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Feng Min tells herself that she is not having a nightmare.

Waking up in unfamiliar surroundings next to people she doesn't know is something that's been happening more than she'd like lately, but that's not the disorienting part. It's that it's never been like this before.

She is not having a nightmare because it feels too real. She's too real, shaky fingers curling over her palms, cold sweat down her neck, that collapsing-heart feeling she'd always get just before she'd have to walk out on stage at a competition. Before she'd stopped.

She is not having a nightmare because it's more likely that she's dead, and this is Hell. Her place here, she thinks, is probably earned.

She is not having a nightmare because she recognizes that there are rules and boundaries to this world. Logic.

She is not having a nightmare because forever is not a concept that her human brain can process.

The others tell her, It's hard for everybody at first.

At first, against forever. Feng Min thinks that most people are truly naïve.

 

After she gathers her bearings and makes her way towards the light she can see shining through the trees, after the strangers huddled around the campfire cautiously approach and begin telling her the most ridiculous bullshit Feng Min has ever heard in her ridiculous bullshit life, after they tell her to sit down for this, after they attempt to explain something they call the Entity, after they say I don't know to almost every question she asks, and after they finally leave her alone by the fire to absorb the news that she is effectively damned to an eternal Hell, Feng Min discovers her cell phone in her pocket.

She had forgotten all about it. Now it sits in her hand, cracked glass and colorful charms and all. Completely cold atop her palm. Dead.

 

Feng Min immediately knows that the others don't necessarily trust her. Not the way some of them trust each other. She's observed the relief that spreads into Meg's eyes when she's called forth by the Entity alongside Claudette or Dwight. She's seen the way that Quentin and Laurie cooperate during what the other people call trials, working together to keep everyone alive. Or the way that Tapp and the old guy — Bill? — seem to have this unspoken ability to play off one another's strengths, throwing the enemy off their game.

They don't extend the same faith to her, but she gets why. It's not just that they've all been here longer than her; it's the way Feng Min has chosen to survive. She doesn't think they really understand; she's trying to be pragmatic. The first trial she'd been in, she was so afraid that she'd frozen in place as the Wraith had come upon her. She only had to experience that feeling once before she began recalculating her strategy. After dying for the first time, actually dying and then waking up again, she was forced to accept that all of it was real. Is real. The fear and the pain and the dying. All of it. Worse, the Entity is real, and it just knows things about her. When she first awoke and found herself wearing her team uniform — something that had been collecting dust in her closet for almost a year — it felt like some kind of sick joke was being played on her.

There's one thing Feng Min knows, something she's defined her entire life by: there is no allowance for compassion when it comes to survival. Early on in the trials, Feng Min identifies the most efficient way to live through them: stay quiet, complete generators quickly, and look out for herself only. She comes to see how staying focused on those three things is often the difference between life and death. When she runs past an injured ally, it's not as though she wants them to come to harm. She's not cruel or sadistic; it's not like she enjoys seeing someone get their guts ripped out, or that she has anything personal against any of the others. It's just that she's trying to avoid that same fate.

Feng Min knows that all games are ultimately a test of the player's ability to make the right calls when needed, no matter what the cost. To step up when beckoned to. No quarter. She's died enough times on that hook already, at the same rate as any of the rest of them. She figures that it all sort of balances out at the end.

Never mind, then, the terrible first impression she'd made, and the fact that they don't really know her, the fact that most of them don't even seem to want to. Feng Min is used to that. Especially lately, in the past that had been severed from her body and left behind in another world.

There is one person — they call each other survivors, like the word hasn't lost all effectiveness by now — who kind of reminds Feng Min of herself. He's got the unfocused, familiar gaze of someone who spends a lot of time inside their own head instead of in their surroundings. Jake Park usually stands around like he doesn't know what to do with his hands. When most of them choose to gather by that endless campfire (she'd stared into it for what felt like hours one time, and experienced no pain, no blindness), Jake is usually out by the forest's edge, sometimes slipping quietly into the trees.

Eventually, the curiosity gets to her, and she does something unusual: she starts a conversation.

"What's out there?" The sound of her own voice, so underused lately outside of screaming, makes her wince.

Jake turns, his eyes flicking over her. If he's surprised to see her, he doesn't show it. "Whatever you find. There are no directions. Eventually, it always takes you back to the campfire."

Feng Min glances into the tree line. "What do you mean?" she asks, although she has an idea. She may not be a professional any more, but she still knows video games. All the times she'd tested the limits of a game world, walked to the edge to see what would happen. Trying to see if her character would hit a wall or get flung across the map or get stuck there or—

or fall into the abyss.

"The fog can take you to the rest of the Entity's world. Outside of trials. Eventually, it brings you back. Don't think it enjoys us wandering too much. We have to go out there sometimes. Scavenge for supplies, clothes. It doesn't matter which direction you walk." Jake's shoulders roll dispassionately.

Feng Min wonders, for a moment, about walking out there, to experience it for herself. She's so tired of the fire's yellow light, its burnless heat, its endless, suspended entropy. "What about the...?"

"Those monsters?" he completes for her, his voice low. "They're there, too. Dormant, sometimes. But dangerous. They can still hurt you. We try not to disturb them."

So they live here, somehow. Just like she does now. She realizes that she hasn't even thought yet about the possibility that the Entity's servants are anything more than varied ways to punish them all. Keeping them on their toes, ensuring they never get too comfortable with any one strategy.

An obvious follow-up question surfaces. "If they can still hurt us, why don't they just come here to the fire?"

Jake shakes his head. "It's something about the light. We think it repels them. This is the one place we can feel temporarily safe in our alleged eternal punishment." Feng Min thinks he's trying to be funny at first, but when she looks up into his face, she sees no smile. He has yet to make eye contact with her.

"Is that what you think is going on? We're being punished?" She crosses her arms.

"We all have theories," he says. "Like we told you, we don't know a lot— just whatever's been passed on to us. And there's nobody around willing to answer our questions."

"Yeah," says Feng Min, pausing. She feels a swell of discomfort. She's afraid of what might come out of her mouth if she talks too much. She doesn't think she should get to know any of these people too well.

Jake says, "So... Feng Min, huh? Do you have an English name?"

Before she can really stop herself, her defensiveness kicks on. Out of the many, many things her parents had given her that she had given back, often without gratitude, her name was not one of them. "Do you have a Korean one?"

"Mmm," says Jake. "Point taken."

"How long have you been here?" she cuts in abruptly, and before he can answer, she clarifies, "How long does it feel like you've been here?" It's a loaded question. Time here is an amorphous thing, a formless void that does not align with the rules of this dimension. Time has been discarded by the Entity, because time would steal their lives away in a moment if it could, and it can't have that. It needs them too much.

"Forever," says Jake, and he looks like he means it. "It feels like I've been here longer than I've been alive, but at the same time... My life... everything before still feels like it happened just seconds ago. So close I could just reach out and grab it..." He trails off and makes a vague gesture, gloved hand flexing in the air and clenching around nothing. "And then it feels like it's been a thousand years, sometimes." Jake gives a sort of laugh, surprising her. It's barely a huff, just him exhaling, and she gets the sense again that he doesn't spend a lot of time talking to other people.

Neither does she, for that matter. Feng Min returns to sit by the fire and await her next punishment.



 

Things happen within the nightmare unpredictably. Trials just begin, with little warning, the black fog thickening before their eyes and dissipating to reveal that it has brought a select number of unlucky survivors somewhere else. Feng Min can't figure out how they actually get there. It goes with her altered experience of time; she's become unable to measure it in any meaningful way. The others tell her that she'll get used to it. That you could measure it if you wanted to, if you had a watch and wanted to watch the seconds tick by, but time doesn't really mean anything any more, not when your existence — not life, that doesn't seem like the right word, it feels like a curse in her mouth now — is just a series of tortured loops.

Time is nothing, Feng Min tells herself. Time is something humans made up to know when the Earth was turning. Time is a measure of mortality, a concept no longer within her grasp.

She can still experience something parallel to sleep. She can close her eyes and slip away briefly from her surroundings, but she's not sure that she ever actually gets any rest; it's more like falling into a lukewarm pit of tar, laying on the surface of it, waiting to sink below the black. She asks the others if they ever feel well-rested after sleeping around the campfire; they all shake their heads no.

The due date for any chance that all of this could be a bad dream has come and gone.



 

Feng Min is lost in a forest. Mother's Dwelling, Jake once called it. She'd wanted to ask where they'd gotten such a ridiculous name for it, then realized that she didn't care. It doesn't matter. She's reserving all of the emotional energy she's got for trials.

She has been here before. Died here before. She's not sure how many times. The forest is still a remote and alien world to her. Like all of the Entity's realms, something doesn't feel right about it. There's an unnatural energy in the air, carried by the fog. She has never spotted any animals, aside from the Entity's crows. The trees are more still than any Feng Min has ever seen, even though a perpetual rain falls. It is a world locked in a state of nourishment, anticipating growth that will never come.

The cold is starting to make her fingers numb. They're shaking slightly as Feng Min works on the generator in front of her. She keeps making mistakes; it's hard to see what she's doing with the rain running down her face and getting into her eyes. Her clothes are soaked through, and she knows she's going to really start feeling it soon. She has to keep her blood pumping, she thinks as she flexes her wrists. She can feel a twinge of pain, the way she used to after long marathon sessions of gaming.

She hasn't yet heard the thud, thud, thud that means hide, or run, and she's already got her eyes on the next point she plans to take after she finishes her current generator. She tries to allow some of the tight-chest tension to drain out of her, the anxiety and barely-suppressed terror that's got her stomach churning. She'll contend one thing to the Entity: it's just as scary every fucking time she has to go through one of these trials. It never gets any less terrifying. She will never overcome the feeling of dread in her stomach at knowing she has been selected for punishment.

Punishment. There's that word again.

Did she deserve to end up in this situation? Did any of them? It's a question she's been avoiding thinking about. When she'd first arrived, Feng Min wondered if this place was a purgatory where they all awaited a final judgment. Or maybe this was the judgment. Maybe she'd finally gone too far that last night on Earth (are they still on Earth? She's not sure) and died, and this is Hell, after all. But to accept her damnation would be to accept that she'd been a failure in life.

Hadn't she, though?

The generator lights up above her head. Feng Min can only enjoy the sight of it for a moment before she needs to be on the move. She's picking her way through the tall grass, swiping her wet hair out of her eyes, when she hears it— the telltale humming of the one the others called the Huntress floating on the mist somewhere behind her.

When Feng Min had first encountered the Huntress, she'd been taken off-guard by the humming. It had sounded so sweet, a sort of lullaby that beckoned you to curl up inside of it. The Huntress was a woman bigger than any Feng Min had ever seen, but the soft fabrics and the rabbit's mask she wore seemed to offer comfort. She was little more than another monster, though. Just like the others.

Feng Min can still remember the split-watermelon sound her own skull made when she'd caught a hatchet in the back of her head the last time she had been to the forest. She'd heard the wet crack happening right between her ears.

She bolts at the first few floating notes, picking a track through the trees that puts one of the cabins into view. She lurches herself over a window. Her tights snag on the frame and tear before she bounds up the planks leading to the sodden, rotting upper half, where she huddles in a corner, shivering, waiting to see if the Huntress has picked up her trail. The cover up here isn't good. The cabin is barely standing to begin with.

The heartbeats grow louder. Feng Min trains her eyes on the one entrance she can see from her position. She's straining her ears for the sound of footsteps, but she's having trouble placing them with all the rain falling outside.

When the pulse suddenly changes direction and fades away, she feels a lightheaded, dizzy relief. She's been feeling like that a lot more often the more trials she experiences. As she starts to get a feel of the tasks before her, the right ways to move, to run, to hide, she's begun to feel something familiar: the rush of adrenaline.

Feng Min has sought it all her life. She's always had something to prove to someone, and if she hadn't, she'd find something. The competitiveness had merely come as a side effect of her need to establish herself as someone worthy of respect. But, here, here... she allows herself to think that maybe it could be a strength, not a weakness that had cleaved her from her family and from everything she'd ever worked for and loved.

Feng Min cocks her head towards the sagging doorway and listens for a woman's voice, but hears nothing. She eases herself up from her hiding spot and crawls towards the chest against the wall. Her search yields a flashlight that she hopes she won't have to use. One of the first things the other survivors had told her was to scavenge as much as she possibly could during trials, whenever she possibly could, especially if she wasn't willing to venture into the forest beyond the campfire. Their advice is unnecessary, however; Feng Min has looted a thousand chests in just as many video games. The most useful thing are the tools, in her opinion.

She lets herself drop from the awning and lands in the grass. Distantly, she hears another generator whir to life. Who have they lost? She's only spotted Meg so far, and Meg hadn't stayed long before she'd gone running to disrupt a commotion they could hear nearby. Feng Min is impressed by her ability to outmaneuver the monsters they called killers, but she can hardly bring herself to act so selflessly. She's watched Meg run in headlong into one of these monsters to get it to drop Claudette. Feng Min isn't about to go trying that any time soon. She can't risk it. Nothing personal.

They're all different levels of selfless, her fellow damned ones, and all of them are probably more selfless than her.

Feng Min locates the final generator, adjacent to one of the exits. She can see it right there. Knowing she's so close makes it hard to focus on what she's doing. Her fingers are moving sluggishly; the cold has sunk through to the bone.

Something rolls across the atmosphere. A ripple, and then a deafening peal. Feng Min hears a scream cut into the sky, and she looks up. She does not want to look, but she does.

It is a great black thing, enormous and edgeless, slipping through a slit in the sky. Its presence is the world entire, commanding worship, their lives in its literal hands. There is a shower of sparks like hellfire that evaporates all the rain around it. Feng Min watches the claws descend, and then she gives herself permission to stop looking. It will ascend whether she watches it or not.

She holds her breath when the wires spark and then smoke, and covers her face to anticipate an explosion, but the generator just gives a muted buzz and dull thud, and she exhales, picking up them up to try again.

In the end, she and Meg make it out, but not Dwight or Ace. Meg looks stricken and angry as she limps into the gateway, heartbeats pounding up behind her. Feng Min stands on the edge of the imperceptible border, the one thing that will make her untouchable to the Huntress, or any of these monsters— at least for now.

"I couldn't do it," Meg pants. "Not fast enough." She scrunches her face up, eyes closed, a deep crease forming between her brows. "Not fast enough," she repeats, hoarser, quieter, holding a hand against her ribs, where blood wells up underneath.

"Come on," says Feng Min, and they slip through the veil just as the Huntress appears in the entrance to the gate behind them. Feng Min can hear her snarl her displeasure and arm herself— but she doesn't have time to grab them before they're gone, the world reforming around them. The campfire fades into view, and her clothes are suddenly dry, too. A consolation prize, at most. But the victory, however temporary, feels good.

Feng Min takes in the sight of the campfire and thinks that if she can outplay it, maybe she can make the Entity sick of her. Make it want to put her back where she belongs.

 

Claudette asks, "Have you seen it yet?"

Feng Min tips her chin up, pulling her eyes off of the campfire. She's tired of staring at it, but she can't bring herself to experience another empty sleep, and doing anything else means having to rub shoulders with her fellow prisoners— a distraction she can't humor. She knows it'll only slow her down in trials to become too invested in any one of them. And she knows — more than anything else — how easily people can turn on one another.

"Seen what?" she says, brushing her bangs out of her eyes. Feng Min doesn't mind Claudette, compared to the others. She's smart and resourceful. The latter is what matters most here; there's barely any use for the former in the nightmare, not with the endless repeating nature of their lives. No need to think, no need to question, no need to dream; it would be ideal if Feng Min could hit an off switch in her brain and drop blissfully out of awareness of what her existence has become.

"Well... Sorry, let me back up and explain. People appear here all the time. They're here, and then they're not... We're not sure just how many have passed through here," says Claudette, shaking her head. She drops into a sitting position next to Feng Min. "But for all of that, sometimes we find things left behind by people who used to be here. Or you'll hear something passed by word of mouth. Things they've learned about how this place works."

That perks Feng Min's interest. She'd been told before by the others about their rudimentary knowledge of some things (watch out for a symbol on the ground that looks like this... try to scavenge for plants that look like these, and take them with you if you manage to escape the trial... remember, there's another exit that opens up if you're the last person alive... when you hear a screech, it means she's teleporting...), but she wants to know as much as she can. Anything that will help her get better at dodging fate.

"It's a sort of... thing that you can experience when you sleep, sometimes," says Claudette. "After you've been here long enough, you'll become aware of it."

"What?" says Feng Min, her brows lowering. "Like a dream?"

"No," says Claudette. "It's not anything that we can explain." She looks like she's a little frustrated that she can't articulate it for Feng Min. "It doesn't look like anything, but you'll know it when you're there. It's a... state of existence. Everything is flat, but you just know what's happening. It's an expansion of your mind. You don't see or hear or think or feel anything. But you know what's happening."

A rare laugh bursts from Feng Min, one high, disbelieving note. "What? That doesn't make any sense."

"None of this does." Claudette smiles grimly, like she understands. "How do I... Oh, I've got it. Okay, have you ever heard of something called 'blindsight?' Some people with functioning eyes who are blind because of damage to their brains have been proven to be able to identify shapes and edges in front of them, even though they can't actually see them. There's been a lot of studies on it. They still receive that information despite not being able to see." Claudette takes a breath. "There are more senses than we think. Humans just typically don't have access to them all. But here..." Claudette looks almost wistful about it, like she wishes the circumstances were different so that she could appreciate the wonder of it.

It's a lot to take in, and Feng Min can only think of one question. "How will I know that I'm... there?"

"You'll just know," says Claudette. "You'll just be there. You'll be able to feel that thing there. The Entity. I think that whatever it is, it's a part of the Entity. And if you spend enough time in it, you'll start... changing."

Feng Min pulls her knees up to her chest, staring down at her sneakers. There are speckles of dried blood on them. Her own, probably. "That sounds like a reason to be afraid of it."

"I know. But you'll become aware of things that will help you survive. Your mind will give you new senses. You'll be able to use them during trials," says Claudette. "You'll be able to detect where the others may be, or where you should be going next. You might even eventually get a feel for where the... killer is."

"So it gives you ESP," says Feng Min dryly, her mind latching onto the first trope she can think of.

"If that's how you'd like to refer to it," says Claudette. "We call it the Bloodweb. Or... others started calling it the Bloodweb, and that's just what it's called now, I guess."

"And this happens to everyone?"

Claudette nods. "It's going to happen to you, too."

 

She wonders if her parents have felt her absence. If time is passing for them the way it passes for her. That could mean that no time has passed at all, or, like Jake described, it could mean that a thousand years have come and gone; Feng Min cannot be certain which is more likely. She thinks they probably wouldn't notice that she had gone missing for quite a while. It's sort of comforting; she doesn't like the idea of them mourning her. She had already betrayed them so much. She knows how much she'd hurt them by running away from home, defying their expectations, always seeking an escape.

Maybe they'll go back to China once they realize that she's never coming back. She hopes they do. She hopes they don't waste their time looking for her and that they go back to the place they began and start again without her. They deserve that much. So many years of hard work and struggle in the U.S. had only brought them a missing daughter.

Feng Min thinks that she's always been an escapist, for as long as she can remember. Video games, when she'd been younger, and then the pursuit of infamy. The drive to be the best had mutated into a monster that had swallowed her up whole. Sometimes, she suspects that this whole nightmare dimension might be her brain finally snapping like a dry twig. Her turbulent adolescence had brought her... what? Nothing, now. Nothing that matters. It's all gone now, all the brief victories and high pressures and the self-destructive spiral with it, too.

She's thought a lot about the last thing she'd been doing before she appeared in this place. Another blackout drunk bender, hanging out around the back of a bar, trying to get a hold of one of her former teammates, begging him for a ride back to the dorms she was soon to be evicted from. He was the only one that answered, the only one who still seemed comfortable talking to her now since the rumors of her expulsion from the Laser Bears had been confirmed publicly. Her tongue had gone all gooey in her mouth when he'd asked her if she'd been drinking again. She'd hung up in anger and accepted a ride from a man who had pulled over for her. She remembers getting into his car. After that... she doesn't remember. And then she woke up here.

Thinking of the sort of person she's become over the past year makes Feng Min's guts roil. There's a sense of serving out her sentence in this place— retribution for potential lost, opportunities wasted. All because she'd had no idea how to cope with things. With anything. She remembers the smugness she'd felt when she'd taken the first opportunity to move out to the west coast after being signed to a team, like she'd finally gotten to say, Look, you were wrong to her parents. To say that she had been a disappointment to them would be an understatement.

There's a grim satisfaction in knowing that, if anything, this place is keeping her sober and forcing her to stay focused on something. If she tries to look at it all like it's a game she's playing and she's doing the necessary grind towards victory, it doesn't seem so bad. Until it gets hard, or scary, or excruciatingly painful, or deadly.

But until then, it doesn't seem so bad.

She comes to learn that most types of wounds, even the ones that look really bad, aren't that painful in the end. Mostly because of adrenaline and shock. The Entity seems to hold nothing against the human body. It lets them all bleed and spit and choke and cry, even if it doesn't let them get sick or grow hair or age or change in any perceptible way. It wants blood, and it gets blood, and it can have a refill any time it wants.

 

The place Laurie once identified to her as Haddonfield has an eerie familiarity about it. The cars and homes are outdated, sure, but Feng Min had grown up in a suburb a lot like this one after her family had moved to the U.S. She'd been 7 at the time. She'd played on a street just like Lampkin Lane throughout childhood.

But... there's nothing really natural about it. Feng Min has noticed that the Entity doesn't really seem to have an understanding of what it's trying to replicate. She finds obstacles in strange places, or objects where they shouldn't be. Debris and detritus lays everywhere within the realms. Old pallets. Tires. Abandoned cars. Remnants of human life that no longer belong anywhere. A lot of the places that hold trials seem to be ever-shifting, the features changing every time Feng Min happens across one, so that they all blur together, impossible to identify or begin to memorize. The single walled portion of Lampkin Lane looks like a memory of a memory of a memory. She doesn't like being here. It gives her an incredible feeling of dread.

The most interesting thing about Haddonfield, Feng Min thinks, is that it's Laurie's hometown. She wonders what Laurie has done to deserve that. Laurie apparently knows the monster that stalks this realm, too. She calls him Michael Myers, and the fact that the killer has a plain, normal, human name creeps Feng Min the hell out. It implies that he's a person, and to accept that is unconscionable right now. What kind of person could do things like this?

It's like that with some of the others, too; they know some of these monsters, or the places they seem to be tied to. They know their names. Feng Min is astounded. She can only be grateful that she hasn't recognized anywhere the nightmare has taken her, yet. She doesn't think she could bear seeing a place she once loved warped by the Entity for its torture trials.

Right now, she's trying to stay quiet as she carefully takes the stairs down into the basement of a home. She knows there's a generator down here because she's seen it before. Being down here gives her a claustrophobic feeling of panic, but panic is something she's becoming more used to tamping down. She needs to stay sharp.

Focus.

She has no tools; she hasn't been able to find any yet. But she's becoming steadily more confident without them. Feng Min has built her own computers since she was 14; she has a rough idea of how things fit together, and repairing generators is largely about reconnecting power sources and pushing parts back into place. EZ, she thinks.

Her hands are getting sticky with oil. The nervousness surges up again, and she takes a deep breath that she regrets, because it tastes like the smoke the generator is putting out. She can hear footsteps pounding on the grass outside a window. Feng Min goes still for a moment to try to get an idea of direction, but they've faded before she can tell. It's still enough to make her want to investigate, and she wipes her hands on her shorts and carefully picks her way up the stairs.

Once she's up there, she can hear the footsteps again, rustling the grass. She creeps over to the window — there's never any glass in them, she'd noticed a while back — and slides out of it, pausing once she's on the other side.

And then, suddenly, out of nowhere: heartbeats, making her regret that she'd come up.

"Run!"

It's Quentin, his pale face even paler than usual, bone white in the moonlight. Poor kid. He looks like he needs a good sleep more than any of them. He looks so forlorn a lot of the time, like he's already accepted all of this. Even being so young. But, right now, he just looks afraid.

Feng Min doesn't need to hear him twice. She's not about to turn around and look at what's following him. She knows that the Shape called Michael Myers has an uncanny ability to just appear where they are. He is indiscriminate with his knife, the mask betraying nothing. She has never heard him make a single sound.

Cutting across the street, Feng Min wonders — it's not the appropriate time, really — why the Entity thinks Lampkin Lane needs so many garbage cans.

She spots Nea inside of one of the houses across the street. She's working on a generator that rumbles to life at that very moment. Feng Min sprints towards the porch and spares a quick look over her shoulder. Quentin is right behind her, and only a few paces from him is Myers, who doesn't seem to be in any particular hurry towards the inevitable. She has to make a decision, fast. Turn to her instincts and reflexes and let that do all the rest.

What she ends up doing is cutting away into the bushes at the last moment, right before she reaches the porch. Quentin stumbles into the doorstep. It's a moment that costs him. As soon as Feng Min has disappeared around the back of the home, she hears the scream. Quentin. She closes her eyes for a moment, winces, is guiltily glad it's not her.

She can hear Nea shouting, and the sound of Quentin yelling in pained protest. She doesn't want to look. She mustn't look. Where is her objective?

She finds a generator in a nearby backyard, with plenty of cover on most sides of her body. No sign of heartbeats.

Shaky hands. Wire to wire.

Across the street, a scream pierces the false night.

Wire to wire.

"Focus!" she hisses under her breath. Where's the adrenaline when she needs it now? She gropes around for it helplessly, trying to identify it somewhere in her body, but it is not there. She's just scared, and the situation is spinning out of control.

She can hear indiscriminate shouting in Nea's distinctive sharp voice. Something awful is happening across the street.

Sparks fly from the generator, stinging Feng Min's hands. She feels the zaps like little burns, pulling them back to her body with a yelp of pain. She hears thudding footsteps coming around the fence and looks up. Jake is there, his hood pulled halfway up, partially muffling his mouth. He seems surprised to see her there, but he looks like he's in a rush.

"Are you...?" he prompts with urgency. His eyes are trained towards the source of the screams.

Feng Min shakes her head. No. "I need to finish this," she says, gesturing to the generator. "I'm almost—"

Jake is gone before she even finishes her sentence, vaulting over the fence and darting away. She can hear him shout, "Hey!" in an attempt at distraction. She can also hear the Entity announcing itself from the sky, and Quentin's gasps and sounds of struggle. Nea sounds like she's putting up a good fight, but it also sounds like she's been hurt.

The generator backfires right in her face. Feng Min lands on her ass and blinks in shock, hoping that Myers is distracted enough not to notice the sound of her mistake. She tries to recover her lost progress as quickly as possible, and soon it starts singing. That leaves one last generator: the one in the basement she hadn't gotten to finish.

Which means that she has to go back across the street. Feng Min cuts through the back door and creeps down the hallway towards the front door. She stops in the open entryway when she gets there, looking around the corner, and gets an idea of what's going on.

Jake is trying to pull Quentin free from the grasp of the Entity, which has its fingers, spider legs, crab claws, tentacles, branches, fucking awful demon talons, whatever the hell they were supposed to call it, caged over Quentin's body. It's a fight that Jake isn't winning. Myers is hauling a thrashing Nea down the street towards one of the hooks, and the way he shoves her down on it seems particularly impatient; it's sharp, and it cuts through her shoulder and chest like a cleaver shredding a steak. Nea immediately begins to struggle, screaming in pain and rage.

Myers turns his attention back towards Jake, within whose arms Quentin has just turned to ashes and been claimed by the sky. Jake starts running. And then he spots Feng Min over by the front door, crouching there. He doesn't shout for her. Doesn't betray her position. He just gives her a look and then keeps running, but Feng Min has the distinct sense that they've already lost.

They do not escape. Not one of them.

 

At the campfire, Nea rounds on Feng Min immediately.

"What the hell was that?!" she shouts. She's whole and new again with no sign of the trauma she'd just endured. What felt like just seconds (an eternity) ago, Feng Min had been watching her hanging from a hook with blood soaking her jeans bright red. Now, she's whole and angry, and Feng Min has a pretty good idea why.

"What was what?" she asks anyway, just to hear what Nea has to say.

"You just completely fucked Quentin, and that got me fucked!" snaps Nea. She's gotten right up in Feng Min's face, glaring down at her. Nea's got eyes the color of cold steel. They're not kind eyes. She raises a hand, like she's about to prod Feng Min in the chest, so she takes a neat step back.

She keeps her voice low and steady and tells herself just to engage the way she might with an Internet troll. Just calm. Granting no satisfaction. "He tripped," she says.

Not many of the others are paying much attention. Arguments break out over the campfire constantly. Sometimes the survivors take issue with one another, questioning their decisions, trying to probe their willingness to cooperate. These kinds of tactics seem like a waste of time to Feng Min.

"He didn't fucking trip!" says Nea. She rounds on Quentin, who is back there with them, alongside Jake, who has already wandered back to the tree line. "Did you?"

Quentin's downward-turned eyes look even more hopeless as he shrugs. He looks incredibly uncomfortable to Feng Min, like he'd rather not be involved.

But Nea is insistent on her interpretation of the events. "You came towards the house I was in, and you made it look like you were gonna go in there, but then you turned off, and you screwed Quentin up. You acted unexpectedly, so you made him fall over, so you're the reason we all got fucking killed."

Her ranting gains David's attention. He's sitting cross-armed at the fire, looking amused by it all. "What's that?"

"Her!" snaps Nea, pointing at Feng Min. "You're always selfish when you're in a trial. How come nobody ever talks about that? Don't think we haven't all noticed you sneaking around. If that's the way you want to do it, then fine. But not if you're going to let us get killed."

David laughs, low and indulgent. "It's goin' to happen."

"I didn't ask for your opinion!" Nea barks. She turns with an expectant look back to Feng Min, who has been quiet for some time.

Feng Min couldn't find the hatch. She'd tried, after Myers had executed Jake, but it was impossible to go completely undetected between all of the windows and open sight lines. As for Quentin... Nea doesn't understand. It had never been about hurting Quentin. She had made the choice that she had to make. No control over anyone's fate but her own. She doesn't think Nea gets it. Nea is not driven the way that Feng Min is. Not in the way that lets her drill at a goal until she holds the whole multifaceted thing in her hands.

"We're not allies. We're torture victims. Playthings. Patients. Whatever you wanna say," says Feng Min. "You know, like reality TV shows? No one's there to make friends. They're there to win the million dollars."

"This isn't a TV show," says Nea, rolling her eyes. Her cheeks are flushed bright red with anger.

"I didn't say that," says Feng Min. She's trying not to feel intimidated; Nea's a little taller than her, and probably stronger, too. "I'm just saying that I see the rules of the game differently than you do."

"It's not a— did you just call this a game?" says Nea in disbelief. "What about any of this is a game to you? Do you think it's funny?"

Feng Min is annoyed that Nea would draw that conclusion. "No, of course I don't," she says impatiently. She presses her lips together and tucks her chin in so that her bangs cover her eyes while she thinks. "I'm just saying that this place has rules, and the trials have patterns. And I choose to view the trials as a series of tasks that need to be completed so that I don't have to die. So if this were a game, the only team I'm playing for is mine. If it helps you feel better, then I'm sorry. But it really isn't personal."

Nea just looks pissed off. But she also looks like she knows that there's nothing she can do about it. Still, she's back in Feng Min's face, sending a chill down her spine. She has a feeling that Nea is not going to be very generous to her any time soon. "That's not the point. It's—"

"Hold on," comes Jake's voice. Feng Min isn't sure how long he's been standing there watching, but he's there now, right by the campfire. "I was there. Look, she... she was trying to finish generators. I'm the one who screwed up. I couldn't grab Quentin in time, then I couldn't get to you in time. I miscalculated. That one is on me."

Feng Min is surprised at what he is saying, and it shows on her face. For Jake to join in a conversation like this seems unusual.

Nea deflates slightly, but her eyes are still narrowed at Feng Min. "I am watching you," she says, like a warning, and then she stalks off, hopefully to blow off some steam.

That remark gets under her skin. Who does Nea think she is? Nothing about this place has made it obligatory that Feng Min do anything except protect her own ass. Gone are the days of teamwork for her.

David snorts. Tapp just sighs from his spot. Bill gives a huff; Feng Min thinks he's half-asleep. She thinks she needs some time alone, too, and she picks off towards the spot Jake usually wanders about. She's not sure if she should be surprised that he follows her there.

If he has anything to confront her about, he doesn't voice it. He just stands there with his hands in his pockets.

"Is she always like that?" Feng Min asks finally.

"She's hot and cold," says Jake. "She reminds me of me. When I was a lot younger, I mean."

"Do you think she hates me?"

"No. But I know she can get carried away sometimes," says Jake plainly. "You've probably seen how... emotionally involved things can get."

