Although Feng Min wants to scream, she doesn't. She has only her prior experiences in the nightmare to thank for her momentary composure— she already knows what it's like to have her throat slit, and she doesn't want it to happen again, even though she knows she won't really stay dead. She never wants any of it, no matter how many times it happens.
"There you go," says the voice in her ear only once Feng Min has gone completely still, staring into the fire with angry, unblinking eyes as she remains sitting on the couch. "Just be still. Just like that."
The knife at her jugular twitches. She feels the cool, flat face of the blade kiss the space underneath her chin.
The voice sounds male. There's this gritty sort of layer to it, like the guy's a smoker or a drinker or maybe both. Feng Min doesn't recognize it at all. She wishes she could turn around and look. She'd at least like to get an idea of just who it is that's about to cut her throat open.
"What are you doing here?" asks her assailant. There's the sensation of warm breath on the back of her ear, and she bites her tongue so that she doesn't flinch away into the business edge of the knife.
What, indeed? Feng Min's eyes rip away from the blinding fire to glance up, briefly, towards the second floor. Herman. He'd gone further into the lodge to investigate the rest of it. Had he detected the presence of the person behind her...? Will he? Is he even close enough? She doesn't know how big the chalet really is, or when she can count on him to be back.
Feng Min knows one thing, though: she's not going to tell this guy, whoever the hell he is, anything useful.
"You wouldn't believe me even if I told you," she replies, directing the words at the fire before her.
The guy laughs. "Yeah? Try me." The blade at her neck quivers, and she wants to snap, watch it.
"It's not like it matters," she mumbles, her lips barely moving. "You're just going to kill me anyway." She comes out sounding more defiant than she really feels; she can feel her heart rate picking up with the familiar dizzying lurch of adrenaline that accompanies it— especially in her throat. She is acutely aware of the pulse of blood through her body.
"I've been thinkin' about it," responds the guy.
Before Feng Min can reply, she hears a young woman's voice cut in. "So what's her deal, Frank?" She listens as a new set of footsteps come closer, before the unknown girl speaks again, right behind her head. "What are we gonna do about our little problem here?"
She's reminded of Nea's voice a little, even though their accents couldn't be more different— there's a haughty quality to the girl's tone, a scowling sort of ready-to-fight-whenever. She sounds young— both of the strangers do.
"She doesn't wanna talk." The guy — Frank? Really? — shifts behind her. "I mean, it's kinda obvious she's one of 'em."
Feng Min hears the girl walk around the couches. She doesn't turn her head to follow the movement, not wanting to jolt the knife, and soon the girl comes into her line of sight anyway.
She doesn't recognize the person standing before her at all, though she didn't really think that she would. The stranger's build doesn't match any survivor's that she knows of— tall and slender with muscular legs, clad in leather and a strange, smiling mask. She could be anyone.
"Did you get lost, kitty cat?" the girl asks, planting her hands on her knees and leaning over her. Within the shadows of her ratty grey hood, Feng Min can make out short, choppy strands of auburn hair. "Or were you out here trying to steal from us?"
Feng Min scowls, and thinks, Fuck it. She lifts her chin and stares right into the mask.
"Oh, is this yours? Seriously didn't think anyone was going to miss this hideous jacket."
Feng Min then notices — and it's definitely too late to be picking up on this detail for the first time — that the girl has a knife in her hand, which she lifts when she straightens, laughing, in response to her quip.
"No one will," says the girl. "Looks like nobody's missing you, either. You really came here alone?"
The guy behind her speaks over Feng Min's head at the girl. "Maybe you should use smaller words."
The girl giggles, the knife in her far-too-casual grip dancing. Growing frustrated and uncomfortably sweaty under her clothes, Feng Min wills herself the coolheadedness needed to listen for the static. If she can just pick it up again, then maybe she can attain some idea of how close Herman is, or... maybe there's some way she can alert him.
After all, she recalls, he'd told her that he'd heard her call for him when she'd passed out in front of the hospital.
But no such miracle seems to be taking place. As the two people surrounding her debate what to do with her, Feng Min is distracted by movement from the lobby. She sees two figures emerge from the wide, dust-caked archway where the enamel had worn almost completely away.
One is a tall, wide-shouldered figure in a winter coat and a scarf wrapped halfway up the head. Behind them is a smaller, slighter person in oversized clothes. At first, Feng Min thinks she's looking at Jake and Claudette, and she nearly cries out for them, before they come into the firelight, and she sees that they aren't Jake and Claudette at all.
The tall figure reaches up to pull his paint-splattered bandanna down. Beneath, she sees that he's got some kind of black makeup smeared all over the upper half of his face, giving him a messy, day-after-Halloween-party vibe.
"What the hell?" he says, and although he's staring at Feng Min, the question clearly isn't for her.
"Jesus, Joey, you really just gonna take your mask off?" complains the guy that's been restraining her. The knife jostles precariously tight into her skin.
The guy in the bandanna looks past her. "Well, now she knows my name, too, Frank."
"Oh, fuck off. Listen, we gotta decide what to do with her."
"What if there's more of them?" comes a new voice. The smallest figure, wearing a mask that looks as if it had been broken and wired back together, is swimming in a hoodie two or three times too large, the sleeves trailing nearly to the fingertips. Her voice is sweet, but there's something just a little off about the girl.
There's something off about all of them, Feng Min decides, including the guy behind her, even though she hasn't gotten an actual look at him yet.
"Why don't we go take a look outside?" suggests the bandanna guy. Joey. "C'mon, Susie."
"But we were just outside, and it's so fucking cold out..." says the pink-haired girl petulantly.
"Then I'll just go with Julie?"
"What?" The tall girl crosses her arms. "No way. I'm staying here. I wanna be here for whatever we do with her."
"Then let's just do it now," says Joey, waving his arm.
"Do what?" interjects Susie.
"Kill her," says Frank. "I think."
"Wait, what?" says Susie, alarmed. "Like, on the couch?"
"Aw, don't do it on the couch, dude," says Joey. "You're gonna get blood everywhere."
"They're right, Frank. We can't just kill her on the couch. We, like, sit here."
"Who the hell said I was going to do it on the couch in the first place?" barked Frank, sounding annoyed.
Feng Min just barely manages to stop herself from saying, Can you just kill me and get it over with, thanks.
The four people before her look and dress like a band of survivors, with the camaraderie to match, but they aren't acting like that at all. Which means they could only be...
Killers? Four of them at once? There's no fucking way, Feng Min realizes. She doesn't stand a chance. She knows when she's outmatched.
"Get up," the guy behind her says abruptly, having apparently made a decision. The knife leaves her throat, and he shoves her on the shoulder, tipping her forward so that the girl with the smiling mask can grab hold of Feng Min by the arm.
She briefly considers trying to land just one good punch on at least one of them, and she might, if it weren't for the steadily fleeting hope that the Doctor might intervene.
When she finally gets a look at the guy that's been holding a knife to her throat, she's not sure if she should be surprised at what she sees— a young man in a letter jacket, looking like he just strolled out of a day of high school classes. Except for the blood caked on the wraps around his hands and scabbing up his fingers. He stands there with the tense-shouldered stance of a boxer getting ready for the match start countdown.
"It'll have to be outside," says Julie, and then she directs her next few words to Feng Min: "C'mon. Get moving, kitty cat."
Feng Min reluctantly lets Julie yank her up the steps leading from the fire pit, and then she feels it.
A little hum. Right below the soles of her boots. She knows what it is instantly— so immediately, in fact, that she smiles, the grin lighting up her whole face before she can stop herself. Only Susie catches it, and she seems to think that Feng Min is having some kind of last-minute moment of hysteria or defiance, because she only smiles right back with a mouth full of gleaming metal.
None of them are noticing. Not the way the little hairs on the backs of their necks have started to stand up. The faint change within the air itself— the barely detectable scent of ozone. The tingling fingertips. The sensation shivers up her arms and fills her mouth with a metallic taste. She knows it well because it knows her, too.
As they pass into the lobby, Feng Min sees each one of the strangers slowly become aware of the changing atmosphere— of electrons stirring and charging, pressure increasing.
Frank comes to a stop by the reception desk, hand tightening over the knife in his grip.
"Stop." He narrows his eyes. "You feel that? What the fuck is that?"
"It's, like... buzzing?" offers Susie, and, just as she says it, Feng Min sees the static take hold of her hair, pink strands rising delicately into the air.
Everyone turns to stare at this, including Feng Min, but her attention is quickly redirected when she sees the little shockwaves on the ground— and then hears his heavy footsteps.
[ Look out. ]
She hears his voice in her head, and she jerks up, suppressing a yelp of relief. She expects the others to react, as well, before she realizes that they cannot hear him the way she does. He'd said it for her benefit only.
He sounds close, so Feng Min takes his warning as a cue, and she decides to run. Breaking free of Julie's grip on her bicep, she bolts past the group and launches herself towards the reception desk— the same one she'd struggled to climb no more than ten minutes ago. This time, though, she's got momentum on her side, and she manages to throw herself over it.
All at once, the scene becomes chaotic: the Doctor comes into view from around the corner, electricity begins blasting out along the floor in ripples, Frank shouts, and someone goes flying into Feng Min— a full-body slam that blows the air right out of her chest and sends her crashing towards the floor behind the desk, dazed.
Frank's shocked voice is cut off by the sound of laughter. Behind the reception desk, Feng Min screams, trying to get Herman's attention, but a hand has closed right over her mouth. She twists her body to try to get a look at who it is that's pinning her down. It's Joey, whose dark eyes are dilated with alarm.
"Keep your mouth shut," he says tensely.
A curl of light, sparking and flashing, rolls up from the floor onto Joey's arm, and he hisses in pain, yanking it up from her mouth. Feng Min immediately begins shouting again.
"Let me go!" Placing her hands against his shoulders, she attempts to shove him off of her, but she can't move his mass at all.
"Shut up," says Joey urgently, and he sits up, but he locks his hands around her wrists and forces her to her feet, too. She starts yanking on his grip right away, trying to get her hands free.
Feng Min finally gets a look at what's going on: Herman's standing there, aglow and towering before Frank and Julie, who are frozen in defensive postures, knives up, apparently still deciding what strategy to take. Susie's looking between the two of them and the Doctor, but when she sees Joey dragging Feng Min to her feet, she backs away and towards the reception desk. The two of them flank her body, one grabbing onto each arm. Susie squeezes her side so hard that Feng Min thinks she'll end up with bruises on that arm if she ever makes it out of this.
[ Don't say anything. ]
Although Herman does not look at her, Feng Min nods her head slowly, as much as she wishes she could say something back to him.
Frank does a little motion with his head. Just sort of a nod towards one shoulder. Julie turns to look at him, and then back at the Doctor. After that, everything happens so suddenly that Feng Min can't even follow the events. Both figures become a blur; one moment, they're standing feet away, and the next, they've launched themselves at the Doctor, knives swinging. It takes only a second for him to respond; there's a loud crack and an explosion of light that makes Feng Min cry out and turn her face away, blinded. Great black clouds of smoke flood the lobby.
"Let him go!"
She recovers her sight in time to see that Julie has gone staggering back, dazed. But Herman's got hold of Frank, who he's holding out at arm's length, his hand wrapped around his throat. Frank's feet don't even touch the ground; he's still got his knife in his right arm, and he's swinging it wildly at the arm that's got him suspended. Feng Min watches in horror as it sinks in again and again and again, and blood cascades from Herman's forearm like a waterfall. But he remains standing there, expression unchanging, hand squeezing.
"Stop!" screams Julie, her voice hoarse. "Stop it!"
Herman starts to laugh as Frank begins to go limp. He lets go only at that moment, and Frank goes crashing to the ground, gasping, rapidly conscious again and apparently very disoriented. Julie dives in to pull him to his feet just before Herman manages to grab her. He's still laughing.
In her head, Feng Min sees someone else's memories go flickering by. Sterile white rooms and charts and diagrams and screams. And laughter. That laughter.
"Let me go!" snaps Feng Min up at Joey, who's still got her arm locked tight in his. She gives an ineffective tug at Susie's side; the girl only responds by digging her black-painted fingernails into Feng Min's forearm.
