .

There was sudden, musical gasp, and the angel pointed, “Sammy! Susie, its Sammy!”

The toon creature began to run forward, feet flying, glowing halo bobbing, and Henry was suddenly hit by the image of a creature with a disfigured face and a smile as crooked as her halo, and he was swinging before he even realized he was doing it.

There’s a startled scream as the sword whisked by her head, tripping backwards right into the woman’s arms, who pulled her back as soon as she had her, “Alice!”

The woman’s voice was familiar . . . so familiar, disturbingly familiar, and for a moment he thought he could hear a sinister little giggle echo in the room. Pain suddenly lanced through his head, the fatigue in his limbs worsening, almost losing his grip on the sword.

The other man, the one with his face, stepped between him and the group before him, and Henry stepped back, wary, breath coming shorter, faster . . .

“A-alright,” the man started, swallowing, looking uneasy and afraid but holding up his hands non-threateningly, “L-listen, I don’t know what’s happening . . . but we’re not dangerous, alright? We’re just worried about our friend. We’re not . . . we’re not going to hurt you.”

Their friend . . . Sammy? It was getting . . . hard to think . . .

His vision was starting to tunnel, shadows creeping in the corners of the room, pressing in, and he suddenly felt so, so tired, everything that had happened to him up until now beginning to catch up to him. And it was getting harder to keep holding the sword, to even keep standing . . .

There was a soft whine, and the wolf toon crept around, his ears pressed low, and for a moment, Henry is transported back to a little safe room and a friendly face coming to greet him, “Hey, a-are . . . are you okay?”

Huh . . . he can talk. Its just like how he imagined Boris would sound . . .

 “Boris! Don’t get too close!” a white hand grabbed the wolf’s own and pulled him back, and Henry’s eyes slide down, to the last toon in the room . . . a familiar toon, with a familiar voice . . .

But . . . its familiar in a different way, because seeing this strange Bendy, with a modernized design and a suit, evokes something in his mind. Like a faint and fuzzy memory, one he can almost recall . . .

Henry, please tell me ya remember me! The real me!

Henry’s ears rang, more pain like a spike being driven through his head, vision darkening, everything warping into nonsensical shapes and shadows . . .

The last thing he remembered after that was the sensation of weightlessness just before his body hit the ground, a chorus of surprised cries rising up around him.

Then he remembered nothing at all.

_

. . .

Well . . .

This is interesting, ain’t it?

I wonder just what kinda trouble I can cause here?

. . .

Haha . . . hahahahaHAHAHAH̷̛̔A̴̿!̵

Chapter Text

          Joey had not been sure entirely what to expect when he finished the incantation. The glowing of the mirror and the sudden intensity with which the candles burned were fairly normal as far as these sorts of things went, but the end result was what had mattered. So he had waited with bated breath, lightly lifting himself up on the balls of his feet over and over to expend some of his own nervous energy as time ticked on.

          Now, on the bright side, it had worked! The spell had brought its intended target back to their studio!

          On the less than bright side, it had brought back . . . a few other things as well.

          A few other things that . . . were going to be very, very hard to explain.

          . . . not even getting into the fact that one of those things had . . . tried to kill him . . . while wearing the face of one of his closest friends . . .

          And while maybe that person had unnaturally gray skin and a rather startlingly predisposition for violence, they still . . . their faces had been exactly the same . . .

          Joey hadn’t even realized how tightly his fingers had been clenched around his book until his . . . attacker, had collapsed, nor how he’d been holding his breath until it all came rushing out in relief. But it was far too soon to be relaxing. All around, the toons and his employees were beginning to come to grips with what had just happened, shock giving way to pure confusion, looking for an answer. One they obviously turned to him to give.

           “What . . . what is this? Joey, what is goin’ on?!” Bendy was the first to demand, ink beginning to run down the side of his head. His gaze kept wandering between the unconscious man on the floor and him, emotions ranging between highly disturbed and deeply accusatory.

           Susie looked at him next, looking more than little shaken, not having released her grip on Alice, “Why are there two Henry’s in the room?! Why is his skin gray?! Who is that?!”

          “Um . . .” he mumbled, looking silently to Henry for a little bit of help, because a lot had just happened, and he didn’t want to be yelled at by Susie again, because she was more frightening than Sammy somehow. Not that it really mattered at the moment, because the man was still staring, open-mouthed, at the one who’d just collapsed on the floor.

          “The speeell . . .” Joey dragged out almost nonsensically, shrugging very slowly, “. . . wooorked?”

          Oh dear, Susie’s narrowing her eyes at him . . .

          “A-are those . . . ?” Boris started, taking a cautionary step closer to two figures that lay in an ink-laden heap nearby. Two familiar figures that bore a striking resemblance to two toons already standing in the room, and ooooh, this was going to be so hard to explain . . .

          Luckily, he was saved for the time being when Alice wiggled her way out of Susie’s grip, running to the other unconscious man on the floor, “Sammy!”

          Her cry snapped everyone out of the spell of shock they were under, and all at once, they all remembered why they were here in the first place. Susie gave Joey one last look, pointing at him in solemn promise that he was going to be explaining himself later before hurriedly following after the angel, who was now crouched next to the music director and unsuccessfully trying to rouse him.

          And . . . now that Joey looked, he could see that the man looked . . . well, like he’d been through the ringer and back. His clothes were ink-stained and torn in some places, chest only faintly rising and falling like he was having trouble breathing, and his skin was so pale it looked like paper . . .

          Joey’s shoulders tensed just a little as he took it all in, and slowly, guilt began to trickle in over the alarm and confusion from moments ago. Was this . . . was this his fault?

          “Susie, w-what’s wrong with him, why won’t he wake up?!” Alice’s voice was high with panic, looking to her friend for answers and reassurance.

          Susie didn’t hesitate with the latter, “It’s okay, hun. Let me just . . .”

          Gently, the woman pressed the back of her hand to his forehead, only to furrow her brow in concern, “Jesus, he’s freezing. We should get him to the infirmary . . . Henry, can you help me?”

          “U-uhm-,” the man blinked like he was coming back down to earth, eyes continuously glancing to the body laying in the center of the room even as he moved closer to her, “Y-yeah. I-I’ll help . . .”

          “Um, guys, what about . . . ?” Boris quietly questioned, looking to the other figures scattered around, “They don’t . . . look too good . . .”

          That gave everyone pause, because, well, what were they supposed to do? Joey had not counted on this happening (although maybe in hindsight he should have), and inwardly, he was still a little shaken up. Was there anything in his demon manuals about how to handle this?

          “Their ink . . .” Alice murmured, finally looking at the pair herself, and while she looked a little uncomfortable, she also looked a little concerned, “They look like they’re barely keeping themselves together . . .”

          “Are they . . . supposed to be Alice and Boris?” Susie questioned, brow knitted together. Her eyes then travelled to the man on the floor, frowning, “And him . . .”

          All eyes inadvertently travelled to the unconscious man, and while its still highly disconcerting, Joey found that a small part of himself was . . . a little fascinated too. And maybe it’s just the stress and lack of sleep, but he couldn’t help that side of himself that was just so rivetted by this sort of thing . . .

          “Joey, just what is going on?” that was Susie’s question, and very suddenly he realized that all of their eyes were on him.

          “What should we do?” Boris asked, hands hovering worriedly over his snout, clearly very distressed.

          Joey, for his part and as any responsible boss would, answered with quick, firm, and decisive, “. . . um . . .”

          A tiny shift of movement, and Joey’s eyes were drawn to the right, to see that Bendy was slowly walking around the fallen body. He was skirting it carefully, like it was some dangerous animal rather than an unconscious man(?), staring hard at his face.

          “He . . . he looks like . . .” the toon mumbled softly, fearfully, and Joey can see his ink drip just a little faster. He looked disturbed, just like everyone, but beneath that, there was . . . recognition.

          . . . oh. Oh no . . .

          But, luckily for him, Henry finally seemed to be coming down from the shock of seeing a carbon copy of himself standing in the room, and coming around to the reality of the situation, and all the implications of these . . . newcomers being here. And, while still obviously very shaken, Joey could tell by the way he was straightening up that he was beginning to enter his ‘damage-control’ mode. He took one look at Bendy, shared one worried glance with Joey, and finally, he began to take action.

          “A-alright,” he started, swallowing a little nervously and running a hand through his hair, “Okay, lets . . . lets just try to calm down and . . . and take this one step at a time.”

          He turned to Susie and Alice, “Let’s start by getting Sammy to the infirmary. Alice, can you look for a medical kit?”

          Alice nodded, her eyes still wide, “I-I can.”

          “Bendy,” Henry added, voice just a touch softer, gently placing a hand on the demon’s shoulder to get his attention. But Joey can see that the animator is doing his absolute best to not look where the toon was looking, “Why don’t you go help them.”

          Bendy looked at him for a solid several seconds without speaking, almost like the man were a stranger. Then, he closed his eyes and shook his head, running a hand over his face to banish some of the drip, “R-right. Yeah, I can do that . . .”

          “What about-?” Boris started, looking again at the their . . . guests, “Shouldn’t we help?”

          Even in such a strange situation, Boris would think with his heart. It wasn’t a bad thing at all, and Joey himself wasn’t particularly fond of the thought of just . . . leaving them. Even if one of them had a rather scary way of introducing themselves . . .

          Most everyone exchanged a silent, uncertain glance, because once again, none of them have an answer for that.

          Its Susie who finally broke the silence, “Well, I . . . I don’t know. I mean,” she gestured in the direction of the fallen man on the floor, “that guy attacked Alice! What if something like happens again when they wake up?”

          There was definitely that to consider. The man seemed a little sword-happy when it came to the unknown . . . and who knew what the other two were like!

          Its not for a while until Joey finally became aware of everyone looking at him again, their eyes clearly wanting an answer, an explanation, something to give them some guidance, and Joey was beginning to have another one of those ‘reflective’ moments where he realized that being the manager in charge of all the Big Decisions really stunk sometimes.

          “Erm, well . . .” he started, scratching his head, “They do look like they’re in a bad way, but Susie is right, too. I mean, he did take a swipe at me when he first got here-,”

          “He what?!” several people shouted, looking very alarmed now.

          Oh, right, no one had actually been inside the room when Joey had been attacked . . .

          “Before everyone panics . . .” Joey said, holding up a finger, “I do think he mistook me for somebody else.”

          At least, he hoped that was the case. He can’t think of any other reason for why one of his closest friends would look at him with so much hatred in his eyes . . .

          “I . . .” everyone looked at Alice, who was looking at the man at the center. She was speaking softly, a little hesitantly, but her eyes, though a little sad, were thoughtful, “I think . . . I think he was scared. I mean, he didn’t look like he expected us at all either. He might have thought we were dangerous . . .”

          Susie’s shoulders deflated, weak against Alice’s clear desire to help, “Alright, well, where would we take them?”

          “The infirmary’s the only place with any beds,” Bendy pointed out, crossing his arms.

          “With Sammy? Would that be safe?” she asked him, shooting the one in question a very worried look.

          Joey straightened a little, face brightening at the thought of being able to contribute something a little more useful, “Oh, I might have a solution! I have handcuffs! We could use those!”

          . . . Why was everybody staring at him like that?

          “. . . when and why?” Henry asked very slowly, raising his hands up in highly perplexed query.

          “Oh, it’s actually a very interesting story-!”

          Henry immediately waved his hand to cut him off, shaking his head, “Actually, no, I don’t want to know.”

          “Well . . . that could work for now, I guess,” Susie finally said after a minute of awkward silence, “But let’s worry about that after we move everybody.”

          Hers was the final word, by the looks of things, for everyone went to work. Transportation was . . . awkward, especially for Henry, who was the go-to for that sort of thing. And messy, in regard to the two toons(?) that had been pulled through, their bodies still dribbling ink and leaving dark stains down the hall. And on their clothes, but that was fairly normal experience at the studio. Quietly, Joey had pulled Boris aside and asked him to fetch some ink. The two would need a little to stabilize again.

          Once they were all inside the infirmary, Joey had set to work attaching the three newcomers’ wrists to the bed. He didn’t . . . really like doing it, but for the sake of some safety, it had to be done. However, he paused when he reached the . . . the man with Henry’s face. Outwardly, outside of a little bruising, he looked no different from the person who’d been his friend for so many years now at all. Well, that and his gray skin, which still perplexed Joey but he knew there wouldn’t be any answers for that until the man was awake.  And hopefully feeling less stabby.

          Still, as he clicked the cuff around the other’s wrist, he had to fight down his guilt at doing so.

          Hopefully, it wouldn’t be necessary once they were awake and everything was explained, and everyone was calm. Hopefully . . .

          In the meantime, Susie had set to work tending to Sammy, busily clearing off some of the ink on his face. Alice was hovering fretfully next to her, ready to help with the kit in her hands as soon as Susie asked. The man hadn’t roused once in the all the time since he’d come back through, and . . . well, it worried him a little. He had no idea what could be wrong, what could have happened on the other side. He just hoped that a good rest and some care would be enough to help him. Since Henry had Boris and Bendy helping him gather and secure the weapons, they were absent from the room. Better to be locked away for now. They could properly figure out what to do with those later.

          Joey had been looking through his spell book, trying to find where exactly he’d gone wrong for this to happen, when Susie’s startled voice grabbed his attention, “Joey! Come here!”

          Worried by the alarm in her voice, Joey quickly came to her side, leaning over her shoulder, “What is it?”

          The woman was dabbing at the man’s face, right along a long and painful looking cut. Blood oozed from it as she pressed the rag along it, dripping along his skin. Except . . . except its black instead of red.

          Like . . . ink.

          Slowly, Joey lifted a hand to his mouth, a thrill of horror chilling his blood, “Oh dear . . .”

          “How . . . how did this happen?” Susie asked, looking concerned, scared, “Joey, what does this mean?!”

          “I-,”

          “You said he wasn’t in any danger . . .”

          Joey’s gaze shot to Alice, who’s face was drawn with grief and worry . . . and a touch of anger too, as her tearful eyes turned on him, “You said he wasn’t in any danger where he was! So why is he like this?!”

          Joey lowered his head, ashamed, “I . . . I thought he wouldn’t be. I-I didn’t think . . .”

          Just then, the door opened, Henry, Boris, and Bendy walking inside. All their faces were unusually drawn, worry mingled with exhaustion. But when Bendy saw him, Joey can see quite well that the toon wanted answers.

          And he realized that there wasn’t going to be getting any around it, and Joey’s heart was suddenly very heavy at that truth.

          “How’s Sammy doing?” Henry questioned softly to the girls, eyeing the man worriedly.

          Susie opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Instead, all she could do was give him a helpless look, shoulders drooping. Boris whined at that, ears falling.

          “Joey, what happened?” Bendy asked, one part accusatory and the other . . . a little fearful, “What’s . . . what’s any of this goin’ on right now?!”

          And the moment of truth. Normally, words came very easily to Joey Drew. Now though . . . it felt like a stone had gotten lodged in his throat, because when he explained this, he’d have to admit that all the things they had been afraid of in their dreams might have been . . . real. And how do you tell somebody you care about something like that?

          “Um . . .” Joey gave a glance at the three sleeping figures nearby, then at Sammy, then every face looking at him now, "Um, maaaybe we could put this off until-?"

          The looks on everyone's faces except Henry's told him 'no, they were not going to do that.'

          After a long moment, Joey sighed long and deep, not looking forward to saying this at all, “Um, you may want to . . . take a seat.”

          Boris and Bendy exchanged a glance, but they did as he requested. Once they were settled, and after a nervous tap of his fingers against the book in his hands, Joey finally spoke, “The spell worked. It . . . brought back its intended target. But it . . . brought back a few other things. As you can see.”

          “We know,” Bendy cut in, crossing his arms, “But why? How? You said the spells were . . . were just a dream spell and a fortune-tellin’ spell, how could this happen?

          “That’s because . . .” Joey swallowed, shakily fiddling with is glasses, “That’s because . . . its not the whole truth.”

          The silence that fell after that was heavy. He almost lost his nerve to continue, honestly . . .

          It’s not until he met eyes with Henry, who gave him a silent nod of encouragement, that he’s finally able to carry on, “The dream spell was true. But, the second one was . . . the second one was a little different. It . . . it showed other possibilities, but those possibilities were . . . in other . . . worlds. Other . . . realities.”

          Joey doesn’t look at anybody right then. He can’t quite bring himself to.

          But Bendy’s quiet, shaking voice cut through him anyway, “Joey, what . . . what are you tryin’ to say?”

          “. . . the . . . the place where Sammy ended up. It wasn’t a plane created by the two spells. It was . . . it was another world,” Joey swallowed again, feeling more tense than he ever had in his life, “That’s where he went. And I believe, that’s where the three of them are from. And it . . . it might be possible that . . . you saw glimpses of it yourselves in . . . in your dreams.”

          Its stifling, the shocked quiet that fell afterward. A dramatic clasp of thunder would have been very appropriate for the scene, but the only thing he could hear was the ticking of the old clock in the corner of the room.

          “Don’t . . . don’t be angry at just Joey,” Henry suddenly cut in, “I . . . knew about this too. We thought it would be better if we didn’t say anything-”

          “That ain’t funny.”

          Both Joey and Henry turned surprised eyes to Bendy. The toon was still seated, but the ink on his body was wavering dangerously, even as he looked at them, “T-that ain’t funny, you guys. Don’t-don’t joke about somethin’ like that . . .”

          Henry’s eyes were sad, “I honestly wish it was. But after everything that just happened . . .”

          The man looked at where the one who shared his face lay, a shudder going through his body. But he quickly returned his attention to Bendy, saying gently, “I . . . I know this is hard to hear, Ben, but-,”

          “Knock it off!” Bendy suddenly shouted, jumping out of his seat, smile dropping, “Those were just dreams, okay! S-sure, there’s stuff goin’ on that’s hard to explain, and there’s a bunch of weird hokey magic stuff happenin’, but dreams are dreams, okay, there’s nothin’ else to them cause that stuff ain’t real, none of it was real, it can’t be REAL-!”

          Henry immediately crouched down even as Joey started forward, alarm twisting his gut. The animator had put his hands on the other’s shoulders to steady him, even as ink ran over them, “Bendy, calm down-!”

          The toon wouldn’t hear it, “It can’t be real, Henry!”

          Boris stepped towards him, looking alarmed and very, very worried, reaching out with a comforting paw, “Bendy?”

          But before the wolf can attempt to ease his friend, Bendy abruptly jerked out of Henry’s grasp and bolted for the door, pushing it open with a shuddering slam. Then he was gone.

          It wasn’t the end of their troubles, though, for then a strangled cry broke through the shocked quiet. Joey turned to see that Alice had begun to shake, one hand clasped over her mouth while the other cupped the bruise on her cheek, her eyes wide with horror.

          Susie was already in the midst of wrapping her arms around the toon, pulling her close and murmuring soothingly into her hair, uncaring for the ink that soaked into her side, “Shh, shh, it’s okay, Alice everything’s okay . . .”

          The angel buried her face into the woman’s chest, too distraught to form any words, and Joey felt worse and worse with every passing moment. Nearby, Boris whined despairingly, taking one step towards Alice, then the door, then back again, clearly torn on who to comfort first.

          Joey had known it wasn’t going to be good, their reactions. But . . . but even he hadn’t expected this . . .

          Henry took the initiative then, his face heavy with distress. Quietly, he placed a hand on Boris’ shoulder, “You stay with Alice. I’ll find Bendy.”

          The wolf looked at him, torn between gratitude and worry, “Would ya, Henry? I’ve never seen him so upset . . .”

          Henry nodded, and the wolf seemed to accept that. Hurriedly, he made his way to Alice, to offer his own form of comfort.

          Joey, wanting to say something to help alleviate the tension, to make it not seem so bad, inched a little closer, doing his absolute showman’s best to put on a smile to reassure them, “Its . . . its not all bad! The spell worked, and the gate’s closed! I mean, sure, there’s a few minor hiccups, but . . .”

          He trialed off, because Alice was far beyond listening at that point and Susie had narrowed her eyes at him over her head, clearly displeased with him. And that just ripped the rug straight out from under him, and put a stopper on any kind of motivational anything he could give.

          A hand on his shoulder has him turning, to find Henry had moved next to him. Quietly, the man nodded to the door, and after another glance to the three huddled next to Sammy’s besides, gave a soft sigh and followed him out.

          “I’ll go find Bendy,” Henry said once they were out, “Try to calm him down . . .”

          Joey nodded, feeling lower than he has in ages, “Right. And I’ll . . . go clean the ritual site. Wouldn’t do to leave all those stains there . . .”

          “Sure you don’t want to come with me?” Henry asked.

          Joey sighed wearily, looking down at his book, “No. I’m . . . probably the last person Bendy wants to see right now.”

          “He’ll come around again,” Henry reassured him. Then, patting him on the shoulder, he added, “And . . . we’ll figure out what to do about this.”

          Joey nodded, “I hope so.”

          He really did. But when the two parted ways and he began to gather the things he’d left behind at the site, Joey found his eyes traveling to the mirror he had used to cast the spell. Its riddled with cracks, nearly impossible to see his own reflection within now and pretty much rendered useless. But as he looked at the fractured world within, his mind continuously ran circles around his toons’ reactions to his revelation and the utter fury in the face of a man who he had known to never be violent, and he couldn’t help but wonder just what lay beyond it to cause them all.

          The kind of horror it must have been . . . he truly shuddered to think.

          _
          Finding Bendy was not a challenge at all. Whenever the toon was highly stressed, he left a trial as clear as day to follow, and lucky for him, the toon hadn’t waded through any of the ink puddles from yesterday’s spill to cover his trail.

          It was dark within the room, the room Henry knew Joey and Bendy would use to relax and play the piano together. The light from the hallway spilled into it, and with it, he found the one he was looking for easily. He was sitting curled up on the bench, back turned to the door, and even though it was dark, Henry can still see the black puddle that had gathered beneath the toon. Quietly, Henry flicked on one of the light switches and shut the door behind him for the sake of privacy, then made his way over to the toon. Bendy doesn’t say anything to him even when he sat down beside him, staring at the faded keys on the instrument in front of him.

          “Bendy?” Henry asked softly, brow furrowed with concern.

          The toon lowered his head, so quiet its barely above a whisper, “. . . that guy that came through. The guy who looks like you . . . I seen him before . . .”

          It felt like every muscle Henry had tensed at the same time, drawing a stilted and tight breath, “You-,”

          “He was in that dream too. He was scared a me, thought I’d hurt him . . . he didn’t even know who I was, and at the end, he-,” he cut off abruptly, more and more of Bendy’s form lost their solid shape the longer he spoke, his voice growing higher, more hysterical, “But it was just a dream. I was awake, and it was over! I could put it behind me, cause none of it really happened! Except now, he’s suddenly here, and he’s real, and it’s not just a dream anymore, and if it’s not a dream and he’s real then what else was real Henry-?!”

          Henry’s heart panged painfully in his chest when the toon’s run-off abruptly ended in a harsh choke, and he reached out to the demon, “Bendy, I’m sorry. I know this is hard, but whatever else you saw in your dream that was real, it can’t get here now-,”

          “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!”

          Henry jerked back in alarm when Bendy rounded on him, startled. The toon’s face was torn between anger, frustration, grief, and fear, his eyes streaming just as assuredly as his ink, “I’m the one responsible for everythin’ that happened on that side, don’t you get it?! I’m a MONSTER, I killed you, I mighta even killed Boris, I mighta killed EVERYBODY, I was a monster I’m just a MONSTER-!”

          Henry doesn’t even think about it, not really. He grabbed Bendy by the arm, and with one firm tug, he pulled the panic-stricken and hysterical toon into a tight embrace.

          Bendy stiffened for a moment, not expecting the contact, but his frenetic shouting ceased as stunned surprise took its place.

          And, quietly, Henry whispered with utmost sincerity, “You’re not a monster. You never were, and you never will be.”

          “But-!”

          “No,” Henry interjected firmly, “You were never a danger to anybody. And whatever was on that side, it can’t get here. Everybody’s safe. I know that . . . it might not feel much like a comfort now, but it’ll get better. We’ll get through this.”

          Bendy doesn’t say anything after that. And neither does Henry, even when the toon sagged against him and his shoulders began to shake.

          Henry’s own thoughts are still whirling around inside his head, around Bendy and Alice and Sammy and another man who he himself had seen before as well. A man who was a reflection no longer.

          A dream that was a dream no more.

          For anybody.

Chapter Text

          The sword in her hand sung a murderous dirge as she struck at another searcher, slicing it’s head in half. Tom fended off another beside her, and its a dance she was familiar with now, the steps of which she had mastered a long time ago.

          But she supposed it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out. There were so many, so many, and then the Ink Demon itself appeared, rallying the writhing masses at their feet. Bowled over by the sheer mass of enemies, all she could do was flounder within, the icy chill of the ink crawling up her legs, her back, her neck, drowning beneath the press of voices that rose up all around her, she was drowning, she was drowning-!

          Al’s eyes shot open, gasping like her lungs were still full of that vile, sickening ink. Sitting bolt upright, she looked from left to right, every muscle coiled like she was still in the midst of battle.

          But she wasn’t on that dark, grim pier, but rather a fairly decent sized but cozy room with plaster walls and a smooth tiled floor. And no searchers were around, empty save for herself and her companions laid out around her, the air calm and quiet and still. Peaceful.

          But she doesn’t quite relax, because for one, Al has no memory of making it to this room at all, and two . . .

          . . . two, this room was bright, and not because of the lights. It was because of the . . . color.

          All her existence, her world had been blacks and whites and grays, the only color she had ever seen being the hollow eyes of the Lost Ones, as well as her own. She assumed that was normal. That that was just how it was.

          But here . . . here, her eyes suddenly saw soft beiges from the walls, a medley of browns both dark and light from the floor tile, a shimmer of yellow from the overhead light, splashes of reds and greens from several paintings hanging all around, and patterned whites and soft blues from the very blanket on top of her.

          It’s so unexpected its startling . . . yet, to her, its entrancing too, so much so that all she could do was gape at her surroundings for several long, spellbound minutes. Henry had told her about colors before when she had inquired about the world outside the studio’s corrupted halls, how bright and vivid and beautiful they were. Yet nothing of what he had said could have prepared Al for what she was seeing now, how . . . how much it all was to her inexperienced eyes.

          . . . how was this possible? How could she be in a place like this when the last thing she remembered was being overrun and almost-?

          The memory of her near-death snapped Al back to the present, and immediately her mind focused on what she should have been before; her companions wellbeing, and where exactly they are.

          They’re around her, thankfully, in beds like her own, one that is far softer than anything she has ever laid on, with blankets warmer than any thin sheet she had managed to scrounge up in the past, if even that. Henry’s on her right while Tom was on her left, and Sammy was across the way, all of them still asleep. But they are alive, and that’s what mattered. Although . . . looking now, against the backdrop of vivid hues around them, she noticed something . . . odd about Henry, something she couldn’t have noticed before. How . . . washed out he looked.

          Colorless . . . like her.

          Was that . . . normal for people? Henry had always spoken of the world being vibrant, so wouldn’t normal humans be too? He’d never looked different in the studio, but she thought maybe that was just what the place did, amongst all its other insane things. So why . . . ?

          No, no point in digging for it now. She can ask when he’s awake and they’ve all got their bearings again.

But still, how had they made it here? None of them looked to be in any sort of condition to move them, not with all those searchers and not . . . not with the Ink Demon. So . . .

          So . . . had someone else saved them? But who?

          She made to move, to get up and maybe find a few clues as to what had happened as well as check on her allies, when a tight pressure around her left wrist halted her. One quick glance, and she found the source of the problem; a silver cuff clapped around her, chaining her to the bed.

          The sight of it sent a thrill of alarm through her, because now she had proof that wherever she was and whoever had taken them might not have very friendly intentions in mind after all. And with everyone down and only her awake . . .

          Instinctively, her free hand reached for her sword, only to grasp at air. It only took a few seconds more to realize she had been stripped of it, including her tool belt and everything else she could have used to defend herself with as well.

          Of course, she thought, frowning, why would they leave our weapons with us if we’re prisoners?

          “Tom! Henry!” she whispered as loud as she dared, trying to rouse the pair. Very little ever kept Tom down, and Henry might just be the lightest sleeper she knew, a product of the life they had led. So it said something when Tom’s ears didn’t so much as twitch in response to her voice and Henry didn’t stir even slightly, locked deep in their respective slumbers. They must have been hurt bad, to be this far gone . . . it made her worried, but simultaneously grateful that they were still alive.

          But that didn’t help their situation now, and it was clear neither of them was going to wake up in a timely manner . . .

          She’d try for Sammy, but she could see even from where she lay that the man was in no fit condition to do anything at all. Whatever had happened after his plunge had done something seriously bad to him, though how eluded her. She had assumed he was more like Henry, resistant to the ink’s effects. It scared her to think she might have been direly wrong . . .

          But unpleasant odds couldn’t stop her. Quietly, she fiddled with the cuff, testing its sturdiness and gauging it for any weak spots. No luck. It was unusually new, free of rust and decay in a way most things in the studio weren’t. Hissing in displeasure, Al quickly scanned the room again, trying not to be distracted by the vividness around her and this time looking for anything she could use to help. Nothing seemed to be nearby, at least not anything she could use as a weapon. There was a drawer case next to her though, with two empty ink bottles resting on top . . .

          Hastily, Al reached for the top drawer, yanking it open. Old folders and magazines greeted her, their bright colors distracting, and she had to force herself to sift around for more useful things. Just her luck, though, the only thing she found was a spool of yarn . . . for some reason.

          It was pretty, though . . . a dark maroon . . .

          No, no, put it away, Al! she chided herself, shoving it back to the depths of the drawer and closing it. She can’t be sidetracked now!

          Maybe the bottom one . . .

          Throwing her legs over the side to get a better reach, Al hurriedly pulled that one open, frowning when she found it disappointingly empty. Damn it, why wasn’t there anything useful in here!

          Frustrated, she tugged and pulled at the chain around her wrist, but the thing didn’t give so much as an inch.

          And it would be her luck to, while trapped and defenseless and alone, that the only door to the room would suddenly swing open and two figures would step inside. And, if Al had any muscles to speak of, then every single one froze.

          “These’ll brighten the place up a little,” one said, a woman with short chestnut hair and a small smile, her hands holding a pot that for a second Al mistook for an illusion, for the sheer rainbow of color that was there was almost painful to look at. But she could see from the full, flush petals that they were only flowers . . . like none she had ever seen before.    

          And the other person . . . was more like her. A toon. A familiar one, with a familiar trilling voice Al had heard before in old audio tapes, “I hope so. And I hope that he wakes up soon to see-EEE!”

          The toon’s voice rose into a squeal when she saw Al sitting upright, and alarm tingled down her spine as the woman looked her way as well, mouth dropping open. They both had seen her, they both knew she was awake, and if they were the ones who’d imprisoned them then she needed to-!

          Even knowing the chain would limit her movements, she refused to let it stop her, to let them think she was easy prey. Quick as a wink, Al was on her feet, ready to fight if need be.

          Only to have her knees completely buckle underneath her and send her crashing to the floor. She hit the drawers behind her hard, pain shooting up her back and flaring brightest right where the handles dug into her skin, the shuddering of the wood mingling with two alarmed cries. Something clattered next to her, an inkwell that had been knocked off by the jostling, landing right beside her only free hand. In pain and feeling abruptly disoriented, a sudden, inexplicable weakness she hadn’t noticed before tugging at her limbs, it’s only the many long years of surviving in worse conditions that allowed Al to shake the worst of it off quickly.

          “Oh my goodness, are you alright?!” Someone asked her, that familiar high voice, and Al looked up just in time to notice a shadow creeping closer to her, reaching for her-!       

          Al lurched away from it, ignoring the pain as her back slammed once again into the drawers behind her, sending it sliding back with an angry whine, wrist straining in the manacle. Her fingers brushed against the bottle that had fallen, and she grabbed it without a second thought, holding it up threateningly, hissing, “I will throw this, and it will hurt!”

           The shape before her stopped, and Al can see ink running down the side of her head, her wide eyes turning to the other woman for help.

          Help the other woman quickly provided. Slowly, she curled one arm around the pot she was holding so she could hold the other hand up, crouching down until she was sitting on her knees, perfectly level with Al’s eyes, her voice soft and soothing, “Hey, easy. Its okay. You’re safe, I promise.”

          Al didn’t lower her arm even slightly, eyes narrowing, “People can promise a lot of things. That doesn’t mean they’ll keep them.”

          She jangled the chain around her wrist pointedly, “And you’re already off to a bad start.”

          The pair before her exchanged a fretful and, to their credit, guilty glance. And the woman, after a hesitant moment, conceded, “Okay, that does look bad, but to be fair, we weren’t sure if you’d attack us again or not.”

          All furrowed her brow at that, befuddled, “Attack you? When did I attack you? I don’t even know you!”

          “Okay, well, not you, but . . . he did,” the woman gestured at Henry, looking a little uncomfortable as she did so, “And we weren’t sure how the . . . rest of you would react when you woke up. But I swear, we’re not going to hurt any of you.”

          She seemed earnest, more so than most could be. But you can never trust anything at face value, not at first, so it was no surprise that Al was reluctant to believe it. But the lag her body was experiencing was still very present, her arm was beginning to shake, the bottle feeling heavier by the second . . . until she finally had to drop it. That didn’t mean she let her guard down though, fingers clasped tight around the well, ready to swing it at a moment’s notice.

          “Where are we?” Al demanded, refusing to show any sort of weakness to them no matter how nonthreatening they made themselves appear, “W-we were being attacked, how did we get here?”

          “Attacked?” the angel creature next to the woman squeaked, looking very alarmed like the mere prospect of such an event is genuinely startling. Which, how could she be surprised, there are monsters everywhere! And ow that she looked, she could see that the door wasn’t properly barricaded, what were these people doing?!

          “Yes, attacked. And could you maybe bar the door?” she demanded, looking at the latch warily, “Do you want the searchers to get in?”

          The only thing they did was exchange a puzzled glance, like they really had no idea what Al was talking about.

          “Look . . .” the woman finally said, shifting a little in her spot, “There isn’t anything here to keep out, okay? You’re safe.”

          Al stared at her, “What do you mean? Its never safe! There are monsters everywhere, t-the searchers, the Ink Demon-!”

           The toon suddenly sucked in air through her teeth, shoulders tensing, a strangle ripple passing through the ink that made up her form. Its not a moment later, too, that the woman placed a calm, meaningful hand on the other’s shoulder, and Al can see the toon relax a little just from the contact.

           But its all the confirmation Al needed. They knew what she was talking about!

          “You know what I mean, don’t you? I can see it, you know-!”

          “Hey, hey, hey,” the woman gently hushed her, not releasing her hold on the other toon, “Listen, we . . . we think we might know what you’re talking about . . . but it can’t get us here. I swear, the things that attacked you, the monsters you’re talking about . . . they don’t exist.”

          Al can scarcely believe her ears, because how could that be possible unless-!

          . . . unless . . . they weren’t in the studio . . .

          “. . . how?” she asked, staring between the two as all these strange bits of information began to compile together into something . . . more.

          “That’s . . . a little harder to explain,” the woman said after a moment, “You . . . sort of came through a mirror?”

          Al stared at her, because what was she supposed to say to that?

          “A . . . mirror?” she repeated.

          “Yeees, it sounds weird, I know,” the woman replied with a conceding incline of her head, “But that’s what happened. It was just you guys too . . . nothing else.”

          “. . . we were trying to rescue our friend,” the toon finally piped in, folding her hands in front of her and shooting an anxious glance Sammy’s way, “You . . . came through with him. It’s been a . . . a few days since then. We were starting to think . . .”

          The angel shivered, exhaling shakily before continuing, “I know, this is probably so confusing . . .”

          Confusing didn’t even begin to cover it. She’d been unconscious for days? And, they arrived here through a mirror, somehow, to a place filled with color?  A place without monsters? And, these people, did they . . . know Sammy?

          “Here, why don’t we start over with an introduction!” The woman said, perhaps seeing the lost confusion on Al’s face. There wasn’t any calculating gleam in her eyes, though, just . . . worry? Sympathy? She wasn’t sure . . . its not really a look she was used to seeing from complete strangers.

          Slowly, the woman pressed her hand against her chest, “My name’s Susie Campbell.”

          Al blinked, the name ringing a sharp and sudden bell inside her head. Older, from audio logs she had found throughout the studio, but also recent, a name that had come up many times when Sammy had told them stories about his world . . .

          “And . . . my name’s Alice Angel,” the toon greeted her next, her voice soft and polite. Her eyes glanced to the floor suddenly, “But you probably already knew that . . .”

          Alice Angel . . . a name many people called her, even though it wasn’t her name and she was anything but an angel . . . yet here was a toon, a true one, the likes of which she had never seen in her studio. Never could, never would, because it wasn’t possible. At least, in her world. But in Sammy’s . . .

          “Susie Campbell and Alice Angel . . . and you . . . know Sammy?” she said, drawling and more speaking out loud than anything, because inside her head, pieces were beginning to gather into one unbroken picture.

          Both nodded in answer, and the woman’s face brightened, hopeful for a reason Al didn’t understand, “We do. And it sounds like you know him too.”

          “I . . . do,” Al said slowly, and the information is building up, “We came through a mirror . . . where there aren’t any monsters . . . and you know Sammy . . .”

          Now the two were exchanging slightly worried glances, but Al’s mind was drifting from their faces, occupied instead by the things that are sliding together in her head, a roadwork of connections that all pointed towards one answer.

          One incredible, improbable, impossible answer. But it was the only answer she had, the only one that fit this strange new place . . . no, this strange new world, that she herself had only heard about mere days ago.

          “Is this . . .” Al breathed, her eyes growing wider, scarcely able to believe it, afraid to ask it, and yet her own hope were begging for an answer, “Are we . . . in Hell’s Studio?”

          The looks that appeared on the pairs’ faces was pure and unabashed surprise, both turning to look at one another, and Al felt her heart swell and shake, could this really be possible-?

          “Well . . .” Susie replied after a moment, giving her slight shrug, “That is the studio nickname!”

          “Did Sammy tell you it?” Alice asked, looking fond and sad at the same time, “He’s the one who started the name . . .”

          They said it so simply. So openly. Like what they were saying wasn’t momentous in the slightest.

          This was another world. A colorful world. A safe world. Sammy’s world. The world he’d told them stories about, a world that to her ears had sounded so wonderful, and so, so far out of reach.

          But here they were. Here she was.

          It felt like she was dreaming. Was she dreaming? But how could she be dreaming, when she felt so . . . awake.

          “We’re out . . .” she whispered, dazed, “We’re . . . really out . . .”

          Like a taut wire was suddenly cut, Al sagged back against the drawers, the weight of her shock crushing, and she honestly felt dizzy from it.

          “H-hey, maybe you should lay down,” the toon, Alice, said, looking alarmed. She held her hands up, like she wanted to help support her, but she held herself back, hovering instead, face fretful . . . heh, didn’t Sammy say she acted like that?

          “Hey, Alice, hold this for a second,” Susie said, holding out the pot with all of the bright, beautiful, and blooming flowers, their colors still so new, but so real too.

          The angel took it as requested, watching as Susie moved passed her to sit just a little closer to Al. Closer . . . it’s out of reflex her shoulders curled in, bunching up to spring, suddenly tense. Danger’s been a part of her life for so long, and even if this world was as safe as Sammy said it was, it was a hard habit to break.

          Susie noticed, and held up both her hands, palms open, “Hey, I know . . . you don’t quite trust us. If . . . if your world’s anything like what you said, I don’t blame you. But . . . we do want to help. And, I think I know a good way to start, if you’ll let me.”

          Slowly, the woman reached up to the small pocket in her jacket and pulled out something thin and long . . . a bobby pin. And, after purposefully showing it to Al, she reached even slower for the wrist clapped tight within the handcuff.

          It’s a fight with her own instincts to not jerk it away, but she can’t stop herself from leaning back just a little, fingers tightening once again around the bottle in her hand. But if this was really the world Sammy said it was, then she didn’t have anything to fear from them, right? And Susie took her time, didn’t go so fast as to be threatening, and when she finally did touch the cuff, she stopped and waited, long enough for Al to realize she was waiting for her permission to continue.

          She gave the woman a very small nod, and Susie wasted no time then. With a few quick twists and flicks from the bobby pin in her hand, the cuff rattled once . . . and clicked right open. Al pulled her hand back quickly, rubbing her wrist to soothe it, staring at the two in front of her. It still felt like her head was reeling . . .

          “Ta-daa! There, that probably feels a little better!” Susie said with a smile, dangling the open cuff victoriously.

          Behind her, Alice hummed, “One day, Wally will figure out its you who’s breaking into his lockbox.”

          “He keeps bragging about how ‘im-prega-nable’ it is! Was I not supposed to accept the challenge?” Susie asked with an innocent twirl of her hair, voice falling into a strange accent when she said the word impregnable. Then, a little more sheepishly, she added, “It’s a good thing I have all that practice, though . . . Joey apparently doesn’t have any of the keys for the cuffs.”

          Joey . . . Joey Drew . . .

          “He’s here?” she asked without thinking, still too dazed to really give thought to her words.

          Susie lifted an eyebrow, “He . . . is. Do you know who I’m talking about?”

          In a way . . . she wanted to say. She only had heard of the man through word-of-mouth, nothing more. And . . . both had been two very separate stories. Sammy spoke of the man as some kind of idiot . . . but not a dangerous or even ill-meaning one, who at the very least made sure to fix his mistakes. Henry, on the other hand, when he did deign to speak about him . . . it was always colored by anger, heavy with disgust and blame.

          It had been very easy to see that Henry hated the man.

          It was something that always made Sammy strangely uncomfortable too, even though he had talked with some distaste for him as well. It made her wonder how much he actually meant his less-flattering words . . .

          But the man her Henry spoke of wasn’t here, right? The dangerous one, the one that turned everything into a nightmare . . .

          Quietly, and averting her gaze, she said, “No, not really. Henry would . . . tell us about him. And Sammy did too, after we met.”

          There was a second of confused silence, when Susie suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, you mean him!”

          Al looked up to see Susie pointing at the Henry she knew, and she furrowed her brow in puzzlement, “Yes, I mean him. Who else would I mean?”

          “So his name really is the same . . .” Alice whispered to Susie, fidgeting with her hair.

          Susie covered her mouth with a hand, humming, “Well, that’s going to get confusing . . .”

          Before Al could inquire what either of them meant by that, a sudden groan and growl immediately grabbed her attention instead. Ignoring her shaking limbs and the protesting words from the two next to her, Al hauled herself upright, making an immediate beeline for the bed to her left.