That could mean any number of things, but Feng Min thinks he's probably referring to all of them, a little bit. She's observed allies and friendships and rivalries. She's also convinced that some of the others are probably fucking, but it's been hard to confirm that one. Still, she's noticed some interesting patterns for when the others choose to wander into the fog and who goes scavenging together. Not that she cares who Meg is hooking up with, or if, as she suspects, Dwight may be gay. Sometimes, she sees Quentin and Laurie sitting with their heads together, talking quietly. She's had trouble identifying the sort of kinship between them; she wonders if it might be because they're both so young, and both of them are being punished so directly by the Entity.

She can't blame the other survivors for seeking comfort in one another. There's not much else to do in this fucking purgatory; limited ways they can all feel anything aside from terror and despair. But she knows, again, must know always, that she cannot get attached to anyone here. She cannot expend her hope or her despair on anyone but herself. She's always survived that way.

"Yeah," says Feng Min. "I'm not..." she trails off. "I'm not like that." Not a team player.

Jake lowers his chin, looks contemplative. "What did you do? Before all of this?"

She wonders whether or not to share, or if she should anticipate having to justify her own skill. Feng Min is used to having her competency challenged. Not that it matters any more. Not just because she's here in the Entity's realm, but because shortly before she'd ever shown up here, she had been fired from her team.

But it'd still sound better than Oh, nothing; I got kicked off my pro gaming team thanks to a scandal, which led to another scandal, and now I'm an alcoholic failure that gets blackout drunk every night.

It still stings to think about it. GG. You tried to be something. You suck.

"I was a professional video game player for the Los Angeles Laser Bears," says Feng Min, and then she adds, dryly: "It wasn't the American Dream my parents wanted for me."

He slants a brow. "Video games, huh?"

She expects, maybe, to hear a question she's answered a hundred times before (what do you mean video games are a pro sport now? how much does it pay? do you feel like you're treated differently because you're a girl? what are you going to do when you grow out of it?), and says, "Yeah. 2015 and 2016 world champions in Nebula Arc. I main Valden." What she's saying doesn't seem to register any recognition with him. Feng Min shrugs. "It's a big deal if you're into gaming."

"I don't— didn't even own a TV," says Jake, shaking his head. "But that's cool."

No follow-up questions. She likes that, so she asks, "What about you?"

"Mmm. My life isn't complicated." A beat. "...wasn't. Wasn't complicated. I worked outside. I hiked a lot. I went to bed on time every day." He shrugs, as if indicating that's the extent of it. Feng Min knows it can't be, but she also knows better than to pry.

"That sounds like a perfect life right about now," says Feng Min, letting her mind wander to the temptation of missing the comfort of her familiar mattress. "Didn't mean to bring the mood down."

Jake presses his lips together, half-smiling. "Doesn't bother me."

"Thanks. You might be the only one," says Feng Min, reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ears. "I'm going to go to sleep. Or pretend to sleep, or whatever it is we do when we shut our eyes here."

"Alright," he says. He's staring back into the trees, like he always does. She wonders what he's looking for in there, or where he goes when he enters them.

Feng Min turns to go, but she stops when she hears Jake's voice again, abrupt:

"It's Jae-geun. If you were still wondering." He's still looking into the tree line, like he's done now, as if his mind is halfway to somewhere else already.

 

Feng Min sometimes takes her cell phone out of her pocket just to stare at it. It's a distinctive reminder of her past life. Proof that she once existed. It's got the cracks from all the times she's dropped it. It's got her fingerprints all over it and the charms she'd picked out herself— a folded-paper star, a little Chococat, a miniature joystick that would move if you put your thumb over it. The strap hanging from it is branded with the Laser Bears' logo, and underneath it is the nickname her fans had given her, Shining Lion. After being let go from the team, she couldn't bring herself to take it off. Not even after the news had hit the Internet and sent a tidal wave of gossip through the insular west coast eSports community. Inside this phone is her entire life, if she could only access it. She would give anything to see the screen light up right now with a call from her manager, or her agent, or, fuck, even her mother.

But as it is, it's merely an object, a flat rectangle with a bit of weight to it. She can always feel it in the pocket of her shorts when she's running away from the killers, and she sometimes thinks that if it ever slips out during a chase, she might just have to go back for it. Feng Min knows she probably shouldn't hold onto it. There is no real use for it any more.

"Is that an iPod?"

A snort escapes her despite herself, and Feng Min turns, looking up to find Quentin taking a seat next to her by the firelight. The campfire is unsettlingly empty tonight. At least seven of their usual number are nowhere to be found, by Feng Min's count, although she isn't sure who may have been called to the Entity and who may be wandering the fog. Everyone comes and goes in the blink of an eye, only ever floating the surface of the pool of time within the Entity's realm— around and around, circling a drain that does not exist.

"No, it's an iPhone," she says. She holds it up to him.

"Oh. Yeah, I think I've heard of those," says Quentin, reaching up to scrub a hand through his wavy hair.

"What year was it for you?" Feng Min asks right away. She knows that some of the others have significant time discrepancies. For Feng Min, it's 2017; for Laurie, it's 1978; for Tapp, it's 2004. And so on. It's sort of interesting listening to some of them talk about it. Watching Meg and Claudette trying to explain YouTube to Laurie had been undeniably hilarious, although Feng Min hadn't allowed herself to smile or look like she was listening in.

"2009," says Quentin. He's staring at the phone in her hand, fascinated.

"Okay, so they're not really super widespread yet. But wait maybe a year or two. You'll get to carry the Internet in your pocket all the time, so you can troll Twitter on the bus home and stuff." She hands him her phone, since he seems so curious. He immediately turns it sideways to get a look at how narrow it is.

"Wow," he says. "Pretty cool. It's big. I figured phones were just going to get smaller and smaller." He lapses into silence, staring at their cracked reflections in its black screen. "I wonder what it would say if we could power it up. You think there'd be a signal or not?"

"No way," says Feng Min, shaking her head. "I don't think that thing that brought us all here is going to let us take phone calls."

He gives a strained smile. Quentin's face always looks like he's halfway into a grimace. She wonders if he's always been like that, or if it's being here that's made him look so lost all of the time.

"It's missing a few amenities," he agrees. "Didn't even give us a bathroom or a mini-fridge..."

"If this is a vacation, it's the worst one of my life," mumbles Feng Min towards her lap, so he can't see the way she smiles just a bit.

"I can't decide what I think about any of it." Quentin shakes his head. "I thought, maybe..." He goes quiet. His face makes it apparent that his mind has slipped off somewhere far away. "I experienced something like this before I got here. Not... exactly like this, but I mean... another world. One that most people couldn't see. And then I came here."

Feng Min knows that the place called Springwood is associated with Quentin in some way. At least, that's what Bill had told her, the first time she'd encountered it. She hates the empty, creepy preschool, and she hates the thing stalking its halls. She supposes he's talking about that, but she doesn't know anything else about the details.

"So you think this is another world," she says finally, landing on the one remark that seems safest to ask about.

"It has to be, right? With everything that's happening. People don't just die and come back to..." He clamps his mouth shut. "They don't usually do that. But here... I feel like I'm having one really long, really bad dream. But it feels real, so I can only think that it is real."

"Do you think we're in Hell?" she asks bluntly.

"Depends on if you think we deserve to be here," he responds, and the dark cloud in his eyes deepens. "I don't."

"I think I might," she says, plainly, and rolls her shoulders in an overly deliberate forced-casual way.

"I don't think your sins could be this bad," says Quentin. He's lifting up the little star-shaped charm. The shiny pink paper catches the firelight. He turns the phone over in his hand again. "This is cool," he says finally. "I'd love to play around with it and see if I can get it to turn on."

Feng Min thinks that there is absolutely no chance of that happening, but she surprises herself when she says, "If you like it that much, keep it. Not like I need it any more."

Quentin blinks at her. "I was half-kidding." And then his eyes light up— just a bit. "But I've been talking lately with Claudette, about trying to find some kind of way we might start harvesting power, do some scavenging, find some batteries, try to do it off the gens and bring them back... I dunno. It's complicated. But, yeah, if we can figure that out, it'd be amazing if we could get this thing to turn on. Just to know if it's possible here."

Feng Min can see how knowing if an electronic could be powered could provide a lot of insight into exactly what sort of dimension or state of existence they now live in. "I hope you can do it," she says, and she means it, although she doesn't think it'll ever happen.

Later, she runs her hands over her pockets and feels an old, familiar sense of something missing, of instinctively wanting to scan the floor for it. But, she tells herself; she doesn't need her phone. All it's going to do — the nostalgia, the pining for her past life — is distract her. Hold her back. Get her hurt and worse. Feng Min knows she needs to stay focused. There's just no other way to get through the black future before her.

 

Soon, Feng Min experiences what Claudette had been trying to explain to her. It happens in a way that is impossible to describe, even to herself; her perception of the things around her has simply just changed. She falls into it suddenly, but then immediately feels that she has been there for an eternity. There is no feeling of fear, but there is no feeling of anything else, either; in this space, her feelings do not exist. The Bloodweb is hardly accurately named. Feng Min can later only recall the sense of an endless blackness. The dark had whispered for her, warned her, wanted her. The whispers felt familiar. She thought that they had already been living inside of her for a long time.

Chapter Text

Breathing hard out of her mouth through gritted teeth, Feng Min hooks her fingers into the jaws of the trap and pulls. It hurts like hell, fuck, it hurts, and she chokes out a whimper of pain that only draws the heartbeats closer. She can't get it to open; her arms are shaking too much, and the iron jaws are holding tight around her calf. There's a lot of blood, and she can feel it filling her sneaker. She flexes her toes with a painful twitch, disgusted by the way she can feel them swimming in it. A knot forms in her throat, and it gets hard to see as she tries again, frantically, to open the trap.

The pulse grows stronger in her ears. She can hear his footfalls.

He knows exactly where she is, and Feng Min knows that because this is how it always plays out with this one. The Trapper. He's going to come upon her at any moment and tear her bodily from the bear trap and kill her. That's all she can think about as she stares at the bright red fleshy meat of her leg, all shredded open like roadkill. It never gets any less disgusting to see what she looks like on the inside. Not that she'd ever been curious in the first place.

She wants to scream in frustration, but on her third attempt, she manages to get the jaws to spring loose. She falls onto her side and gasps, fumbling to her feet just as the Trapper appears from around the side of the Ironworks. His footsteps are always so measured and steady. Like he's okay with waiting them all out, following them around until they drop dead of exhaustion. She can hear his breathing grow louder as he closes in on her.

Feng Min doesn't want to take even one microsecond to pause and look at the awful rictus cracked across the face of the mask. She starts running, but the huge bite taken out of her leg is sending shocks of pain up and down her body, so she's half limping, clenching her teeth so hard she wonders if she might bite her own tongue off.

She can hear him making a sort of growling, laughing sound behind her. Some of the killers, she's found, vocalize more than some of the others. The more human ones grunt and sigh and shout now and then, but the really warped, fucked-up ones speak mostly in snarls and shrieks, or, unnervingly, complete silence. She's never heard any of them utter a word, but there seems to be a sliding scale of humanity to them all. She doesn't know how she feels about using that term; it doesn't seem to be right, somehow. But she's not even sure she wants to know more about the Entity's servants. Whatever they are, they aren't here to help her.

Feng Min spots an assortment of hay bales arranged in the Entity's usual not-quite-right way. She thinks she might be able to trick him here and slip off into the grass. She runs for it, trying to quickly triangulate in her head where the others are.

Ace. She thinks he's still up by one of the exits. There's a generator there he'd been trying to work on until he'd been injured. She thinks he's still injured, but she's not totally sure; she can't find him. Claudette is already gone; they hadn't anticipated just how quickly the Trapper would be able to snare the first of them. It had made repairing the remaining generators an immediately urgent challenge. She's pretty sure that Nea is somewhere around the other side of the Ironworks, and she knows she probably won't be able to rely on her for any assistance.

Feng Min whips around the hay bales, panting, wishing she'd spent less time sitting around on her computer and more time jogging. The Trapper's heavy footsteps are behind her, steel-toed boots crunching on the dry grass. She tears around in between two of the bales and crouches, waiting for an opening to slip past him, trying to ignore the burning pain in her leg.

Terror has a curious effect of making it hard to see anything. She knows her eyes are working, but it's hard to take in the information in front of her when she's in so much pain and fear. Feng Min knows that she's eventually going to have to get used to this. She'll get stronger. She has to. But it can't come fast enough.

The Trapper's massive shadow falls into her field of view. He turns to look for her, pausing for one moment. Feng Min leaps up and rushes past him as soon as he's cleared the space behind him. It catches him off-guard long enough for her to get a bit of distance in between them, but by now, her leg is really starting to hurt, and it's shaking uncontrollably. She's not sure how much longer she can keep running around.

At that moment, she hears the loud tone that indicates that all of the generators are up. This only hikes up Feng Min's stress; she tries to reorient herself. Where had the exits been...?

Eventually, she thinks she has a rough idea of where she needs to be when she recognizes a group of trees, and she sprints towards them. She can hear the Trapper right behind her. He's breathing hard. Not from exertion, but... she doesn't even want to think about it. Like he's angry, yes. But more like he's excited.

Choosing to cut through the trees ends up being her fatal mistake. She knows she's stepped on another trap even before it snaps shut around her already-injured leg— she can feel the trigger beneath her rubber sole, but by the time she realizes it, it's too late to stop herself from placing her weight onto it.

Blinding pain sets her body on fire, and she screams, although she can't hear herself doing it. Her leg is nearly severed. She can see it, the way it's just bent there, pointed in a direction it shouldn't. Blood is cascading down her calf and quickly pooling beneath her. And now she's as good as dead.

As the Trapper advances on her, Feng Min, crouched miserably over her ruined leg, shaking and stifling another scream, sees Nea go streaking by. Running. She thinks she sees her look her way for just a moment, but she just keeps going.

Yeah, thinks Feng Min as the Trapper reaches for her with a sound that she can only describe as 'a purr fucked-up beyond all recognition,' I would've done the same thing.

 

Feng Min doesn't know where the Entity takes her every time she dies, right after it announces its presence with a soul-flattening sound of the sky imploding, and she's not sure she wants to know. The others say that none of them can ever remember. She can only describe the sacrifice process as a sort of combustion, the Entity burning the life force out of her until nothing but dust remains.

And then she wakes up by the campfire, and it starts all over again.

 

Feng Min starts to make a game in her head out of listing all the things she misses. It isn't hard, because the answer is 'everything'.

Her parents' cat. Twitter trolls. The Laser Bears. Pudding. Home-cooked meals with Bàba and Mama. Taking a bath. Having a stuffy nose. Wiping off the counter tops after cooking. The thrill of quitting a hated job. Deleting and re-activating and deleting her Tinder. Horror movies (maybe not such a good idea now). The smell of detergent. Saying 'hi' to dogs on the bus. Winning contests coast to coast. Dyeing her hair and cutting it all off the next day. Paying for something with a handful of exact change. Her bed. Reading her live chat when she used to stream. Optimism. Shaking sand out of her shoes after a day at the beach. Stomping up and down the hallway arguing with Mama. Apologizing the next day. Period cramps. Letters from her grandparents. The time before she was the black sheep of her family. Having a sense of night and day. Grocery shopping. Cracking the spine on a new book. The feeling of wearing new underwear. Deadlines. Getting a flat tire. Celebrating the new year with her cousins in Shanghai. Her fifteen seconds of fame. Painting her nails. Her life meaning something. Alcohol. Having access to anything that helped her forget.

All generators begin to look the same after a while. Feng Min wonders if the fact that she's getting better at them makes any real difference. It seems like she still keeps getting sacrificed at just the same rate. She's still dying more than she's escaping. She doesn't know if she can count how many trials she's been through now. A couple dozen? Hundreds? She draws a blank when tries to think about it, like that part of her brain has simply been blotted out and wiped away.

She's starting to forget what most food tastes like. The thing Feng Min misses most is the smell of coffee. She thinks that if she were presented with a cup of coffee now, she'd probably faint.

But the dulling of the senses she'd needed so much in the real world — she's been starting to call it that now, like the others do; she feels a little sad about that — comes with a sharpening of the ones she's able to explore in the sleepless drop into the Bloodweb. It had begun showing her things, giving her new awareness. She understands why some of the survivors are afraid of it, but she isn't. There's no reason to be when she has literally nothing to lose.

 

"Feng Min?" Claudette has newly arrived back at the campfire. Feng Min isn't sure how long she's been gone. She thinks she's just returned from a trial, because she's starting to learn how to read the other survivors' faces, to see the blankness in their eyes that comes from newly enforced trauma. But Claudette — despite that look in her eyes, or maybe because of it — seems to have quickly regrounded herself. In her hands she cradles what looks to Feng Min like a bunch of weeds. "Can I show you something?"

Claudette has never done anything to bother Feng Min in particular. She's come to discover that Claudette is impressively competent, and that her reserved demeanor does not compromise her ability to innovate in tight situations. Feng Min can recall a handful of times she'd been pretty badly wounded, and Claudette had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with a first aid kit. She suspects that Claudette doesn't really do these things with the expectation of repayment; it simply seems to be the way she chooses to conduct herself in trials.

"Yeah." Feng Min gets up, wringing her hands in her purple sweater, and tugs it closer around her body. "Wanna grab some more light?" She gestures at the fire. Claudette nods, and they settle down right next to it— close enough that the flames might be able to lick their shoulders. Neither of them are worried, however; the fire doesn't really burn. It's an illusion, like so many other things in the fog. They're mostly alone; Feng Min knows that Dwight, Meg, and Bill set off into the forest recently for a scavenging mission, and she hasn't seen Ace or David in a while, too. She knows there's no real way to tell when they'll come back out of the fog— one of the reasons why, even now, Feng Min still refuses to walk past the tree line. The others have told her about how easy it is to get lost and end up in a killer's territory.

Claudette spreads out an assortment of plants on the packed dirt. Feng Min can see the roots still clinging to some of them— gold, white, and purple flowers, and tendril-like red clusters. "You've been told about scavenging, right?"

"Yeah," says Feng Min. She reaches down for the purple flower. It has a sweet, clear scent to it that makes her feel startlingly sentimental. She puts it down quickly and swallows. "I've been told to look out for different kinds of plants. Something about offerings. Tossing them into the fire." She doesn't really understand how it works, and she strongly doubts that the Entity would really care if she made the effort or not, anyway.

"Right. But not just plants. Sometimes, it's things like bottles you'll find in the different realms, or coins, or some memento, like a locket... Bones, photos, any scrap of paper you can find... You can put anything you bring back with you into the fire, and then something just... changes, the next time you're in a trial," says Claudette, spreading her fingers apart for emphasis. "But, another thing you should know is that some of these plants can also be used on injuries. Like topical pain relief to keep you going. Or something fairly sterile that you can pack a wound with. If you can find plants like these ones..." She spreads her hand over the pile. "...and you're not going to sacrifice them and you can spare them, I can turn them into tinctures that you can bring with you to trials."

"Really?" says Feng Min, skeptical. She wonders if Claudette is expecting her to offer something in return; she doesn't really have anything to give.

"Yes," says Claudette, smiling. "It makes me feel hopeful when I help. And when I feel hopeful, I feel stronger." It's a strangely candid thing for her to say, at least to Feng Min, who has never been one for huge displays of emotion outside of smug competitor and Internet hermit and family disappointment. She tries not to squirm where she's sitting.

"Yeah," says Feng Min. "Um, okay. That's cool." Claudette's gentle smile doesn't flicker, so she ventures a follow-up question. "I get it, about the plants and healing. The part I don't really understand is how giving the Entity random garbage that we throw into a fire would change anything for us."

Claudette's smile shyly broadens. "You know, we have no idea. We try not to question it too much. Maybe it just likes knick-knacks. All I know is that if you find something unusual out in the fog, you should burn it and see what happens the next time you end up in a trial. Sometimes, it brings us a lot of luck. It's hard to explain. It's like giving the Entity offerings makes it pity us, a little."

Feng Min furrows her brow, sucking her cheeks in. That sounds completely ridiculous to her, but she doesn't want to be rude to Claudette, who has done nothing to deserve it, so she says, "Why would it do that? It just wants us to die. It likes it when we die. I can feel it. In the Bloodweb. You can feel how it just thrives on us. There's just this sense of hunger. Every time it grabs for me, it's all I can think about." Her voice cracks a little on the last syllable, and she hopes Claudette doesn't notice. She stares hard into the fire.

Quietly, Claudette says, "Maybe it doesn't need us to lose all the time. Maybe it sometimes needs us to win."

Feng Min's not about to count on it, but she covets Claudette's ability to believe. To feel hopeful.

 

Feng Min materializes in the next trial right next to Nea. Almost hip-to-hip. The moment she realizes, she takes a step back, not wanting to be in the swinging range of a shove. Nea only rolls her eyes once she's gathered her bearings. Feng Min exhales, telling herself to just focus and not allow Nea to distract her. Still, when she looks at her, she can't help but remember — so recently — Nea running past her as she had cowered beneath the Trapper's shadow.

She recognizes the realm they've been dropped into immediately, and she knows its name: Crotus Prenn Asylum. She's heard from the others that Nea is somewhat familiar with this place. As they drop to a crouch to get a look at their surroundings, Feng Min wonders if she should ask about it. She has been to Crotus Prenn at least a dozen times, it feels like; she hates the wight that stalks its halls, constantly heaving and gasping like some invisible force is choking what life it still has right out of it. The Nurse is not gentle, with a shriek that makes Feng Min's blood curdle to hear. The Nurse reminds her a lot of some of the enemies she's encountered in survival-horror games. She'd find it all extra cliché if it weren't actually happening to her.

"Hold on," whispers Nea sharply, holding a hand up as they pause behind a covering of crumbling bricks— they're everywhere, echoes of the foundations of former buildings. Nea gestures towards the Nurse, who is slipping around a corner of the main building, before getting up and starting a loose jog over to one of the crumbling entrances, while Feng Min follows.

She's always surprised when the details of the trial environments seem so real when she's up close. Way beyond the ability of her brain to come up with in a dream. When she moves towards the walls, she can see the soot and mildew caked on— layers and layers of it, like the building's just been sitting here, rotting, forever. Disintegrating in a way none of them could ever hope to. Feng Min extends a finger out to the wall and rubs off a streak of black, holding it up to her nose. It smells real, too.

"What the fuck are you doing? Come on," Nea says sourly. She cuts towards a staircase. Feng Min drops her hand and follows her.

"What's with the chip on your shoulder?" she asks Nea, just because she can, and because there are no heartbeats to be heard around them for the time being. The trials aren't the best place to make conversation, but Nea doesn't seem to feel that way.

"You know, I had the number one attitude problem around here before you showed up," says Nea. She's walking in front of Feng Min and not looking back at her as she talks.

The room Nea selects to investigate has piles upon piles of junk inside. Feng Min can make out dressers, bedframes, broken chairs, portraits, folders, tattered and stained clothing— every object seems to plead to be able to tell its own story. She senses that the asylum has a long, ugly history.

There's a generator between two of the piles of debris. Feng Min settles down next to it to get started, and, over the noise of the coils warming up, she says, "Is that a compliment? You mad that I unseated you?"

"Ugh." Nea drops to the other side of the generator. "How old are you? High school?"

"What?" Feng Min stops her work, staring at Nea. "No. I'm 23."

Nea laughs. Feng Min is startled. She doesn't think she's ever made Nea so much as crack a smile in her direction, although she sees the easy camaraderie Nea seems to have with plenty of the others. "You're kidding, right? I thought you were Quentin's age." At that exact moment, a spark leaps out from the generator, stinging her forearm, and Nea pulls it back, cursing. "Ow! Shit!"

Feng Min bites her lip to keep her face from cracking. "Oh, you deserved that."

"You are seriously obnoxious." Nea scowls, picking up a set of wires again and trying to find the ports they need to be connected to.

"I usually have a much bigger audience to be obnoxious to," says Feng Min. "Sorry it has to be you now."

"Oh, right," says Nea, snorting. "You're supposed to be some kind of Internet-famous gamer, right? I heard from Meg. That doesn't impress me, so if you were hoping for that, then, uh, sorry to disappoint."

Feng Min can't help it: she huffs out a laugh. It occurs to her — some small part of her, the little part that still thinks about the past, still covets it — that she probably would have been great friends with Nea in another time and in another place. She can see how Nea's brusque attitude could be good for her. But, here, their personalities only seem to clash in a bad way.

"If I thought it would impress you, I would have told you myself," she says.

Nea is trying to tug a cable into place. She's got both hands on it; it really seems stuck. "How's it feel to be the token female? I don't even need to hear about it to know that you probably are. And you probably got all these men telling you how much better they are than you at it, right?"

Feng Min goes still. Nea is right on the money. She's not sure if that says more about Nea's reading of her, or if it says more about the sorry state of the eSports community— given that Nea doesn't seem to be very familiar with it, Feng Min thinks it might just be the former. She realizes that she's probably easier to read than she'd thought.

"Even if I told you I got by on my skills alone, who's to say you'll believe me?" She shrugs, carefully picking her work back up again.

A loud thump indicates that Nea has managed to relocate the cable. "No, actually, I do believe you. 'Cause of the way you get off on winning trials." The generator's overhead lights dazzle Feng Min blind as soon she tightens the last gear. Nea begins picking off towards the stairs again. They creak under the toes of her sneakers.

"I don't get off on winning," Feng Min says when they reach the bottom of the steps, trying not to look as deeply bothered as she feels by Nea's assessment. She's about to say something else, too, when a hollow cracking sound on the other side of the wall catches their attention.

Feng Min turns, trying to find the source of it, and then comes to a halt when she sees a sort of glow forming in front of her eyes. It's the shape of a body, lit up like pink crystal, visible right through the wall, maybe ten yards out— right behind the door they'd been about to exit. Suddenly, the heartbeats are drumming like a stampede of horses running through her skull. Feng Min has no idea what she's just seen, and it fades just as soon as it appears, but she knows it's the Nurse, and she gasps, reaching out to grab Nea by the wrist. It's instinct— warning Nea about something Feng Min isn't sure she can see.

"Move!" she wheezes, and she gives Nea's arm a hard yank to make sure she's got the message and is keeping up— and she does, her long legs outpacing Feng Min easily.

Nea reaches one of the windows first, and she flies right through it without hesitation, swinging herself over with a gymnast's confidence. She lands nimbly, her shoes barely making a sound as they hit the ground. Feng Min manages to scramble in behind her, tumbling out of the window and dropping into a crouch next to Nea, who's got her back flattened against the wall. Even under a moon mostly obscured by a smoky purple sky, Feng Min can see a sheen of sweat on Nea's face and chest.

They kneel there together, listening to the Nurse make those croaking, agonized sounds right next to them. Feng Min can hear the familiar rustling of her long white gown as she floats down the hall, the heartbeats ebbing away. She catches Nea's gaze, and thinks she might see a flicker of gratitude— but it also might be a trick of the light.

The heartbeats are gone. Nea's body softens. Her knees wobble on to the grass. They have to get moving again.

"What happened?" Nea says finally, keeping her voice as quiet as possible. "You knew she was there."

"I... saw something," says Feng Min, somewhat blankly. "I don't know what it... It was like the opposite of a shadow. I could see her through the wall. Like a glitch in a video game."

"Oh," says Nea, her expression smoothing, the surprise fading away. "You're beginning to see auras. Get excited." She doesn't sound sincere, or enthused; just unimpressed. "If you have any questions about it, you're going to have to save them for later. Short version: something you get in exchange for letting the Entity give you wet dreams. It loves to make you feel like a slut."

Feng Min looks at her in disbelief. "...Wow. Okay." All she can come up with to say is, "You mean it came from the Bloodwe—" She stares at Nea, who has put a hand over her own mouth. "You're trying not to laugh at your own joke?" She doesn't know whether to feel exasperated, or amused, or freaked out: Nea's ability to compartmentalize — switch herself on, off — is unnerving.

"I bet you thought it was funny, too," Nea shoots back, but then she seems to decide it's time to get a little more serious. She narrows her eyes and straightens her shoulders, standing up. "Okay, do you see that?" She points up towards the skyline. Feng Min can make out a set of floodlights behind a grouping of dilapidated semi-structures. "Let's go."

It's a mystery to Feng Min why Nea doesn't just split up with her at this point — there's no way that Nea doesn't know that Feng Min spends her trials focused on generators, trying to remain undetected, and little else in the way of teamwork — but she follows her. They move carefully among the trees, and Feng Min looks up and notices — not for the first or the last time — just how massive the trees are. They're like this in many realms, stretching so far up into the sky that she often can't see the tops. She thinks they could be hundreds of years old. Maybe older. Feng Min thinks of illustrations from fairy tale books when she looks at them. She's sure she's heard the parable before:

A young girl is cursed to be lost in the woods. She meets a monster.

It's a book with no ending, so far.

They've just reached the generator — it's positioned up against a wall, a spot with poor sight lines but decent cover — when they both hear the clicking, grating screech of the Nurse shifting positions. Feng Min doesn't know what to call it; it looks like teleportation, a feat that would be incredible to view with her own eyes in literally any other scenario, but some of the other survivors call it blinking.

Feng Min raises her head and spots the red glow of the Nurse's gaze casting light onto a grouping of rocks. At that moment, Laurie appears from behind them, and she goes running off like a shot.

Nea doesn't hesitate. As the Nurse howls in pursuit of Laurie, she starts running in that same direction. And then Feng Min surprises the both of them by doing the same. The compulsion takes her completely off guard.

"Over here!" shouts Nea, waving her arms wildly as she tries to get the Nurse's attention. She throws herself out from behind a tree and into a shaft of moonlight. "Come 'n get me, you bedsheet-wearing bitch!"

Bedsheet-wearing bitch is maybe one of the best things Feng Min has heard anyone say during a trial, and that includes David's usual trashmouth (she doesn't think she'll ever forget hearing him shout 'You're a right fuckin' cunt!' right into the Wraith's face, once). But there's no time to appreciate it, because the Nurse doesn't seem willing to take the bait. She gives a tortured, choking shriek and blinks off in the direction Laurie had run.

Feng Min follows. As she cuts through the trees, trailing the Nurse's steady heartbeats, she gets a visual on Laurie again. She seems to be injured; Feng Min can see a dark stain blooming on the back of her blouse. It seems to have weakened her, because she's not moving very fast, and right before Feng Min's eyes, the Nurse manages to cut her down, swinging her handsaw out at the girl. Laurie collapses with a cry of shock to the ground, her hands flying to her stomach.

The Nurse's raspy breathing picks up as she gathers Laurie into her arms and begins floating her towards the asylum.

Feng Min whips her head around. She hears a generator come on somewhere across the area— she thinks maybe around the front-facing side of Crotus Prenn. She doesn't think it can be Nea; it must be the fourth person present with them. As Laurie's screams hitch up in intensity, Feng Min is forced to make a decision.

She ends up following the Nurse into the building, her heart in her throat, so tense that her legs are shaking. Feng Min rarely risks coming near the other survivors even when they're only injured; to approach one on a hook is definitely against her game-winning strategy. She knows that trying to rescue Laurie means potentially putting herself in harm's way.

She's never played defense. On the Laser Bears, she'd dealt damage only, shredding her way through the enemy as one of the team's heavy-hitters, counting on her teammates only when she had no other options. She wasn't Shining Lion for her selflessness; she was Shining Lion because of her ruthlessness.

Was.

The Nurse moves deeper into the building with Laurie groaning in pain on her shoulder, and as Feng Min sneaks along the thick, dusty carpet, she realizes where the Nurse is taking Laurie. The ominous red glow of the basement calls to her from the top of the stairs. It looks like a mouth, bright and wet with blood, cracking its teeth together in anticipation.

Feng Min hates the basement. She hates the way it never seems like there's any hope she'll survive a trial once she's hooked down there. She hates how she can see light coming through the gaps in the walls— because it doesn't make sense, because they're supposed to be underground. It just makes all of this feel more surreal. Makes it seem like the nightmare she's stuck in really is that, a hell she has no hope of waking up from.

But then she thinks about Nea saying, 'Cause of the way you get off on winning, and she thinks to herself, Fine. I'll show you exactly how I get off on winning.

The best payback is victory, of course. The drive to prove Nea wrong about herself is what gets the adrenaline singing in Feng Min's blood. She shifts her weight from foot to foot and takes a position behind a wall as she waits for the Nurse to blink out of the basement. When she finally hears the shrill peal of the Nurse echoing further and further away, she bolts down the steps.

Laurie's got her hands on the hook, and she heaving with exertion and pain, but she's putting up a fierce struggle. Blood has soaked the front of her blouse black. "Laurie!" Feng Min calls, rushing over. She reaches out, puts her weight into her legs, and lets Laurie use her shoulders as leverage to pull her free from the hook with a sickening tearing sound. Laurie collapses on to her knees, clutching her ruined shoulder, and Feng Min kneels next to her.

"Thank... you," Laurie pants. "Almost... broke free." Her hand is slick with blood. Feng Min blanks out for a moment. She doesn't have a first aid kit, and she doesn't see one anywhere. Laurie seems to notice Feng Min's helpless expression, because she says, "Chest. In the corner."