There's another thunderous crash, and Feng Min looks to see Julie sink her knife home, a two-handed grip that's got the blade buried in Herman's forearm. He throws her loose with a sweep of his arm and steps back through the entryway into the main lounge— and out of her line of sight, with a quickly-recovering Frank and Julie stalking after him.
Panic launches up Feng Min's throat, and she starts screaming again. "Let me go! Let me go!"
Susie's faux-sweet voice goes sharp. "What do we do?" she hisses at Joey. "We need to go help them!"
Something begins creeping up behind Feng Min's ears, immediately drawing her attention away from Joey's response. The subtle wavelength in the back of her brain is trying to tell her something. Whispering at her.
It feels like it's been a long time since she's felt its punishing effects. It swells up sharply within the shell of her skull, like smoke unfurling, thickening the world around her into a gauzy-soft, indistinct mural of a nightmare. She feels it spreading out through her nerves into each part of her brain, little electrical signals firing in every direction, finding all of the little hollows it can slip in and grip onto so that it can slowly, gradually start peeling her apart.
Knowing what to expect doesn't make things any easier, because it never does, but apparently Feng Min is the only one who realizes what is happening, because, next to her, Susie gasps, and she lets go of Feng Min's arms, her hands flying to her head.
"What's...?" Susie begins, dazed. Her eyes suddenly widen with fear, pupils expanding, even though her gaze appears to be focused nowhere in particular. "Oh, w-wait—"
"My head," gasps Joey. His grip on her falters. He reaches up to pull his mask into place, like it's supposed to do something to protect him from it. She wishes she could laugh at him right now. "Something's wrong—"
Feng Min tries to bring her focus together in front of the crackling, splintering madness that is increasingly making her want to drop to the floor and scream. She waits for Joey's grip to falter again, and then she manages to pull it together long enough to break free, going stumbling forward behind the reception desk. She barely manages to get a grip on the counter to sling herself over, her entire body shaking. There's a sensation of building pressure in her head, like some kind of chemical reaction is happening inside of her mind, and it's about to swell up and explode.
"Fuck!" snaps Joey, making a swipe for her and missing.
"Hey!" howls Susie, darting after her. But the effects of the madness have crippled the girl, because she's uncoordinated, and she nearly falls to her knees after she jumps over the counter.
Feng Min pretends like she didn't hear her, focusing on getting one foot in front of the other, back to the fire pit, where she can hear a great commotion— the sizzling of electricity and shouts of exertion and exhilaration both. The madness makes it a great struggle to concentrate, or to even put together the simplest of thoughts. But she just needs to know that Herman's okay. That's all. That even if these freaks decide to kill her, he's going to be able to walk away from this. Because she doesn't know what will happen if he doesn't. Doesn't know if they can kill him. Doesn't know what will happen if they do.
The world in front of her grows even hazier, bubbling up into an incomprehensible froth of color before she even makes it back to the lounge. She tries to pick out something sensible in the dense overload of information, but all it does is cause pain to spike through her head. A scream leaves her throat involuntarily, shrill and agonized, and Feng Min collapses into the wall and then to the floor; as the feeling intensifies, she begins to shake. She shuts her eyes, teeth grinding together, trying to regulate her breathing, but the madness— the madness—
Everything shimmers, then bursts into blackness. She feels herself slump to the floor. She feels someone's hand grab at the back of her jacket. She feels herself hearing the laughter. But for her, the her that exists right now, there is only a serrated void of pain.
And there are... echoes. Voices in the static. Not the whispers, and not Herman's voice, but reverberations of memory. They swim forth like fragments of dreams, nonlinear, weaving across her mind with the swaying flight paths of as many butterflies.
"You're nineteen. Do you think you'll be doing this forever? What do you see for your future?"
Feng Min nearly goes cross-eyed staring at the microphone before her. When she glances up for some guidance from the podcast host, an overgrown bar-crawler type, he just smirks at her. She looks to her manager, standing in the corner of the studio, who just waves his hand at her, like, Hurry up and say something.
Irritated, she leans in, lips brushing the head of the microphone, and says, "In the future, I hope I won't be sitting through interviews like this one."
Feng Min watches her manager's eyes bulge out of his head.
The host only laughs as though she hadn't said anything. "I guess that depends on your performance in this year's Nebula Arc tournament. This will be your first major showing with the Laser Bears— "
The co-host, a younger man inexplicably wearing sunglasses, adds, "You're the only female player in the league right now. How does that feel?"
Feng Min's manager raises his hands in the corner, trying to remind her how to answer— excited, or some other antonym. But she's not excited— she's impatient. And she's really tired of men like these two, who seem to regard her as a temporary novelty more than anything else. They're all over the pro-gaming circuit, laughing condescendingly at the little girl trying to play with the big boys. Like they're just tolerating her for now and can't wait to shut her out so that they can keep ignoring girls with dreams like hers.
"It doesn't feel like anything," she says flatly. "It feels like you're probably gonna piss your pants when I take the whole thing home."
"Cute," says the host. Both men laugh; behind them, Feng Min watches her manager pull out his cell phone with a concerned look.
"Speaking of which— that's been a hot topic, too," the co-host continued. "You're cuter than I thought you'd be! I've always thought the Laser Bears needed a little bit of sex appeal. Do you think that had something to do with making it onto the team?"
Incensed, Feng Min gawks at him. "Are you seri—"
Feng Min's cell phone vibrates on her thigh. She glances beneath the table so that she scan the message from her manager: You need this. Just say something nice.
The tail end of the question fades out into nothingness; both hosts are looking at her with an infuriating kind of confidence. Apparently they know that the team needs the positive PR, too. They're generous enough to let the silence hold its excruciating vigil for far too long.
Plastering a smile on her face, Feng Min forces out, "I... I mean... no." Something nice? What is there to say? "I'm pretty sure it's my skill that got me in."
In response, the both of them just laugh, like the answer is genuinely funny in a way she will never be permitted to know. Feng Min simply sits there and stews in that old, familiar anger, the fury of being looked down upon, doubted, waved aside— she sits there and lets it happen, because she's realized that her manager is right.
She needs this. No matter the cost. Even if the cost turns out to be, as she later comes to suspect, everything.
Tricks is the only one who stops by while she's packing. Every single other one of the Laser Bears has been avoiding her, as though pretending that she had already left the dorms. Acting like her bad karma could rub off on the best of them and make them into the next public embarrassment. They'd already endured enough just being her teammates— she really couldn't even fault them for erasing her from their collective memory, not when what she'd put the team through would forever be a stain on their history. Even the ones that had betrayed her the most.
Feng Min doesn't really get why Tricks continues to give her the time of day, considering that they're not teammates anymore, but even now, she can't even get herself to think of him as Jiao Shan, his real name. Similarly, the first thing he says when he knocks on her door and ducks his head in is, "Hey, Miss Lion."
She's sitting on the floor surrounded by a nest of dirty laundry, both figurative and literal— she doesn't miss the way Tricks' gaze lingers on the lip of a brown glass bottle jutting out from underneath her stripped-bare mattress. She sits up and shifts her body to cover it, trying to make it look coincidental as she replies, "What do you want?"
"You need any help?" He's standing in the doorway, cell phone in one hand, car keys in the other.
"No," she says, but one look around the chaotic room would tell anyone that she doesn't really have anything together. She's been awake for the last thirty-six hours and confined in her room, packing up all of her belongings in between compulsively checking her Twitter feed for gossip about herself and scrolling through pages and pages of comments on various gaming forums discussing her scandal.
Her scandal. Like that's all that matters now, like everything she's ever done is now meaningless all because it had come to such a messy, public end. The records she'd set and the numbers she'd pulled and the victories she'd led. The people she'd inspired and the heights she'd climbed and the barriers she'd pushed down. None of it mattered now. The world's been telling her that she doesn't matter now.
Tricks lifts his keychain. "Have you eaten anything today? I thought maybe you might want to go out and get something."
Faintly, Feng Min is aware of her empty stomach, but eating hasn't been a top priority for weeks now. It's hard to force anything down. Only alcohol goes smoothly. "I'm not hungry."
"Are you sure?" His heavy brows come together quizzically. "Zero-Alias told me you haven't left your room in a while."
Hearing that handle makes her empty stomach expand and then collapse in on itself like a dying star. "Nice to know that he's still paying attention to me," she says bitterly.
A painful silence follows before Tricks finally says, "I'm not going to ask."
"Good," she says. "Don't." She reaches for an empty box and begins tossing clothes inside without bothering to fold them first. Tricks remains lingering in the doorway, and she feels a surge of irritation. "Is there something else you want?"
"I guess not," he says softly.
"I have to be out of here by tomorrow morning, so…"
Feng Min's eyes drift towards the door, and he doesn't fail to pick up the hint. He is gone in the next moment, and her door closes silently, as though no one was ever there.
He texts her every couple of days, at first, after she secures a place to live. Like he'd been worried she'd end up homeless, or something. Feng Min manages to keep herself from telling him that she hasn't fallen that far yet. He asks her if she'll move back home. To her parents'. She laughs. She stops replying after the first week.
His text messages slow to once a week after a couple of months, and then every other month. She reads them and doesn't reply. Eventually, he stops reaching out to her.
Gradually, everyone does.
The world around her clears when Susie collapses to the floor, clutching her head, and screams, "I didn't want to do it!"
Feng Min sprawls on the carpet, dazed, her head hurting intensely. She feels something hot quickly cooling on her upper lip. When she reaches up, she finds that her nose is bleeding. Where is she? In her apartment? In the dorms? Does she even know?
Susie is nearby. Her hands have wrapped into her long pink hair, yanking sharply— hard enough to pull chunks of it from the scalp. She's rocking in place, black mascara running down her cheeks, and she keeps screaming, repeating the same thing over and over at increasingly hysterical volume:
"I didn't want to do it! I didn't want to do it! I didn't want to do it! I DIDN'T WANT TO DO IT—"
Laughter rips through the air. Disdainful. Pleased by the wreckage. Feng Min is grounded by Susie's ragged screaming, and she forces herself to sit up so that she can look at her surroundings. Herman's by the bar, standing there in one piece, weapon at his side. Frank's shouting incoherently, swinging his knife blindly into one of the pillars holding the lodge together. Joey's trying to intervene and to reason with him, to ground him, but Frank keeps lashing out at him blindly, too. Julie's nursing a wound and shouting at Frank, her voice high and frantic with tension.
Feng Min watches Frank and realizes, The hallucinations. He can't tell which Herman is the real one. Between that and the way Susie's curled up on the floor with her hands over her face, Feng Min recognizes what might be her only chance for an exit. She's noticed, for the first time, that Herman doesn't exactly look so good. There's something shiny and slick and dark all over his right hand where it's pressed over the groove between his neck and left shoulder. His forearm is still bleeding freely.
There's no time to panic over it. Feng Min gets to her wobbly feet and careens over to him, trying to blink the pain away. Static blooms in front of her as she moves, throwing off her sense of depth and causing her to nearly crash into him. There is an incredibly dense aura of light around him, so heavy that Feng Min can feel it; just standing next to him is making her skin tingle and the sight of him split into dozens more right before her eyes, as though she's stepped into a hall of mirrors.
She has rarely ever seen so much power radiating off of the Doctor.
Herman only says, [ Let's go, ] before turning towards the open exit. She follows him out into the snow, where the baying wind has picked up. The sky has darkened, turning the snow to a sapphire hue and making the world appear as though she were holding a filter in front of her eyes, flattening the mountains on the horizon. Herman is the sole source of light, impossible to miss.
The cold snaps her brain back to life a little, clearing away some of the noise, and she looks up at Herman, who she realizes is bleeding all over the snow as they rush away from the lodge. Her stomach drops. He seems hurt. Really hurt.
"Herman," she starts, her voice cracking. She can feel more snow leaking into her shoes with each clumsy step as she tries to avoid the blood creating a trail from the lodge directly to the both of them. "Can I see—"
He looks down at her. Sparks are flying out from near his left temple, where a wire appears to have been cut between two of the electrodes drilled into his skull. It's such a distracting sight that she doesn't really get a good look at the wound, at first, but when he moves his hand to expose it, she gasps.
Feng Min is amazed in the worst way to see that the injury is as deep as it is. She supposes that she's never really considered the nightmare's killers to have any physical vulnerabilities, for the most part. Especially Herman. His skin, twisted as it was, looked tough and insulating to her— she guessed that the Entity had given him a body built to withstand a constantly-flowing current. But that meant nothing when it came to a bladed edge, apparently.