          “Tom!” she cried, nearly tripping in her haste to reach the wolf as he sat upright, rubbing a palm over his muzzle. Tom’s ears twitched towards her, blinking the sleep from his eyes as their focus returned.

          Al nearly collapsed when she finally reached the bed, sitting on it just in time. She was shaking, but not just from exertion anymore. Its also from relief and a deep, wonderous sense of excitement.

          “Tom, you’re awake! Are you okay?” she asked, searching the toon over for any signs of pain or discomfort.

          Tom shook his head, and in his eyes she can see he’s relieved for her as well. Then, all at once, he straightened, grabbing her arm and looking at her with alarm. She can see the questions in his eyes, the fear as memory resurfaced for him, and she quickly placed a gentle, reassuring hand on the paw that gripped her, “Its okay. We’re safe. And you’re never gonna believe where we are!”

          Another question, brow furrowing as his ears twitched again, when the sound of a heel clicking against the tile had the wolf snapping his gaze in the directions of the other two standing in the room, staring in abject wonder.

          Immediately, Tom pulled her back, leaning forward as his fur bristled out, snarling viciously at them. He would have lunged for them as well, had the chain on his metal wrist not stopped him. Al belatedly realized she should have expected this.

          Susie and Alice both leapt back, clearly very startled by Tom’s aggressive snarling, eyes flying wide open. Al hastily placed her hands on Tom’s shoulders, pushing him back and looking him in the eye, “Tom, its alright! We aren’t in any danger!”

          The wolf’s lips are still curled back, teeth on full display, but he must see the honesty on her face, hear the truth in her words, for she can feel his muscles loosen just a little beneath her fingers. He still gave the two a highly suspicious glance however, and she knew it was going to take much more than that for him to thaw.

          She can see the questions in his eyes with only a glance, and Al didn’t hesitate to answer, “Tom, we made it out! We’re not in our studio anymore, we’re in Sammy’s!”

          The wolf’s eyes widened just a little, clearly not expecting that.

          “Its true!” she insisted, “Just look around you!”

          He does just that after a hesitant moment, and when she saw his eyes blow open, she knew he saw what she had seen. A soft huff breathed its way past the wolf’s lips, his normally sharp temper softened by the awe of a colored world.

          It doesn’t last, for Tom was never at ease for long, shaking his head and moving his legs over the side of the bed. He gave a glance at the chain on his wrist, a displeased growl working its way out, and Al looked to Susie, “Can you take this cuff off? I promise, he’ll behave.”

          Tom grunted in a way as to imply he was offended.

          “Um . . .” Susie said, looking between them, “Will he . . . let me?”

          At that, Tom shook his head, growling a little, and Al was about to berate him for his stubbornness when the wolf wrapped his metal hand around the chain and gave one hard and brutal yank. The chain didn’t stand a chance, snapping into links that scattered over the floor in a shower of torn metal. The cuff was still around his wrist, but she imagined Tom hardly cared for that in favor of simple freedom.

          “That . . . that works too,” Susie said, looking both a little impressed and a little intimidated.

          Tom was glancing around now, and he huffed once, gesturing with his muzzle to Henry and Sammy in turn. Al shrugged in response, “I don’t know. They haven’t woken up yet . . .”

          “Um . . .”

          Both glanced to where their new-friends? Acquaintances?-stood, Alice took a cautious step closer, holding up her hand to wave, “H-hello. My names Alice. Alice Angel.”

          “And-,” Susie chimed in, taking Alice’s lead, “I’m Susie Campbell. Its . . . a pleasure to meet you! Its . . . Tom?”

          Tom just stared at the two of them, eyes narrowing in profound suspicion, ears falling back.

          “It’s true, Tom. That’s who they are,” Al said. Then, she realized something, “Ah, I never told you my name, did I? It’s Al.”

          Both the girls blinked, Alice even going as far as to say, “Really? It’s not-?”

          “Alice?” Al inquired, already knowing where she was going, “Others have called me that. But that’s not who I really am. Its never . . .felt right. Same with Tom.”

           They seemed to come around to it much faster than she would have thought, Susie even nodding understandingly, “Okay then. That’s what we’ll call you.”

           Al nodded gratefully, pleased that they didn’t seem opposed to it. It was then Tom’s nose quivered, and he began to sniff the air. Usually, it’s a sign that something was wrong, his senses always having been sharper than her own and being able to detect danger much more quickly. It’s not until his eyes settled on the pot in Alice’s hands, a curious gleam in his eyes as he took in the assortment of colors blooming there, that she realized it wasn’t danger he was smelling.

          He sniffed again, and Alice seemed to understand what he was doing, for she suddenly straightened and said, “Oh, do you want to smell them?”

          Carefully, without disturbing the arrangement, the toon gently plucked one out of the pot and held it out to them. Tom growled warningly, immediately dropping back into his distrustful demeanor, but Al . . . Al took one look at the bright, beautiful bloom, the color of which was the purest white she had ever seen, and reached for it herself with next to no hesitation. Alice released it as soon as Al had a grip on it, the stem feeling lush and supple beneath her fingers, the petals flush and full of the life that would have deserted them long ago in her studio. And with every twist of her hand, she thought she could see it sparkle, the light dancing off the crystal white of its petals.

          Beside her, Tom sniffed again, and its only then that Al became aware of something else; a certain smell coming from the heart of the flower in her hand, one that’s soft and one that’s sweet.

          All her life, it had only been the smell of decay that had festered within the rotting world she had called home. She’s never smelled anything sweet before.

          It’s . . . wonderful.

          “What . . . are these?” she asked, voice hushed, eyes never straying from the gorgeous flower in her hand. Beside her, Tom leaned in a little closer, sniffing curiously at the tiny little thing, the petals shifting towards him with his breath.

          “They’re . . . flowers. Gardenias,” Susie said slowly, and Al doesn’t understand why she suddenly sounded sad, “There . . . there are flowers where you’re from, aren’t there?”

          Al shook her head, remembering the lonely withered things that had adorned the halls of her broken home, “They’re all dead. But these ‘gardenias’, are there many of them here?” 

          “. . . there are lots of flowers,” Alice told her, and she sounded sad too, “All kinds . . .”

          “All kinds?” Al asked, eyes brightening, mind flooding with all the possibilities of what there could be.

          If there was an answer, it was lost by the door suddenly opening again, and Al was immediately on guard. Only to have her wariness turn to surprise when another lupine shape walked through, a shape like her Tom, but not. She had seen many Boris’ within the studio, all of them dead . . . but this one was unquestionably alive and kicking, with a light in it’s eyes most creatures in her world lacked. It looked a little different too, like Alice looked different from the posters she had seen, but it was unquestionably the same wolf.

           “Susie, Alice, is everythin’ o- . . . kaaaay . . .” the toon that entered completely stopped walking when he saw them, mouth dropping wide open, and beside her, she heard Tom growl.

          “Its okay, he’s with us!” Alice intervened, “This is Boris.”

          Right, Boris . . . Sammy had spoken of him too. He was supposedly very friendly and kind, would never even look at a fly funny, and she certainly didn’t get any sense of danger from the nervous toon as he stepped slowly back.

          “Um . . .” Boris paused, looking like he was thinking about what to say and trying not to quail beneath Tom’s angry glare, before finally settling on a small wave, “H-hello. I-it’s uh, g-good to see yer awake.”

          She glanced at Tom and placed a calming hand on his shoulder before looking back, saying, “Hi. I’m . . . glad to be awake.”

          Boris’ ears flicked upright, the fear fading, perhaps encouraged by her friendlier tone of voice, “Are you, uh . . . feelin’ okay?”

          Al nodded, just a little, appreciating the consideration, “Alright. Better than we could have been, I’m sure.”

          The wolf’s ears drooped at that, rubbing his elbow, “Yeah . . .”

          Even as he spoke, she can see the toon’s eyes darting over to Tom, equal parts curious and a little nervous. A feeling not helped by Tom’s unimpressed scowling.

          “Hey, Boris,” Susie said, catching the wolf’s attention, “Do you think you could grab a few more bottles for these guys? They might need a little after being asleep for so long. And maybe let the others know too, okay?”

          Boris puffed up his chest a little, nodding, “On it!”

          And, at Tom’s suspicious growl, whined, hastily turned, and . . . vanished in a cloud of smoke? With a strange accompanying zoom sound from completely out of nowhere, that just . . . really threw her for a loop. What in the world-?

          She glanced at Tom, who was glancing at her, the exact same level of confusion on his face as undoubtedly there was on hers.

          “Well, he’ll be back soon,” Susie said, looking completely unphased by the frankly unnatural occurrence that just happened in front of her, “Once you get some more ink in you, you’ll feel a lot better.”

          Al frowned, confusion fading into alarm, “Ink? Isn’t that dangerous?”

          Alice, who had been setting the pot in her hands on the stand by Sammy’s bedside, looked at them, “No? It helped heal you actually. When you both showed up, you were . . . barely keeping yourselves together. We gave you some to help, but you’ll need more.”

          She pointed at the empty bottles at both their bedsides, and Al can see the smear of black along the lip of one. It’s almost too much to believe, that the ink here wasn’t dangerous to them. Had healed them.

          But . . . Sammy did say that was what the ink in his world was used for, when it wasn’t being used as a ‘glorified coffee machine’ . . .

          Huh, could this place get any stranger?

          Tom shifted beside her, looking uncomfortable, glancing around warily at every open space and the door that had been left wide open. It made her a little uneasy, too, clutching the flower close and wishing she had her sword. An open door invited only disaster . . .

          Susie seemed to notice, however, for the woman calmly walked over to it and shut it closed once more. Al felt her shoulders lighten then, not even realizing how tense she had gotten.

          But still . . .

          “Hey,” she started, “Where are our weapons? Did they come through with us?”

          Susie and Alice exchanged a look, before Susie finally said, “Well, uh, they did, we just, um . . . put them away.”

          Al frowned, “Where? We would like them back.”

          Tom grunted his agreement.

          The woman scratched at her head, “Well, I don’t have the key for the place. Sorry . . .”

          “You don’t need them though,” Alice chimed in, “Its safe here.”

          “They’re still our things!” Al insisted, and even she was surprised by the sudden sharpness in her voice. Slouching, she added more softly, more solemnly, “They’re all we have . . .”

          Susie and Alice looked at one another, a softer expression passing between them, until Susie spoke with a promise in her voice, “Well, we can look into getting them back soon, now that you’re up.”

          Al nodded, accepting that. The sooner the better, she hoped. She felt almost naked without her sword at her side, strangely vulnerable even in a place supposedly safe.

          It was that exact moment that another groan echoed in the room, and everyone found its source immediately.

          Henry, her Henry, was finally beginning to stir, bringing a hand to his head as his eyes blinked sluggishly open. And, for just a second, though it might have just been a trick of the light, she thought she saw them glimmer a familiar yellow before they settled back to their normal dark hue.

          It’s not much of a wait for him to fully rouse either, for he, like all of them, snapped back into the present as soon as he was even semi-conscious, a result of surviving in the hellscape that had been their home. Immediately, he shot upright where he lay, gasping, eyes searching for enemies that were not there.

          “Henry!” she called out to him, and she would have gone to his side if not for her fear of not being able to make even that distance.

          But he heard her, and when he looked and saw both of them, alive and well, she could see the tension leave him, calming down as relief filled his face.

          “Al. Tom,” he said, his voice sounding a little rough, but even, “You’re alright . . .”

          Al nodded, smiling a little, cheered that Henry was awake and alright. It wouldn’t have felt right for just her and Tom to be okay, not after everything they'd been through together . . .

          Then Henry blinked, and his gaze shot around once more, “Wait, where’s-?”

          His voice died when they alighted on the other pair in the room, a pair that had made not a sound as he had woken up, staring with wide eyes. And as soon as he looked their way, both of them tensed, Susie going as far as to hold out a protective arm across Alice like she was afraid he would . . . attack them.

          That’s right, Susie said he had attacked them . . .

          “It . . .” Henry whispered, staring at them like they were ghosts, “It wasn’t a dream?”

          Al opened her mouth to explain what was happening, to tell him the wonderous, impossible fact that they had somehow escaped, when the door intrusively opened for the third time that day.

          “I have bottles!” Boris said jubilantly as he reentered, arms laden with the bottles he was undoubtedly referring to, tail wagging. Oh, he had a tail?

          She didn’t get to ponder that for very long, as two other shapes crowded inside right after the wolf.

          One’s a man she doesn’t recognize, but there’s a smile on his warm face that’s as bright as the look in his eyes. But he’s not as interesting as the other man . . . because the other man was Henry. But obviously not the one she knew, for this one had color to his skin and his eyes and his face, a face that was somehow softer than the one she knew, lacking the edges of one who had survived in hard and horrible situations. His eyes are on the other man’s back, hanging by the door, but they do look their way, a look that is both curious and wary.

          The other man sees them too, his curiously colored eyes lighting up, a sense of wonder to them, “Oh, you are awake! This is so exciting!”

          He had managed to take one step towards them when the other Henry grabbed him by the collar, rolling his eyes as he prevented the other from just waltzing over. That did not stop the man’s mouth, however, “Hello, a pleasure to meet you! My name’s Joey! Joey Drew, delighted to finally meet you!"

          “Joey-,” she heard Susie start, although Al’s head is reeling around the fact that this man is apparently Joey Drew and also he still hasn’t stopped talking.

          “I hope you aren’t feeling too disoriented, interdimensional travel probably isn’t the smoothest transition to go through! Some ink’ll help fix those problems up straight away, though! Boris, you do have the ink, right?”

          Tom was starting to growl beside her, lips curling back again, and she placed a hand on his shoulder even though she couldn’t quite take her eyes off this strange man in front of her, mouth hanging just slightly ajar.

          “Joey-!” Alice tried her luck, with no cigar.

          Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the other Henry finally notice that the third member of their party was also awake, and thought he doesn’t move or change his position at all, his eyes grew drastically wider, face going just a little pale.

          “Ah, but I’m sure this is probably a lot for you to take in! Never fear, I’ve written you a small guide to help with any questions you have! And don’t be afraid to-,”

          Susie very suddenly grabbed the jabbering man by the shoulders and forcefully turned him around so he was facing the wall proper, looking profoundly unamused.

          “-ask us for any hel-OH MY GOD!!”

          The man jumped up like a startled mouse, though he couldn’t get very far courtesy of the other Henry’s firm hold on his collar. Al blinked, somehow feeling winded after all that even though she hadn’t even moved from her seat, but now that some form of silence had fallen, she could finally take full stock of what was happening.

          Not that there’s much to take stock of, as everyone has seemingly forgotten about them to focus on the man she considered something of a friend. And he was staring back, a little stunned, a little confused, a little worried . . . and, whenever his eyes would pass over Joey, just a little angry.

         But Henry had always been smart, and she can see in his eyes that he was putting the pieces together far faster than even she had. He spared her and Tom a glance, and she tried to give an encouraging one back, hoping it would be enough to reassure him. Without really thinking about it or without even really knowing why, she clutched the gardenia in her hand tighter.

          Henry closed his eyes and sighed then, a long and heavy one like he was facing a stadium of millions rather than the few that were there. Then he opened them again and finally looked up at the group of strangers from a world far removed from their own.

          “I . . . think we have a lot to talk about.”

Chapter Text

          To say it had been a busy and hectic few days after they had successfully retrieved Sammy would be an . . . understatement.

          It was already bad enough that the music director had come back injured and practically catatonic for a reason nobody could figure out, which did nothing for Henry’s stress levels, but then their . . . ‘guests’ had shown up with him as well. Guests which now rested in their infirmary, a constant and grim reminder of the confirmation of that . . . other world’s existence.

           Dealing with that fact had gotten . . . a little easier over time. But then, for Henry at least, he didn’t really know much about it aside from what others had said. It was easier to put the horrors of another world out of mind when you had never experienced it, had nothing to really go by to even fathom it. The same went for his other two human companions and Boris, who also didn’t have anything to go by except stories. Horrible stories, to be sure, but . . . nothing they had seen, nothing they had experienced.

          For Alice and Bendy on the other hand . . .

          Oh, he’s never felt worse for them. Alice’s smiles had grown so few and far between they were barely there, her halo falling low and dimming lower, despite Susie’s best efforts to cheer her up. And speaking of Susie, the angel had all but glued herself to the woman’s side, never parting from her for long and going practically wild-eyed with panic if they were. He didn’t know what she had seen in her dreams, for she hadn’t told him about it . . . but he didn’t think he really wanted to know.

          And Bendy, well . . . he made an effort to act like he was doing better after his . . . episode. But everyone knew it was only that . . . an act. Most of the time, the toon kept himself holed up inside his office, barely breaking from doing one form of work or another, running himself ragged like a deadline was approaching. He didn’t talk about his nightmare anymore, although Henry hardly felt like he needed to. He still couldn’t wrap his head around some of the things the toon had told him, what had happened to Boris, his coworkers, and . . . and the thing Bendy claimed might be responsible for it all. It was just . . . so inconceivable to him. But maybe that was just a blessing in disguise.

          Bendy still wouldn’t speak to Joey, upset with him as he was. Although, he had later admitted to Henry that he did understand why the man had kept it a secret.

          “I get why he did it. Honestly, I’m not even sure what I’m upset about more . . .” the toon had said, “That he kept it a secret . . . or that he didn’t do a better job keeping it that way . . .”

          The toon also absolutely refused to visit the infirmary, despite Boris’ and Alice’s needling. Henry wasn’t surprised. Avoidance was one of Bendy’s preferred methods of ‘dealing’ with things that were hard for him.

          Unfortunately, Henry knew it wouldn’t last.

          Even after a few days of essential radio silence from their recent problem, he couldn’t really relax. Wally and his crew had come in to clean as they had planned to do, a fact literally all of them had forgotten about until the man had shown up on the doorstep of the studio, puzzled and asking why so many of them were inside when the place was flooded. It had been easy enough coming up with something on the fly, especially since Wally was never the type to really ask questions or . . . even care too much to ask questions. Keeping him and the crew away from the infirmary had been fairly easy too.

          But then the inevitable quandary came when they had to figure what they would do once the studio was back in working order. Everyone was expecting to come back soon, and it wouldn’t be for long that they could keep their new occupants a secret. And how to explain it, what to say, what to even do once these people were awake . . . Henry was honestly amazed, but it seemed like the time had come that the simple stress of working for a deadline was the thing he was actually and desperately yearning for.

          And, so focused as he had been about the what-ifs and all the hypothetical things that could go wrong, Henry had not actually fathomed what to do when any of them had actually woken up.

          He and Joey had been talking about possible ways to break the news to the rest of the studio when Boris had come loping along, arms laden with bottles of ink, ears sitting upright and eyes shining with excitement. And, when the wolf had told them why, well, Joey was adamant about going to greet them.

          Henry, wanting to avoid any further confrontations, especially seeing as Susie had the two relatively calm, had gone along just to make sure Joey didn’t . . . do anything to jeopardize that.

          “It is just those two awake right now, right?” Henry posed the question to Boris as they neared the infirmary door.

          The wolf nodded, “Yeah. But, uh, the other, uh, me in there, he don’t seem too nice . . .”

          The words ‘not nice’ and ‘Boris’ in the same sentence was not a concept to be fathomed by any mortal mind, but Boris was also not a lair, so Henry had no choice but it accept it. It might be a good thing to know, though. Going in knowing someone was hostile better prepared you for their behavior and to sharpen your skills with congeniality. The ‘other’ Alice seemed to be a bit nicer . . . hopefully more willing to talk and be more helpful in keeping the situation calm.

          “I have bottles!” Boris shouted as he flung the door open, tail wagging as he presented Susie his findings.

          They both entered just after him, though Henry waited back by the door. One reason was to keep a better eye on the room, but the other . . . well, he still hadn’t quite gotten over the fact that within the same room was . . . another him. A real, living, breathing, carbon copy of himself, something he had profound trouble looking at and . . . being okay with. Its only the other’s unnaturally gray skin that kept it from being overwhelming, but even that was a problem on its own. Especially when . . . Joey had begun to hypothesize that it might be . . . ink. Which was a whole other can of worms Henry really did not want to crack open.

          Especially strange was just how . . . violent this person was. He could understand self-defense, and if the two toons with him were his allies, then he probably wanted to keep them safe. But with the way Joey had described the events mere moments before they had entered . . .

          There had been no provocation for that attack. An attack that seemed to have the intent to kill behind it. Just recounting the events to Henry later had rattled Joey a little, and even though his friend had chosen to believe it had been a case of simple mistaken identity, Henry was not so sure. And if Henry was right about that . . . then why?

          “Oh, you are awake! This is so exciting!”

          Joey’s excited exclamations brought Henry back to the present, just in time to catch the silly man from recklessly walking over to the two toons, both of whom were staring at the pair of them warily. It was strange, to see them up. But even though both their cuffs were off, neither seemed ready to lunge for them . . .

          “Hello, a pleasure to meet you! My name’s Joey! Joey Drew, delighted to finally meet you!” Joey carried on, too excited to stop.

          “Joey-,” Susie said, sounding worried. Wait, why was she worried-?

          “I hope you aren’t feeling to disoriented, interdimensional travel probably isn’t the smoothest transition to go through! Some ink’ll help fix those problems up straight away, though! Boris, you do have the ink, right?”

          There was a low growl, and Henry can see the other Boris’ lips curling back into a very unfriendly snarl, only held back by the hand the other toon placed on his shoulder. Joey, being Joey, didn’t notice.

          When Alice’s own interjection was met with the same wall, Henry opened his own mouth to speak . . . when movement closer to the door caught his eye, movement that his group or the two new toons weren’t responsible for. And, as one normally does, he looked.

          Only to find that a pair of eyes as dark as an inkwell were looking back, eyes far darker than his own, and Henry felt his face pale when he realized that oooh hell, the toons were not the only ones awake-!

          Any kind of thought he had completely stuttered out when those eyes turned on him. He very much imagined this is what it felt like to be a deer in headlights, every muscle frozen, mind teetering between panic and pure, blank shock.

          The man with his face looked just as astonished, if not more somehow, leaning back just a little like they were some kind of diseased animal. He seemed wary, but highly confused too, like he waking up from a very strange dream only to find out reality wasn’t much different. Maybe not an inaccurate comparison . . .

          “Ah, but I’m sure this is a lot for you to take in! Never fear, I’ve written you a small guide to help with any questions you have! And don’t be afraid to-,”

          Something was happening, because he could feel Joey being shifted around through his shirt, but Henry was unable to take his eyes of his duplicate.

          “-ask us for any hel-OH MY GOD!!”

          Aaand it seemed Joey finally noticed as well, because he jumped hard, kept in place only by Henry’s iron-knuckled grip on his collar.

          As focused as he was, Henry did not miss the way his counterpart’s eyes flicked over to Joey, nor the loathing that began to burn inside them. But something like realization or understanding was beginning to work its way out, too, and after a quick glance to his companions, the other man finally sighed and spoke, “I . . . think we have a lot to talk about.”

          Its like hearing an audio tape playback, except there was no audio tape anywhere to be seen. And while the other’s words were very, very true, Henry found his own voice had lodged in his throat. And Joey, well, it seemed his previous excitement had deserted him.

          It was Susie who came to their rescue, even as she gently nudged Alice behind her, “I . . . think we do. Henry, right?”

          Henry found his eyes turning to her, shocked, but not as shocked as he became when the other man spoke, “Yeah, that’s my name.”

          Even his name was the same? Great . . .

          “O-oh, you have the same name as our Henry then?” Joey took a cautionary step forward, fixing up his shirt and clearing his throat, putting on one of his best and friendliest smiles despite his obvious nervousness, “Well, I’m sure we can work around that! I’m-!”

          “I know who you are,” the other man said with an unfriendly frown, silencing the other man with a tone that was curt and a glare that was cold.

          Henry had a sinking feeling just from that alone that the man’s aggression wasn’t born from a case of mistaken identity as Joey wanted to believe. Releasing his grip from Joey’s collar even as the man shied back, Henry swallowed and finally managed to take the helm, “Okay, look, we-,”

          He faltered completely when the man looked his way, and right then its from more than just the fact that its his own face staring at him. It’s the sharpness to it, the hostility woven into that downturned frown, dark eyes utterly piercing, and yes, Susie had made comment before about how this person had seemed more ‘rough around the edges’ than he did, but Henry hadn’t actually noticed how much so until now. It made him feel like he was dancing on a wire’s edge, and if their initial greeting hadn’t been enough before, Henry was really beginning to understand that this man was more dangerous than he could ever be.

          “Hm, so you can talk,” the other commented, tone lightening in a way that suggested he was coming around much faster to the fact that there was another him in the room, which was decidedly unfair seeing as how he’d only been awake for what, five minutes? And Henry had had several days, and he was still getting tongue-tied?

          Oh, come on, get it together, its talking, it’s what you’re good at!

          “Y-yes, I can,” he managed to grind out, and he forcefully cleared his throat a little before continuing, “L-look, I just want to get across that . . . we’re not your enemies. We get that . . . where you were at wasn’t the best place, but there’s none of that sort of thing here.”

          “Right . . .” the other said, glancing around and wincing like the lights were a bit too bright even though they weren’t before asking, “So . . . I take it this is Hell’s Studio?”

          Henry blinked, surprised the other knew that name. He must have learned it from Sammy, and while he wanted that to make him hopeful that this trio and their director had been on at least friendlier terms and meant that they weren’t completely distrusting, he held back from hoping too strongly.

          Before any of them could answer, however, the ‘Alice’ that had fallen through the mirror beat them all to it, her strangely golden eyes glittering, “It is, Henry! Just look at this!”

          The toon held out her hand, and within Henry saw a small white flower, a gardenia. She held it like it were made of glass, but there was a smile on her face as she looked at it, a wondering awe in her eyes like a child beholding snow or the ocean for the very first time. He glanced questioningly at Susie, and all the woman does was give him a sad look in return, leaning over to whisper, “They’ve never seen a real flower before . . .”

          Both his and Joey’s eyes widened as they turned their stares back on the three in front of them. The other Boris was glaring at them suspiciously, but the angel was entirely absorbed in showing the flower to his counterpart, who . . .

          . . . was staring at it with just a little bit of awe too, like this tiny, inconsequential little bloom was something alien and strange.

          “It even smells sweet, Henry! You never told us they smelled sweet before!” the angel told him, but the accusation in her tone is more playful, gently smoothing a finger over one of its white petals.

          The other man blinked at her . . . then, his expression softened a little, the frown he’d been sporting eking into a small smile, “Well, figured I should leave something as a surprise.”

          The toon smiled a little, twirling the flower carefully in her hand, “I guess it is a really nice one.”

          “I’m glad,” his counterpart told her, and he sounded fairly genuine about that.

          As he watched, Henry couldn’t help but feel a little . . . sad. What kind of world was it that something as simple as a flower was so wonderous? Had they really been trapped inside this horror version of their studio for that long?

          Nearby, Susie gently nudged Boris, “Hey, we might want to pass those out.”

          “Oh!” the wolf’s ears shot up, “Right!”

          Quickly, Boris scampered over to the bed where the toons sat, but froze at the other wolf’s warning growl. It still set his teeth on edge, just how unfriendly this version of Boris was, looking like he was ready to fight them all at the drop of a hat.

          “Tom, stop . . .” the other Alice chastised, frowning.

          Henry’s brow furrowed a little, “Tom?”

          “His name,” she replied, looking his way, “And mine’s Al.”

          Oh, well . . . a little unexpected, but also a little nice? At least that wouldn’t get confusing . . .

          “A . . . pleasure to meet you,” he said, idly watching as Boris used the lapse in attention to dump the bottles on the bed before retreating to a safe distance. Tom flashed his teeth at him, metal fingers curling into a fist, kept in check only by Al’s hand on his shoulder.

          The angel nodded at him, eyes trailing over the bottles next to her. Carefully, she plucked one up and held it out, spinning it around curiously, “So, what exactly are we supposed to do with this?”

          “You drink them,” Alice informed her.

          Al pursed her lips into a small frown, “And you’re sure that’s safe?”

          “It is!” Joey chimed in then, “Think of it like a nutritionally packed drink! It’ll give you everything you need to recover!”

          Both toons just stared at him, occasionally glancing at the other him for a reason he didn’t understand, and it wasn’t until Susie picked her way forward and plucked one up herself that the awkward pause ended. She handed the bottle to Boris, asking, “Think you can show ‘em?”

          The wolf nodded, popping off the lid and downing the whole thing in a way no human would be able to, licking his chops when he’d finished, “Mm~.”

          Both Al and Tom watched him carefully, like they were waiting for something horrible to happen. And, when of course nothing did, they began to lose some of their suspicion, Al even going as far as to open her own bottle and curiously sniff it.

          “It looks like its safe,” his counterpart offered them, tone more encouraging than before.

          Al nodded a little, and looked like she was about to take a drink when a paw abruptly placed itself on top of the open bottle. Tom then took said bottle out of her hand, placed his own unopened one in it, glowered at the ink inside . . . then closed his eyes and knocked it back. He finished fairly quickly, wincing a little as he smacked his lips.

          Al stared at him, looking a little amused, “So . . . how was my bottle?”

          The wolf looked at her for a second, then waggled his hand in the air, a clear and universal sign for ‘meh’.

          “Well, now that you’ve run poison control, am I in the clear to drink this?” she asked, tilting her own bottle back and forth.

          Tom rolled his eyes, but finally nodded, and Al finally took her own turn to drink. Henry didn’t understand the suspicious system the wolf seemed to follow, but at least they were drinking it now.

          “Do, um . . .” Alice was speaking now, and Henry realized with a start that she was addressing his counterpart, not the toons, “Do you . . . need one too?”

          The man stared at her, for several seconds not looking like he understood what she was talking about, “What do you . . .?”

          He then glanced at his hand, and he grimaced, “Oh . . .”

          Henry and his group all gave each other slightly awkward glances, and he could see than none of them were sure how to ask what exactly was up with the other’s skin color. If he even knew himself, but he didn’t seem as surprised or horrified as Henry himself would have been.

          Al had no such hesitation, “Why exactly are you like that, Henry? You . . . are human, right? You never were like the rest of us, so I thought . . .”

          Everyone refocused their attention on the other, eager to hear the answer to that, but not wanting to say it out loud. But his counterpart only sighed, running a hand through his hair as he said, “To be honest . . . I have no idea.”

          Al opened her mouth to ask something else, when she gave a sudden quick glance at Henry’s group, dipping back into slight circumspection again, seeming to think about whether or not to continue.

          It was Boris who asked instead, curious, “How could ya not know?”

          The wolf immediately lowered his ears, rubbing the back of his head abashedly, “I-I mean, if ya wanna answer. Don’t mean to be rude or nothin’ . . .”

          Surprisingly, his duplicate’s face softened, lacking the same caginess from before as he answered, “I know. This is . . . sort of new to me. I always suspected things weren’t . . . what they seemed, but I didn’t know by how much.”

          “Not what they seemed?” Al asked, eyes narrowing, “Like what?”

          “Things to do with me,” he replied, shrugging, “Al, I was surviving fifty foot falls. That should make anyone suspicious. Still, I’m not sure one way or the other what exactly . . . this is.”

          Henry eyes grew wide, a little stunned by that, because what?

          “Erm, maybe . . . I could be of some assistance?” Joey, brave Joey, took a very bold step forward, one hand tugging at the collar of his shirt while the other was looped behind his back, looking nervous but also sincere, clearly eager to bridge whatever yawning gap stood between them in the only way he knew how, “I know of at least several spells for identification, safe ones! All it would need is something like a lock of hair, or maybe a-,”

          “No.”

          His counterpart was scowling again, the softness from when he’d been talking to Boris utterly vanishing like mist in the late morning, tone making it absolutely clear that he was in no way interested. And Joey, in a rare case of actually reading the room, snapped his mouth shut and looked down.

          There’s several moments of heavy and stagnant silence, nobody really sure what to say after that. Henry himself found that he was . . . growing a little irritated actually, mostly to do with how his counterpart was treating Joey. He knew he didn’t understand much about that world or the people there, but his friend had only been trying to help.

          “I can see you have a lot more questions than that . . .”

          Henry straightened as the other man turned his attention back on them. But the hard edge that had been there before had softened again, a more resigned look on his face, “We’ll answer them as best we can, but first . . .”

          The man’s eyes travelled past them all, to the other side of the room, concern entering his gaze, “How’s Sammy?”

          Everyone’s eyes travelled to the still unconscious man laying still behind them. His outwards wounds were healing, and he looked better than he had when he had first come back . . . but the lack of response to outside stimulus and the fact that he still hadn’t woken yet concerned everyone. Beside him, Alice frowned, eyes falling to the floor, “We . . . don’t know. He’s been like this ever since he came through . . .”

          “We . . . were hoping you could tell us what happened,” Henry told them softly, “Could . . . maybe tell us what was wrong . . .”

          His counterpart frowned, but its not the unfriendly one from before. Its more thoughtful. Then, he said, “He . . . fell into the ink. And where we’re from, there’s something wrong with it, something dangerous. He was barely responding when we pulled him out. And . . . what might have made it worse is that he fell in with, um . . . our version of . . . Sammy . . .”

          A round of shocked stares were passed between them all, for while it should have probably been obvious, none of them had actually thought about the fact that there might have been other versions of the people they knew on the other side.

          “Your version of . . . Sammy?” Boris echoed, looking confused and worried in equal measure, tail pressed flat against his leg.

          “So there are others trapped there?!” Alice said, voice strident, looking horrified like they couldn’t have told her anything worse. Her eyes immediately shot to Susie, tears beginning to well in them, and Henry felt his worry skyrocket at her strong reaction.

          Susie, seemingly already aware of what was wrong, placed a gentle and comforting hand on her shoulder. The angel placed one had over it while the other went to her mouth, internally wrestling with something he couldn’t understand.

          Quietly, Henry heard his counterpart speak, his voice sympathetic, “. . . there are. I know that’s . . . probably not easy to hear.”

          “It’s mostly monsters there, though,” Al said, and she genuinely sounded like she thought that was supposed to be better, “And, the ones who aren’t, the Lost Ones, they don’t . . . truly realize any of what’s happened.”

          That’s the not the point, Henry wanted to tell her. But he doubted she would completely understand, not right away. To her, all these terrible things were frightfully normal. It made his stomach turn at the thought.

          “Okay, so . . . what does that mean, exactly?” Susie asked after a moment, looking worried, “Why . . . why would it be bad for . . . your Sammy to fall in?”

           “The ink in our world is dangerous,” Al explained, eyes fixed firmly on the flower, “For ones like me and Tom, if were to fall into it, we would . . . vanish. Our minds lost.”

          A ring of horrified faces greeted her words, Henry suddenly coming to an acute understanding of why they were wary of drinking any kind of ink, and Alice’s terrified voice spoke for them all, “B-but, that wouldn’t happen to our Sammy, would it?!”

          “Maybe not your Sammy . . .” Henry’s counterpart said, idly tugging at the cuff around his wrist and not looking surprised that it was there, “But ours was . . . like the others. And if he fell in, and his body fell apart, it . . . might be possible it affected them both.”

          There was a yawning pit of horror growing in Henry’s stomach, one that made him faintly queasy as he asked, “How? What could have happened?”

          “I . . .” the other man seemed to hesitate, not looking any of them in the eye, “I’m not sure. But . . . he’ll probably be confused when he wakes up. Just . . . keep an eye on him. And don’t be too afraid if he acts . . . a little strangely.”

          Not the answer any of them wanted, and not really helping them get any closer to fixing this problem. Damn it . . .

          “We’re . . . sorry,” Al murmured, and her eyes were truly apologetic, “To some extent . . . this is our fault too . . .”

          Tom huffed beside her, looking disapproving of her languishing, but at the same time understanding of its roots. Perhaps that was his way of comforting others, but who could say?

          “No, don’t,” Susie interjected, “You did what you could, and . . . I’m sure it’ll get better. He’ll get better. So please, don’t blame yourself.”

          “. . . I’m the one to blame, really.”

          Everyone looked at Joey then, the man looking unnaturally small amidst the group, eyes turned to the floor with a contrite look on his face, “I . . . really should have been more careful with what I was doing . . .”

          Henry was about to say something comfortingly, to pull the man out of his obvious rut, when another voice cut that right off with a harshly worded, “So it was your fault.”

          Every single person barring Al and Tom looked at his counterpart with expressions of pure shock. Henry, for his part, could not believe the other would say something that cold and callous, when it should be obvious the man felt terrible for what had happened!

          “It was just an accident!” he defended, not liking the way his counterpart looked at his friend.

          The man flicked his gaze to him, voice nearly bland if not for the venom that laced it, clearly unrepentant, “I’m sure that will make Sammy feel much better, won’t it?”

          Joey flinched like he’d been physically slapped, and Henry, after a moment of staring in pure disbelief, frowned hard and drew himself to his full height.

          “Why do you keep doing this? Joey’s done nothing but help you!” the words were out before he could stop them, but he was just a little too incensed by the other’s behavior to care. He knew this wasn’t what he was supposed to do. He was supposed to calm people down, to make them see reason. But something about someone with his face acting so cruelly towards someone he cared about just . . . rubbed him in such a wrong way, enough to throw any desire to be the peacekeeper to the wind.

          The other’s eyes narrowed, unimpressed, “Sorry, have I not sung his praises enough? You’re right, maybe I should get on my knees and grovel instead.”

          Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Al and Tom give each other a bewildered look, like this sudden aggression was as unusual for them as it was for his group.

          Henry felt his own exasperation rise, “Alright, just, what is the problem?! Because there’s clearly an issue here somewhere!”

          The other’s lip was curling, and another snappish reply might have been given, had Susie not suddenly intervened, stepping between the two and speaking over both of them, “Okay, time to reel it in and stop snapping at one another, it’s not helping!”

          Henry did do as she said, exhaling irritably. Not often he got annoyed, and maybe it’s only because of these bizarre and frankly upsetting circumstances, but it was still very much a present and real feeling.

          His counterpart didn’t say anything either, and once she was sure both of them were at least partly mollified, Susie finally looked to the gray-skinned man and asked, “Alright, so, I know this is strange, and I know we don’t understand everything about where you’re from, but . . . our Henry has a point. Just . . . why the antagonism?”

          The other’s eyes narrowed further, glancing hotly at the man who had partially hidden himself behind Henry. Then, with a definite growl in his voice, said, “Why the antagonism? Why do you think the studio is the way it is? Who do you think is responsible for everything that happened there!”

          The shockwave of stunned disbelief at his accusation was palpable, and Henry felt his own insides twist when he took the words in full. He knew Joey had a habit for sticking his nose in potentially troublesome things, but to the scale of which seemed to have occurred in that world? How could such a thing have even happened?

          Seeing their shock, his counterpart turned his eyes on Joey, “You have an Ink Machine here? You built it?”

          Joey seemed very surprised that the man was addressing him at all, standing so still you could have mistaken him for statuary, “U-um . . . yes?”

          “So did mine,” the other replied, eyes hardening into chips of obsidian, “And he didn’t care what he had to do to make it work. And when it did, all it made was a nightmare! Hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, I don’t know, but all of them are trapped there because of that damn thing, because of him!”

          The man’s glower was so fierce it was honestly frightening, and nobody could form even a stutter before it. And Henry . . . can’t believe what he’s heard, he can’t believe it at all! For something to go that catastrophically wrong even at Joey’s hands? His friend could be impulsive, but he wasn’t foolish! He would have seen what had happened, he would have stopped it before it even got that far!

          “. . . what?” Joey was staring in absolute shock, a tremor working its way through his body, “B-b-but how? I-I mean, I’ve had accidents before, but how could it have gone so wrong to that scale?! How’d no one catch it, why haven’t I tried to fix it?!”

          His counterpart was very quiet for a moment, eyes shadowed beneath his hair. Then, very slowly, very deliberately, he said, “. . . when did I ever say that what he did was an accident?”

          It’s like all the air gets sucked out of the room, the silence so thick and all-encompassing you could have heard a pin drop. Every single person, toon and human alike, knew exactly what the man was implying, knew exactly where he believed the blame belonged.

          But even the thought of his friend being capable of doing something so monstrous, so wicked, on purpose? It was far too much for Henry to believe, no matter how twisted this world was.

          “That can’t be true,” he said, shaking his head, “Joey might dabble in this sort of stuff, but something like that? On purpose? I can’t believe that!”

          Even as he spoke, others were rallying behind him.

          “Henry’s right, Joey would never do something like that!” Alice cried, her voice filled with conviction.

          “Yeah, and he’d do everythin’ he could to fix it!” Boris added, just as sure as his toon friend.

          “Maybe something just when out of hand! How can you be sure it was even his fault?” Susie demanded.

          “BECAUSE HE’S THE ONE WHO PUT ME THERE!”

          Everybody froze, an utterly shocked silence falling over them all, eyes flying wide open. Even Al and Tom looked startled, evidently not expecting that upsurge at all.

          The other him slumped back against the wall behind him, but the sudden anger in his eyes, the rage, was still burning hot, hands clenched into shaking fists, “He’s the one who put all of us there! All for his damn Machine! All for a chance to play God! And for you to stand there and say that its wrong, when you know nothing about who that man is, when you know nothing about what any of us have gone through, is insulting!”

          He fell silent then, but the tremors left in wake of his outburst still rocked through them all, disbelief filling the room, along with anxiety and even a little fear. Henry doesn’t think there’s ever been a time he had seen himself so angry. ‘Unnerving’ does not do his feelings right then justice.

          “The Creator lied to us.”

          Everyone looked at where Al was sitting. Her eyes were on the flower she cradled, but it was obvious she was speaking to all of them, “Those are some of the most common words written on the walls of the studio. Its everywhere, all around. The ones who write them seemed convinced of its truth, that the ‘Creator’ was the one to blame for why we were there, why we were suffering.”

          She looked up then, her golden eyes glowing, fixing them on Joey Drew, “I always wondered who he was. And I always wondered . . . what he had done to make so many people believe that he had betrayed them. But then I would look around, at all the horror and the pain he had caused with the creation of the Ink Machine and its Demon, at the world he made . . . and deep down, I would know that whoever he was . . . he can’t have been a good person, for good people don’t make nightmares out of dreams. And, compared to everything else . . . lying seems like it would be the easiest sin of all.”

          Her words were as ominous as they were damning, and Henry felt like his heart was in his throat as he took her words in. They . . . truly believed that Joey was . . . some kind of monster. That he could . . . truly hurt so many people and not even blink.

          “That bastard made so many promises to so many people . . . that all of their dreams would come true,” his counterpart muttered, eyes slowly gliding to Susie as he spoke, “And he broke every single one, and he never gave a damn.”