Right. Feng Min leaps to her feet and runs over to it. She'd forgotten that there's always one down here. Usually, she's in such a hurry to get out of the basement, she doesn't even see it. She strains to lift the heavy wooden lid and opens it up. The first glimpse of the bright red tin box makes her weak with relief. "Must be our lucky day," she says as she pulls the first aid kit free.

She tries to work as quickly as she can, rolling the bandages out under Laurie's armpit and up over her shoulder. She can see how hard Laurie is working not to cry; she doesn't look scared, not really. Just frustrated and in pain, trying to fight the natural instinct of tears. Feng Min wonders how long she's been here. Up close, it's all too apparent just how young Laurie is — she's willowy, with slim legs and the soft features of a teenager — and it makes her heart hurt, thinking of when she was her age. It hadn't even been that long ago when the world had seemed so wide and open, her talent had been approaching its peak, and she had started to see her all of her hard work pay off, so that she could finally say, See? You were wrong about me to her parents.

Laurie flattens a piece of tape against the end of the bandage, right over her sternum. "That's good enough," she says. "Let's go." She's pale; Feng Min wonders how much blood she's lost. It's dripping all over the floor, big puddles of it. Feng Min's shoes are covered in it.

They move up the stairs carefully. Feng Min can't hear the heartbeats, but she hears the screeching as the Nurse blinks from place to place, trying to ferret them out.

The alert tone echoes across the area; the exit gates are ready to engage. Somewhere, Nea had apparently gotten back to work. They need to move.

Feng Min looks into the distance; she thinks she can make out the high entryway of one of the exits— and then, just a few paces away, some bright purple flowers that she recognizes.

"Go ahead of me," she says to Laurie.

"But—"

"Just go," says Feng Min quickly, waving her hands. Laurie gives her one look and then hurries off. Good; Feng Min hopes she gets the gate open fast. She just needs to rip a few plants out of the ground and catch up with her. No sign of heartbeats. She crouches next to the flowers and carefully pulls them up by the roots. She's pulled up three plants and stuffed them in her pockets, hoping that Claudette won't care if they're a bit crumpled, when a blur comes shooting out of the darkness.

It's Tapp, dragging one leg behind him but making an impressive effort to run anyway, a flashlight waving from his hand. "Let's go, now! Go!" he shouts.

The Nurse is coming up behind him, clicking and gasping. Her head lolls like a metronome, hanging at a strange, unnatural angle, and her reaching fingers just barely miss catching Tapp by the back of his vest as he jumps over a pile of debris. Feng Min is forced to abandon her task. She jumps up and runs off towards the gate. She can hear the gate sounding its opening warning. Laurie comes into view through the fog, her hand on the switch.

Nea shows up, seemingly out of nowhere, a sweaty bolt of lightning with sparkling eyes. She's grinning, and Feng Min can see why; there's not a speck of blood on her.

"Better luck next time!" Nea shouts as the heavy doors open with a groaning screech of metal. She flies through the entrance, laughing, just as Feng Min reaches it; Tapp isn't far behind. Laurie's already nowhere to be seen, presumably across the veil that ensures their temporary protection from harm. Their brief, meaningless respite.

There it is. The open sky. Feng Min runs towards it, pretending it really does mean freedom. Still, it never gets any less disorienting to walk through it and suddenly find herself stepping out somewhere around the campfire, any wounds she may have had miraculously gone.

Once she's back in front of the fire, her legs turn to elastic, collapsing with a tremor beneath her body. She feels somewhere between stunned and bewildered; she's amazed that she managed to pull off saving Laurie and escaping without a scratch. The adrenaline she's feeling right now is crazy, flooding her head with a heart-pounding sort of pride. She feels like she's just won a tournament. And that's a feeling that no one — not the Entity, not the killers, not Nea — can take away from her.

Speak of the devil— Feng Min feels Nea's hand drop on her shoulder. She looks up at her.

"Not bad," Nea says, and although she doesn't say anything else before she lets go and strolls away, Feng Min thinks she's just said a lot.

She puts a hand in her pocket, pulls out a handful of damp, muddy flowers, and smiles.

 

"Laurie said you really helped her during the last trial," says Jake.

He's approached her out of nowhere, slipping in from the darkness of the trees, unfolding himself from the night. Feng Min puts her hands in the pockets of her shorts. "No. I mean... the opportunity presented itself." She shakes her head: don't get used to it.

"Sometimes, I think that a lot of what happens out there is a fluke," says Jake, shaking his head. "I make it through a trial with my face half-chainsawed off and I have no idea how I'm still alive. And then sometimes I get killed before I even know what's hit me."

Feng Min cringes at the mental image. She doesn't know the bite of a chainsaw yet, but she's seen its results. She knows her turn is coming. It's disturbing to think about; she tries to put it out of her mind.

"Yeah," she says, finally. "I don't understand why some of you... I mean, why some of the others here are working so hard to help one another. I've been watching. I know it gets you all killed way faster."

"Maybe you don't have to understand why," suggests Jake, not unkindly. "You should just try to survive, like I do. That's how I get through everything. I just survive." He goes quiet, then, his voice lapsing into a contemplative silence.

He's right. She doesn't need to know why; she doesn't think she'll ever understand a single thing about this place. She also knows that she's not about to take a knife to the head for anyone else. Feng Min's hands tighten into loose fists in her pockets. She can feel the tension all along her shoulders. The slowly growing knot of despair in the center of her chest, the one she's been nurturing since she arrived here and maybe long before that, gives a painful throb.

"Where do you go when you go out there?" she asks finally, looking into the darkness, at the whispering trees. "In the fog."

"Do you want to come with me and see?" Jake asks her, turning his serious gaze upon her.

Feng Min hesitates. "No," she says. "Not yet."

"Let me know if you change your mind," Jake says, "but I won't tell you that there's nothing to be afraid of."

Later, she wonders what it is out there in the fog that scares Jake, and how he's able to make himself go out into it anyway. They're questions that she doesn't think she'll be able to bring herself to ask him any time soon.

 

Feng Min is startled to find that the Entity has called her to a hospital.

Snow falls silently from the sky as she stands outside the entrance of an aging building with an exit gate at her back. Disoriented, Feng Min blinks, wondering if she is seeing correctly. On either side of her is a massive sign that is cracked entirely in two pieces; it seems to her that it had crashed to the ground long ago. How, or why, is not obvious. She turns her head from one side to the other, and she realizes that the two halves spell INSTITUTE. Of what, though?

There is no mistaking that it's a hospital, though; the sterile white lights, pale blue walls, and crumbling entryway sign — she can just barely make out the words OPERATING THEATER on it — give it away. It's so unusual a sight that she doesn't do anything for a few moments but stare. She's become used to repeating trees and fog and old, old buildings; this place strikes a sharp contrast with them.

She moves cautiously through the front doors. Inside, she finds a waiting room and reception area with neatly arranged seats. The reception desk is largely intact; even the chairs are tucked in, as if whoever fled this place before whatever disaster struck it had taken the time to do so.

There are lots of tiles missing, leaving her with uneven footing. Dust hangs suspended from the air, thick enough to choke on. Feng Min reaches up to brush the snow off her shoulders, and she stands uncertainly at the juncture. There's a hallway to her left, right, and in front of her; she has no idea where to go. She definitely doesn't want to head in the direction of the operating theater; the name itself is ominous enough. Instead, she picks off to the left and slips inside one of the rooms.

It's a disorganized mess, a bizarre arrangement of treatment beds— some of them stacked twice high, tilted at angles, blocking her path. There are many of them shoved into this little room. She wanders over towards one and stares down at the filthy bedsheets. There's a blanket on top of them, tossed off to the side carelessly. She gives the corner of it a tug and it falls to the floor in a cloud of dust.

Finding nothing in that room, Feng Min moves onto the next one, only to find an identical room. Confused, she proceeds to the one next to it to find a strangely-arranged bathroom. Soon, she realizes that there is something bizarre happening to this place; the rooms are all repetitive, like the Entity hadn't known where to put anything, or what actually belongs in a hospital. Some of the bathrooms have waiting room seats; there are wheelchairs abandoned in corners. She counts at least five identical soda machines in one hallway.

Strangest of all, she encounters several televisions. They're set up in random locations, and all of them are blaring static. When she reaches out to try to press a button, nothing happens, and when she looks, she doesn't see any cables coming out the back. Something about that makes her shiver, a full-body tremble, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up.

By the time Feng Min finds her third waiting room, she hasn't located a single generator, and she feels completely and utterly lost, so she heads back out to the hallway to try to redirect herself. There's grass growing up through the cracked flooring, so she crouches in it, trying to examine the symbols painted on the walls to see if they'll provide any insight.

"Feng Min!"

She tips her chin up at the sound of her name. Quentin, his hat pulled low over his tired eyes, is dashing across the hall towards her. He kneels, looking relieved to see her. There's an urgency about him. "Are you alright?" He reaches out and grips her arm, squeezes it. "O-okay, just— have you been here before? You haven't, right?" He's speaking so quickly that Feng Min's brain needs a few seconds to catch up.

"I— no," she says.

Quentin winces. "Listen to me, okay?" He wrenches his hands together. "This one, the... We call him the Doctor. He's different from the others." He's still talking quickly, tossing anxious looks over his shoulder; it's starting to make Feng Min nervous.

"What do you mean?"

"When he finds you," Quentin says, "and he will find you— when he finds you, he's going to do something to your brain. It's going to feel like you're losing your mind. It's like nothing you've ever felt before. You need to be ready for it. He can use it to track you."

"What are you even talking abou—" Feng Min begins, when the air is cracked in two by a shrill scream that echoes down the hallway. Who is it? She tries to place the voice. Meg?

"Shit!" says Quentin miserably, looking in that direction, before he turns back to Feng Min. "When you hear static, just run," he tries to implore, looking strained and sorry that he can't explain it any more clearly. "If you're around it for too long, you're going to lose control of yourself. And if he catches up to you..." He shakes his head.

Another scream, agonized and long, echoes through the building. It's definitely Meg. Feng Min hadn't recognized it right away because she has never heard Meg scream like that before.

"I gotta go," says Quentin, and he scrambles to his feet, bounding towards the chaos, first aid kit at his side.

Feng Min has no idea what to make of the information he has just given her, but the dread is making her feel sick to her stomach. She takes a breath and tries not to listen when she hears Meg scream again. It's fainter this time— a lot deeper into the building. What could be happening over there? Does she really want to know?

She finally locates a generator inside of one of the bathrooms with a strange layout of tubs. She's kneeling on the tiles, thinking about the bruises that will never get to form on her knees. Not after the Entity wipes her clean again. She thinks that if this is her chance to drink at the fountain of youth, none of this has been a price worth paying.

Something shudders through the very atmosphere, a ripple through the reality of the world. The force of it causes Feng Min to look up. She knows the Entity now when she hears it descend, but it's less hearing and more feeling. Knowing. She wonders who it has come to take.

Another scream sounds off. A man's voice, this time. It might be Quentin's; she isn't sure. Feng Min quickly tightens the screws she's struggling to fit in a difficult-to-reach inner part of the generator and stands up as it gets going. She wipes her sweaty palms on her black tights and edges back out into the hallway. There are a number of treatment beds out here, their tattered blue curtains offering at least a bit of cover. Feng Min squints through the fog and the dust, listening.

Another scream— just a wordless howl.

She presses a hand to the wall as she rounds a corner. She spots another sign pointing towards the operating theater. It's barely hanging onto the wall, tipped sideways, and it's flickering weakly. Feng Min follows the arrow, moving past piles of objects that seem too decayed to identify. She can see rebar, a weigh scale, some shelving units... and the hooks. The hooks here have a strange, mechanical look to them. Like medical equipment awaiting a patient to treat. She tries not to look too hard at the brownish crust splattered on most of them, or at the IV bags full of a bright red something.

Feng Min spots an unusual sign, one that looks sort of like a lightning bolt, framed by two security cameras— which both, curiously, are lit up in red. She has the sense that she's getting closer to where she needs to be, but not necessarily where she'll want to be.

This time, when she hears the scream again, it's even further away— it's moved. And now, she's certain that it's Quentin, because she knows what he sounds like when he's in pain. Before she can decide whether or not to head over, she feels the Entity puncture back in through the sky, another shockwave almost right after the first. She starts to tremble, a little, her anxiety ratcheting. Where is the other survivor?

When she steps into the operating theater, she immediately picks up the sound of more screaming— but it's muffled-sounding. She quickly spots the source, an arrangement of monitors suspended above a cache of fearsome-looking equipment. The images flickering on the screen are frightening and discordant, flashes of gruesome imagery that bob in and out in a sea of static. The screams sound like a recording of a recording, like the footage has been corrupted.

An observation deck hangs above. The glass is either tinted or just really, really dirty, but Feng Min thinks that must be what it is. In a corner of the room, a small split in the damaged ceiling allows snow to come quietly through. There's a strange yellow glow coming from beneath her feet, and old, wooden examination chairs arranged concentrically around the middle of the room, all of them wired together with thick, decaying cables. When Feng Min realizes just how many restraints are secured to the chairs, she gets a sudden, terrible feeling of dread that tells her to flee. The dark miasma of her surroundings seems to whisper to her, telling her that something horrible happened here, once. Something that made the Entity want to have this place here.

Feng Min tries to ignore the monitors as she kneels next to the generator there. She's concentrating so hard to try to get it going quickly that it takes her a minute for her ears to pick up on the footsteps. No heartbeats, though, which means it's an ally.

She stands up and steps into the hallway nearest to the sound, shoving an errant, broken cart off to the side. The footsteps get louder.

But Feng Min doesn't get to find out who the other remaining person is, because at that moment, in a way that she cannot explain, her brain seizes.

That's what it feels like. Like a twitch that starts in her head, stabs her brain, and then ricochets through the rest of her body. Static floods her gaze; it crashes in her ears. The sensation makes it impossible to think, except for one thing:

What's happening to me?

Before she even realizes what she's doing — before she can even stop herself — Feng Min drops to her knees and screams. Her hands claw at her head, trying to get it out. The noise. The static. Whatever it is. It feels like her brain is being cleaved with a knife. The pain is not physical; it's mental. And yet it is agonizing, worse than most of the injuries she's received here by far. There's no escaping it, no adrenaline, no pain relief, she can only scream

Oh no oh no no no no no no no no—

The static thickens. She snaps her jaw shut. The air is a silver-grey mirage, tugging her along its shoreline, telling her to Just let go, and it gets louder in her ears, and she can hear another scream, and she's not entirely sure if it's her own or not—

Some lizard-brain part of her manages to shout Hide! at her, and Feng Min goes stumbling blindly around a corner. She throws herself into one of the bathrooms and cowers in a shower stall, curling herself up into a ball with her hands clamped over her ears. Her tongue is bleeding; she's dimly aware that she must have bitten it trying to stop herself from screaming. A gory mouthful of blood trails down her chin as she chokes down another involuntary howl.

There are no real thoughts in her head. The static has flooded them out, buried them in an avalanche of sound and warped light. The static lives in her body now. She no longer feels like a part of it.

The sky implodes again, right through the ceiling somewhere deep in the building, the black claw proffering its warped salvation.

Images begin to appear in the static. It's impossible for her brain to make sense of any of them; they only further scramble her thoughts, overwhelming her with an inhuman amount of sensory input. But she hears it getting louder and louder, so she gets up again to run.

The noise in her head makes room for a strengthening heartbeat, and Feng Min gets the sudden, distinct sense that something has crawled into her mind through her ears. Clutching her head and screaming, she runs without seeing down the hall, sending every crow she passes scattering. But she can't think of stealth right now, or where she should go; she can't think of anything except trying to outrun her own fracturing mind.

Behind her, someone laughs. It's a sound that floats on the static, like a damaged recording. Her agonized brain tells her that it's not just a part of the static: it's the source of it. Below her feet, electricity dances along the floor, sending painful shrieks of white noise into her brain. The laughter behind her continues, picking up in volume and mirth.

Whispers below the static start to wrap around her brain and squeeze like tentacles. The ones she normally only hears when she closes her eyes and falls into the Bloodweb.

Feng Min's frantic, blind running has carried her back to the operating theater, where her boot catches on the grating, causing her to collapse with a cry against one of the examination chairs, tearing open a gash on her forearm. She falls to the floor, tries to scramble back, and then, for the first time, attempts to see past the static at exactly who her killer is going to be.

The figure is in multitudes. Feng Min isn't sure if she's truly lost her mind or if there is more than one person in front of her. The image blinks, appearing and disappearing right before her eyes— except for the central figure, who is walking towards her, swinging some kind of electrified rod from one hand.

When she sees his face, gets one desperate look at it, she finally recognizes what she'd seen flashing on the television screens, and what had been crowding her brain. The Doctor is enormous— seven feet tall, at least, and huge. Bigger than the Huntress, maybe as tall as the Wraith. The top of her head would barely clear his ribs. The figure he cuts is terrifying, not least because of the blinding current of electricity that runs from electrodes on a painful-looking contraption on his head. It seems to be wired, disgustingly, right down into the muscle and skin of his body, tracking down his arms.

Worst, somehow, are his eyes. Not the way they're pried open, although that part is alarming, too. It's the way that they glow. The way that they're fixated right on her.

The Doctor lifts his hand. It's a subtle motion, but then another wave of electricity wracks her body, making her arch from the floor with every muscle in her body tensed up, and she screams until her throat hurts. She rolls to her side, grabbing her head, rocking. It doesn't matter how loud she is now. He knows exactly where she is.

He steps closer to her, laughing. It's a wild, twisted sound, almost hysterical, and it's strange seeing it come out of him, because he can barely move his mouth or jaw in the headgear. Feng Min closes her eyes. Her mind feels like it's about to splinter apart. If she has to die, she wants it to be fast, so she can get away from the oppressive, agonizing torture in her brain.

The Doctor reaches out towards her face, his fingertips scattering sparks over her hair. She can feel a sharp heat, and as she braces herself, she hears, in the static, a voice. Faint.

[ Discipline is required. ]

It's a warped sound, delivered like a bad radio signal, the syllables broken up and pieced back together. But it's as clear as a bell in her head.

Responding in panic, she cries out, "No, don't!"

The Doctor's hand stops just as it alights on top of her head, and for one moment, the static dies; it feels like her ears have been plugged with cotton, her brain suddenly silent. The relief doesn't last; it picks up again, just as strongly, when the Doctor drops to a sudden crouch in front of her, and she turns pale again, shaking and gasping and trying to squirm away. The electricity crackling around his body is blinding.

But he doesn't shock her. His hand skims down over her cheek and stops at her chin. She feels his thumb swipe away the blood there, and is numb with shock, trying to focus her gaze and understand what is happening. His hand is huge. She thinks he could probably crush her ribs in his grasp.

There it is again. The voice in her head.

[ You— can—... hear me? ]

It's difficult to pick up, and there are strange pauses in it, but it's audible. A voice. Did this monster just speak to her? Has she really lost her mind? Why isn't she dead yet?

The Entity's whispers pick up in her ears. She thinks she can hear it laughing at her. Telling her that it has only just begun to start playing with her.

Feng Min forces herself to look at the Doctor, comprehending nothing about the situation. Up close, his face is a terrible thing. It's marred with twisted tissue running over most of his features. Exposed muscle just barely healed over. Scarred in a way she can't even name. She can hear his throaty breathing, and she wonders how deep the wires go into his body. He's staring at her without any expression at all; she's not sure he's even able to make one, with that thing on his head. She looks up at the device and realizes for the first time that he isn't wearing electrodes on his scalp. They're actual ports into his skull, looking as though they were drilled right through to the bone. They hum with electricity.

And then, finally, she makes herself stare into those eerily glowing eyes. What she sees there makes her stomach lurch; she realizes, in a terrible moment of clarity, that whatever is behind the eyes looking back at her, it's lucid. It's self-aware.

And it just talked to her.

The static has dropped again. There is only numbness in its place, and an awful silence. Whatever had been crowding her brain has pulled back into its dark hiding places, leaving her torn and weak and empty. She can barely move from where she's crumpled on the floor. The Doctor is still breathing in hitching, audible rasps, just staring at her, his hand cupping her chin.

And then, something seems to change. Something that douses itself in his eyes, blinking out like a candle flame. He starts to laugh again, and his hand slides up and locks over her entire face, covering her nose, mouth, and eyes, trapping her in a smothered, panicked darkness. Feng Min starts thrashing and kicking at his solid body, trying to scream as she feels him pin her down to the floor, but it's all over before she can even think about what's happening. She hears it, but doesn't get to see it, or, thankfully, feel it: a sharp cracking sound that rises in pitch and then explodes through her entire nervous system, obliterating any remnant of brain activity.

 

Feng Min comes to at the campfire in a state of shock. She finds herself rematerialized at her usual spot, sitting in her usual way, but she could not feel more different. Her heart is still racing, and the fear is still gripping her body, her mind still fully engaged in the moment before this one. She clutches at her face, taking deep breaths.

"You okay?" It's Dwight, who has kneeled next to her at some point.

"I'm fine," says Feng Min unsteadily. Her hand slides up to her forehead, then rakes up into her hair, by her temples. Her brain feels so empty, suddenly. Every tortuous moment she had just been experiencing has evaporated, although it had felt like her brain was leaking out of her ears at the time. She's shocked to be in one piece again. All at once, Quentin's warning makes perfect sense. She'd needed to experience it to know what he had meant.

What happened back there? Had she hallucinated it all? As far as Feng Min knows — and as far as the others had told her — it's nearly impossible to get any kind of reaction out of the Entity's servants, outside of being hunted by them. And it hadn't been anything like that moment the Trapper had seemed to deliberately enjoy taunting her. The Doctor had spoken to her, somehow. In her head.

It sounds completely insane when she thinks about it like that, but so does everything else in the nightmare. She puts a hand under the left side of her rib cage and squeezes her eyes shut, willing her heart to slow down.

Meg has also reappeared. She's frowning and pink-cheeked, looking like she has a rant prepared. But the only thing she says is, "We all hate being sent to Léry's Memorial Institute." She gives a huff and cracks her knuckles. "I almost outran him. It's that stupid madness thing that he does that always gets me killed."

Bill's at the fire, too, sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him and his arms crossed, his cap tugged low over his eyes. "That one's unusually adept at screwin' us up." His statement, and his deeply dissatisfied expression, makes her think that he was the other man she'd heard in the hospital.

"You mean killing us," says Feng Min blankly. She still feels stunned. What is she supposed to say to the others without making them think that all of this torture is making her start to lose it?

"You bet," says Bill, with a sigh. "Goddamn."

Feng Min lets her head sink onto her knees, and the others get the signal; they leave her alone with her thoughts. Feng Min has never been so glad for that before— being alone with her thoughts, in her own quiet head. She replays the scenario again in her mind. The whole thing, the static and the whispers and the hallucinations and... and the voice. She tries to glean the facts from what she knows wasn't real. Mining the truth from the well of static.

It talked to you. You're not crazy. It did.

He did.


Now, she needs to decide what to do about it.

Chapter Text

"It's Halloween," Dwight says.

Most of the other survivors gathered around the campfire don't even lift their chins to acknowledge him. Nea only heaves a sigh and folds her arms across her chest, rolling her eyes. Bill merely fixes Dwight with a hard stare. Quentin is trying to get the grime off of a rusty coin; Feng Min can see the bronze starting to shine through under his thumb. Ace is the sole outlier; he's grinning at Dwight.

"How'd you know?" he asks, stretching his legs out in front of him.

A groan immediately follows when Ace takes the bait. Feng Min is both surprised and amused to realize that it came from Claudette. "Please, let's not get started on this again. The calendar thing."

"Okay, but think about it," Dwight insists. "My watch still works. I know exactly how many times it's completed rotation. Everyone knows how many days there are in a month. You can figure it out by—"

"But even if that were true, that would only be the case for you. Did you forget?" Claudette looks like she's had this conversation with Dwight many times before. "You remember it being a certain date when you arrived. But it was a different time for everyone else," she adds, with admirable patience. "Temporally, we're probably not aligned with... the real world. I've been here long enough to know that." She puts a finger to her chin, her eyes darting up towards the ever-present moon. It's a feature that never changes; no matter where they end up for a trial, the moon is always there. It never shifts phases; it neither waxes nor wanes.

"I know. But humor me," says Dwight, raising his hands palms-up in a defensive manner. "If we've got a bunch of contradicting dates, then we arbitrarily pick one. We don't have proof one way or another. What's the harm in going by my calendar? Are you saying you won't want to celebrate Christmas?" He raises an eyebrow.

Nea turns away at this point, yanking her slouchy hat down to cover her ears. Feng Min is starting to think that she should do the same.

"Christmas isn't going to come, Dwight," says Claudette in a way that somehow manages to sound polite. "It never does. Not in the usual way." Feng Min is privately in agreement with her; she doesn't buy the theory that time actually passes anywhere in the Entity's realm. How can it? Their lives have been suspended in a perfect, infinitely reincarnating stasis.

"Well, not right now. Right now it's Halloween. I've done the math." Dwight taps the face of his watch like he's pleased with himself.

Feng Min's gaze floats towards Quentin and Laurie, whose shoulders are touching. She can't tell who's leaning against who, but there's a strange look on Laurie's face — a draining of color — that Quentin heeds, too.

"Chri... Christmas," says Quentin abruptly. He tilts forward, while Laurie slides back on their shared log, pulling her knees in closer to her body. He steals a glance at her, and then looks at Dwight, gesturing. Feng Min gets the sense that he's trying to redirect the conversation. "Yeah, I think that would be cool. I think we should do it. We can definitely decorate a tree, at least. Look at them. They're everywhere."

Feng Min watches carefully as something shifts in Laurie— tension releasing as she brings the tips of her shoes together, lifting her head to look at Quentin. It's an interesting exchange of body language that makes Feng Min wonder again about the nature of the relationship between them.

"I'd like that." Laurie presses her lips together tightly, as if there's something else she wants to say, but she doesn't elaborate.

"And we have a Santa Claus," says Dwight, who points at Bill. Feng Min is amazed by his undaunted ability to do and say things she, and any other normal person, would never dare to. Especially to Bill, of all people. Dwight doesn't look bold, but his behavior says otherwise.

But Bill doesn't respond negatively, surprising Feng Min and reminding her that there is still so much she doesn't know about the other people sharing her predicament. The old veteran lets out a skeptical huff of laughter. "Don't you dare go tryin' to sit on my lap." He cups a hand over his mouth, and she sees the amber glow of a lighter on his palm. "I don't deliver presents. Don't like receivin' 'em, either."

Meg bounds up to the campfire, looking like she's been jogging. She's wiping the sheen off her forehead as she bounces over to claim a spot on the log next to Claudette. "What's this about presents?" she asks.

"We're going to celebrate Christmas!" says Dwight brightly.

"Oh!" gasps Meg, her eyes lighting up. She leans forward. "Like decorating a tree and stuff?"

"You've got it!" says Dwight, before turning back to the rest of them, waving his arm. "See, guys? Meg gets it. She gets me. So that's me, Meg, Ace, Quentin, Laurie... Bill..." He's pointing at each of them as he calls off names.

"I didn't agree to any damned thing, chucklehead," Bill grouses.

Dwight's finger lands on Feng Min, who immediately regrets sticking around the campfire. "What about you, Feng Min?"

"I don't like holidays," she says bluntly. She can feel the others staring at her from around the circle. In the intermission of silence, there is the sound of something being scratched over paper from Nea's direction. When Dwight goes a beat too long without responding, looking at her expectantly, Feng Min reluctantly elaborates. "...But I think you guys should do what you want to do. I don't care."

"Still a yes! One for apathy," confirms Dwight. "That makes seven of us." He strains to get a look over the blinding flames at Nea, who still has her back turned to everybody else. "Nea? What say you?"

Nea responds without even looking up. She has to raise her voice to be heard, because she's talking down at her own lap. "Two for apathy," she says. "Also, and yet again, back turned means do not disturb. You fucking doorknob."

"Two for apathy," Dwight only repeats, looking completely unfazed by being called a 'fucking doorknob.' It seems like he might be used to it. "It's pretty much a done deal at this point. It's a landslide majority vote." He fixes Claudette with a victorious look.

"I don't know why you think this is in any way whatsoever important to me," says Claudette mildly. "I never said we shouldn't try to celebrate Christmas. I think it's a lovely idea, in spirit."

"Wait," says Dwight, his forehead creasing in confusion. "What were we talking about, then?"

"I don't think anyone actually knows," says Feng Min before she can stop herself. She can't help it; the compulsion to call out the ridiculousness of it all is too much to resist.

"Why are we arguing?" Meg interjects, pursing her lips. "How about everyone shuts up about that and we talk about how to do something pleasant around here for a change? Something nice that gives us all something to do and makes us feel better for a bit. I'm tired of trying to pass time in the same ways over and over." She suddenly turns towards Quentin. "And you! You keep saying you'll come jogging with me, and then you never do. You need to get motivated!"

Quentin looks startled by the sudden topic change, and then embarrassed. Next to him, Laurie lifts her hand to cover her mouth. "Uh, yeah. You got me there." He rubs his knuckles against his temple, looking a little overwhelmed. "I know that—"

"So! Christmas!" Ace interrupts. "Yeah, I wouldn't mind seeing if we could scrounge up a little party 'round this shithole. Do something other than have to listen to you people bumping uglies in the forest." He doesn't specify exactly who he is accusing of 'bumping uglies,' something Feng Min is extremely grateful for. "God. What I'd do for a goddamn drink right now. I tell you." He has a look of longing on his face, and the mood shifts; she feels a sudden surge of nausea when she recognizes it. It's a difficult task, then, not to let her mind stray to thoughts of alcohol, how it would be the perfect thing to shut her brain off so she could tune out her surroundings in this hell. She knows that's not true, that it's never been anything but poison to her life, health, and sanity, but right now, the longing for something to numb out the black hole in her guts is intense.

Maybe she owes the Entity one thing: the nightmare has served as a sort of rehab for her. Mandatory sobriety. Feng Min wants to laugh, but she just bites her lip, her attention drifting back to the conversation as Ace is in the middle of a story.

"...and, listen, I bought the damn yacht. Yeah, I didn't need one that big! But I could have one that big. That's the appeal. You know, maybe it was stupid. I've done a lotta stupid things. Yeah, bet you can't believe that, huh? Me? Mr. Got-it-together? But that was my midlife crisis purchase. I'm glad it wasn't something like a car. I have enough cars. Or, God, a woman. No offense, ladies. But I'm sick of it! Three wives. Three. You can't say I didn't try. I've been single for five years now, and it's the best damn thing I ever did for myself. I'm free to do whatever I want, wherever I wanna do it! So if any of you ladies are thinking about starting something with me, I'm sorry, and I completely understand why you'd feel that way, but I gotta decline."

Claudette immediately begins coughing loudly into her elbow, turning away from the fire to shield her face. Meg looks over, and when Feng Min listens closely, she realizes that Claudette is struggling not to laugh. Meg begins thumping her on the back with deep, slightly rough pats, her mouth twitching as she flicks her eyes towards Ace.

"You're forgiven," says Meg, suppressing her own cough. "Mmph... er... Anyway, how is this a story about Christmas?"

Ace adjusts his sunglasses. "I bought the yacht around Christmas," he says.

"That doesn't make it a..." Meg trails off. "Never mind."

Claudette's coughing has abated, and she flaps a hand beneath her chin like she's trying to compose herself.

"Well..." Quentin offers, clasping his hands together and leaning in; the firelight catches his face. "When I was growing up, we'd go all-out. We were that family with all the decorations on our lawn. Had it all up on the very first day of December, and took it all down the day after Christmas. Anyway, when I was 13, my dad decided I was old enough to start really helping him with the hard stuff. So that meant going up on the ladder. Long story short, I was watching this squirrel on the roof, and I fell and broke my left femur."

"Bet that taught you not to get distracted any more," Bill says with a faint note of amusement, behind a cloud of smoke.

Quentin nods. "Oh, yeah. For sure. But my parents really made that Christmas special for me. I'd never seen my dad look so upset with himself. He took it, uh... personally. I mean, he was the principal at my high school. He'd watch me in the halls."

"That's weird," says Nea, saying exactly what Feng Min is thinking; she still hasn't made any effort to turn back around, hunching over her paper.

"I know. But I don't blame him. I can't. I used to feel like a lab rat being monitored by a 24-hour camera. But I... I grew up and found out that he had his reasons." Quentin shakes his head, looking troubled for a moment. "Look, uh, anyway... It's been a while since we did Christmas. But that one is a memory that makes me happy. Maybe I'm here now, but I still got to enjoy some good times." He smiles weakly. Feng Min isn't sure if he fully believes what he's saying.

"That's exactly how I feel," says Meg, her expression both determined and defiant. Feng Min still can't decide if her high spirits are a well-coordinated act or the real deal, and she's still wondering about that when Meg suddenly looks towards her. "How about you? What do you do for the holidays?"