She's seen killers take injuries before. Especially from Laurie, who always seems to have some kind of trick up her literal sleeve. But any inconvenience she's ever seen a survivor inflict on a killer has been just that: an inconvenience, easily brushed off— and usually a pointless effort in the grand scheme of things, considering that most of them died more often than not during the Entity's rituals.
But this is a much worse wound than a shallow swipe from a desperately clutched piece of glass. The gouge in Herman's shoulder is still bleeding freely. His blood is brighter than expected— a red so vivid it nearly glows against the snow. He covers it up again once Feng Min has had a look, head lolling forward as though faint.
She steps forward hesitantly, although she knows she had no hope of supporting Herman's weight. He doesn't fall, though. He just looks at her, spraying sparks and trickling blood between his fingers. She expects him to say something, but in her head, there is only silence.
What does she do? What is she supposed to do? Staring at him helplessly, she tries again. "Herman? I think you're really hurt. We—"
The sky — dense and grey with clouds — has appeared to darken, contrasts fading away into the fog. She watches as the Doctor takes another unsteady step forward. Then he stops, his forcibly opened gaze drifting towards the tree line.
Something feels wrong.
"Look at me," she says abruptly.
Herman's head jerks. The spotlights of his irises contract and then widen as he looks at her.
[ Are you the new subject? ]
His voice is faint beneath a layer of distorted, muffled noise. He hasn't sounded so fragmented in her head in quite a while. And the way that he's looking at her…
Feng Min lifts her hands very slowly and carefully in front of herself. Palms out. "No," she says.
Another burst of sparks flies out from the area near his temple. [ Very well. ] His voice flickers out of her head, fading away, then crystallizes again. [ We'll have to determine the right course of treatment. ]
He rocks towards her, looming. Feng Min shrinks back and feels sparks scatter over her forehead and cheeks, little painful stabs of heat that disintegrate after making contact with her skin.
Recalling another time that he had failed to recognize her — another time when he'd promised to cure her — Feng Min considers turning on her heel and running as fast as she can through the snow. But even knowing the danger before her, she can't get herself to do the smart thing and just do it. She can't leave him now, knowing that he's injured. Especially when it's because of her. She can't abandon him.
"Herman," she says as clearly as she can, louder this time. She has to really raise her voice to be heard above the wind in the trees. "You know me. Come on." Her voice cracks on the last syllable. Just a tiny bit. Certainly not enough for him to notice in this state. "You do." She hesitates, and then begins to reach for him.
The glow around the Doctor begins to intensify. He does not regard her for long as he lifts his hand. The charge builds, and before she can cry out, don't, the static burst overwhelms her again, exploding at her feet and striking up into her body, making her see white at first, blinding white, and then black, black, black, just black like the Bloodweb, black like the Entity, black like her memories.
There's this unidentified muck leaking out of the dumpster into the alleyway behind the bar, carving oily rivers into the ground. She watches it seep into the red satin tips of her platforms. It stains them almost instantaneously, blooms across the fibers like dye. Someone's holding onto her wrist, trying to persuade her to come with him. He'll give her a ride home, he says. Does she live far? He lives close by. He'll take her there if she needs somewhere to crash.
When he leans in, smearing his liquor breath into her temple, she goes still. His thumb comes up, swipes at her nipple through her shirt. He asks her again if she needs somewhere to stay, and later that evening she crouches in the lobby of an unfamiliar apartment, fingers hovering over her cell phone, trying to decide if she should dial 911 or if she should call for a taxi.
As she waits for the dispatcher to pick up, she thinks to herself that she has always longed for that. Somewhere to stay. The longer she searches, the further away that place seems to be.
She exits the building to read the address off the mailbox. Her head hurts. She's still drunk. Still. She sinks to the curb to slouch there, knees to her chest, as the dispatcher tells her that the taxi will be there soon.
She enters the date February 4th, 2017, and hits enter. The page floods in a variety of results. She scrolls to filter her results, clicking Sort by Rating. It doesn't have to be a nice place. It's probably better if it's not.
There's a little budget motel out north of the city, right where the highway splits off. The offer is $55 for a night. She clicks on it to expand the details as she reaches for her glass with her left hand. It shakes slightly, causing the ice to rattle around inside. It doesn't burn going down any more. Not for a long time now.
She thinks about her relentless agent, who still leaves messages and e-mails trying to convince her to pick up a mouse and keyboard again, nearly a year after her abrupt 'retirement.' There's one thing she's thankful to him for, even if every other memory is an unpleasant one: the NDAs he'd always locked down for her. She's sure that he'll keep it quiet. It shouldn't make the news. Not the truth of it, anyway. He should be able to sell it as an accident. That part worries her, floating into her thoughts now and then over the catatonic state she'd been slipping in and out of for ages.
There are going to be some unfortunate but necessary consequences. She feels bad for the person who will find her after the reception staff notices that she has not checked out. And she's thought about it, but she can't bring herself to write a note. She doesn't want anyone to speculate. Overanalyze it. Misunderstand her intentions the way the whole world had, almost a year ago. The way everyone always had. It always led to hurt. Hurting her.
She's entering her credit card information to book the room when her phone on her desk rings. Her bloodshot eyes flick towards the noise. She stares at the characters on the screen. 妈妈.
Her index finger floats out. She swipes to answer.
"Xiǎo Min," comes her mother's voice, by way of hello. Little Min.
It's been months since they last talked. The old nickname — older than her current situation, older than her career, as old as her childhood — knocks something loose in her head. Feng Min stares between her phone and her computer screen.
Her mother calls her name again. She comes to and whispers, "Hi."
"Have you been eating?" is the first thing Mama asks.
"Yes," she says. There's a length of silence. Painful in its absoluteness.
"What about money?"
"I'm fine," Feng Min murmurs.
There is another long silence, and she knows what her mother wants to say. Knows what she wants to ask. Knows it just as well as she knows what her answer would be.
It's time to come home.
No. She can't. She'd gotten herself here alone. She has to stay here alone. That's the story of her life. She's spent so much time pushing people away that no one bothers to extend their hand any more. Proverbially, she'd reaped what she'd sown. Every bit of it.
Mama doesn't ask, because she knows what Feng Min's answer would be, too. Instead, she just says, "Take care of yourself."
"I will," says Feng Min. "Goodbye."
The backlit screen of her phone blinks out. Feng Min looks up at her computer, at the booking page open on her screen, half-complete. She can't choose to go home. But she can choose to stay here. Even when she doesn't know why, yet.
She leans down and yanks the plug out of the wall.
A whimper of pain leaves her body as she comes to again, her mind clearing away the noise to restore her sight and pull her back to the conscious plane. She'd fallen onto her knees, and her ankle feels tender when she gets to her feet, shivering. She feels a pain in her head not unlike a hangover. As she recovers, she hears her mother's voice, one more time, like an echo: take care of yourself.
Herman's exactly where he had been. The circuit around him has gone out, and he's peering at her, taking his heavy, struggling breaths. Every now and then a little laugh rattles out of him, the electricity skipping across his skull flaring up in those brief moments. He seems to have remembered his own injury, because he keeps checking it.
Her head feels so heavy. She hasn't thought about that last incident in… well, a really long time. She'd put it away in the back of her head, where she confined all of the other things she was ashamed of. But shame and regret, she knows, have a way of resurfacing, even if they've been anchored down by denial.
But thinking about it now isn't going to help her— or him. She needs to take control while she's still lucid, not knowing if he'll shock her again.
"We just need to get to the tree line," she says softly after taking a deep breath, glancing up. Her fingers twitch; she wants to reach out for him, but after her last attempt, it doesn't seem to be a good idea. "Can you hear me?"
[ I— yes. It's not good. ]
His voice comes through clear as a bell all of a sudden, and Feng Min can't help the sound of surprise and relief that slips from her mouth. He's kneeling in the snow with a hand still sealed over the wound. He seems to take a moment to pull himself together before he gets to his feet again. She can see that he's lost enough blood to give them both a serious reason to worry.
Can a killer be killed? she wonders. For the first time, it is not just an idle thought, and she's too afraid to ask for the answer. The thought of having to watch him die like the survivors — like Nea, like Quentin, like Jake and Claudette and Meg and all the others — is something she doesn't think she can handle that right now on top of everything else.
"We have to go," she says urgently.
[ I know. The madness— ] His voice in her head cuts off; he grunts aloud as though in pain, all choked-sounding behind his gritted teeth. [ —will be fading now... ]
"Who were they? It— I could feel it. The madness. It's… It affected me, too." She watches as, before their eyes, the snow and pines turn into a hard bed of dirt blanketed in fog and oak trees, but there is no time to marvel now at the Entity's designs within its logic-defying nightmare. Seeing landscapes melt and shift into new shapes had lost its luster long ago.
[ Servants like myself, I suppose, ] says Herman faintly. As soon as they've crossed the threshold, he sways on his feet again.
"You need help. Right now," says Feng Min tensely, knowing she's not saying anything he doesn't already know.
[ The Institute, ] he says. [ I can repair myself. ]
She somehow doubts that — the wound is so deep — but she's in no place to question him. She looks at their surroundings and assesses their situation. There is nothing but fog in every direction now that the forest has closed up behind them again. Just the black shadows of trees everywhere she looks. It seems impossibly large all around her, and yet she feels like they've been sealed inside a box— four identical, impenetrable walls on each side.
She turns to Herman, reaching out for his arm. "You can navigate the fog better than I can. How can we get back there?"
Herman lifts his head to look at her. He's silent for a small delay, and she waits. Finally, he says, [ Listen to the whispers. ]
She watches as the blood continues to drip out from under his hand, bright little splatters on the snow. One, two, three. He doesn't elaborate.
She thinks about the whispers. Just minutes ago, they'd been in her head, screaming out everything else, unfolding memories from the secret places she thought she'd slipped them away for good.
The distorted vibrations have grown more dense between her ears. It hurts trying to listen to the whispers after being subjected to such severe disruption of her brain waves— it feels like her mind is still mending its wounds. She tries to envision the government facility masquerading as a hospital, with its haunted halls and condemned secrets. A place she's come to identify as a familiar anchor point, even though every other aspect of her life has been turbulent since the moment she first stepped foot into the nightmare.
The hospital. We need the hospital.
Feng Min doesn't remember closing her eyes, but when she opens them, the fog has thickened so much around her that she can barely make out Herman slouched right next to her. Only the stilted pattern of his breathing lets her know that he is truly there.
When the fog begins to clear, Feng Min knows that they aren't anywhere near the Institute, because the first thing she detects is the scent of smoke, making her immediately start coughing. She knows this smell, both woodsy and rotten, something that seems to have smoldered for a relative eternity within the nightmare.
Crotus Prenn Asylum has never appeared to be an inviting place. From the barricade-like towers to the claustrophobic hallways to the simulacrum of a church that shares its grounds, Crotus Prenn has a gloomy, painful atmosphere. She wonders what measure of suffering had happened here before the Entity had snapshotted it, and if that suffering outweighed the ritualistic torture it now set stage for.
But this is where the fog had taken her, so she decides, it's going to have to do. She lays a hand on the Doctor's shoulder and tries to rouse him.
"Hey, Herman. If you call for her, will she hear you?"
Herman looks over at her. Not understanding.
"Sally," she says with emphasis, worriedly realizing that his eyes are not entirely focused upon hers. "Sally can help, can't she? She— she was a real nurse, right?" The words seem so foolish spoken aloud— desperate ramblings of panic by a deluded person.
His warping voice collapses into her head syllable by distorted syllable. [ I need proximity. ] He shakes his head: no. As he does, sparks spray out of his temple.
She smells something metallic and sharp and unpleasant and far too familiar and is not surprised when she sees that the source is Herman's nose. He's lifting a hand to his face, wiping his knuckles across his nose and staring at the blood in surprise.
"Just wait," she whispers to him, strained, not recognizing her own voice, immediately uncertain as to whether or not she'd even said it aloud. It feels like his madness is still affecting her, like her brain's still pinned beneath the weight of her own regrets.
Feng Min doesn't want to let go of him, but she has to. She takes off for the asylum, just like she had once before— when she'd also promised the Nurse that she wouldn't come back. It's a promise that she doesn't have time to consider the consequences of breaking. As soon as she's through the front set of doors, she calls out, "Sally!"