          Henry wanted to tell him to stop, to tell all of them to stop, because their accusations were too much, just too much, when there was a sudden rush of footsteps by the door. Henry turned just in time to catch a glimpse of Joey as he vanished around the corner, into the deeper parts of the studio.

          “Joey!” Alice called after him, sounding distraught. Beside her, Boris whined long and low.

          “Oh, geez . . .” he heard Susie mutter, sounding very troubled and more than a little upset. She quickly rapped a hand against his shoulder, nodding her head to the door, “Well, what are you waiting for? Go after him!”

          Henry wanted to, but couldn’t stop a hasty glance at the three ‘guests’ they had, “But what about-?”

          “Don’t worry about them, just go!” Susie insisted, all but shoving him out the door.

          He managed to catch one last glimpse of the man who shared his face however, to find that he was looking back, a frown on his face. And while maybe his circumstances had been horrible, and while, yes, there was still a part of him that felt bad for what the man had gone through . . . Henry can’t quite stop his face from knitting into a glare despite.

          Then he was out in the hall.

          Trusting Susie to take care of . . . that, for the time being, Henry sighed and began to track his friend through the studio.

          It’s . . . not a very long search, for Joey hadn’t wandered very far, just down into the adjoining hall, leaning against the wall with a hand over his eyes, his glasses sitting in his other hand.

          And, to his utter surprise, he saw Bendy standing in front of him, looking up at the man with deep concern. As soon as the toon saw him, he spared Joey one last look, then hurried over to him,

          “Henry, that stuff weren’t true, right?” the toon questioned almost desperately, “You know, that . . . that stuff the other you was sayin’!”

          “You were listening?”

          Bendy grimaced a little, “Okay, yeah, I was wonderin’ where everyone went, and I was listenin’ outside, sue me! But Henry, all those things he said . . .!”

          He placed a hand on the toon’s shoulder, understanding, “I know. I can’t really believe any of it, myself. But I need to talk to Joey first.”

          The toon seemed to understand, for though he was still plainly distressed, he nodded and stepped aside for Henry to pass. He quickly did so, crossing the rest of the distance quickly. His friend had straightened himself out a little, in the middle of pushing his glasses back in place, even though the mysteriously wet gleam in his eyes was barely covered by the frames.

          “Joey?” he started as he came to his friend’s side, feeling sorry for the man. This situation was feeling uncomfortably familiar, recalling echoes of when he had searched for Bendy only a few days prior to this.

          The man did his absolute best to put on a smile, but Henry can tell by the how thin and stretched out it is how close it was to falling, “S-sorry about that Henry, that was . . . uncalled for, I know. I just . . . needed a little time to sort myself out, nothing to worry about, I’ll be-!”
          “Joey,” Henry pressed softly, and his friend’ smile teetered, “Those things they said . . . that’s not you. I honestly can’t believe any of it is true myself, but none of that is you. And . . . that man, me, whoever he is, he had no right to treat you that way.

          “Maybe, but . . .” Joey looked away, crossing his arms over his chest like he had taken a sudden chill, “But you can’t deny some of the things he said . . .”

          “Joey-!”

          “Its true!” the man shouted, “Everything that’s happening now, that was me! The dreams, Sammy, the fact that there’s even another you here, from a place as . . . horrible as that . . . and if I’d messed up anywhere else, what if-?”

          “Joey?”

          They all turned their heads to see that Boris and Alice stood just behind them, ears and halo drooping, staring at their creator with sad eyes.

          “Oh, Boris, Alice . . .” Joey mumbled, trying to clear his throat, “Sorry you had to see that, I-oof!”

          The man grunted when the wolf suddenly flung himself onto the man, latching onto his side with a low, sad whine.

          “You ain’t a bad person, Joey!” Boris said earnestly, “You care about all of us, I know ya do!”

          “He’s right . . .” Alice intoned softly, coming up to comfortingly lean against his other side, “And everybody knows it, too.”

          The man looked between them both, voice catching in his throat, and Henry quietly added, “You know they’re right. You can make mistakes, Joey . . . but you always fix them. And you’ve never done anything to ever hurt someone. Especially not the way they seem to think.”

          Joey sagged a little at his words, and the wetness in his eyes grew just a little as he placed a hand on Boris’ head and another on Alice’s shoulders, and even if it’s still a little shaky, this time his smile is a little more real, “Thank you. I . . . will be fine, I promise, it just . . . was a lot all at once.”

          Boris didn’t hesitate to press his head against his hand, and Alice gently patted her free one over his. Then, abruptly, she cleared her throat and pointedly looked behind Henry. He didn’t even need to look to know who she was calling out, but he quietly moved aside as Bendy finally came forward, rubbing the back of his head.

          “H-hey, uh, Joey?” the toon started, not quite meeting the man’s eyes, “I’m, uh . . . sorry. Ya know, for bein’ a dingus these past few days. I . . . shouldn’t have acted that way . . .”

          “Well . . . it was understandable,” Joey replied.

          “That don’t make it better,” Bendy said, shaking his head, “Ya never . . . did anythin’ bad, not really. And you were only tryin’ to fix the problem without upsettin’ the rest of us. And . . . about what those guys said . . . I don’t think I can really believe it either. I mean, yer a grade-a kook, Joey, but some kinda comic book villain? Come on, that’s a bad script if I ever heard one.”

          “Well, I’m glad to be a kook, then!” Joey said, his smile growing just a little more, “But I have to say, for a kook . . . I think I did a pretty swell job with the three of you.”

          Boris’ and Alice’s faces brightened at that (literally, with Alice’s halo), and Bendy’s own grin grew wider, and maybe just a little touched, “Aw, come ‘ere, ya old sweet-talker!”

          The toon gave a mighty leap and hooked his arm around Joey’s neck as he was wont to, and the man tottered only a little thanks to the two support pillars he had on either side keeping him steady, laughing a little despite what had happened. Henry gave a small smile too, relieved to see them pick each other up, at least for now.

          Still . . .

          He gave a glance down the hall, thinking. It still felt like there was much they needed to learn, much they needed to understand, but the story these new arrivals had shared didn’t fill in every hole. It was true, most of it was upsetting, and maybe better left buried, but . . . it almost felt like much of that crucial information they needed had been left unsaid.

          He didn’t know what any of it could mean. And while he wanted to hope that these strangers with familiar faces would come around from their aloofness, their aggression, with no threat of danger hanging over their heads anymore, Henry knew it would be a slow and arduous climb. Especially given how . . . his own counterpart acted in regards to Joey.

          But he had to hope for things to get better. For everybody.

          Otherwise, he really had no idea what to do.

Chapter Text

Henry had grown accustomed to dealing with tense and stressful situations, it was just a part of living in the studio Joey had corrupted so long ago. Still, waking up to find that the practically hallucinatory things he’d seen before passing out had been reality rather than a dream had been pretty uncomfortably jarring, even with that experience. It had been a genuine struggle at first to come to terms with the fact that there had been a second version of himself standing just a few feet in front of him, and he was pretty used to seeing strange things, so it set a record.

But the truly hardest part of it all had been seeing Joey Drew.

Henry’s not stupid. He had fit the pieces together quickly, realized that this place he and his companions were in was no longer the studio they had known, a shock in its own right. But even knowing that, knowing that the people he saw here were nothing more than strangers to him, Henry doesn’t think he had ever had his restraint be so rigorously tested before, rage running hot just under his skin, a teeth-clenching internal war just to tamp down his frightfully bloodthirsty desire for revenge.

Even still, he couldn’t stop all his ire from dripping out, nor halt his accusatory words. And, when it came to light that it was this man’s fault for Sammy’s predicament, he felt they were not entirely without cause. The reckless use of dangerous and unsavory magic hit something tender and raw in Henry’s soul, far too familiar, bringing out the worst in his hostility. But he had to make them understand, didn’t he? Or else, what could happen in the future?

But Henry can’t say he’s surprised it ended the way it did. None of the people present appeared to believe him, not even his own counterpart. He supposed, at the very least, the one with Joey Drew’s face had appeared appropriately horrified in a way his own had never been. Hopefully . . . his words compounded with what had happened would at least dissuade the man from ever picking up another one of those dark tomes again.

Now though, there was just silence as almost everyone vacated the room they were in, most going after their ‘boss’. The only one who remained was the woman with short brown hair, her eyes fixed on him with a hard stare. He already had a strong feeling as to who she was supposed to be, but seeing that look on her face, eyes narrowed in annoyance, lips curled with disapproval, that was one he truly recognized, and Henry had to forcefully remind himself that this woman had no halo or horns to fear.

He hoped . . .

“Well, that could have gone better . . .” the woman huffed, pressing a finger to her temple.

It probably could have, Henry silently conceded. Normally he could be the reasonable one, the calm one, the diplomatic one. Even with those he didn’t particularly like. But seeing Joey Drew in the flesh had just . . . brought out all the worst in him.

And, if he was being truly honest with himself . . . he couldn’t say that he really regretted it.

So he just stayed quiet, choosing instead to throw his legs over the side of the bed, eyes falling to the manacle around his wrist. Hm, he doubted anyone would really be willing to release him after that episode. Couldn’t really blame them, and he supposed it wasn’t the first time he’d been a ‘prisoner’, of sorts. Hell, the whole damn studio they’d been in had been nothing but an ink-laden cage. What’s one measly little handcuff compared to that?

So he was a little surprised when he heard the swish of a skirt and glanced around to see that the woman had come nearer to him. She was still scowling, but it looked to have been tempered down to something just a little softer. Then, with a touch more amity entering her voice, she said, “Look, I . . . understand that this confusing. And . . . and I don’t think you’re lying about any of what you’re saying. I think you really believe it. And . . . I’m sorry that that’s how you feel. But whatever the case was there, it’s not that way here. Nobody’s done you any wrong, least of all Joey.”

She was speaking reason, Henry knew. And, from a purely objective standpoint, she was correct. Nobody here was responsible for what had happened at his studio. That didn’t make his currents feelings simmer down, however.

Looking at her, he asked, “You’re Susie Campbell, aren’t you?”

She blinked, surprised. Then, “Yes, I am. Did we know each other where you’re from, too?”

He frowned slightly, knowing he should choose his next words carefully. After a moment, he decided a sort of half-honesty would suffice, “Sort of. But . . . I’m not sure I could say for certain if it was the . . . real you or not.”

“The real me? What do you-,” Susie suddenly stopped, eyes widening like she had just realized something right before it fell away into a grimace, “Oh . . . I . . . see . . .”

Henry looked at her, frown deepening. Her reaction . . . was that of someone who had put very specific pieces together in their head and come to a stark and shocking conclusion. But the only way she could have done something like that was . . .

“Do you . . . know what I’m talking about?” he asked her, now a little suspicious.

Susie pursed her lips together, grasping at her elbow self-consciously as she looked away. That just confirmed it for him.

“You do, don’t you,” he said, staring at her hard, “How do you know something like that?”

She gave a slight wince, tugging at the sleeve of her cardigan. Then, “. . . sort of. You see, before this whole mess started, we’d been having . . . problems already. There was a sort of mix-up, and a few of us had . . . dreams about your world. Vivid ones. I don’t know much about it, but what Alice told me was . . . enough, I think.”

Dreams . . . for some reason that word plucked at something inside him. Trying to pull it closer was frustratingly difficult though, like a memory so far-gone and blurry you might as well be looking for gold in a gravel sieve for all the futility your efforts would bring you.

 Instead, Henry nodded slowly, processing what she said. So, they already had an idea of what lay on the other side, hm? He wanted to point out that it should be understandable why he said the things he did if that were the case, but he figured there wasn’t much point in opening that topic up again.

“I see,” he murmured.

“You . . . saw what was on our side?” Al questioned hesitantly, staring, “How much do you know, then?”

“Like I said, not a lot,” Susie told her, and Henry can see she was being honest, “But I know at least enough to understand why its . . . hard to adjust to being here.”

The room fell quiet, Henry contemplating her words. She wasn’t completely wrong, and he supposed it explained some of their reactions. He went to go run a hand through his hair, a habit he’d developed over time in the studio whenever he was thinking, only to feel his arm jerk to halt as the manacle on his wrist tightened.

He huffed softly, giving the offending article a look. He was used to situations like these, but that didn’t really make them any less irksome.

Another rustle, and the presence that appeared beside him had him looking up again in surprise. Susie stared back at him, then sighed and held out her hand, “Here, let me see that.”

Henry hesitated for just second, that deeply ingrained inclination towards suspicion rising up once again, reminding him of everything this woman in particular had done to him before. Then, he shook his head to forcefully banish those thoughts. No, that one was not here.

Without saying a word, he held it up to her as far as it would go, and Susie made quick work of the lock with . . . a hairpin? Huh, resourceful.

He couldn’t stymie the sigh of satisfaction when the thing clicked open, falling free from his wrist, which he quickly took back, rubbing his fingers along the skin.

Quietly, but with no less appreciation than he’d give to another, he said, “Thanks.”

“Of course. You’re not supposed to be prisoners here, you know?” Susie said, nodding. Then, holding up a threatening finger, she added, “Just don’t make me regret it!”

He stared into her suddenly firm eyes, and he could see that, in her own way, she was being quite serious.  A little caught off-guard by the sudden shift in her demeanor, Henry gave her a jerky nod, “U-uh, yeah. Sure.”

Susie eyed him critically for a moment, as if weighing the sincerity in his words. Then, relaxing her shoulders and dropping her pointing finger, she finally nodded, “Aright. I’ll hold you to that.”

“Did, um . . .” he heard Al start, glancing to Tom before looking back, “Did anyone else have any dreams?”

Susie pursed her lips, casting her eyes to the floor and looking like she was torn over whether to answer or not. Then, after a sigh, she said, “Our, uh . . . our Bendy did as well. I don’t know much about what he went through, though.”

Everyone tensed a little, Tom going as far as to let out a low growl.

Susie immediately held up her hands, shaking her head, “He’s not dangerous! I swear! He helps run the studio, that’s all. Sammy must have told you, right?”

Yes, Sammy had said something along those lines, and the mental image of a tall, lanky, inkborn abomination with a tie yelling at a bunch of office workers to get their shit together had just been so hilarious to him at the time he couldn’t help but laugh at it. But after so long spent running from the beast that shared the toon’s name, it was of no surprise to Henry that actually believing such a thing was . . . difficult.

But . . . the toon had been there, hadn’t he? When they had come through . . . he’d been wearing a suit and bowtie, and while outwardly he’d looked a little different, it had undeniably been the toon Henry had helped create so long ago. The way he had always been meant to be seen . . .

And he’d dreamed about their world? For some reason, Henry felt like he should . . . know something about that . . .

“He . . . did . . .” he heard Al say, looking unconvinced, “Its just . . . hard to believe.”

“Well, believe it,” Susie replied. She pointed down at the floor with both fingers, adding, “He literally stood in this room, just a few days ago. And you’re all fine, aren’t you?”

Al and Tom’s eyes widened a little at that, looking alarmed. Evidently not the reaction Susie had hoped for, as she dropped both hands and sighed, “Never mind. I guess it’ll just take some time. Just . . . don’t attack anyone again, please?

The two toons looked at one another, and Henry decided to speak up for them, “We won’t attack anyone unless they give us a reason to. Does that work?”

Susie crossed her arms and stared at him incredulously, lips pursed, and Henry held up a hand, “I promise.”

He said it as sincerely as he could, and he did mean it. As fierce as the studio would force him to be at times, he still detested violence for violence’s sake. Barring one exception, but he would honestly try not start anything with the man who shared the misfortune of sharing a face with the one he really wanted to maim, if only to keep within the good graces of those who had inadvertently saved them from a fate worse than death.

And he guessed it got through, for the woman finally nodded, “Alright. I’ll hold you to that too. But I’ll be watching you, alright!”

Henry nodded, and a glance towards his companions showed that they were nodding too, Tom a bit more begrudgingly, but nodding all the same.

She seemed heartened by their agreeance, but soon Susie’s gaze was turning on the door, a more worried crease appearing between her brow, “I . . . should go check in on things. Can I trust you’ll all behave yourselves for the time being?”

“I don’t think Tom and I are fit to do much else than sit here right now,” Al said a little sourly, and he could see that even with the help of the ink, she was beginning to sag again, as if this whole conversation had leeched her of the strength she had just gotten back. He’s not surprised. The two had come very close to vanishing into the ink, their bodies so destabilized it was a wonder they had survived. Henry’s nothing but grateful that they did, but he still shot her a sympathetic glance, knowing any kind of weakness, no matter how justified, was hard for the two to endure.

Susie gave her a one-armed shrug, bracing her opposite one on her hip, “Well, it’ll get better. Just keep drinking a few of those bottles and you’ll be on your feet properly in no time.”

 With that, the woman turned and left, closing the door thoughtfully behind her. Henry sagged a little himself after she left, feeling drained after all that. But it was quiet now . . . and quiet at least afforded some time to collect himself and sift through everything that had just happened.

“Henry?”

He glanced to where Al and Tom sat, to see that both toons were looking at him now. As soon as she had his attention, the toonified woman shifted a little, face unusually downcast, “Are you . . . alright? I’ve . . . never seen you that angry before.”

Oh . . . right. They wouldn’t have ever seen that before . . .

Suddenly feeling a little self-conscious, Henry rubbed the back of his head, “Uh, sorry about that. I just . . . it was hard. I should have had better control.”

“No, it’s fine,” Al interjected, “I just . . . was worried.”

“I’ll be alright,” Henry told her, reassuring, “I guess . . . we just need some time.”

At least . . . he wanted to hope that would be all they needed. But, somehow . . . it felt like it wasn’t going to be that easy.

It never was.

_

Time passed. There was an old clock in this room, but who knows how accurate it was. He talked with Al, who was still taken in by the little flower she held in her hands, excitedly talking about what else might be out there in this strange, but wonderous place they’d landed in. Tom took to messing with the things he found in the room, attempting to finagle them into something resembling what might be some sort of weapon, but you can only do so much with pens and a bit of yarn. The two both were having less trouble moving around, this ‘ink’ working wonders, but they were still too easily fatigued to be one hundred percent well yet.

At some point, he also checked on Sammy, who still hadn’t stirred from his sleep. Though most were healed, just seeing the shadows of the injuries he had suffered brought a keen sense of failure to Henry, a painful reminder that he’d messed up again.

And that wasn’t even getting into the worst of it . . .

Deep down, Henry wondered if it had been smart to leave out what had really happened to the man. He didn’t do it because he didn’t think it wasn’t important, but . . . but how could he explain it without having to explain everything else? The things that only he, Bendy, and Joey had known about? He couldn’t . . .

And he didn’t want to.

Henry hoped that when the man finally awoke, he was there to help mitigate any damage that might occur. He had no idea to what extent the two could have . . . merged, and he wouldn’t until they woke up, but if he could . . . he’d want to try and help them navigate what was undoubtedly going to be something very stressful and frightening, maybe even help them work towards something . . . at least manageable. All of this, of course, was on the optimistic end of the spectrum, but it was far better than dwelling on the possibility that both minds might be too fractured to save.

He had to believe he could fix at least one of his mistakes . . .

Slowly, his eyes were then dragged to the pot of flowers on his bedside table, their petals so bright and vivid it was a little painful to look at. Reds, purples, blues, yellows, even a flash of pink . . . Henry had honestly forgotten just how beautiful those colors were, just . . . how much he had taken them for granted.

It made him wonder just what else was out there. How much else had he forgotten about the outside world and the simple splendors he once had given only passing glances?

It wasn’t much later that Henry began to grow . . . antsy. He wanted to get up and move around, get outside this stuffy little room and possibly explore a little. This was supposedly a different and safer world, and he couldn’t help but wonder what lay outside, a feeling that grew as time passed. How much was similar to his studio? How much was different? Was the building the same as he remembered, or had it changed as well? Had it been expanded? Were there new things? New photos, new songs, new technology? He was so . . .

Curious.

Heh, he hadn’t been curious about anything in such a long time. He supposed it wasn’t a surprise. When you know everything that’s going to happen, one’s sense of wonder tends to get lost.

But now, its reignited, and Henry found himself tempted to just . . . wander. The door itself wasn’t locked, so he could easily just . . . get up and go. And even if it was only for a few minutes, just stepping outside would be nice. Just to see . . .

“Hey, guys,” he said, finally caving to the urge as he rose to his feet, “I think I’m going to explore a little bit. Just to get us some bearings on this place.”

“Are you sure?” Al asked him, throwing a wary glance to the door.

“Well, everyone says this studio’s as safe as can be,” Henry replied, “Besides, it’s not like I haven’t wandered around weaponless before.”

“True . . .” Al conceded. Then, “I wish we could go with you, though . . .”

Al had always been conscientious of her companions’ well-being, but he can see from the glimmer of inquisitiveness in her eyes that the desire came from more than just concern for his safety. Henry smiled a little, “I’m sure you’ll be walking everywhere soon enough.”

Tom grunted. He’d showed a marked disinterest in anything to do with their new locale outside of trying to make a means of defending themselves. Still, the wolf cast him a meaningful look before going back to his work, attempting to twist the yarn around thrice to bind his little project together.

“I don’t plan on going very far,” Henry told them, “So I’ll be back soon.”

At least . . . that had been his plan. But once he’d stepped outside into a hallway that was . . . less than familiar, he realized it might be a little harder to navigate than he had thought. This wasn’t a story with a set of rails to guide him and a set of rules to follow, after all.

Well, it should be fine so long as I don’t wander too far, right? He told himself, stepping out into the open. And not run into any of their new . . . ‘benefactors’, he supposed. He’d . . . rather avoid that, after their last conversation.

The feel of the place was already leagues different from his own, even in just the halls. The walls and floors weren’t rotting away, for one, the place reasonably tidy and clean with none of the wear and decay born of years of abandonment. And, instead of the unpleasant smell of ink, there was instead the sharper, yet more pleasing scent of cleaning products. Place must have had a shine down, recently.

There were a few posters and photos on the walls as well, of things he didn’t know or recall seeing. The posters all of episodes that did not exist in his world, a clear mark of the progress this place had made. He even saw one poster of Alice Angel, with compliments to the actress . . .

Susie Campbell.

You got to live your dream here, huh? He thought, feeling a slight twinge of melancholy. For as much suffering as she had caused him, Henry could never quite fully fault the Susie Campbell he knew for her actions, nor completely stymie the pity he felt for her. He could never really fault anyone in the studio, not even Bendy, for the things that had occurred, because . . . well, because it had never been any of their fault. In the beginning, at least, all of them were nothing more than the victims of a madman’s driving vision.

There were framed newspaper clippings and awards, too, all marking a successful passage of time Henry had never seen for himself. Timestamps of successful releases, notable moments in history that affected the studio, and awards given to those who’d helped give life to this whole creation. All of them well-cared for.

The place was quiet, too, but it wasn’t the same sort of quiet he was used to. It lacked the tension, the teeth-clenching unease born from running scared. It was . . . warmer, somehow. More peaceful.

Henry followed one piece of memorabilia to the next, looking over picture frames and posters and unique little curios that were hung along the walls, admiring the color and liveliness he’s so long been denied.

Until he came to one.

It was an anniversary picture, the thirtieth year after the show’s making, fairly recent. In it stood numerous people, many he did not know, clambering for space amongst all the others in front of the studio they worked at, many smiling and waving and laughing . . . and, at the very front of the group, there were faces he recognized. It had been ages, but seeing them here now had him recalling it all with near perfect clarity, every name to every face.

He could see Norman standing at one end, arms crossed and looking relaxed, a contented smile on his face the likes of which had grown few and far between by the time he had left. Wally was right next to him wearing his signature cap, the same one he never could seem to take off at work, no matter how many times Joey harped on him about it. Grant was on the other end, hardly looking as heckled and ragged as he remembered, along with a few others who were a bit blurrier to his memory, but he thought he could name them regardless; Jack Fain, Shawn Flynn, a few faces he doesn’t recognize . . .

Then, standing between them all, he could see a few more he did. The toons themselves, smiling wide and happy, surrounded by several familiar humans; one was Susie, the woman having one hand placed on Alice’s shoulder while the other was thrown around a perpetually frowning Sammy Lawrence, grinning energetically into the camera. Boris stood opposite that, tail wagging so fast it was a blur in the photo, with Bendy dead center, hands on his hips and chin upraised proudly, and behind him were . . .  

Himself and Joey Drew. Here, they were older, grayer, but they smiled with no less enthusiasm than that of young and accomplished men. They both had a companionable arm thrown around the other’s shoulders, looking content and happy, truly happy, with no quiet resentment or dislike running between them, none whatsoever.

Like . . . friends.

Henry found himself taking the photo off the wall, holding in his hands and running a thumb over the frame. It’s a moment in time that would look fairly ordinary to the people here, he was sure. . . but to him, it’s a world that looked impossible. The people in this photo . . . they weren’t suffering. They were happy, fulfilled, accomplished . . . every dream they ever had a reality now.

And he can’t help but wonder . . . if things had been different, could this have been his own home? Could things have truly turned out this well? Could the dreams they had all nurtured really come true?

Its then Henry’s eyes fall to Joey Drew. He’s smiling warmly in this picture, looking for all the world a harmless old man surrounded by the fruits of his success. But for Henry the image seemed to shift, and he saw the Joey he knew. Eyes open instead of shut, warm smile a conniving smirk, eternally scheming inside that head of his with no regard for what those schemes would do to the people around him, and Henry knew that such a bright and happy outcome like the one his counterpart had here would have been utterly impossible for him.

And it’s like realizing that triggered some sort of avalanche to his memories, for the moment he did, the warping effect rippled out to encompass the rest of the picture, and where happy, smiling faces had been, he saw what each and every one of them had become; A glowing projector where Norman’s head once was, a shapeless blob where Grant had been, a broken mask over Sammy’s face, a twisted, malformed smirk on Susie’s, x’d out eyes, brutish shapes, distorted limbs, a white and malicious grin-

Henry started back hard, picture falling from his hand to crash against the floor. The corner hit the wood, the glass protecting the photo shattering, sending shards scattering over the floor.

Breathing suddenly felt so much harder, horror constricting his throat, only able to stare at the fallen photo. Closing his eyes, he forced himself to breathe evenly, to remember that he was in a safer place, and that he’d just . . . imagined what he had seen.

Still, he wanted to be away from here now. As far as possible, because even just the memory of all those happy faces left a bitter sting, a very cruel reminder that all the people he knew, including himself, would never have a happy ending like that no matter what happened now. And it wasn't . . .

It wasn't fair.

He spared the ruined frame a glance, debating to pick up the shards at least . . . when he caught sight of those same smiling faces, and the pain it brought, like salt on an open sore, was too much to bear.

Henry quickly left, and did not once look back.

So he failed to see the shape that appeared mere seconds after his departure, tall and dark and dripping ink, emerging like a phantom through the cracks in the wood. It bent down to the abandoned photograph, brushing the shards aside to get a better look.

The grin it had is fixed to it’s face, never-changing . . . but it lacked the usual malice now. It lacked any emotion at all as it stared at this fallen picture, a happy moment in time frozen forever.

Splatters of ink dripped onto the picture, staining black where happy faces were, but it wasn’t focusing on them. Its eyeless face was drawn to one . . . a face like it’s own, standing center stage of this happy, perfect little world, a face that should have been its, a place that should have been its, it ALL should have been ITS!

It’s serrated claws twitched once before suddenly slamming down through the picture, digging deep through the glass and wood and paper, ink pooling from its hands to spread over the page. For once, it found itself sympathizing with the man it had once preyed upon . . . it really was unfair.

But that was okay, wasn’t it? It could all be okay. After all . . .

. . . it had ways of getting what it wanted.

And God, Heaven and Hell be damned . . . It would get it.

Chapter Text

Driven as he had been to get away, Henry hadn’t noticed that he had wandered a little farther than he had intended. He attempted to backtrack, attempting to use the frames he’d been following as a guide, except . . . was it that one over there? Or the other one down the hall?

Needless to say, he eventually had to admit that he was a little lost.

“Ah, great,” he muttered, scratching his head as he attempted to find the right hallway. He’d promised he would be back soon, and if he failed to deliver on that promise, Al would get worried, Tom would grow angry, and things would get unpleasant.

But it felt like he just kept getting more and more turned around, for this place was definitely not the same as the studio he’d grown to know like the back of his hand. It was quite . . . frustrating.

He supposed he at least hadn’t run into anyone. While asking for directions would be the reasonable thing to do, he . . . didn’t think he was ready to try. Not after their last talk, and not while it was still so . . . strange.

There was a good number of doors in this place, he soon realized, all of them locked. They must have been office spaces . . . maybe. He tried the handles on some of them, never getting much farther than that, but maybe that was for the best. These spaces actually belonged to people here, private spaces that weren’t open to casual snooping. It probably wouldn’t look very good for him if he were to be caught rifling through one.

Different world, different rules, he thought as he left another behind.

It was easier said than done following through with that notion . . . especially when he came to one door that was slightly ajar, the soft trickle of something soft and jazzy flowing through the gap. Henry didn’t know why it was ajar, why this particular one was open when all others were locked, but . . . that niggling curiosity was eating at him again, wondering what lay beyond it and egging him to find out.

All the doors before had had nameplates on them, a marker for who worked there and why. This one was a little different . . . for one, it was a bit removed from all the other doors, nestled at the very end of a long hall, pressed into the corner of two adjoining walls. And like the others, it had a plate, but this one didn’t have the name of a person emblazoned on it.

The Quiet Room.

Henry cocked an eyebrow at it, glancing again at the open crack. It didn’t look like any lights were on, but Henry was used to traversing in the dark. And . . . its never stopped him from exploring. At least . . . back when things had been new.

But this was new, wasn’t it? Just like everything else so far . . . and it wasn’t like his previous exploration methods were getting him anywhere. Maybe there was a directory or map in here? Besides, this room wasn’t labeled to anyone specifically, so . . . maybe it was for public use. And he was the public, wasn’t he?

Quietly, Henry nudged the door open further, the well-oiled hinges giving barely a creak as he did, the music growing a touch louder. It was dark beyond, but that was a problem easily remedied by the flick of a switch that made the lights go up. He can’t help but smile in satisfaction, the notion of something working without having to jump through hoops to get it there first still so refreshing.

And as the lights went up, they shed their glow on what lay beyond; it was a reasonably sized room, rectangular in shape and with a fairly high ceiling that made it appear larger than it actually was. Striped wallpaper ran up the walls to about halfway before cutting off, each stripe a different, though soft shade of color meant to be relaxing, colors that still seemed so bright to Henry’s eyes, unused as they were to such things now. A few paintings were hanging on the wall, giving them a brighter splash of color and filling up the empty space, as well as a few planters of fake greenery to liven the place up. A small radio sat on a corner table to his immediate right, the source of the music from before, playing a song he felt like he’d heard before, but it had simply been too long to really recall. A few small, but sturdy oaken bookshelves were pressed into the other corners, filled with books, magazines, a few notebooks meant for drawing. Works ranging from fiction to horror to autobiographies were all fair pickings amongst the selections available, and while it all must seem rather small to others, to him it was a plethora of potential activity. Weren’t many books where he’d been at . . .

Two comfortable looking couches were nestled on either side of the longer walls, with pillows placed along them, a place to sit and read, draw, meditate, whatever you wanted. There were blankets to, but those were crinkled and thrown aside as if they had been recently used, and as he looked, Henry could see other signs of recent habitation as well. The long table between the couches had a few wrappers strewn across it, as well as few open books and papers with small doodles on them. As he drew closer to them, Henry found, with a start, that he recognized the drawings.

You don’t forget your own specific style, after all.

Frowning a little, he glanced around at the blankets and pillows once more. Was . . . his counterpart staying in here? All of them? He guessed it made sense if they had been staying overnight, as he guessed there weren’t any proper rooms in this place.

Well, no one was in here now at least. Must be busy doing . . . something.

He debated turning to leave, when he caught sight of something else sitting at the opposite end of the table; a glass bowl nearly filled to the brim with a mix of what appeared to be pretzels, peanuts, and . . . was that chex mix?!

It was . . . it was food!

Henry found himself at the end of the table before he could even really register he was moving, already reaching for the morsels he saw within before his mind caught up with his body. He stopped, remembering that this wasn’t his, and he can’t just . . . take things that aren’t his in the real world, because those things belong to other people and, and . . .

 And he can smell it, the subtler, nutty scent of peanuts, a saltier tang from the pretzels, and a whiff of something sweeter, and looking now he can see white dusted across the wheat flakes, and oh god, were these the frosted ones, he loved the frosted ones-!

. . . it . . . it surely wasn’t a big deal if he took just one? Or two? Maybe three?

Henry picked one of the chex peices up, seeing the frosty white swirls along the wheat bands, and he can hear his stomach growl in anticipation, for the first time noticing how hungry he was. He’s not sure of the hunger he felt now was nothing more than an approximation, a false sensation to make him think he was still human. But it sure felt like the real thing, and it’s been a long while since he last ate anything. Let alone something . . . something like this. So, before he can let himself second guess what he was doing, he popped it into his mouth and bit down.

Sweet dissolved across his tongue as he chewed on something that gave a delightful crunch, and god, that first bite is more wonderful than he could have possibly imagined! He’s daydreamed about the food of the outside for a long, long time, food he never thought he would taste again, but he is now, and it’s so, so good!

He’s grabbing more before he can even try to stop himself, one becoming two, then three, then a handful, and the symphony of flavors in his mouth is almost more than he could handle, but he can’t bring himself to stop! Its been so long since he’d tasted anything that wasn’t artificial pork flavoring, with textures that weren’t only in a thick, oily soup form.

“Mm~,” Henry hummed in delight as more of that soft frosted sweetness melted over his taste buds along with stronger, nuttier flavors, and it was only then he became aware of the steadily growing ache on his jaw. He figured out quickly that it wasn’t from chewing.

He was smiling.

A big one, the likes of which he hasn’t formed in . . . god, he doesn’t even want to think about it.

Its far too soon when his fingers are scraping at the bottom of the bowl, barely anything left to grab. His shoulder sagged a bit, disappointed that there wasn’t anymore, while also feeling a little guilty that he hadn’t saved a little for Al and Tom to try.

Hm, maybe he could find something else to give them? Al might like some of these books, and if he could find a spare tool kit of some sort, Tom would be pleased with that. And maybe . . . he could borrow one of these notebooks and a few pens. Just for a little while . . .

Brushing his hands off, still savoring the medley of tastes on his tongue, Henry crept around a little more, looking for things he could potentially bring back that wouldn’t be missed too terribly. As he walked, he found his eyes travelling to the very end of the room, opposite the door.

It’s a bit different in shape from the rest of it, like the top half of a pentagon that’s been cut off and attached to the end of a rectangle with the ceiling in that particular spot far lower than the rest of the room, forming a cozy little alcove space with three pillowed benches inside and . . . several sets of heavy curtains.

Now, curtains aren’t a new thing. He had seen a number inside his own studio. They just . . . had all been for aesthetic rather than logical purpose. Draw those ones back, you’d find a bare wall. He felt the same would hold true here, for he had yet to see one window in the halls he had walked.

But as he walked up to them, wondering at this tiny space that felt a bit removed form the rest of the room, something glinted in his vision that drew his eyes towards it.

It’s a bit darker over here, for no electric lighting was available, and maybe that was the point, but . . . there was still the smallest glimmer of light in the gloom.

One that came from a thin beam that fell through a crack in the curtains above one of the benches, a soft dove gray that gave a gentle, subdued glow. It was that exact moment, too, that Henry became aware of a noise, a soft pat-pat-pat right beyond the heavy curtains, the sound of something soft rapping gently against glass.

A window.

It was a window.

Henry found himself moving forward like he was in a man possessed, shooting to the alcove to grab the curtains in his hands. They felt soft and thick, and they were easy to thrust aside to reveal what lay beyond.

For a second, a muted brightness assailed his eyes, forcing him to blink as they adjusted to the sudden light, making everything appear blurry and distorted.

But then . . . then, it cleared, and the first thing Henry saw was a great, vast, and overcast sky. Great gray clouds billowed high above, swollen dark and slowly rolling through the sky on a wind that rattled the pane before him. Drops of rain were speckled across the window, each one a crystalline jewel that sparkled as they spattered and dripped down the glass. Below was what looked to be the tail end of parking lot just before it gave way to a sheltered, fenced off little copse of evergreens, and even through the pane, he could hear the rustle of their leaves as they shook and fluttered in the wind.

Outside, the outside-!

He grasped at the window latch with the franticness of a dying man, fingers slipping twice before he managed to firmly grasp it, twisting it up and throwing the pane open.

The very moment he did, cold, brisk air flowed in, caressing his face and sending goosebumps across his skin, bringing with it the smell of concrete, damp earth, and falling rain. Henry closed his eyes and breathed it all in deep, relishing the cold against his skin, leaning heavily against the window as he savored every breath. It took him several minutes to notice the gentle pattering against his skin, the feeling of wetness in his hair, and he finally opened his eyes to see the cloudy sky above and the soft slivers of rain that fell from them. Slowly, like he was in a trance, Henry held up hand and watched as small droplets began to scatter across his skin. Gray skin, a result of the studio, of not . . . being truly human anymore. Skin that had become a part of his new normal for years, among turgid swells of ink and rot and monstrous creatures that had been the only constants in his life after he’d made the foolish mistake of trusting the wrong man.

Down there, trapped in the dark, he had nursed memories of the outside world, memories that were both a comfort and a curse. He remembered so many instances then of staring up through broken slats in the ceiling to the faint trickles of light that blossomed overhead, the only place where light had truly shown, wishing so fervently, wanting so badly, dreaming of a day when he’d get to stand under it again for real. Until the time came to pass that he’d finally had the terrible revelation that he was never going to see any of it ever again.

But here, right here . . . he was feeling the wind, tasting the rain, breathing in a world he had thought lost to him. And he’s been in this place for a while. Days, if their new ‘friends’ story was to be believed.

But its only now, right now, that it really, truly hit him.

He was out. The nightmare was over.

He was free.

It’s like a knot suddenly comes unwound, and his chest suddenly felt so much lighter, a bright, bubbly feeling percolating throughout his whole body until it rose up to his throat, and before he can stop it, a soft chuckle suddenly rushed past his lips.

It’s not a loud one. Not hysterical or fast or strained. But once it came out, it’s like he can’t stop, like a pressure valve had finally been released and he now had no other recourse but to see it through to the end. But it’s not bad. It felt . . . good.

Even as the air he sucked in between his outbursts grew tighter as it fought its way passed the sudden lump in his throat, sniffing as his eyes began to well, it just felt good.

“I’m out . . . I’m really out . . .” he whispered, scarcely able to believe it, but saying those words out loud somehow made it more real, and brought with it a feeling of euphoria like he hadn’t known in ages. Its so strong, so overwhelming, a runaway faucet dumping into an already overfull cup, and the brimming in his eyes finally overflowed, tears rolling down his cheeks in time to the rain that trickled down his face . . .  but it’s not a bad feeling. And he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

It’s a few minutes before he began to feel genuinely cold, just as long to at last regain some composure . . . but he didn’t feel embarrassed for it. He felt . . . happy, at ease, his cheeks aching again as he smiled like he hadn’t done in years, reveling in a release he didn’t even know he needed until now. He took another deep, shaky breath, rejoicing in the smell of that cold, beautifully fresh air, feeling so content he could just close his eyes and pretend that the horrible things that had happened to him had been nothing more than a bad dream.

He knew he should step away now, but . . . but Henry can’t bring himself to close the window yet. The thought of shutting it out just . . . no. He couldn’t. It had been too long since he’d last had the chance to just . . . enjoy something like this.

Sighing, he took a seat on one of the benches, close enough to the open window so he could feel every brush of the wind and occasionally the patter of the raindrops against his skin. He wondered if he should be wary of water, being the way he was now, but . . . it felt too nice to give up right then, like it was cleansing him of the filth he’d had no choice but to grow accustomed to down in the dark.

He could stay there for . . . hours. He wanted to stay there for hours. Even though he knew he shouldn’t . . .

But surely a few more minutes was fine, right?

After everything . . . he at least deserved that.

With another sigh, Henry leaned back against the wall, into a pillow that had been set against it to act as extra cushioning, ready to just . . . take it easy for the time being, truly relax like he hadn’t in years. He did not expect the hard protrusion that stuck into his side instead, forcing him back upright to escape the discomfort.

Looking behind him, he caught side of something metallic jutting out from behind the pillow, and when he nudged it aside, he blinked in surprise when he saw an audio log of all things resting against the wall.

Its much newer compared to the models he was used to, and he can’t help but wonder what it was doing in here. Carefully puling it out and holding it up to get a better look, he can see similar buttons and controls like the ones he was used to, just in far better condition.

And maybe its old habits, maybe holding this thing brought him back to a time when this required no more thought beyond pressing the button, maybe he’s just too damn curious . . . but Henry found his finger hitting ‘play’.

And he very nearly dropped it when Joey Drew’s voice began to speak.

“Well, here we are. Haven’t had the notion to use one of these things in, oh, a while, but . . . I guess they always were good at helping me get my thoughts together, and boy, do I need that right now.”

Henry felt his previous contentment curdle sour inside him, lips dropping into a heavy frown. Of course . . .

“W-well, where do I begin? An, uh, an awful lot has happened these past few days. It all started out so . . . simply in the beginning. Just a, a wayward spell, nothing grand or . . . or overly concerning . . .”

The voice in the playback gave a sigh, a heavy one, “But then it grew worse. Nightmares, the studio pipes bursting again, Sammy going missing . . . ripping a hole in the very fabric of time and space . . . you know, I’ve . . . made mistakes in the past. Little ones! Usually resolved without any real harm done! This is the first time its ever . . . been like this. People have been hurt, seriously hurt, and erm . . . well, about that whole rip in time and space . . .”

The speaking voice trailed off, silence reigning for a few moments, leaving Henry with time to parse those sentences. It was . . . strange, hearing Joey Drew admit to a mistake, let alone several. Hearing him sound like he genuinely regretted it made it even stranger. Oh sure, the Joey he knew liked to talk a good show about how he had made mistakes, regretted what he had done with the studio, but Henry knew what it had really been; a put-together act to deflect the blame on others, pushing the work onto someone else like he always did to never have to truly atone or make-up for what he did.

. . . how could this one be any different? How could he-?

“We have . . . some new guests! From the place where Sammy accidentally ended up. People like the ones we know here, alternate reality versions of them, at least. Alice, Boris, though they choose to go by different names, and even Henry! It would all be so fascinating if the circumstances weren’t so . . . terrible.”