"Uh," says Feng Min, trying to stall for time. She can't muster up a single good memory of celebrating holidays with her family that she could share as a story with the other survivors, and to do so would be forcing herself to be uncomfortably open with them. "I usually go visit my parents, even though we spend the whole time arguing. But I... keep going anyway. It's one of the few times I have time off from... well, touring and streaming, and..." She trails off at the recollections these terms stir in her mind, suddenly all too aware of the eyes on her. She presses her tongue to the roof of her mouth. "My family doesn't celebrate holidays like Christmas. Spring Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival... That's how I was raised." She hopes that this is enough personal information to be able to reclaim her right to silence.

"Jesus, Meg," rings out Nea's sarcastic voice. "You straight up assumed everyone celebrates Christmas like you do."

Meg flushes. "Oh, stop it! You know I didn't mean anything like that, right?" she says, looking at Feng Min with concern.

"I know," says Feng Min. "Stop it, Nea." There's a thread of irritation that slips from her mouth to go through those last three words.

"If you ask me, all of it is bullshit. I've been an atheist since I was 11 years old," says Nea, ignoring her.

"But nobody asked you," says Feng Min, trying not to allow herself to be bothered by Nea's apparent determination to pick fights with her for no reason. She doesn't need Nea as a friend, but she doesn't need her as an enemy, either. That feeling doesn't seem to be mutual.

"Who cares?" retorts Nea, but she props her pile of papers up on her knees and returns to work. Feng Min tries to get a look at the drawing, but it's a black blur behind the shimmering heat of the fire.

"You're all givin' me a goddamn headache," barks Bill.

Laurie sits up and lowers her chin down. "I'm sorry," she says, which strikes as absurd to Feng Min, because Laurie has barely said a word.

"You know I wasn't talkin' to you, Laurie," Bill says, not nearly as harshly.

"Now, uh," says Dwight. "Let's get back to the basics. We've gotten off track."

Feng Min's attention fades away from the conversation, and she slides over on her log to slip closer to Nea, who doesn't lift her head up in response; she's uncertain if she should try to start a conversation, or ask her what her problem is. As Meg, Claudette, and Dwight begin to talk about whether or not it is a stupid idea to try to cut down a tree (definitely, Feng Min thinks), she peers at the worn pile of papers in Nea's lap.

It takes her a moment to recognize it, but soon the silhouette of the dilapidated semi-structure of the Crotus Prenn Asylum becomes apparent. Its interiors are fully exposed from the bottom up, its steel beams great, dead trees, ungrounded and uprooted, reaching towards the moon. It's a fairly accurate depiction, if Feng Min's memory serves right (and if it doesn't, she thinks bitterly, the Entity will inevitably bring her to another trial and remind her).

Nea looks at her in a suspicious manner, but she says, seemingly at random: "Right here."

Feng Min blinks. "What?" she asks, wondering if Nea is going to be mean-spirited again. She thinks she'll just get up and silently walk away if that happens.

But all Nea does is jab a finger down at the center of the sketch, right over an intact portion of the wall by the ruined entrance. Nea's managed to squeeze in a surprising amount of details, although the paper she's using has seen better days. "Right here is where I was when that thing took me."

Oh, thinks Feng Min, remembering again how the other survivors had told her of Nea's affiliation with this place. "You were actually there? In the real world?"

"Yeah. Look, I'd known about it for a while. It was a local legend. I didn't really believe it, but I had friends who had grown up around there since they were, like, babies, and they said it's always been a thing. Ooh, the spooky, abandoned mental hospital! Of course people were going to say it was haunted. I thought there was no way anything was going to happen to me when I went up there." Nea rubs her blackened palm against the side seam of her shredded jeans. The charcoal disappears into the denim. "Even right now, I still can't figure out what the hell happened. I don't believe in the supernatural, or in anything else, but I'm still here. This place is fucking impossible." Nea has a perturbed expression.

Feng Min mulls over this information that Nea has surprisingly offered unsolicited. She has several questions, but there's one that stands out, so after a beat, she asks, "Is it possible that every person here..." She motions towards their fellow survivors, who have quieted down around the fire pit. "...has a connection to something in this world?"

If Nea hears the hesitation in Feng Min's voice, she doesn't make it known. She just replies, simply, "Maybe."

Feng Min tries to prompt for more. "I know about Laurie, and Quentin, and Tapp..."

"I've wondered about it sometimes," says Nea thoughtfully, fingertips at her chin. A sooty smudge immediately settles there. "But there are people here who really don't know about any of this shit. You know Bill? In his world, the fucking zombie apocalypse happened. An actual, Dawn of the Dead kinda zombie apocalypse. He's the only one we know of from a world where that happened, and it seems unbelievable, but do you think that guy would ever lie? No way. We're all from Earth, yeah, but some of us have to be from different timelines, or even realities. Fuck."

Feng Min nods slowly. She understands exactly the sentiment Nea is expressing. She tugs her jacket tighter around herself, tucking her hands into the sleeves. "Then..." She inhales. "Would you think, in reverse, that the same is true about the killers? That they're also from some time or place on Earth?"

"Yeah, of course. You know that some of them are literally just humans, right? Nothing gross or mutated or crazy. Regular people who I can only assume must've volunteered for this shit, because what the fuck?" Nea scowls. "That one from Tapp's world? The chick in the pig head. That fucking thing smells so bad, ugh. I wanna projectile-vomit all down the back of her jacket when she grabs me. Every time. She'd deserve it. Anyway, I'm pretty sure she's a regular person, and Tapp is confident he's IDed her. It's so fucked up."

What Nea's saying makes sense, along with all of its troubling implications. Feng Min has a lot to think about. She feels like her head's about to explode, and that's not just because she keeps painfully remembering how it had felt to have the Doctor's static field take hold of it. When he'd crawled right into her brain, whispered right between her ears. Spoken to her.

Regular people, repeats Feng Min in her thoughts. Humans.

Nea shuffles through the papers. She tugs a sheet free and hands it to Feng Min. "Here."

Feng Min takes it with surprise. It's another charcoal sketch. This time, she identifies the subject right away: coming through the intense blackness at the center are the familiar talons of the Entity as it descends from the sky. Feng Min can see the little spines and cracks, and the sharp sliver-points of the tips.

She has to admit that there is something extraordinarily beautiful about the sight of the Entity materializing a part of itself, even though the only time she really gets to look at it is when she's just about to die. She's never asked the others if they've thought the same thing, but she can't help but notice the unbelievable way it seems to pull itself together from absolute nothingness, rippling glowing magma patterns in the air around her before a glittering, chitinous shell grows around it, deepening to the blackest black she's ever seen. It's awe-inspiring, she surmises, in the way dying must be awe-inspiring. The way people describe the light at the end of the tunnel. How it had made them feel so peaceful and free, even though they were about to meet death.

The attention paid to the details in the drawing makes Feng Min think that Nea has also found it hypnotizing at least once before.

"Um, thanks," she says, after a pause. "What... do I do with this?" It's not as though she has a bedroom wall to put posters on any more.

Nea shrugs. "I'm bored here all the time. I give away lots of sketches. Most people throw 'em in the campfire. Kind of like a good luck thing. I think it's cool."

"Really?" says Feng Min, skeptical. "You wouldn't be offended by that?"

"No," says Nea. "I did graffiti. A lot of it, before I ended up here. If I wasn't able to let my art go, I'd never be able to do it. My shit got removed and painted over all the time. So all I did was keep painting. Art is supposed to provoke a reaction. Nothing draws attention like a beautiful mural. Graffiti demands to be seen." She nods her head towards the campfire. "I don't think the Entity cares about them for offerings, but you might as well get in on the tradition."

A little smile brings a twitch to Feng Min's lips. She grasps the drawing tighter, looking down at it. "The details are pretty good," she admits.

"Yeah, I've got those fucking claws memorized," says Nea. Feng Min detects a strange but somehow understandable bit of pride in her voice.

"Are those supposed to be claws?" she teases, guessing that it might be okay to venture a cautious joke with Nea. "I thought this was a picture of a tree."

Nea's smile disappears, but her eyes are still squinted in amusement as she says, "Then get your vision checked."

Feng Min hums at that, at the mild way Nea says it — that has to be a positive reaction — and motions with the paper in her hand. "Thanks," she says.

She waits a little while before she tosses it into the fire, poring over the details again. The mottled patterns over the hard exterior. The spines. The deliberately extending razor tips. Eventually, looking at it makes her start to feel a sort of sad hollowness over the fact that she might never learn why any of this is happening to her, and then she suddenly thinks she understands why Nea prefers her art to be temporary, a flash of emotion, both insolent and utterly resplendent before it's gone forever. That's what's on Feng Min's mind as she crumples the ragged paper up into a ball and, beside Nea's approving smile, drops it into the flames.

For good luck, she thinks, watching it burn.

 

Although Feng Min keeps thinking about it — she can't use the word hoping; the feeling isn't like that — the Entity has yet to return her to that strange, snow-covered hospital. Several loops of trials on the farm grounds are starting to make her feel tired, despite the Entity's gift-slash-curse of inexhaustible alertness. The longer time stretches on without any sight of Léry's Memorial Institute, the more frustrated she feels. That feeling congeals itself in her mind and feels, somehow, important. Or urgent.

Why, though? she keeps thinking to herself. Why should she even bother trying to find out more about this world? About the Entity, about the other survivors, about the killers... Why? It's not like she's going to be given any answers. The Entity is not a god that hears prayers.

But, still, the hospital won't leave her mind. The flickering screens. The mesmerizing grey blanket of static, before it had turned to pain— incredible pain savaging not just her brain but her mind itself, the very consciousness of her. Does she want to go through that again? No. She definitely doesn't. But... the little voice in the back of her head keeps saying, What if you can learn something? If Feng Min has a devil and an angel sitting on her shoulders, she's not sure which one's talking to her now.

What then? She doesn't know. It's hubris even to think about it.

Feng Min brings herself out of her depressive thought spiral when she notices Meg sitting by the campfire with a book propped up against her knees. Feng Min drops down beside her, crossing her legs as she sits. "What's that?" she asks. She knows that sometimes, on scavenging trips, the others manage to find old classic novels, yellowing dictionaries, or outdated newspapers, all irrelevant and seemingly chosen at random. It all seems like garbage to Feng Min.

"Well..." says Meg, looking Feng Min up and down. She hums. "It's probably time you read it. You've been here long enough. This is Benedict Baker's journal. It's been here since before any of us arrived. We think he, or someone else who was here before us, left it for us to find." She holds up the small leatherbound book. It's received serious water damage at some point; the spine is falling apart. "Baker was someone who was in the same position we are."

Feng Min is apprehensive. "Where is he now, then?"

"We don't know. Maybe he figured out how to get back to the real world. Maybe he found a path to a permanent death." Meg shrugs. "He never wrote about it, or it's gone." She lets the book fall open on her knees, and the journal comes apart as though it were made of wet fabric, not paper. Feng Min can now see that entire sections are missing from the binding. "He's the one that named the Bloodweb. He wrote a little bit about it, and a lot of other things, too. But be careful when you go through it. This thing is really important, and it's the only one... If something happens to it, it'll be gone forever." Her fingers are knotting into the strands of her braids, her expression lost in thought, but then she holds it out.

Feng Min is immediately nervous about accidentally ripping it or damaging it somehow, sliding farther back from the fire as she reaches to take the journal from Meg. She observes that the leather cover is successfully holding the basic structure together, and the pages come apart easily, letting her relax slightly. She goes over it carefully under the firelight, squinting at the handwriting and the few diagrams. Most of it is information the other survivors have taught her already, survival tips that come from repeated trials of torture, but there are more interesting things, too, like Baker's take on what he thought of the reasons for his existence in the fog, or what he thought of the Entity.

Trying to find some answers is one of the few things that keep me sane, reads Baker's journal at one point. Feng Min wonders if it had worked for him, because she's not certain it's going to work out for her.

Léry's Memorial Institute

There's a sudden stab of pain spiking down from the crown of her head the moment she reads the words. Feng Min exhales slowly to ride it out, squeezing her eyes shut for one difficult moment and swallowing as it fades to wariness, before she skims over Baker's notes. It's hard to read some of the handwriting where the ink has spread out into little veins.

It’s a place where the human brain is turned into something unpleasant and broken. Electricity is everywhere and dirty tools are found laying around. The facility is a place where all methods are acceptable— as long as information is retrieved. Whether the 'subject' is alive after the procedure is not important.

Feng Min doesn't know what to think about what she's read. It's not difficult to believe, given the appearance of the place— its strangely barricaded and reinforced walls, the nontraditional variety of medical equipment. The eerily repetitive and useless rooms. The cryptic symbols seen in every hallway. The endless monitors and cameras and the feeling of being constantly, eternally watched, viewed from the inside out, no part of you unexposed. But where had Baker gotten this information? She doesn't see any notations about where he had learned it. Was it just a theory, or had he come across something concrete?

The journal yields no further answers, nor clarification. After reviewing the rest, Feng Min returns it to Meg, watching as she carefully slips it into an etched wooden box which she pushes into a hollow on the underside of a tree, a spot perfectly worn away to fit a small, fragile hope.

 

Feng Min blanks out the moment she realizes she's in the hospital again. As the world re-illustrates itself in shape and color and form all around her, fading in from nothingness, the first thing she picks up is the faint call of static, and all at once, anything she might have been thinking about to prepare herself for being in the hospital again has flown her mind. Once she's grounded again, she's a little agitated with herself, hands shaking as she digs her nails into her palms, trying to get her thoughts straight as she kneels in a corner that has been reclaimed by grass.

The static drones softly between her ears. Feng Min hones in on it, her mind latching onto its frequency. From this far away, the noise is merely an unremarkable buzz, inoffensive and easily forgotten. Soon, she thinks she's tuned her senses to the correct direction of the source. As she begins moving down the hallway, she picks up distant footsteps, and wonders who the other survivors are in this trial. She realizes that they have no idea what she's doing right now. She has no idea what she's doing right now. She wonders what the other survivors would think if they knew she was ignoring the generators and walking past the totems because she wanted to see if the killer in this place would talk to her in her head again. Her reputation would probably be permanently, irreparably damaged.

But she has to know. It feels like something's calling out to her, a great chasm that demands crossing. She knows it sounds crazy. That's because, Feng Min thinks, it is fucking crazy.

Even though she knows that continuing to advance towards the static is probably going to get her swiftly killed — why wouldn't it? — Feng Min continues to follow it, listening to the distant bangs and thumps of the other survivors getting generators up and running. The Entity makes its presence known early, claiming one of them down in a distant hallway. Although she can feel a slow warning throb starting in her head, it's not like last time, when the static had taken hold of her so suddenly. This time, the pain trickles in quietly, and as it comes, she can brace herself for it. Slowly. She's used to forcing herself to adapt to change. She can keep going, even if it's not in leaps and bounds any more. Bit by bit is more than she'd had going for her right before she'd woken up in this nightmare.

The sea of static crests and swells. There's a strange sensation of it pressing in around her, applying gravity from her shoulders and head downwards and lending her limbs a weighted feeling.

Feng Min knows she's entered the dangerous part of the Doctor's radius when three things happen: the first is that a heartbeat becomes clear over the noise. The second is that she's now able to see the static itself dancing around the soles of her boots, little sparks of electricity licking up the sides. And the third is the Entity making a second appearance. She can hear a woman screaming very close by. It's hard to mistake the sound as anything but a death cry. Claudette, maybe? She barely has time to react or get a look before the Entity has come tearing ravenously through reality for its meal. One other person left, then. Aside from her. She realizes it hasn't been more than a few minutes since they had all arrived here.

Crouching next to a soda machine, Feng Min picks up the sound of panting. It doesn't take much to place David. She knows it's him because of how incredibly loud he is when he runs and vaults. It's not his fault; the guy is built like a truck. She stands up, hopping to her feet as he dashes by her window, trailing blood. A sudden burst of static splits painfully between her eyes as electricity flickers up her stockings, and she sways, but she manages to both stay upright and keep her mouth clamped shut. The urge to scream is there again, but it's not strong. Yet.

Typically, she'd just stay right here, watching from her hiding spot as another one of the survivors tries running the killer around. It's often not worth intervening; to do so, she knows, typically results in the loss of the helper's life. So Feng Min usually waits, slipping behind some cover or sneaking to the shadows. She doesn't mind being patient, waiting for the killer to walk away. Sure, she'd went and helped Laurie that one time, but that was only because she'd been absolutely certain it was a safe thing to do. At least, that's what Feng Min has convinced herself she thinks.

But, today, she's changing strategies. She's going to move towards one of the Entity's servants.

Feng Min clambers through a window frame and uses the heel of her boot to kick one of the wheeled stretchers crowding the hallway. It makes a loud clattering sound against the wall, and, almost immediately after the commotion, electricity explodes at her feet, and she gets her eyes on the Doctor again as he steps around the corner, called by the racket. He takes notice of her immediately; luminous irises against black-hole sclerae lock on her as he starts to laugh, swinging the brutal-looking spiked weapon in his hand. It's the same broken-radio sound as before; his mouth doesn't move along with it. It's still incredibly unnerving, she decides, but probably the least frightening thing about him.

There's a dull thud from behind her. She can roughly gauge the distance, and guesses that David has made his way to a safe area. She can't turn around and confirm, because she can't risk taking her eyes off of the Doctor. She's anchored by the same kind of paralyzing terror she'd felt the first time she encountered him, and she knows that how she proceeds from here is important, but suddenly she's not sure at all of what she's doing. She doesn't know if she's forgotten his face — it feels like it's been forever since she was here last — or if it's that he's just that alarming to look at, but it has her incapacitated. She takes a step back, and then another, and he starts moving towards her again. Just two steps.

The Doctor isn't in any rush, she realizes, and that's what steels her as she gropes her way backwards, feeling along the wall, inching step by step down the hallway. He appears content to keep pace with her for the moment, laughing every time she has to bite back a cry when another deluge of static overwhelms her, as if he's amused by her reactions. The pain in her head is rising, gradually approaching a rapidly shrinking limit.

Like before, the pain is accompanied by a thickening of the static field around her. The noise twists and sparks down her spine and into her fingertips, making muscles all over her body twitch and shake. She takes a shallow breath when the urge to scream lashes her tongue again, and tries to focus. Where had she heard his voice? In her head. She needs to listen harder to the static. Get inside of it the way it's getting inside of her. Push back the agony.

There's a cold sweat on the back of her neck. Her blind path backwards has taken her — and the Doctor, by consequence — into an unusual room, one she hadn't seen the first time she'd come to Léry's Memorial Institute. It's some sort of office. She notes tall bookshelves, but that's about all she gets a good look at between the tension of trying to stay at least several feet in front of the Doctor and the pain threatening to overwhelm her mind and render her defenseless again.

Concentrate, she thinks. She just needs to listen for it—

The edge of something hard hits her hip. She reaches behind herself and feels for it. A desk? She stumbles around the side of it, leaning into it to keep herself steady, watching as a torrent of electricity rolls down the Doctor's body like rainfall and ripples outwards on the floor, shocking up under her skin when it reaches her.

Awareness of her limited options for exiting this room only comes to her once she's effectively cornered. Feng Min goes still, wobbling, and, while panting — it's hard to breathe; her head hurts — she makes a great, struggling effort to say, "I heard you. Last time. I—... heard. You." She manages to spit the last three words out through clenched teeth.

There's a silence. The Doctor's on the other side of the desk, looking in her direction as if contemplating her. The effort of managing that one sentence has taken all of the oxygen and the energy out of her. Feng Min's body goes involuntarily pliant, and the pain in her head suddenly blasts to entirely new levels. She grabs at her head, dropping to her knees, and cries out.

She hears the sound of the Doctor's heavy footsteps beneath the noise, before she's cloaked in his shadow. She feels him stop when the tip of one of his shoes presses into her calf. She looks up towards the ceiling, squinting against the static and the blinding light of the electricity falling off of him. She's hardly noticing, at this point, when it stings her arms or legs or even her face. Everything is pain right now, an indistinct effluvia of every kind of hurt.

Just as Feng Min thinks that this venture really was truly foolish and pointless — that maybe she hallucinated the first time, and she's not going to hear him answer — she hears it. That voice, again, existing, somehow — impossibly — in her mind like it had always been there, dormant, only awaiting the time when instinct would lure it out.

[ You. What have you done? ]

As toneless as last time, both fading and sharpening in volume and clarity from syllable to syllable. She can't even believe it. There's a loud thudding noise next to her head, and the static flares up loudly, making her shriek, before it suddenly evaporates enough to let her think and see again, a little bit. She sees that the Doctor has planted his weapon in the bookshelf beside her. The current extends down his arm straight into it, and it's vivid with energy. Feng Min tells herself not to move a muscle, even if she's concerned that one twist of his wrist would allow the Doctor to club her upside the head— a injury she's pretty certain she wouldn't be able to recover from on her own.

Now that the noise has ebbed back, Feng Min realizes that he expects a response. That's the only reason she's not dead yet. The Doctor thinks she's done something?

"I— I didn't," she stammers. "I didn't do anything. I don't know why it's happening." Her voice certainly sounds wretched right now— it's strained from the exhaustion of the static saturating her brain. She'd thought maybe he'd done something to her. She knows none of the other survivors have ever experienced it. She's heard them talk about the excruciating, death-wish torture of the static and the madness that follows, but none of them have ever mentioned hearing a voice in it, much less the killer's voice.

The Doctor merely stands there, as still as if he were part of the decor, turned to stone by her stare. But then he reaches down for her, his hand grabbing at her bicep.

Instinct kicks in, and Feng Min screams, trying to push herself away across the floor. A strange sound comes from the Doctor — it's not in her head; she's pretty sure she's hearing it with her ears — that has a weird, choppy quality to it. She senses displeasure, but all she's thinking about is trying to get away from him, certain she's pushed her luck too far.

All he does is jerk her up to her feet, albeit with a painful shock that bolts down the length of his arm, disappearing and reappearing into the muscle, ending its circuit at her right shoulder. She hisses with pain, twitching again, the muscles in her arm tensing in a way that makes the entirety of her spine start burning. And then Feng Min realizes that a second shock hasn't come. She tips her chin up.

This time, the voice is quieter, the volume dialed down.

[ Tell the truth, or I will extract it from this troubled mind of yours. ] At the tail end of this sentence, the Doctor's hand tightens on her arm. His hand easily engulfs the circumference of her bicep; she squirms as his grip turns painful. As terrified as she feels, Feng Min makes herself again stare at his face— the gruesome, immobile state of it. She at least wants to get a good look at him before he melts her brain again. All along the right side of her body, she can feel muscles fluttering beneath her skin, and it hurts.

Extract it. She doesn't want to find out what that means.

"I am!" she gasps, and she can't help but try another ineffective tug away from his grasp. "I'm telling the truth."

The Doctor's hand slides up her arm to her shoulder, shoving it back against the bookshelf to subdue her. Feng Min obeys this time, stilling, but mostly because it hurts to try to move.

[ Then why would you seek me out again. ] It doesn't sound like a question— not when it's encased in the chaos of the static, devoid of emotion, slipping into her brain whether she wants it to or not. The Doctor leans in deeper over her, and her eyes start to hurt from having to stare into the blinding current running over his body. She can feel the pressure of his fingertips at her shoulder blade, hard enough to bruise.

Feng Min doesn't know how to articulate an answer.

"I had to find out," she says, with difficulty. "If... if I really heard you. Last time." As she says this, there is a noticeable brightening of the electricity. She hears the stilted laughter clip into the air again, and wonders once more where it comes from, or how he does it, or if he's even doing it consciously. Her eyes have glazed over with exhaustion. She doesn't know what he's going to do with her now. Probably throw her on the nearest hook.

The laughter continues, picking up in volume, and then the voice in her head layers on top of it. Two concurrent voices from the same source. It's a little disorienting to hear the distorted laughter behind the flat affect. [ We'll see if you are being honest. ]

The Doctor yanks Feng Min forward by the shoulder, causing her to stumble. He's reaching out to haul her over one arm, and she panics. No, not again, her body screams at her in a sudden plea for survival. Not again! It never gets any easier, the terror of dying. She tries moving back again, her energy renewed by the fear.

He's gotten a grip on her when the sound of the exit gates running power comes on. The Doctor jerks his head up, the current blazing, as David comes running into the room. Feng Min hadn't even heard him approaching; there's too much noise in her head.

"Oi, slaphead!" he bellows. "Yes, you!" With astonishing speed and force, David comes barreling towards them, taking a full-on body slam into the Doctor's side that immediately forces the killer to relinquish his hold on her. Feng Min doesn't need to be told to take the opening. She bolts for the door, stealing a look at David, who's running for the window again, sweat pouring down his face and blood soaking his jeans. She can tell that he's in a lot of pain. He barely makes it over. Feng Min watches the Doctor's twitching fingers miss his ankle.

She holds her breath and runs before he turns around to fully register her absence. It doesn't take long. She no longer hears the voice in her head, but she's not surprised that she doesn't any more. There's just the heartbeats, and the unsettling laughter, and the static. She keeps running, even though every single muscle in her body aches.

It feels like she's been stumbling down identical hallways for an eternity with the heartbeats pressed against the pulse in her neck when she locates the glowing red sign for the exit. She sees David standing there; he's waving urgently. Feng Min sprints out of the doors into the snow with the Doctor laughing in increasing, nightmarish hysteria just steps behind her.

"Come on, now!"

David leaps out from the border line between the hospital and the campfire right in time to take Feng Min by the arm and pull her through the barrier with him. It's in the same spot the Doctor had grabbed her so tightly, but she doesn't mind the pain this time, because it means getting past the gates. "Thank you," she wheezes. She can hear the Doctor's laughter fade off behind them, closed out by the darkness that undetectably shifts and reassembles into the familiar features of the campfire, restoring them whole again, their wounds and bruises wiped away, always with a new trauma fresh in their minds.

What's not familiar is what just happened at the hospital. As Feng Min sinks down next to the campfire, a laugh, half-terrified, half-disbelieving, bursts out of her in the form of a gasp. She spreads her hands over her head, feeling blindly for the pain that had, moments ago, felt like it would kill her. It's gone, and so is all of the noise. She can hear the murmur of conversation from the others around her, but it's a low drone she can't focus on.

She can't believe what she's gotten away with. She'd known even before she'd tried it that it was probably a bad idea. What had happened just reinforces that— she knows she'd barely missed being killed right then and there. She can't do something that risky ever again. She can't go looking for the Doctor during a trial— next time, there might be nobody around to save her. She can't forget that all of them — every single one of the killers — seem to have some kind of imperative to kill during trials. Aside from that, what is she hoping to learn or get out of this? If any one of the others learns what she's up to, they're going to think she's not only untrustworthy but completely insane. They won't understand the compulsion driving her to learn more. Why she feels she should keep digging. There's no way she can risk it again during a trial.

But there is one thing she can do. It might be just as dangerous — there's no way it won't be — but she knows that there's a way to find the killers outside of the Entity's torture games, and, soon, she makes the decision to pursue it.

"Jake?" Feng Min calls out, taking a deep breath as she approaches him by the tree line. Her adrenaline's racing, even though there's no longer any threat around her. She hopes she doesn't regret what she's about to do. Some decisions — she knows all too well — cannot be unmade. But intuition tells her that this choice, like many of the others she's made recently, has already been determined for her. "I think I'm ready to go into the forest."

Chapter Text

Feng Min dreams about defining the darkness. Being able to interpret the way it all comes together and then slip between its sutures. Letting her mind ride the whispers far beyond the threshold of unconsciousness. Unconsciousness is not the limit, she's come to realize; it never was. Claudette had told her about hidden senses. How the potential in them all lay dormant and waiting, somewhere in the endless expanse of the Bloodweb. There is a soothing feeling to it tonight, in the way it lures her in. It makes her complacent. Dreamy with paralysis. No movement. No feeling. No thought.

And then something brushes against her. Feng Min reaches out in the black, blindly grasping for it, and then her hand slips through something, and there is an instantaneous, immense pain. She's never felt that in the Bloodweb before. She draws her hand back, and—

—and wakes up next to the campfire, right by Meg, who seems to be asleep herself, slumped against Claudette. Feng Min can only register her surroundings for a moment before she realizes that her hand still hurts. She turns it over and sees a bright red sweep along her lifeline, like a burn. It throbs and aches, and all she can do is stare at it. She isn't sure if she should feel surprised or not; nothing that happens within the Entity's nightmare makes sense, so it all makes sense, in some backwards way. The laceration throbs, radiating waves of pain. Is she supposed to treat it? Should she wake Claudette up?

As she stares at the wound, grimacing, something briefly glimmers in the air — little specks of light so intense they make her eyes water — and she watches with incredulity as the burn begins smoothing itself out, reassembling and melting into soft skin again. Just like that. Like it never happened at all.

When she eventually falls back asleep, she doesn't dream.

 

Feng Min quickly learns what Jake means when he tells her, You can't get lost in the fog. That's because, eventually, every place in the Black Fog leads back to the campfire. It doesn't matter which direction she picks, or where she intends to go. The outcome is always fixed. As Feng Min begins trailing Jake on several excursions into the forest, she comes to a cautious acceptance of how unnatural it feels, being displaced from both time and space.

The endless, looping wander of the thick brush leads them where it will, and they have to make do with what it provides before the fog comes for them again. Scavenging is a lot easier said than done— the killers aren't confined to a single campfire, like them; they have lives that exist parallel to and separate from the survivors'. Jake tells her that, usually, the Entity's servants stay in their own realms. Most of the time. They're territorial, and it's not easy to predict their movements. If they're really lucky, the survivors will find an area of the fog abandoned, which gives them a little more time to hunt for tools and medical supplies and other things. These supplies rarely make a real impact, it seems, beyond a morale boost— but morale can also make all the difference when they're out there trying to survive a trial.

Claudette's come along with them tonight, and they've been wandering the forest for quite a while with no hint of a path out. Feng Min mostly listens as her two companions fill the dead air with conversation, her jaw clamped shut to keep her teeth from chattering in the chilly mist.

"Believe it or not, I'm Canadian," Claudette says as they pick their way through the trees.

Jake looks amused. Feng Min gives him an uncertain look, then glances at Claudette, and then back at Jake, who isn't being any kind of helpful. "Um, yes, I believe you," she says, slightly breathless with cold. Distracted, she nearly stumbles and twists her ankle when her boot catches on a rock, and Claudette reaches out to steady her. It's hard to see through the fog, and the permanent state of night blanketing the forest doesn't help; Jake's got a flashlight, but he's been trying to conserve the battery.

"You okay?" Claudette asks, patting Feng Min's shoulder.

"Yeah," says Feng Min, trying to suppress her frustration. Her ankle throbs as she slips out from under Claudette's arm and feels her way back onto the trail, her eyes searching for the back of Jake's green coat in the dull glow of the mist. Traversing the Black Fog feels like being blinded, incapacitated, and then placed into a labyrinth and instructed to escape it. It's intensely disconcerting.

"He's right ahead of us," says Claudette reassuringly, as if she'd read her mind, as she takes a couple of hops over a trio of logs to catch up on the left.

Feng Min feels a little embarrassed that her displeasure is so evident, and she gives a listless half-shrug and stubbornly puts her weight into her sore ankle. "I'm still getting used to the whole hiking thing."

Claudette zips up her jacket as she walks. "Jake?" she calls out, flicking her flashlight on. The beam barely makes an impact; the fog is so dense that it seems to absorb all light, but they eventually catch a glimpse of him between the trees, waiting for them.

"Sorry. Didn't realize you fell behind," Jake says, raising an arm to shield his eyes.

"It's easy to get separated in here," says Claudette, mostly to Feng Min. She turns the flashlight off again. "We're not quite at the point of having to tie ourselves together, though."

Feng Min laughs uneasily. Maybe they should have. Or brought along one of Nea's chunks of charcoal to mark the trees. Or set a trail of scattered chalk. Something to lead them out. Not that it would work— she knows it wouldn't. But she's starting to feel wound up and on edge; she isn't sure how long they've been roaming the fog through this wood of infinite acres, trying to reach a destination. Doesn't matter which one. Just a destination. It's not like they really have a choice. They could really use more medical supplies. They're running out.

"You said you're from Canada, right?" Feng Min asks finally, seeking a distraction to anchor her nervous mind to. The dead silence of the fog feels implicitly threatening in a way she cannot rationalize, but still dreads.

"Oh, right. Yes," says Claudette. "Montréal. But I moved to Toronto when I began at the university there."

Feng Min is curious, so she asks, "What were you studying?"

"I was in their plant biology program," Claudette says. "So my life involved a lot of homework, mostly. That, and my computer."

"You too?" says Feng Min, and she doesn't know if she feels more yearning or more grateful that she no longer has access to technology. Constantly consulting her phone, wondering what was being said about her on gaming forums and in hashtags. Trying to maintain a perfect record, one buffed to a luster. 48-hour stretches in front of her monitor to grind before competitions. What a life she'd led. Had it ever really been a life at all? She thinks she must have spent more time in virtual reality than the real one. She'd never really cared about being engaged with the world around her. She hadn't wanted to. But now, all she can think about is just how much fucking time she'd wasted.

Nobody had made her do any of those things. She'd done them to herself.