Her voice swells into the space, filling the hallway like the fog. She hears nothing, at first, and wonders if maybe the Nurse is dormant, or if she is even around. The panic clenches up her indefinitely-empty stomach again, and she screws up her face and tries not to lose her composure.
Another plan, she thinks to herself. Another strategy. Come on. If you've even got it in you.
Nothing comes to mind. Her head is a hollow. Where she should find the part of herself that could always strategize a way out, she finds nothing. Just like she always suspected, deep down inside.
Something stirs down the hallway. Feng Min turns, lifting an arm to bat away the dust suspended in the air. Just around the corner, right where it turns into the stairway, floats the Nurse. She is just barely visible in the moonlight, so luminously white in its glow that she appears to melt right into it. The effect disappears when the Nurse bobs slowly out of it and into the darkness, and then the shadows fall over her body again, deepening the stains Feng Min can see all over her dress.
She feels relief, and she feels fear, and both of those things are making it a little hard to spit out what she needs to say. But she realizes, as she stares at the Nurse, that it's not the killer before her that she is afraid of. Afraid for.
"I need— I—" she stammers as the Nurse closes the gap. As she comes nearer, Feng Min can hear the rattle and click of her breathing, and feels a familiar empathetic throat-tightening. She motions out through the door. "Please, just—"
The Nurse's head snaps heavily to one shoulder as she looks to presumably gaze out the doorway— Feng Min can't fully tell with the pillowcase pulled so tightly over the woman's slender face and neck. She's trying to start her sentence again, feeling completely brain-fried and exhausted, when the Nurse cuts her off with an ear-splitting screech.
Feng Min flinches reflexively at the sound and the sight of the Nurse's hand lifted in a way she's come to associate with her own immediate death. But then the Nurse simply disappears before her eyes, taking her gasping shrieks with her. Feng Min stands there for a moment, registering the blink, before she throws herself out the doorway, looking around.
She looks just in time to see the Nurse appear and disappear in two separate places, as though searching, before she rematerializes several dozen yards away.
Feng Min runs over to see that the Nurse has had no problem locating the Doctor— she can almost appreciate her terrifying efficiency in this context, which tells her more than she really wants to know about how invested the other killer is or isn't in Herman's condition. Whatever the reason , the relief Feng Min feels is palpable as she approaches.
Herman appears to recognize the Nurse, because there's a sort of laugh coming from him, a little hah-hah that sounds like it's coming from a poorly-tuned radio broadcast. She thinks that at least the blood has slowed down... or maybe there's just so much of it that she can't really tell anyway.
The Nurse breathes the word out on one of her exhales, barely emphasizing it. She's got her hands on top of the Doctor's, trying to assess the wound.
"We were attacked." Feng Min doesn't know how else to answer her, shaking her head. She still can't sort out what happened— who happened. She just knows that it's her fault. A lot of things have been her fault, lately. "Can you help him?"
The Nurse swings back towards the Doctor, motioning with her arm. Herman is assisted to his feet not physically but with the unique power that Feng Min has often observed the Nurse utilizing to hoist survivors onto sacrificial hooks with little physical effort. Where most killers rely on brute strength — even the slightest of the Entity's servants seems to be able to lift any one of the survivors with ease — the Nurse has always supported most of their weight with telekinesis, her hands barely touching the victims she chose. Even now she seems to make simple work of 'carrying' the Doctor, floating close to his shoulder with her hand in front of her chest, where Feng Min can see a small source of light. He's walking on his own, but it's apparent that her powers have a lot to do with it.
"...Iiinnn..." whispers the Nurse as she drifts ahead of them. Feng Min hovers at Herman's side, trying and failing not to get in the way.
"In..." she starts, searching. "Inside?" She looks towards the Asylum. The Nurse nods. "Yes. Please. Thank you."
The Nurse clicks back in her throat in response and says nothing more. Feng Min feels like she's struggling for breath alongside the two of them, listening to them both choking in their own ways.
The Doctor is still laughing softly to himself, although sparks continue to spill intermittently from his temple, where they splatter onto his shoulder. Feng Min is pretty certain his awareness of the situation is coming and going.
The Nurse leads them to a recovery ward, one that looks at least half a century older than any of the dilapidated rooms in Léry's, which already looked pretty outdated to her, anyway. The beds have black iron framework that has corroded away almost entirely on some of them, and the molding wallpaper seems to have soaked up the worst of the ash created by the perpetually-burning fire at the building's peak.
"Herman?" Feng Min prompts uneasily, shielding her nose and mouth from the dust with her sleeve as she watches the Nurse manipulate the other killer into a sitting position on a bed.
[ Interesting choice, ] comes the response, barely mumble-volume and quality. But it's something.
"The asylum?" she murmurs. "Yeah, it's not exactly the Institute, is it?" When she tries to look him in the eyes, he just stares through her.
The Nurse drifts slowly towards the wide-open window, and for a moment Feng Min thinks that maybe she's reached the limit on the killer's patience and that she'll have to figure out the rest on her own — not like she could argue that — but all the Nurse does is begin opening drawers. Not with her hands, of course. At least not physically. She's jerking them open with little twitches of her fingers, like she's tugging on leads that Feng Min cannot see.
Herman is still swaying where he sits, and she's tempted to try to steady him, but the amount of static electricity she can still see swimming over the surface of his skin — like an aura — makes her second guess.
The Nurse floats back over towards them, something Feng Min only notices because she sees her shadow stretch out across the floor— there is no sound of footsteps to cue her in. She sees that atop the Nurse's palm is a needle and thread, the sort sometimes found in first aid kits scavenged around the realms. She's never performed any kind of suturing, herself— although she'd dealt fine with animated blood and guts in video games, and she does trust her fingers to stay steady with such fine work considering her mechanical skills, she's not so sure she'd be able to get the job done properly.
But the Nurse's pale hands only redirect the needle with a little motion of her fingers. Feng Min watches it thread itself seemingly by magic. She wonders how the Nurse can even make out the eye of the needle in the darkness of the ward through the cloth pulled tight over her head.
"Move your hand," says Feng Min suddenly, looking over to Herman. He's still clutching at the wound; she sees that blood has already started to dry up all around his fingers, stained and crusting and growing darker by the second. It's a nauseating sight.
Herman just looks at her, and then at the Nurse and at the needle floating before him. He shakes off a laugh that they can all hear rising above the Nurse's wheezing: ha... ha... ha...
Feng Min stares at him desperately. She thinks that if his face weren't paralyzed — wired up, pulled back, controlled — he wouldn't be smiling.
"Ex... ssss...." the Nurse groans, her left hand cocking up to attempt to manipulate Herman's away from his neck. Feng Min can see the invisible tug, the way his wrist jerks back like the drawers had. "...sss... ...plain..."
It takes her a moment to sound out the full word in her head, and she wonders how much she should say. Herman is right there, but he's in no state to advise her. Feng Min hovers nervously between her choices. "Some... some kind of..." She paints the four figures in her head, just a group of people who couldn't be any older than her, dressed in sneakers. Just kids. "They looked like survivors. But they couldn't have been."
"...Aah..." says the Nurse, and nothing more, leaving Feng Min to wonder whether or not she is satisfied with the answer. The killer wrenches Herman's hand free to expose the wound. Beneath, it is dark with coagulated blood. Feng Min can see a pulsing beneath it; she cannot be sure whether the source is a cable or an artery.
Although the Entity had strung Herman Carter through like a marionette — wires and all — the blood coming out of him is the same color as any of the survivors' she's seen. The same color as her own.
He barely reacts when the Nurse presses gauze into the wound. He just laughs again, head dropping forward so that his chin nearly touches his chest. That's when Feng Min spots it— the source of the sparks she's seen raining from his temple.
It's a snapped wire. It looks like it's been ripped or maybe cut loose from the framework, twitching like a dying snake. She stares at it and thinks of the generators she's repaired before. Thousands and thousands of them by this point, probably, trying to remain quiet and unheard, always trying to force herself to get better, more efficient, faster— the same way she'd trained herself as a professional gamer. Always room to get better and better. Never knowing where the line for best was, but coveting it, anyway.
Sometimes, though— sometimes fixing a generator feels easy. Like she can just breeze through them now. Sometimes it's because one of the others had come across some high-quality tools or parts, but sometimes it's simpler than that.
Sometimes it's just completing a circuit.
Feng Min reaches out impulsively for the wire, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger, and pushes it back into the port. The moment she does, the responding shock is excruciating— it locks up the muscles in her entire arm, causing it to spasm uncontrollably and rocket back towards her own chest, fist hitting her sternum as she gasps silently, dropping to her knees to collapse against the side of the bed, trying to shake off the pain and get her heart beating properly again.
The Nurse's head snaps towards her with a pop that makes Feng Min queasy. "...Ssssstannnd..." she whispers. Her left hand glows with light once more as it extends out to her. At first Feng Min cannot buy into what she's seeing: a killer like the Nurse with that sinister light in her hand reaching out to her not in the midst of a hunt but in support. Feng Min reaches out to take it and manages to get to her feet again, although she places a hand against the bedspread for balance, as well. The Nurse's hand is as cold and hard as marble.
Beside her, Herman is groaning. Not laughing. A good sign, she hopes. Rubbing her aching and tingling right arm, which is still cramped into a folded position against her chest, Feng Min tries, "Herman?"
The Nurse's pale hand pulls the thread tight. Feng Min watches the scarred flesh come harmoniously back together like shards of broken ceramic. He lifts his head. There are no more sparks falling from his temple.
[ Oh. ] His voice echoes with much more clarity in her head as he looks between her and the Nurse. [ So you've brought me to an old friend. ]
Feng Min fights the compulsion to reach out and cup his face in her hands. "Not on purpose," she whispers in reply, trying to temper the relief and joy she feels at hearing him speak with intention again.
[ Well done, ] Herman says seriously, his inner-voice exhausted in her skull.
The Nurse twitches a little, and Feng Min assumes the ensuing silence means that she is speaking to Herman using her telepathy. After a beat, the Nurse croaks aloud, "Waaateerr..."
She doesn't understand at first until the Nurse floats over to a wall and lifts a rusty bucket into her hands. She gives a start. "I can go," she says. "Let me do it."
"Nnnnno," groans the Nurse, and the only reason Feng Min doesn't protest is because she knows exactly how deadly the killer before her can truly be. "Sssstayyy... Watchhhh..."
Feng Min nods urgently so that she doesn't have to speak any longer, not wanting to test the Nurse's patience. "Okay," she says. "I will." It's probably for the best, anyway, that she doesn't wander the Crotus Prenn Asylum grounds alone. It would be all too easy to stumble onto the foggy church or the decaying little circus set up nearby, which would put her — potentially — in the path of the sinister Clown and his neurotoxins.
They both watch the Nurse float away as Feng Min cradles her stiff arm against her body, slowly willing it to relax again by using her opposite hand to massage her knuckles into the flesh. Gradually they unclench, allowing her to carefully stretch her arm out straight.
She turns towards the Doctor, who is still sitting upright, slumped forward with his elbows against his knees— but he's looking up at her now with a recognizance she hasn't seen in a while. She wants to press herself to him, slide onto his lap and bury her face in his wounded neck and kiss the injury until it gets better— an absurd thing she has never wanted to do to anyone, period. She compromises by taking a seat next to him; her weight doesn't even shift the bed, because the mattress is already so sunken from his mass. Gravity tips her into his side as she settles down.
[ What happened back there? ] His voice, although clear in her mind, is so plain that she can't identify how he's actually feeling. But just hearing it, direct and lucid, is a deep relief.
"We were in that snowy place. There was a mountain... It looked like a ski resort. And there were some... I guess they were killers. Four of them. But they looked like survivors."
[ I remember that part, ] says Herman. [ After. ]
She swallows. "One of them caught me. They went for you. I got away." She feels cowardly saying it. "They ran after they began feeling the madness. There was something wrong with the... with your... headgear." She doesn't know how to describe the contraption on Herman's head, lifting her hands to motion at it.
[ And then you led me away? ] he concludes.