There was a rustling, the drumming of fingers against the side of the recorder that made a deep, static thumping noise echo from the speaker. Then, “They, um . . . they had quite a lot to say about their side. You know, its . . . its not a good place they come from. Everything on that side, well . . . its bad. Very bad. And to hear them tell it, its . . . it’s my fault.”

A shaky exhalation, and Joey’s voice dropped a little, “Not my fault, per say. The other . . . the other reality me. Hm, I don’t think the distinction has helped make our new guests very comfortable around me. In fact, the other Henry, he . . . he rather hates me, I think.”

Henry looked from the recorder to the open window, something flaring inside his chest, and he can’t really say for sure what that is.

Another sigh, “But its . . . its for a very good reason. Even if . . . even if what happened on their side wasn’t . . . done intentionally . . .” there was very muted ‘god’ before the voice came back, “The fact remains it still happened, and my counterpart . . . he should be doing everything in his power to fix it! He shouldn’t have even let it get that far in the first place! He-!”

He very suddenly cut off, leaving Henry to stare at the recorder with wide, surprised eyes. He sounded so . . . well, upset. With . . . himself? The Joey he knew would hardly let even a drop of the culpability so much as wet his shoes. It’s so . . . strange.

It’s a bit before the tape continued, a voice clearing purposefully before saying, “Well, that about sums up everything that’s happened so far. I don’t know what to do about that side, but . . . I can at least start by helping things get back to normal here. Which . . .  they should, right? Once Sammy wakes up, and once the others get acclimated to a studio where they no longer have to run for their lives, I’m sure things will start looking up! And, erm . . . well, I know it will probably take a lot of effort, and a lot of time, but I hope I can earn our new guests trust eventually. Especially . . . especially Henry’s.”

The man on the tape might have said more, had not a distant knocking in the recording echoed from within, followed by a startled noise from Joey, scrambling . . . then silence as the log clicked off.

Henry sat still, staring at the tape. He hadn’t expected to accidently listen in on Joey’s thoughts again like this, nor expected the man to sound so . . . earnest, or genuinely regretful.

“‘Earn my trust’, huh?” he mumbled, feeling weighted down by an emotion he can’t quite put a name too, just that its heavy and made his chest ache.

It doesn’t feel possible. Maybe a part of him just doesn’t want it to be possible, because every other time has always led to him getting burned in the worst way imaginable.

 He’d trusted Joey Drew once, and it led to him losing his passion, his dream, and his own character.

And the second time, that foolish second time, well . . . he lost everything else.

He . . . he doesn’t think he has it in him to try for a third.

Quietly, he shoved the audio log back behind the pillow he had found it before leaning forward and running a hand over his face, sighing. Well, so much for his good mood . . .

After a moment of letting the wind pass over him and settle his thoughts, Henry looked back up, eyes glancing passively over the room as he thought about what to do next and how to get back to the others . . .

Only to freeze when he saw three pairs of wide, monochrome eyes staring at him from around the door, stacked on top of one another as they vied for space in the narrow gap. He recognized the toons of this world almost straight away, relaxing marginally when he realized he wasn’t in any danger.

The three in the doorway, however, did not relax. As a matter of fact, they panicked rather badly, Bendy jerking up so quickly the top of his head slammed into the underside of Alice’s chin, which in turn had her slamming into Boris, before all three abruptly vanished back around the door in a cloud of smoke, a smoke that lingered for far longer than normal before disappearing.

Henry stared, utterly mystified. It was just like . . . like a cartoon.

Even from where he sat, he could hear loud ‘whispering’ coming from the other side of the door, catching a few words in brief snatches.

‘-saw us-!’

‘-. . . maybe we should-?’

‘-crazy?!’

‘Guys . . .-’

The whispering intensified in pace, until three voices ended together in some sort of agreement(?), when the door jittered and a shape stepped into the room proper through the gap.

Henry blinked as Alice walked in, a large, perhaps too-cheery smile on her face. One hand was behind her back while the other was up in greeting, but her tight posture betrayed her nervousness as she said, “Hello! Um, I hope we aren’t interrupting anything!”

“Erm . . .” Henry glanced to the door, then back to her, “Not . . . really.”

“Oh! Good!” clearing her throat, the angel placed hand on her chest, “My name’s Alice Angel! I mean, I’m sure you know that, but its polite when you’re properly meeting someone for the first time!”

Henry nodded slowly, still staring, “Right. My name’s Henry Stein.”

Then, with a wry smile, he added, “But I’m sure you already knew that.”

Alice blinked. Then, she smiled a little, a soft chuckle breaking past her lips, and he watched in wonder as the halo floating above her head grew just a little brighter, “I guess. Still, it’s a pleasure to meet you . . . Henry.”

He felt himself relax a little more, when the angel, without turning away from him, rapped a hand against the door in a way that sounded cajoling. A moment . . . then, it opened again, and a tall, lupine shape stepped through as well, half hiding behind it as he stuck his nose in through the gap.

Henry felt his heart lift a little. Its true, this isn’t the same wolf, could never be, but . . . Boris had been the one comforting constant he’d had in the studio, the only one who never did him any harm, and . . . he can see that same softness in this one’s eyes too.

He looked nervous though. Perhaps understandably, given how the last time they talked had gone down.

Seeking to break the ice, Henry gave the toon a soft smile, “Hello. You must be Boris.”

Boris’ ears perked up, some of his guardedness leaving at Henry’s friendlier tone. Alice gently patted the wolf’s leg, and that seemed to give him some courage, for he finally said, “U-um, yeah, that’s me. Howdy.”

Henry nodded to him, hoping it came across as friendly. But even as he did, he can’t stop his gaze from wandering behind the wolf, curious. He knew the last one must be standing out there somewhere, listening.

Something the two must realize, because they both glanced at each other, then at the door. With a wave of her hand, Alice beckoned, and there was a soft, stubborn muttering in reply, which made the angel roll her eyes.

“He knows you’re there!” he heard her hiss, perhaps not meant to be overheard by him. Boris said something a bit more softly, perhaps encouragingly.

Slowly, Henry rose from his seat, taking a few steps closer, but stopped when both toons snapped their head in his direction. They looked, well . . . a little cagey, wide-eyed as they waited for him to make some kind of move. Like some strange wild animal that they were trying to befriend, tip-toeing carefully, cautiously, but still unsure as to what would set it off to bite instead.

Perhaps . . . perhaps that’s not completely inaccurate. He’s only realizing this now, but it’s entirely possible he misjudged their comfort level with him, while at the same time realizing that . . . he must look rather scary to them. Some rugged, terse, and inhuman individual in the shape of someone they knew, one that was dirty and scuffed up and bruised and clearly not adverse to being loud or angry.

With a sudden flush of embarrassment, Henry looked away and rubbed the back of his head.

 “Sorry . . .” he mumbled, for it felt like the only thing he could say right then. It’s been a long time since he had last felt so . . . self-conscious, “He doesn’t . . . have to talk, if he doesn’t want to. Frankly, I’m surprised you want to talk to me at all, after last time.”

There was some shuffling, the two visible toons looking at one another before looking back at him. Eventually, Alice piped up as she placed her hands on her hips, a small, wrapped parcel crinkling in the hand she’d had behind her back, “Well, that’s true. You were awful rude in there.”

Henry conceded that with a nod, for he supposed he had been.

Before he could form a reply, however, the angel dropped her arms, “But . . . Susie said that dealing with this kind of sudden change is hard, and that in a situation like this, to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Don’t take that to mean you’re allowed to be a jerk, though.”

“W-we get that this is probably really difficult,” Boris put in, rubbing an elbow but looking at Henry earnestly, “And you went through somethin’ . . . really bad. But-!” the wolf’s eyes brightened, a note of resolve entering his voice, “It’s not bad here! Really! And I’m sure you’ll see that if ya give it enough time!”

“And . . . that includes the people here, too,” Alice added, looking at him pointedly, “All of them.”

He knew full well what she was trying to say. He did his best to keep his expression neutral, but its . . . hard.

He figured, at the very least, he could take the middle road, “I’ll . . . try.”

Alice’s brow furrowed, staring him up and down like she was sizing up his sincerity. It’s a solid minute before she finally nodded, “Okay. I think that’s good enough for now. Besides . . .” she smiled a little, “You’re already a lot better now. I think time is really all you need.”

She said it with so much conviction. Henry supposed it was easy to have such strength when you’ve never had it tested, or taken, or trampled on . . .

. . . No, that’s not being fair to her, to any of them. This was a better world, and . . . he shouldn’t try to taint it with his pessimism, he shouldn’t . . . act the way he was acting.

Even though it was hard to believe all this.

But perhaps more showed on his face than he wanted, for both the toons before him straightened, their expressions dropping into worried frowns.

“Hey, are you okay?” Boris asked, looking concerned.

“U-uh . . . yeah, I’m . . . I’m fine. It’s just,” Henry sighed, running a hand through his hair, “You’re right. It’s a lot to take in.”

They looked at each other, the wolf worried, the angel thoughtful. Then, Alice stepped forward, wrapping both hands around the parcel she carried, “Well, maybe we can help by telling you about this place. Maybe show you around?”

Henry blinked at her, a little surprised that she would offer so freely. But a guide would be helpful, especially seeing as how he couldn’t figure this place out for the life of him.

. . . but . . .

Henry’s eyes travelled to the open window, where the fresh breeze continued to blow in. It still seemed far too soon to abandon it, leave this only gap to the outside world he hadn’t seen in oh so long. The clouds, the wind, the rain . . . he’d never felt closer to freedom, and to dive back into the depths of a studio that suddenly seemed so claustrophobic felt . . . wrong.

 Before he can voice his thoughts, however, Alice spoke up again in the silence that followed, “Ooor, we could just stay in here and talk!”

He glanced at her as the angel made her way to one of the couches and deposited herself there with a graceful flop, placing her package in her lap with careful consideration. Huh, had she really read him so easily? He was losing his touch . . .

Still . . . “Thanks.”

Alice nodded, gesturing to Boris to take a seat as well, which the wolf gratefully did. Unsure what to really do himself, Henry chose to simply sit back where he had been, close to the window but still in their full view.

There’re a few seconds of awkward quiet, neither side really sure what to say.

Surprisingly, Boris was the first to break, “So . . . what have ya seen so far?”

Leaping onto the thread, Henry shrugged in response, “Not very much. Just some awards . . . a few photos. This place is like a maze.”

Alice nodded, “It can seem like that to a lot of newcomers. All the renovations meant a loooot of open space.”

“Hm, Sammy told me about those. Said it annoyed the hell out of him,” Henry said, thinking back to the stories the music director had shared. He had listened to some of it, just . . . at the time, it had been hard to, “He told us about you, too.”

Both toons perked up a bit.

“He did?” Alice asked, before she sagged back against the couch, a sad, melancholic smile on her face, “He would . . .”

Boris placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, even though his own face looked a little crestfallen. It was clear they were worried.

He can’t blame them. He was too.

“What did he tell you?” Alice asked after a moment, “I can’t wait to hear what our famed music director has to say about us behind closed doors.”

“A few things,” Henry started, thinking back, “Like how Boris plays the clarinet in the band, how you sing for the shows in the music booth . . .” Henry glanced at the door, and with just a subtle raise of his voice, continued, “And how a certain devil darlin’ is apparently the head animator of the studio.”

Nothing responded from the door, but Alice leaned forward a little, “Oh? What else did he say? I’m sure Sammy had a lot to say about our ‘head animator’.”

It sounded like an innocent question, if not for the subtle gleam of mischief that had entered the angel’s eyes, and Henry was suddenly aware of what she was trying to do. And . . . he’s a little interested in seeing if it worked.

So, crossing his arms and leaning back, he said, “Well, let’s see . . . I hear he was the one who got the studio back on track after he was brought in. Oh, and something about having a short complex-,”

Alice and Boris both gave very loud snorts, the wolf looking guilty for doing so immediately after while the angel . . . not so much.

Outside the door, Henry heard a dull thunk.

Fighting to restrain her giggling, Alice waved for him to continue, which Henry obliged, “Well, I remember him talking about the pranks. Also calling him an ‘obnoxious, prank-scheming little gremlin’ at one point.”

Alice, who had been reaching some level of composure, quickly lost it again to another snort, while Boris just rubbed the back of his neck, a guilty smile on his face.

“And I think . . . oh!” Henry snapped his fingers, “And something about a sailor suit!”

The door abruptly swung wide open, slamming into the wall with a loud THUD, and Bendy stood in the opening with a look of righteous indignation on his face, one finger pointed towards them all as he shouted, “That’s crossin’ a line and Lawrence is lucky I don’t fire him!”

A heavy silence fell right after, everyone staring at the toon, and Henry is once again struck by how . . . familiar he is. Its such a persistent feeling, one that won’t’ leave him alone, and he felt like he had forgotten something, but what that was . . .

But what Henry did know, for absolutely certain . . . was that he was not afraid of him.

Before him, the toon who had come bursting in froze very suddenly, as if only now just realizing what he had done, and his gray eyes fell on Henry. Immediately, Bendy stood up almost ramrod straight, one arm looping behind his back to grab at his elbow, smiling a smile that comes across as highly strained with the ink trickling down his brow as he said, “U-uh, hey! Look, uh, didn’t mean to interrupt nothin’, I’ll just, uh, head on out and we’ll forget this ever happened, yeah? Agreed? Great! Goodbye!”

The toon was already spinning on his foot to do exactly that, obviously intending to beat a hasty retreat, when Henry spoke, “You’re Bendy, aren’t you?”

Maybe the toon wasn’t expecting Henry to speak, or maybe it’s the way Henry spoke, but he suddenly stumbled to a stop. He doesn’t look back at him, but did reply, “Uh, yep, that’s me! Pleasure, greetin’s, all that jazz, I gotta go run some drafts!”

Hm, was he just nervous around Henry? Or . . . was it something a little deeper? One thing was clear, if he wanted this conversation to go anywhere, he’d have to break this ice before the toon retreated.

And, like a little bolt of lightning, he thought he knew what he could say to at least get started. Leaning forward, bracing an elbow against his knee so he could cup his chin, Henry said, “You are rather short.”

The toon reacted like Henry had just chucked something at his head, whipping around in disbelief. Holding up both hands, Bendy spoke in a rather clipped tone, “Look, I know I ain’t no Charlton Heston, but do ya gotta say it like that?”

He looked so . . . offended, his mouth drooping into an unfamiliar frown and all, and Henry was suddenly struck by just how . . . absurd this all was. A little cartoon devil, getting indignantly mad at him for calling him short.

The sudden snrk he gave startled him a little, but frankly, this whole scenario has sort of tickled him pink, and his amused chuckling is letting all of them know.

When next Henry looked to Bendy, the toon was staring right back, the indignation gone to be replaced by confusion and . . . just a little hope.

“You . . . you ain’t scared a me?” Bendy’s question comes out as the kind he didn’t actually intend to ask out loud, but he’s so shocked he can’t help it. Henry blinked in surprise at him, before remembering that this one had more . . . familiarity with the things in Henry’s world than the others did, unfortunate as that was.

. . . maybe he did know more about his alternate self than anyone should have to know.

Before he can reply, however, Alice cut in with a toss of her hair and a light laugh, “Bendy, there isn’t a whole lot about you to be scared of!”

She said it teasingly, but there’s a firmness in her voice that tipped Henry off to what she was trying to do; be reassuring. It made Henry realize that this toon, if he had seen the creature that had hunted him for so long . . . he must think Henry saw only that.

With a small, wry smile, Henry decided to speak out, “She’s got a point.”

Bendy’s gaze shot to him even as Alice gave him a grateful and approving look, looking stunned . . . but as time wore on and he saw that Henry wasn’t joking, it relaxed into a relieved smile, “Oh, uh . . . yeah, yeah, course!”

He suddenly cleared his throat, a more confident front slipping over his expression like a he was pulling on a coat to cover up a sudden embarrassment. Turning back around, Bendy held himself a little straighter, tugging at the garish little bowtie he had on and saying with a bit of dramatic flair, “Anyway, name’s Bendy! Head animator of Joey Drew Studios, and the Little Devil Darlin’ in the flesh! How’s that for an introduction?”

Heh . . . he acted exactly as he imagined the real Bendy would. It has his smile growing just a little higher, “I’d give it a seven out of ten.”

Bendy huffed and waved a hand, but the sudden, hopeful sparkle in his eyes betrayed his real feelings, “Psh, you just don’t got taste!”

Nearby, Boris and Alice were looking overjoyed, clearly pleased by this turn of events. And . . . it made Henry feel a little good too. It was . . . fun, talking to these real, living toons in the way he used to imagine when he was a child. It felt, for lack of better word . . . magical.

Of course, things like that don’t last, for right then two shapes suddenly rushed inside. Shapes Henry recognized instantly as Al and Tom, both of whom looked a little haggard as they came inside. Al’s gaze landed on him immediately, a look of relief filling her face, but before she could speak, Tom was yanking her back with a warning growl.

Because the wolf had seen everyone else, and his glare was fixed solely on a frozen Bendy. And already, Al had seen him too, her shoulders stiffening considerably, golden eyes blowing open as she sucked in a tight breath, fingers twitching for a sword that wasn’t there.

Oh, Henry could already tell that this could get very bad, very quickly.

So, as quick as he could, he stood up and came forward, maneuvering himself around the toon devil just as Alice and Boris came to their friend’s side.

“Al, Tom,” he said slowly, looking between the two. Neither of them took their eyes off of Bendy, who was now shifting uncomfortably on the spot.

“Guys,” he said with more firmness, and that at least got Al’s attention. Which was good, because getting her attention meant getting Tom’s later, “It’s alright. Remember where we are.”

Tom growled harshly, disbelievingly, but Al, clever Al, was already beginning to come down from her initial shock. Still, she gave Bendy a wary glance, even as she placed a calm hand on Tom’s shoulder. The wolf glanced at her, eyes narrowed . . . but some of his fur fell flat, a better sign.

“R-right . . .” Al murmured, more to herself than to him, “Its different here. It’s different.”

After a moment, Henry finally put it to the question, “What are you both doing out here?”

At that, Al’s face hardened into a frown, “Looking for you! When you didn’t come back, we thought something had happened!”

Henry winced, feeling a fresh swell of guilt, “Ah, sorry. I, um . . . I got lost.”

Al pursed her lips, looking unamused, “Clearly.”

“I know, I’ll be smarter about it in the future,” Henry promised, hoping it was enough.

“You better,” Al said, crossing her arms.

But soon her gaze wandered again to the trio just behind him, a gleam of curiosity entering her eyes. Taking his chance, Henry stepped to the side a little and held out a hand, “I know we sort of already met, but these guys are the toons who work here, the ones Sammy told us about. Alice, Boris, and-,”

“Bendy,” Al said, looking straight at the toon devil.

Said devil flinched a little, especially when Tom growled again, but managed to gather enough courage to wave at her and say, “H-hi. Nice to ah, meet you.”

She stared a little longer, examining, probing, the way she always did with something new and interesting. She’s picking him apart with her eyes, gauging for any danger, any deceit, a look that was intense as she mumbled, “You’re very . . .”

It looked as if Bendy and his two friends were holding their breath as they waited for her verdict, Henry watching with a careful eye as the weighted seconds ticked by.

Then, “Short.”

Henry can’t stop his snort even if he wanted to as Bendy pressed a hand to his face, looking torn between relief and indignation, whispering, “Why’s that always the first thing . . . ?”

Al leaned down a little, ignoring the way Tom shot her a disapproving look, “Hm . . . you really do look different. But do you act different, is the important question.”

Before Bendy can reply, Boris immediately swooped in, patting the toon on the back, “Oh, Bendy’s a real swell guy once ya get to know him! He’s considerate, and funny, and nice!”

“Thanks pal,” Bendy said appreciatively.

“And nosy, and impish, and a bit conceited,” Alice put in right after, a mischievous smile on her face.

“Gee, thanks Alice,” the toon said, this time with far less.

Al tilted her head as she watched, looking bemused but . . . interested as well. But Henry can see the guardedness leaving her posture, the tension bleeding away bit by bit, “Well . . . you certainly seem like it. You aren’t trying to kill us, at least.”

Henry winced at her poor choice of words even as the toon in question looked away like he’d been slapped, falling deathly quiet.

Al noticed straight away, and she actually winced a little, “Ah . . . I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, no, its . . . fine,” Bendy replied, and though he’s trying to keep his tone light, he’s not meeting her eyes, “That’s just . . . what you’d expect, right?”

“Still, that’s . . . not the case here, is it?” Al said, “It was . . . still insensitive.”

An awkward silence fell, where he and his allies stand gawkily around as Boris patted Bendy’s back comfortingly. Then, Alice suddenly swallowed and took a cautious step forward. Both his allies immediately turned their gaze on her, and the angel quailed visibly for just a second beneath their sharp, penetrating gazes.

But, after a deep breath, she continued, and Henry watched curiously as she held out the parcel she’d been carrying the entire time, “This is for you.”

Al blinked at her, sharing a look with Tom, who shook his head pretty much immediately.

But Al, ever curious, decided to ask, “What is it?”

“Well . . . think of it like a peace-offering and a welcome-to-the-studio present,’” Alice said, holding it up higher, “I know its not much, but . . . I hoped you’d like it.”

Al glanced at the package, and Henry can see she wanted to know what lay beneath the delicate wrapping. She glanced at Tom, a beseeching look in her eyes, and the wolf grunted, glaring suspiciously at the present. But the wolf obviously see’s her want as well, for his shoulders sagged before he snatched it from the angel’s hands.

He ripped the wrapping off with one pull, and beneath was . . .

A block of ink? Wait, not quite just that, for leaning in Henry can make out beautiful, colored lines that flowed into flowery shapes decorated on the top, and he was suddenly struck with a name he’d heard long ago.

“A sumi stick?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Al, already taken in by the designs, whispered, “Is that what this is? It’s pretty . . .”

Behind him, he heard Bendy mumble, “Wow, Alice, you are generous.”

“It’s for a good cause.”

“What do we do with it?” Al asked, taking the block from Tom’s hands to turn it around.

Henry was about to say it was for drawing, when Alice beat him to the punch with a completely unexpected, “Oh, you eat it!”

Henry stared at her, “Wha-?”

“They taste really good!” Boris supplied, “Like candy!”

“Candy?” Al questioned, not looking up from trialing her fingers along the designs.

“Yeah, ya know, sweets! Like toffee, and root beer barrels, and . . . and . . .” Boris trailed off at Al’s utterly blank expression, his ears drooping a little, “Ya really . . . don’t know?”

She shook her head, “No.”

“Oh . . .”

There’s a second of silence where the trio he had met looked between each other with sadder expressions. Then, Alice chirped, “Candy’s good. Like flowers! Just ones you can eat!”

Al perked up a little at the mention of flowers, and, with her curiosity reawakened, she reached down and snapped a piece of it off with ease.

At once, Tom shook his head and held out a hand, to which Al rolled her eyes and waved the stick in his muzzle, “Tom, if they wanted to poison us, they would have done it with the bottles.”

The wolf did not relent, bracing his metallic hand against his hip and shaking the other one insistently. Al frowned at him, clutching the piece she’d broken off tightly . . . right before rebelliously popping the whole thing in her mouth.

Tom flung both hands into the air, highly irked, a reaction which had Henry smiling in amusement. Still, his gaze soon switched to Al, watching as she chewed for a few thoughtful moments, wondering what her reaction would be.

There was a tiny pause when Al stopped chewing, the toons, himself, and Tom leaning in a little in anticipation.

Then . . . her eyes began to sparkle.

“Its . . . this is-!” it’s like she couldn’t articulate her words, instead hastily breaking off a piece and holding it out to Tom, “Tom, you have to try this!”

The wolf hesitantly took it at Al’s pressing insistence, gauging it suspiciously. But, seeing her abject delight and anticipation as she waited for him to eat it, finally relented and popped it into his mouth. It crunched noisily between his sharp teeth, face one of irritation . . . until his ears suddenly shot straight up, unabashed surprise taking its place.

“This is great, isn’t it?” Al asked him, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet.

Now the wolf looked a bit embarrassed at having been caught, but after a dramatic huff, he gave her a stilted nod.

The three toons on front of them shared a relieved look, looking pleased that the two had accepted it. Henry is too, glad to see that whatever was in this sumi stick had such a positive affect for them.

He blinked in surprise, however, when Al pushed a piece into his own hand. She was looking at him with no less the same expectancy, clearly believing he’d enjoy it too, even though he . . . had his doubts. The trio were staring at him now as well, full of anticipation, and he realized that they must be wondering what affect it might have.

Henry glanced at it, giving it a curious sniff. It didn’t really have a scent to it, save for the faint one of ink . . .

But Al was still waiting, eagerly, he might add, and well . . . he can’t say he wasn’t curious. Worse came to worse, it’d just taste like ink.

So, after a shrug, he popped it in and chewed.

He didn’t really expect much, so Henry is utterly floored when the taste of toffee, peanut brittle, and chocolate all suddenly converged on his tongue, “Hmph-?!”

Everyone around him seemed to lean in, and he pointed at his mouth, still chewing, “Oh my god, this really does taste like candy.”

Al smiled, “It’s good, right?”

“It . . . is,” Henry breathed, licking the inside of his mouth to get every single drop of this utterly unexpected treat.

The trio was staring at him in surprise, Alice going as far as to say, “You can actually taste it?”

“I’m just as surprised as you,” he replied honestly, glancing at the stick in Al’s hand. That had been . . . whoa . . .

“Well . . . I’m glad you all like it,” the angel finally said, smiling a little at their very obvious enjoyment.

Its then the rustling of the curtains in the alcove caught all their attention, the wind intensifying and dragging them up into the air. The rain fall had grown harder, striking more poignantly against the glass and sweeping inside the room itself.

“Ah, we should probably close that,” Bendy said.

“Wait . . .”

Everyone turned as Al moved forward, drawn to the things she could see outside. With a knowing smile, Henry followed her, beckoning Tom to join them.

“Hey, uh, what about the . . .” Alice’s words fell on deaf ears as Al’s pace intensified, all but flinging herself into the alcove and thrusting her head out the window, staring up into that great, billowing sky with wide, awestruck eyes. Tom joined her a moment after, sniffing the air furiously, a note of wonder in his gaze as he, too, stared upwards, “Rain . . .”

“Henry, is that . . .?” Al started, voice shaking just a little as she stared up and up and up, uncaring for the water that soon soaked her hair.

“Yeah . . .” Henry said softly, coming to stand beside them, “That’s the sky.”

“Its so . . .” her voice is soft, touched by awe, “Big . . .”

Beside her, Tom gave a low woof of agreement.

“Trust me . . . that’s not even a sliver of what’s out there,” Henry told her, smiling.

Behind him, the three toons who knew this world, knew this sky, kept their distance. Perhaps they all realized how important such a moment like this was for them. How truly vital this confirmation of their freedom was.

If only it could last.

Behind them, the door opened once again, and Henry turned to see Susie thrusting her way inside, panting as her eyes shot around the room with frantic speed.

He can tell something is wrong immediately, even as Alice asked, “Susie, are you okay? What’s the matter?”

The woman’s eyes turned to the angel, and she gasped, “Its Sammy!”

Everyone’s gaze was on her know, and dread filled the room at her next words, “We can’t find him anywhere!”

_

The room was dark and delightfully empty, an easy place to breach through the cracks in the wood.

Slowly, the ink pooling in the center of the room rose up into a tall, malformed shape, It’s white grin breaking the darkness as it leaned over the single desk inside, the nameplate gleaming mockingly at it.

Joey Drew.

Feh. Even now, the name annoyed It.

Still, it had a mission. And the missing little prophet would provide a perfect little distraction, just enough to get what It needed.

Quickly, quietly, It moved to the drawer he’d seen the man hide the prize it was after. Making short work of the lock and yanking it open, It reached a hand inside and dug out what It was after; a single black book with a heavily bound cover, the red symbol on its front singing to It. Heh, guess the old man couldn’t keep away from the same dangerous hobbies.

Lucky for It, that meant it could find what it needed.

With the tip of a slivered claw, It flicked the book open and began to peruse it’s contents. The words and symbols on every page call to It, sing a dirge of destruction and mayhem the likes of which It had never been able to achieve on It’s own. It’s no fool, It knows how powerful, how delightfully dangerous these spells are. It’s seen their damage wrought first hand, after all.

But It needs it. Needs to see if this dark, wicked magic that gave It life would give It everything else it failed to the first time.

Its not much longer before the shadowy beast stopped on a specific page, eyeless face gauging the words with careful, steady consideration.

Then, the smile It always wore grew, delight lighting up every twisted tooth.

“This’ll do,” It hummed, voice echoing distortedly in the empty room.

“Oh, this’ll do perfectly.”

Chapter Text

          Tap-tap-tap-tap.

           It felt like Sammy had been walking forever. A long, dark, murky hallway, the shadows of which pressed in on all sides, the only sound the echoes of his own footsteps.

          Tap-tap-tap-tap.

          It was cold, a preternatural chill that seemed to seep down into his very bones, yet nothing he did warmed him. He can’t remember how he got here. He can’t . . . remember anything at all.

          Tap-tap-tap-tap.

          Yet, for some strange reason . . . it felt like he wasn’t walking alone. Its like some presence followed him everywhere he went, walking right beside him, yet every time he turned to find the offender . . . there was nothing there.

          How long have I been walking here?

          I need to find my way back . . .

          If only it were that easy.

          What else can I do?

          Maybe look for, I don’t know, a door?

          Hmph, because there are so many to choose from.

          Sammy felt his lip curl just a little in annoyance, though he was not sure why. His thoughts had felt so . . . erratic lately. More than they’ve ever been in his life. Shivering a little, Sammy kept walking, looking for anything that might point to a way out of these dark, gloomy halls. He’d been wandering for too long. Things had probably fallen apart without him around.

          Band’s probably a mess . . .

          The masses need someone to guide them . . .

          He exhaled slowly, feeling more lost than he could put into words. Was there anyone around? Was there anyone at all? Susie? Henry? Somebody?

          “Sammy.”

          He started at the sound of his own name, and he spun around to find that the hallway behind him had . . . completely disappeared. In its place was a large living room, one that was well-furnished and well-kept, a fire crackling in the stone hearth.

          In the two plush chairs before the fire, two people sat, a woman and a man. The woman’s long black hair was in a coifed updo, eyes an icy blue, whereas the man’s was slicked back in a professional style seen on those of a more . . . serious, no-guff persuasion. Both were equally well-dressed, equally well-groomed . . . and equally stern of face.

          And before them stood a boy, no older than twelve, head bowed and so still you could mistake him for a statue. Even in the shadows cast by the flickering flames, Sammy could see the scuff marks on his clothes and the split on his lip, and it seemed he could feel the phantom pain of it as if it were his own.

          He remembered this . . .

          Its not until the woman leaned forward that the boy looked up. Trading one glance to the man beside her, she asked, “Sammy, tell us; why are we here?”

          The boy furrowed his brow, casting a furtive glance at the man, who so far retained a distant, serious silence. Then, slowly, he replied, “I got into a fight. At school.”

          The woman gave a stilted nod, “You did. And why is that?”

          At this, the boy scuffed his shoe into the carpet, face scrunching stubbornly. At least, until the man pointedly cleared his throat, and, after a moment, the boy’s shoulders drooped, halting his nervous fidgeting.

          “They were . . . making fun of what I was writing,” he said.

          “And . . . what were you writing?” the woman asked, folding her hands over her lap, even though Sammy knew she was already well aware, this had not been the first time.

          “. . . music.”

          The two adults shared a look, when the man reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a folded piece of paper, holding it up to the light. The boy’s eyes locked onto it quickly, a bit too quickly, as the man’s own eyes narrowed just slightly in return.

          With a huff, the man flipped the folded slip open, perusing the contents with a disinterested stare before looking back to the boy in front of him. Finally, he leaned forward just as his wife leaned back, his face as firm as he remembered it to be, holding up the paper, “I suppose as a pastime this could be acceptable. But you have continuously let this interfere with your studies, even started altercations over it. That is not.”

          “I pass my classes . . .” the boy said rebelliously, not looking the man in the eye.

          The man’s face hardened, “Yes. You pass. But if you put the kind of effort into your schooling as you do this,” he held up the paper with some modicum of distaste, “You’d do so much more. Harvard, Cambridge, any prestigious college you could think of. Your mother and I want to see you succeed, Sammy, and you will not at the rate you are going.”

          “Music is . . . fine. For a hobby,” the woman put in, and she was trying to meet him in the middle, she always tried, but it was never quite what the boy needed, “But it is not a place to put your career in.”

          The man gave a huff that could be taken as a laugh. A . . . patronizing one, “Hardly. Certainly not one any educated person could take seriously. It’s fine if you have no wish to follow in our footsteps, there are plenty of other options to choose from. A doctor, for example, or an attorney. But choose, Sammy. You’re a Lawrence. Don’t forget what that means.”

          The boy doesn’t say anything. Back then, Sammy remembered, he could never quite muster up the courage to do so before his stolid, taciturn, and rigid father. Not until later. Not until he finally said ‘fuck it’ and struck out on his own, pursuing his own passions regardless of what his parents said.

          They hadn’t stopped him. But contact had certainly dried up after that. Until . . .

          Well, no use thinking about it anymore.

          But this isn’t right . . . I never . . . had a mother . . . and my father . . .

          And just like that, it’s like the room warped and twisted, blurring like an oil painting that’s been splashed with water, the room, the furniture, and the people all disappearing into nothingness. And before he could begin to panic, a new scene took its place.

          It . . . looked like the same room. The fire was gone, the curtains drawn open to allow sunlight to filter through. Instead of two chairs, there was a singular couch, and a boy like the one before was seated upon it as the same man paced back and forth in front of him, a man who looked . . . more haggard, tired, openly aggravated . . .

          There was a spike of sudden fear in Sammy’s heart, one he does not understand, when the man finally stopped to face the child, holding up a piece of paper in his hand like it were a pox.

          “I thought I already told you to drop this nonsense,” the man started, voice rough with irritation, “And yet, here you are, wasting your time again, despite that!”

          The boy hunkered just a little before the force in the man’s voice, but managed to speak out, “It was just a little music-,”

          “Just a little music,” the man cut him off harshly, stepping closer and towering over the other, “I believe I said no music at all! You are supposed to be studying, preparing for a respectable career, one that fits the expectations of our family!”

          Quietly, in a rare surge of a rebellious verve, the boy whispered impertinently, “Music can be a career . . .”

          Even though this strange scene is nothing he can remember, Sammy somehow knew that that had been the wrong thing to say. A feeling not a moment later proved true by the way the man’s nostrils flared, and though his face remained placid, there was a gleam of fury there that is both alien and scary.

          The boy’s eyes widened, mouth snapping shut as he dropped his head, shoulders rigid with tension, with fear.

          Slowly, the man kneeled down so his eyes were level with the boy’s. Placing a deliberate hand on the other’s shoulder, squeezing until the other winced, he held up the paper and mumbled lowly, sharply, “Music . . . is a career fit for baboons and faggots. You . . . are a Lawrence. A descendent of a family that clawed its way up from nothing into the higher echelons of society through grit, and now continues to hold a place of prominence there. And you will not throw it away for music.

          The man stood, the boy’s eyes warily following, quivering just a little beneath the man’s heated stare.

          There’s a moment of heavy, distraught silence, and Sammy swallowed down a lump he hadn’t even realized had formed in his throat, anticipation crawling under his skin, a feeling like something bad was about to happen, and-

          It’s that moment that the boy’s eyes flicker to the paper in them man’s hand, a look the other does not miss. He looked as well, an expression of clear disdain on his face . . .

          Then, he gripped the page between both hands and tore it to shreds.

          The boy remained frozen, the only movement being the jerky raise of his hands as if to stop the man, but it felt like Sammy could feel what he felt as he watched, how every single rip tore into his own heart like a pair of serrated knives, both of their eyes wide with horror.

          Its only when the last piece fluttered to the floor that the man strode around the couch to the door, closing it with a loud and forceful slam. And its only when he leaves that the boy finally dropped to the floor before the torn apart pieces, trying to pick them all up with shaky hands, shoulders shaking as tears began to roll down his cheeks.

          Sammy’s own throat felt unnaturally tight, not understanding what was happening. Certainly, his father had been dismissive of what he did, considered it something of a joke, but he never . . . he never . . .

          “Sammy?”

          Both figures started as a soft voice spoke. Then, like a mirage, a new shape materialized in front of Sammy; a young girl of roughly the same age, with the same narrow features and dark hair as the boy, wearing bows in her hair and a little lilac dress.

          There was a very sudden swell of strange affection in his heart, and Sammy had no idea why.

          Immediately, the boy turned his head and wiped at his eyes, though he can’t keep the tremor out of his voice no matter how hard he tried, “Y-you’re supposed to be with Miss Porter . . .”

          “She’s asleep,” the girl replied, dropping into a crouch beside him, “So . . . I can do what I want.”

          She doesn’t draw attention to his tears, doesn’t try to mince any words. Instead, she began to gather the scattered pieces of paper in her hands, stacking them carefully so nothing got crinkled or torn further. Looking to the boy, she said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Father’s gone, and he left his study open. We could find some glue in there.”

           The boy’s face only fell at her words, sniffling, “What’s the point? If father finds out again, he’ll . . .”

          “Then, it’ll be my fault next time!”

          The boy looked at her, horrified, “What, no! I don’t want him yelling at you, too!”

          “He shouldn’t yell at either of us,” the girl pointed out, “Besides . . . your music’s amazing. It makes you happy, and it makes me happy, and . . . and I know it could make a lot of other people happy too.”

          She gently nudged the boy in the side with her elbow, smiling, “And weren’t you going to be the next greatest musician that Broadway’s ever seen? You can’t do that if you give up.”

          The boy dipped his head in slight embarrassment . . . but his tears were beginning to dry, the tiniest of smiles eking its way onto his face, “R-right . . .”

          The girl smiled too, and she gently grabbed the boy’s hand and tugged him to his feet, pulling him after her, “Come on! Before Miss Porter wakes up!”

          “She sleeps like she’s dead,” the boy responded, a touch of humor returning to his voice.

          The girl only laughed, and the two vanished into mist like they had never been there at all.

          Sammy was left alone, bewildered . . . but there’s a flush of warmth in his heart that’s decidedly unusual, and he can’t tell where it’s coming from.

          Sarah . . . my sister . . . how did I forget you?

          . . . sister? I don’t have a sister . . .

          This isn’t new. He knew this voice was wrong, he knew his own past, and he knew that he had been an only child.

          Except . . . except it felt like a part of it . . . a part of it was true?

          Inside, his heart skipped a beat and his head throbbed, hissing in pain as he brought a hand up to his head. What was . . . what was happening . . .?

          A sudden breeze distracted him, and he turned around only to wince at the unexpected sunlight that assailed his eyes. Blinking the stars away, Sammy looked again, only to gasp when he saw that now he was standing in front of the school he had gone to polish his craft. And he could see himself, a young man just into adulthood, walking down the steps with a diploma in one hand and a rare, but genuine smile on his face. Top of the class . . . felt like a lifetime ago . . .

          No one had been outside to greet or congratulate him that day, but he hadn’t let it bother him. This had been his achievement. And he’d done it by himself, without help or hand-outs from anyone. He’d been proud of that.

          And no one was there now. At least, there wasn’t until some strange distortion twisted the air around the stairs, a scratchy, static blur that lasted for several seconds before all at once it snapped back into normalcy. But now . . . someone was standing there.

          A young woman wearing a heavy coat and a dark purple cloche hat, who’s face brightened considerably when she saw him walking down the stairs.

          The young man returned it as the woman clambered up those last few steps to meet him, saying excitedly, “Well, what are you waiting for, let’s see it!”

          The young man smirked a bit before holding up the diploma in his hand, and, with a (unnecessary) dramatic flick of his wrist, popped it open for her to see. The woman looked it over from top to bottom, eyes glowing, a look of pure pride on her face.

          Then, with a more teasing smile, she reached up and pinched the man’s cheek, “Look at you, all grown up!”

          He swatted her hand away, giving her an unamused look, “Sarah-,”

          “Alright, I’ll stop,” she said, leaning back, “Come on, lets go that little patisserie place around the block. I know the man who owns it, and what better way to celebrate than with a slice of chocolate cake and a lovely cup of coffee.~”

          “You, flirt, with the man who owns it,” the young man corrected blithely, crossing his arms after refolding his diploma.

          “Mr. Samuel Lawrence, do you question my integrity?” she asked, giving him a firm look from over her shoulder.

          “Do you have integrity to question?”

          “Well, if you find it so obscene, I’ll go by myself! More for me that way,” the woman replied with a nonchalant shrug.

          The man immediately held up a finger, hastily saying, “I never said I wasn’t going!”

          The woman only chuckled, before finally saying, “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go.”

          And just like that, it all vanished again, the world fading into darkness once more. Sammy was left standing there, feeling confusedmelancholic, not sure what to do now. What was . . . any of this? He knew some of these events, but why did they change to include things that . . . weren’t . . . real . . .?

          But they are real, why do I keep thinking that? How could I forget this, all of this?

          Sammy doesn’t have any time to ponder what these words mean, because the world is shifting again, rushing by in a blur of browns that leave him with vertigo even though he doesn’t move an inch.

          And when it stopped, he’s left standing in an office that he knows very well. The younger self he remembered from before is here as well, sitting in a seat across from a desk he’s seen numerous times before, although at that particular moment in time it had been the first time.

          And sitting in that desk is a man he knows well, too.

          Joey Drew is just glancing up from the papers he had been looking at, a familiar sparkle in his eyes as he grinned at the man, “Well, I say this all checks out! Welcome aboard, Sammy! I’m sure this is the beginning of a long and magnificent partnership! Can I call you, Sammy?”

          The man in the chair frowned, and Sammy remembered how . . . put-off he’d been by the other’s attitude. But he’d kept it in check then, preferring to keep the job rather than lose it, “. . . sure, Mr. Drew.”

          “Oh please, call me Joey! Come, I’ll show you around the place, including where you’ll be working!” he didn’t really give him any other choice, Sammy recalled. Thus began his life at the studio. He might gripe about it, but . . . it had certainly never been a dull day there.

          But that’s not how it went . . .

           All at once, it was like someone hit a rewind button, the whole scene backtracking to the start before stilling once again. This was really wreaking havoc on his eyes . . .

          He’s still sitting in the chair, and Joey still at his desk, but the mood felt . . . different somehow. More stifling, heavy, so very uneasy.

          “Hm,” Joey hummed, examining the papers with a critical eye, more than Sammy had ever seen, “Well, these all seem to be in order. You said you were willing to get started soon?”

          He watched himself nod, but otherwise said nothing.