Claudette's voice brings Feng Min back to the present. "Whenever I was done in the library or the lab, I'd catch the bus home really late, and then I'd stay up even later studying. Then I'd go on my computer to talk to my friends, and end up getting about four or five hours of sleep... and that was what I did every day, mostly. It was... a really long time ago, at this point."

There's a bittersweet taste at the back of Feng Min's throat. "I completely understand that," she murmurs, but it's so quiet that the fog swallows it up.

"And then this happened," Claudette continues. "I was brought here."

"Do you remember how you got here?" Feng Min asks. She's heard a few stories from the others of how they'd found themselves in the Entity's realm, but she still can't remember much of her own experience. She just knows that she passed out somewhere on Earth and then woke up in Hell.

"I was really tired that night," Claudette says. "I'd been working with these plants that my professor had brought from his homeland. They were some of the only specimens left in the world. Beautiful, bright flowers. They practically glowed. But they produced a really sticky sap, and it was all over my clothes. I was so tired that I just got completely lost trying to find my way home. I got off the bus and just started walking. I was half-asleep. I only figured out that something had happened to me when I realized that I wasn't covered in sap any more. And then I found the campfire."

Jake speaks up for the first time in a while. "You were the first person to show up in... a long time."

"I think I've changed a lot since I first came here." Claudette smiles at him.

"You have," says Jake seriously. "Like a completely different person."

Claudette turns to answer Feng Min's questioning look. "It was always hard for me to stand up for myself or... or even make friends. But... here... there's something that only I can do. I have skills that can help everyone. I've been here for so long now that it comes naturally to me. That's an important responsibility."

Feng Min has a slowly dawning new sense of respect for Claudette. "It is," she says. Her mouth feels dry. She presses her tongue to the back of her teeth.

"I think this place made me stronger," says Claudette. "Is that a strange thing to say?"

"No." Feng Min keeps her face neutral and stares straight ahead into the fog. Tries not to think too hard about the fact that maybe she's not getting stronger but continuing to fissure.

"I think most of us feel the same way," suggests Jake. "My life wasn't that different before I got here. So I just kept going and doing what I was already doing. Adapting." He looks pensive. "I know how to keep myself alive here, and I know my enemy. Hope the Entity's listening in on that one." He tilts his head back, staring up into the thick canopy, so dense it's sheathed the moon.

Feng Min sincerely appreciates the sentiment, but she's not about to go testing the Entity herself. "What do you mean, your life wasn't that different?"

"I lived in a place that looked a lot like some of the places here. Lots of trees... worn down and abandoned. I went there because it was the only place I found where there wasn't anybody else," he says simply.

That idea — running away to a place so remote a person could never be found — had often come up as a wishful-thinking scenario throughout Feng Min's life, especially during the period before she'd arrived in the nightmare. She'd wanted to run away from her mistakes and decaying opportunities and annihilated reputation. Just start all over in a place nobody knew her name or face or failures.

But that was impossible, so she'd settled for trying to slowly obliterate herself from existence, drop by poisonous drop.

Feeling nauseated, her hand floats to her abdomen, pressing there. "Why did you...?" she starts, strained.

Jake seems to intuit the rest of the question. "I'd come to the conclusion that my parents had had me for a reason. A chosen purpose. And I didn't want it, so I grew up feeling guilty about my own existence. It was like I owed them my life just because they'd been the ones to give it to me." Jake doesn't sound bitter or sad— just steady. "And once I was an adult, they wanted it back."

"That's not easy," says Feng Min, not knowing what else to say; she's never been good at this kind of thing, at trying to meet people in the middle emotionally, and, besides: she's a stranger to her own parents, too. She steals a look over at Claudette, who doesn't look particularly surprised by any of the details Jake has shared; she's probably heard this before.

"It is what it is," says Jake, with plain, flat acceptance.

"What's your story?" asks Claudette suddenly, tilting her head in Feng Min's direction. The fog has noticeably begun thinning out, taking on a translucent quality as they move through the trees.

Feng Min struggles to come up with a way to abbreviate her history that's both truthful and free of the ugly details. She reluctantly says, "I spent most of my time practicing Nebula Arc." A while ago, but still. "I had a following online. I'd stream a lot, too. Sometimes I wouldn't get a chance to go outside for days. That's pretty typical for people who do what I did."

"A following?" Claudette tucks her flashlight away.

"Like a fanbase. Supporters. It was always weird for me. I don't know. I just wanted to be the best at it. I'd let my streams and competition results speak for themselves."

"How did you become involved in that kind of thing? I've never even heard of Nebula Arc. You can gain fans for playing it?"

"I mean, professionally, yeah." Feng Min wants to point out that her following is pretty small compared to that of a lot of her male — and often lesser skilled — peers, but what's the use? It's all gone now. "It's competitive. The pro league isn't anything like casual gaming. You're ranked on almost every facet of the game. It was what I... I wanted that for myself. I used to sneak out of my parents' house and stay up all night at Internet cafés practicing, because they'd taken away my computer at home. They hated it. They thought I was making a huge mistake." She wonders what they'd say if they ever came to learn that they were right. "I left home the minute I turned eighteen. I don't think they've ever accepted it, even though I went pro almost right away."

"But you did it," says Claudette. "That's a huge accomplishment."

"Yeah," mutters Feng. "Anyway, I was... I, I lost a tournament because I was burning out, and then I ended up here." It's an egregious abridgment of what had actually happened, but she can't bring herself to even let the words take form in her mind, much less leave her mouth. She's grateful when the conversation ends after that awkward statement.

When they're eventually brought back to the campfire, they learn that a new person has joined them— a young blonde woman with an intricate tattoo down one arm who doesn't seem to quite understand the gravity of their situation, judging by the way she's taking song requests on the guitar that had shown up with her. She's radiating a sort of sunshine that the other survivors look on with a mixture of both envy and pity. There's a lot that Kate Denson has yet to learn, apparently.

Feng Min startles herself when she realizes that she's been in the nightmare for longer than at least one other survivor now. She's got seniority. It's not a good feeling.

 

When Feng Min comes to in the Gideon Meatpacking Plant, the first thing she takes in is the revolting smell. It's something she's never smelled anywhere but in this particular realm— a sickly-sweet, festering rot of iron and decaying meat is all over the place. She lifts her arm to her face, burying her nose in her sleeve as she gets a look at her surroundings. She's listening for the Pig, but detects no heartbeats. Still, she's on her guard, walking slowly and carefully across the grimy floor. The plant is essentially a grid, with two levels, measuring four rooms by four rooms. Thirty-two in all, discounting the exits. Despite this knowledge, however, the factory is just as complex to navigate as any other realm, because there is no way to memorize the layouts of the rooms that appear; they are different every time.

The musty air and freezing temperature make it obvious that the Entity has manifested her on the lower level of the factory. Feng Min brushes past what looks like a stockroom — it's got neat arrangements of boxes wrapped in tarps and labels, as though waiting to be shipped out — and approaches a set of stairs when she hears a whisper. She turns.

It's the new girl. "Kate?" says Feng Min uncertainly. She hopes she doesn't intend to cling to her side throughout this trial. It's going to be hard enough to survive the Pig and her traps without a frightened new survivor trailing her.

As it turns out, Kate isn't there to impede her. "Did you want this?" she asks, and it sounds like it takes her a bit of effort to keep her voice quiet. She's holding out a small grey toolbox. "Brought a flashlight with me, and I can't carry 'em both." She smiles gleamingly. Feng Min is genuinely surprised that she seems so composed. She's pretty certain that Kate's only experienced a few trials so far.

"Um... thank you," she replies, for lack of anything else to say. Kate gives her a little wink and a click of her tongue before she's striding down the hallway, her blonde hair flying.

Feng Min is grateful for the toolbox; finding generators takes a while in the plant, so it's always better to have something on hand to fix them quicker. Once she does, she gets to work right away, and has gotten halfway through her objective when a heartbeat abruptly amplifies. She freezes, hands going still against the machine, listening. From her left? No, actually, not quite— she's pretty sure it's coming from right above her head. There is a stairwell nearby, but it's in the next room over; she considers it, indecisively wobbling between finding a preemptive hiding spot and continuing her work.

Footsteps close in from around the corner. Feng Min looks up to see Meg, who looks raring to go. She leans forward and thumps the generator with her palm. "I passed Kate," she says, leaning in so Feng Min can hear her. "Nea's here, too."

"And the Pig." Feng Min can still hear her heartbeats, right above their heads; she knows Meg can hear them, too. Wryly, she adds, "It's a girls' night out."

Meg gives a loud, rattling snort through her nose, and then nearly slaps herself in the face as she stifles herself. "Stop! Don't make me laugh!" she whispers harshly, looking up towards the ceiling, then across to the wall, where one of the Pig's trap boxes sits. The puppet slumped on top stares back at them both. It seems to sober Meg up a little. "I'm heading upstairs. I think that's where Nea went."

Feng Min nods, and in a flash, Meg's loping towards the stairwell. As soon as she slips out of view above, the Pig's heartbeats abruptly change direction. Feng Min has no problem with that; Meg knows the risks, and she's glad to get back to work on her generator.

Once she has it up and running, she begins the nerve-wracking process of trying to locate another one. She takes a shortcut through the freezer, her boots cracking against the layer of frost on the floor. When she reaches the bathroom nearby, she finds Kate already working on the generator there. She's moving slowly, with the graceless hands of an amateur, but the generator doesn't look like it's about to blow or anything, and she seems grateful when Feng Min kneels next to her to help.

There's something she truly hates about this bathroom. The smell, for one, is somehow worse than in any other part of the factory, even the enormous vats full of unidentifiable rot. The filth caked on the floor, on the tubs, on the toilets seems to threaten infection just by kneeling in it. And there's a body slumped against one of the walls. A human body. Or what once was, anyway. It's so decayed that it's practically mummified, its empty expression and hollow eye sockets screaming for some kind of intervention in a fate that had already been judged.

But there's no way it's a real body, she tells herself. After all, this world is deathless. She tells herself that it's just a set piece. Something to throw them off. The Entity has a terrible sense of humor.

"Can you help me over here?" Kate asks. She holds up her hands. Two of her fingertips are bleeding— broken nails. "I can't get a hold on this thing." Her face is apologetic, wincing. Feng Min silently nudges her aside and leans in to have a look. It's fixable, especially for someone with much shorter nails, like hers. She forces her hand inside the humming guts of the generator and holds her breath, wary of a shock. The bright blue polish comes back coated in grease after she forces a stuck plug into place.< br/>
"It was aligned wrong," she explains. Kate leans in to see what she means, her gaze attentive. She genuinely seems to want to learn.

They're finally making decent progress, and Feng Min is sifting through the toolbox for a screwdriver when she hears heartbeats quickly approaching, and then a shout in a familiar voice— it's Nea, who's taunting the killer pretty recklessly. They can hear her clear as a bell through the hole in the ceiling exposing the upper floor.

"Keep trying to hit me!"

The heartbeats and footsteps come closer. Feng Min realizes they're headed in their direction just as Kate does. They exchange a look, and Feng Min has no idea what to do, or any time to decide, before there's a loud crashing sound from above — something must have been pushed over — and then Nea comes dropping through the opening in the ceiling, landing on both feet.

Kate doesn't stop to absorb the situation; she just gets up and sprints out the door without a word. Feng Min stays only long enough to see Nea steady herself before she abandons her task to hide around the corner. The Pig isn't far behind, swinging herself over the ledge, her reflexes just as honed as Nea's, if not more. There's an indistinct kind of sound coming from beneath that mask of rotting flesh— maybe shouting, but it's impossible to make out the words. If there are any words.

Feng Min tenses as Nea goes flying past her, and prays that the Pig won't notice her. She doesn't; she seems pretty devoted to her current target. She watches the blood-soaked red coat disappear down the hallway. Feng Min gets up again and moves back towards the bathroom, but then a loud shout makes it clear that the Pig has caught up to her mark. She can hear Nea groaning in pain, echoing down the concrete halls. It's too risky to get back to work on the generator; they're still too close. Her hunch turns out to be right when Nea leads the killer right back around to where she'd just been standing moments before.

They're right on the other side of the wall.

Something solid hits the floor with a loud thud, followed by the sounds of a struggle. "Hey— let me go!" Nea shouts. Carefully, Feng Min leans out from the doorway to get a look.

Neither of them notice her. They're grappling, and Nea's putting up a pretty good fight, but it's obvious that she's losing. The Pig has her pinned, sitting on top of her chest, blade extended and poised to pierce her throat. Nea's got her hands locked around the killer's wrist, but her strength is clearly fading; her arms shake with the effort of trying to hold her attacker off.

The Pig grabs at Nea's face, but with a wild kick of her legs, Nea manages to get enough leverage to shove her palm up under the killer's chin first. Feng Min hears the blow, and then watches, to her great shock, as the Pig's mask is dislodged, falling to the floor.

Tapp had already identified the Pig to the others. He'd explained that he was from the same world, a detective — former detective — working on a case that involved her somehow. That's the most Feng Min knows. The important part is this: the Pig is just a human woman, like her. Like Nea. She'd known that already. But actually seeing her like this is another thing entirely.

With the mask off, the Pig — Tapp had called her Amanda — looks like any one of them. She's a woman with long brown hair and pale skin, and that's about it. There's nothing unusual about her, apart from her wildly frantic expression. Even as she violently subdues Nea now, she looks so much less monstrous, her eyes bulging in panic.

"Bitch!" Amanda shouts, and there's nothing out of the ordinary about her voice, either. Just a voice. Just a woman. She gets a knee on Nea's chest and roughly jerks her head up by a fistful of her hair before she snaps the trap shut around Nea's head, sliding the clamps into her screaming mouth as her victim thrashes like an animal.

"Fuck you!" Nea screams. At least that's what Feng Min thinks she's saying, with the trap's deadly teeth digging into her mouth. Her hands have flown up to her head, groping at the contraption; her legs still try to kick at the killer. Nea's got a wicked cut on her bicep, deep enough that Feng Min thinks it's probably cut the muscle. It's hard to tell with all the blood.

"That'll keep you busy for a while," Amanda says in a voice so shaken Feng Min wonders how she remains composed. She recognizes anxiety within the woman— within one of the Entity's killers. It's not empathy she feels for her— just terror. She watches as Amanda — the Pig — grabs for her mask and slides it back on before squaring her shoulders and dashing up the stairs at the sound of a generator above them overloading. Nea remains slumped over on the floor, groaning, blood streaking down her arm.

Feng Min emerges as the Pig's heartbeats fade. When Nea spots her, she shakes her head from side to side. It's a slow motion, laborious; the heavy iron traps really impede movement and vision. Feng Min has learned that the hard way.

Nea's trying to say something, but the mechanism locked around her jaw makes that an impossible task. She looks angry, her eyes colder than ever. Feng Min feels a little helpless, unable to comprehend her body language. She gets Nea to sit still to bandage the wound on her arm using the bandanna Nea had tied around her belt loop, and then she helps her up, tilting her head when Nea tries to say something else.

"I can't understand you," she says, looking distractedly up and down the hallways.

More groaning from Nea— this time in exasperation. She motions towards her face, pointing at her eyes, and then flattens her hand and lifts it to her forehead as if examining the horizon.

"Oh," says Feng Min, understanding now. "You want me to spot you?"

An urgent nod from Nea, whose shallow breaths sound all the worse for the jaws clamped in between her teeth. She begins heading towards one of the puzzle boxes before Feng Min can tell her whether or not she'd like to go along with the plan. But she does, and she doesn't complain, because she'd been standing in that closet watching as Nea had gotten hurt, so she supposes she owes her that much.

The puzzle contraptions — Tapp had called them 'Jigsaw boxes' once, but she's not totally sure what that means — are difficult to use, and distracting. It's almost impossible to keep an eye on your surroundings while trying to blindly feel if the key you need is inside. It would be a much easier task if the insides of the boxes weren't lined with razor blades.

Nea gives a muffled grumble, apparently unenthused about sticking her hands inside, but when another generator comes online with a resonating fire-up sound from above, the timer begins ticking. They exchange a look, both knowing that it means Nea only has two and a half minutes from here on out to find the key. Appearing to overcome her hesitation all at once, Nea plunges her hands into the machine. Her weakened arm is shaking. The trap absorbs her cry of pain.

Feng Min moves in uneasy circles, listening to the faint call and response of the heartbeats upstairs. She knows it won't be long until the Pig comes back to check around the puzzle boxes, and she jumps a little when Nea staggers back, ripping her hands free of the holes. Blood flows into her left palm, and she shakes her wrist in discomfort, causing it to streak down to her elbow.

"You didn't get it?" Feng Min asks, strained. Nea shakes her head no. "Okay. Next point." She's trying not to really look at all of the red— so much red, splattering everywhere. But still not even close to how much she knows is really in a human body. The thought makes her blank out for a moment, and then she snaps back to attention, telling herself to focus. "I think I saw one back where I started."

The persistent beeping of the trap is loud, and it's definitely not helping them stay subtle as they walk the intersecting hallways. Nea lags behind, clutching her arm to her side, where it's staining her shirt a deep burgundy. Eventually — after a couple of wrong turns — Feng Min finds the puzzle box she'd been thinking of.

The beeps pick up in frequency, along with the anxiety in the air. Nea's breathing heavily as she labors over the machine, but it's no good; she staggers back, lifting her bloody arm like, What now?

"I think there should be one upstairs," says Feng Min tensely. "There usually is."

Once they ascend, they can hear a generator droning, and then the sound of Meg calling out to someone. It's hard to tell if she's in distress or not. Nea doesn't even turn her head; she's going for the next puzzle box, tucked into a corner behind a forklift. Feng Min notices now, in the brighter lighting upstairs, that there's more blood on Nea than she'd originally thought.

The heartbeats develop clarity as Nea works on the trap. Feng Min begins to get antsy. "Come on," she says, her throat tight. "She's coming this way."

Nea's struggling, but she makes a sound of annoyance that at least lets Feng Min know that she's still alert to her surroundings before she kicks the side of the puzzle box, ripping her arms free. Feng Min squeezes her eyes shut before she turns, hoping to see the key in Nea's bloody palm.

No.

One more chance, then. The tinny beeping of Nea's trap is starting to reach critical levels. Feng Min impulsively pushes past Nea to get a look at the timer on the back.

Oh, she thinks.

"Thirty-seven seconds," she murmurs, just barely.

Nea takes off in the direction of the heartbeats, like she knows where the last puzzle box is. Her forearms have deep gouges where the boxes had closed around her. Feng Min tries to avoid the blood Nea's leaving behind on the floor, although she has half a mind to take the nearest detour back downstairs, because she knows the Pig has to be really close, at this point.

And she is. Kate comes darting past a set of shelves with the killer behind her, and their path nearly collides with Nea's. The new girl looks up, seems to assess the situation, then attempts to keep the Pig's attention by barreling for a set of crates braced by pallets. It sort of works; the Pig clearly notices Nea, but she also seems to notice just how fast the trap is beeping — it's nearly an unbroken tone at this point — and she just makes a sound like a laugh from deep within the mask and continues chasing Kate. Feng Min, who has managed to remain unnoticed among all of this, catches up to Nea as she closes the gap on the final puzzle box. How many seconds left...?

With a desperate sound, Nea jams her arms into the machine. Feng Min can see her quivering. And she can also see the timer on the back of the trap, can see how it's—

It's—

Nea seems to realize it, too. She casts a look over her shoulder at Feng Min, her eyes wide and terrified.

Stricken, Feng Min turns her face away and buries it in her hands just as the timer expires and the trap is triggered with a loud snap and a sickening, wet noise that she's come to associate with bone and brain and all of the viscera accompanying. Something splatters on her sleeve. She hears Nea's body hit the floor after that, and then she turns around and forces herself to look.

Nea's collapsed onto her front, concealing most of the carnage that has become the upper half of her face. A quickly spreading pool of blood seeps out from beneath her. Feng Min feels her face crumple, and although she knows that she's just going to see Nea at the campfire again, it doesn't make it any easier to face the mangled shell of her. This is why she works alone.

There's a sound from behind her, prompting Feng Min to look up over her shoulder. Kate's there, seemingly having gotten away from the Pig. She'd paid for it, though; Feng Min can see a nasty slash right across her clavicle that's bleeding freely.

"What's..." Kate begins, and then her gaze falls upon Nea. "Oh," she gasps, her eyes going wide, and then liquidy. Feng Min watches her in a sort of dazed, stupefied way as the tears track down her cheeks, trying to remind herself that not everybody's like her— used to turning the other cheek when things get scary. Running away from reality. Pretending that the bad things just never happened. Kate looks whole-heartedly upset, and Feng Min thinks — pessimistically — that she's going to have to get used to seeing things like this, because crying's not going to help her here.

And then the Pig jumps out from behind a rack of cardboard boxes, apparently just biding her time. Neither of them had heard her advancing heartbeat before she's pouncing for Kate, blade drawn. Kate doesn't react in time; there's this audible wet puncture sound, and she goes staggering back, her hands locked around the Pig's, trying to dislodge the knife that's buried right below her ribs. There's not much blood now, with the knife stuck in her, but Feng Min knows there soon will be, and now she's not thinking of much more than the word fuck over and over.

Later, by the fire, Kate's still got tears in her eyes, even though Meg's trying to reassure her that it's fine, that they usually don't make it out of Gideon, anyway, that they're used to none of them surviving it. Nea's already slunk off to her sketchbook as Kate insists that it's her fault, that her crying had led to the Pig's quick capture and sacrifice of the remaining three of them. When Meg looks to Feng Min, seeking some backup, she doesn't know what to say, so she pretends she doesn't notice. And much later, when Nea comes to sit near her, neither of them talk about how she'd exposed a killer's face. A killer's all too human face.

 

Feng Min begins to pursue the fog alone. She experiences a lot of near-misses, close calls, and fatal mistakes, each time waking up by the campfire before finding time to sneak off and try again. She learns how far she can get away with going into the Huntress' forest. Memorizes the habitual path the Hag seems to walk over and over in the swamp. Practices how to scan the air for ashes in Springwood and move quietly enough so as to not awaken the Wraith. Knows when the Nurse is dormant — taking on a floating, eerie dead sleep, head at the most unnatural angle — and when she's awake to circle her asylum, howling in agony. There's only so much that Jake and the others can tell her about surviving out in the dark mist: to really learn how to move in it, she has to experience it.

When she finally comes across her singular goal — the hospital — it's only because she'd fallen asleep on the forest floor, exhausted from searching and wandering. She wakes up on the ground in front of the doors of Léry's Memorial Institute, where the static seems to call her name. Brushing the snow off her hair, she gets to her feet and prepares herself to enter.

No trial. Which means no rules to follow.

It's even more silent in the facility now that she's alone and there are no generators sending echoes down the halls. The static is quieter than she's ever heard it, just a sibilant texture coating her brain, making every step feel uneven, like she's walking the surface of a great silver ocean.

The white noise seems to lead her in a specific direction. Feng Min follows it mostly without thinking; at this point, she's so tense she can't get a full thought to bloom in her head. She's not sure what to expect. She knows that the Doctor is going to be every bit as dangerous now as ever, and it's not like she has any way to defend herself, or allies to count on. She has to take this one on alone.

When the carpet leading to the office comes into view, Feng Min can only think, Of course. She notices for the first time that there's a large reception desk there, as if whoever had used this office had been busy enough — powerful enough — to require that other people handle their schedule. It's empty and coated in a layer of dust so thick that she first mistakes it for snow. Beyond it is the office, casting yellowy light that contrasts noticeably against the blues and greys cloaking the rest of the facility.

When she braces herself and steps into the doorway, the heart of the static is right there, sitting at the desk in a high-backed red leather chair, turned away from her.

I should leave, she thinks suddenly. I should just run. Forget this whole thing. Go back to the campfire and pretend it had never happened. Just put her head down and get through the trials one by one, the way she'd been doing it before. Her hands are shaking so hard that she has to cross her arms to get them to stop as she remains in the doorway, uncertain.

She'd wanted this, right? She'd wanted to find him outside of a trial. Confront him. Figure out what had happened between the two of them. But now that she has it, she's starting to realize just how insane and irrational her curiosity really is. He's going to fucking kill her. No way he won't.

The Doctor turns to regard her.

There's no way to tell if he's surprised, of course; there is no allowance for interpreting his mood through his expression. She can tell, at least, that he doesn't seem to have expected her. The moment holds for only a second. As he abruptly stands from the desk — the movement's so quick it knocks the armchair over, causing a plume of dust to burst into the air, the chandelier lighting up individual motes like fireflies — she takes an automatic step back, all of the oxygen leaving her lungs.

There's no sign of the weapon he's usually carrying. At least there's that.

[ Why are you here? ]

"I..." Feng Min starts, and she's surprised that she can even get her mouth to work right now. He's just... standing there, she realizes, staring at her with those strange, swirling-smoke irises. "I want to talk to you."

The Doctor's hands come together, clasped in front of his chest. The wind-up laughter starts again from its unknown source, frenzied and violent. He shakes his head. The monotone, pitchy voice he's projecting into her head sounds disdainful and mocking now. [ You've lost your mind. I would know. ]

Feng Min's teeth sink into her lower lip. "I know," she says, faintly.

He's still staring a hole right through her, his face unflinching, inert. [ I don't believe that you came only to talk. ]

Not knowing what else to say, and amazed that she's still alive at this point, Feng Min asks, "What do you think I came for?" She's no longer swaying on her feet, but although she holds her shoulders up, she can't make herself look right into his eyes.

The Doctor tilts his head, and then there's a sudden frothing of electricity building up at the crown of his head, which then flickers down towards his hands. It's bright enough to cast strange, bluish shadows on the books lining the walls. [ We'll see, won't we? How would you like to go about this? Will you be compliant or not? ] He reaches down to pick the chair up, as easily as if it were made of wicker instead of solid wood, and resets it with a clatter, turned towards her.

"What?" Feng Min feels a tremble ripple down her back, her eyes darting to the cracked leather seat. "I..." She clasps her hands into fists, loosens them. She doesn't have much room to keep stepping backwards, and he's moving towards her in the doorway. "I don't... I don't know." What else is she supposed to say? Yes or no?

Would her answer even matter?

More laughter, growing in volume. She still doesn't understand what's so funny, and barely keeps herself from snidely asking him.

[ Then I will decide for you. ]

Fuck! Feng Min thinks, knowing exactly what that has to mean. She tries to run, but it's no contest; he's on her in seconds, catching her around the waist so hard that it feels like she's been tackled. She shrieks, all the air forcing out of her lungs, and that's all she gets to do before a powerful shock of electricity soars through her body, making her convulse and choke in the Doctor's arms. He doesn't seem bothered by either the electricity or her physical state; he just gathers her up and deposits her in the armchair. As soon as he lets go, the circuit is broken, leaving her a weakened heap in the seat, but she doesn't get any recovery time before he's kneeling in front of the chair, his hand spreading out over the top of her head.

He's paralyzed her, she realizes; she can't move any part of her body. Not even her mouth. Feng Min stares at him in panic, trying to will herself to get up and run, but she can't.

[ You don't like it, do you? ] The voice in her head is not pitying. [ They usually don't. ] She can hear his heavy breathing, the way it rasps out from between his teeth as he leans in over her. Every inhale sounds like a struggle. They've got that much in common now, at least.

The Doctor brings his other hand to her head, and his fingertips press against her temples, keeping her completely immobile. She wishes she could scream or kick or spit at him right now, but she can only lay there and wait to see what he chooses to do with her, cursing herself in every way she can think of for being so stupid. Of course she'd come and gone running straight into another gory death. Another impulsive mistake in a life of impulsive mistakes.

[ I'm going to pick your brain a little. ] The Doctor's fingers stroke the spot above her ears, and it'd be almost pleasant, if it weren't for literally everything else about the situation. Feng Min involuntarily arches from the chair, the muscles in her back seizing. She has no choice but to listen to every word he says, because he's speaking right into her mind. [ There's no need for conversation. I'll find the information I need. Please... relax. ]

Those ominous words could not have been more inappropriate, given the way the Doctor immediately follows the statement by sending a burst of static into her brain so heavy that she actually blacks out. And then something both transformative and torturous begins: suddenly, her mind isn't just filled with his voice but with a million different memories from any and every point in her life, flickering through her mind like kindling, stuttering kaleidoscopes of sights and sounds and feelings, transposing every associated emotion into a montage of formless and alien sentiment, the collective cognitive weight making it feel like her head is about to crack in two.

She can't hear anything, see anything, think anything. The memories rush and swell until they make way for a few specific ones— the ones she'd avoided sharing with Jake and Claudette.

Feng Min remembers everything; she'd be able to recall all of the details clearly even without the Doctor skimming her brain for them. She remembers underperforming at one tournament. How it had crushed her completely. It had been the first loss of an otherwise spotless career, one that had seen her filling stadiums worldwide, called a prodigy and the future of competitive gaming. For the first time, she'd slipped. The criticism had come fast and heavy. Disappointment from all sides: her management, her teammates, her fanbase. Obsessed with the idea of brushing the incident off of her spotless record, Feng Min began pushing herself even harder. Non-stop drills. A strict schedule. Practice, practice, practice. In her dorm all day with the lights off. She'd put more hours into Nebula Arc than several of her teammates combined. She just had to work harder. Work better. Then she'd started drinking a little. Just to loosen up before team practices. It seemed to help. It really did. She'd sacrificed focus and sleep and thought she'd been prepared for a comeback. It was going to pay off. It was. It was.

She lost at another event. Hate mail poured in. Bad press. Bad actors. Then came the anxiety. Crippling every part of her life. Making her into someone she couldn't recognize in the mirror. Knowing that tournament finals were coming up, she'd become desperate to get more practice hours in, so she turned to stimulants. They seemed to help, up until the tournament had actually arrived, and during the final match, she'd had something like... like a breakdown, was how media outlets described it. Running off stage in tears, hyperventilating. Shocked people in the stands whispering that her golden age was past.

Then her manager had found the pills, and it was well and truly over.

The memories continue to unfold into a litany of desires and regrets. Wishing people knew how she felt. How much it hurt. Her whole soul. Her heart. It hurts even now to remember, especially like this, being forced to recall it. Maybe it'll always hurt. She's afraid of that. The humiliation and the shame following her like a shadow. The explosive self-destruction that had followed after the publicization of her dismissal had seen her entire life fall down around her. Thinking that she could still trust her teammates, she'd let one of them take advantage of her vulnerable state, and after he'd had his fill of her, he'd turned around and taken an interview decrying her as 'unstable.' Tortured by the thought of the news reaching her parents and too afraid to face the fans who just wanted to know how she was doing, she broke contact with everyone she could, isolating herself in a lonely downtown apartment and turning back to her first love, alcohol. Going to bars to get blitzed, just to get to pretend to be a completely different person for a few hours. Saying yes to whatever anyone asked of her, finding that her death wish often outweighed her fear. Unfamiliar faces in unfamiliar beds. Waking up and feeling hurt all over and not letting herself think about where the bruises had come from.

She'd been turning catatonic, an observer in her own life, her reckless behavior coming to a head when the Entity had taken her. The only thing she can't remember is how it happened.

Throughout all of this, she feels the Doctor in her mind, observing. It's a feeling that is somehow both sublime and violating.

And then he brings her back.

Feng Min gasps, her chest heaving. He's pulled his hands back, and so with it the electricity, but her body feels like it's run a thousand miles. She struggles to lift her head from where she's slumped over against the armrest. The Doctor's still kneeling there, watching her.

[ So much self-inflicted suffering. You're sick. ] He delivers this message with no inflection. [ Most of you are. You wouldn't have been brought here, otherwise. ] He lifts his hand, where little flashes of light glide from one finger to another. [ I can cure you. Take away your pain as though it never even happened. I can do that if you will tell me what it is you've done to be able to hear me. ]

His voice is almost hypnotic, a pleasurable hum in Feng Min's mind compared to the agony of the forced memory recall, but she knows that this tempting offer is just a persuasive lie.

"I... haven't..." Her head sways as she struggles to talk and sit up, still shaking. "...done... anything. That's why I'm... here."

There's a sort of buzzing sound from the Doctor; she sees that the current has stopped, and then started again. [ A more thorough analysis is needed, hmm? Well, we have plenty of time to experiment... ]

Desperate to come up with a delay on the spot, Feng Min says, "You're not g-going to learn anything by killing me." She manages to use the arm of the chair to pull herself into a sort of half-sitting position, and she catches his gaze.

[ Won't I? None of your number have ever achieved what you apparently have. ] The Doctor stands. He's so tall that she has to tilt her head towards the ceiling to fully see him. He eclipses the chandelier so completely that the only features she can make out on his face are his glowing eyes. [ Further research will either answer or eliminate the problem. ] It is obvious that he considers her to be the problem.

But then Feng Min realizes that he hasn't actually attempted to hurt her again, which has to be a good sign, and so she forces herself to keep her voice steady and continues. "My brain's not going to give you any answers, because... because you're the one doing this to me." Her heart's beating so fast she feels dizzy. She's bullshitting, mostly, trying to keep the conversation going, but saying it aloud makes her feel like she might be onto something.