"Yes," she says. She decides to leave it at that; she doesn't see why she should tell the Doctor that the madness had had a particularly bad effect on her, too— that it had dragged forth intense and vivid memories she'd rather have forgotten. But she'd been in its proximity, and he'd saved her, regardless, so she kept it to herself. "You wanted me to take you to the Institute, but I could only get you here."
[ You did fine, ] he says. His hands come together between his knees, clasping. Feng Min watches him staring down at the ground. She notices that the soft white glow of his irises is spilling highlights over his hands, casting shadows against the worn floorboards.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, turning to him.
[ Why? ] he asks tiredly.
"I dragged you out there."
[ And? ]
"And..." she trails off. "And it wouldn't have happened if I didn't."
Herman snorts out through his nose, incredulous, and turns his head to look at her. [ How irrational and ridiculous it is to regret something that you couldn't control. Correlation does not imply causation. That's a basic facet of science. Surely you know this. ]
Feng Min meets his eyes. Her stomach and heart hiccup. "I see you're feeling better, Herman," she murmurs against his shoulder.
[ I'm not so certain I like your decision to use my name right then. ] He sounds tired, but his tone is light.
"Well, I'm not so certain I know what you mean, Herman Carter," she replies in a half-hearted attempt at playfulness; she still feels guilty.
[ I chose to go with you, ] he says. [ We'll leave it at that. I have experienced far worse. ]
"Worse..." she echoes, but her face falls, and she blurts out, "I should have just... we should have gone and done what you wanted to do and shown me your research."
[ That can still happen, ] he says, but the thought doesn't reassure her. Again, the feeling of always being on the edge of a 'last time' has her hesitating. [ But you wanted to find your friends. ]
Feng Min's eyes begin to sting as she thinks about Jake and Claudette, too afraid to say aloud what she fears: that they may just be gone. Gone in a way that actually counts, here.
"You were right," she says brokenly, "about the nightmare being too big to ever find them."
Herman doesn't deny it, but nor does he rub it in; instead he just lets out one of those high-toned, trembling sighs of his. [ My head felt strange for a while, there... ]
"You were... busted," Feng Min says carefully. "I— I don't know how to describe it. You just started glitching out. Like before, in your office, when you didn't recognize me."
He nods, and his breathing whistles up into his nose. [ You took quite the risk fixing it, ] he notes. [ Do you have any idea how much voltage I can produce? ]
"I don't see how it could've gotten any worse," she says, shrugging. She brings her knees together. "I won't ask you to come looking with me again." A silence follows. Wanting to fill the dead air, she adds, "It just held us back. Next time we... I mean, we can talk about your plan any time you want."
[ Plan? ] he echoes faintly.
"You know," she says, shrugging. "The escape plan. Tricking the Entity. Going home." She tries not to feel paranoid at saying it aloud; from what she's been learning, the Entity, its being so much vaster than either one of them, doesn't care for the minutiae of their conversations.
Herman jerks into an upright position, suddenly jolted. He turns to look at her. She thinks she sees his eyes somehow go even wider. [ An escape plan? Is that what you think I meant? ]
Feng Min's expression twists in confusion as she searches her memories for their recent conversations. Her brain feels like it's been bruised, like she's ripping open wounds the madness had inflicted on her thoughts. "You said... You said you were looking for a way out of the nightmare."
She can clearly remember him confirming it. It had been right before they'd been intimate that one and only time, a memory also preserved in perfect clarity despite the sea of static she'd been willingly immersed in at the time.
There is recognition in his body language, and then withdrawal; it's in the way he pulls his shoulders away slightly and looks right at her. [ I did. But... I didn't say that this way could return a person to their former life. ]
Feng Min stares at him blankly.
It feels like she's been slugged in the head. She knows what that's like, after all; she's had her brains bashed in probably thousands of times. Sometimes it's the Hillbilly, his foot in the small of her back, his hammer decimating her skull in just one heavy-handed swing. Sometimes it's the Wraith dealing blows with the skull and the spine of a person whose story Feng Min does not want to know. Sometimes it's the Huntress' axe. The big one usually does the job in one hit — the woman had decapitated her once entirely, an experience that happened so fast that Feng Min barely comprehended it at the time. She prefers that, or getting a hatchet to the throat, over catching one in her skull. Sometimes those ones didn't kill you right away.
At some point in the last few long, long seconds, Feng Min's hands had lifted to her temples, cradling her head. "Then..." Her voice sounds so faint. "Then what did you mean?"
[ I told you, ] he said. He is looking out through the window, far away from her. [ A way out. ]
She stares at him through her fingers. Like she's a kid playing a survival-horror game again, hiding her face when the cutscenes between frenetic battles got too scary. Not wanting to see it. Not wanting to acknowledge it.
Feng Min opens her mouth, but then realizes that she doesn't know what to say. She closes it and sits there and tries to absorb just what this means for him. What it means for her.
She doesn't know why she hadn't seen it sooner. Escaping the Entity's realm is impossible. Everyone knows that. She'd let herself think otherwise, but the truth has been staring her in the face the entire time, and she's never addressed it.
There's only one way out she can think of that makes sense. Something that would end the cycle of pain for good.
Herman wants to find a way to die. Permanently.
She feels stupid— so very, very stupid for believing, even for a moment, that it might be possible to slip back into the real world. Of course he meant something like this. Herman Carter has been obeying the Entity's demands for a relative eternity. She can't even blame him for being resistant. For being exhausted. For wanting a way out. She wonders that herself, most of the time, when she's sitting around that campfire.
I derive no pleasure from subservience to a god I do not believe in, he told her once.
Death. Real death. Not sacrifice. That's the only way out of the nightmare. The only thing resembling freedom. The only way they could truly beat the Entity.
Feng Min thinks about Jake and Claudette. About all of the survivors that have come and gone. The abandoned realms.
Suffering or death. Those are the options before her. Feng Min knows — she knows, she's felt it, she's been there — that the second one is appealing. It calls to her. It promises an end to pain.
But there's a little thing inside of her that's saying, No, and she doesn't know why.
"I guess I understand now," she whispers. These five incredibly inadequate words do a poor job of covering up how devastated she feels. And it's such a childish feeling, one that makes her feel worth less than dirt sitting next to him. She'd been so foolish for hoping for anything here in the Entity's realm. She should know better. She does know better, doesn't she?
There's no way to get back to the real world. Everyone knows that. It's written in Baker's journal. It's passed from mouth to mouth. It's something everyone knows.
[ You're disappointed, ] he says.
Feng Min stands up from the bed abruptly. Herman looks down at her, still seated.
[ If you have questions, ask them, ] he says in the same direct, declarative tone. [ I know it's a lot to understand. ]
Feng Min can't bring herself to look at him. She shakes her head. "It's fine," she lies. She doesn't even try to make it sound like she's being sincere. She flings her arms across her chest and begins to pace, trying to stay moving to keep herself from shaking. "I'm just so stupid," she says with disgust.
[ For your optimism? Naïve, maybe. But not stupid. ] Herman's resting against the bed a little, leaning his back into the headboard. He looks deeply exhausted to her, and she feels selfish just standing there berating herself after what she'd just put him through.
"Never mind," she says quickly, shaking her head. She tells herself that if she's going to cry over it, she'd better do it later. The way she used to any time she got frustrated during an important match. She'd always wait until the screens and camera were off and she was alone.
His shoulders have dipped down tiredly. He seems to pity her as he says, [ I am sure that you'll find it difficult to believe right now, but for the most part, I am sane. Don't mistake me as hopeless, Feng Min. ]
"Really?" she chokes, stopping to look at him. "Seems pretty hopeless to me."
[ I'll explain everything to you at the Institute. You'll understand when you learn the nature of this world. ] His voice remains firm and level, but Feng Min is just becoming increasingly more upset.
"I don't— I don't care about the nature of—" she starts, stuttering through it all in her state of heartsickness. "You're talking about… You really think the only solution is to just... end the cycle." These last three words were whispered.
[ Yes. ]
The Nurse floats back into the room as Feng Min makes another circuit across the floor with Herman's brightly glowing eyes following her. She looks strange hauling a bucket of water, but Feng Min will definitely take it, given that the other option is a bone saw, and the Nurse's reappearance means that she no longer has to continue her painful conversation with Herman.
She steps back as the Nurse resumes care, and she spends a couple of minutes watching her rinse the wound area before the anxiety gnawing at her stomach makes her start pacing again. She heads to the other side of the room and sits on a bed over there while the Nurse finishes up. She seems to persuade Herman to lie down after a flurry of animated hand motions— Feng Min has never seen her move with so much emphasis before.
Once Herman is resting, his body facing the wall, the Nurse floats back across the room to place the bucket at the foot of a rusting cart. Feng Min gets to her feet as the Nurse continues hovering on out the door and into the hallway. After a moment of deliberation, she decides to follow, wanting to take her mind off of the distressing thing Herman had just revealed to her.
The Nurse doesn't seem to notice that she is being followed as she floats away, seemingly on a breeze. Feng Min follows her to the end of the hallway before the Nurse moves to turn right. As she stares at the killer's back, Feng Min notices that her hair has come loose underneath the pillowcase. In the moonlight, she can see that the wavy tresses are red. Even redder than Meg's hair.
"Nurse Sally," she says softly.
The killer comes to a stop and turns in place to look at her, arms dangling lifelessly at her sides, looking like the central figure in a game of Hangman.
"Ssssssally," she says. Correcting her.
Sally nods, the motion heavy, her head sinking low.
Feng Min says, "I didn't give you the full explanation."
"I..." starts the Nurse, slow. "Knoooow." The word comes out like noooo, and in Sally's damaged and frail voice, it sounds like a cry for help. Feng Min tries to shake off the chill rippling down her spine.
"I needed his help," she says. "Two of my fr... Two of us have gone missing. Jake and Claudette. Do you know which ones they are?"
Sally nods again. Somehow Feng Min is not surprised.
"Have you seen them anywhere?" she asks, bracing for the disappointing answer she knows is to follow.
"Nnnoooo," wheezes the Nurse, stretching the sound again before it tapers off with a choke and a click in the back of her throat.
"I thought so." Feng Min sucks in a breath. "Thank you."
She turns to head back to the recovery ward when the Nurse croaks, "No... essssscape..."
Pausing, Feng Min looks at her. She wonders what Herman and Sally had exchanged in those silent communications, and contemplates what to say.
"For either of us," she says finally, quietly.
Sally draws in a squeaking breath. "Yessss," she says, before she lifts a hand before her. Feng Min flinches instinctively again before the killer disappears in a literal flash— gone in a second. There and then not. She shakes off the shivers, wondering if the Nurse has gone very far or just off to another part of the building. She's fairly certain — although not totally confident — that she has some kind of temporary diplomatic immunity of some sort, at least because the Doctor is present and Sally appears to recognize that. It feels again like cheating, like taking advantage of favoritism, and her stomach flips thinking about it.
But while she's here, she figures she should at least try to do some scavenging so that she doesn't return to the campfire both suspiciously alone and empty-handed yet again. Feng Min begins dipping in and out of rooms, trying to see if anything catches her eye. She tries to focus only on that and not the choking despair she feels growing in her chest.
It's not easy with no distractions. No screens to sit in front of. No substances to imbibe.
How many times in her life has she wished — overtly or covertly — that she would die? Before she'd come here and after it— how many times, she challenges herself to answer. Accusatory.
She can't even count. The thought had come to her almost every day after her career imploded. It had just become a part of her life, a thread that ran through its most important seams. Like a ringing in her ears, but instead the noise was endlessly humming in the back of her psyche. Always there. Always ready to become the first option instead of the backup plan.
I can end all of this pain.
Now she's here, and no matter what happens to her, she can't die. Sure, her body can expire — she can be punctured, chopped up, bludgeoned, sawn apart, eaten alive, poisoned, choked, anything — but it's just a body. The Entity has no trouble replacing them. It's their minds that it won't let go.
It's that which Herman is offering her. An exit via the only way that makes sense here. They need to deny the Entity their existence.
She pauses inside of what appears to be some kind of office, not dissimilar to Herman's own— just far more dated, with deep gouges in the hand-carved furniture. Feng Min takes a seat on the singular dusty chair to try to slow her heartbeat.
"You'll never get your old life back," she whispers aloud to herself, and then, in her head, colder, crueler: Why would I want it back, anyway?