          “Then we’ll see you tomorrow, seven o’clock sharp,” Joey said with a final nod. He rose from his seat, straightening his cuff links as he continued, “I’ll have someone show you your office today. And remember, here at this studio, we work hard, and we work happy. No slacking off in this business, although, I’m sure you’re no slacker! Right, Mr. Lawrence?”

          There’s a . . . tone in the man’s voice, one that comes out . . . almost like a warning. It . . . it unsettled Sammy. It really unsettled him.

          The younger man nodded again, “Of course.”

          Now the man smiled, nodding as if in affirmation, “Splendid to hear! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some drafts to overlook!”

          He passed the chair the other sat in, but right before he left completely, he placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder, “Welcome to Drew Studios, Mr. Lawrence. I’m sure this is the beginning of a good deal . . . for the both of us.”

          And just like that it was over, leaving Sammy feeling uncomfortable and bewildered.

          What was-?

          I should never have trusted him. I should have left, I should have LEFT!

          Splitting pain suddenly slammed into Sammy hard, nearly winding him from the force of it. Clasping both hands to his head with a strangled cry, Sammy can do nothing except brace for the sudden deluge that assaulted him, memories flashing by in a blink.

          All of them are centered around the studio, many of them moments he recognized; coordinating the band with Norman, writing music in his office, getting annoyed at his coworkers, Joey, Susie, Henry . . .

          And right beside them, similar stories play, almost exactly the same; but there’s an air of exhaustion to them, detachment, isolation, one that wore him down so much it became a chore to come to work every day. Taking and taking and taking, until even the passion that had kept him going slowly dried up until it was barely there at all . . .

          “Sammy, you need to stop working for him, he’s running you ragged!” a feminine voice said, full of concern, Sarah . . .

          “I can’t just stop. I have to keep going.”

          “Why? There are other jobs, other places you could work! Drew Studios, its like a, a leech! All its done is drain you!”

          “Working hard doesn’t always mean working happy, but it gets the job done. Once I save up a little more money . . .”

          “It’s not worth it-!”

          “Just STOP! I’ve made my choice, Sarah! Now leave it!”

          There’s silence, choking, heavy silence.

          Then, “. . . fine.”

          I should have listened to you, I should have listened, Sarah, I’m sorry-!

          The memories he saw took a turn for the worse then; people leaving, disappearing, a sense of despair hanging over a studio that was barely keeping itself afloat, whispers in the pipes, calling to him-!

          W-why is this happening? How is this happening?! This isn’t right, none of this is right, these aren’t my memories!

          Yes they are!

          No they’re NOT!

          All of a sudden, the world snapped into another phantasmagorical stage, the studio, but . . . not. Wrong. A ruin, empty halls flooded with ink and rot, the distant hiss of something unnatural slithering through the murk.

          And before him, there’s a lonely creature kneeling against the ground, a single golden eye staring at hands that run and congeal together like mud, but they’re his hands, they’re his hands! And Sammy’s just an observer (is he?), but it’s like he can feel what’s happening to the creature like it was himself; a terrible numbness crawling under his skin, black oozing through his pores, he’s changing, there’s nothing he can do to stop it, there’s nothing he can do-!

          A violent surge of pure terror lashed into Sammy very suddenly, knees shaking, finding it so hard to breathe past the tight constriction in his throat. It took every ounce of willpower just to snap his eyes closed and force himself to calm down, to think rationally. Y-yes, this had happened to him, and it had been . . . concerning, and admittedly a little scary. But, he’d been fixed, he’d been fixed, and he’d been able to put the whole thing behind him!

          But nobody did. Nobody ever fixed me, nobody was there to just FIX ME!

          A wave of pure vehemence and resentment suddenly lit up his core, a vortex of anger and betrayal that took his breath away.

          He promised he would. He promised he would if I was faithful, and he LIED TO ME!

          Another flash of memory, one that blocked out any other stimuli there could have been. And in it, Sammy could see a towering, intimidating figure in the dark, cut only by a wide grin laced with a frightening and wicked mirth.

          Bendy? No . . .

          It’s not the toon he knew, but he has seen this beast before, Sammy realized. And no sooner did he do that, did he also very suddenly and vividly remember everything; every moment before this leading up to now, and its like he’s suddenly living through them again, but this time, there’s a strange split in his vision that horribly jarred him. One side saw the things he remembered, running from monsters, Henry, the strange toons Al and Tom, and he could feel the fatigue when he ran, the hurt when he was injured, the terror as a monster with his voice screamed at him, dangling him over the edge . . .

          And right beside it, in perfect tandem, he saw stranger things, darker things; pacing back and forth in a deserted room railing against a god he had believed in, shattering an idol once adored into smithereens, grabbing at a man with his face, his body, everything he had lost, and how could the Demon do this to him, after everything he’d given, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair!

          It’s during this madness, this utter chaos of sensory and visual information, that Sammy has a very strange and bizarre flash of clarity; what he was seeing wasn’t fake. He suddenly knew perfectly that it wasn’t, could feel it in his very bones that it was the truth. It’s like something has invaded more than just his head. It’s in his body, his very soul, twisting together in some sick, perverted connection. He knew then, with absolute certainty, that something was very, very wrong with him.

          Then . . . then his vision is lost in darkness as both sides were plunged into an icy lake of ink, and all became a whirl of utter chaos.

          He remembered his side of the story.

          But the sensation of a complete loss of his physical form, all his senses being suddenly and completely smothered in a black and scary void before just as suddenly being thrust into a light that scorched his very being, making everything hurt, was not.

With a surge of desperation like he had never felt before, and in an attempt to pull away from this chaotic vision, this thing that had suddenly clung to him like a second, unwanted skin, Sammy forced himself to move, to fling himself forward right as the strange entity pulled back. It felt like he was being pulled in two directions, a rubber band being drawn so uncomfortably taut it hurt, but he had to get away, he had to!

          And then, suddenly, just like that . . . the band snapped, and Sammy was teetering forward and slamming face first into a floor that didn’t exist. The tide of memories slowed to a trickle, flashes of them coming and going but at a far more languid pace, more manageable, and the turbulent, terrified thoughts running through his head quiets.

          But he still felt things. That same confusion, that same fear, feeling stronger than it should, all of it making his heart race.

          Panting and shaking, Sammy rose to his feet, legs wobbling uncomfortably. But he managed to stand all the same, and he turned to try and get his bearings again.

          There is nothing but darkness around him, the only object being the outside binding of a tall vanity mirror, the center where the glass should be empty of anything at all. But behind it, right on the other side . . . he saw someone. Someone who saw him too, looking back with wide, unbelieving eyes.

          Himself.

          That same pain cut through his head, and he groaned. Across from him, the other man did likewise. Flickers of memory danced behind his shut lids, ones he knew and ones he doesn’t, confusion and loss trickling in like a dirty, muck-filled sewage channel, and Sammy didn’t understand why this was happening, what was happening-?!

          Something lapped at his ankles, and he looked down to see that the floor had suddenly become flooded with ink, and the sight of it made him sick.

          That is, until he felt something else latch onto his ankle, and just as suddenly pull him completely under, liquid pouring into his mouth, his nose, his lungs, deeper and deeper and deeper, and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t-

          Time to wake up, Sammy.~

          Sammy’s eyes flew open, and he gasped as air rushed into his lungs.

          Panic still racking his body, thoughts muddled, disorganized, Sammy scrambled upright, panting as he tried to sort out his own manic dreams. Just dreams, bizarre ones, but just dreams . . .

          He ran his hands through his hair, attempting to banish the dread prickling along the nape of his neck, feeling the strands catch between his fingers, brush against his skin, and suddenly all his attention is hyperfixated on that sensation, a strange surge of shock and disbelief welling inside him even though its just his hair, he’s always had hair, he’s always-god, he had hair-!

          All of a sudden, it’s like Sammy’s control just . . . faded. He can still see what’s happening, and his hands are still moving, traveling down to feel his face like it’s some alien thingrealskinhecouldfeelthisbut he has no input to any of that. Its like he was . . . floating inside his own body, seeing and thinking and feeling, but having no control over any of what was happening.

          Suddenly, his hands go to cover his face, laughing but it wasn’t him who was laughing, his lips moving of their own accord, speaking even though Sammy was not saying a word, “I-is this . . . is this really happening?”

          . . . There’s something else inside him, he realized with a thrill of horror. Something that shouldn’t be there, that had control of his body, and holy shit, how did this happen?!

Spurred by a rush of panic, Sammy forced himself to respond, to oust this strange entity and reassert control. It’s like fighting through sleep paralysis, waking up dead limbs just to move again, reawakening warmth where numbness had been. And it might be that the entity isn’t expecting his resistance, because with one invigorated surge, he succeeded. He succeeded, and as soon he did, the first words out of his mouth as he dropped his hands were, “What the fuck?!”

          A ghosting confusion passed through him, followed by a thrill of horror, and he felt something push against him, demanding control of his shaking limbs, why are you here, you shouldn’t be here-!

          Scrambling to his feet, Sammy attempted to move, to, to find help of some sort, when his legs suddenly fight that command, a numbing sensation that crept up to his hips and making him stumble straight into a . . . piano?

          His left eye ached, a hot sort of pressure that didn’t seem to lessen even when he rubbed it.

          That insistent press is still there, though it was lessening, a sharp surge of dawning realization that froze his insides like ice.

          No, no, no, NO!

          “What-?” Sammy doesn’t get to finish, as something forceful struck inside his head like a mallet, knocking him clear of his control once again. The shift made his physical body shudder, dropping him (them?) to his knees. But his mouth kept moving, arms wrapping around his body without his consent as the thing yelled, “No, NO, this was supposed to be my body, why are you here?!”

          No it’s not! He wanted to scream, pushing back irately.

          He can feel his face flinch regardless, and the entity controlling him shook it’s head, distressed, “H-how, why did this-?”

          The words still, the being falling deathly silent, eyes widening, and Sammy is momentarily puzzled until a rush of pure horror struck his core. Its jarring, uncomfortable because he didn’t fully understand why it was there to begin with . . . until he felt his own body begin to tremble, a strange, hollow laugh rising from their shared throat.

          “Th-this is what it wanted after all. This is a punishment for my blasphemy, isn’t it?”

          Sammy tried to reassert control again, growing more agitated and frightened in equal measure, what the hell are you talking about?

          Frustration slammed into him, the thing snarling, “How do you not understand what’s happened?! Don’t you remember?!”

          Another memory surfaced for him, the last ones he could recall before darkness took him; plunging into that icy ink with is deranged counterpart, darkness, feeling something crawl under his skin and-

          . . . with his . . . counterpart . . .

          He has no idea if the realization is spurred by an unwillingly shared knowledge from the other entity inside his body, but Sammy is suddenly and very acutely aware of just who that entity is, and the horror of it nearly overwhelmed him.

          But along with horror came a very sudden and blazing surge of anger too, because how dare this son of a bitch think he has any right to pilot his body like it was some kind of sock puppet?!

           Sammy pushed back hard, knocking the desolate specter out of the way and regaining some control. Quickly, he stumbled to his feet, shaking his head to clear it, looking around to try to figure out where he was, if anyone was there.

          Its not a moment later, though, when the other one is fighting back, and Sammy’s head throbbed as he fought to keep control, leaning against the piano next to him, yelling, “God damn it, would you knock it off! This isn’t you’re fucking body, get the hell out of it!!”

          I CAN’T!

          Well, if that just didn’t make his head hurt worse, and his heart hurt worse, because he can feel that welling despair inside him like its his own, and its awful and frustrating and this asshole needed to quit it!

           There was a scuffling noise followed by a loud creak, and Sammy’s attention snapped up to see that a door was opening fast, and running inside was . . .

          “Henry?” Sammy openly asked it, but the spirit inside seemed to recognize him too, another flash of dual memory skating across his vision; sharing a smoke outside in the alley, Henry laughing at something he had said, his eyes looked so heavy, on the verge of passing out, ‘are you feeling alright?’-

          His head throbbed again, and he pressed a palm to it.

          “Sammy? Oh my god,” he heard the man run to him, felt a hand appear on his shoulder, steadying, “Hey, easy, take it easy. Are you okay, h-how are you feeling?”

          He had to let him know, he needed to know!

          “H-Henry, Henry, something’s . . . something’s wrong!” he started as he looked up, feeling that same insistent press, that prickle of numbness in his fingers as his control fluctuated erratically.

          The man stiffened, “Jesus, your eye . . .” he then abruptly cleared his throat, “Okay, okay, just calm down and-,”

          “Sammy? Henry, is that Sammy?”

           Something else entered the room, made a beeline for Henry’s side and into Sammy’s vision. He knew that voice, and he knew that shape, and Sammy can scarcely believe it when the Bendy he was familiar with came into view, looking him over with an unfamiliar look of concern, but undoubtedly the same toon he knew . . .

There’s a brief moment where his gaze passed over Sammy’s left eye, something about it making the toon’s shoulders tense. But then, he put on a smile, one that may have been for reassurance purposes as he said, “G-gee, you sure gave us a good scare there, Lawrence-,”

Sammy does not hear anything beyond that, because suddenly all he could focus on was that smile, a smile that takes him back to the immediate past, a past filled with monsters and ink and a hot, horrible pressure around his neck, choking away the air from his lungs, hurting him, laughing at him, making a promise it never intended to keep, shoving him into someone else’s-!

          All at once, his leg is moving without his consent, lashing out and striking the toonmonster in the chest as hard as he could! The toon was sent sprawling onto his back with a loud and pained cry, and Sammy stumbled away, tripping over his own unsteady feet. His back slammed into something, a desk perhaps, objects clattering down beside him, a pen, inkwells, a letter opener, nowhere to run, and he pressed back against it, eyes wide and wary.

          “Sammy-!” he heard Henry shout, alarmed and utterly shocked.

          Bendy was rising again, rubbing at his chest and giving him a glare, stunned and a little angry, “Ow, Sammy, what the-?!”

           The words come out before he can stop them, and Sammy honestly doesn’t know who is speaking right then at all;

          “GET AWAY FROM ME YOU MONSTER!”

          His shoulders were shaking, fear, adrenaline, an overwhelming malady of emotions that swing in and out of play until he can’t keep track of them anymore. But while his mind is parsing through this maelstrom, his physical attention is focused completely on the duo before him. Both had gone dead silent, staring at him in open and undisguised shock, and in Bendy’s case . . . a far greater deal of hurt than he’s ever seen before.

          W-wait . . . he’s, he’s not a monster, what am I-?

          His mouth kept moving, giving voice to words he had no control over, “I trusted you, I put my faith in you, and this is how you reward it?!”

          “W-what?” Bendy asked, in a voice that seemed far too small for the egotistical toon he knew.

          B-because . . . because he knows him, and while the toon is unquestionably annoying, he’s not any of what he’s saying now, and god damn it, he let this thing take control again-!

          Seething internally, Sammy scrambled for the reigns again, finding it easier to boot his unwanted passenger out of the driver’s seat this time around, and hissing once he did, “God damn it, would you stay the fuck out of my body!”

          I’m not going to be silent just because you told me to be!

          Sammy clasped his hands to the sides of his head, shouting, “Oh, shut up, shut UP!”

          There was a shuffling of feet in front of him, and he looked to see Henry step between him and the toon, gesturing to Bendy urgently, “Find Joey. Now.”

          He can’t see him anymore, but the sound of retreating footsteps told him Bendy had listened with absolutely no argument or sass. Gaze snapping back to the man, he found that he was staring back with an alarmed and highly worried stare, very slowly and cautiously holding up his hands, swallowing, “Sammy? Its . . . it’s okay. Just . . . just try to relax, a-and we’ll figure out what to do.”

          He was talking to him like he was some kind of degenerate who’d snap at the drop of a hat. Like he was . . . was crazy . . .

          . . . Was he crazy? He must look crazy, like he’d absolutely fucking lost it.

          Maybe a part of him was. He had a fucking psychopath stuck inside him, after all.

          I’m not a psychopath, I’m not, I just want to be me again, is that really so wrong?!

          Sammy winced a little. His eye hurt.

          H-he needed to tell Henry what was happening, he needed to get him to understand, “Henry, there’s . . . there’s something inside me, a-another, another me-!”

          “Whoa, easy, just . . . slow down a little, okay?” Henry said, only looking more concerned, “Joey’ll be here soon, and-”

          “He could take over again! I don’t know what the hell he’ll do if he does!” Sammy shouted, damn near desperate to make the man understand how urgent this was.

          All at once, a flash of righteous indignation hit him, knocking him askew as the other one asserted control and screamed, “I’m not some kind of rabid animal incapable of thinking for myself!”

          Sammy pushed back, anger coiling in his gut, “You’re not exactly preaching to the choir here, you creepy cultist!”

          In front of him, Henry just stared, eyebrows vanishing into his hairline.

          Just then, the door opened again, and Sammy looked to see two toon-ish creatures and . . . another Henry?

          No, no, not quite the same. Black and white, grayscale like many of the creatures that inhabited the studio, dark eyes that had seen too much, far too much, he’s seen those kinds of eyes so many times before amongst his flock . . .

          And . . . and when those weary eyes met his, Sammy felt his left eye burn a little, in perfect sync to the sudden and strange glow of gold that appeared in the other man’s. Aforementioned man paused for just a moment, one hand reflexively jerking up to his face, before steeling his expression and carrying on like nothing even happened. The two toons-he could recall them, heretics running wild in the studio, their names are Al and Tom-remained by the door, watching closely.

          The Henry who’d come in first, who still had color to his face, spun around and held up a hand, gesturing for the other to stay back, “H-hey, I think you should wait outside until-,”

          The other man walked right past him like he wasn’t even there, earning him a small look of genuine exasperation, “Or not.”

         Crouching in front of Sammy, the other Henry looked him over with a critical eye before finally, softly saying, “Sammy? Do you know who I am?”

         Sammy blinked, another flash of memory playing for him, side by side. He knows this one too, he’d saved his life several times, he got away, they’d almost died, but he came back why did he come back?

         “Henry,” he answered, blinking away the visions, “You’re Henry, from . . . from the other side.”

         My side, you’re from my side . . .

          The man nodded, “I heard a bit about what’s been happening from . . . well, a friend. Can you tell me more?”

         “I don’t think-,” the Henry behind the other started, before being hushed by the man in front of him. The look he gave him in return would have been funny if Sammy weren’t so distressed.

         “That’s what I’ve been trying to do!” he yelled, “I don’t know how, but that, that crazy sycophant is stuck inside my head!”

         Said sycophant bristled, snapping again through his mouth, “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here!”

         There was a quiet gasp from the creature resembling the fallen angel, sharing a look with her lupine companion, whispering to each other. In front of him, Henry’s eyes had narrowed, fitting the pieces together in his head before nodding, “I see. I know this isn’t easy, but try to calm down and talk to me one on one, none of this yelling over one another. Its not going to help.”

         He’s . . . talking to him like a normal person. Wasn’t treating him like some kind of nutjob in need of soothing words. It was . . . grounding. Helped him feel like he was hanging by a thread a little less than before.

         You always were a good listener.

         “What is happening . . . exactly?” the other Henry asked, looking more and more lost.

          The man in front of him finally glanced the other’s way, frowning a little before replying, “I . . . am not sure how it happened, but . . . from the sound of it, it seems like your Sammy and ours have . . . merged. Somehow.”

         “. . . what?”

          “Something to do with the ink of our world, I bet,” the ‘angel’ spoke up, frowning, “Guess we brought over more than we thought . . .”

          The Henry that Sammy knew best gawked at her, eyes widening a considerable degree. Then, with a rush of dawning realization and equal horror, he looked back at Sammy, somehow even more worried than before, “Sammy, just hang in there! There’s, uh, there’s got be something we can do to fix this! A-a spell, an incantation maybe, ah, I don’t know, Joey’d know better than me about this stuff!”

          The Henry kneeling in front of him gave a slight roll of his eyes before saying, “He’s not dying. Although, I imagine it’s a bit uncomfortable, huh?”

          He addressed that last part to him, and Sammy is certain that the look he gave the man spoke for both himself and his resident hitchhiker.

          “You should still be a little careful, though,” Al put in, “The ‘prophet’ was never exactly . . . friendly with us.”

           There’s a flare of upset inside him, a sting of bitterness and betrayal, he’d worn that title for so long and it all was for nothing-!

           “Don’t call me that,” his mouth snapped, angry. There’s a bit of silence then, as they all looked at him.

           “Al, I don’t think we have to worry like back then,” Henry told her before switching his attention back to Sammy, “This is a different place, Sammy. And, so far, its . . . been a better place.”

           A better place . . .

          It struck Sammy like lightening then, eyes snapping between the two Henrys, because there are two Henrys, and there had been Bendy, and he felt like such an idiot, but all of that could only mean-

         “We . . . we’re back,” he mumbled, scarcely able to believe that he’d only just realized that.

         “Yeah,” the man in front of him said, nodding, a soft smile on his face, “We are.”

          He doesn’t get to say more, as there’s a sudden scuffle by the door, a commotion that draws all their eyes.

         “Ah, sorry, excuse me!” another voice spoke up as a man scooted his way inside the room, a man that was familiar because you don’t forget the man you’ve worked for, for so many years.

          Stumbling all the way inside, Joey Drew straightened, stiffening a little when the grayscale Henry rose to his feet. But then he saw Sammy, face melting into one of relief and joy, when it just as quickly stiffened in shock as the man’s eyes hover to the left side of his face.

          Why does everyone look at him like that?

           But then Joey seemed to shake off whatever was troubling him, jumping a little with that same sort of energy he could never seem to contain no matter how old he got, “Ah, Sammy, you’re awake! Thank goodness, I thought, well, never mind what I thought, you’re awake!”

           He sounded genuinely happy, relieved. To some extent . . . Sammy is too. Just knowing he was back . . . it was good.

           But . . . but, there was just a tiny kernel of anger smoldering steady in his heart as well. Because Joey was the whole reason any of this had happened too. But then, he’s always the reason. Always . . .

          Henry, his Henry, grabbed Joey by the shoulder and quickly whispered to him, no doubt telling him what was going on. Like he wasn’t there, again . . .

           Joey’s eyes widened a little, looking clearly startled, but he nodded and began to tap a knuckle against his lips, already in thought, “Two souls, in the same body? Hm, that might be a bit tricky . . .”

          He caught sight of Sammy staring, and quickly straightened, putting on a happy face, he always put on a happy face even when he had no right to be happy, “Not to worry, I’m sure I can think of something! Never fear, Sammy, this’ll all turn out okay, I promise!”

           Beside him, the Henry who’d followed him from the other side rolled his eyes and crossed his arms.

           Joey looked at him a little nervously, but boldly pressed on, “Erm, anyway, how are you feeling, Sammy?”

           He’s not entirely sure what it is about that question, but it just . . . rubbed Sammy the wrong way. How can he ask that after everything, everything that had happened?! Like this was one of his normal mess-ups?! Things had gone wrong, and people had been hurt, he’d been hurt, everyone always got hurt when Drew was invovled!

          “How am I feeling?” he echoed, that kernel blossoming into something stronger, “Joey, I’ve just seen a place that’s as close to hell as can be, I’ve been chased by monsters, and I have a fucking crazy person stuck in my head! HOW DO YOU THINK I FEEL!”

           “Well, when you put it like that-,”

           “Is this just a game to you?!”

           Playing with peoples lives . . .

           “Do you think another magic spell is just going to fix everything?! Well, it’s not!” he was clambering to his feet now, and this time there’s no unsteadiness, just a single-minded ferocity fueling everything he’s doing.

           Stomping them down when they get in the way . . .

           “Sammy, I think you should calm down,” his Henry said, holding up his hands, concerned.

           “No, I’m not going to just ‘calm down’! I’m TIRED of him always acting like it’s never a big deal when it IS!” Sammy shouted, feeling angry, so angry, all of it directed at Joey, it’s always Joey, he’s responsible for everything, I lost EVERYTHING because of him!

            He was stepping forward now, one hand pointed at Joey’s increasingly distraught face, closing the distance between them quickly, “So just when the hell are you going to take responsibility for all of this, huh?”

            “I-,”

           “Oh wait, you’re not going to! You NEVER DO!” he’s still angry, furious, but his words are being colored by something else, something he scarcely noticed in the midst of his rage, “You never take any responsibility for the shit you pull!”

           “Sammy-!” his Henry started, utterly bewildered and highly concerned. Behind him, the other one’s arms dropped, eyes narrowing, suspicious . . .

           “But that’s fine,” Sammy’s voice suddenly dropped to something softer, more chilled, but the edge was still very much there, an edge that would be given life, because this man needed to pay, he needed to pay, he needed to PAY-! “I’ll make sure you do.”

           Nearby, Al gave a sudden, sharp cry, “Henry-!”

           And its only then that Sammy realized something was wrong, but it came a split second too late as the fingers of his obscured opposite hand tighten around the handle of the letter opener he hadn’t even noticed he’d picked up, before his body, a body he no longer controlled, lunged forward and swung the bladed edge right at Joey’s startled face.

           Its only the strong arm grabbing him by the waist that stopped him mid-lunge, preventing the blade from fully reaching its target. As it stood, though, the tip still scored across the underside of Joey’s eye and the bridge of his nose, a thin ribbon of blood following the edge of the knife even as he pulled it away. Joey jerked back with a cry, hand going up to cover his face as Henry pulled him back, looking startled and very pale, staring at him in unconcealed horror.

           Sammy himself is . . . shocked. Too shocked to do anything, even as the madman using his body like a tool lunged again, fighting even as the other Henry grabbed the wrist wielding the blade, holding him back. Leveling a glare so hot it felt like his left eye was on fire, his counterpart hissed in a tone filled with undisguised hatred, “You lied to us. You LIED TO US!”

           Sammy doesn’t know why, but those words seemed to cut Joey deeper than any blade could.

           “Al, Tom, get them out of here,” a rough voice spoke over his shoulder, voice urgent, harried, “Now.”

           “But-!”

           “Now!”

            It’s a bit of a blur after that, Al and Tom all but pulling the two out and Henry sitting him down on a chair after divesting him of his impromptu blade. The spirit inside him fell quiet once Joey was out of sight, leaving his body shaking, heart hammering, but even when the madman’s grip fell loose and Sammy could take control again, all he could do was stare at his hands in shock. Inside, there are little spikes of other emotions; lingering rage, hate, malice, resentment. Oh sure, he’s felt those before . . .

           But never enough to do that. Never enough to try to . . . to . . .

           Another chair is pulled up in front of him, and the Henry he had come to know in that hellish studio took a seat, giving him a sympathetic glance. He’s not sure who it’s for, considering he’s not the only one in this body now . . .

           “Sammy?” Henry eventually asked, voice low, “You there?”

            Sammy finally glanced up, opening his mouth to reply, to say ‘of course’ . . . but its like his brain is stuck in spiral, a broken record displaying the exact same imagine in his mind over and over again; Joey’s face as the knife hit home, the sensation of the sharpened tip digging through flesh, the looks of horror on the others as they stared at him in fear- . . .

            So instead of, ‘of course’, what comes out instead was, “I didn’t . . . I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t know that bastard had taken control, I didn’t know that I was-!”

            Henry’s hand on his knee stopped him, the man quietly replying with a steady and firm, “I know. And I know this is difficult, and I know this is scary. But I’ll be frank, I think this whole merge could have been a lot worse for the both of you. And it still seems like you have your head.”

           Sammy scoffed, frowning, “Maybe I do, but that doesn’t mean anything if this asshole decides to start stabbing people.”

           “I know,” Henry levelled him with a meaningful look, “Which is why I need to talk to him.”

           Sammy’s eyes widened, suddenly very scared of the possibility of his rampant other hurting everybody else. Inside, there was a flicker of irritation, the only one I want to hurt is Joey.

           “Oh, fuck off,” Sammy hissed under his breath, but he’s still too shaken for it to have much heat.

           “Can you two . . . talk to each other?” Henry asked, having observed it.

           “I don’t . . . I don’t really know what any of this is, i-its like, on one hand I think they’re my thoughts, and then they’re not my thoughts, I’m feeling things I shouldn’t be feeling, remembering things I shouldn’t be remembering, its just-!” Sammy gave up with a defeated sigh, pressing his hands against his face.

            “Right . . .” the other murmured. Then, “Is it possible for him to come out?”

            “Is that a good idea?” Sammy asked almost rhetorically, frowning.

            “I’m not horribly worried.”

             “Hmph,” Sammy grumbled, sitting upright again. Its then he noticed Henry’s gaze pass over his left eye again, and he patted it self-consciously, “So just why does everyone keep doing that? Is something on my damn face?”

             “Not quite,” the man said. He glanced around, then reached out and plucked a reflective piece of decorative glass off the desk, having it over to Sammy.

              Puzzled, and just a little concerned, he took it and held it up, gazing into the flat side of the object to see what everyone had been staring at. He can see his face clearly, and nothing seemed wrong at first . . . until he looked at his left eye.

              The whites of them are . . . much darker than a normal person’s should be, damn near black, but the iris itself shone a bright gold, like a burnished lamplight.

              It’s not normal. It’s not human.

              But before he can speak, a sudden, choked feeling gripped him, the spirit that had been silent raising out of its stupor, hand moving without his say-so to touch the reflective glass.

              “I-its . . . it’s my face . . .” he murmured, and the emotions that swell up are too turbulent for Sammy to navigate.

              “Sammy?”

             “I . . . almost forgot what my face looked like until you showed up. And now its . . . here . . . but its not mine . . .” a sad, quiet misery rose up then, a painful, smothering sort, and Sammy’s blindsided by memories of wandering in the darkness, dreaming of this moment. There are . . . so many . . . h-how long had this been going on for?

             A hand gently pressed the glass down, breaking that sad spiral, and Henry’s eyes were locked onto his face, inquiring quietly, “Sam? That you?”

             The man that had taken up residence in Sammy’s soul, ‘Sam’ now, stared at Henry, blinking slowly. Trying again, the man said, “Do you remember me?”

             “I . . .” taking a smoke break, occasionally trading a joke, sometimes he’d even listen to some of the music he wrote, giving encouragement in a place where precious little of it existed, “Do. Henry.”

             The man’s face lit up, sitting forward with a little more eagerness, looking so very hopeful, “You do? The studio, your life, all of it?”

            Showing him the facial chart of Bendy, honest to god make him laugh for the first time in what felt like days.

             “I . . . I think so . . .”

            An awkward goodbye as the man packed his bags, wishing him well only to later turn to envy that the man got out when he did.

            “You left . . .” Sam blinked, looking at the gray, unnatural coloring of Henry’s skin, “But you came back? Why did you-?”

            Sam’s gaze dropped, a sudden gasp escaping his lips, and suddenly the memories took a darker turn; a man sitting tied, helpless, as he called upon a monster to come devour him, pleading with him to wake up, to remember-!

            “You came back to the studio. I attacked you, I-I almost-!”

             Hands appeared on his shoulders, shaking him out of it, “Sam, stop. I’m not upset about that.”

            Shouldn’t you be? Sammy wanted to say, a little alarmed.

            For once, the spirit agreed with him, “You should be.”

             “I don’t really blame anyone in the studio for what they do. Not anymore. There’s only one person I blame now,” Henry’s voice handed, and Sammy needed no guesses as to who that was.

             “Joey,” Sam’s voice filled with venom, and he fixed his gaze on Henry, suddenly accusatory, “You hate him too, so why did you stop me?! He deserves it! He deserves worse!”

             Henry returned his gaze steadily, but there is a dark look inside them, his voice falling into a rough and icy timber, “He does. And god knows how many times I’ve wanted to do the same.”

             He said it with absolute conviction, and if there was ever any doubt to the level of Henry’s hatred for the man, Sammy could lay those to rest.

             “So why did you-?!”

            “Because,” Henry cut Sam off, taking a deep breath before continuing, “Because the man we want . . . isn’t here. You’ve probably noticed, but there’s currently clones of people running around this place.”

             Sam looked away, but had to admit he was right, “I have. And I . . . I think I know why, from . . . from the other . . . Sammy.”

            Henry only nodded, accepting that, “Then you know that this Joey isn’t the one responsible for what happened to us.”

           “But he’s still doing things! Dark magic, spells, he’s made another DEMON!” shaking now, Sam slumped into his seat, “What if what happened there happens here? What if the ink floods the halls again, what if it starts speaking again-?!”

            Henry squeezed his shoulders, distracting him from his panic, “Hey, calm down. I think you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself. Listen, I’ve . . . talked to that one. Seems like a pretty swell guy, exactly what you’d expect a toon to be.”

            “You spoke to it?! Henry, that’s-!”

            “Him. And . . . I really don’t believe you have anything to be afraid of, Sam,” Henry gave him a serious, but honest look, “Nothing at all.”

            Bendy’s not a monster. He’s annoying, but he’s not a monster. Not like . . . that thing you worshipped.

            The other’s head tilted, as if he was actually listening to Sammy. And, to drive his point home, he made his thoughts linger on memories; the toon’s attitude, his obnoxious pranks, the admittedly generous mercy when things were particularly stressful . . .

            The hammering of their shared heart slowed, but the other was still anxious, still disbelieving . . .

             “I don’t know . . .” he mumbled.

             “Well, we can take it slow. The point of this conversation is to get you to agree to not stab anybody in the immediate future,” Henry said, his tone softening to something lighter, smiling slightly.

             A bit of resentment coiled in Sammy; he still wasn’t exactly over having his body used to hurt someone he ca- . . . was lukewarm too. Tepid. The point was, he was still a bit angry over that.

             So, to his immense surprise, he felt the tiniest trickle of guilt filter in over the anger in response. Maybe not necessarily for trying to hurt Joey, but . . . at least for using him. He guessed that was a start to ‘not completely fucking insane’.

             Outwardly, the other was hesitating, thinking back to too many instances of misplaced trust, of being burned, and desperately not wanting to go through that again . . .

             Taking a shaky breath, the man asked, “Do you promise that its different here? Do you promise that we won’t regret this?”

             With a start, Sammy realized that the spirit was directing that question inward. He was . . . asking him. Why was he asking him?

            “You know this place, you know these people . . .” Sam answered, and Henry snapped his mouth shut, seeming to realize that this conversation wasn’t his at all, “And I’ll know if you lie.”

            Sammy felt a prickle of irritation. How many fucking memories do you need before you believe it?

            “You’ve seen my memories . . . is it really so hard to understand why this . . . makes me nervous?”

            That gave Sammy pause, because yes, he had seen the other’s memories, and . . . yes . . . he could understand why.

            Its different here. Its . . . better, here. The only thing you have to be afraid of is Wally’s singing.

             The other huffed, what could have been a laugh ultimately falling short in light of, well . . . everything. But it seemed to at least encourage the man to stop doubting them and also not stab anyone.

             “. . . alright. But I don’t plan on going anywhere near either of them,” Sam said, making it clear there was no bending on that point.

            Henry accepted it, “That’s fair, I think. Until we figure out what to do about this, and until everything settles down again. But we can take it slow. We have the time here.”

            “I . . . hope you’re right, Henry,” Sam mumbled, “I . . . really do.”

            Henry suddenly leaned forward, looking interested, “So . . . you can see each other’s memories?”

            “We can . . . sort of . . . I don’t . . . we, don’t really have control over it,” Sam said. Its definitely strange, to be so . . . privy to someone else’s whole life. Granted, much of it was the same, but some of it . . . well, some of it was very, crucially different.

             A sister . . .

            Sam choked suddenly, and ache that swelled inside his heart hurt so badly it felt like he’d been shot.

           “A sister . . . I had a sister . . .” the other murmured, and thinking about her made Sam think about everything else before he’d made the terrible mistake of working for Joey Drew, everything he had had, and everything he had lost.

            And, caught up as he is in the other’s sorrow, Sammy barely noticed when their cheeks began to grow wet.

           “Henry . . .” the man asked through a lump in their throat, “Why did this happen to us?”

           The man squeezed his shoulder again comfortingly, but doesn’t answer. Maybe there is no answer to give.

           There certainly isn’t one that Sammy could see. And maybe its spurred by the fact that he’s sharing in emotions he didn’t really have a choice but to endure, or maybe it’s just the knowledge that it was that fucking bad, but . . . he’s a little pissed off and a little bitter and just a little sad that there doesn’t seem to be one.

_

           Bendy wandered the halls after he found Susie, Alice, and Boris. They must have assumed he would follow. Welp, they were wrong.

           He seriously doubted Sammy wanted to see him again.

           A monster . . . that’s what he called him alright. It stung a little bit . . . well, it stung a moderate amount.

           . . . okay . . . it stung a lot . . .

          But how can Bendy be mad, when he knew exactly what it is that Sammy saw when he looked at him? He saw that thing himself, just a few weeks ago, a walkin’ nightmare with a wicked grin. And he’d had the luxury of wakin’ up. Sammy . . . Sammy hadn’t been so lucky.

           He wondered . . . he wondered how many of his wounds had been because that thing, because of . . .

           Bendy swallowed, forcing down the lump in his throat as he thought about what to do to . . . take his mind off things. Drawing, sorting papers, anything . . .

           His foot knocked against something on the ground, stirring him from his thoughts. Looking down, he saw a little plush toy of himself sitting forlorn on the ground, apparently having been abandoned there by . . . somebody. One of the cleanin’ crew, maybe.

          Leaning down, Bendy picked it up and squeezed, the toy squeaking in his hand.

          “Bet nobody’s ever called you a monster . . .” he said to it, feeling bitter and sad.

          The toy doesn’t answer, of course. So, not really feeling up to finding a place for it, Bendy tossed it over his shoulder and began to walk away. He’d deal with it later.

          He waked three feet before something soft bounced off the back of his head, startling him. Whirling around, he found only an empty hallway . . . and the toy he’d just tossed sitting by his feet.

          "Uh . . .” feeling a little creeped out, Bendy picked it up and said, “Sure hope Joey hasn’t made the place haunted . . .”

          Giving the hall a last, bothered look, Bendy turned back around and made to walk.

          To come face-to-face with a wide white grin on an eyeless face, and Bendy’s voice failed him completely as the doll fell out of his suddenly quaking hand.

         “Long time no see, m̸̘̽̈́͂͝e!̶̒͛”̸̂͋̇

          Bendy doesn’t get the chance to scream. He doesn’t get the chance to do anything at all, for the backs of the creature’s claws slammed into his head, and there aren’t even any stars before everything goes black.

Chapter Text

         It’s the dull, persistent throbbing in his head that finally pulled Bendy out of sleep, thoughts fuzzy and disoriented as his eyes groggily blinked open. Felt like a real bad hang-over . . . but he was pretty sure he hadn’t touched the colored ink in a while . . . so what . . . ?

          Memory resurfaced so fast it hit him like whiplash, and terror surged through Bendy’s core, snapping him into full and panicked wakefulness. Oh no, no, no no NO NO, it can’t be, it can’t-!

          Its knee-jerk and frantic impulse that spurred him to action, Bendy lurching forward, t-to move, to run, to do anything, only to be jerked to a sudden, painful halt. Alarmed, Bendy looked down, only to see that his entire upper torso was wrapped in thick, heavy ropes, tied back against a chair of some sort, so tight he could barely even move.

          Realizing the situation he was in now in full, he cried out for help, only for that cry to be muffled to near silence by the gag around his mouth, wriggling desperately, futilely.

         Please, PLEASE, somebody help me!

         There was a creak of wood, and suddenly the whole chair was tilted onto its two back legs, forcing Bendy’s gaze up. 

         Right into the face of the worst thing he could have possibly seen.

         “Rise and shine, sleepin’ beauty!” the monster that had haunted his nightmares and waking thoughts said with a twisted sort of chipperness, grinning down at him. It looked just like he remembered, because Bendy had never forgotten, just as horrible, just as wrong, just as terrifying, and why is it here, WHY IS IT HERE?!

          Bendy tried to scream, but its smothered behind the gag, struggling with renewed vigor as fear like he hadn’t felt since his nightmare coursed through his body, except its not just a nightmare is it, this is really happening, he can’t just wake up anymore, he can’t just wake up-!

         “Oh, quit squirmin’,” the beast masquerading as him said, letting go of the chair and allowing it to jostle back in place, “You ain’t gettin’ outta those ropes, and you know it.”

          Bendy doesn’t listen, not at all. A pure, almost primal terror had gripped him, ropes biting deep as he struggled like he’s never struggled with anything before, screaming despite the gag in the hopes that somebody, anybody, would hear him!

          That’s when a large, malformed hand grabbed him by the shoulder, claws as sharp as knives pricking his skin as the creature loomed over him, its smile edged by irritation as it hissed, “I don’t know if ya just didn’t hear me, but I’ll say it again, nice and slow; Stop. Squirming.”

          Its pain and terror that get him to obey, knowing that this thing could kill him easily, so easily, but he can’t control the way his body still quaked, breaths coming so fast it felt like he was on the verge of hyperventilating, ink dripping down his face, or maybe even tears, he honestly couldn’t tell.

          The creature shrugged, “Eh, good enough I guess.”

          It released him, a minor consolation, moving back to fiddle with something on a table nearby. There was a clunk of something heavy, a shft as papers were moved aside, a grumble from the thing so disturbingly similar to his own voice it upsetting.

          H-how did it even get here?! He had thought the portal was closed, he had thought this was over, so why was it here?!

          It hasn’t bothered to look his way, focused on whatever’s on the table, lit only by a candle flickering beside it. The shifting light puts into stark relief just how tall this creature is, looming over the table like a malevolent shadow, limbs long and oddly proportioned, ink dripping sporadically off its body like it was having trouble keeping its shape. Its disturbingly . . . bony, for a creature supposedly made of ink, which only accentuates how unnatural this beast is. The candle glow is barely strong enough to give much light to the room they are in, casting everything in mostly deep shadow, shadows that press so heavily on him it’s like they’re alive.

           W-where . . . where was he, exactly?

          The thing’s lack of attention on him did ease the pounding of his heart, if only marginally, and Bendy frantically began to look around for anything that would help him escape. He’s not sure what room this is, but the clutter within says somewhere in the basement. Metal pipes crisscross above his head, a particularly large one going right down the center of the room, one of the Ink Machine’s main channels.

          Far away, far from help . . .

          He could see a door too, just barely, if he craned his neck. Its shut, possibly locked, the only way out he could see. Its right there . . . but it seemed so far away too, such a horribly insurmountable distance to freedom that it leeched at his hope. Frantically, he looked for something else, anything else.

          It’s during this quick, panicky examination that Bendy noticed something else too. Right on the floor at his feet.

          Two circles the likes of which he’d seen Joey messing with are drawn on the ground in ink, symbols and lines woven together in complex patterns Bendy could never fully comprehend despite his own roots in things like this, though this is one he’s never seen before. The circles were interconnected like a venn diagram, candles flickering ominously along their shared perimeter and casting it in an ominous light. And there were . . . symbols drawn in them that . . . sent an uneasy shiver down his spine, an instinctive dread perhaps born from his own connections to these things.