The Doctor's laughter starts up again, filling the office with eerie, humorless echoes, and a pulse of static floats through the air like snow, settling in sparks all along the desk's lacquered, dusty surface. [ You're an interesting one, aren't you? You know that I could just choose to incapacitate you. It would be much more convenient for me. ]

Feng Min nods silently, her gaze trained on his macabre face.

[ And you are afraid of me. ] A statement of fact.

"Yes," she whispers.

[ I have an appreciation for honesty. ]

The Doctor moves away from the chair, finally, roaming toward the bookshelf directly across from her, his tattered white coat absorbing some of the static falling off of his arms. There's a ladder propped up there that he pushes aside. Feng Min knows that she could get up and run right now — his back's turned to her — but she also knows that it would be a huge mistake; he'd be able to catch up with her no time at all in her weakened state, so she stays right where she is.

If this is a test, she intends to pass it.

He's still not saying anything, so Feng Min ventures, cautiously, "It's... it has to be like a radio. You're putting out a signal and I've... picked it up, somehow." She's watching him thumb through the books. Eventually he draws forth a slim, leatherbound one that he tucks under an arm as he turns back to her.

[ Your theory is credible. But I don't agree with it. ] He sets the book down on the desk and strides back over to the chair. Feng Min shrinks back against it instinctively, afraid of the very real possibility he'll get tired of her and hurt her again. Instead, he just stands in front of her, and in her head, she hears, [ You came alone. Why? ]

Feng Min's still tensed against the armchair, her knees pulled up to her chest, having realized that her feet don't quite reach the floor. "Because if I... I know that if I tell them about any of this, they'll think I've gone insane." It's an understatement; when she thinks about what might happen if the others ever find out what she's doing right now, she feels sick.

[ Why shouldn't I just keep you here? Why not open you up and look inside? ] he asks, and now he leans over the chair again. She gets another idea of just how huge he is — there's no way any human man could be that big — when the chair groans under the weight of his hands pressing into the armrests. He's so close she's afraid she's going to get shocked just by proximity.

Seeking an answer that won't betray just how despondent she feels, Feng Min says, unsteadily, "You won't learn anything from a corpse." She inhales. "You need me... alive. Conscious. That's how I'm hearing you now, right? If I'm dead, there's no... connection." She manages to meet his eyes, muster up the defiance to crack a smile. "You should already know that."

If anything is going to make the Doctor snap, it's probably that, because she regrets saying it almost right away, but to Feng Min's surprise, he just laughs. There's even amusement in the voice that comes into her head. It's a cold kind of amusement — a pitying, superior one — but it's still there. [ I typically don't take walk-in appointments. ]

Was that a joke? Feng Min doesn't know if he wants her to laugh. She tips forward a little, feeling the white-hot energy radiating off of his body. "You haven't killed me yet," she says breathlessly, knowing that she's really pushing it now. "So you're considering what I'm saying."

[ Is that what you think is happening? ] The laughter cuts in, but it stops in the middle, like someone hit pause on a recording. [ Tell me exactly what it is you want from me, Feng Min. ] He drums his fingers on the armrest, sending vibrations through the foam that cause unpleasant sensations against her back. Her eyes fall onto the sight of his hands and forearms; there are gouges and cracks in them, almost armor-like in texture, cables and wires fused through the muscle that pulse with energy. She doesn't ask him how he knows her name, because it's obvious; he'd just been in her memories.

This is probably her only chance.

"I... I want information," she stammers, and then her voice strengthens a little. "I'll... let you examine my brain. I'll come here outside of trials, and you can..." She doesn't know what word to use. "...look at it." Just saying it makes her stomach turn over. "I won't ask you to spare me during a trial, but... if I come here outside of one and you really hurt me, the deal's off."

The voice takes on a cold, derisive edge. [ I wouldn't spare you even if you had asked. ]

But he then stands silently, staring at her. Considering, she hopes. The stillness in her head tells her that she is right, and that he knows it.

[ What do you gain from this? ] he eventually asks.

"I want access to whatever you find," says Feng Min immediately. "Anything you figure out about this, or... or why it's happening. I want to know everything you learn from studying my mind." She presses her lips together and drops her gaze. She realizes that she's sweating beneath her clothes— a combination of nervousness and the heat coming off of him.

The Doctor eyes her. Feng Min knows that she's clinging on by one fragile thread— a mostly baseless hope that he's interested in an answer just as much as she is.

[ You are smart, despite your obvious emotional issues, ] he says. The compliment — is it a compliment? — surprises her. He waves an arm in the air, the laughter following the motion. [ I will not be granting you access to any of my other research. Do you understand? ]

There's other research? is all Feng Min can think, blankly.

[ I suspect I know why you are looking for information, ] he says, reaching out towards her head but stopping just shy. She flinches away, and the laughter kicks up again, as though he finds her reaction hilarious. [ But there is nothing you could learn that would help you willfully leave this place. ]

Feng Min's staring at his hand, floating in the air between them, and she shakes her head. She knows there's no real chance she's going to escape from the Entity's nightmare, or that something so powerful would ever allow an attempt to go unnoticed. But if there is one lesson she's taken from her catastrophic career, it's this: learning the limits and boundaries of a game's environment puts you at a major advantage. She's not supposed to be able to hear the Doctor, but she can, and she wants to know why. Maybe even needs to know why.

"I know," she says. "But I still came here."

[ You did, didn't you. ] The Doctor looks her over, and then he says, [ What you're doing is foolish. ]

She can only nod. There's a silence, then. Feng Min doesn't know what he wants her to do, or what she's supposed to say.

[ I suggest you leave before I change my mind. ] The Doctor's leaning against the desk, paging through the book he'd pulled free.

Feng Min almost trips over herself as she gets out of the chair. She's immediately struck by vertigo, and is shocked at how sore her entire body feels, but she knows he's not joking about her needing to leave now, so she gets herself together and staggers towards the door, stunned by his response and by the unexpected non-violent conclusion to her rash plan. Does that mean he's agreed? To... whatever this is? This insane idea of hers?

There's just one more thing. She pauses in the doorway, leaning weakly into the frame. "I don't know how long it'll be until I can find my way back."

The Doctor doesn't look at her. [ Use your brain, ] is all he says, and it's those words that stick with Feng Min later, when she's returned to the campfire, bewildered by the impossible thing that has just happened. When the others ask her where she's been, she doesn't know how to answer, but soon her fellow survivors have already moved on to other topics, talking animatedly over the fire, not knowing that one among them may have forged a deal with the devil.

Chapter Text

If there's one thing Feng Min is certain that she'll never be able to get used to — more than the cyclical deaths, the bloodletting, the sacrifice process — it's the sense of displacement in both time and space. A few of the others seem to see purpose in trying to keep some sort of record of time passing, but Feng Min has no interest in joining them. She's not ready to question what has happened to her. The impossible and fragile thing her reality has become. Even thinking about it makes her start to panic. She tries instead to distill it down to the simplest facts: she exists here, somehow, so her purpose is to keep existing.

But she can't deny the concern that comes up among the survivors gathered around the fire pit when they take notice of a couple of absences. Dwight and Jake have been conferring over Dwight's makeshift calendar lately, and they've realized that nobody seems to have seen Quentin nor Laurie for a while. It's a block of time that doesn't really mean much to Feng Min, who doesn't keep track of the 'days,' but she sees why they're worried about it.

Instead of settling against her usual log — just a little further back from the campfire, sort of between two others — she picks one closer to the campfire, wanting to hear the discussion.

Tapp's got his thumb and forefinger pressed to his temple. He rubs the skin there, dragging the corner of his eye downward. He looks tired. At his considerable height, he slouches small. "So it's probably cause for concern."

Bill gives a nod in the former detective's direction. He's frowning deeper than usual, and the harsh shadows of the firelight make it apparent. "Someone's got to go and have a look."

Every person there knows what Bill means when he says, have a look. It means going into the forest and the fog and hoping it will guide them to the right place, the place where Quentin and Laurie might be. If they're still around at all. Feng Min isn't so sure. People are known, according to the other survivors, to come and go within the Entity's realm. Some of them stay for a long time. Some of them are only there for a little while. Some of them even come and go. She knows that survivors have walked off into the fog before only to never be seen again. Those who have been here for much longer than her have seen it happen more than once.

Where they end up when they go missing is a question no one seems to know the answer to, but they do know this: everyone eventually disappears.

Feng Min watches as the others decide who will go look for Quentin and Laurie and who will stay behind. She thinks about the last time she'd been into the forest. She's still not really sure if what she did — what she'd gone and proposed in that hospital to the Doctor — was a delusion or not. It feels like it might have been a dream, something whispered directly into her mind in the sleep-adjacent rest the Entity permitted in the Bloodweb.

But she knows that the Doctor had been inside of her mind. She'd felt it. Her mind is only hers now, and it feels so much quieter; that's how she knows that what happened was real. There's no way to forget what it had felt like to have her mind invaded that way. How excruciating it had been to endure. She'd gone over the events of the incident several times in her head, asking herself what she had done and why she hadn't learned from her past to get some control over her own self-destructive instincts. She keeps reminding herself that this pursuit will likely win her nothing but punishment, be it from the Entity or the good Doctor himself.

But being aware of her own weaknesses doesn't necessarily equip her to overcome them. Feng Min knows she can't do anything but bow to her impulses. It's who she is. Who she's always been. Someone fixated. An itch in her brain that can't be scratched unless she sees it through. The possibility that she might learn something about the world around her, about one of the killers, or uncover something of use — something tangible, something worth that taboo word, hope — feels like an existential imperative. She must.

Feng Min wants to volunteer to assist, but she doesn't quite yet, hesitating. It's become exhausting to keep her guard up all of the time. The more she sees her relationships with the other survivors change — take on color, texture, light — the worse she feels inside, fearing (knowing) that her capacity for pain isn't going to grow accordingly. She's heard their hopes and dreams and regrets. Learned the names of friends back home. Family members none of them would ever see again. The mundane careers and obligations and routines they missed so dearly.

It feels almost impossible to stop it, to not be forced to see the humanity in each of the people around her. Not when they are all coping with the same situation. The same Hell.

She's still deciding if she wants to volunteer to help look — knowing the risk that not all of them will come back out of the Black Fog, that the Entity will interfere with them, separate them, call them to trial — when she feels something.

It's just a sort of tone at first, subliminal in nature, unacknowledged by her mind at present. But then her brain adjusts to it, and the frequency grows. Feng Min first mistakes it for a headache, the way it sort of buzzes in her skull, but then it becomes all too clear what it is. The static is definitive in nature, a black snow falling endless.

Many of the other survivors have already disappeared into the fog by the time Feng Min realizes the noise is coming from a specific direction. She must make an abrupt decision, but she feels entirely unprepared. Should she stay here at the campfire, watching out for which of them might return, or should she follow the signal?

She's on her feet before she's really fully decided what she wants to do, slipping on her jacket and walking into the fog by the time she gets to thinking, Should I really be doing this?

The static only gets stronger, stretching out ahead of her like a streak of light. It seems so clear to her, even in the dense darkness. She's not sure how long she walks through the black, silent trees. Alone with her thoughts, she's never felt more lost. She wants something from the noise. She doesn't know what. She just wants.

That the static takes her to Léry's Memorial Institute is not a surprise; it is the promised conclusion.

When the trees begin to thin out and the ground goes from dry and leaf-lined to damp and snow-covered, she comes to the realization that she now knows the fog can be manipulated in some way. At least, it seems, if there's an outside connection, the fog becomes more navigable. She thinks about old fairy tales, about forests and bread crumbs. There is a way through. Most importantly, she's learned that the fog's rules can be penetrated and undercut, which opens up the question of what else about the Entity's realm could be manipulated in such a way. It's valuable information, even if she doesn't know what to do with it yet.

Once Feng Min has crossed the threshold into the hospital's waiting room, the static thickens, filling the entirety of the building and the air around her, and the trail is lost among it. She tries to sense for it again, but there's nothing she can pick out to follow. It doesn't hurt right now, at least— doesn't feel like it's trying to stab into her brain. It's just there, suffusing the hallways, coming out of the monitors and televisions, humming through waiting room after waiting room. It washes over her, trying to absorb her in its inertia.

The impact of her boots on the broken tiles echo off the walls as she begins searching. Every now and then, she encounters a spot where the sky is exposed through the roof, and she sticks her hand out to confirm, once more, that what is falling through the ceiling really is snow. The snowflakes touching down upon and melting against her warm palm feel real enough.

It occurs to her that the Doctor may not be here, or that, worse, he might not want to be disturbed. Truth be told, Feng Min barely wants to be here, herself, but she feels that she needs to be. The static's wavelength has dropped to synchronize with hers; she couldn't turn the dial off if she tried.

If things do go south, she supposes she should have a plan. Last time, she'd gambled her safety entirely on the possibility that the Doctor might want to understand their apparent anomaly enough to agree not to hurt her. Outside of trials, anyway. But can she really trust the word of a killer, much less one with such a capricious manner? It's difficult to separate the jarring aspects of the Doctor from the fact that he can not only communicate, but... coherently so. No mindless maniac, nor monster. She's seen him maintain something adjacent to neutral in her presence, if she ignores the fact that he had at first ambushed her and forced his power upon her, and had seemed to enjoy her fear of him all the while.

So there's little she can do, Feng Min realizes, if he decides to hurt her, apart from stop coming around. But if she can learn anything useful, even if the odds are slim, she's willing to try her luck.

Soon, the quality of the static changes. It takes her a moment, paused at the intersection of two hallways, but soon she detects what's different; she can hear static with her ears, too, now. She tries to listen to that only, not the cloud in her head. It's so well-defined that she could close her eyes and still follow it confidently. There are no wrong turns.

It leads her to the operating theater, the place that had incited so much dread in her before.

No, wait, she thinks. It has another name in Baker's journal. The treatment theater, she recalls. This distinction feels both important and ominous.

She cautiously moves through the open entryway, reaching for a piece of rebar she spots leaning against the frame, ripped from somewhere inside the exposed walls. It's about two feet long, but it's got heft to it, and with some momentum, she might be able to stun the Doctor just long enough to get away if she really has to.

The treatment theater has no doors, nor any sign that doors were ever installed in it at all. There are no empty hinges, no holes in the wood, no imprints. It's a place where watchful eyes seem to be mandatory.

The static is strongest at the center of the theater. When Feng Min looks across the space, she sees the back of the Doctor's white coat. He's got one of the monitors pulled down slightly, and there's something like a panel attached to it. It's definitely not a keyboard, but it's not anything else she recognizes, either. He's picking away at the interface, staring unblinkingly into the screen. She looks over to see what he's watching.

There's nothing on the screen. Just static. An unchanging, vibrating mass of it, black weaving into white into black into white. Just noise, incomprehensible and unchanging no matter what part of the interface his fingers manipulate. But the Doctor's looking into it so directly that she wonders for one strange moment if maybe she's the one not seeing what there is to be seen in it.

Feng Min doesn't know if he's aware of her. For a few anxious moments she wonders what the hell she's supposed to do, if she should interrupt him or wait for him to notice her or just try to leave.

[ What am I supposed to think of the weapon you've brought with you? ]

The voice cuts through as casually as if they had already been in the middle of a conversation. She startles, going pale. It's only now that the Doctor turns towards her a little, one hand still resting upon the interface.

Feng Min allows her grip to go slack, opening and splaying her fingers wide as the rebar goes clattering to the floor. Her compliance is instantaneous, instinctive. She holds her empty palms out to him, as if saying, See, there's nothing else.

"I'm sorry," she says automatically. It's a natural reflex, as natural as the fear that's got her heart revved up like a jet engine. She probably should have seen this coming.

The Doctor makes a dismissive, swooping motion with his arm as he looks her over; there's the quality of a grin on his face, somehow, despite the fact that it's locked in its typical strained torture. [ You're welcome to pick it up again, Feng Min. I don't really care either way. ]

The way he uses her name so easily is unsettling, somehow, but it also makes her breath catch in her throat, and she's not sure why. His implication, however, is clear: he isn't worried about being overcome by her.

There's no point in picking it up again; Feng Min leaves the rebar lying right where it is and cautiously approaches. She settles for standing right on the perimeter of the inner grating, the tips of her boots just at the edge of it on the side opposite of the Doctor and the monitor in front of him, careful not to get too close. The nearer she is to him, the thicker the static layer becomes, but it's not yet hurting her. Doesn't yet feel like it's trying to find all the channels into her brain, soaking into all of her neurons. It's just there, coming and going through her.

The Doctor's looking right at her. He's got something in his free hand. She can't quite tell what it is, but it gleams against the light. It's caught between two of his fingers, sparking against the wires coming up through his tendons. It's hard to look at for long, between the blinding electricity and the grotesque way the cables intermingle with split flesh, melted together, one and the same. It all looks excruciatingly painful to Feng Min. She wonders if the Doctor can feel it. If he feels anything.

[ Good girl. The smart choice. ] He's nodding approvingly towards where she'd dropped the rebar.

The words good girl leave her momentarily speechless; she can't tell if he's trying to be condescending or not. What she does know is that he's playing with her. She tries not to let her expression show that he's already started to get under her skin. Now's no time to lose her composure.

"It wouldn't have worked, anyway," Feng Min finally says, forcing herself to look up at him.

There's a strange and terrifying sort of pleasure in meeting his intense gaze. Like the thrill she used to get when she first picked up video games, hearing the music change and knowing an enemy encounter was right around the corner and then steeling herself to face it. She remembers that when she'd first encountered the Doctor, his eyes had seemed to be the most frightening aspect of him. That still holds true, but now she knows that there's something in there. Someone. Someone she can potentially learn a lot from, if she's careful and plays her cards right.

He's regarding her with something like amusement, reaching up to push one of the monitors out of his way. Feng Min isn't sure if she's imagining it or not when his fingers don't quite touch it before it moves. [ That's what made it the smart choice. ] He motions at her in a come here way. [ I've been thinking about you lately. About what I should do with you. ]

It's hard not to feel slightly threatened by these words, with the way his bulging eyes and ever-snarling mouth are pointed right at her. He seems to expect her to respond, so, after a beat, Feng Min asks, "How did you know I'd even come back?"

The Doctor seems to like her question. A little hum of sourceless laughter sweeps into the air, bouncing off the sloping walls. [ Imagine if you hadn't. ]

Feng Min wants to tell him, No, it's more like I couldn't stay away, but she mumbles, "I'd rather not."

He starts laughing again, or at least the laughter starts anew, and his shoulders twitch like he's amused. Feng Min's starting to realize that reading the Doctor's body language is going to be important if she wants to infer the meaning behind his distorted voice. [ No, I don't think you'd want to know, either. You are fragile, after all. ]

Fragile. Feng Min bites her tongue, draws her knees together, tenses, waits for the moment to pass. She just barely manages not to hurl some impudent remark back at him. This is dangerous. She's going to have to learn to control her impulses, and fast.

"I thought I was troubled, not fragile," she recalls, the words spilling out of her mouth anyway.

He seems to like her response, delighting in it. [ The two aren't mutually exclusive. Have I hurt your feelings? I assure you that this assessment is as objective as I can manage. ] Assessment, he says, like his sudden voyeurism into her mind had been some kind of clinical examination, one that could be measured and tested and diagnosed.

"You're probably right," Feng Min says, as neutrally as she can. Because he is right, in so many ways. Troubled. Fragile. She can't disagree with him, as much as she hates it.

[ If you have any questions, I'm sure that I can enlighten you. ] The Doctor takes one stride across the center of the floor, a step that takes him halfway over to her. Close enough that if he reaches out, he could probably grab her, but she makes herself stay put.

"Enlighten me?" she repeats, not knowing if she wants to hear his answer.

[ What sort of doctor would I be were I not willing to address your concerns? ]

Feng Min realizes that he must not be able to see into her mind without directly using his powers upon her, after all. So the key is touch. It's important that she remembers that. Useful. Still— it's for the best that she avoids lying as much as possible. "I have a lot of questions," she confesses, "but they're not all about that."

[ You can ask me anything you'd like. ] His hands come together in front of his chest, little flashes and sparks dancing from one palm to the other, lighting his face up from below. Feng Min watches him warily, cautious of a sudden change of mood, not knowing if he really means anything he says to her. The Doctor seems to detect her reluctance, because he laughs. [ Go on. ]

Fine, then. "What year is it?" A question she's asked most of the other survivors by now.

[ Ah. You're paying attention, aren't you? ] The glow intensifies, goes blinding. Behind him, the monitors flicker to white, then black, then snap back to noise. [ The last year I experienced that I can actually verify is 1983. ]

Now that's interesting, even if Feng Min isn’t sure if she can believe him; she’s just surprised that he answered her so easily. She's not going to push for more details, not knowing how much he's willing to toy with her. She's still in stuck in a state of disbelief that they're just standing here, having a conversation. No generators, no hunt, no chase: just two people talking.

"Okay," she says steadily, looking towards the floor for a moment, at the light coming between the visible pipes below, and then up to his intimidating form. "Another question. The En... I mean..." What would a killer call the Entity? She doesn't know. "The... thing that feeds from this world."

The Doctor is not offering her any help; he's just looking at her, head tilted, his face an expressionless mask of agony.

"...Does it know? About... me being here, and..." Feng Min settles for fragments, hoping that he understands what she's trying to ask.

[ The Entity is satisfied to allow things to happen as they will, ] says the Doctor. His head's still canted.

Feng Min waits for him to finish his sentence, but she realizes that was it; he's done with his answer. She wonders how to interpret what he means. It could only be one of two things: the Entity either isn't watching them here, or it doesn't care. Depending on which one it is, she's potentially doing either something very dangerous or very pointless.

But she's already agreed to join this game of roulette. To pull the trigger when her turn comes.

Feng Min weighs her odds with her next question. She doesn't know if the information she's about to expose is something he'd expect or not. The Doctor seems to know she's nervous, because there's a suppressed sort of laughter coming from his direction, echoing back through the monitors, changing the pattern of the noise. Vibrating with it.

"Tell me about this place. Léry's Memorial Institute," she says carefully, her eyes trained on his face.

A groan hisses out of him, but it doesn't sound like he's irritated. The Doctor’s body language is reading more like the unpredictable energy that had come from him the first time she'd encountered him, right when he'd killed her. He walks right up to her, humming, and the static blanket gets denser, but it's not enough to maintain her personal space. Feng Min wills herself not to run or tremble or do anything but stand there even as he looms over her. He can clearly read her fear, and — just as clearly — he seems to be savoring it.

[ This was a real hospital, once, ] comes the voice in her head. [ One that did important work. Work that no other place could ever hope to replicate. ] He's so big that he's mostly blocking her view of the monitors suspended from the ceiling behind him, but Feng Min can see that they're all flickering to life, throwing black and grey and white shadows and light-forms over the walls. Discordant visions flicker through the noise, so much visual stimuli that it makes her immediately ill to look at, her brain hitching up to overload.

She has to turn her face away, her eyes burning. The shadow over her moves; she looks up to see that the Doctor is crossing the space.

[ Follow me, ] he says.

An immediate compulsion to obey rushes up into her chest. There’s something strange about him, his voice, the way the static moves over and through him. She’s coming to realize that his voice is finding a place in her head. When she’d first encountered it, it had been a frightening experience, something like invasion— but now it just feels like the static, numbing the insides of her thoughts, a sleek covering around her brain, a loosening of her willpower. The longer he’s stringing her along, allowing her to live, the more permission Feng Min gives herself to be bold, trying not to tip over the edge into reckless.

There’s a surreal feeling, again, that she might not be the one making her own decisions now.

Feng Min follows him, her eyes trained on his broad shoulders, watching the electricity run from one to the other, tracking down into the flesh and then out again where muscle meets machine. There’s this sort of imperceptible trail that follows him, like a wake after a boat, that makes her every step behind him feel shaky somehow. He leads her down a hallway that looks just like any one of the others, with debris and damage littering the floor, ceiling, and walls.

The monitors they pass are all repeating the same dizzying assortment of data they had been in the treatment theater. It’s all snow on snow on snow. But then, as she follows the Doctor, images begin appearing in the screens, growing clarity and contrast. Feng Min doesn’t know what she’s seeing. Blood spilling. A camera’s eye. Machines and men. Machines and monsters. And distortion— so much of it that she has to slow down behind the Doctor to focus her eyes on the floor in front of her.

It’s only when the Doctor stops that Feng Min takes in her surroundings. She’s startled to find that they have come to an area of the hospital that she’s never seen before.

It’s a sort of examination room. She doesn’t really understand what she’s looking at. It’s just as dark and gloomy as the rest of the hospital; the lights are flickering, barely lit, and making a sharp buzzing sound that pierces the static layer in her ears. One wall has a row of monitors — a couple of them are on, displaying the word ERROR — and then there’s an array of equipment that appears both archaic and alien to her, including two rusty examination chairs. They're lined with peeling, pale blue vinyl marked with indistinct stains, tipped back into a reclining position.

The Doctor looks over his shoulder at her as he moves over to the wall, his hands reaching in behind the monitors to do something Feng Min can’t see. [ Are you surprised? ]

"Yes," she says, unable to lie. "Has this always been here?"

[ Not for your kind, ] he responds. There’s a sort of dismissiveness to the way he says it. [ You’ll find that most of this world can be… ] He seems to take a moment to select an appropriate word. [ ...elaborated upon. ]

Somehow, it’s not a surprise to her. The boundaries of the realms become strange and indeterminate out in the fog, outside of trials. Sometimes they seem to grow into one another, amalgamating landscapes in both jarring and natural ways.

Feng Min watches as the rest of the monitors blink on and begin to synchronize. They begin running something that looks a lot like DOS to her. She watches them for a moment, unable to catch much of the code because of how fast it’s scrolling down the screens, before she turns towards the Doctor. "What is this room used for?"

He faces her now, and there’s a little jump of laughter coming off of him, spinning and warping. [ Data. ]

The static builds up at the crest of her head, feels like it's knocking, requesting access to the inside of her skull. Feng Min places a hand against one of the examination chairs to steady herself and notices for the first time that it, too, has restraints attached to every section of it, just like the chairs in the treatment theater. She removes her hand from it. "So all of this equipment really works?"

The Doctor looks down at her, now. The hazy quality of his irises seems to shift in and out, from pinpoint to halo. [ I told you. This was a real hospital once. ] There's something insidious in the way he says it this time. That last word, once— there's something in it, something that weighs the term down, begs to be exposed. It could mean so many different things. It could mean so much.

"Right," she breathes, nodding, knowing that he’s fully aware of just how tense she is right now.

[ Come, now. ] He closes in on her and brushes a hand against her shoulder. A painful little shock jumps off of him and seizes her bicep muscles for a moment. She winces; she thinks he might not have noticed, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t care. He’s gesturing towards the chair, as though invitingly.

Feng Min’s staring at the restraints again, and immediately regrets opening her mouth when she stutters the first part of her question. "C-can you tell me what you’re going to be doing, first?"

The Doctor’s hand moves behind her shoulder again, brushing up at the center of her back, before he presses her down into the chair, none too gently. Feng Min almost lets herself slip into a panic for a moment, thinking he’s reaching for the restraints, but once she’s in the chair he straightens up. She looks at him warily as she feels the hard metal buckles of the restraints digging into her back, but he doesn’t move to try to actually put her in them.

He’s noticed her discomfort, though. His shoulders twitch, fingers scattering sparks towards the floor. [ I can restrain you if necessary. Do you believe it’s necessary? ]

"No," says Feng Min, immediately and emphatically, sitting upright in the tilted seat. She draws her legs up and pulls them together.

The Doctor takes on the tone of an admonishing superior. [ I thought so. ] He’s doing something with one of the machines; he’s detached a cable from somewhere and is now typing something into the interface. [ I can read your brain waves, not your heart rhythms. Everything must be tested against the machine. ]

"Oh," she says, surprised that it’s something so… mundane. She’d come to expect differently, given her prior experiences with him. She’s almost a little surprised at the way he’s choosing to approach this. As though the scientific method is important to him. She's been expecting some kind of inhumane torture to begin at any moment.

[ It's painless. ] He says this as though he's doing her a favor, and she hates herself a little for being grateful for it. Then the Doctor lifts his arms, and Feng Min watches as he tugs his collar back, exposing a port in the back of his neck, which he plugs the end of the cable into.

Of course this was going to be weird somehow, she realizes. She'd find it disgusting, the way the port just sort of seems to tunnel right into his body — impossibly so — but ever since she'd arrived in the Entity's realm, her threshold for tolerating disgust has risen dramatically.

Then he walks over to her, sort of half-crouching to look at her sitting in the chair, where Feng Min stubbornly refuses to lay back into a reclining position. He doesn’t seem bothered by that, comfortable in this realm of static and empty hallways and unanswered questions. It’s a shock, again, just how enormous he is, and just how powerless his presence makes her feel. If it weren't so frightening, it'd almost be thrilling, knowing that she's managed to get this far. But she can't let herself forget that it's at his mercy only, and he might decide that she's no longer useful to him at any moment.

[ You’ll need to lie down. ] It's a command, not a request or a suggestion, and she folds immediately under it, that bewildering sense of needing to obey coming back over her. She carefully lays herself down on the examination chair and then tries to stay still as it lowers further with a screech of metal. She feels extremely vulnerable like this, on her back, like an animal with its vitals exposed to a predator.

The Doctor’s holding something that Feng Min thinks is probably an assortment of electrodes, but they're not like any electrodes she's seen before. There's a strange sort of chamber right where the wire meets the flat shield, covering or maybe joining them together. When she looks closely — and maybe in just the right light — she can see a sort of dull luminous quality coming from them. She doesn’t really get a good look at them before he’s pulling her jeans up above her ankles to press one onto both calves.

He moves up the chair and reaches out to grab one of her arms, extending it over the armrest and exposing her pale white wrist. Feng Min thinks about how absolutely unhesitant he’s been to touch her, just grabbing at her without a thought towards her feelings on the matter. It's like that in the trials, too, with all of the killers. The way they just throw them all around like cargo, like they're little more than fodder. But she remains silent, mouth sealed shut as the Doctor attaches electrodes to both of her wrists, right over the pulse points.

When he's done with those, she waits to see what's next as he reaches towards her with a different set of electrodes in his grasp. But then one of his hands moves towards her stomach, and the other takes the bottom hem of her Let's Coffee! shirt. Before Feng Min can really react, the Doctor has tugged it up her stomach, to her ribs, and he moves to pull it up further. Her heart comes to a complete stop.

Her composure is immediately shattered before the possibility of showing one of these killers her breasts; her shirt is the only layer she’s got on. Her first instinct is to buck and scream, thinking that they've taken enough from her already, but instead she just stammers out, "What are you—" Her hands have flown up to his, pushing them back, stopping him from pulling her shirt up any further.

Although he could easily dislodge her grip, the Doctor's hand goes still. But the chopped-and-screwed laughter now begins, twisting hysterically through the suite. [ What’s on your mind? ]

It's blatantly obvious that he's playing with this deliberate and dangerous process in some way she cannot possibly come to understand. What is it that's keeping her alive? Is it that he finds her humorous? Pitiful? Interesting?

"Don’t," says Feng Min. She has to work to get the word out, even though it’s just one syllable. It's all she can think to say.

The Doctor's laughing again. He pulls back a bit, staring down at her laying there, pink-cheeked and clutching her shirt in place at her chest. His shoulders are shaking again. There's no way to read his expression, but the body language is obvious— he's mocking her. He puts a hand up on the headrest of the chair and reaches out towards her head with the other.

[ Will you humor a question for me? ] The question is sudden and disorienting.

Feng Min's teeth work at her lower lip. She gives a sort of nod, knowing it's a question with no real answer.

His fingertips come up behind her right ear. When they meet the cartilage, she feels a shock, but it’s soon reabsorbed. It doesn't hurt. He strokes her there. [ Tell me. Do you think that you could stop me, if that's what I decide I want from you? ]

There's this sense of paralysis she feels. But it's not like before, when he'd shocked her still, or made her mind feel disconnected from her body, or silenced her brain activity. It's more anesthetized, a full synaptic response. It's a feeling of helplessness, but at the same time, it's the feeling that it doesn't even matter; it's out of her control, anyway. She tries not to think too much about the way his fingertips are moving down to the nape of her neck— lightly. So lightly. When she opens her eyes, it's no surprise to her that he's already looking at her face. The moment holds.

"No," she says, and she knows it. If the Entity is permissive of torture — if it is permissive of the bonds between survivors, if it is permissive of what is happening right now, at this moment — then, rationally, it would be just as indifferent towards any number of sins. Feng Min isn't naïve. Not in the way she used to be. The other survivors almost never talk about it, but Feng Min has gotten the impression that maybe, sometimes, a survivor alone and vulnerable out in the fog has ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and been really, really unlucky. It could be just a rumor — there's so much they have yet to learn about surviving in the nightmare — but it's enough to make her stomach clench.

[ I'm glad we understand each other. ] The circuit running through the Doctor's body suddenly turns brighter, so much warmer, hot enough that Feng Min can feel it. She knows that he could choose to hurt her in any way he wants. That he’s probably likely to. But she remains in the chair.