A warm tear threatens to track down her left cheek. Feng Min reaches up to swipe it away angrily and then turns to the desk drawers to yank them open, determined to stop thinking about it. Her eyes continue to water, however, as her sudden motions send clouds of grey-white dust right into her face.
Feng Min recoils, coughing and squeezing her eyes shut as she tries to wave the dust away. As she lifts her arm, she feels something around her change. It's like the temperature around her has plummeted, or the ambiance itself has sunk. Realizing that she no longer smells dust, Feng Min opens her eyes, blinking, to find that she is surrounded by nothing but endless grey fog.
At what point had she stood up from the chair? Where did the desk go? The office? Disoriented, Feng Min turns, seeing nothing but a shimmering haze in every direction.
The dark mist hangs in the air surrounding her, as if debating what it wants to do with her. Feng Min feels a spike of anxiety at so suddenly leaving the Doctor, but she knows that he is being cared for in some way, and, she supposes, the fog was going to split them up sooner or later. It always does. She'll just have to trust the Nurse, as difficult as that feels to do.
When the mist eases back and fades off, Feng Min sees that it has returned her to the survivors' campfire, setting her down in the brush. She stumbles out of the tree line just as she hears someone shout, "Where the hell did you go?"
It's Nea, of course, who is standing up as Feng Min approaches the campfire with her rematerialized backpack dangling from one shoulder. Ace is lounging on the log next to her with his hat pulled low; Feng Min can't tell if he's sleeping or not. Laurie seems to be poring over something as she sits on a log alone, but Quentin isn't far away, sorting through a large, well-stocked med kit. Feng Min realizes that in the face of Claudette's absence, Quentin has taken on the role as the survivors' healer— another reminder of the gaping hole Jake and Claudette's disappearance has left behind.
"I got lost," says Feng Min, shaking her head. "I was trying to sleep, but I woke up, so I went for a walk."
None of the survivors present seem to take issue with this reasoning, given that it has happened to all of them, too. Nea's the only one who still looks apprehensive, but that's nothing new.
"Has it been long?" she adds.
"No," says Nea. She fishes something out of her pocket, and Feng Min recognizes the red and blue label as the unknown cigarette brand she'd swiped for Nea at the Entity's abandoned façade of an airport. She drops her backpack down at her usual spot and takes a seat as Nea continues talking, picking up the conversation Feng Min had apparently interrupted. "I'd give anything for a blunt right now. I don't even remember what it's like to get stoned."
"Oh, yeah," says David, groaning. "Would love to just take one off. Miss bein' out on the lash."
"I want to do that, too, whatever that is," says Nea as she lights up. "Sounds fun. Is that like a BDSM thing?"
"What's that?" asks David, confused.
"Never mind," says Nea. "How have you even lived this long?"
David grins at her, shrugging. "Dunno. 'e's not the only lucky bastard here." He nods at Ace, who is apparently awake, as he responds immediately.
"If I were really a lucky bastard, I wouldn't have ended up in this shithole. But I do appreciate it." He reaches up to tip his hat.
"What about you, old man?" Nea nudges at Ace. "Bet you've done a lot of drugs."
Ace laughs uproariously. "Oh, have I!" He ducks his head down, and his sunglasses slip down to the tip of his nose, revealing his dark eyes. "'A lot' is an understatement."
"I remember how it made my brain all fuzzy," says Laurie, distracted, still looking down at her book.
Most of the survivors look over at her.
"What?" asks Nea.
"Marijuana," says Laurie.
Nea scoffs dismissively. "There's no way you've ever smoked weed."
"Of course I have," Laurie objects, looking insulted. "Everyone has!" She snaps the book shut as she looks around the campfire at the rest of them. Her expression turns self-conscious. "Why are you all looking at me like that?"
"I wanna get high with you," says Nea decisively. "I didn't know you were so hardcore."
"I wouldn't use that word," starts Laurie. "I'd—"
"Nah, Laurie's tougher 'an she looks," David cuts in. "Swear down, saw the bint just shove a bone back in 'er leg once an' keep running. Dead disgusting. Nearly was sick."
Feng Min begins to zone out a little, even though listening to the conversation is a welcome distraction; she would much rather hear her fellow survivors talking about unimportant, petty things than about Jake or Claudette or how to prepare for the next trial and get through just one more night under the Entity's sunless skies. And it's keeping her from thinking too much about what Herman told her.
Her eyes gradually drift beyond Laurie's shoulder and land on Quentin, who is still sitting next to the large metal box, and she gets to her feet to join him. He only looks up once she's already settled down in the grass next to him. Recalling the last time she'd seen him — in that last trial in the swamp, when he'd so been reassuring in his own subtle way — she remembers that he'd asked her to come talk with him sometime. It's long overdue by now.
"Hey," Feng Min says softly.
"Hi," says Quentin. She looks into the box he's been attending to. Feng Min sees that he's taking stock, tallying items on the back of a faded old newspaper with a piece of Nea's charcoal. There's not much inside— some rolls of bandages, scissors, a few sutures. She sees only a couple of bottles of Claudette's tinctures are left. Typically, she was the only one responsible for tending the communal supplies— and for restocking remedies that only she seemed to be able to brew.
Who could have guessed that a couple of little brown bottles could hurt so much to look at?
Feng Min doesn't know how to start the conversation, so she just comes out with it.
"I asked for his help finding Jake and Claudette." Beneath the roar of the campfire and the rest of the survivors' conversations, nobody can hear her make this confession to Quentin.
"Is that where you were?" he asks. Somehow he doesn't look surprised. Instead, his tired face shifts to thoughtful. "That's not a bad idea. I'm guessing you were hoping he could get them to scream…?"
"Yeah," says Feng Min, relieved, somehow, that Quentin understood her intentions so quickly. "It didn't work. He got hurt pretty bad and was bleeding all over the place. I... I left him with the Nurse before the fog brought me back here."
It's now that Quentin looks surprised, his unruly eyebrows lifting. "They can be hurt like that?"
"It's just as much a surprise to me as it is to you," says Feng Min, shaking her head.
Quentin's mouth purses in concentration. "Maybe it takes another killer to hurt a killer," he says eventually.
"That's the thing," says Feng Min. "They didn't look like killers. They looked like us. I mean, they were just… they looked so normal."
"This place will always find a way to surprise you," says Quentin flatly. "There was more than one of them?"
"There were four. And they definitely all knew each other," she says, shaking her head before adding hastily, "A...anyway… I didn't come over to talk to you about that part. I wanted to just. Explain things, I guess."
"I know there's lots you probably want to tell me," says Quentin, but his voice is careful. Like he's braced for bad news.
"Obviously," says Feng Min weakly. She pulls her legs up and brings her knees to her chest. "I know this sounds so bad, and before you ask, I still don't know why it's happening. I mean, I guess I do. After he looked at my brain, he said that I might... that it looked like I have brain damage, and that it's let him—"
Quentin grasps her by the shoulder. "Slow down," he says firmly, his voice slowing her train of thoughts— one that feels precariously close to spinning right off the track.
She stops. Quentin's patient gaze on hers helps calm her, a little. Quentin truly has been a friend to her— and she's never really returned him the favor, she thinks. "Okay, so…" She tries to hash it out. "Remember a long time ago, when I had just arrived? And we were in a trial at the hospital, and you asked me if I'd ever met the Doctor before, and I said no, and you told me to run away from the static. But when I ran into him during that trial, right before he sacrificed me…" She can't bring herself to say killed. "I could… hear him. Not just the laughing. Or the hallucinations. He was talking to me in my head."
"Nea said something about that," says Quentin, his voice low.
"And I didn't know what to do, and... neither did he. But he wanted to know why, and I did, too, so I started..." Feng Min lifts her hands in a listless half-shrug. "He agreed he wouldn't hurt me if I went to him and let him analyze my brain so we could learn what was going on."
Quentin looks contemplative. "Well, I..." he starts, somewhat reluctant, before his voice grows in seriousness. "I know that I've never heard him talk. I don't think anyone else has, either. There's... well, you know that sometimes there's something that links a survivor to a killer." He pauses— it's long, painful. "Like me and Krueger."
Recalling the last time she'd run into Krueger — when the gates hadn't opened, even after they'd finished five generators — Feng Min grimaces. "You can't hear him in your head, right?"
"Oh, hell, no, that would be horrible. No," says Quentin, repulsed. "But sometimes he can kind of slither into my dreams, if the Bloodweb isn't deep enough. And he doesn't show up to be friendly."
Knowing the formless state of nonexistence in the Bloodweb, Feng Min can't imagine what that would feel like. "Why? Does he just hate you that much?"
"That's a word for it," says Quentin, shrugging. "I think he stopped being human a long time ago. What he is now... He's something different. I don't know how the Entity can even contain him. If it can stop Freddy Krueger from going back to the real world, I can't imagine what else it's capable of." This sobering news has her going quiet again, but Quentin just continues, "I know he hates being here even more than I do. That's good enough for me."
Feng Min wonders if she ought to ask the question that's been on the tip of her tongue for a long time.
"Can I ask what..."
"Yeah. It's fine," Quentin interrupts. He looks weary, but not uncomfortable. Like he's been expecting it. "It was a long time ago. He was the guy that took care of the grounds at my preschool. Me and Nancy's, I mean."
His face turns expressionless.
"I don't remember a whole lot of it. He lived underneath the school. I mean, you've seen it yourself. His little hiding place is still there behind the boards. I remember he'd tell me that he was my friend. That he was Nancy's friend…" Quentin lingers on her name. "I know now that he was never there for the right reasons."
What he's saying doesn't take much mental math to calculate. Struck speechless by the depths of the Entity's cruelty, Feng Min doesn't know what to say.
"Quentin," she eventually utters, horrified.
"I know," he says curtly. "I'm not sorry about it any more. His time hurting my friends and family is over. That's all I wanted."
Feng Min thinks back upon the betrayals and hurts she had both caused and endured for the sake of her career. Ever-present, haunting her peripherals, remains the desire for self-obliteration.
Could she internalize her pain the way Quentin has? Find the meaning in it all?
Don't you know it's all hopeless? she wants to ask him. But she looks into his eyes and sees that he seems to already know.
"Did you ever know someone like the Doctor?" asks Quentin, suddenly driving the conversation back to its point. Feng Min struggles to keep up, her brain trying to reconcile the terrible truth Quentin has just revealed to her.
She wishes that she were brave enough to tell him that she thinks she understands, even if just a little. But talking would be giving the things that had happened to her a tangible form, and she is too afraid of what emotions might follow.
"Like... Herman?" Feng Min pauses, then corrects herself, swallowing with difficulty around the lump in her throat. "Like the Doctor?"
"Yeah. Did you know him at any point in your life? I mean, that's how it's worked for everyone else we know of that's got some kind of link." Quentin looks up over to Laurie, and Feng Min does, too. She sees a blank white mask in her mind's eye, always watching out for the girl. Always hunting for her, as tireless as death.
"No," says Feng Min. "I'm positive, because he says the last year he remembers is 1983. I wasn't even born for another decade."
"That's bizarre," murmurs Quentin. "Unless he's lying...?"
"He's not," says Feng Min, more blunter and quicker than she intends. Quentin looks at her questioningly. She doesn't know how to explain that she's been inside of Herman's memories, so she just says, "I'm sure of that date."
Quentin appears to take her at her word, nodding. "It's funny," he says. "Technically, I'm older than you."
"Yeah?" she smiles falteringly.
"If you were born in 1993, I mean. '91 for me." Quentin laughs. "It's just that it's 2009... or it was."
It makes Feng Min dizzy to think about. "The Entity proves that time travel is possible. Just... in the worst way." Funny, how she used to be curious about that kind of stuff. Not any more.
"I don't even think it travels. It just stays here in its nightmare and pulls things in. Like a spider waiting in its web for some poor fly to come by." Quentin mulls the idea over, and then adds, "But what do I know? I'm starting to forget what the real world was even like. What my life was like."
Feng Min watches his hands go still over a still-packaged, sterilized syringe— a very rare find out in the fog.
"I can't even remember how some of my favorite songs went. Like, I can still remember the names, and I know who sang them, and how they made me feel, but everything else...?" Quentin shakes his head. "I can't remember. It's just been so long."
Feng Min doesn't know what to say again, but Quentin seems to need to talk, anyway, so she waits for him to continue.