          But it doesn’t fuel his dread quite as much as the fact that he is currently positioned at the center of one of them.

          Bendy swallowed, trying to pull his arms loose again in reactionary fear, oh god, what was this thing planning?!

          “Ah, whaddya think a my handiwork?”

          Bendy froze, eyes shooting up to the creature as it sauntered back to him. A book rested in one hand, and with a start, Bendy realized he recognized it; one of Joey’s books. The same that had started this whole mess to begin with.

          It waved a dismissive hand, “Pretty good for a first try, right? But I had time to kill, and I needed to get this juuuust right.”

          With a flick off its wrist, the thing flipped open the book in its hand, watching as the pages flitted by before finally coming to a rest, its smile unchanging, “Gotta say, they’re some real neat spells in here! Guess even for such a harmless lookin’ fella, the old man can’t keep away from the same hobbies, huh?”

          Bendy can only shiver beneath it’s eyeless stare, a chill sweeping up his back by the too-large smile that never seemed to waver. He had no idea what the thing was trying to say, what it wanted, and it wasn’t like he could say anything even if he wanted to.

          “Ah, but let me guess! You’re wonderin’ why yer here, ain’t ya?” it chortled, a sound that filled Bendy with dread.

          He flinched away and whimpered when it suddenly dropped to a knee, leaning so uncomfortably close it seemed to fill his entire vision with its awful grin, “You probably already figured this out just from lookin’ at my handsome mug, but I just so happen to be from the place where the rest a yer little house-guests came from. The Dancin’ Demon, Hollywood’s own Devil Darlin’, the one, the only, Bendy! Just like you.~”

          Bendy wanted to say no, they had nothing in common, they were not the same, they couldn’t be! But all he can do is choke behind the gag in his mouth, ineffectually shaking his head.

          “Ah, don’t be like that! I know you made off with the jackpot as far as circumstances go, but you and I have the same roots!” it crowed, pointedly fixing some kind of stare on him, “And I know you probably think yer so much better than me and all that jazz, thinkin’ ‘oh no, I’M the good one, I’m nothin’ like you!’ But the truth is we got the same demonic ink runnin’ in both of us, whether ya like it or not!”

          It leaned back just a little, and just that space made it feel like Bendy could breathe easier again, just a little. But what it said chilled him to the core, and it’s a battle inside his own mind to force himself to not believe it, they weren’t anything alike!

          The creature shrugged, nonchalant, “It is pretty strange, though, I’ll give ya that! For the two of us to have so much in common, and yet . . . have so much be so different. I mean, far as I can tell the old guy used the exact same ritual, exact same machine, exact same everythin’, and yet here it all turned out so . . . spiffy. It really ain’t fair, when ya think about it.”

          There was a shift in the creature’s tone then, so very small it was barely noticeable, and if all of Bendy’s attention weren’t currently hyper-focused on it, he may have missed the change. It sounded disturbingly close to bitterness, to something . . . human.

          It’s gone in a blink, the demonic visage hovering over him glancing down at him with a look that sent a thrill of fear down Bendy’s spine, “But that’s okay! If there’s anythin’ my creator taught me, it’s that anythin’ is possible! And I have ways a gettin’ what I want.”

          Bendy had no idea what such a creature could possibly want, not one at all. But he had a horrible suspicion that it was going to tell him, or worse, show him, very soon.

          He wriggled in his bonds again, words muffled, desperately wishing that someone would find him, hating this helpless feeling, terrified of whatever was to come.

          The sudden sensation of a claw poking at his cheek made Bendy freeze, wide eyes glancing frantically down but not daring to move his head because he could feel how sharp it was just from that minute pressure alone.

           The creature had lowered its head so their gaze was level with Bendy’s own, and he can feel the weight of that gaze even though there were no eyes to be seen, “I can see you gotta a lot you wanna say, so just for the sake a bein’ a good sport, I’ll throw ya a bone here. Just no screamin’! Or else I’ll have to hurt ya!”

           It dragged the claw down, cutting cloth and skin alike, forcing out a cry of pain as his cheek burned. But the gag was gone, leaving his mouth free.

           Shivering still, Bendy looked back at the creature, for a second almost too scared to say anything at all. B-but . . . but this might be his only chance. If this thing could talk, m-maybe . . . maybe it could be reasonable . . .

           It’s the only shot he’s got.

          So, with what felt like a herculean amount of effort just to clear his throat and keep his voice from shaking too much, Bendy finally managed to eke out, “W-wh . . . w-why are you doin’ this? H-how’d you even-?”

         “Get here? With the others, obviously!” it said, gesturing up to the ceiling, “You all were so busy focusin’ on them nobody noticed when I slipped away through the cracks! Gotta remember to thank Henry for bein’ such a good distraction later! As for why I’m doin’ this . . .”

           It leaned down again, Bendy tensing when it did, leering, “Ain’t it obvious? Not a whole lot turned out . . . right, on my side of reality. I aim to fix that.”

           “F-fix?” Bendy echoed, swallowing nervously. His eyes glanced at the book in the beast’s hand, taking a chance, “D-do you just wanna be on-model, o-or somethin’? Because . . . b-because you don’t gotta do this to get that! L-Listen, when I was created, I came out a bit . . . wrong too, but Joey fixed me. M-maybe . . . maybe he could fix you, too?”

           The creature stared at him, and it’s smile does not change.

           But a shadow had entered its grin. . . something dark that wasn’t there before, and Bendy thinks he might have just said the wrong thing.

           All of a sudden, one of its massive hands reached around and grabbed the back of the chair, the movement so sudden and fast Bendy can’t help but cry out in fear, half-expecting it to hurt him. Then, he was being lifted up, chair swinging in the thing’s grip as it hoisted him up into the air and swung him over to the only table in the room.

           The creature thrust him harshly against it, Bendy’s chest slamming into the edge with hard and painful thud, enough to knock the air right out of his lungs. Wheezing now, chest aching and sore, it’s a struggle for Bendy to open his eyes and see what it is the creature wanted him to see.

           The single candle only afforded a small glimmer of light here . . . but even with just that paltry glow, Bendy can see the numerous pictures strewn about on the table alongside papers and scattered symbols. Pictures . . . o-of himself and the people who worked here. Some were professional ones, the kind hung up on the walls for people to peruse at their leisure; opening day, award ceremonies, parties . . .

           But there were other ones. More . . . more personal ones, ones he knew for a fact he kept sheltered outside of the public eye. Like the celebrations of the toons ‘birthdays’, funny candids of people, that time Henry managed to sneak a picture of Bendy and Joey at their piano together, laughing over some silly joke . . .

          Bendy shook his head, not understanding, not even knowing how and when this thing had gotten its claws on these photos, “I-I . . . I-I don’t-,”

          “Nice pictures ya got in this place. A nice little romp down memory lane whenever want, huh? In my studio, we ain’t got no pictures. No awards, no parties, and there sure as hell weren’t no birthdays, either. Abominations like me don’t get birthdays. Sides, everyone was too miserable to throw a party, anyway,” it said, like that was clarification, voice so light and nonchalant you’d think it were talkin’ about the weather.

           But it’s grip on the chair was tightening, because Bendy could hear the wood give an ominous creak, and realized that it might not be as calm as it appeared.

          “But they ain’t miserable here, huh? Sounds pretty sappy, but it’s a picture perfect happy endin’ on this side of the mirror,” it carried on, in a way that made Bendy even more nervous than before, “Every day’s just one more adventure, ain’t it? And you get to be the star of it all! All the fame, all the fortune, all the respect and all a the love you could possibly want!”

           There was a laugh in its voice, but it was far from happy, far from light. It sent a chill down his spine just to hear it.

           “And you-you didn’t even have to work for it! No, you just popped into existence and everyone was fine with it! Like you weren’t some freak a nature, like you actually belonged here! And yet . . . you have the gall to say that you came out ‘wrong’.”

           The creaking gave way to the sound of wood beginning to splinter, and Bendy jerked his head forward out of reflex, fear spurring his words, “L-look, I-I’m sorry, but I don’t-!”

           “SHUT UP!”

           The chair he was tied to was suddenly spun around before just as suddenly being slammed back against the table, and Bendy was forced to stare into that eyeless face as it was thrust into his own, its grin alight with anger as more claws press to the underside of his chin, “You don’t know anythin’! NOTHING! But how could ya, huh? You, who got everythin’ handed to him on a silver fuckin’ platter! But you think you were wrong?!”

           Bendy couldn’t say anything even if he wanted to. Terror has constricted his throat closed, acutely aware of the claws scraping against his chin, so close to puncturing-!

           “I’ll tell ya what ‘wrong’ is, pal! ‘Wrong’ is bein treated like monster even before ya knew what bein’ a monster was! ‘Wrong’ is gettin’ kicked around and spit on and locked up in some closet cause no one wants to even LOOK at you! ‘Wrong’ is bein’ told you were a mistake from the beginnin’, and a disappointment to the end, and nothin’ you do, nothin’ you try to say, ever makes a difference in anyone’s eyes because I was JUST Ŵ̷̑͘RO̸N̵͗͑̄͘͝G̸̽̓͘͠!!”̵̛̓̈́̊̑

            It’s voice is nearly unintelligible behind the unnatural snarl that had emerged in it’s rage, a rage so potent its choking. That pressure against his skin increased, and Bendy winced and whimpered when he felt those claws pierce through, white hot pinpricks of pain he couldn’t get away from no matter he did, and oh no, o-oh god, this thing was going to kill him, h-he was going to die, he was going to die!

            And then the pressure was gone, that terrible, looming, angry presence pulling back. It took him several moments before he was brave enough to open his eyes, his whole body quaking, to see that the creature had indeed moved some inches back, staring down now with an almost . . . placid expression.

            Bendy thought that that should probably scare him even more.

            “But it’s fine,” it said, a deceptive air of calmness in its tone that was a far cry from moments ago, “Cause no matter what you think, nobody here thinks yer ‘wrong’, do they? No. They adore you.”

            It leaned down just a little, and Bendy leaned back, shaking, “W-what are you tryin’ to get at? L-look, I’m sorry about what I said, I-I get the upset! Bein’ called a monster, it ain’t fun! B-but, nobody here’s done anythin’ to you!”

            He had no idea if appealing to this thing’s apparent sore spot will do anything, but he had to do something, because he was tied to a chair at this thing’s mercy and there was precious little else he could do. And no matter how scared he is, he can’t . . . he can’t let it just go and blame the people here. He can’t let it hurt them!

           “No. They haven’t,” the creature surprisingly seemed to agree, going as far as to nod, “And they won’t! Because soon, there won’t be anythin’ ‘wrong’ at all!”

           “Wha-?” Bendy was cut off when the chair is picked up again, jostling uncomfortably against his bindings until it was placed back down again in the center of the circle on the floor. The creature’s grin sticks out of the shadows, staring down at him from on high.

           “This world’s gonna get to keep havin’ its happy endin’. I promise. They’ll just be a slight . . . tweak to it,” its words were ominous as it held up the book, giving it a perusing glance as it said, “Ya see . . . I’m tired a bein’ the monster in everyone else’s scary stories. And what you got here, well . . . can’t say I’m not jealous.”

           It leaned down, closer, its grin now beaming with a wicked excitement, “And I’d say, after all this time . . . it’s my turn to be adored. So I think I’m gonna take over this biz, and, buddy . . . you got just the form I need to do it. So I’ll be takin’ that, too.”

            Bendy’s eyes widened, horror creeping up his spine, as the creature uttered it’s last, damning words, “And like I said, I learned from the best. And to get what we want, we gotta be prepared to make a few . . . sacrifices. So I’ll be takin’ that body, but your mind? Well . . . who needs that?

          Bendy’s dread and fear intensified tenfold as it’s words truly sunk in, the pieces coming together to form one dark and scary picture; this thing was going to possess him. Worse than possess him. And nobody would know, nobody would think anythin’ was wrong, that he’d be gone, and he was struggling again before he even realized he was doing it, terror gripping him to his core as he thrashed from left to right, “N-no, no, NO, you can’t do that, you can’t, you CAN’T-!”

          “Already puttin’ the picture together, eh? Guess you ain’t as stupid as you look!” the creature said, it’s obvious delight a perversion of anything Bendy himself would have found funny, “Hey, it’ll all be over in a flash! You won’t even feel a thing! At least I think you won’t, but this is my first time usin’ this hokey magic, so who knows?”

           Desperately, Bendy turned to the door and screamed, “HENRY! JOEY!! HELP ME, SOMEBODY, PLEASE HE-!”

           A huge hand gripped him by the mouth, silencing his screams to barely understood muffles, squeezing so tight he thought his teeth would crack.

          “I thought I told ya no screamin’. But I guess its not like anybody’s gonna hear ya. By now, they’re probably all busy with poor little Sammy,” the creature looked up as if in thought, before shrugging, “Ah, but I guess we have been draggin’ this on for a bit, huh?” the creature leered, grin a horrible crescent flash in the dark, “It’s about time we got this show on the road! We only got so much time, after all, and me, personally . . . I can’t wait to be you for a change.”

           The only thing Bendy could do was stare, his pleas silenced, going unheard, unable to do anything to stop this.

            And the creature knew it, “Well . . . let’s get started!~”

_
            Joey sat in silence, one hand pressed to his freshly bandaged face, spirits lower than they had been in . . . oh, quite a while.

           Henry sat beside him, casting him worried glances every now and then when he wasn’t staring at the door down the hall. Susie, Alice, and Boris had joined them not that long ago, the woman now pacing fretfully back and forth after being denied entry by Al and Tom, who were standing sentinel nearby. Alice and Boris sat on his other side, heads low and anxious. Bendy had not returned with them, which worried him. Henry had told them what had happened when they’d first found him . . . the poor devil would be taking that hard.

           His wound stung, a rather painful reminder of what had happened. It hadn’t stung as much as Sammy’s words though. And two souls or not, one of them had most assuredly meant them.

           A liar . . . seemed to be the word of the day lately.

          Henry, bless his heart, had tried to tell him it was alright, that Sammy was just confused right now. So had the others, when they had learned of what had happened. But he . . . had some trouble believing it. Because how could so many believe such horrible things about him unless . . . unless some of it was true?

           It was . . . rather a really unpleasant train of thought. But it was all his mind seemed capable of focusing on.

          “They’ve . . . been in there for a while,” Alice mumbled softly, wringing her hands together worriedly, breaking the loaded silence that had befallen them.

          “Are we sure they’re okay?” Boris asked again, ears flat against his head.

          “There hasn’t been any yelling or crashing,” Al replied, glancing at the door, “So I say things are going rather well in there, actually.”

           Tom grunted, arms crossed as he leaned back against the wall. Still, an ear was always angled towards the door they guarded, far more alert than he let on.

           “And its really true? That they’re . . . merged?” Susie asked quietly. She’d been having a hard time coming to grips with that, more so because she feared for Sammy’s mental well-being if it were true. A not . . . entirely baseless concern.

           “It seems so,” Al told her, shrugging, “The ink in our world does . . . a lot of strange things. It wouldn’t surprise me if it affected both of them like that, since they’re . . . sort of the same person.”

           “Will he . . . they, be alright?” Alice asked, fidgeting still.

           “I . . . don’t know,” Al responded honestly, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. But if anyone can calm the prophet down, Henry can.”

           “. . . the prophet?” Susie inquired, staring at her.

           “A title our Sammy used. He . . . used to lead the Lost Ones in our world, and believed the Ink Demon was some sort of god capable of freeing them. He wasn’t . . . overly aggressive most of the time. But we still steered clear of each other,” Al explained. Tom growled lowly, but otherwise didn’t make much comment.

           Looks were exchanged, most of them disbelieving. Even if it was a different world, it was hard to imagine the prideful Sammy Lawrence worshipping anything, let alone Bendy. But then again . . . it was a different world, and if the Henry and Sammy of that world were both already so different from the people they knew here . . .

          Then . . . it might not be so impossible that he was, too . . .

          “Is there any way to undo it, Joey?”

          The man looked up, so deep in thought it genuinely startled him a little when he was addressed. Susie, nay, everyone was looking his way, and he guessed he should have been prepared for that since he was usually the one most people went to for problems like this.

          Especially since he . . . was usually the one to start them.

          “Um . . .” he said, straightening a little as he thought about a solution. Two souls in the same body was not something he had dealt with before, but . . . he does have some experience with soul-related things, “I . . . might be able to find something . . . but it’ll take some time. Its all a rather . . . delicate situation.”

           And, frankly, I’m not even sure if I should be messing with those types of things anymore . . .

           Its been a persistent thought ever since this whole mess had started, but it had grown progressively louder and louder the worse the situation had grown. He’s . . . never felt so before, but . . . now, he’s genuinely afraid of making things worse. For everybody.

           And they could all do without ‘worse’, that was for sure.

           Something nudged his shoulder, and he looked to his right to see Henry giving him a frown, “Joey, stop beating yourself up over this. It wasn’t your fault.”

          Joey looked at his feet, pursing his lips, not able to muster up any words in response. Which told the gathered audience enough.

         “Sammy’s . . . probably just really confused right now,” Susie said, though her eyes strayed to the door, worry gleaming inside them, “If there really is two of him stuck in the same head . . . oh, I wish I could talk to him . . .”

          “Can’t we see him? Even for just a few minutes?” Alice asked, pleadingly.

          “That could be dangerous,” Al said, nodding her head in Joey’s direction pointedly, “It’d be better for everyone if we let them come out when they’re ready.”

          “How, um . . . how much longer could that be?” Boris asked her, rubbing a hand over the back of his other one.

           Al only shrugged, and another restless, tense silence ensued.

           It felt like inexorable ages until they heard the tell-tale click of a door, and all of them were on their feet instantly. Susie, Alice, and Boris had already started moving forward until Tom snuffed at them warningly, Al holding up her hand, both their eyes on the door. Joey swallowed nervously, shimmying just a little behind Henry. If . . . if things weren’t so good, he didn’t want to agitate Sammy by being there. Maybe . . . maybe he should just leave . . .

           Everyone held their breath when they saw Henry’s counterpart step out, looking a little drained, but not in peril. He held up a hand to his two companions, who looked at each other before dropping their wary stances.

           There was a moment where the man’s onyx eyes passed over him, almost scrutinizing, and Joey flinched from its intensity. It didn’t seem . . . accusing . . . but it was honestly very hard to tell what the other was ever thinking.

           Then they moved on, the man turning his attention to the other side of the door, stepping aside and giving a small, but fairly encouraging smile. Joey felt hope stir in his heart, but anxiety is still very present as another shape finally stepped outside.

            Sammy looked . . . well, not great. His lips are turned down into a slight frown, which wouldn’t be unusual if not for the fact that it appeared to be born from . . . an almost strange sort of timidity, rather than annoyance or anger. He had his head turned down and away, but Joey could still see the dark, swollen rings under his eyes, like he’d been . . .

           . . . oh. Well, now he felt even worse . . .

          Ahead of him, Susie took a step forward, staring at the man searchingly, voice almost hesitant, “Sammy?”

          The man’s visible eye narrowed just a little . . . then, he sighed and finally looked up, “Hey, Susie . . .”

          Sammy only flinched a little at the gasps he received, the dark sclera and glowing iris of his left eye still just a little alarming to behold. Joey wondered if it was an aftereffect of the merge, or a symptom of something deeper . . . he hesitated to speculate what. And perhaps more importantly, how deep did this merge run? It was their Sammy speaking right now, but . . . was the other one aware of it too?

           The man shifted from foot to foot, clearly bothered by their stares, and Joey felt bad for that, he really did. But . . . if he spoke up, would that help? Or would it make things worse?

          “Well, don’t all talk at once . . .” Sammy muttered, scowling down at his feet.

           There’s a second of silence, one that seemed so thick and uncomfortable it was like a muggy veil had settled over the hall . . . until its abruptly broken by the sound of a soft sniffle.

           Everyone’s eyes shot to Susie. The woman’s shoulders were shaking, her eyes welling with tears, alarming everyone. Even Sammy’s eyes widened at the sight, “Susie-?”

          Whatever he was going to say, he doesn’t finish, because that was when the teary-eyed actress suddenly sprinted forward and threw her arms around his shoulders. Sammy stumbled just a bit, obviously not expecting it and looking startled, but before he can speak, Susie’s trembling voice beat him to it, “I-I’m . . . I’m so glad you’re awake.”

          Seeing them embrace seemed to break some kind of barrier, because then Alice and Boris were running forward too, the angel wrapping her arms around the man’s waist with tears in her eyes as the wolf grabbed at his shoulders, chin resting on top of his head and whining loudly.

           In an ordinary situation, this would have been a colossal ‘no’ on Sammy’s part, and a big mistake on everyone else’s. Joey half expected him to turn it away even now, for he can see the man reflexively cringe a little, taken off guard and well outside his comfort zone.

          So it really quite says something about the things Sammy’s gone through and the state he’s in, when slowly that expression of discomfort softened into something else, shoulders sagging as the tension bled away. Then, against all impossible odds . . . the man slowly and somewhat awkwardly placed a hand on the small of the woman’s back, and the other on Alice’s shoulder.

          “Um . . . me too,” he replied softly, awkwardly. That just made the trio currently latched to him squeeze tighter, wringing out a small grunt.

           By now, his Henry was moving forward, a greatly relieved smile on his face, but it was tempered by his inspecting stare, looking the man over carefully. Sammy noticed, wincing a little in embarrassment, “Hi, Henry . . .”

          “You feelin’ alright, Sammy?” the man asked.

           Sammy grimaced at that, before settling on a soft, “. . . better than earlier.”

           Oh, well . . . that was good, wasn’t it? Maybe things would finally start looking up now . . .

          Feeling a little emboldened by Sammy’s apparent better mood, Joey took a slight step closer, wanting to extend his relief too. But as soon as he did that, Sammy noticed, eyes flicking to him over Susie’s shoulder.

          Its like hitting a switch, the man’s muscles tensing so much it sent a quake through his whole body, hands curling into fists, and for a moment, just a moment, his face contorted into something even worse than rage.

          Then, just as quickly, Sammy snapped his eyes closed, body shaking, hissing through gritted teeth, “God damn it, would you knock it off!”

          “Sammy?” Susie asked, releasing her grip to step back along with the two toons, all looking him over concernedly. She wiped at her face, apologetic, “S-sorry, I just-,”

          “Not you!” the man said, bringing his now free hand up to his eye.

           Without waiting for a reply, the man suddenly spoke again, voice dropping to a lower tone, “He’s right there-!”

           In the next instant, it was like he cut himself off, spitting and cutting his hand through the air, “I don’t care, you promised you wouldn’t do this!”

          “And I said I didn’t want to be anywhere near him!”

          Joey realized what was happening not a moment after his Henry did, shrinking back as his friend immediately put himself between him and the music director. Susie, Alice, and Boris, meanwhile, were staring at him in rapt shock, this being their first time witnessing this change.

          “Sammy, its okay,” Henry said soothingly, though he sounded nervous now, perhaps aware of how badly this could go if it was left unchecked.

          At the same time, however, Henry’s counterpart stepped up as well, placing a firm hand on Sammy’s shoulder, saying, “Sam. We talked about this.”

          “I know, but-!”

          “Sammy?” Alice asked, looking very worried now.

          The man fell silent, looking away from her, and Susie, seeming to realize what was happening as well, tilted her head, voice softening to a whisper. He couldn’t hear it from this distance, and frankly . . . Joey felt that maybe he should just . . . go.

          Things had been going rather well before he’d tried to talk, after all . . .

          Quietly, so as not to disturb the group, he shimmied back until he was around the corner and out of sight. No one called out to him or tried to stop him, focused as they were on Sammy, a minor blessing because he didn’t want to upset the man again. Or, well, the man’s new resident, at least.

          Spirits in a slump, Joey began to wander down the hall, thinking about what he could do now. He could look for Bendy, because the demon must be in a pretty low mood as well. Or . . . he could start looking for a solution to Sammy’s problem, because it must be uncomfortable.

          Or I could do both? After I get my books, I can just . . . walk around.

          That seemed like a solid plan. Solid. Couldn’t mess that up, could he? Nope!

          And . . . if he could find a good solution to this problem . . . and it all went off without a hitch . . . maybe it would show their new guests that he wasn’t the boogeyman they feared him to be. It would show that they could trust him, that he really did mean well! Maybe they would even like him!

          . . . he hoped.

          Joey knew where his office was by heart, and he was there fairly quickly. Opening the door and flicking on the switch, he stepped inside and made a beeline for his desk.

          Only to jerk to a halt when he came around the other side and saw the drawer hanging ajar, the lock he’d used completely and thoroughly broken.

          “Oh no,” he murmured, walking forward as if in a haze, but as he began pawing through the interior only to find his worst fear confirmed, his movement and tone became more frantic, “Oh no, oh no, oh no, I swear I put it in here, where’d it go?!”

          Oh, of course this would happen! Only just getting started, and he was messing up again!

          “Okay, okay, just think, Drew,” he mumbled to himself, scratching his head as he mentally flew through his options, “There’s nobody in the studio who could take it that you know of.  Did I just . . . break the lock on my own? But who took the book? Bendy? No, he stays away from things like this. Oh, where could I have put it?”

          This certainly would not prove to anyone that he was capable of good things if he couldn’t even keep track of one measly magic book. Oh, but how could he find it though, how could he-?

          It hit him in a flash of eureka, jumping upright with a finger pointed up towards the ceiling, “Oh, locater spell! I can do that!”

          Immediately, he shot to one of the cupboards that lined the leftmost wall, throwing it open to reveal what inside. There were numerous smaller drawers within, and he quickly began to sift through each of them, throwing aside things he didn’t need as he searched for what he did.

          “Not that, not that, not that, I should probably get rid of that, oh, where’d this even come from?” he really needed to organize this closet, it was quite a mess . . .

          “Ah!” he cried victoriously, pulling out a tapered white candle from the very back. Now he just needed the right herb . . .

          Luckily, he had a good number in stock. Although, which one was best for the job? Was it mullein? Or mugwort?

          Shrugging, he picked up both vials and nudged the cupboard closed, bringing the items to the table. Quickly, he lit the candle and popped open the vial containing the mugwort, grinding just a little of the dried herb before tossing it into the open flame. The fire flared up brightly, a good sign that he’d chosen rightly, before murmuring a few words under his breath and blowing it out.

          Just as he’d hoped, as the fire faded, a smoky ball rose up from the dying flame and hovered in the air, slowly levitating towards the door.

          Excellent!

          Hurriedly, Joey made to follow, grabbing the vial in case he needed more later.

          It led him on a fairly winding trail, first through he upper floors, then downstairs past the music department straight to the basement. How the book had gotten down here, he couldn’t fathom, but he trusted the spell not to lead him astray. The road it takes him on feels long, to the deeper parts of the studio, rarely visited by anyone who worked above. It showed too, the halls and collected items more worn down, the handles of every door coated with dust.

          Of course, spells of this sort don’t last forever, so when the smoky orb he was tailing finally fell apart into listless gray wisps, he wasn’t surprised or alarmed. That’s why he brought more!

          Setting the candle he carried down, Joey pulled out the vial and popped it open, dumping the herb into his palm for a second round . . . only for his smile to freeze a little when he . . . saw . . . mullein . . . instead of mugwort.

          . . . well . . . shoot.

          He was debating going back and getting the right herb, because heaven knows how he was going to find the book in a place where all items go to die, when a sudden noise grabbed it his attention.

          Was that . . . was that yelling?

          Interest peaked, as well as little puzzled, Joey began to move to where he thought he noise was coming from. He must be on the right track, because it steadily grew louder . . . before just as suddenly going silent.

          “What in the world . . .?” he mumbled, now very confused. Who was down here? Bendy? Why would he be yelling? Why would he be down here in the first place?

          He can’t think of an answer, and that made uneasy shivers travel up his spine. Swallowing, he continued on the path where he thought he’d heard the noises, keeping his ears pricked for anything else.

          It’s not much later he heard more shouting kick back up again, much closer than before, and Joey can make the unique and definitive accent of the toon he’d created so many years ago. And this close, he can also hear that he sounded . . . distressed.

          “Bendy?” Joey called out, brow pinching together in concern.

          Concern, however, turned into a true and panicked alarm when the yelling rose up into a full-on scream, one he can make the words out to in perfect, horrifying clarity, ““HENRY! JOEY!! HELP ME, SOMEBODY, PLEASE HE-!”

          It cut off just as suddenly, and Joey’s heart began to pound, sprinting to where he’d heard it, “BENDY!”

          There’s no reply, which worried him greatly, and he can’t even begin to fathom what was wrong, what would make the toon sound so horrifically terrified, but he needed to find him, he had to find him!

          It’s much darker in these halls than the rest of the studio, and he tripped over his own feet several times as he fumbled his way through them, panting, “BENDY, WHERE ARE YOU?”

          Again, his shout went unanswered, and genuine fear was beginning to trickle in, grip white-knuckled around the herbs in his hand. Where was he, where was he-?!

          He heard a muted crash come just down the hall, and Joey ran to it, finding a closed door with an old, ornate handle to it. Desperately, he grasped it and twisted, finding that it was blessedly unlocked and hastily throwing it open, charging inside, “BENDY!”

          It took him a second to register what he saw; a messy, dimly lit room with a large, intimidating dual circle on the floor, a shape he’d only glanced at in passing when perusing his tomes. And at the center of one of those circles, his heart gave a jolt of relief when he saw Bendy, although the circumstances he was in screamed ‘not good’. The toon was bound tightly to a chair that had fallen on its side, and his eyes were wide and wild with fear, his physical body a trembling, oozing mass, a sign of extreme stress.

          As soon as he saw Joey, he jerked towards him, shouting, “J-JOEY-!”

          Joey was already running to him, alarmed and more than a little frightened himself, but the toon shook his head, screaming, “NO, JOEY, ITS IN HERE, ITS IN HERE!”

          Before he could ask what the toon was talking about, a sudden tingle of mortal dread scurried up his back, a sensation of something rising up right behind him, towering tall over his head. He suddenly felt as small as a mouse . . . and a cat was lurking directly behind.

          Joey turned, eyes traveling up and up and up, and the first thing he saw was a Cheshire-like smile leering down at him in the dark. A smile that’s still familiar even on a body so horribly malformed, and with a rising sense of horror, Joey realized why.

          He didn’t know how this had happened. He didn’t know how or when it had gotten through. But Joey could now understand in full why everyone on that side of the mirror feared the name of the ‘Ink Demon’.

          “Well, if it ain’t the man himself!” a voice just like the toon he knew crowed, but one that burrowed deep into his ears, reverberating in his bones, an unnaturally sharp chord like the bow of a violin being violently dragged across its strings, “Welcome to the party!”

          Before Joey can even properly react, a huge white hand brutally grabbed him by the neck, his cry cut out as it closed tight over his vocal chords. The creature hoisted him into the air easily, like he weighed no more than a paper bag, and Joey’s mind scrambled with his own panicked thoughts, grabbing at the thing’s arm with his free hand.

          “NO, STOP, DON’T HURT HIM, PLEASE DON’T HURT HIM!” he heard his Bendy plead, a sound that cut Joey deep as he couldn’t do anything to ease it.

          “Oh relax,” the creature said, “I said I wasn’t gonna change up this world’s happy endin’ too much, and I guess that includes this schmuck too. It’s a shame you found us, though. I was hopin’ to do this nice and easy, without any fuss, but now I gotta do some more legwork to fix this mess you just caused.”

          It tapped his forehead with a claw, almost reprimanding, “Shame on you for that! But I guess they’ll be in answer in those handy-dandy spells a yers! But in the meantime, guess I got no choice but lock you up somewhere so you don’t cause a scene!”

          Joey struggled in it’s too-tight grip, beginning to feel horribly light-headed. Desperately, he brought his other closed fist up and began to weakly slam it against the arm holding him, even though it did nothing.

          “STOP, PLEASE, HE’LL DIE IF YOU KEEP DOIN’ THAT!”

          “Ya know, I’ve always imagined doin’ this to that bastard myself one day,” it said, not heeding the other’s words at all, “I almost wish I could kill ya! It’d be . . . cathartic. But that’d ruin my plan. So count yourself lucky, old man. Cause any other day . . . it woulda been yer last.

          He’s hearing was beginning to fade, in and out, in and out, eyes slipping dangerously shut as consciousness began to flee. It’s pure will that kept him from passing out completely, desperately trying ot think of what to do, because Bendy was in trouble, the whole studio was in trouble, he can’t pass out!

          And then . . . his eyes fell on his closed fist, seeing the dried tendrils of plant matter poke out between his fingers.

          Mullein.

          The creature leaned closer, its smile wide with a perverse delight in watching him fade, so close . . .

          Dredging up every last ounce of strength he had, fighting that terrible constriction around his throat, Joey closed his eyes managed to utter, “E-e . . . e-exil . . . ium.”

          “Wha-?”

          Joey doesn’t let it finish its inquiry. Instead, he shoved the herbs in his hand right against its face, pressing them deep into that inky mass so they cannot get out.

          The result is instantaneous. With a wretched howl of pain and rage, the creature dropped Joey to tear at its smoking face, reeling back and slamming into the wall with a tremendous thud. There’s a terribly hot sizzle as the herbs scorched through its demonic flesh, burning deep, and it howled again, slashing a claw through the air, “AAH! YOU SON OF A BITCH, I’LL MAKE YOU PAY FOR THAT-!”

          It took Joey a moment to get the oxygen he needed, panting hard, coughing as his throat spasmed painfully. He could only watch it thrash around, mind running horrified circles over how such a creature could have been made, over what could have gone so disastrously wrong to leave the toon he cared for like this.

          Unless it was no accident. But that thought was too horrible for him to pursue.

          “JOEY!”

          Bendy’s shout snapped him from his dismayed thoughts, and he forced himself to action, scrabbling to the terrified toon, prying at the ropes desperately, “I-its okay. I-I’ll get you out of this, I promise!”

          But the ropes don’t give beneath his fingers, tied too tightly. Desperately, Joey looked for anything he could use, when something poking out of the cluttered mass of junk caught his eye. It was a long piece of rebar, one edge looking sharp, sharp enough to maybe-!

          Without hesitation, Joey grabbed it and hurried back, shoving between the open space along the back and sawing down with all his might. He ignored the way it cut into his palms, slicking the metal with red, focused on freeing his toon before anything else.

          And, thankfully, that persistence paid off, cutting enough to slacken the bindings, enough for Bendy to wiggle free.

          Without hesitation, the toon grabbed his hand and frantically pulled Joey after him towards the exit, ink running down his brow in streams. Joey did not hesitate to follow him, and both made a mad dash for the stairwell, both of an unspoken agreement as they hurtled down the hall with the monster’s horrible roars fading behind them.

          They needed to find the others, and they needed to get out.

          _

          It took ripping out a chunk of its own flesh to get those horribly burning herbs out. And when it finally did, it was left panting and weary, hurting like it hadn’t hurt before.

          Bastard . . .

          And now both were gone, out the door and off to tell the whole world that the ‘monster’ was in their basement, that the ‘monster’ was in their midst. They probably thought that would be the end of it. They’d come up with some hoity-toity little plan to trap it or kill it or just leave all-together, fleeing to safer pastures. Its big bad plan halted.

          But it had come so far. And it was not going to let that happen.

          With an infuriated growl, it snatched the abandoned book up and cracked open its bindings, finding what it wanted easily. Oh yes, there were tons of nifty little spells in here. And this one would serve it well to get this plan back on track.

          “I tried doin’ this the nice way,” it grumbled, walking over to the huge pipe at the center of the room. It knew where this pipe led. Even in another world, it could feel the pulse of life within the machine that had created it so long ago, “It was just going to be one little take-over, with nobody the wiser, and it all would have gone back to normal.”

          With an animalistic rumble, it slammed its claws into the metal binding of the pipe, digging them deep until spurts of black began to spray out around its fingers. It could feel the ink within recoil from its touch, perhaps sensing the unnaturalness of this invader. But that didn’t matter to it. With a snarl, it began to force its own ink into the pipeline, corrupting, overwhelming, turning it all to a darker shade of black that would heed it and only it.

          “But now you’ve gone and dragged everybody else into it! And now, its gonna have to get messy!”

          Turning its attention to the book, it ripped out the page it needed and stuck it against the pipe, reciting the words it saw there, the demonic blood that made up its body feeding into the magic that dominated the page like petroleum to a blaze.

 

“I’m not stoppin’ until I get what I want! And if a few bones gotta get broken . . .”

 

          Bendy and Joey hadn’t stopped running since they escaped, terror fueling every step. Joey was already thinking of where the others could be, where the closest exits were, devising escape plans like he’d never really devised anything before, when both stumbled and nearly fell as the ground beneath them began to rumble and shake.

          Joey felt his heart catch in his throat, knowing that whatever was happening was not good, paling as he realized he’d forgotten to grab the book with some of the most dangerous spells he’s ever seen inside it. A book still within that thing’s clutches.

          All of a sudden, Bendy gave a low whine, and Joey immediately turned to him.

          The toon was looking up, straight at the pipes above his head, trembling form head to foot, “J-Joey, somethin’s wrong . . .”

          Joey kneeled down to the toon’s level, placing a comforting hand on his back and forcing down his own fear to say, “Come on, we’re almost there! Just a bit further, and-!”

          Bendy didn’t seem to hear him, all his attention on the pipes above, “I-It’s in the pipes. Joey, it’s in the pipes!”

          A wide-eyed look of horror is all Joey could give in response, eyes shooting to the ceiling just as ink began to drip between the bindings.

          The lights flickered.

 

“If a few lives gotta get lost . . .”

 

          Sammy was honestly beginning to grow a bit tired of the mother-henning.

          Oh, sure, he’s . . . glad, that they aren’t scared of him. And he’s extra glad that, outside of that small outburst, his counterpart had kept quiet, observing, absorbing, and a little overwhelmed by what their shared sight showed him.

          But Susie’s, Alice’s, and Boris’ constant fretting was beginning to become a bit . . . much. He might have been through a bad situation, and he had a cultist stuck in his head, but he was still a grown-ass man who could take care of himself, thank you.

          “Susie, I’m fine,” he said again, forcefully, “I don’t need you doing everything for me.”

          The woman paused what she was doing to look him over suspiciously, “Hmm . . .”

          “She’s just worried,” Alice told him, and while she wasn’t hugging him anymore, she still had not relinquished his hand. He’d tell her to stop, except there was also a man in his head who was apparently so touch-starved that that demand was met with a hard ‘no’, “We all were. We just want to make sure you and . . . and Sam are okay.”

          “Yeah, its probably hard for both of you,” Boris said, pulling out some extra pillows, and seriously, where was he getting them?!

          He gave them both a look, until Susie chimed in, “I know your pride means a lot to you, Sammy, but . . . just this once, let us make sure you’re okay, okay? It won’t be forever, just until we . . . all get more used to it.”

          Sammy sighed, while within he felt a small stirring, they care about you a lot.

          “Shut up,” he mumbled under his breath.

          Just then, the floor suddenly shook, like an earthquake rising up from the deep. The pictures on the walls jostled, the lights flickering erratically.

          “Whoa,” he heard Susie say, startled, “That’s an earthquake, alright.”

          “Haven’t had one in a while,” Alice commented.

          Sammy would have made comment to it as well . . . except . . . except he could hear something else.

          Something soft, secretive, song-like, echoing from out the door. It was weird, but Sammy was used to weird in this place, and he would have paid it no mind . . . if not for the spike of very sudden, very raw terror that shook him from within, Sam all but knocking him aside as he scrambled to his feet, “No . . .”

          He’s shooting for the door in a blink, and Sammy doesn’t understand what’s wrong until they stepped outside . . . to see the pipes above their head groaning, black dripping down the walls, whispering, and Sammy is hit with a memory of this exact thing happening before, all of it before, right when the nightmares began . . .

          And in that flash, Sammy suddenly understood why the other was so scared.

          And knowing why, makes him scared too.

          “No, no, no, th-this can’t be possible, this can’t be!” Sam said, shaking now, backing away from the sight slowly.

          “Sammy?” he heard Susie say, coming to his side, eyes filled with worry, “Sammy, what’s wrong? What’s happening?”

          Behind her, he heard Boris suddenly whine, and Alice whimper softly, “Susie . . . s-something’s wrong . . .”

          “I-its here,” Sam whispered, but it seemed like both of them were saying it together rather than apart, “It’s here . . .”

         

“Well, buddy, that’s not on me. You wanted to do this the hard way.”

 

          Henry leaned back against the wall, watching as Al and Tom did likewise. Ahead of him, his colored counterpart stopped as well, frowning worriedly, “Where are they?”

          “Are you sure they want to be found?” he asked the man.

          He received a suspicious glance it return, and he supposed he wasn’t surprised. When his counterpart had gone to go look for their two missing members, Henry had decided to go with him. They’d all been suspicious then, especially when Al had offered as well, which meant Tom would tag along.

          On one hand, he was a bit worried for Bendy. On the other, he . . . wasn’t too fond of Joey Drew being left to his own devices, no matter how harmless he seemed here. Might as well make sure nothing dangerous would come of it.

          “I say just give them space,” Al told him, “Sometimes being alone is just what you need.”

          Tom nodded, in full agreement, and also probably wanting to be anywhere else right now.

          The other man frowned, crossing his arms, his worry obvious to all. Henry might have once worried like that all the time too. But time has worn that down. And he knew that space might be what everyone needed right now, to get their bearings again.

          “. . . maybe,” his counterpart finally agreed, “I just . . . with things being the way they are . . .”

          Henry could understand that. He could even sympathize. All of this must be terribly hard for people who’ve never had to worry about monsters and traitors and your worst fears coming to life. But running around like this wasn’t going to help.

          Henry didn’t get to ponder what to do any further, for that was when the ground began to alarmingly shake, and he gripped the wall for support. Cries of surprise rose up around him, and he grit his teeth as he waited for it to stop.

          “Jeez, that was a bad one . . .” his counterpart said, frowning.

          “You’re tellin’ us,” he said in reply, looking around.

          They began to pick themselves up, Henry contemplating just going back . . . when a cold shiver suddenly traveled up his spine. He whirled around, that fight-or-flight response he’d developed kicking into sudden overdrive, scanning the place warily.

          “Henry . . .” he heard Al whisper, eyes wide, alarmed, as Tom growled beside her, “Did . . . did you feel that?”

          He nodded, shaken in a way he couldn’t explain. His counterpart looked at all of them, confused, “What are you talking-?”