The Doctor’s laughter sails and then moors, and he leans back in, causing Feng Min to respond impulsively.

She has to use both hands. She can't grasp his wrist with just one. Although she trembles noticeably, it stops when she locks her hands around his wrist, and the contact doesn't shock her. She feels a sort of twinge in her muscles, making her forearm flex involuntarily, but that's all. It doesn't unsteady her grasp or impede her from taking his hand and guiding it beneath her shirt.

"Just… do it like this," she murmurs.

He responds like he'd been expecting her to do this; all he does is sort of hum, somewhere from the center of his chest, and lean in carefully over her as his fingers brush up onto her ribs to find a place to set the electrodes. She hears a sort of crackling sound and feels the flare of heat off of his fingertips as they brush up against the underside of her left breast. The touch doesn't linger, and she doesn't know if it had been deliberate or not. His hand is so large, after all. When she looks at his face, it almost seems like he might be enjoying it, a bit, the way he’s focused so deliberately and carefully on what he’s doing.

Despite the limitation of feeling around blindly, the Doctor seems to align the electrodes easily. The ones he places over her sternum seem symmetrical, but Feng Min is pretty sure her nervous sweating isn’t going to help them stick.

When he slips his hand free, his fingertips skim down her stomach, for just a moment. He straightens, looking down at her now with that distinctive sort of malicious pity she’s starting to become familiar with. Feng Min takes in a few uneven breaths; she hadn’t realized she’d been holding most of hers when he’d been placing the electrodes beneath her shirt.

[ Stay still. ]

That’s all he says before moving away; from somewhere behind her, Feng Min hears one of the machines emit a low-level tone. She wonders what he’s doing over there. She doesn't know; she's never had to sit through a test like this before. Her sport hadn't been a physical one, although it had been strenuous on her heart in a lot of ways. She focuses on her breathing, although she doesn't close her eyes.

Eventually — she's not sure how long it is; the endless roll of the static sort of lulls her into a zen state — he seems to decide he’s finished, because he’s removed the cable from the back of his neck. He leaves her to take the electrodes off for herself, something she gratefully does with her body tilted slightly away from him as her hands fumble up beneath her shirt to peel them from her chest. When she's gotten rid of all of them, she swings her legs over the side of the chair and gets up, glad to no longer be having the buckles cutting into her back.

He appears preoccupied. Not by the panel or by one of the screens, but suspended by something, for a moment, as he stands there by the machine. There's a curious change in the pattern of the current cresting over him, and the static — all of it, everywhere around her, everywhere in the building — trembles, too.

And then he's present again, enough to be folding his arms across his chest, an almost meditative gesture.

"Did you get what you needed?" she asks uncertainly, unable to bear any more silence, her nerves tipping her over. She looks at the screens, but there's nothing on them. "Can you show me?"

The Doctor reaches up, gesturing vaguely around his head. Oh. So that’s what the cable was for. Feng Min doesn’t know why she’s surprised. He’s looking into the monitors; she still sees nothing but noise. [ We’re finished here. ]

Feng Min follows him down the hallways again. This time, she tries to keep in step, but it takes two and a half of her strides to match one of his. As he guides her, it occurs to her, all at once, that the Doctor is not only lucid, but intelligent. Well spoken, even if she senses that it is a carefully maintained behavior. But then, she debates with herself, what's with the bizarre laughter, the easily-triggered inclination towards violence, the strange behaviors?

How had he come to be like this? Or had he always been this way?

Feng Min is dying to ask him what he is, if there's a who he is. What he knows. But she knows that she can't. She can only push her luck so far.

They end up back in the office. It’s familiarly dusty and cold inside. Feng Min sort of lingers by the entrance, wondering if there's anything else he wants of her today. The Doctor takes a seat in the red leather chair and turns his attention back to her. The bright overhead lighting brings the warped skin stretching over his skull into relief. Between the headgear and the eyes, it's not always obvious that the rest of his face is just as tortured-looking, too. It's difficult to see beyond these mutations, what they could mean, what they might represent.

Despite mounting evidence, her brain still does not want to approach the idea that maybe the killers here were all once people, like her.

[ You’re waiting to be dismissed, aren’t you? ] He’s got his hands clasped together, indulgently leaning back into the chair. [ Afraid of what I might choose to do if you slipped away unnoticed? ]

She colors darkly. He’s right on the money. Unsettled and unable to censor herself, she fires back, "Doesn't the doctor usually end the appointment?"

His eyes seem to light up, and the laughter emanates from somewhere in or around him. [ That's right. But you'll return. ] He sounds — again — affirmative, as if acknowledging an inherent truth. He's right, too. [ I'm sure you'll be glad to hear that I have no need to look through that sick mind of yours today. I have data to review. ] He says sick like he really means it— like she's ill. Now he's nodding towards the entryway: go.

Ever the game strategist, Feng Min always takes the exit the first moment it presents itself clearly. She gives the laces on her boots a quick tug, and she's already halfway out of the room when she hears him again.

[ I'll come check to make sure that you've left. I have no issue giving you some incentive. ]

"I understand," she responds, and she really can't be out of the office fast enough. The moment she's put at least two hallways between herself and the Doctor is the first time she allows herself to take a proper, full breath since she'd arrived at the hospital, one that sucks real oxygen into her lungs. It leaves her panting, even though she hadn't exerted herself physically; the sudden break in tension has hit like a baseball bat to the face.

As she moves towards the exit to slip back into the trees, Feng Min passes by a reception desk. She notices that the drawers are askew — they usually appear to be, around the hospital — and is taken by curiosity. She slips around behind the desk and kneels to pull one open the rest of the way.

Inside are a bunch of dusty folders, marked in faint pencil, yellowed by time or water or mold or maybe all of those things. She pulls one free and carefully thumbs it open. The faded papers inside are incomprehensible to her; there's a lot of shorthand and numbers. She's not going to stick around sorting through them all, though, so she just reaches for the stack, brushes the dust off of the surface, and holds it tight to her chest as she slips out of the doors and into the forest.

The fog delivers her almost right away to the campfire, where Quentin and Laurie have returned, safe and sound, and many of the other survivors are sitting around with them, listening to Kate's bright, clear singing strike out into the sky.

Chapter Text

Feng Min picks a spot just past the tree line, right before where the fog begins to thicken, so that she can go through the four folders she'd pilfered from Léry's Memorial Institute. She's got a flashlight with her, borrowed from Jake— he'd said that the battery was nearly spent, but it's still got enough light to read by.

She's still not entirely sure why she'd done such a stupid thing, stealing from the Doctor's hospital— why she'd been so unable to resist the part of her that hungered to know more about it, about the world she's now in for eternity. About him, too.

The folders are innocuous in appearance, just plain manila, and it's impossible to tell one from the other. They're all labelled with different numbers on the outside. Feng Min can't identify any sort of pattern to the numbers, aside from the fact that they're all six digits long.

One of the folders seems to contain some kind of record. There's a chart with dates stamped down one of the columns. She squints at the faded lettering and thinks that it must be some kind of sign-in log. There's another column where blocks of time have been filled in or scratched out. The only truly useful information the folder provides seems to be in the stamped dates: they all end with 1983, and abruptly stop after May 16th.

She puts that folder aside and reaches for another one. It appears to house a collection of release forms. The papers have been so damaged, however, that the ink has run all over them, causing purplish watercolor blooms all over the pages, obscuring the words. Disappointed, Feng Min sets that folder down, too, and picks up the third, but it's empty. She's not expecting much, then, when she opens the fourth one.

But this one is different. It contains one piece of paper, with a letterhead. It's not much of a letter, itself— there's just a few lines, typed slightly crooked across the page.

LÉRY'S MEMORIAL INSTITUTE
FROM THE DESK OF DR. OTTO STAMPER, SENIOR TECHNICAL INTELLIGENCE OFFICER OF THE DIRECTORATE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY


April 3rd, 1983

I have my reservations about it. Access to be closed as of receipt of this letter.

I assure you that everything is under control.

Stamper

Feng Min scans it over a couple of times, troubled. The words aren't recognizable to her — she's not sure what they mean, apart from the fact that they seem sort of military in nature — but they certainly don't sound like titles that bring a hospital, or any medical facility, to mind. Senior Technical Intelligence Officer? Directorate of Science and Technology?

And then there's the name. Otto Stamper. She stares at it for a while, four letters followed by seven, willing some scrap of recognizance or realization to dawn on her, but it tells her nothing. Of course not.

She asks Nea if she can have a piece of her sketching paper — Nea relinquishes it only after extracting a promise from Feng Min that she'll bring her more, if she finds some while out scavenging — and carefully transcribes the letter, word for word. She looks it over to see if she'd missed anything, folds it, and then pulls Baker's notebook free from its hiding spot so that she can slip it inside. It's a good enough place for it for now; it's better than having it on her, and it's not as though it'll make any more sense to the other survivors than it had for her.

After she looks the folders over one more time — just in case she missed anything — she gets up and walks over to the fire. Nobody questions her as she tosses them one by one into the flames. It swallows the paper up almost immediately, edges curling up grey and wispy, blooming into ash that powders her face.

If the Doctor figures out what she's done, she supposes, the worst that he can do is kill her.



It's not surprising that the next trial Feng Min finds herself called to is at Léry's Memorial Institute. Burning the folders had only been an act of discarding evidence, but, she remembers, the Entity takes all manner of offerings, its hunger never fully sated by sacrifice nor gifts.

The fog clears to show that it's set her down in one of the patient rooms, one of the longer ones with the double-stacked beds and their mysterious stains. She takes a few minutes to ground herself, shaking off the haze of being suddenly displaced by the Entity. The first thing she does after that is leave the room— there's something that particularly bothers her about these rooms, about the cold steel frames of the beds. About the lack of light, either natural or electric.

She's starting to wonder if this place is really a hospital at all, thinking about Baker's notes on it — a place where the human brain is turned into something unpleasant and broken — and the strange title that came after Otto Stamper's name. The Doctor had told her that it was a real hospital, but there's no reason for her to believe him. She doesn't know what he'd gain by lying to her, but she doesn't know what he'd gain by telling the truth, either.

The hallway is empty. Feng Min spots a generator and tries to perk her ears for the Doctor's static field. There's a low thrum starting up right between her eyes, promising pain. She's come to the conclusion that the Doctor seems to be able to alter the quality of the static— it had been tolerable when she'd last seen him, but she's learned the extreme danger it poses during trials.

They'd made an agreement, after all: he's not going to spare her.

Feng Min's moving against the wall, trying to stick to the shadows, tugging her shirt up over her nose and mouth to stave off the smell of rust and plaster coming from the gutted walls.

And then she notices something strange, at the end of one hallway, in the corner of the corridor.

A door.

Léry's Memorial Institute is a grid; all of the survivors know that. The rooms might be difficult to navigate, but the basic layout of the hospital is a rectangle. She's never seen a door in any of the corners before. There aren't even any doors anywhere else in the hospital, so it looks bizarre there. Bizarre and wrong.

It's not marked or labelled. Feng Min hesitates for only a moment, but then she hears a tortured scream coming from an adjacent hallway — that's the sound of madness, she knows it — and slips inside, closing the door behind her.

She immediately begins choking on the dust in the air, pressing her face into her elbow to suppress it. It's some sort of storage room, or maybe a records room. It doesn't contain much, aside from some shelving against a wall and three rows of nondescript grey filing cabinets; some of them are padlocked. A single bare light bulb hangs from a plank in the unfinished ceiling; she wishes she'd brought a flashlight along.

It's an unusual room, unlike any other in the hospital, and she knows without having to ask herself that the Entity has something to do with why she'd found it.

The folders, she thinks with a start. They hadn't just prompted the Entity to bring her here; they've exposed a new part of the hospital.

She reaches for one of the filing cabinets, one without a padlock on it. She feels nervous, but there's a curiosity in her that she can't resist. She slides it open and peers inside, squinting into the shadows. She can't tell what's in there, so she sticks her hand in, groping around. It closes over something small, hard, and rectangular.

It's a cassette tape. It's been so long since she's seen one with her own eyes — way, way back when she was little — that she just stares at it for a bit. The little white label reads #78-0054, with nothing else. She turns it over in her hand, hesitating— and then she slips it into her pocket. When she reaches back inside, she locates six more of them. They all have numbers on them that she doesn't understand any more than the first one: #81-0109, #76-0093, and so on.

She manages to fit four in her jacket pockets, and then she slips the other two into the back pockets of her shorts, feeling around to make sure they're laying flat.

For a second, she feels guilty, but she tamps it down. She's not here to be an ally to the Doctor. They have a conditional armistice, and that's only because they're both after the same information. Something tells her that he might even respect her duplicity.

Another scream catches her attention, and Feng Min hurries out of the room. Just as she closes it behind herself, she picks up the static field. It immediately floods into her vision, flickering like a strobe light and making her wince. The threat of pain is swelling up with it as the noise begins tunneling through her brain and into her mind. She takes off at a run, fully intent on surviving the trial.

There's another shout from down the hallway. It sounds like Dwight, or maybe Quentin. She realizes the reason why when the shock wave of an active sacrificial hook rolls down the halls. It doesn't sound very far away. She teeters on the edge of a decision, and then heads towards it.

The static broadens the closer Feng Min gets, the particles coming tighter together, dense enough to choke on. A splitting headache begins, and the effects start ratcheting up fast; she nearly screams when the Doctor materializes in front of her, before realizing that it's only a hallucination. It's alarmingly real, standing there clutching the punishment rod, staring directly at her. Unnerved, she steps around it, trying to see past the stuttering images whipping through her field of view.

It starts to really hurt, then. She spots the hook in the intersection of a hallway. It's Dwight, bleeding profusely and trying to fight the pain. Clamping her teeth together against the impulse to start screaming, she rushes over and helps him off of the hook, his blood raining down upon her as her muscles scream at her to stop. He's groaning as he drops to the ground, clutching his shoulder.

"Fuck," he says, his face drained of all blood, looking dizzy. It's clear that the static's gotten to him, too.

The heartbeats are coming up right behind them.

"Run," Feng Min hisses, yanking Dwight by the arm, trying to get him up. He just looks at her, mouth agape, then nods, stumbling off and slipping around a corner.

She turns, knowing exactly what to expect. The Doctor's there, just a few paces away, and the noise coming off of him is so intense that it makes her legs wobble. There's no use trying not to scream now, but she claps both hands over her mouth to muffle it anyway.

[ Hello again, Feng Min. ] It's almost playful, the way it reverberates in her head, finding a nest among the static to allow her to hear him. [ I hope you remember our agreement. ] His frozen face seems to be smirking.

"Yeah," she says breathlessly, and she's afraid, but she's also realizing that she doesn't feel as scared of him as she had before, the way she fears the other killers. She knows he's going to try to kill her, and yet just knowing that they've come to an understanding about it seems to make all the difference. It almost makes it feel like a game. "Will you at least give me a head start?" she asks dryly, knowing that there is no real point in asking.

The Doctor knows it, too. He's laughing, the weapon dangling loosely from one hand as he swings it in a half-arc at his side, his broad shoulders dropping. [ Go ahead. I'm going to kill you regardless. ]

There's a flood of adrenaline that goes through her at the way he says it, the thrill of a spark in her heart that clears the pain in her head for just one crucial moment. It's the excitement of a challenge set by a worthy opponent, a feeling that had long drifted out of reach a long time ago. "Fine," she replies, and she finds herself smiling, a little, even though her heart's skipping beats. "Come and get me."

Giving him one brief look, Feng Min bolts for a window and jumps through weightlessly. She can hear his laughter following behind her, the sounds layered one on top of the other, as though the hallucinations popping up around her are laughing, too.

It's hard to see, but knowing the squared-off architecture of the hospital makes it easier to just dart blindly around, trying to find a dark corner where she can slip out of his sight. His heartbeats are right on her trail, and, through the static, she can hear him again:

[ Does it not hurt enough? ]

A shiver ripples through her. His voice is so casual, so unaffected, and yet she reads the threat in it. It hurts like hell — she can't fight the screams that keep coming out of her — but she's not about to admit that.

"No," she says, panting. She hauls herself up through a window frame, into one of the bathrooms, and backs up across the tiles. The Doctor appears before it, staring at her through the opening, the current tracking through his body turning blinding white, so bright it burns away the static in her field of view. "Give me more."

The Doctor steps through the window. It's sort of impressive that his massive form even manages to fit through it, folding and unfolding like a paper crane. Feng Min steps back as he crosses towards her, tipping his head towards one shoulder as he lifts his left hand. The electricity charges up in his palm, moving from finger to finger.

[ It's interesting, your resilience to punishment. Could that be because you tend to seek it out? ]

Extending his hand, the Doctor sends a powerful shock towards the ground, which ripples through Feng Min's feet and up into her legs, sending pain throughout every part of her body and causing her to drop to the ground, screaming and regretting right then just what her smart mouth had brought her. The question he'd asked, though, is a shock of its own. Had he read that much into her mind, those few times he had accessed it?

Hearing him describe her as someone who tends to seek out punishment is no surprise to her; he's telling her something that she already knows. She's been aware from the very beginning that she's the one responsible for all of her own mistakes, and that's what really hurts. That had been the entire problem from the start. Just her. Her own failures. Her own mistakes and bad decisions. She's only got herself to blame and to rely on. Only herself to harm.

Truth hurts, her mother was fond of saying.

She buries her face in her hands and rocks forward, trying to compress the noise into something she can mentally handle. She can barely understand the whimpers coming out of her own mouth; she thinks she might be begging him to stop, but she can't hear herself behind the static field.

The Doctor's moving towards her. She sees his worn leather shoes come to a stop. [ On a scale of one to ten, with one being 'no pain' and ten being 'the worst possible,' how much would you say it hurts? ]

Feng Min can really only scream. It feels like her mind's exploded and been pieced back together on the inside of a kaleidoscope, preventing her from seeing herself whole ever again. But she manages, with extreme effort, to scream, "One!"

It's barely a second after that when the blow at her side knocks her over. When the stick connects with her body, the spikes shredding through her jacket and shirt and ripping across the skin beneath, she barely comprehends it; the noise has already claimed all of her senses, her faculties. She's knocked to the ground, bleeding, and he kneels to hoist her over his shoulder. The current seizing her muscles grounds itself once she's pressed against him; she'd be able to struggle, now, if she were able, but her mind is somewhere else, fighting to come back to the conscious surface.

He finds her a hook inside one of the treatment rooms, and he doesn't hesitate to hang her. Feng Min can't bite back the howl of pain that tears from her gut, a strangled-sounding scream that has her writhing, her hands flying up to the hook that's torn through her shoulder. It's enough pain to wash the static from her eyes, just a little.

The Doctor's standing right in front of her, laughing. Seeing that he hasn't moved away yet, Feng Min impulsively kicks out and manages to hook a leg over his shoulder, where she'd bled all over his coat as he carried her. Surprised that she'd managed that much, Feng Min just dangles there for a moment before she swings her remaining leg over his other shoulder. Understanding now the advantage it may afford her, she presses her calves into his shoulder blades and tries to use the leverage created to haul herself up off the hook.

His hands come up and grasp at her bare thighs, sending a hot pulse of electricity screeching up through every fiber of muscle. Feng Min seizes, shrieking, her blood-streaked hands dropping from the hook, and she feels his grip tighten on her, his fingertips digging in. [ You really do need to be disciplined. Everyone has a limit. I'll find yours. It's only after that that you could ever be cured. ]

For once, they're almost eye-level, but he's still taller than where the hook has her hanging. Feng Min tries to focus her eyes on his features, feeling lightheaded from blood loss and the chaos flickering through her head. She thinks to herself that she should try to kick him in the face, but he's still got her muscles seized painfully, and trying to fight it hurts even more. But she needs to show him that she isn't afraid of him, even when she is. It feels like her life depends on it.

"Try... me," she forces out.

[ I will, ] he says, a promise, and then he starts laughing again as an ear-piercing thunder lacerates the sky. The light and heat and dark ash begin closing in around Feng Min as the Entity descends, hungry for her. As the talons take material form around her, the Doctor steps back, and although she kicks weakly, she's forced to struggle there, the hook — and her shoulder — bearing her full weight.

And he just stands there, watching her. She's aware of her allies finishing generators in other hallways, and she's sure he is, too, but the Doctor still stands there, observing her struggle against the Entity.

There's not much left in her. But she doesn't feel as afraid, this time. There's still something beautiful in the Entity's embers, despite herself.

"I'll... see you... soon," she struggles to gasp out, and while the dark old one begins to unspool the thread of life from her, she hears his reply, still right there behind her eyes:

[ I look forward to it. ]



Not knowing who else to ask, she'd brought the tapes to Quentin.

"What are these?" he asks, his forehead creasing as he examines the labels. She watches his lips move silently as he reads the numbers to himself. "Where did you find them?"

"I can't," she starts, hesitating, "I can't tell you yet. I want to listen to them first."

Quentin doesn't seem offended by this remark, although he does look increasingly curious. "You'll need something to play this on," he says thoughtfully.

Feng Min nods, crossing her arms and leaning back, away from the campfire. "That's why I'm asking you."

Quentin tosses a look over his shoulder at the other survivors gathered nearby. Kate, Ace, and David are all laughing over something. Bill and Laurie are engaged in quiet conversation, and have been for a while. Claudette is binding pouches of chalk and flowers with Meg's help, creating a pile of damp sachets. Nobody's looking at the little black cassettes in Feng Min's lap.

"Well, you came to the right guy," says Quentin, giving her one of his soft, sleepy smiles. "I think I know just the place."



Springwood is a place locked in its own quiet evening, just like the rest of the nightmare. No day, but no real night, either. And never any sun.

Feng Min walks with Quentin down the street, over the litter and the cracks in the asphalt. She wants to ask him, Has Springwood always looked like this? but she knows already that the Entity has warped and mutated this place just as much as it had any other realm. The sky is a color she's never seen anywhere else— a deep, purpling red that brings to mind the core of a rotten fruit. Fog clings to every corner, every signpost, every tree. Crows form a neat row across the power lines, a uniformity so specific and undisturbed that it cannot be natural. There are facsimiles of cars: convincing enough on the outside, but when she peers in through the dusty windows, she sees no gas pedal, no gear stick, no ignition. It's all wrong.

Nothing in the nightmare will ever look the way it should. There will always be something unsettling about it, no matter where they end up.

"You know," says Quentin quietly. They haven't heard any singing or seen any ashes, yet, so it seems safe to talk; she gives him her attention. "Every time I'm here, I just start remembering all the bad stuff that happened..."

"That has to be hard," says Feng Min, feeling both surprised and guilty. She knows that Quentin is tied to Springwood, but although it's starting to feel like she's been here for a while, she still doesn't know why. "I didn't know."

He shakes his head. "No, that's not why I'm telling you this. I'm getting stronger. Every time I come here. And I'm ready to stay as long as I have to, so I can't keep being afraid."

Feng Min nods, and then, after a beat, asks, "How long do you think that'll be?"

"If it's eternity, I don't care." Quentin looks utterly resolute. "As long as it means that Freddy Krueger can never return to the real world, either."

She's a little amazed by his selflessness. "But why?"

"He'd hurt everyone I love. No— kill them. He'd been trying to, even right before I got here. And he succeeded. Many times." Quentin looks just absolutely exhausted in that moment, right down to the bone, his hands shoved inside his pockets and his eyes pointed at the ground. Looking at him makes Feng Min feel lost and sad.

"I'm sorry."

Quentin moves up past the makeshift playground, up the walkway, slipping under the Badham Preschool sign and taking a quick look down the hall. "What's done is done. I know it's probably eating him alive, being here. I know he must hate it. Because it means he can never hurt Nancy again."

"Nancy's your girlfriend, right?" recalls Feng Min; Quentin never seemed to hesitate to bring her up in conversation around the campfire. She'd heard plenty Nancy and I used to... and My girl Nancy is... stories.

"Kind of. We never made it official. And it's not like we're... I mean, you can't exactly maintain a long-distance relationship from here," says Quentin shyly, laughing in a self-deprecating manner. "I just hope she's happy and safe."

Feng Min smiles a little at Quentin's integrity, and then remembers something. She's a bit reluctant to broach the topic, not wanting to make him uncomfortable, so she says, "Can I ask you something?"

"Is it about Laurie?" he replies immediately. He's right; of course it is. Feng Min thinks that many of the other survivors must have sensed it, too. They pause in the hallway of the preschool, right before a doorway lined with colorful finger-painted drawings, and stare at one another. Quentin just nods at the look on her face. "I don't know."

"You don't know what?" Feng Min prompts. "Everyone lost track of the both of you for a while..."

There's a lengthy silence. Quentin looks like he's thinking hard, carefully choosing his words. "I think Laurie might be the strongest person I've ever met," is what he finally settles on, his voice swelling, briefly, with something heavy. He swallows. "She kept us alive. The both of us. When we were out there, I mean. I've been here for... I don't know. It feels... so long. And Laurie's always been there, even before I arrived. When I see how she always puts up a fight, and the... the way she never loses hope, it just amazes me every time. She's so strong. She reminds me not to give up. It'd be so easy to, you know?" He shrugs.

Feng Min knows exactly how easy giving up is. Much more than he'll ever be able to know. "Yeah," she says softly. She's gained some insight into both Quentin and Laurie tonight, at least.

Quentin nods, reaching out to touch her on the shoulder. "Come on," he says. "Downstairs."

In the basement, but thankfully nowhere near the sweltering boiler room, Quentin leads her towards a strange little nook in the wall, the one with the filthy mattress. Feng Min often spots totems right there, so any time she finds herself in Springwood, she usually tries to take a trip to this exact spot.

There are no totems now, of course, with the realm's barriers down outside of a trial, but there are some shelves and cardboard boxes down here, full of unidentifiable junk. This must have been a storage room at one point. She sees record-keeping books crammed in amongst school supplies and other litter, each one carefully labelled and dated.

"Swear I saw something here, once," Quentin mutters to himself as he digs through one of the boxes. "He lived— lives like a fucking rat, so it has to be squirreled away somewhere..." He tugs out a worn black binder and a rattling little container of thumb tacks, regarding them for only a moment before placing them aside in the little pile of junk he's been building. She begins adding to it— half-full boxes of staples and broken crayons, torn corkboard, dried-out bottles of glue. The familiar mundanity of the school supplies she's handling threatens to stir up memories she doesn't want to revisit. Those easier times are long gone, now.

Feng Min's sorting through another box when Quentin gives a triumphant huff. She turns towards him.

"Boom," he says, holding out a bulky grey piece of old tech, his eyes alight. "Cassette player."

Feng Min can't help but grin, a real and rare smile breaking over her face. "You're the real MVP," she says, relieved.

"Only if it works." Quentin turns it over and slides open the cover on the battery compartment. It's no surprise that it's empty. Quentin's got more solutions, though, because he unscrews the bulb off of his flashlight and taps the batteries out with a clatter, which he replaces in the cassette player.

"Here you go," he says, holding it out to her.

Feng Min takes it. It's heavier than expected and hilariously retro. She pops open the tape compartment and takes one of the cassettes from her pocket — #81-0109 — to fit it in. Anticipation — no, maybe it's dread — surges nauseatingly up her throat. She looks at Quentin, turning things over in her mind. She could tuck it away now. Save it for later, when she's got some time alone. But she's dying to know what's on the little tapes that the Institute had led her to. She thinks she can trust him with it.

"Look," she says nervously, her thumb hovering over the PLAY button. "You should know that I stole these from the hospital."

"Seriously?" Quentin's heavy eyebrows raise. "That takes some balls." He actually sounds impressed.

She feels a little reassured by that, laughing uncertainly. She can't tell him much more than that — she doesn't know much more than that — but whatever's on these tapes, it'll probably be a good idea to have someone else to analyze them with. And then she can decide what to do with the information. "I don't know what's on them. But... if I let you listen to them with me, you can't tell anyone about it. Not yet." She hopes he doesn't ask her to explain too much; she doesn't think she can, right now.

But Quentin only nods seriously. "Okay. I trust you," he says. "Let's hope it's Led Zeppelin, or something."

Feng Min feels less anxious after that remark, and so they head upstairs. There's a little table in one of the play rooms, barely enough for two people to sit at, but they manage as Quentin makes a quip about how they both have short legs, crouching down in the little plastic chairs and jamming their knees in to fit. She lays the cassette player in the center of the table, and then, before she can change her mind, hits PLAY.

There's only white noise at first, sounding a bit like the crackling of the campfire. It takes about twenty seconds until a voice is heard. The recording quality is low; Feng Min immediately has to lean over to turn the volume up. The audio pops sharply, and the words skip together, but most of it is discernible.

"Eight one. Zero one, zero nine."

"Don't, don't, don't, please don't, don't—"

"That's eight one, zero one, zero nine."

"No! Don't!"

"Subject number four-three-nine-Echo... Four-three-nine-Echo." There is a momentary pause; in the background, garbled, comes a loud groan, and another unanswered plea. The speaker continues, unaffected. "The result of yesterday's treatment was inconclusive. The method will be repeated to verify a response. We'll be adjusting the wavelength and increasing the voltage..."

The screaming turns wordless.

"...which will hopefully bring about calm."

Quentin turns ashen faced as the tape continues on. Feng Min thinks that he must be a mirror of her own face right now. They sit through all nine minutes of it, listening to the steady voice narrate what sounds like an extremely painful shock-therapy session, calling out numbers and codes as the treatment is adjusted by various measures. By the end, nothing can be heard on the recording but screaming— except when it suddenly stops.

The tape goes still inside the player. Feng Min feels sick. There's something wet on her cheek. When she reaches up to wipe it away, she's astonished to find that it's a tear.

Across from her, Quentin is rubbing his eyes, too, fingers bowed in a tense manner. "Jesus wept," he whispers, and his hand moves from his face to perform the sign of the cross on himself, a movement so natural it looks instinctive.

Feng Min just nods, numb.

They listen to half of the next one, and a bit of the third, but they're all similar. They're all recordings of torture.

The journey back through the forest is a safe and quiet one, which helps a lot, because Feng Min can keep her thoughts to herself. Including the fact that she'd recognized the voice in those tapes.



Feng Min feels more uneasy than ever as she walks up to the front of the hospital. Léry's Memorial Institute looks darker than it did before as it looms over her, all stone and snow. She stands out there for a good five minutes, just breathing in the cold air and building up her courage. The building is a behemoth. It does not resemble any kind of hospital she's ever seen before. For the first time, clarity comes to Feng Min about the strange, spire-like posts adorning its corners: they're guard towers. She can't believe she hadn't realized it sooner.

The Doctor startles her by meeting her at the doors, appearing in the waiting room as a specter of sinister light moments after she walks through the doors. Abruptly, Feng Min is deeply, intensely afraid, and she stops short, her hands trembling at her sides. She tucks them behind her back to hide them, but he's not looking at her hands; he's staring right through her face, silent. The moment passes after Feng Min tells herself, again, that she needs to show him that she's not frightened of him. Step by forced step, she begins to close the distance towards him where he stands by the intake desk.

"You won't get me next time," she says unsteadily, but she's got her shoulders straight, and there's a shred of defiance in her voice. She's got this. She's fine.

[ We'll see, won't we? ] He reaches out to give her a little push on the shoulder. Playful, almost. Sparks, like static electricity, snap beneath his touch.

It is, she thinks numbly. It's the same voice. And, for some reason, the confirmation makes it feel like her heart's dropped down into her stomach, and she doesn't know why, doesn't want to know why. She struggles to close the lid on that hideous box, at least while she's here.

To her surprise, he looks different today. Feng Min has noticed, sometimes, that the shapes or forms or garments some of the killers wear seem to change. That makes sense; after all, the Entity had made clothing easily scavengeable for the survivors, too. But today's the first time she's seen him out of the white coat. He cuts a striking but extremely unsettling figure in both suit vest and tie. It makes her think of something a psychiatrist or an executive might wear.

But more interesting than that is his face. There's some sort of leather and steel mask stretched over his head, nose, and jawline. A heavy-duty mechanical contraption keeps his mouth locked open, but he's also wearing a nasal tube that's crusted with blood, and one of his eyes has been stapled shut in a way that makes her own eye twitch to look at. Staples, right in his eye. The other one leers as always. She wonders with morbid fascination just how far down the nails sticking out of the bandages wrapped around his head go.

[ It isn't polite to stare. ] He moves ahead of her to lead, kicking dust up from the tiles as he makes long strides down the hall, and Feng Min sucks back a sound of annoyance at the fact that he'd noticed.

"Doesn't that hurt?" she blurts out at the back of his gruesomely-studded head.

The only response she gets is laughter, lashing out behind him on the river of static. Feng Min quickens her steps to get closer, tilting her head to peer cautiously up into his face. He glances back at her with his one eye. [ Why do you ask? Are you worried about me? ]

"What?" Feng Min fumbles her next step on a broken tile, and catches her balance, turning her face away as she feels it grow hot with anxiety. Is she? Should she be? "I'm just... curious."