"Sorry. I know it's kind of stupid to complain about not being able to remember the lyrics to Enjoy the Silence, or whatever." Quentin begins sealing the box up, sliding compartments noisily back into place and flipping the latches shut.
"No, I get it," she says. "If I think about it, I..." She thinks about Nebula Arc, and about her teammates, and her parents, and the legions of fans she'd lost. Her mind lands on the memories Herman's powers had leached out of her when she'd caught the madness. They still feel fresh. "When I think about what my life was like before the Entity took me, the details are all..."
"Foggy?" Quentin offers.
"Yeah. Like it's behind a smoke screen. And it takes more effort to remember." Feng Min realizes, with a start, that the only way she has experienced memories of her former life completely clearly in the nightmare has been under the Doctor's influence. Something about the static allows her to wave the smoke away.
"Yeah." They go quiet, the both of them, until Quentin reaches into his jacket for something, tugging her phone free. She's surprised to see it there, looking exactly the way she remembers with the same fractures in the screen. The same shiny, electric-blue protective case. The 08 — her Laser Bears team number — embroidered on the wrist strap. "Remember this?"
"You still have that thing?" she asks, gaping at it. It looks so strange there in his palm— a sudden, blunt reminder of the life she'd once led. She remembers giving it to Quentin early on in her time in the nightmare and feeling relieved to let it go. Seeing it there in front of her is kind of like seeing a corpse get up and start walking, but the corpse has her face.
"I never did figure out what to do with it," says Quentin. "Did you want it back?"
"No," she says quickly, her expression crumpling as something like defensiveness comes over her.
Quentin seems to get it, his expression turning apologetic. "Oh— shit. Sorry." He moves to put it away. Feng Min reaches out to stop him, not wanting him to feel guilty.
"It's fine." She takes a deep breath, feeling it inflate her lungs and strain the muscles cradling her ribs, and wills herself to smile. "Seeing it was just a surprise, I guess."
Quentin slips it away, anyway, shaking his head. "I'll hang onto it," he says. "You never know." Standing up, he straightens, stretching his arms out above his head. "Do you want to go for a walk?"
Feng Min looks over at the campfire and realizes that the conversation between the other survivors has mostly died down. Laurie has returned to quietly studying her book, and Ace and David are playing a silent game of cards, so she turns back to Quentin and nods. They head towards the tree line together; both of them unconsciously keep a margin of space from it, not wanting to be swept into the fog lingering on the border.
Once they've put some space between themselves and the campfire, Quentin says, "So what now?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know what the others were thinking. What... what Jake thought."
Feng Min's stomach churns. "I know," she says. "I know it looks bad, how everything in the trials just got all fucked up around me. I… I hope it's stopped. It seems like it stopped."
"Do you think it had something to do with him? The Doctor?" Quentin asks bluntly. "I know you want to be honest with me. Please."
"I really don't know," says Feng Min, because she absolutely doesn't. The Doctor seems to believe that the Entity isn't very concerned by the details of their interactions, but she also knows that after she — and consequently Jake and Claudette — dropped off the radar for a long stretch of time, the anomalies in the trials stopped happening. She can't deny the coincidence, nor what it implies for her complicity or reputation or even her very survival in trials.
"Okay," says Quentin easily, making Feng Min grateful that he has chosen to believe her. "I mean, at least things have started to stabilize. Maybe it had nothing to do with you. Weird things happen here now and then. A few times there's been this kind of… I guess they're not flowers, but they grew like weeds all over the realms before withering away. Stuff like that. I remember seeing a dove in a trial once. Just one dove among all those crows. Nobody believed me."
She laughs, but only because Quentin is chuckling. "Quentin," Feng Min starts, reaching to touch him on the elbow.
He comes to a stop to look at her, so she does, too. They're pretty far along the tree line, and the campfire has long since faded from sight, even though the moon and stars haven't changed their positions at all.
Pained, she says, "I never wanted to lie to anyone."
"Of course not," he agrees, but he shoves his hands into his pockets, looking troubled. "I'm gonna be honest, Feng Min. I don't really know what to think of, like, any of this. But whatever it is that's going on with... with the Doctor... I don't need to know. But I do know that I just don't think you'd do something to hurt any of us."
"Not on purpose," says Feng Min brokenly. "Even though I'm the reason Jake and Claudette are gone."
"No, you're not," says Quentin sharply. "That's the fog. That's the Entity."
Feng Min can't talk above the knot in her throat, so she just stands there staring at the cross on his pendant.
"I'm serious," says Quentin. "We all know the risks when we head into the fog. Jake and Claudette know that best of all."
She knows that's true, and that it's logical, but it doesn't feel that way. "And what if they never come back?"
"That's the nightmare," says Quentin. "That's what it does." His voice is reluctant, bordering stubborn. "It wouldn't make it your fault."
"I thought that the only way to make things right was to find them. That's why I wanted his help," she whispers.
"It wasn't a bad idea," says Quentin gently— granting her far too much credit, she thinks. She shakes her head silently, and he gestures for her to pick up their walk again. Feng Min zips up her camouflage-patterned jacket as they turn around to head back in the direction of the campfire.
She expects to see the familiar orange light at any moment in its safe haven clearing among the trees, but although they walk, she sees nothing. It might be her imagination, she thinks, but the blackness of the night only seems to be deepening. Quentin seems to become aware of it at about the same time she does, his steps slowing.
"We're not headed towards the campfire, are we?" she asks him reluctantly.
"No," says Quentin grimly, his posture stiffening. "I don't think so."
As if on cue, the dark mist appears around them, dense and grey and swallowing them whole in a single moment. One second before, Feng Min had been standing right next to Quentin. Now she stands alone in the fog again, frozen as she feels the pull she's felt countless times now, to infinite degrees.
It's time for a trial.
Tensing, Feng Min quickly tells herself to gather her composure and put herself back in the strategist's mindset. She wishes she'd brought her backpack on their walk so that she'd have at least a few screws and bolts to work with, but hands-on work with generators had never stopped her from finishing them before.
It seems like it takes the dark mist longer than usual to pull her away and rematerialize her inside of its chosen sacrifice area for this particular trial. After a second, Feng Min realizes why— she's staring into a blank greyish sky. When she looks around and realizes where she is, she feels a bolt of terror as stark and blinding as her surroundings.
She's in the snowy realm again, the one where she'd almost had her throat slit. She wonders, with horror, if all four of them are present. One for each of the survivors. It wouldn't even surprise her at this point. The trials had never been fair to begin with.
The lodge itself is present about sixty yards out; she can just make it out through the mist and snowfall. She decides that she definitely wants to avoid it and begins carefully walking around the grounds. The snow is deep and dry, coming halfway up her calves and leaving huge, very trackable bootprints behind. She can only hope that the snow will fall quickly enough to start concealing them a little.
While looking for a generator, something colorful catches her eye. It's a large information board with a map on it that has mostly been worn away by wind, ice, and time. Feng Min raises her arm and uses her sleeve to clear the board of frost, trying to make out the name in the upper right corner, which turns out to be Mount Ormond Resort. The text beneath is too small and too faded to read, but she can still make out the distinct shapes on the map. There are brightly highlighted paths and numbered landmarks. Her eyes settle upon a large square building at the center, and the helpful little bubble near it: YOU ARE HERE!
That has to be the lodge. She can also see where the ski lifts are located, but she can't identify any of the other markers.
As she contemplates her choices, Feng Min is startled by a loud cawing right near her. She jumps, anticipating the deadly warning signal of the heartbeat pounding in her ears.
Two crows have settled onto the half-wall that formed the other side of the information board, and now they're both looking at her with their blank black eyes as though wondering what spooked her so much. But she knows there's nothing happening in their heads. Looking at them now, Feng Min wonders how she could ever have thought they were real birds at one point. Nothing lives or breathes in the Entity's realm except its survivors and killers. Everything else, she suspects, is much like the dark mist: everywhere, always, and neutral.
She wonders what the Entity sees through the eyes of its crows, if it even looks at all.
It calls to mind Herman and his unique relationship with the cameras in the Institute, but he isn't here to help her this time. Feng Min tears her gaze away from the birds with contempt, and as though to spite her, they take flight, screeching. She winces. She's been caught plenty of times by killers observant enough to tune their ears and watch the skies.
Jake never struggled with the crows, a little voice in the back of her head reminds her. She's watched him run past them, no care for how loud his footsteps or approach were, and not a single one of them would take flight. Then she'd try to very slowly move past a couple that weren't even looking in her direction, and it'd be a total dice roll whether or not they'd react.
The crows do draw someone over to her— Quentin. They exchange a grim look, but Feng Min feels a little better knowing that the fog had snatched him up, too, and she can sense that he feels the same. There's only so far you could get in the nightmare without that kind of commiseration.
"Hey," he says to her in a low voice. "I've got a generator going back this way with Dwight." He nods his head to the right and leads her away from the information board and towards what looks to be an observation tower. The staircase had completely rotted through at some point in the resort's past, leaving no way to reach the upper deck, but there is a generator positioned right beneath it, where Dwight is already laboring over the pistons.
"I'm glad you're here," Dwight says with relief, his eyes on her as they approach. "You mind helping us sort out this mess?" He raises his hands at her; they're covered with oil.
Nodding, Feng Min steps around Dwight and takes a position right next to him, peering inside the generator. She immediately reaches in deep to grab hold of a sludge-encrusted spark plug and unscrew it free. She drops it into Dwight's palm. "See if you can clean this off if you can't replace it."
Dwight nods and immediately begins using the tail end of his tie to scrape the sticky black carbon off. Feng Min feels around blindly for the pulley inside and manages to realign it; after she does that, the generator immediately sounds like it's running a lot smoother. Quentin flicks on his flashlight to try to get a better look at what he's doing, and Feng Min is just about to switch sides to see if she can assist him when she hears something off in the distance— a scream.
The two men with her notice it, too, because they both glance up in the same direction. Quentin's mouth contorts into an expression of resigned expectation, but all he says is, "I'll go," as he gets to his feet.
"No, you aren't. I am," Dwight responds immediately, holding out the spark plug for Feng Min to take. She does, stretching her arms into the generator to push it back into place. It's this action that causes the floodlights above to turn on. Feng Min backs away and stands up to see Dwight and Quentin having a stare-off that none of them really have time for, especially not whoever the killer is chasing around right now.
"Well?" she prompts, slightly impatiently.
"Right," says Dwight, shaking his head. "Quentin, follow me. Feng Min— you know what to do."
She nods. Generators, of course. The task of repairing them often befell her while her more agile and risk-taking allies distract the killer. Dwight and Quentin take off in the direction of the shouting— towards the lodge. She hesitates, not wanting to get too close to the building where she had nearly gotten her throat slit, but she immediately scolds herself for her childishness. The killer is going to find her whether she goes near the lodge or not. That's something she can count on for every single fucking trial, time after time.
Feng Min finds a generator around the side of the lodge, where she is surprised to also discover a bulldozer abandoned there, parked halfway through the wall of the building as though it had crashed there and someone had simply decided to leave it the way it was. It at least provides a view into the lounge, where she can make out the glow of the fire pit in the center.
Another crow goes shrieking into the sky. As she watches it go, Feng Min wonders if they have ever been known to any culture to mean anything but an ill omen.
A shout from the lodge disrupts her thoughts. She stares through the gap, but sees nothing. There's a faint thudding she can detect that might be coming from the upper level. She contemplates it before she hears another cry that she immediately recognizes as Quentin, which kicks her into high gear working on the generator. Not a minute later, she sees someone sprinting out of the building through the large hole that had been created by the bulldozer. She can't tell who it is at first, but they're coming right towards her.
It takes her a few seconds — and the emergency siren of the heartbeat — to realize that she is not looking at another survivor.
It's clearly the loudmouthed, angry guy, because he's wearing the same clothes. What was his name? The F on his jacket brings it to mind: Frank. The mask is grinning as he sprints at her, knife raised. Feng Min springs to her feet, pushing off from the generator. She doesn't delay any longer before taking off, suppressing the scream building in her chest.
"Hey! It's you!" Frank calls out from behind her. He's clearly gloating, and that's no surprise: she had a feeling one or all of the four strangers had to be looking forward to seeing her in a trial. Feng Min knows they can't exactly be happy with how their last interaction went.