          The pipes above their head suddenly burst, ink raining down to the floor below and showering them all in black. And no sooner had it touched his skin did Henry feel the coldness seep straight through, dread curdling sour in his stomach, a whisper curling against his ear within the dripping of the ink.

          Beside him, he heard Al and Tom both cry out.

          “What happened? Guys, talk to me!” he shouted, turning to them as the deluge stopped, alarmed and worried.

          Al was holding her arm, the skin of which was sizzling just as Tom’s snout was, both of their eyes squeezed shut in pain. Al, hissing through her teeth, managed to open them to stare at the wound, and a look of petrified horror filled her face. Slowly, she turned to him, and Henry returned her look, because he knew what she was thinking.

          There was only one place they had seen this before. There was only one cause that made it so.

          And Henry doesn’t want to believe it, even though the evidence is staring him in the face.

          “It can’t be . . .” Al murmured, a raw fear filling her eyes.

          “What? What happened?!” he heard his counterpart demand, looking at their wounds with horrified concern.

          “Y-you said nothing else got through,” Henry said, shaking his head as he rounded on the other, “You said nothing else got through!”

          “What? N-nothing did, it was just you!” the man replied, taking a step back, “I swear! W-why, what’s going on?”

          Just then, another quake rocked the studio, rumbling beneath their feet, and another string of whispers lit up his senses, darkness curling at the edges of his sight.

          “I-its here, isn’t it?” Al said, shaking now, “The Ink Demon’s here, isn’t it!”

          Henry can only stare at her, because he doesn’t know what to say.

          Then, all was drowned in darkness, for every light in the studio went out.

 

“So the hard way is exactly what yer gonna G̵̯͙͐̔̈͋E̸͌̐͐̒T̷!̵͛̋̂”

         

Chapter Text

          The second the lights went out and the darkness pressed in with a weight that no ordinary darkness should have, Henry knew the true breadth of the danger they were in.

          The Ink Demon was among them. How and when, he had no clue. But those questions did not matter in light of the very real danger its mere presence meant.

          “We have to go,” he said, urgently, voice tight with a reawakened sense of fear like he hadn’t felt in a while, “We have to go now!”

          “What?” he heard his counterpart say, bewildered, “What do you mean the Ink Demon’s here? It’s just a blackout!”

          “Can’t you feel it?!” Al demanded in the shadows, clenching her scored arm with a painful grip, too afraid to feel it, “This kind of darkness, this ink, it’s what was in our studio! And the Ink Demon was what made it! But how? You said we were the only ones came through that mirror!”

          His counterpart was deathly quiet for moment, and Henry can imagine the horror on his face as he took in her words in full, “I-I . . . y-you were, there was nothing-!”

Tom gave an urgent, growling bark, could just make him out in the shadows as the wolf gestured down the hall, back to the infirmary.

          “Tom’s right, we can’t stay here!” Henry told them, already feeling far too exposed here, “We need to get back to the others, and we need to get out!”

          Al and Tom needed no further telling, and Henry grabbed the other stunned man by the arm and pulled him after them, all but running back to where the rest of the group was. He half expected monsters to begin emerging from the walls, black, oozing hands reaching for them to drag them down into the ink as well. But he supposed he should be grateful for small miracles, as nothing emerged to impede them.

          “B-but what about Joey and Bendy?!” his counterpart demanded, “If, if that thing’s really here, they’re in danger!”

          “I know,” Henry replied through gritted teeth, “But we need to regroup. Think of something, a-a plan.”

          He trialed off as the pipes above his head gurgled ominously, a sound that takes his mind back to a far darker, scarier time. A time that seemed to have made a comeback, and he really should have expected this, because freedom couldn’t come that easily, could it?

          They rounded the corner, just a few yards away from the where they wanted to be, when a sudden light fell on them, making them all freeze out of reflex. It was very bright, blindingly so, and Henry flinched away from it, using his hand to help obscure it.

          It dropped a little just as fast, a greatly relived and familiar voice shouting, “Oh thank god, it’s you.”

          “Susie?” his counterpart started, moving towards her, “You guys okay?”

          Susie winced, lowering the flashlight in her hands even more, “I don’t know if ‘okay’ is the word I’d use . . .”

          “We need to get out of here,” Al told her, not beating around the bush, “I don’t know how, but the Ink Demon is inside your studio, and we need to leave, now!”

          There was a moment of silence in response, until Susie . . . let out a rather soft and strange laugh, bringing a hand up to her head to tangle her fingers in her hair, “R-really? That . . . that’s really what’s happening? That’s really . . .”

          She was in disbelief, he realized. He didn’t blame her for it, not at all.

          “Susie?” the other Henry asked, openly concerned now.

          The woman shook her head, sniffing, “S-Sammy’s been saying the same thing. Or . . . or Sam, I guess. And Alice and Boris, they’re scared, Henry. Of something . . . something in the pipes.”

          Henry swallowed, glancing up at said pipes warily. So, it would seen Sam was still sensitive to the Demon’s power . . . and the other toons could feel it too. That . . . was worrying.

          “Come on, let’s go inside,” he said, urging them back, “Its less exposed, and we can talk more there.”

          “But what about Joey and Bendy?” Susie started, looking between them, “They’re not with you, so they must be still out there! And if they are . . . oh god . . .”

          “That’s one of the things we can talk about,” Henry explained, “But we need to hurry.”

          He ushered them all inside quickly, closing the door shut as quietly as he could. He had no desire to draw the Demon’s attention to them, wherever it was. Once that was done, he turned back around, quietly examining the infirmary by the light of Susie’s flashlight.

          Its . . . not a good sight. Sammy was sitting hunched on the bed, head bowed and hands clasped around his ears, fingernails digging so deep into his scalp he wouldn’t be surprised if they were cutting his skin. His shoulders were shaking, unintelligible muttering falling from his lips, though whether it’s the two talking with each other or just Sam himself, Henry could not tell. Alice and Boris were sitting pressed against his sides, the angel staring up at the ceiling with wide and terrified eyes while the wolf was hunkered down into a shaking ball, whining softly to himself.

          Both toons gazes shot to the door, only to relax when they saw it was them, Alice’s halo brightening just a little, sounding so very relieved, “Henry! You’re okay!”

          His counterpart made a beeline for her, throwing all three of them highly worried looks, “Yeah, yeah, of course. Are you alright, w-what’s going on?”

          Boris whined again, glancing up, “W-we hear somethin’ . . . s-somethin’ bad, Henry.”

          Alice sniffled, hunkering closer to Sammy, “S-Sam says . . . h-he says it’s the D-Demon . . .”

          “We know,” Henry said, coming to them as well. His eyes were on Sam, however. The man had only just gotten his memory back, and, to some extent, his mind. He did not want this sudden resurgence of the nightmare they’d both survived to jeopardize that.

          Kneeling down to the man’s level, he began to speak, coaxing, “Sam? Sam, you need to snap out of it.”

          Sam’s eyes shot up to meet his own, the glow in his left one intensifying just a bit before cooling, recognition returning. Henry wanted to take that to be a good sign. That, while undeniably frightened, the man’s mind hadn’t deserted him again.

          “H-Henry?” the man started, blinking. Then, suddenly, he grabbed Henry’s arm in an iron grip, urgency and terror both conveyed in that single move as he began to utter rapidly, “T-The Demon, the Demon, it’s here, Henry, its-!”

          “I know, I know,” he said, hoping that if he remained calm, it would keep Sam calm, “We all know. But panicking won’t help us. We need to stay calm.”

          Sam was in the midst of shaking his head, however, accusing, “Y-you said it was different here, you said this wouldn’t happen again-!”

          “I know!” Henry interjected, feeling a sting at the other’s words, “I don’t know how it followed us! But we can’t let it get to our head’s or it’s over. You know that.”

          There is a tense, heavy moment as the two stare each other down, Henry hoping he hasn’t stepped too far with his words but knowing he had to say something to get Sam to calm down and see reason.

          Which, after a near breathless silence . . . he seemed to, shoulders sagging and looking frailer for it, heaving a tremulous sigh as he pressed a hand over his left eye, “You’re . . . right. I know. It gets into your head, until it’s the only thing left . . .”

          “Sammy?” his counterpart asked, the concern in his eyes mirroring everyone else’s, “Are you . . . I mean, is he . . . the both of you-?”

          Sam looked his way, seeming to know what the other was asking for straight away, “Your friend’ still here. He’s . . .”

          He fell quiet, tilting his head to one side like he was listening to something. Since it wasn’t the panicked fright from before, Henry could safely assume the voice in his head was the other soul he shared this body with.

          There was a twinge of unease on the other’s face for a moment, of indecision, glancing Henry’s way once like he was seeking some sort of help. But then, he seemed to come to one on his own, closing his eyes entirely and exhaling slowly. When he opened them again, Henry can see a small shift in the man’s demeanor, a subtle raise of the shoulders and an edge of steel to his frown. He looked his counterpart’s way, stating, “I’m fine, Henry. Sort of . . .”

          Ah, the other one. Seemed they’d gotten a better handle on sharing, at least . . .

          “Sammy?” Susie started, taking a step closer, “A-are you sure? I mean-”

          “I’m as good as I’m going to be,” Sammy said, tone sharp, but as he spoke his eyes strayed overhead, wincing just a little. Perhaps he could hear the things Sam did because of their newfound link, and for as much willpower as this man had, he can’t completely keep the tremor out of his voice as he lowered his head and whispered, “God damn it . . .”

          The two toons beside him frowned, sympathetic understanding in their eyes, leaning comfortingly against him just a little more, a thing he doesn’t fight. His counterpart and Susie looked on, frowns on their faces, worried and afraid in equal measure.

          There was a metallic groaning in the distance then, like the rumble of a sleeping beast, a sound that set Henry’s teeth on edge. The three before him both tensed as well, alarm flashing in all their eyes, while behind him, Al said, “Henry, we need to leave. Is there an exit somewhere, anywhere?”

          That question was obviously directed at the ones who worked here, and Henry turned to them, waiting for a reply.

           His counterpart stared at her, swallowing nervously, “Well, yes, there’s several, but-,”

           “We need to find Bendy and Joey first!” Susie interjected, looking appalled at the thought of leaving them. Henry’s not surprised. He knew that asking them to abandon the pair would be a borderline cruel suggestion to make, and one they would not abide.

            Which meant someone had to find them. And in order to do that . . . someone had to go deeper inside the studio.

           “I’ll look for them.”

            He said it without hesitation, catching the others off guard. He spoke out quickly, explaining, “Look, none of you know how to deal with things like this. And Al and Tom could both get killed if the Demon found them, much easier than me, at least. It only makes sense. I promise, I’ll find them.”

            It was the only logical conclusion. None of the workers or the toons here were prepared for a disaster like this, and he can hardly drag Sam back down where the Demon could influence him more, especially in the condition he and his counterpart were in. Asking Al and Tom would be tantamount to suicide for them, too. It only made sense he went. Even for all his misgivings about Joey, he knew doing that would at least keep the others from blindly stumbling to their deaths.

            “Henry, are you sure?” Al said, looking wary and concerned. Indeed, many of them did, not looking keen on the idea of him leaving. He guessed that was a nice change of pace from people actively wanting him dead.

           He nodded, trying to sound more confident than he felt, “Of course I’m sure. I’m the best option for this.”

           “No, I mean, this isn’t our studio anymore Henry!” Al reiterated pointedly, gesturing with her arms to the walls around them, “You got lost the last time you time you went out there!”

           . . . oh. He . . . had forgot about that.

          There’s a moment of somewhat awkward silence, Henry genuinely feeling like an idiot for forgetting that they were in a strange place with no features or pathways that were truly familiar anymore.

           And that’s not the only thing that’s different, he thought, lips turning into a worried frown, This isn’t a story driven by a plot anymore. There’s no immunity and there’s no way of knowing what would happen next. One mistake, and . . .

           “I’ll help.”

            Henry’s head swiveled to face his counterpart, shock filling him to the core. The other man’s hands were shaking, in the midst of swallowing nervously as everyone turned to look at him, but there was a determined shine in his eyes as well. He remembered seeing such a look on himself once, facing a mirror to psych himself up for what was ahead, back when he thought his determination had mattered.

            Before he could speak, however, Susie borderline shouted, “Henry, are you crazy?!”

           Her words sent off an avalanche of protest, Alice yelling, her eyes wide with fear, “You can’t go!”

           “What if somethin’ happens to ya?” Boris questioned, worry driving him to the verge of tears, pulling on his ears in a way that would hurt if he weren’t made of ink.

            Tom growled at them sharply, pressing a forceful finger to his lips, a not unreasonable demand given the circumstances.

            His counterpart rubbed at his wrist in the ensuing silence, looking hesitant to meet anyone in the eye, “L-look, I know this sounds like such a bad idea, a-and you’re right, it probably is a bad idea, but . . . someone needs to help guide him around the place! Bendy and Joey can’t wait that long . . . not if that . . . that thing is really here.”

          “You don’t know what that thing can do!” Sammy suddenly interjected, eyes flashing, “It could kill you, Henry!”

           His counterpart flinched, but Henry can’t blame the man for any fear he felt. Not when he’s been there himself, not when it’s so understandable. You never really think about dying until its suddenly knocking at your door, after all . . .

          “Can’t we go together?” Susie pleaded, looking desperate.

          “That’s a bad idea,” Henry told her, “A big group attracts attention and is hard to hide, and it’d be hard for us to protect all of you.”

          “Very true. But we need to figure out what to do, fast,” Al interrupted urgently, “Staying in one spot for too long like this with such a big group is also a bad idea. Personally, I think Henry’s idea is a good one. I mean, the other Henry.”

          Tom glanced their way to give them an agreeing nod before fixing his attention back on the door, ears pricked and alert. The rest of the group, however, still looked hesitant, worried, so very afraid, even if the logic of the idea was as sound as could be given the circumstances.

          Henry wished he could say he could do it on his own, but . . . but now, he wasn’t so sure. He needed help if he wanted to find the lost pair quickly, and then beat a hasty retreat. Wandering down here would only lead to disaster.

          Sammy straightened then, and he was doing a good job at keeping a steady expression on his face, even though Henry could still see the nervousness in his eyes, “It should at least be me, then. I at least know what this is like.”

          Henry was already shaking his head, “No.”

          Sammy’s eyes napped to him, “But-!”

         “No. Not in the condition you’re both in,” he said, absolutely certain of this.

           That just made Sammy incensed, hissing, “I’m not helpless!”

          “You’re not,” Henry agreed, crossing his arms, “But it does make you a liability. Think about it, if one of you panicked and ruined the other’s control, or somebody froze up, it’d be over for you.”

          Sammy looked like he was about to continue arguing, when his mouth suddenly snapped closed, eyes lowering just a tad, like he was listening to something Henry couldn’t hear. His face scrunched up into an angry and frustrated scowl, fingers tapping irately against his knee, but after another moment, he heaved a breath and leaned back, growling, “Fine.”

           Soft murmurs of surprise rose up from the studio crew members, looking like such an agreement from him was earth-shattering.   

           “It also wouldn’t be a very smart idea to bring the prophet too close to his idol, wouldn’t you say?” Al added, crossing her arms.

           There was another flash in the man’s eyes, and Henry can already tell that Sam had come back out before he even spoke, “Watch your tongue, angel.”

           He spat the word like a curse, but given how the most notorious ‘angel’ of the studio acted, it’s not much a surprise as to why. Al’s lips still quirked into a displeased frown, however, Tom growling behind her, and Henry held up his hands to them all, waving the three down, “Alright, enough. We need to get moving, no more wasting time.”

           He looked his counterpart’s way, eyes narrowing as he examined the other closely, “Are you sure you want to do this? Once we go, there’s no turning back until we find them.”

           The other man’s face was very pale, but he managed to give a stilted nod, “Y-yeah. B-but, let’s not look for trouble?”

           Henry huffed, “That’s the plan.”

           “Could we swing by wherever you’ve locked up our weapons?” Al asked, thinking seven steps ahead as usual, “I don’t know if there are any searchers here, and Tom hasn’t heard anything, but it’d be better to be armed.”

            Henry nodded, in full agreement with that plan. He looked to the rest of the group, waiting for their response.

            His counterpart nodded slowly, “I know where they’re at. A storage closet not too far from here. But, uh . . . I don’t have the key.”

            At that, Tom grunted, clenching his metallic fingers pointedly. Henry knew how strong the wolf was, a little closet door would not stand a chance, “I think Tom’s got us covered.”

            He noticed Susie nod just a little, though he was not sure why.

            “Well, no use staying here,” Al said, “Let’s go.”

            They herded the crew outside, all of them in various states of distress and keyed-up fear. Every pair of eyes flitted about erratically, looking for monsters in every dark shadow, the halls lit only by the flashlight in Susie’s trembling hand.

            Thankfully, they reached the closet un-accosted, Tom making very short work of the lock with one well-aimed punch. Within, they all found the gear they had been missing, and Henry couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief spill over him as he hefted his axe back into his hand, the implement bringing him some measure of security. Always better to be armed . . .

            The familiar weight of his little Seeing Tool was comforting too, even though there’d be no messages here.

            Al, after looping her belt back in place and gathering her sword, grabbed two small bottles he recognized as the acetone she had recovered and handed them to Tom, “Better make these. We might need them.”

            The wolf nodded, beginning to grab several items from the surrounding shelves to do exactly that.

            “Is that . . . acetone?” he heard Alice ask, voice barely above a whisper. She looked at the bottles with a glimmer of fear in her eyes, and beside her, Boris let loose a soft whine.

           “It can keep the Demon at bay, if we need to. Just leave it to us,” Al explained. She then looked to Henry, gesturing, “You two should take one, just in case. And get moving. We’ll meet you outside, hopefully soon.”

            Henry nodded to her, “Let’s hope.”

            “Are you sure you want to do this?” Susie was asking his counterpart, looking worried.

            “We’re . . . just looking for Joey and Bendy,” the man told her in an effort to be reassuring, “We probably won’t even run into anything bad, and we’ll see you outside before you can blink.”

            “Still, please be careful, Henry,” Alice said, eyes misting over with tears as she clasped her hands around his. Boris whined again, then threw his arms around the man’s shoulders, fur standing straight with fear.

            He returned their gestures comfortingly, and he’s trying to put on a brave face for their sake as he spoke, “I will. You be safe too.”

            “We’ll hold you to that,” Susie said softly, shoulders sagging.

           Henry doesn’t interrupt them, not quite yet. This wasn’t a story. There’s no guarantee of anything beyond this point. If he made a mistake . . . it could very well cost one or both of them their lives. And if that were the case . . . he needed to let them have some time before that.

           “You better bring them back.”

           Henry turned to find Sammy borderline glaring at him, but there was a seriousness to his expression that hinted towards something a little more sincere, “Or I swear you won’t hear the end of it from me.”

           Henry nodded, “That’s what I aim to do. I promise.”

           “You better,” the man replied curtly. That was when his expression suddenly shifted, eyes slipping shut in a wince as one hand came up to press against his left one. When they opened again, the glare had vanished, and he looked Henry’s way with only a small frown, “You better come back, too.”

           He smiled just a little in return, nodding once more, “I will, Sam.”

           Its not much longer after that that the two departed, an extra flashlight in hand to light their way. Henry kept his eyes forward and ears alert for any stray noise, although the dripping of the ink was all he could hear. It was too similar though, too familiar, and he hated that the immunity he had once had to these things had seemingly been worn down by the scant few hours he’d had in safety and freedom. His nerves felt so much more on edge than they’d been in so long, acutely aware of the fact that any one mistake could spell disaster and that it was not just his life on the line.

           His counterpart had been quiet so far outside of pointing out where some possibilities of the others location might be, but this kind of quiet was the heavy, stifling kind, and one most people could not stand to wallow in for long.

           So it was no real surprise to Henry when the man finally broke it, whispering quietly, “So . . . is this what . . . your studio was like?”

          “I suppose you can say its similar, as far as the mess goes,” he replied, glancing at wall that had been thoroughly coated in black ink, “And the . . . atmosphere.”

          “Jesus . . .”

          “There’s a lot less searchers, though,” Henry added, “At least, I hope.”

          “I’m not sure what that is, but I hope so too,” the man behind him agreed.

           Henry didn’t tell him. The less the man knew about the horrors of his world, the better.

           Unfortunately, perhaps in an effort to quell the quiet, the other man kept on asking, “And . . . you really believe that Joey did something like this?”

           Henry frowned, “Let’s not talk about that. You said Bendy’s office could be where they’re at?”

            It’s a pretty obvious deflection, one his counterpart picked up on, as after a second, the man said, “Yes. Just down here.”

           The office space was about as normal as could be on the outside, with perhaps a higher chair than most people would possess. There was a nameplate on the desk, as well as a stack of papers and drawings and a few photo frames turned away from the door.

           But nobody was inside.

           His counterpart rubbed at his head, looking more worried as time dragged on, “Damn it, not here . . .”

          “Where else?” Henry asked, stepping back out to keep an eye on their surroundings. No sign of the Demon, but you never know just where it might be lurking . . .

          “Um . . . the animation department, their piano room, maybe the break room . . .”

           “Which one’s closest?” Henry questioned.

          “From here, it would be the animation department.”

          “Then let’s go there.”

          He did not want to waste any time here. The sooner they could get outside, the better. What to do about the Demon after that, he wasn’t sure, but there had to be better options here than what his own world had offered him.

          But he really can’t help but wonder when it had gotten through. With the rest of them when they’d been so suddenly displaced? It made sense. It’d been nearby when the burst had happened, and it wasn’t impossible for it to slip through the cracks with nobody the wiser.

          “We will find them, right?”

          Henry glanced back to his counterpart. The man’s eyes were on the floor, a worried frown on his face, twisting his fingers around to vent some of the nervous energy no doubt filling him to the brim. He was a little surprised at the unguardedness with which the other spoke, but then realized that the other had no real reason to be. No reason to fear having his words used against him, no reason to distrust another with them at all.

          Henry looked away, gnawing at his lip, not sure if cynical realism is what the other truly wanted. But was false optimism any better, knowing that such things weren’t entirely truthful?

          “If we’re fast, we should. But your studio’s big, too. Its possible we could miss each other,” he decided that was a more diplomatic response.

          “Right . . . I guess you’d know best about this,” there was a rustle of cloth as the other crossed his arms, a soft, nervous breath leaving him, “Heh . . . I have no idea how you managed to put up with this for so long, though. Think I woulda lost my mind after just a few days.”

          Try years, he thought to himself sourly.

          “Well, I guess count yourself lucky you won’t have to,” Henry replied, though his words might come out a bit more bitter than he’d intended. But it was hard to keep it all tamped down.

          He could hear the wince in the other man’s voice as he responded, “Sorry . . . that was insensitive.”

          Henry just grunted in response, not really keen on delving into that subject anymore, “Let’s just keep going.”

          “Ah, wait, hold on one second,” the other man said, rushing up to walk beside him instead, the first he’d done that since they’d begun this trek, “Listen, I just . . . I feel like I should at least say thank you for doing this. Even with . . . how you feel towards Joey. Which I still don’t agree with, by the way, but . . . you know, thanks.”

          Henry glanced at the other, a little surprised and honestly not sure how to respond at first. Eventually, his mind could only settle on a soft, “You’re . . . welcome.”

          “I’m sure Bendy and Joey will appreciate it too,” the man said, “Once we find them.”

          “Don’t . . . sell yourself so short,” Henry told him, fixing his eyes back ahead of them, “You’re here too, aren’t you?”

          “Yeah, I suppose, but I don’t really know what I’m doing,” his counterpart admitted, looking chagrined by that fact, “Who knows how much help I’d have been on my own. Honestly, I’m a bit worried I might just hold you back if things get dicey.”

          “. . . I used to think that. And once, I used to not know, either.”

          The other blinked, “Hm?”

          “I mean, back when . . . this started. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know how to react or if I’d be able to last for more than a day,” Henry explained slowly. He’s not entirely sure where this was coming from, but . . . maybe, if it gave the other a bit more confidence in this new and scary predicament . . . it was alright, “I used to be a lot more like you. But I managed to survive, didn’t I?”

          “. . . really?” he sounded genuinely surprised, like such a thought was a bit unbelievable. Henry supposed it was, given how differently they acted.

          “Yes, really,” he responded, “You’d be surprised at just how capable you can be when push comes to shove.”

           “. . . still, this shouldn’t be something anyone should have to go through.”

          “No. But sometimes life isn’t always fair,” Henry said solemnly, “What we can do now, at least, is save your friends.”

          “We can,” the other man took a deep breath, “Okay. The department’s just up ahead. Hopefully they’re there.”

          True to his word, it’s not much longer until they reached the animation department, one that is new to Henry’s eyes even when it was lit only by the flashlight in his counterpart’s hand. An open space of cubicles and desks with all the amenities an animator would need. Hardly the cramped places he remembered. But it seemed as deserted as every other place before it, lacking the presence of the two they were searching for.

          “Bendy? Joey?” his counterpart called out softly, scanning the department almost desperately.

          “Don’t call out too loudly,” Henry warned, alert for the pair but also for any hint of danger, “You never know what’s listening.”

          He heard the other audibly swallow, “R-right.”

          Henry walked around one cubicle, into a pathway between several that led to a closed door, glancing about warily. This place hadn’t been as touched by the damage the rest of the studio had seemingly suffered, outside of a few minor ink spills in the corners of the room. He supposed it wasn’t a surprise. Wouldn’t want a valve bursting all over the artwork.

          But it was still very empty, with nothing stirring at the sound of his counterpart’s voice.

          Just as he was about to tell the other man that they should move on, however, his ears picked up a distant sound. One that was drawing steadily closer, a heavy thumping that sent a thrill of alarm down his spine.

          Before he or the other man could react, the door was suddenly flung open, two shapes hurtling inside. Henry hefted his axe, ready for the worst, when the light fell on the two and lit them in incandescent clarity, revealing who they were.

          The man behind him beat him to the punch, crying out in relief, “Bendy! Joey!”

          It was indeed the two they were looking for, both a winded and wincing beneath the bright light they were under, but unquestionably them. They had certainly looked better though. The poor toon looked this close to melting into the floor, his ink was running so badly, and Joey looked a completely mess, panting like he’d run a marathon. Perhaps not impossible, considering. The sight honestly made him a little worried that they had . . . run into the Demon.

          The two, once their eyes to the sudden glare of light and hearing a familiar voice, started towards them, both shouting, “HENRY!”

          The man beside him met the frantic pair halfway, and no sooner had they crossed the gap did words begin to fall from them in streams, so fast and erratic he could barely understand them.

          “Henry, its downstairs-!”

          “Where are the others?! Aren’t they with you-?!”

          “-we gotta get out now-!”

          His counterpart looked equally bewildered, concerned, and frightened, trying to calm them both down and failing rather miserably, “H-hey, it’s alright, guys, relax-!”

          But they weren’t listening, too afraid to listen, and it only confirmed Henry’s growing suspicions. And if the Demon was what they had run into, then where was it now?

          “Calm down, all of you!” Henry yelled, hating having to do so but knowing it was the only way he would be heard.

          The effect is pretty instantaneous, all falling blessedly silent, and Henry wasted to time in talking, “We know the Demon’s here. The others are already outside, but we need go, now.”

          “You came?” that question came from Joey, looking genuinely startled to see him there.

          Henry nodded, “I did. Now where’s the closest exit? We can’t wait around, it’s too dangerous with the Demon here.”

          He had expected an answer, obviously. One that was quick, concise, and straight to the point, and then high-tailing it out this studio as quickly as they could.

          And an answer he got. Except the words come from directly behind him, hidden in the shade.

          “Aw, now that’s just rude.”

          Years of honing his reflexes is the only reason Henry got his axe up in time, right as something cold, dark, and heavy struck him in the side. His weightless for a moment as he was flung through the air, before slamming hard into one of the cubicle walls, sending it collapsing with a violent shudder. His instincts are screaming to get up even though his thoughts are running near incoherently, panicked and confused, since when was the Demon he knew capable of sneaking up on someone like that?

          Several other screams jolted Henry to action, clambering upright hastily over the wreckage of the cubicle, shaking off the worst of the blow quickly. The flashlight had fallen, dropped in the sudden chaos that had ensued, and in that scant light, he can pick out just a few details.

          Like how Joey was gone, perhaps knocked aside as well, his counterpart and Bendy frozen in mortal fear within the flashlight’s glow as something large entered its light. A hand lashed out like a viper then, far faster than the beast he knew had moved before, grabbing Bendy by the collar of his shirt. The toon screamed, writhing and twisting in its grasp, trying to escape but all in vain before the monster’s unnatural strength.

          “AAAH, LET ME GO, LET ME GO!”

          “BENDY!” His counterpart shouted, dismayed. But Henry could see his hands scrabbling for the acetone he’d left in the other’s care, frantically grasping at the stopper.

          But he’s not fast enough, and a huge, clawed hand grabbed him by the arm that was holding onto the bottle and hoisted him up into the air, twisting back until the other screamed and was forced to drop it. It fell with a clatter, bouncing away into the darkness.

          “Now now, didn’t yer parents ever tell ya not to play with dangerous toys? Somebody could get hurt,” the Demon asked tauntingly, its wicked smile leering into the man’s terrified face. Its grip tightened then, a slow, terrible pressure that hurt just to watch, when-

          CRACK!

          His counterpart screamed, a sound that’s quickly lost when the creature hurled away like he was nothing more than garbage. There’s a crash as another cubicle is knocked over, but the whimpering moans he can hear let him know the other was at least still alive.

          For how long, though, with this . . .?

          “HENRY!” Bendy cried, tears spilling down his cheeks, “STOP, STOP HURTING EVERYONE, PLEASE!”

          “Oh, quit yer whinin’! I wanted to do this nicely, but you had to go and make everythin’ difficult! This is yer fault any of this is happenin’!” the monstrosity in the room growled, harshly shaking the toon by the collar.

          Henry had no idea what it was talking about, but right now, he could hardly care. This was bad, and normally, the only thing to do was run. But people were in danger, real danger, and if he failed to act now, they would die.

          So, hefting the axe back into his hand and taking advantage of the Demon’s lack of focus on him, he sprang forward and furiously brought the head down on the creature’s extended arm.

          SHLICK!

          The blade sliced through it’s inky hide far easier than he remembered it ever doing before, so deep it severed its arm entirely from its torso. Bendy dropped to the ground, immediately scrambling away and shooting for the wrecked cubicle nearby. It roared once, stumbling back before spinning on him and viciously swinging with its remaining one, a move he barely dodged in time. The whisk of its claws brushed along his skin, too close for comfort, and he backpedaled enough to give him some distance, acutely aware of the narrow space he was in. Keeping his eyes on the beast, Henry leveled his axe its way, trying to cool his nerves as stared it down with a scowl, “Leave them alone.”

          The creature hissed at him, “Oh, big man now, huh Henry? Ya really think you can take me on?”

          “I can try,” he responded, resolute despite his own internal fear. There’s going to be no redoes here, and if there’s one thing that’s been made clear, it’s that the monster’s he’s fought in the past is no longer being mindlessly driven by a madman’s narrative. No, this cleverness is all its own. And while it seemed more prone to injury, that cleverness could make it so much more dangerous.

          Ink bubbled up along its wound before it began to extend and grow outward, running into bony shape and slivered claws as its lost limb was grossly replaced, “Ha, I’d like to see it! But I got a quick question for ya, Henry; how good are ya at ad-libbin?”

          The glow from the flashlight caught its wicked smile, and just for a second, Henry thought he saw them extend into something far sharper and sinister, “Cause this time, you ain’t got no script to keep you safe!”

          It lunged then, the darkness around it pulsing like a living thing, and Henry heard the roar of blood in his own ears as he dodged its blows. Narrowly avoiding its second attack, he swung in retaliation, the edge of his axe blade gouging into its shoulder. Ink sprayed from the wound, and he swung again, landing another blow across its chest and slicing through that drooping tie around its neck.

          It spat a curse at him, and Henry backpedaled just int time to avoid another swipe, knowing that taking his eyes off of it in this darkness could be disastrous. But this cubicle space didn’t offer a lot of room, and one more step back has his heel hitting one of their walls.


          Shit!

          The Demon took full advantage, lunging for him, and he ducked just in the nick of time. He could hear its claws rake through the plaster, leaving deep furrows behind as they sliced through. With no other option presented to him, Henry braced himself and charged, shoulder slamming into the beast’s chest. Evidently not expecting it, the creature stumbled back, foot knocking the flashlight and sending it spinning dizzyingly in the dark. In the chaos, Henry took his chance to swing again. The blade bit deeper this time, right into the juncture where its neck would be if it had one.

          He wrenched it back as the creature howled, angry now, and Henry backpedaled again, keeping his distance. It glared at him, furious, seething . . .

          Then its body melted, vanishing from sight.

          Henry did not let his guard down for an instant, every sense open for any shift in the air, any stray noise. He knew it was still here somewhere, biding its time in a way it wouldn’t have done before in their cursed studio.

          Feh, the one time he wanted the Demon’s former predictability . . .

          He could hear murmuring coming from the destroyed cubicle nearby, hushed, frightened voices, and damn it, they hadn’t made a run for it yet?

          That’s when he heard. A soft, bubbling pop right by his foot at exactly the same time something large gripped him tightly around the ankle.

          “Shi-!” he didn’t even get to finish before he was suddenly wrenched off of his feet, slamming stomach-first into the ground. Coughing, Henry managed to roll onto his back, attempting to scramble back, but the beast had remerged from the waist up, bringing a claw down on him before he could move too far.

          Henry brought his axe up just in time. But its still relentlessly strong, and it gripped the haft of his axe with one hand and thrust him back, slamming him against the floor. Henry grunted, fighting to hold it back, when movement in his peripherals caught his attention.

          He barely jerked his head to the side in time when the beast’s other claws slammed beside him, digging deep through the wood below him. It left them there, peering down at him as it continued to press down on the axe, and Henry glared in return, lips curled into a snarl.

          “Still think you can fight me? This ain’t his storybook anymore, Henry,” it said, leaning down threateningly, “And if you keep tryin’ my patience, it ain’t gonna end well for ya!”

          The wooden haft of the axe began to crack, splinters beginning to spiderweb through the wood. And he was pinned, unable to escape! Shit, shit!

           “But I’ll give ya some credit. Ya still know how to use this damn thing,” it added somewhat begrudgingly, nodding to the axe. But it soon cocked its head to one side and added, a note of triumph entering its voice, “But now its time for you to take a nap old-timer. Be grateful I’m makin’ this quick.”

           The claws embedded in the wood beside him shuddered as it wrenched its claws back, poised over its head, ready to swing. And there was no where he could go, damn it!

          We’re dead . . . he thought despairingly, knowing that there was next to no hope now.

          Then, out of nowhere, there was the sound of shattering glass and splashing liquid followed by a hot and horrible hiss, and the Demon above him howled.

          It jerked back, bursting back to its full height and twisting around wildly, blending into the darkness as it left the cone of the flashlight’s glow. And illuminated instead, just behind where it had stood . . . was a shaking, bug-eyed Joey Drew, shards of shattered glass around his feet.

          He’d . . . saved him?

          No, no time to think about that now. Quickly, Henry reclaimed his feet, running to the man and grabbing his arm, “Come on, we need to go, now!”

          “YOU’RE NOT GOING A̴͐̍Ń̵̄̉̽͘Y̵̆W̷͌͗́̾͘H̷̛̊̃͘ER̵̓E!̸͑͝”

          Henry spun around to see the Demon was already recovering, even though its hide still sizzled, running for them with a gait that was much more familiar to him. But all its attention seemed to be focused on Joey rather than him, a frothing, near mindless rage he could almost say he understood.

          And with the way its claws were flexed, Henry knew it was aiming to kill.

          And maybe he’s being spurred by adrenaline and instinct or maybe he’s just crazy . . . but he did something he never thought he would do.

          He shoved Joey Drew out of harm’s way.

          It’s a moment that seemed to last forever, and it seemed like he was aware of everything that happened within it all at once; the other man’s startled face, the Demon bearing down on him, a pair of cries in the distance, then-

          SHLUK!

          It felt more like a punch to the gut at first, struck so hard and fast he’s left winded and not entirely sure at first as to what just happened. But then, the pain came, knife-sharp and hot, churning in his stomach and intensifying with every staggered breath. Slowly, his eyes travelled down . . . to find claws embedded so deep in his gut he wouldn’t be surprised if they went poked out of his back. Black oozed around them, dripping copiously onto the floor, his blood . . .

          Henry coughed, feeling something wet rise up in the back of his throat, the pain flaring like a sunburst. It . . . it hurt . . .

          “Tch . . . just have to be the hero, don’t ya old man?” the Demon’s voice reverberated through him, its tone sounding strangely . . . disappointed. Then, it wrenched its claws back, a move that sent more flares of agony through his body right before he collapsed onto his side, no longer able to support himself.

          There are noises, other voices screaming, but its . . . so hard to focus on them.

          Am I dying . . .? he wondered, a thought that brought a bizarre mix of both fear and relief. Fear, because there are no redoes here, and relief, because of exactly the same. No fighting anymore . . .

          Huh, he’s grown so used to death not meaning anything anymore . . . and now, it seemed more important than ever to avoid it because there are others here relying on him, but he can’t avoid it, can he?

          A sudden, strident yelling caught his waning attention, just for a moment, right as a flare of something bright and orange filled the peripherals of his vision. There’s more roaring, furious and loud, but it seemed so quiet . . .

          There are shapes around him, black, faceless shapes, voices shouting maybe at him, but they’re so far away they might as well not be there at all.

          He felt something grab him by the arm, move him, and a stab of agony ripped through him one last time before all the world went black.

 

*

 

*

 

*

 

*

          The world spun chaotically around him for a few horribly disjointed seconds, a blur of black, white, and colors before it finally settled into something normal.

          And when his vision returned to normal, he was greeted by the sight of a familiar room. Pinned up notes, framed photos, worn wallpaper, a work table . . .

          The sight of it filled him with a dread nothing else could match.

          He would scream, shout, run . . . but like every time before, his body moved without his command, a puppet on another’s strings. He’s never had control here. He’s not supposed to.

          He entered the next room, a familiar kitchen, and the growing pit in his stomach bottomed out completely, dread and anxiety changing into true horror.

          Across from him, the man responsible for all his suffering glanced his way from the book he was idly reading, like he was no more than a passing thing of mild interest. Henry wanted to yell. His mouth stayed firmly shut.

          This isn’t really happening, his own mind screamed, desperate, so very scared, but unable to even twitch a finger to alleviate it, This can’t be happening!

          With a long-suffering sigh, Joey Drew flipped his book shut, eyeing him like a disobedient child, “Ah, Henry, you’ve really made a mess of things. I don’t know how you managed it, but it’s been a real doozy trying to fix everything that’s gone wrong.”

          No, no, no, please, this can’t be real!

          “But, I suppose it doesn’t matter now,” with a pained grimace and shaking limbs, the man grabbed his cane and foisted himself onto his feet, slowly tottering around the kitchen counter to stand before him. Henry eyes follow him, but allow no more movement than that. Once he was there, the man gave him a smile, one that cuts like a razor, “I have you back. And the story can continue like it always has. Just as it should.”

          No, I can’t, please, I can’t!

          Joey placed a hand on his shoulder, patting it in a way that comes across as condescending, “Just don’t get yourself into any more sticky situations. I’d rather we not have to go through this again.”

          The man then gestured to a door, the door, the door Henry hated more than any man should ever have to hate one. And he knows what Joey meant with his gesture, can see it in his smile, a smile that’s lined with something evil that Henry wished he had seen years ago, “Now go on. Let’s get this story back on track.”

           Henry’s body moved once more without his permission, and he fought, he fought so hard as his feet took him closer to that accursed door, seized by a desperation he hadn’t felt in such a long time. Because now, he remembered what it was he was missing, he remembered food, he remembered the sky, he remembered freedom, and he can’t go back to this nightmare again, he can’t do it!

          Stop, STOP, damn it, STOP!

          But his body paid his mind no heed, it never did. And its only when he walked beyond that dark threshold and the door clicked closed behind him that the binds that controlled him slackened. He gasped when control returned, and as soon as he could move again, he spun around and grabbed the handle, attempting to force it open again, pulling, pushing, banging his fists until they bled . . .

          But it doesn’t even shudder, a simple, empty prop now, a deceptive and cruel lie to tantalize his hopes.

          “JOEY!” he shouted, even though he knew any pleas he made would fall on deaf ears, “DAMN YOU, JOEY, OPEN THIS DOOR!”

          But it never does. It never will.

          A pure sense of hopeless despair filled him, the likes of which he hadn’t felt since he’d first realized he’d never escape, so strong it brought genuine tears to his eyes.

          “I can’t do this again . . . I can’t . . .”

          Something cold suddenly washed around his ankles, and he looked down to find that ink had begun to pool across the floor. A bitter feeling of dread lighting up his senses, he turned around to find that the whole hall and the room beyond had flooded.

          Its not as frightening, though, as when a ghoulish, malformed hand suddenly burst up from the depths, latching onto his shirt.

          He cried out, attempted to kick it back down, but more were joining it, so many more, overwhelming him.

           “Did you think you could just leave?” he heard Susie’s voice whisper in the murk, accusing and taunting all at once.

           “You know there’s no escaping this place,” Norman’s called out, like Henry were a fool for believing so.

           “What makes you so much better than the rest of us?” Wally accused.

           “You’re one of us,” a myriad of voices whispered in sync, drowning out every other sound, “And you can’t leave.”

            They pull him down, down into the depths, into the darkness, away from any hope of ever seeing the light again. And as the ink flooded his mouth, Henry tried one last time to grab the handle of the door, only for his fingers to brush the metal before darkness smothered everything from sight, and he can’t breath, he can’t breath-!

            Henry gasped suddenly, eyes flying open, panicked confusion filling him to the core as he attempted to sit up, only for both pain in his gut and a hand on his shoulder to still him.

            He was about to slap the sudden hand away, when a familiar voice whispered to him, soothing, “Henry, Henry, it’s okay. You’re alright.”

           Henry paused, focusing his attention on the shape beyond the hand. It was dim, but there’s a light coming form somewhere, just enough to see who it is.

           “Al?” he started, confused, but relief and hope began to bubble under his skin as well.

           The woman nodded, “Yes, yes, its me. Its okay. Whatever you were seeing before, it was just a bad dream.”

           A bad dream . . . just a bad dream . . .

           The relief is overwhelming as Henry slumped back against whatever he was laying on, bringing a hand to cover his eyes as tears began to bead at the corners of them, letting loose a heavy and shaking breath. Al hadn’t removed her hand from his shoulder, a gesture of comfort, one he appreciated.

             After a few moments, he began to remember everything that had happened before, and questions began to arise.

            “Al, why are you here? You were supposed to be outside,” he asked her, finally dropping his hand again.

           She gave him a sad look, “We tried. But . . . but there’s something in the way Henry. None of the doors would open, and when Tom tried to break a window, it . . . it was like it hit him back. It broke his arm.”

           She looked to her left, and its only then Henry realized the wolf was sitting near his feet. His metallic arm was gone, the stump wrapped in bandages. He was awake, and he gave Henry a nod when he noticed the other’s attention.

           “But that’s a good thing. And we’re lucky Susie grabbed those extra acetone bottles,” Al went on, looking back to him, “We went back to look for you, and we heard screaming. The Demon, it . . . it almost killed you.”

            Her voice shook a little, head bowing, and Henry felt terrible for worrying her. Nearby, Tom gave a soft, comforting woof.

             “So you saved us,” Henry said. Then, with a thrill of more alarm, he asked, “All of us, right? I-is everyone-?”

             “They are,” Al reassured him. Quietly, she shimmied to her right, revealing what lay beyond her.

              It was an office space, larger than most. He must be on some sort of sofa or couch, as he was elevated above the rest of the floor, but he could see everything clearly. Everyone seemed to be asleep, fitful and restless though it seemed, but all were thankfully present. Susie and Alice were curled up across from him, leaning against one another, while Sammy was laying just a foot away from them, curled up on his side. By the desk, Boris, Bendy, and his own counterpart sat in that order, and Henry winced guiltily when he saw the rough splint around the man’s arm. And on the desk itself, slumped over a myriad of books and papers, was Joey Drew.

            The sight of him sent a thrill of confusing emotions through him, and he has to forcefully untangle the threads of reality from his recent and horrible dream, a dream that reminded him of why he hated the other so much.

             Exhaling slowly, Henry leaned back, wincing a little at the pain he could still feel, “What happened?”

            After we got the Demon distracted, we grabbed you and ran. Since we can’t leave, Joey led us to his office, and he drew something on the door to keep the Demon out. A warding spell, he called it. He almost didn’t make in time, the Demon was right outside when he finished. But so far, its held. It can’t get us. Trade-off is, we’re trapped.”

          Henry nodded slowly, absorbing her information carefully, “And how long have we been here?”

          “Hours, at least. You . . . you were out for a while, Henry. But there were a few bottles of uncorrupted ink in here, and I guess Joey’s magic can be used for healing too.”

          That sent alarm buzzing through him, Henry jerking his gaze to her, “He used his magic on me?!”

         “Stop,” she said, and it was in that word he heard how tired she sounded, “Henry, I know how you feel about him. But you were dying. And his magic saved you. Saved all of us. Isn’t that worth something?”

          He stared at her, frowning just a little. Was it worth something? It was still hard for him to believe that.

          A memory struck him then, of the same man standing behind the Demon after chucking a bottle of acetone at it, shaking and scared, but doing it anyway, possibly saving his life.

          A sudden groan grabbed all of their attention, and Henry’s eyes shot to the desk to see the man they had been talking about was stirring. He sat upright, rubbing at his heavily ringed eyes beneath his glasses, yawning expressively. Wearily, the man glanced around the room, a look of somber sadness on his face, when his gaze landed on the three of them.

          He froze. Stared.

          Then, he was jolting upright, shooting to them with a look of pure relief on his face, “Oh thank god, you’re awake!”

          Al hushed him, looking pointedly and the sleeping shapes around them. Joey stopped, looking chastised as he nodded. But he kept coming closer, looking Henry over worriedly, “How are you feeling? Do you need more ink? I-I have a few bottles, still.”

          Henry tamped down on his curdling distaste, forcing out a more amiable, “I’m . . . alright. Though I think we’d all be better if we could get out of this place.”

          The man cringed, looking at his feet, “I’ve been trying to do that this entire time. Your Demon, its somehow cast a sealing spell over the studio, trapping us all inside. The only counter spell strong enough for it is in that same spellbook.”

          Of course, “Great. Anything else?”

          “Do you have anything to hurt the Demon? Maybe if we weaken it . . .” AL started, looking hopeful.

          But Joey was shaking his head, “Anti-demon anything I got rid of a long time ago. I didn’t want any of the toons to get hurt by accident.”

          “. . . they’re demons?” Henry started, not quite able to believe that.

          “No, no, of course not. The magic that created them has roots in that sort of thing, though, and they’re affected by such spells,” he explained, but he looked guilty, “Never thought we’d ever need something like that . . .”

          Al wilted, “Well, then I don’t know what we can do.”

          “What about getting the spellbook and undoing it?” Henry asked.

          “We could . . . but that would set the Demon free too,” Joey look horrified at the thought, “It could . . . kill even more people.”

          Henry supposed that was true. But that didn’t solve their situation, “Then what can we do?”

          Joey chewed on his bottom lip, glancing at him as he wrung his hands together. Then, “I . . . was hoping to ask you. You know this Demon. If you can maybe tell me things about it, how it was made, what it was made from, I could maybe come up with something then.”

          Henry frowned at the man, “Wouldn’t you know, since you made him here?”

          Something flashed in the man’s eyes, a flash of something he had not seen once in all the time they’d been here, and the man snapped, “Bendy is nothing like that!”

          Henry and his two allies stared at the man, stunned. And in that silence, Joey seemed to realize what he’d just done, face falling apologetically as he ran a hand over his face, “I’m sorry. I just . . . I don’t know what your Joey did, but he did something wrong. That’s all I meant.”

          Henry stared at him thoughtfully. His Joey had done a lot of things wrong, certainly. But with the Demon in particular. Hm . . .

          “I don’t . . . really know how he did it,” he started slowly, “I wasn’t there. But . . . one time, I did hear in an audio log that when they first made it, it didn’t come out right. Thomas called it soulless . . .”

          “Soulless?” Joey echoed, staring. But as Henry watched, he saw some light begin to return to them man’s eyes, eyes that grew bigger and bigger as he waved a finger through the air, “Yes, yes, that would make sense. With nothing inside him to give him guidance or a sense of empathy, it’s very possible he could turn out like this!”

          “Okay, but what does that mean?” Al asked him.

          “It means . . . it means it might just be the weakness we need!” Joey told her, looking as close to ecstatic as he had ever seen him.

          Henry stared at him, suspicious, “How?”

          Joey saw the suspicion in his eyes, however, the light in his own dimming just a little as a more subdued expression took over. He took a deep breath, pressing his palms together before looking Henry’s way pleadingly, “I . . . I know you don’t trust me. I don’t blame you for that. But people . . . my friends, my toons, they’re all in danger. And this could be the thing that saves them! So please . . . just hear me out.”

          Henry stared at his face hard, looking for any sign of treachery, and deceit. But all he saw was open honesty. It’s a look he never thought possible on Joey Drew’s face.

          Nobody’s done you any wrong, least of all Joey.

          It’s not bad here!

          And that includes the people too. All of them.

          I hope I can earn out new guests trust eventually. Especially . . . especially Henry’s.

          Isn’t that worth something?

          Those thoughts whispered in his head like he was only now just hearing them. And, glancing around at the people strewn about the room, injured, frightened, and hopeless, with a monster that has them all trapped within . . . he realized that there was no other option available to them.

          So, after a long moment . . . Henry closed his eye and took a deep breath, “Don’t make me regret this.”

         Opening them again, he focused them on Joey, to see the man looking at him with something akin to hope.

         “What’s your plan?”

Chapter Text

          All was quiet in the dark halls of the studio, still and silent, nothing daring to scurry. In each dark room, every light seemed dead, every wall stained black, with air so heavy it pressed like a weighted blanket over the halls.

          It remained quiet for some time . . . until, in one room underground, a sound began to emanate. It started distant, a metallic warbling as if something heavy were slipping over a park-side slide. Then, it grew louder, louder, drawing closer to the end until suddenly a shape was jettisoned through an overhead duct, landing harshly against a pile of objects long abandoned, knocking a cloud of dust loose into the still, heavy air. The shape slid down before finding purchase on the floor, coming to a rest and breathing slowly, quietly, listening closely for any sound of danger.

          And, when nothing happened, they finally rose.

          With another steading breath, Al took a close stock of her surroundings, keeping all her senses on alert. Just like everyone had said, the duct had taken her to the deeper parts of this studio, close to where she needed to be.

          Her hand was clenched around several pieces of paper, maps Joey had drawn of the place from the best of his memory alone, her only way to navigate this strange new studio. It would have been too dangerous to bring anyone else who knew the studio. It would be far too easy for one to let loose an unintentional whimper, freeze in sudden fear, things that would doom them no matter how small. But, she had always been a better navigator than anyone else, knew instinctively the best paths to go, and how to not get caught while she did it. It’s a feat she’s always been a little proud of.

          Now, its intrinsic to all of their survival here.

          And, their best shot at seeing this plan to fruition.

*

          “No, Tom!” Al said for the fifth time since their decision, looking the stubborn old wolf in the eye as she wrenched her arm out of his hold, “We’ve gone over this already! Your arm’s broken, and Henry’s too hurt to move! Besides, we’ve gone out on our own like this hundreds of times before.”

          The wolf growled in disagreement, gesturing pointedly to the maps, not for the first time pointing out how they don’t know this place.

          “I know you’re worried. But I’m the best when it comes to navigating, and I’m pretty good at being quiet. And not taking risks,” Al replied sternly, refusing to budge.

          The two stared each other down, both obstinate, until Al crossed her arms and added her final nail, “Besides . . . I can actually fit in the vent.”

          Tom’s lip curled into a snarl, but even he couldn’t deny that. She understood how he felt, she did, but they had to be smart about this. Opening the actual door ran the risk of lowering the ward and letting the Demon inside. The vent offered a quieter, more clandestine alternative, one that wouldn’t endanger anyone.

          “Are you sure you want to do this?”

          Al turned to face Joey. The man was an . . . enigma to her. The image she had held of him had always been that of a manipulative, deceitful man, the portrait Henry had painted for her in hushed, curt words. But this one . . . clashed with all of that. She could read him so easily, and he spoke with an honesty that could be mistaken for brutal if not for the fact it never seemed to be with ill-intent of any sort. Always so earnest, and genuinely desperate to fix this horrible situation. And right now, he was wringing his hands together, looking guilty and fearful, like a part of him really wanted her to say no.

          Those things were why she had decided to trust him. Even with this . . . crazy plan that only someone halfway mad would come up with. Even though he had explained it to them as best he could, all of the ins-and-outs, every risk, every failsafe, it was . . . a lot to put their belief in. Not even getting into if it worked . . .

          But it was the only shot they had now.

          “I’m sure,” she said, fighting down the familiar dread of wandering in shadowed halls, a creature hunted by a much bigger predator.

          Several people murmured, the others having woken some time ago. Alice’s halo drooped, Susie squeezing a comforting hand against her shoulder before looking Al’s way, “I know you probably already know this, but . . . please be careful.”

          “Yeah . . .” Boris whispered, hands folded tightly together.

          “Is this really all we can do?” Sammy asked, the surly one she had come to know rather than the prophet they had wrangled with in the past. That one had been very quiet, and Al wasn’t sure if that should worry her or not.

          “. . . it’s our best bet,” Joey told him, but his face was downcast, “I know that its . . . risky. But it might be the only thing that can help us now.”

          “I know it’s a lot Al,” Henry said, her Henry. He was able to sit up now, but a hand was still pressed to the injuries he had endured, and she could see it was taking a lot of his strength just to do even that, “But the book’s all you need to get. You remember where to go afterwards?”

          Al huffed just a little, “Yes Henry. I know. Don’t worry, I promise that I won’t let anyone down.”

*

          Taking a moment to just breathe, closing her eyes as she prepared herself to delve into the depths of a studio that had suddenly been plunged into a nightmare, Al couldn’t help feeling it was unfair. They’d only just begun to explore this newfound world, only just started to understand what real freedom was like.

          And then the Demon had to come and spoil it.

          But no matter. She’d promised she would retrieve that book. And retrieve it she would, and hopefully stick it where the sun didn’t shine for the monster that had tormented them so and win back the freedom it had stolen once again.

          Clutching her sword, Al slowly crept forward and nudged the door open, peering out into the hall.

          Nothing stirred, thankfully, and she heard nothing of the tell-tale sounds of the Demon’s approach. So far, it seemed safe. She knew better than to let her guard down, though.

          Creeping out slowly, keeping her footsteps light so as not to make the floorboards creak, she slipped past the door into the hall proper. It seemed like any other in her old studio, with that heavy, oppressive air an uncomfortably familiar sensation. But nothing stirred. Seemed she was alone down here. For now.

          Joey had said the chutes were a chaotic mess and could deposit her anywhere, but she had an idea of what to look for and a good sense of direction to boot. So, after a moment, she chose her direction and began to creep along the wall, daring enough to flick on the flashlight she had been given to light her path. The light cut a wide swath in the dark, but cast those outside it’s shine in even deeper shadow, a chiaroscuro of black and white.

          Stay quiet.

          Its slow going, but slow was better in a situation like this. All the while, she kept her eyes peeled, occasionally sneaking glances at her maps to see if she could make sense of some of the passageways scrawled there. Unfortunately, since she’d been deposited somewhere in the middle of the place, it was impossible to tell exactly where she was.

          But she kept going. Moving forward was all she could do.

          During her slow, steady searching, glancing around at the doors she passed before dismissing them as they did not match the description she’d been given, Al suddenly paused. Tilting her head up just a little, she sniffed the air, and realized her senses weren’t leading her astray. There was something hanging there that was different from the cloying ink scent, something a touch stronger, something earthy and sharp. Creeping forward, she examined the dark hall, searching for the source as it grew a touch stronger.

          Ahead of her, something bronze glimmered beneath the light of her torch, catching her eye. Carefully, keeping her ears open for nay treachery, Al came closer to it until she could see the object clearly.

          A snubbed white candle in a bronze cradle, an empty glass vial discarded beside it. It must have been out for while, as the blackened wick was cold, but whatever it had burned still hung in the air, that herbal, earthy scent.

          Al gave a soft gasp then. Joey had said he’d been down here recently, where he’d found both his toon and the Demon.

          “I know it might be a long shot,” his voice echoed within her thoughts, “But if you manage to find that candle, that’ll mean you’re close. It could point you in the right direction.”

          “Well, how about that,” she mused, gently nudging the handle of the cradle in wonder. Guessed she could be lucky, sometimes.

          Now, which way to go . . .

          Ahead of her, she heard a soft, metallic groan.

          Immediately, Al flicked the light off and crouched, all but holding her breath as she strained her ears to listen. After another breathless minute, that same sound came again, like a pipe on the verge of bursting. It was coming from ahead, just around a bend in the hall before her.

          No growling. No heavy footsteps. No discordant roars. Just the groaning of metal pipes.

          She still did not relinquish the grip on her sword. And she did not dare turn the light on again.

          Keeping low and quiet, she slowly traversed the space until she the groaning led her to a door, where she could hear the deep rumble just beyond. And it seemed her intuition has led her right; the door she saw here matched the one Joey had described to her.

          Heart thudding, Al leaned forward and pressed her ear to the door, listening intently for anything beyond. But it was just the groaning, and below that, a soft splash of something liquid hitting the floor.

          Taking a breath to steady her nerves, Al softly clasped the knob in her hands and slowly, slowly, slowly twisted it, every small, stuttering jerk making her heart beat fast as the slightly rusty knob failed to turn smoothly.

          She was just as slow opening the door, wincing at the creak in the hinges as they protested her opening it. Thankfully, nothing came surging out the dark. Seemed the room was empty . . .

          Taking a moment to gather herself, Al took the first step inside, finally daring to turn on the flashlight again to shine a little extra light within, hoping it would help her locate this book easier than without. She gave the room a quick, steady sweep, picking out first the large, ominous symbol scrawled across the floor, the alien symbols sending a chill up her back. A chair was strewn at the heart of one of the circles, cut ropes scattered around it, an worrying sight no matter what circumstance. Worse still, she thought she had an idea of what this was. The Bendy and Joey of this world had told them what had happened in pieces, but it had been halting and hesitant, the toon himself still so shaken by everything that even just the horrifying bits they had gotten out nearly sent him to tears. They’d stopped talking after that.

          But as she watched the toon relate his tale, saw the emotions on his face that was something so much closer to human than not, Al found herself feeling something she never thought she would for a creature that shared the face and name of the beast that had terrorized them so.

          Sympathy. For she had been scared like that too, more times than she cared to count.

And that was without the added ‘pleasure’ of a monster attempting to steal her body from her.

          Tearing her eyes away from the putrid symbol on the floor, Al instead looked for the thing they needed. Her gaze glanced over the large, groaning pipe in the room, the torn rents within the casing occasionally spurting black onto the floor with every gusty heave of the ink within, forming a shallow pool before it. Those rents . . . she had to steady her breath when she recognized the claw marks for what they were. Swallowing, she gave the pool a wide berth, the burn on her arm an unpleasant reminder that this was not the ink that helped her heal, and chose instead to fix her eyes on the only other item of interest in the room; a lone table pressed along the wall.

          There were numerous objects strewn across it, but her heart lurched when she saw a familiar binding of leather on the table, rushing towards it with hope flaring in her heart.

          A book indeed is what she found, seemingly tossed there by an uncaring hand, its binding as dark as the ink itself with a bright red symbol hatched into the cover. It sent an uncomfortable tingle down her spine, one she didn’t rightly understand, but after flicking it open and perusing the confusing pages inside, she deemed that this must be what she was looking for.

          It lifted a weight off her chest, this discovery, so thankful the demon hadn’t just destroyed it. But still . . . these rituals, these spells . . .

          Could this really fix this this mess they were in?

*

          “We need the book it stole. That’s the first thing.”

          Joey’s words were met with uncertain silence, Al and her companions trading wary glances.

          “What do you plan do with it?” Henry finally asked, fixing the other man with an intent and scrutinizing stare.

          Joey appeared discomfited by his look, shifting uncomfortably on the spot as he worried his hands together fitfully, “Well, for starters, I’d like to dispel the barrier around the studio. Give the others a chance to escape.”

          “Weren’t you worried about the Demon doing the same?” Henry asked him, gaze still stern. But Al could see beyond the veneer of strength, how heavily he was sagging back against the couch, still more worn and weak than he would have ever liked to be.

          He’d lost so much of his blood, it was a wonder he was up at all . . .

          “I was. Am,” the other man replied, looking down at his feet, “But I hope that the other part of my plan stops that from even happening.”

          “And what is the other part of your plan?” Al questioned.

          “Well, first there’s a binding spell I could use. I remember the sigil, but the words are a bit fuzzy, so I could use a brush up. That would be very useful,” Joey explained, tapping one of his thumbs against his opposite hand. He then pursed his lips, one leg bobbing with restless energy as he drew deeper into thought, consternation clear on his face.

          Henry’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, “And?”

          “A-ah, well, the part after that is . . . tricky. Risky. And, um . . . w-well . . .” the man took a sudden, deep breath, forcing composure where nervousness had been before looking back up to all of them, “I think, maybe, I should explain a few things first. So you understand what it is I’m hoping to do. And, when I do explain it, I, erm . . .”

          His expression shifted to something more earnest, more pleading, “If I could make a small request with this . . . please, I want this part of the plan kept between us.”

          Another flicker of uneasy silence, before Henry slowly asked, “Why?”

          It was terse, suspicious, but not accusing, not yet. Giving the man a chance to explain.

          “Because . . . because I’m afraid they might try to stay if they know,” the man said, eyes travelling to the group in question, all still in fitful slumber. His gaze lingered on them all, guilt filling his expression, gripping his hands together so tightly his knuckles turned white, “They’ve already gone through so much because of this. I don’t want them in danger anymore, not if I can help it at all. So, even if my other plan falls apart, they’ll be out of harm’s way. Maybe . . . they could even find another way to stop it. Lots of churches, and things, in the outside world after all . . .”

          To Al’s eyes, the man had appeared very genuine with his words, an open book with nothing to hide. And maybe there wasn’t. If this world has shown her anything, its that the people within it were nothing like the ones she had come to know. She just had to look at Bendy for that.

          And this Joey was nothing like the one in the stories her Henry had told her.

          Maybe Henry understood that too, for after a long, deliberating moment, arms crossed and thoughtful, he finally nodded, “Alright. We’ll keep this between us.”

          The relief that appeared on the other man’s face was palpable, shoulders sagging like a heavy weight had been lifted, “Thank you.”

          “So . . .” Henry continued after a moment, “What’s the other part of your plan?”

          “Oh, right, that. Well . . .” the man rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously, looking almost sheepish, “Like I said, its risky, but I think it could work, I really do. But, uh . . . just don’t yell at me until I’m done explaining . . .”

*

          Al shook her head, glancing over the book one last time before tucking securely in her arm. Better person or not, this Joey was still a madman, she couldn’t deny. But to some degree it had made sense, and there was was proof it had worked, even if it was crazy. And really, crazy was all they had now.

          At least I have the book, she thought, now I just have to make it back.

          As she turned away, she couldn’t help but skim her eyes over the table before leaving, seeing scattered pictures all across it. Smiling faces returned her inquisitive stare, happy moments in time that spoke volumes about the nature of this world, this studio. Frozen glimpses of their happy, fulfilling lives, untouched by fear, by darkness.

          Before her world had come knocking.

          Something sour curdled in her stomach then, unpleasant and bitter, and Al turned away. She shouldn’t get distracted. She had a job to do.

          Glancing at her maps, she thought she could make out a route to the stairs leading upwards, and quickly made haste for it. As quick as she dared, at least. Moving slower, quieter, was crucial for survival. Most of the time it would only be searchers who got in her way, if she encountered anything at all . . . but this time, there were none. She supposed she should be grateful for small blessings, as there didn’t seem to be any other monsters present outside of the Demon itself.

          But it was a Demon that was acting with far more cleverness that she had ever seen. And this uncharacteristic slyness could make it so much more dangerous to her, to everyone. It had already blocked their escape, had attempted to steal another’s body to blend in and take control, and now was waiting them out in a battle of attrition.

          And, if she had heard right during the pandemonium of saving Henry and his group from death . . . it even sounded like it had gained the ability to speak.

          The change settled wrongly on her, worried her . . . because now, she’s not sure what she could expect.

          But she had to keep moving. It was all she could do.

          Keep quiet.

          Thankfully, she made it to the stairs without incident, climbing up them slowly to avoid as much creaking as she could, into more pleasant territory. Or, what would be pleasant if not for the dripping ink and oppressive atmosphere.

          There was one more flight of stairs to the ground floor, which shouldn’t be too much farther from where she was. So she had been told. Turning left, she walked, slowly, quietly, following the map she had to where she needed to be. There were a number of rooms not drawn in, just the path she needed, so straying was not a good idea. But that made it easier to follow.

          All she had to do was keep quiet.

          She supposed she should count her lucky stars that she hadn’t encountered any problems so far. And that she had found the book as quickly as she had. Hopefully soon, this would be over. She really wanted to believe it would be over.

          Behind her, she heard something clatter to the floor.

          Immediately, she flicked the light off and dove for the hallway beside her, crouching down low, as small as she could maker herself. It felt like her heart had leapt to her throat, choking tight, and it was all she could do keep herself still and breathe slowly.

           She debated only for a second to try moving further back before deciding against that, as she was reluctant to move too far from the hall that she needed to follow. So she stay still instead, low, quiet, and waited. She didn’t hear anything else, no growling or clattering or thumping. If the Demon was the culprit rather than an errant failure of gravity, it would have made it’s presence known by now.

          Later, Al would kick herself for assuming the suddenly shrewd monster would act the way it always had.

          As it stood, the sudden chill up her back, the shadows behind prickling acutely against her skin, made that klaxon siren in her head scream.

          Al flung herself forward as hard as she could, just in time to hear the whisk of something sharp brush by her hair, so close it tugged strands from her head, and leap over the ink that suddenly bubbled beneath her feet.

          Her desperate leap was hard to control, rolling once before scrambling to her feet, shooting one quick, panicked glance down the hall.

          The darkness seemed to shift like a curtain, and from it emerged a cat’s claw grin.

          “Hey, Angel-face. Leavin’ so soon?”

          And then Al was running, fear lending her feet wings as she shot down the hall, everything passing in a shadowy blur. She had no time to look at the maps, no time to even gauge which direction she was running, all she could do was run!

          Behind her, that terrible thumping came, a heavy, choking air assailing her lungs as the beast drew nearer. She did not slow her sprint, if anything running faster, looking for anywhere to run, to hide-!

          “Hey, don’t you know not to take things that aren’t yours? That’s bad manners!”

          It’s voice grated on her ears almost painfully, setting her teeth on edge. The fact that it could really talk sent a horrified thrill up her spine, scarcely able to fathom how or when it had developed such a skill. All her existence, it had only been a monster driven by bloodlust. What had changed?

          She made a sharp right, bursting through the closest open archway into the room beyond. She only took a cursory glance, seeing low desks and chairs pressed against each other, running down the center of the room in a straight line. There were binders and books across them, a few pens and unlit lamps strewn here and there, and along the back wall was a line of chalkboards, most blank, but some bearing words and charts. Another door was across from her, firmly shut, lockers resting beside it.

          Al didn’t give it much more than that. Taking her chances, she shot forward and dove under one of the desks, pressing as far back as she could go, tucking her legs as close as was possible, her flashlight and the book wedged between her knees and stomach.

          Stay quiet.

          The thumping had stopped. But there was an uneasy feeling in the air, the horrid sensation of something dangerous lingering just out of her sight, and she knew that it was still very, very near. She closed her eyes, prayed it would linger for only a little while, or just walk right by, just walk away-

          Thump. Thump.

          Two footsteps, near the door. Heavy, unmistakable, stepping into the room, oh no . . .

          “Well, certainly got yourself in a bind, didn’t ya Angel-face,” it’s voice was mirthful, amused, a cat in the throes of playing with its prey. It felt like the darkness just in the corner of her eye was swimming like water, and she imagined the ink the beast always brought with it reaching for her with phantasmagorical fingers, “Kinda hurts my feelings that you don’t want to stick around. After all, we never got to talk like this before. Ain’t you even a bit curious?”

          Whatever curiosity she might have had was most assuredly smothered beneath fear, so far down it was barely there.

          Thump. Thump. Thump.

          It drew nearer, and she heard an unhurried, protracted skrrreeeek among the rows of desks behind her, slivered claws slowly and indolently dragging themselves over varnished wood, leaving thin scratches in their wake. A scare tactic.

          “Eh, guess I can’t blame ya. But hey, I’m bein’ serious here! I just wanna talk! Cause boy, do I have some things to tell you!~” 

           Al frowned, hand slowly going for the bottle tied securely to her waist. A gift from Joey, to help her should this exact worse-case scenario play out. She certainly it hoped it was as potent as he said it was.

          “Course, chances are you won’t believe me. But that don’t mean I can’t talk, and you can’t listen. Cause yer a smart one, ya know? And I know that you’ve realized by now that things in our studio didn’t work the way you thought they did.”

            Its voice held the grin its face always did, and inside, Al’s heart thudded unpleasantly. Wrapping her fingers tightly around the cap, she twisted it open, silent as a grave.

          “Like, did you know that that moment you and that dog were drownin’ in searchers was the closest you’ve ever come to dyin’? Every other time, yer always fine! Oh, and this world’s Sammy! Gosh, talk about a breath of fresh air! It gets tirin’ chasin’ you around day-in and day-out, especially after you’ve done it for years! Ha, thought I might die of boredom!” there was the shft of papers being slid around, a soft tap, tap, tap of claws against the table.

          Al, for her part, only furrowed her brow, not understanding at all what the Demon was talking about. But perhaps nonsensical was what she should expect.

          Every muscle still coiled, she gently set the bottle down and grabbed the hilt of her sword, beginning a slow, slow, slow draw, muffling the pull of the sheath with her other hand.

          “This probably sounds like a whole bunch of malarkey to ya though, huh? Of course, yer right! No real point in this stuff comin’ from me, since all I am to ya is the Demon from yer worst dreams,” there was a moment of quiet, Al fighting not to be sick beneath the pall of the creature’s presence, that horrible weight seeping into her lungs, her skin, her very core, threatening to swallow her if she made one mistake.

          She slid the sword out just a little more. Almost . . .

          “You should have Henry tell ya all this instead.”

          Her hand paused.

          Almost like it knew it had her attention now, it carried on, “I mean, you do know he’s not tellin you the whole truth, right?

          Thump. Thump. Thump.

          She couldn’t tell if it was the Demon’s footsteps or her own pounding heart.

          Not saying the whole truth . . .

*

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

          Al and Tom turned to Henry, puzzled frowns on their faces as the man spoke. Joey, who’d been neck-deep in worried thought as he stared at the ink bottle in his hands, looked as well, appearing equal parts curious and hopeful, “You can? How?”

          At that, the mean shifted a little uneasily, eyes flicking to her and Tom with an expression she could almost pin as guilty.

          “It’s um . . .well, its . . .” not seeming able to find the right words, Henry eventually just sighed and gestured for the bottle in Joey’s hands, “Let me see that.”

          Joey’s eyebrow quirked upwards, but he did as asked, forking the object over with no objections. Once in his hand, Henry uncapped it, paused, then looked up, “Um . . . this might sound strange, but do you have anything sharp?”

          “Um . . . yes?” Joey said, looking a little concerned now.

          “Can I see it?”

          There’s a few seconds of mildly confused rummaging, but Joey soon returned with an object suitable for whatever Henry had planned; a small letter opener with a stylized head.

          Henry took it, held it . . . then grimaced and looked at them all, face one of apology, “This is going to look a little . . . concerning. But I promise, I know what I’m doing.”

          And, with that and only that, Henry took a breath and dragged the blade across the palm of his hand.

          Al and Joey both lurched forward, now well and truly alarmed as Tom gave a startled grunt.

           “Henry, what are you-?”

          “Oh my god-!”

          He quickly waved them both down, gesturing to the rest of the group still asleep before grabbing the bottle beside him. He glanced around again, wincing a little at the faces they were giving him. Until he looked at Tom, who just narrowed his eyes and raised his hands up in a gesture of ‘why?’

          “You’ll see,” Henry responded.

          He then held his bleeding hand over the bottle, allowing several drops to fall into the ink below, much to everyone’s great confusion and worry. Once done, he gave the bottle a gentle swirl.

          “Do you have a brush?”

          Joey only gave him a reluctant look, eyes inadvertently glancing at his now injured hand, to which the man said, “I’m just going to write with it this time, I promise.”

          It took longer, but Joey eventually (and somewhat reluctantly) gave him a small brush from within his drawers, and Henry glanced at the wall behind the couch, wincing as he maneuvered himself to face it a little more cleanly. Then, he dipped the brush into the bottle and began to write. It was just a few letters, something simple and short, easy to understand. Al watched, curious, puzzled, wondering what exactly the man was doing.

Except . . . something strange began to happen with the letters he drew, as they seemed to sink into the wood grain soon after Henry’s brush had passed, vanishing from sight.

          “What in the world?” she heard Joey murmur in wonder, a feeling she shared in full as she stared. What was happening?

          Henry didn’t take long writing, and as soon as he wrote the last letter, he stopped and leaned back, allowing the last ‘y’ to disappear completely. Before anyone could ask, however, he glanced at Al, that same guilty gleam in his eyes, and said, “Al . . . could you grab the Seeing Tool?”

          She stared, a sudden thump in her chest making her anxious. A feeling like something bad was about to happen hit her, suspicion beginning to take root in her heart. But no, that, that couldn’t be right. It was just her nerves, that was all.

         Still, as she gathered the tool in her hands, it felt like it weighed so much more than it ever had, something foreboding creeping up her back like a chill. There was no way . . .

         But when she brought the tool to her face, and saw that ethereal golden glow on the wall beside Henry’s head, his name spelled out in clean, bold handwriting, it felt like more than just her heart dropped.

         “Henry . . .” she started, staring at the glowing words, just like the ones she had seen before, “What is this?”

          He . . . no, he couldn’t be responsible for the ones she’d seen. They’d been there before he even came to them! There was no way . . .

         “Fascinating . . .” Joey murmured behind her, not understanding the significance of this, looking awed, “How does this work?”

          Henry glanced away, though whether in thought or to avoid Tom’s burning stare was up for debate, “I’m not sure. I found out by accident. But . . . it might help us.”

         “Yes, yes it could!” Joey continued, completely oblivious to the shock Al and Tom both shared, “Incredibly so, I think! But, erm . . . are you sure your alright to do that? You’ve, uh . . . already lost quite a bit of blood.”

          Henry placed a hand over his stomach, but his eyes travelled to Al as he spoke, a note of apology in them, “I’ll manage. I’ve done it before.”

        Al shook her head, “Henry, this- . . . when could you do this? How can you do this, how long have you been able to do this?!”

        “I know. I know this is a lot,” he said, cutting her off but not harshly, “We . . . we can talk about this later, Al. Please . . .”

        And, in light of their circumstances, she had relented. But not before a tiny seed had been planted in her heart, one of doubt. Henry had always seemed like a straightforward man, and he’d never done anything to make her doubt him outside of wander into their midst. He’d been helpful, and patient, and understanding, even when they had held him captive.

        But seeing those glowing words on the wall, written in Henry’s own blood, just like the messages she had seen scrawled in the studio, those messages that had given her hope . . .

        It made her wonder if maybe . . . maybe, just like all of them, he’d had more secrets than he cared to share.

*

         Thump. Thump.

         Al bit her lip, drawing herself back into the now. No, no . . . It didn’t even know what had transpired inside the room, there was no way it could know her sudden doubts. It was just trying to goad her, make her slip, give away her position.

         She’d get her answers soon. She would. But not before she fixed this problem they were in, and stopped this Demon’s plotting in its tracks.

         “Come on, a random stranger rompin’ about in your space, makin’ more progress in a day than you have your whole existence don’t even make ya a little suspicious?” it asked, a leer in its voice.

          Al slowly leaned her head back, keeping her grip steady as she drew her sword out in full, trying to ignore how much its words sunk into her skin like little thorns.

          “Yer smarter than that. But like I said, just ask Henry. I’m sure he’d be happy to fill you in on what he knows,” her hand was just grabbing the bottle when a sudden creeeak above her head made her freeze. Not a moment later, her eyes are being drawn overhead with quiet horror as four long, narrow claws appeared over the rim of the desk, each one slowly curling around the underside of the wood, one after the other in disturbing sync.

          Another creak, the desk groaning beneath the weight of the Demon as it leaned over it, spots of ink dripping onto the ground before Al’s feet. That sickening feeling was stronger, her gut churning near painfully, dark curling in the corners of her vision. She forced herself to be still.

          Stay quiet, stay quiet, stay quiet.

          “No biting, huh? Jeez, yer really disappointin’ me here,” the claws released, vanishing, and Al took that moment to pour the bottle, instinctual dread spurring her hand.

          And she is lucky she did, because right then, the wood on either side of her head exploded in a shower of splinters as claws burst through it, hooking deep and narrowly missing her by a margin. Everything transpired in seconds, but they felt slow and sluggish as the desk was wrenched up and tossed into the blackboards before her, slamming into them with a great crack!

          “Found ya!” it crowed, delighted.

          No time, no time!

          Bottle falling from her hand, Al sucked in what little air she could breath through her teeth, gripped the hilt, spun, and stabbed the oiled blade through its stomach as hard and deep as she could.

          A terrible hiss assailed her ears as the ink in the monster’s stomach began to smoke, and the Demon reeled back, taking her sword with it. It’s claws nearly sliced her across the face as she backpedaled, book locked in her arm, other hand grasping at the blade lodged in its stomach. Without waiting to see what happened, Al turned and ran back the way she came, pelting fast as she heard the creature roar behind.

          “AH, WHAT IS WITH YOU PEOPLE AND BURNING THINGS!!”

          Al did not stop running, not even once, not until her lungs burned and the wobbling of her own legs forced her to stop. She’d found the stairs, thankfully, they had not been too far, back into territory just a bit more familiar. Behind her, she did not hear the creature anymore, but she did take any chances. As soon as her breath caught just a little, she was moving again, ignoring the pain in her muscles and following the routes before her. There were plaques here and there with directions to different locations. Hers was closer to the front of the building.

          A few of these halls she remembered. Her memory had always been good, and it served her well now in conjunction with the map in her hand. And it wasn’t long before she was passing a plaque that pointed ahead of her, the fine white scrawl sending an involuntary shiver down her spine as she read the name;

          The Ink Machine.

          Even if their purposes were different, she couldn’t help but be uneasy. This thing, the thing that had started her existence, her nightmare, everyone’s nightmares . . . how could such a wicked device be harmless here?

          Still, she forced her legs to move. No going back now.

          It’s a fairly simple wooden door she came to, without embellishment or ornamentation. It looked so ordinary it was almost disappointing. Still, book held secure to her chest, she gripped the handle and pulled, the door swinging open with nary a creak.

           She’s met with a furred hand on her shoulder, pulling her quickly inside and shutting the door behind her. No sooner had that happened was Al subjected to Tom’s scrutinizing stare, looking her up and down for any injuries, worried questions in his eyes he didn’t need to give voice to.

          “I’m fine, Tom,” she said softly, touched by his concern. She held up the book for him to see, “And, mission success.”

          “You’re back? Oh, thank goodness!”

           She turned to see Joey coming up to her, when her eyes are drawn to the thing behind him, looming in the center of the room.

           A large, heavy conglomerate of metal and pipes, the dark nozzle at the front a gaping void that led to a dark interior. There’s a heavy thrum coming from it, a pulse like the heartbeat of a sleeping bear, breathing like its alive.

           The Machine.

          Right in front of her eyes.

          Al found herself stuck between a confusing mix of anger, resentment, and curiosity. Here, it looked so innocuous, simple, hardly a threat to her, to anyone. But at home . . . this thing was the cause of so many problems it was unreal. And here it was. Right in front of her.

          This thing was supposed to help with the ritual Joey planned to use . . . but seeing it filled her heart with doubt. How could such a malevolent force be helpful?

          A shock of greying brown hair cut into her vision, breaking the spell, and her eyes focused again on Joey’s greatly relieved face.

          “Are you alright?” he asked her, “Didn’t run into any trouble, I hope.”

          Al gave him a wan smile, “A bit. Had to lose my sword. But I’m fine. Here.”

          She held the book out to him, and he looked down as if he were surprised it was there, like he’d forgotten why she’d gone out in the first place. But then, his face broke into a smile, taking it with a great deal of reverence, shooting her a look that was filled with gratitude.

          “Thank you,” he told her, “This will help. I promise.”

          He turned to the Machine, flipping open the book and setting to work, falling into a state of focus that genuinely surprised her, “Alright, first thing’s first, the barrier . . .”

          She didn’t get to ponder the change more, as movement distracted her, and she turned to see Henry sitting against the wall, axe resting by his side. His expression was unreadable as he looked at her, but he spoke with a soft inflection of genuine relief, “I’m glad you’re alright Al.”

          Al nodded, but she was habitually looking him over, frowning, “Are you sure you should be here, Henry?”

          “I’ll be fine. I want to see this through.”

          She noticed Joey glance the man’s way, looking concerned, but ultimately said nothing as he returned to his work.

          “You two should go back to the others,” Henry told them, “Its dangerous to stay here.”

          “It’s dangerous to stay anywhere,” Al shot back, thinking to the Demon and its leering smile and poisonous words.

          Not telling the whole truth . . .

          She glanced at Henry again, to see he still had not turned his gaze from her, a small frown on his face. What it was meant to convey, she didn’t know.

          “The others could use your help,” Henry said, “We’ll be fine. For now, at least.”

          “It’s true. Really, I don’t need any help past this point, so, if you all wanted to go back, it . . . i-it would be fine! It would be much safer!” Joey was trying to put on a brave face, but the trembling of his shoulders betrayed his fear.

          “Hm, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re trying to shake us,” Al said, bracing her hands on her hips. Tom grunted beside her, agreeing.

          “It’s not about shaking you,” Henry told her, “But the others could use your skills more than us. Especially when the barrier’s gone and you can leave.”

          Al frowned. She understood his concern. She . . . couldn’t say she wasn’t concerned too. The toons were almost too scared to do anything, and even if Sammy was headstrong and Susie displayed a rather remarkable amount of agency for being so new, it would still be too easy for them to make a costly mistake somewhere. Especially with a suddenly smart, conniving Demon on the prowl.

          “We’ll be fine. And you’ll be safer where the Demon can’t reach you,” Henry told her. Then, after a moment, he added, “And we’ll . . . we’ll talk later. I promise.”

          Getting right to the heart of the matter. She supposed that was nice, but it just made her want grow.

          Not telling the whole truth . . .

          Tom’s hand on her shoulder steadied her. Right. She needed to think rationally here. There was not much more she and Tom could do here, it was true. And the others would benefit from their expertise.

          “. . . alright. You win,” she said, somewhat reluctantly, “But you had better come back alive. Promise me that.”

          Not only for her answers, but suspicion or no, she did still care.

          Henry nodded, “I promise.”

          “Are you sure you don’t want to go with them?” Joey took a chance to intone, glancing, “I really don’t need any more help, and-,” 

          “I’ll stay,” Henry said, with no hesitation. He had his stubborn face on. He was not going to budge.

          Joey wilted, evidently seeing it himself. A hand on Al’s shoulder made her turn, and Tom nodded to the door, plainly eager to get moving and not waste any time. She nodded to him, then turned back to the others, “We’ll go. But make sure you keep your promise, alright?”

          Henry nodded, hand coming down to grip the axe as if to ensure himself it was there.

          With that, Al turned for the door, hoping that Henry would keep his word. Hope was all she could do now.

          Quietly, she turned the handle and pushed the door out, into the darkened hall beyond, and-

          “You really need to work on your manners, Angel-face.”

          Tom wrenched her back before she could even fully process what she happening, shielding her with his own body as a long, spindly limb lashed out from the shadows. Even through Tom’s body, she felt the concussive blow like a mallet to her own side, and then they were both flying, crashing into the ground with heavy thud several feet away.

          “AL! TOM!”

          Al clambered upright, gasping, feeling like her chest was rattling with every breath. Desperately, her hands flew to Tom, feeling liquid between her fingers and horror when he didn’t respond to her touch.

          “Tom? Tom?!” she shouted, seeing the terrible gashes curving around his torso, the blow he had protected her from. His eyes flickered once, then closed again, out.

          Before she could do anything, however, that sudden, same chill swept over her, the whole room, freezing, and she looked up from Tom to see the Demon waltz through the door with a lazy kick in it’s step, looking them over with a gleam of triumph shining bright in it’s smile.

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

Chapter Text

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?