She remains silent as she launches herself towards a small cabin with a little porch leading up into it. She can see that there's a window up there, and if she can just reach it in time, she can hopefully trip him up. She's observed many killers struggle to navigate around or through windows simply due to physical size constraints. Frank isn't any bigger than, say, Jake — she winces that that's the face that flashes in her head — but she knows that she can slow him down a little if she can just get him to follow her.
Not wanting to chance a look back, Feng Min bolts up the steps and inside the cabin. She can hear Frank right behind her— the heartbeat's pressed right to the back of her neck. Saying a silent prayer to no one in particular, Feng Min grabs the window sill, hoping against unlikely odds that he won't get ahold of her ankle.
She hauls her momentum through, and when she lands on the grass on the other side, she feels some tension release. She moves to keep sprinting, wanting to carry the inertia through — she knows she can lose him now — when, in the same fraction of a second, she is yanked sharply backwards by a hand fisted in her jacket.
Shocked, she opens her mouth to scream, but by then Frank has pulled her towards him, right into the path of his swinging arm and the blade wrapped in his fist, and there is nothing Feng Min can do as it sinks into her side, right above her hip bone. Her scream is cut off by the shock, but then Frank lets her go, laughing, and instinct takes over after he rips the knife free. She goes running towards the trees, her head swimming with a strange, vertigo-like sensation that causes the world around her to dim.
Feng Min somehow manages to stumble her way out of the heartbeats' radius, dropping to her ass behind a large boulder to check the throbbing wound. She peels up her shirt to find that her hip and leg are soaked in blood, and it's still flowing out of her.
Despite the many stab wounds she has received during her time in the nightmare, Feng Min is always newly astonished that such tiny entry wounds — almost like paper cuts — can hide such grievous injuries. This one seems particularly deep.
Unfortunately for her, she doesn't have a med kit. Feng Min spits out a few curses, including a couple of her mother's old favorites, as she sits there with her palm pressed on top of the wound. The cold weather isn't nearly as noticeable with the burning pain spreading from her gut through the rest of her body bit by bit.
Nearby, she hears more yelling, so she gets to her feet, immediately regretting it as she grows lightheaded. The sight beneath her brings to mind cherry snow cones. Tearing her eyes away, Feng Min drags herself past the trees to get a look at the lodge again. She's starting to feel particularly dizzy when she spots Quentin jogging towards her, first aid kit in hand. He's got a bandage wrapped around his left bicep that's deeply stained in blood. He comes over to where she's been crouching near a tree.
"He got my arm super bad," Quentin immediately says as he kneels. "How are your hands? You might need to help me help you." His left arm dangles at his side as he extends his right to look at the wound. "I think you've already done the majority of your bleeding. He must've missed the vital stuff."
"Great," wheezes Feng Min, shuddering with pain. "Listen, Quentin. This guy— he's— he's one of the people I told you about before. I— we were here."
"I figured," says Quentin. "I thought he was David at first when I saw him inside the hotel. But then I spotted Tapp, and the guy stabbed me before I could even react."
He holds a piece of absorbent gauze to the wound to soak up the remaining blood; Feng Min manages not to make a sound as Quentin quickly packs and tapes over it. It's only a temporary fix— she just needs to be able to last long enough to try to live through the rest of the trial. That's the way it is in the nightmare. There's never any time to really take care minding their injuries, and does it really matter when the Entity continuously makes them whole again, anyway? Does it really matter when she knows that she's more likely to end up sacrificed than not?
Quentin helps her up and pulls her towards the lodge. "I've almost figured out the generator inside," he explains. "I got chased off of it." He looks at her. "You don't have to come."
"I'm coming," says Feng Min. Despite her sinking hopes for this particular trial, she's not about to let Quentin think she's a coward. She's got an act to clean up.
Inside the lodge, Feng Min that sees everything is still in the same derelict state. The generator seems mostly fine, but she can hear that something is misaligned in the machinery. It's creating a loud rattling. She reaches inside with her bloodstained hands to try to find the source of the problem as Quentin holds his flashlight beam steady for her. It soon starts up, brightening the firelit atmosphere with its artificial lights.
"One left," Quentin says encouragingly. "Should be over by—"
They both freeze at the heartbeats, loud and oppressive and everywhere all at once. They manage to slip up the staircase as Dwight comes stumbling in from the lobby, trailing blood, with Frank on his trail. Tapp is right behind the killer, attempting to intervene— it is apparent that Dwight stands no chance if Frank manages to grab him again.
Before Feng Min can decide what to do, Quentin is gone, running right after them. Crossing her fingers, she ends up cutting through the lobby, following Dwight's blood trail backwards across the threadbare carpet. It takes her out through the doors, into the snow, and straight to a generator on the verge of completion. The sight of it renews Feng Min's energy and sense of hope; she approaches it with confidence, attempting to work as fast as she can under the pressure of the commotion happening not very far away.
She can feel the Entity lurking somewhere above them all, hungry and impatient for its chance to feed.
Even her stab wound doesn't hurt as much when she's focused on the generator and her increasing hope of getting through the trial without encountering Frank again. She lets go of the fan and smiles as the generator's floodlights shine triumphantly.
She can only faintly hear the tone of the exit gates powering up. Uncertain of their location, she sticks to the perimeter wall and begins a limping jog.
Soon, Feng Min sees a soft glow form in the distance— a glimpse at Quentin's aura. Knowing that she can always rely on finding him near the gates, she picks up the pace, only to encounter the heartbeats again. They seem to be moving parallel to her; she moves around the side of a wall and gets her eyes on Frank just as he runs towards Quentin, who barely manages to hold down the switch just long enough to get the gates to light up.
Feng Min feels a thrill of victory as they slide open noisily and Quentin flees from the switch, trying to bait Frank away from the gate.
And then, in that same moment, the world begins to shake.
When she was little, Feng Min had been terrified of earthquakes. Even minor tremors caused her to shake and start crying for her mother. Then she'd grown up. She remembers sitting at her desk in her room at the Laser Bears dorms in front of her three monitors and gaming her way through the tremors of at least a dozen earthquakes during the handful of years she lived there. Transporting herself to another world allowed her to feel less afraid of the one she really lived in.
The feeling of being small and helpless and calling for her mother is what she thinks of now as the earth beneath her feet shudders. She watches Quentin stumble into a tree, crying out as his shoulder collides with it, followed by Frank, who is unsteady on his feet but laughing. If any of the trees had leaves, Feng Min thinks, they would have all fallen off by now. She can even see little individual blades of grass vibrating around her shoes.
"You okay?" It's Dwight, shouting over the rumbling. Feng Min turns to try to find him; he's clutching onto a locker, unable to keep himself upright, apparently, and his injury looks pretty bad.
"I'm fine," she calls back. "What the hell is happening?"
"I don't know!" The sweat on Dwight's forehead and the genuine terror in his eyes tell her that he is just as clueless as she is.
And then the shaking ground starts to break apart. When Feng Min looks down to confirm it, she screams.
Veins in the earth begin opening up under her shoes— fissures at first, then cracks, shooting out like a thousand little capillaries in every direction. What swims inside has the heat of magma and the intense light of the campfire— but red, bright, bright red. Gashes in the dirt like bloody wounds in the splintering patterns of fractured ice. She can feel the burning heat on her legs, drawing another scream from her throat.
What is happening? What the fuck is happening? Why now?
For a terrifying moment, Feng Min is afraid that she'll fall inside one of the widening chasms. It keeps her gaze transfixed, as mesmerized as she is horrified.
Quentin's strangled voice comes through the trees as he makes a concerted effort to get away from the killer. But Frank goes barreling directly into him with the force of a linebacker, bringing them both to the ground. A burst of red sparks explode where Quentin goes crashing into the grass on top of the fissures. He shouts angrily, trying to throw an elbow back into Frank's masked face. The red glow lights his face up in gruesome, sanguineous shadows as Frank manages to pin him on his front, raising his knife into the air.
Tapp and Dwight are somewhere between her and the exit. All of them are in pretty bad shape to try to pull off a rescue, let alone in conditions like this, when the world is threatening to turn on its side.
"Don't!" screams Feng Min. Frank pauses before the swing, as she'd hoped— if she can get Frank off of Quentin, maybe Tapp could go help him up, and they can just dash through the gates before—
But Frank doesn't get off of Quentin. Instead, he remains right where he is, crouched above his back, knife in hand, seemingly at ease with the trembling ground. Feng Min notices now that the earth seems to be crumbling and disintegrating away entirely, turning to lightweight embers that rise into the blackening sky. It's as though the whole world is collapsing, like the foundation has been ripped out from beneath them.
"You again, huh?" Frank drawls. He motions towards her with both the knife and his head, exposing the tattoo on his throat. "Where's your friend this time? Doctor Shocks-a-lot?"
Her hands rise automatically to her mouth to silence her gasp, but everyone hears it, anyway, even above the deafening rumbling. The words hit her like a battering ram and knock her flat. They have the same effect on both Dwight and Tapp, whose expressions Feng Min cannot avoid seeing. Tapp is looking at her with both confusion and dismay that is quickly cooling to a kind of disbelieving anger, and the look Dwight is giving her is totally blank, like he can't even comprehend the thing Frank has just said. Like he doesn't want to believe it.
"Whoa, my bad!" Frank continues, laughing. He's got an elbow planted in the back of Quentin's neck. "Did I say something I shouldn't have?"
Beneath Frank, Quentin's agonized face crumples into an expression of resignment— he's looking at Feng Min with apologetic eyes. As though he messed up, somehow. Even as Frank lifts the knife again and brings it down into Quentin's back, again and again and again.
Feng Min screams and turns away as the rumbling deepens. The vibrations feel like they're right inside of her bones. Dwight and Tapp are stumbling towards her, knowing that Quentin is beyond saving. For whatever it's worth, they still seem to want to get her out through the exit gate with them.
Dwight reaches out for her arm as he gets near. "Feng Min," he starts, looking pained.
"Later! We don't have time for this!" barks Tapp. The exit gates are only about twenty yards away—
Frank stands up, wiping his wet blade off on his thigh, leaving a huge red streak on the denim. Feng Min expects him to come sprinting towards them with his unusually high speed, but he doesn't.
He just stands there and slides his hands into his jacket pockets, his mask smiling without falter. He even lifts a hand to wave them off.
And then something comes ripping out of the ground.
It grabs onto Feng Min's ankles and wrists and then wrenches her so far backwards her skull slams right into the hard ground. It tears through the dirt in milliseconds like a drill, or a great, twisted claw, or a mouth perfectly designed for feeding. Feng Min has no chance of getting away from it. Its spines close around her like the jaws of a carnivorous plant as she screams and thrashes. It cages her inside of its grasp, sharp talons tearing through her clothes as it grips. She can hear both Dwight and Tapp shouting, and she manages to struggle enough to roll her body around to try to get a look at them.
She sees that something has caught them, too. Something with the sheen of chitin and the texture of bark, something big enough to swallow any one of them whole. Trapped, just like she is.
"Dwight...?" she screams. Or tries to.
Instead, she is splattered in a shower of blood as something thrusts up from the ground and directly through Dwight's chest. His eyes immediately go blank behind his glasses, as empty as a sheet of paper. The segmented legs rattle and shudder and click, and then she hears something snap. His neck.
The spines around her tighten. She closes her eyes, knowing it'll be over with in just a second.
At the campfire, Dwight keeps trying to explain what happened to the others, but he can't get much out. He keeps stuttering through it, not knowing how to explain, his distress so unusually high that even Ace and Nea look at him with concern.
"What happened?" asks Meg uncertainly, turning her attention from Dwight to Quentin. Tapp had immediately gotten up and walked away the moment they'd returned — who could blame him? — and Quentin doesn't seem to know how to explain, either. He opens his mouth and closes it, and then he looks over at Feng Min. Everyone else does, too.
She's had her head in her hands in her little isolated spot by the campfire, her fingers squeezing at her temples, thinking not just about the horrific thing that they had just experienced in the ritual, but about the truth the Doctor had exposed to her. The secret that Frank has just revealed. All at once, it's…
They seem to be waiting for an answer, and there is only one thing she can think of to say.
"Everything fell apart," she whispers, staring out beyond the fire, into the fog. "Everything just fell apart."