[ We're here to learn about you. Not me. ] The Doctor motions her ahead of him, and Feng Min sees that they've come to the carpet leading to his office. She doesn't exactly want to expose her back to him, but saying something about it will only make her appear frightened, so she moves ahead and steps inside, blinking through the dust. Being surrounded by the walls of books feels strangely insulating in a way she knows she should not trust.

The Doctor brushes past her and drops into the chair, propping an ankle onto the opposite knee, and rests his arm atop the desk. His gnarled fingers tap at the lacquered surface. Feng Min lingers back by one of the shelf ladders, leaning into it.

"So, um..." she trails off, noticing again his unblinking gaze — We'll be adjusting the wavelength and increasing the voltage, says the voice in her head — and trying to refocus. "Did you find anything new? From... last time, I mean."

He settles right into the question. [ There is nothing unique about your vitals. They're indistinguishable from the average human's. ] His red eye flicks up towards the ceiling. [ I haven't yet confirmed anything unusual about your brain. That will require more testing. ]

Testing. Thinking about the folders and the tapes she'd swiped, it's not something she's looking forward to either hearing about or experiencing, so she figures she'll try asking him a few other questions, ones that have been particularly bothering her.

"You once asked me what I'd done," Feng Min says slowly, folding her arms over her chest, "to be able to hear you." She sucks on her lower lip, frowning towards the floor. "Like you were surprised. Why?"

Despite her trepidation, he answers her question easily. [ I've never encountered a human that was able to understand me here. ]

Feng Min almost misses that last word, here, but it's a heavily loaded one. She holds it in her mouth, commits its implications to memory, and asks a question she thinks she already knows the answer to. "Can you talk? Out loud, I mean?"

The Doctor's pulled a book into his lap. He's thumbing through it now instead of looking at her. She can tell by the twitching movements of his eye that he's not just pretending to read it. He seems to have no issue multitasking while fielding her questions. [ No. ]

Why don't you take that thing off your mouth? is what she wants to ask next, but the way he says no makes her pause. Maybe he can't, she realizes.

[ There is latent psychic ability in some of my kind. We're able to communicate. ] Feng Min immediately knows what he means by my kind— the other killers. She's startled and astonished at this piece of information he's chosen to share with her. She'd never really considered before that some of the killers must interact, too, that some of them probably even need the social stimulation. It's an unsettling thought, at odds with most of what she knows about the Entity's henchmen, and it brings a knot into her throat.

She wants to ask which ones, or who, but she senses he won't be willing to be nearly that generous to her. And, yet, an insane part of her wants to ask, anyway, just to see how he'll react. Hell, part of her wants to tell him that she'd stolen from the hospital, that she's been digging into places she shouldn't, just so she can see his response. Why? she wonders. It's not like he would hesitate to hurt her. She knows it. And maybe that blackened, withering part of her doesn't mind that. Wants it, even. Is that why she started all of this in the first place?

It's interesting, your resilience to punishment. Could that be because you tend to seek it out?

Her vision swims. She steadies herself against the ladder.

The Doctor's been watching her expressions, apparently, because the voice in her head says, [ Something's troubling you. Come here. ]

Not knowing what he means by that, Feng Min stays where she is, looking at him apprehensively.

[ I suggest obedience, ] the Doctor says, and she just barely manages to stop herself from telling him that she isn't interested in his advice. But, knowing that she doesn't have much of a choice, she takes a few reluctant steps forward with a sour expression, until she's standing in front of him seated in the chair. [ Kneel. ]

At this command, Feng Min's brows come together, and her face splits into a scowl. "What?" she says, her displeasure dangerously apparent.

But the Doctor only laughs a little, soft, as if the volume in her head's been turned down, and lifts a hand. Feng Min sees the electricity flaring out around it, and for a moment she thinks he's finished with their agreement and is going to kill her again. But then he reaches out to touch her hip before she can pull away, and an unfathomable pain takes hold of the muscles in her legs. Her knees collapse almost instantly; she crumples to the floor in front of him. She feels a cold sweat break out under her clothes, and struggles to lift her head up to look at him as the connection is broken. She gasps, pulling in lungfuls of air.

"You asshole," she groans, figuring she doesn't have much to lose.

In response, his rough hands settle down on her head and press it to his lap, over a knee. She hears a sort of hiss emerge from low in his throat— not in her head. It sounds like he's trying to say shhhh. Her muscles still hurt, so she just sits there, heart pounding in her ears, legs needled with pain, wondering what he wants from her. The Doctor's fingers weave through her hair, his surprisingly light touch seeking specific points on her scalp. It's comforting, in a way, if she closes her eyes and pretends she's somewhere else, but she's also aware of just how easy it would be for him to snap her neck right now.

[ Let's have a look. ] His fingertips press into her skull, and before Feng Min can prepare herself — try to fortify her mind, put her most private moments and misdeeds away in a corner where he can't access them — she feels the oppressive presence slithering into her brain. Slow at first, so slow it almost feels good, like she's being put under, breathing in anesthesia. It urges her to float away upon it. She almost does.

But then comes the static, inevitable and indiscriminating, slicing through her mind like a knife. Straight down into her scalp, her skull, her fucking brain. Spiking off into every channel it can find, splitting her thoughts into jagged glass shards. The pain is extreme, and her mouth moves soundlessly, rendered silent by the current he's set within her.

There's that sensation again of crowdedness, of voyeurism. Memories fan out before her like a picture book, each one with a thousand associated sights and sounds and smells and feelings. It's everything, and yet it's nothing, far beyond what her mind is equipped to process all at once. Mostly, there is pain — pain is the simplest sensation right now, one that hides none of itself — and there's him, sorting through it all.

Faintly, she notices that she's shaking where she's crumpled at his feet, because his hands are holding her head down. She tries to focus on that feeling — something tangible, weighted, real — and not the cataclysm in her mind. When he releases her, he's silent, and as she breathes through it, trying to shake off the pain, she realizes that he must have found something.

[ You have a certain name in your mind. Where did you learn it? ]

Feng Min lifts her head from his lap. It feels heavy, like she's still on the verge of falling unconscious. She blinks several times, but she's not quick enough for an excuse. "I think you know," she manages. He's seen it, hasn't he?

[ No, really. I'd like to hear how you learned the name of Otto— ]

The voice stops in her head, abruptly, like a voicemail that's gone on for too long. She stares up at his face. There's a strangely blank look in his one visible eye; it's staring out beyond her. He's not moving.

Dread overwhelms, and it rises above her head like a riptide when he looks down at her as though he suddenly doesn't recognize her. Feng Min pushes at his knees and tries to slide herself back, but her whole body has been fatigued by the shock he'd sent through her; like a nightmare, her arms won't do what she wants them to do. She scrabbles weakly at his legs, but her elbows lock up. He is looking at her, but he does not see her. He does not see her.

Shit, she thinks miserably, the only word she has the energy to summon up, even in her own head.

As if he'd been waiting for her silent cue, the Doctor reaches down and wraps his hands around her neck. The electricity explodes around him, hot enough that when a spark hits her cheek, she's almost instantly burned there, the welt sharp and throbbing. But it barely registers on her radar, because his thumbs now press down on her carotid arteries. Like he'd known exactly where to put them.

Feng Min claws at his arms, unable to make any noise. She tries to get her legs out from underneath her body. Tries to kick, to buck away, to scream. She can't. Everything around her goes blurry; she's swiftly losing consciousness. She doesn't understand. What is happening? Had she really crossed the line that far? All she can think in that panicked moment is that he'd promised not to hurt her outside of trials. He promised. And she'd been fucking stupid enough to believe him.

This is my fault, she thinks. This is—

He interrupts her thoughts with his own, but it's nothing she expects to hear. Something is wrong.

[ You need healing. I can cure you. I can get rid of the sickness. I can help you. I can break you. I can help you. I'll break you. I'll help you I'll break you I'll break you I'LL BREAK YOU I'LL HELP YOU BREAK YOU HELP YOU BREAK YOU BREAK YOU BREAK YOU BREAK YOU BREAK YOU BREAK— ]

She can still feel him, she realizes. The static. His voice in her head, as horrible and shrieking as it sounds right now, like a corrupted tape. Whatever thing it was that had bound them together, that draws her to him, she can still feel it. Feng Min tries to grasp onto it, looking for him in the noise. She has just seconds before she's dead and back by the campfire. Something isn't right. It's him, but it's not him. He's here, but not present.

Whispers begin slipping into her thoughts, murmurs of an ancient language she can never hope to understand. The Entity is here, too, and it wants to make sure that she knows it.

Struggling, she reaches out towards him. Her vision swims. She manages to ineffectively grab at his vest, and then the blackness closes in—

Until oxygen comes flooding back, and Feng Min tips over, curling up on her side on the floor, her head spinning, gasping for air, her heart racing, thudding in her ears and neck and chest. He's let her go. Her hands go up to her throat, carefully touching it; it hurts like hell. Her chest is heaving as she tries to recover, her vision still completely blacked out.

Above her, the Doctor is tilted forward, a strange look in his eye, his arms limp and shoulders slumped. The current around him cuts out entirely, and he just sits there, taking his heavy, audible breaths.

"Wh-" Feng Min tries to say, but her throat feels like it's on fire, so she shuts up.

He finally notices her. She's quivering as he reaches out to pull her back into a sitting position, her head reeling violently. He's not gentle as he grips her bicep— but he's not rough with her, either. Both of his hands move to cup her face, and he leans forward to examine her throat. [ How long? ]

She doesn't understand the question at first, staring up at him with wide eyes. She coughs thickly and tries to answer. "I don't... know. F... fifteen... seconds?" It had felt like so much longer.

The Doctor just stares at her, and the knowledge of what's happened settles over her.

"You don't remember...?" she asks, feeling a deep fear start in the middle of her chest. "What just happened?"

[ You wouldn't understand even if I explained it to you, ] he says.

"I heard the Entity," says Feng Min. She squeezes her eyes shut; a brewing headache is making it hard to think. "And then you let go." She reaches up to rub her tender throat. Her pulse beats against her fingertips.

The Doctor's hand floats up to his temple, and he shakes his head. [ I see. ] He doesn't explain, or apologize, or even ask her if she's alright, and there's a part of her that wishes he would. He seems somber, though, and he's not reaching to harm her again.

Feng Min sits there for a couple of silent minutes, just trying to breathe steady through her nose and listening to the wheeze and whistle of him breathing around and through the cannula. Had he attacked her on purpose? Wouldn't he have finished the job, if that were the case? She wants to grab for his sleeve and demand that he explain it to her, even if he thinks she wouldn't understand. Why?

Finally, she says softly, "Otto Stamper's not your name, is it?"

He looks at her sideways. [ No. ]

Holding his gaze, Feng Min whispers, against all better judgment, "Do you have one?"

A silence lapses. The Doctor weaves his fingers together over his knees. [ Yes. I once had a name. I also once had a human body, like yours. ]

Stunned, Feng Min asks, "What about the... the other killers?"

He just nods at her.

Suddenly, she feels like crying. There's a black canyon of despair opening inside of her, swallowing her whole into the deep. They're all being punished by the Entity, aren't they? What makes her any different from him, or the Pig, or the Huntress, or the Cannibal, or any one of them? They're all prisoners. Prisoners with different roles. The realization of this truth has come down on her all at once.

She blinks several times, until the threat of tears goes away, mollified by the thought of showing that much vulnerability to anyone, let alone the killer before her.

Staring down into her lap, she asks, "Can you tell me why I can sometimes hear the Entity when I'm near you?"

[ You're merely hearing what I hear. It's a part of me. Just like it is already a part of you. ] The Doctor gets up from the chair and leans over to help her to her feet. It's more like picking her up, really, considering his inhuman strength and her petite frame. She grasps at his arm to regain her balance, trying not to touch the exposed cables, and then she slips out of his grasp, suddenly afraid of the strange draw she feels towards him.

"Did you find what you wanted this time?" Feng Min runs a hand through her hair. He'd found out about the folders, but he hadn't mentioned the tapes. Either he's not telling her so, or he hadn't accessed the memory, which is interesting.

[ Psychologically, you are obviously unwell. ] Speak for yourself, she wants to say. [ But I still can't determine the source of your link to me. We will need to try again. ]

"I guess," she says, "I'll just have to keep visiting."

He cants his head at her. [ Your company is not unpleasant. ] The Doctor presses a hand to her back to guide her out of the office. She recognizes that he intends to walk her out, but whether it's from concern that she'll try stealing again or concern about her well-being, she doesn't know. It's almost certainly the former, but a little part of her wonders.

"That's the nicest thing anyone's said about me in a while," she says, and she sort of means it, although she's not sure he'll appreciate her humor.

But he laughs, open and clearly. [ How sad for you. ]

"I'm not great at making friends." Feng Min shrugs, and then says, a little too boldly, maybe, "Can you save the choking me for trials, though?"

The Doctor seems to take it in stride, the laughter crackling sharper. There's a sort of lightness in his demeanor right now that she doesn't think she's just imagining. [ I'll attempt not to renege on our agreement again. ]

They come to the entrance, where, beyond it, the trees and fog await, behind a serene drift of snow coming silently down from the sky. Feng Min steps out into it and tips her head up, feeling snowflakes land on her face as she stares into the Entity's approximation of night. It feels nice, especially on her throat, which is still hot and uncomfortable and raw-feeling. She's almost looking forward to the next time she's killed so she won't have to deal with the injury.

The Doctor appears next to her. She sees him look up and scan the dark sky as well, as if he's curious to know what she's staring at, until he seems to get it.

[ It seems real, doesn't it? ]

"Yes," she whispers, and the sadness clutches again at her heart, because she knows it isn't, and as long as she's here, it never will be. She glances up at him. "I... I need to know. Will you ever tell me who he is? Otto Stamper." She now knows that the name is important somehow.

The Doctor looks down at her, his red eye glowing in the shadows. [ Some doors are better left closed. ]

At the campfire, with one of Jake's scarves wrapped around her bruised and aching throat, Feng Min realizes that he hadn't told her no.

Chapter Text

They can't make out the title on the sign, even with both flashlight beams focused on it. The paint's so faded away that the ragged, bleached wood is all they can really see. No outlines, no indications. No shadow of a clue. A circus with no name.

Feng Min would rather be anywhere else, at the moment, even though the other options aren't appealing, either. She's encountered the Clown only a handful of times so far, and just those few had been all it took to understand that she didn't want to encounter him again, especially not now, while scavenging out in the Black Fog with Nea. She hates circuses, for one. She thinks most people do. The looping music that sticks in her ears like cotton candy. The uncertainty of never knowing when to laugh or gasp. The spinning lights. The motion sickness of following acrobats. The sick spectacle of watching some daredevil flip high into the big top on a motorcycle, so very close to lopping some poor audience member's head off. Used to always make her flinch, but she still looked. She hadn't been that much of a coulrophobe before her time in the Entity's realm, but she thinks she now probably qualifies as one, as much as she also qualifies for the phobias of 'woman coming at you with an axe,' or 'actual ghosts hunting you down,' or 'man with knives for fingers.'

They'd been careful coming in, not wanting to be gassed. The Clown's vapors — literal; something in the air, something that pours out of him like poison, great pink clouds of it in seemingly limitless supply — bring the Doctor's static field effect to mind, the way it would just hurt in your head, but the vapor's effects tended towards the more immediate and physical. You could feel it getting into your body, and it was impossible to avoid, because you were breathing it in. Welcome to the fucking circus.

Nothing's sacred to the Entity, she surmises, a thought she's had many times before. Maybe this particular circus had really existed, once, in the real world, the one on the other side of the veil. It had probably brought joy to many. Laughter had sung here; memories had taken shape and imprint. Sunlight had touched the striped tents. The signpost would have been painted in every single color of the rainbow, the name visible to everyone within a mile. This place once had people in it.

Now, she thinks, there's only ghosts.

Nea's moving ahead, picking up the stairs of the caravan as though she hasn't got a care in the world, like she's not even a little bit concerned that the Clown might just be waiting inside to ambush intruders. Wouldn't be the first time they got themselves killed like that. Probably not the last. They'd been out scavenging with Jake and Meg that first time, and the Hag had come upon them out of nowhere. Even outside of the Entity's need for sacrifice and feeding, the killer had no reservations about what she wished to do with them. The memory still makes Feng Min's stomach flip— a sharp and clear recollection of what it had felt like to have her abdomen ripped right open by the wretched thing's deformed arm, her guts spilling out of her, everywhere. Literally eaten alive by the mouthful. She'd been practically mute after that one after reviving back at the campfire, unwilling to talk about the incident with anybody until what felt like days had passed.

To say that the killers are as dangerous outside of trials as they are inside of them is an understatement.

Feng Min can hear Nea whistling inside the trailer, and the sound of things being moved around as she goes through the interior. Feng Min tears her distracted gaze away from the dusty old ticket booth and walks past the target board to see if she can find anything in the crates stacked up against the floodlights.

"Holy shit!" Nea's voice breaks through the caravan just as she gets her hands under the edge of the seal. A second after that, her companion steps outside, waving something at her. "Look what I found!"

For Nea to sound so happy is unusual, so Feng Min's not sure if she wants to see whatever it is, because Nea's always up to something silly or obnoxious, but she gets up and looks. "What?"

Nea drops a bottle into her hands, and Feng Min fumbles and nearly drops it to the gravel, her elbows bowing. She hefts it up in her grip, shooting Nea a short look before she examines what has been handed to her. It's bottom-heavy glass, the cap sealed, filled with a clear fluid. Clean water? Can it be? The label says it's...

"Gin?" she reads aloud.

It's a shock. How long has it been since she tasted alcohol, or anything at all? She can barely believe that the glass bottle she's holding in her hands is real. She's never even heard of the Entity allowing for anything like this before. Alcohol. In the Clown's caravan, which has to mean — there's the catch — that it belongs to him.

"I don't know if this is a good idea," she says. It feels like her mouth is moving on its own. "I wouldn't, if I were you." Are her hands shaking? The liquid dances around inside the bottle, sloshing up the neck.

"I meaaaan," begins Nea, "I guess it could be a trick. Like maybe it's full of chloroform... or poison? But I doubt it." She's grinning. "Who cares if we steal it? What's that ugly motherfucker gonna do to us that he wasn't gonna do already?"

Nea does have a point. Before Feng Min can reply, Nea goes on.

"Holy shit. Everyone's gonna freak out." She's unzipping her backpack, looking ready to make away with the theft. "I haven't been drunk in so long. You think it still works the same way here? We gotta find out."

Feng Min is still staring down at the bottle, and then what Nea's saying really clicks with her. It's been so long. She's right. So long since she'd just been able to turn her mind off and her autopilot on, bottle through bottle. Night after night. It's how she'd done it before, and, fuck, it had even worked for a while, until it didn't.

Suddenly, she's afraid of the bottle, more scared of it than of whatever the Clown might do after finding out he had been stolen from, afraid of how much she wants to taste what's inside of it just one more time, and she hands it back to Nea.

"Yeah," she says, unable to keep the unease out of her face. "The others will be really happy."

Nea seems to notice her expression, because she's giving Feng Min a funny look, but then she slips the bottle into her backpack and cinches it tight. "Well, let's get the hell out of here before Puddles the Clown shows up," she suggests, and Feng Min nods.

Although she does her best to keep her eyes on Nea's back, Feng Min thinks to herself that she wouldn't entirely mind if the dark mist chose to separate them during their journey back through the forest to the campfire. Just to avoid the temptation of what is to come. She's not one to deny her fellow survivors a moment of relaxation. But it's the temptation she's not sure she can handle. She's a person that always kept her eyes trained on exactly what she wanted. If it meant joining with others to get it, she would. If it meant forging forward alone, she'd do that, too. And if it meant stabbing allies in the back, well, she'd never once hesitated. In both the virtual world and out of it.

Even now, Feng Min notes, she's really only worried about herself. There are so many ways she could express her concerns to Nea. Stop her and say, I can't really handle my liquor, or I'd rather stay back here until you're all done drinking, or even, Look, I've been up to something crazy, at that hospital, and I need you to talk me out of it before something really bad happens...

The sense of impending dread is almost as strong as the instinct to stay silent about it all. Almost. And so she keeps it all in her mouth. Protects her secrets. And swallows.



"Never have I ever had a fantasy about someone at this campfire," says Meg, sitting back with her legs extended in front of her, looking a little smug.

"That's not fair," says Nea immediately. "Jake isn't here, so Claudette gets a free pass out of this one—" Feng Min's pretty sure she's had more than a few mouthfuls of alcohol, but there doesn't seem to be any real difference between Nea's sober and tipsy selves: she's still completely tactless.

Meg stamps her fists into the log below her. "Don't be an asshole!" she barks, but nearby, Claudette doesn't really seem to be all that embarrassed.

"It's not a secret," she says, shrugging. "If anything, I'd think that Nea would—"

"I get it," Nea interjects, a little too quickly to not come off suspicious, but she extends her hand into the air and then lifts her tin cup to her mouth. Feng Min's pretty sure she's watched Quentin clean off sets of bloodied sutures in that thing. Next to her, Ace waves both of his hands in a manner that suggests he may have just been awarded a prize, and Feng Min is pretty sure he's only sitting down and staying still so that he can drink on every round. A cheerful Kate is taking a sip, too, along with David.

Claudette seems to choose her statement carefully. Eventually, she goes with, "Never have I ever been kicked out of a bar."

Feng Min remains seated right where she is, having chosen not to participate. The compulsion is there, enough that she feels cold and shaky, even though the ambient temperature of the fire never strays from lukewarm and just barely tolerable. There's too much on her mind already, her thoughts spinning at light speed; there's no energy left, really, to stave off the desire to ask for a drink, but she's stubbornly persisting, anyway. She really wishes the game would go by faster.

If she were to participate, she thinks, she'd have to drink right now.

Ace is happily drinking again. David's just laughing, reaching over to bump their fists together. Feng Min leans forward and draws her knees to her chest, lets her head tip onto her crossed arms like she's tired. Maybe she can sleep it off, instead of remembering. It's hard to tune out all of the chatter, though. So she sits there in the thick of it, managing by stubbornness alone, telling herself that it's just another test of endurance. Most tests like this hurt.



Feng Min waits until almost everyone else has fallen asleep and unconsciously begun the descent into the Entity's black web, and then she carefully gets up. She crouches next to one of the storage chests — a survivor had dragged them here many campfires ago — and reaches in for a pair of gloves. She's not sure whose they are; clothing tends to be passed around to whoever will fit it, and it's never been hard to scavenge for. A survival situation like theirs is no time or place to be picky about that kind of thing. When so much has been taken from you, Feng Min muses, a little seems to go a long way. She feels bitter when she thinks about the sad sort of gratitude that fills her whenever she finds something as simple as a battery or a pouch of chalk out there in the fog. Her life has come to mean so little to the world, and the world has come to mean so little to her life.

She slips into the forest with purpose this time, a focus honed quietly during the hours she'd spent waiting out the others, watching the bottle empty, counting to sixty beneath her breath cyclically. Again and again and again until she'd waited it out and passed the test. She knows she should feel good about that, but the fact is, she doesn't; she wishes she'd caved.

The dark mist is not relenting at first. It doesn't seem to want her that night; it takes her down a winding path that doesn't end, circling through the same patterns of trees over and over, each configuration of branches changing every time she looks away. Always with the glow of the campfire in the distance, urging her to change her mind and go back. Remembering what Jake taught her, she clings to her stubborn streak and keeps on walking away from the light. After that, it feels like she's made to walk through the fog for hours, struggling to see in the dark, now and then hearing the rustle and growl and whisper of something that never once chooses to come into sight, but remains in step with her, ensuring that she keeps moving.

She strains to listen. Really listen, without her ears, for the static. She'll know it when she feels it, and she tells herself, tells the Entity, if it's listening, that she'll just keep walking until she gets there. Not even exhaustion can kill her in this world, after all.

The forest relents after a mass of time that Feng Min can't divine any chronological order from. It feels like emerging from a dream, or sleep paralysis. She feels an incredible sort of release of tension as the temperature around her drops and the snow comes upon her, and then the glowing form of the complex itself, and she's glad to leave the fog at her back, stepping through the front doors to peel her gloves off and take a quick look down the hallway.

He's here. He must be. It's not very distinct, flooded by the static that fills every room, but she can feel it. He's definitely here. Feng Min heads down the hallway she thinks is closest to the signal, but then something flashing in the corner of her eye makes her stop. She looks up. It's one of the security cameras. Its red eye is on, blinking.

Feeling somewhat foolish but figuring it has to be worth a shot, she stands up on her tiptoes and hops, waving her arms at it. "You there?" she calls out, mostly facetiously.

The camera turns in her direction, readjusting the lens focus upon her with a whirr. Feng Min startles, falling back onto her heels, and quickly turns her face away from it.

"That— that's creepy," she gasps, almost petulantly, in her embarrassment. "Can you just come out from wherever you're watching me?"

She doesn't really expect a reply, but she jumps again when the Doctor's voice slips right into her head, making her whirl around, searching for where he might be. Has he been standing behind her the whole time?

[ I'll be a moment. ]

No, he's not behind her. And he's not up or down the hallway, either, at least as far as she can see. Feng Min stands there with her arms crossed, sneaking a glance up at the camera now and then. It doesn't seem to connect to anything, now that she looks at it; there's no cables or wires emerging from anywhere on it. It's just sticking out of the wall. And she's never seen any sort of monitoring space for cameras anywhere in the hospital, unlike the security room at the meatpacking plant. At least not one she's had access to.

She feels the Doctor's physical static field long before she hears his footsteps or even gets her eyes on him. It's numbing today, neither painful nor particularly enjoyable, but it provides enough space for her to think. When he emerges, she notes that he's still wearing the nasal tube he'd had on the last time she'd seen him. He seems worse for wear, somehow, his breathing more audible today. Or maybe she's just becoming more attuned to it.

Not feeling comfortable with courtesies like, Hello, how are you, Feng Min tears her eyes from his grotesque face and says, by way of greeting, "So... I haven't stolen anything today."

[ Yet, ] the Doctor says, eyeing her, his arms folded over his chest.

"Yet," Feng Min agrees, nodding, a nervous, ill-advised little laugh coming out of her mouth.

[ And you won't, ] he continues. He does not elaborate with justifications. He seems to be trusting her to understand the consequences; she does.

Feng Min nods her assent, slipping her hands into her coat and staring at his pocket watch. He is so very big, this supreme predator, that the end of the long chain is nearly eye-level with her. She reaches up to rub at her throat beneath the scarf.

[ We'll be trying something different today, ] he says, and walks off. Feng Min hurries to follow. [ I've realized that navigating your cerebral cortex will be much easier if you're unconscious. ]

And, with that, Feng Min comes to a stop again. Unconscious. He stops, too, turning to look at her with what she thinks might be annoyance, if he could make any other expression aside from bared teeth and bulging eyes.

"I don't know if I'm okay wi—" she starts.

[ Yes, you are, ] he says, his voice little more than a soft hum blooming and dissipating like smoke in her mind. It brightens the static in her brain, makes it shine like the flame of a candle. The way he says it makes her think, Yes, I am, I'm okay with it, tells her that it's alright for just a moment, that she can trust him—

What's happening to her? Something in the Doctor's voice, in the noise, is picking away at her will. Pushing at her, like a little nudge at her side. Just a test, to see if she's paying attention. Feng Min focuses, scowling, and sucks in a whistling breath. The static goes dull once more, satisfied that her mind is alert. She uneasily moves to keep up with him as he starts walking again.

"I'll listen to the details," she finally says, telling herself to be careful, that this might be the time she really comes to regret it.

The only response the Doctor grants her is the glitchy laughter. He's reaching for something on the wall. A bell tones. When she looks past him, she is startled to find a set of elevator doors gliding open before her.

The idea that Léry's Memorial Institute might have a second floor had only come to her fleetingly. She'd noticed before the way the windows on the outside of the building were lit all the way up to the roof, much higher than the ceilings she could see inside— like the one she stood under now, next to the Doctor.

But... an elevator. She's never seen one here before. She's sure there hasn't been one here before. Not for her, anyway.

The Doctor's waiting for her to step inside, and so, overcoming her shock, Feng Min does. It's a very old model, at least by her standards, and it's uncomfortably narrow, with a wall and floor made from some kind of wood paneling. The buttons are all brass, and very worn, at that. She experiences a very surreal moment when the Doctor gets inside next to her and sort of has to lean over so his head doesn't hit the ceiling. She'd laugh at the absurdity of it all if she didn't feel so weird right now, or if she wasn't certain that he would not take kindly to it.

For about twenty cramped seconds, Feng Min has to stand right next to the killer she has had so many strange encounters with, her shoulder sort of pressing into his side, trying to pretend that it isn't. She can feel the little tremors that come off of him from the ever-moving circuit throughout his body, causing uncomfortable twinges in the muscles of her shoulder. If that's enough to be painful for her, she thinks, what do the wires inside his body feel like for him?

He gets out of the elevator before she does, and Feng Min sort of wants to hit the 1 button and go back to the first floor, which is still a frightening place, but at least it'd be a frightening place she sort of knows. She gets out, though, because she hadn't come all that way for nothing, and looks around.

The second floor of Léry's Memorial Institute appears as nondescript as the first, on an initial examination. It has the same pale walls and cracked floors. There's more damage to the ceiling here, of course, letting through small piles of snow that have gathered before the elevator lobby. It's icy beneath her soles, so she treads carefully.

"What's up here?" she asks, curiosity winning over caution as she steals glances down the halls.

[ This was mostly a restricted area, ] the Doctor says. [ Now, it's just a poor copy. ]

"A copy?" Feng Min looks up into his face as they move beneath a sign that reads DEBRIEFING off to one direction and PROCESSING off to another.

[ This place is nothing like the real Léry's was. It was a research facility like none other in its time. The advancements made here were far beyond ordinary human knowledge— and comprehension. ] The electricity takes on a new glow, icing the walls and ceiling. [ The Institute housed technology that could have freed all humanity. ]

The Doctor's voice in her head is even and completely lacking in any emphasis, so she doesn't know how to place how he might feel about it, if he feels anything at all— and that would only be if he's actually telling her the truth. But Feng Min's struggling to reconcile statements like these with her growing realization that this place is not a hospital at all. Was not a hospital at all.

"What do you mean... could have?" she finally asks, having decided that directly asking him about the technology he's alluding to isn't going to elicit any answers that make sense to her.

And what does he even mean by freed? By whose definition?

[ That information has been lost permanently, ] he replies, and that's all he gives her. There's a sort of warning in his tone: don't ask for more. Fair enough.

The Doctor's got his back to her as he reaches for the door he's brought her to, towards the end of the hall. On the front is a placard so faded she can't actually tell what it was once supposed to say.

Inside is a sort of recovery room, as cramped as the ones she's used to seeing on the first floor, with something Feng Min first mistakes for a sacrificial hook set up in the corner. This causes her to freeze in the doorway, feeling her heart stop, but then she realizes that it's not a hook at all. It's some sort of piece of medical equipment she doesn't know and can't identify, with a long, jointed arm. There are a lot of cables and tubes running through it, hung up on the raised portion like an IV line.

[ You're going to go to sleep here, ] says the Doctor matter-of-factly, crossing over to the machine. There is a flat, padded table beneath the hanging machine. [ I'll first connect you to the monitoring equipment, and once you're asleep, I'll be able to examine your brain activity. ]

Feng Min blanches. Sleeping here. Right in one of the killer's realms. Right on a floor she doesn't know the layout of, hooked up to some machine she knows nothing about, at the whims of a man who has literally killed her before. How can he even expect her to fall asleep in his presence in the first place?

The Doctor starts laughing. It must be the look on her face.

[ I would have thought you'd be grateful for a bed to lay on, ] he observes, the electricity jumping from shoulder to shoulder with the staccato laughter.

Feng Min looks at it. The table's cushioning is worn and thin, but, fuck, it's a horizontal surface with no rocks beneath it. And he's right. Just thinking of being able to lay down on something soft is a luxury that has gone extinct. She's become used to the cold, hard ground by the campfire, to their uncomfortable nylon sleeping bags, refusing to huddle for warmth with any of the others. But here is a bed — albeit one covered in the same stains as any other, in this place — and she hates how persuasive just the promise of that comfort is. It's so much more tempting than even the alcohol had been.

"What exactly are you going to do while I'm asleep?" she asks, trying and failing not to sound mistrustful, nibbling anxiously on her bottom lip and deliberately refusing to meet eye contact.

[ Nothing I wouldn't rather do to you if you were conscious, ] the Doctor says immediately, the laughter reaching a vicious pitch before cutting out entirely as he steps out of the room with no indication that he requires her to follow, leaving her to absorb that comment with an expression of great frustration and a squirm in her gut.

Agitated and unsettled, she paces the room a little, trying and failing to guess the function of the machine in front of her and what he's planning on doing with it, before she notices something she hadn't before: a shower stall in the corner. There's no curtain over it, or anything— it's just a tiled stall, like the repetitive ones she's accustomed to encountering downstairs. It's dry and dusty and the tiles are coming to pieces. When she steps into it and reaches for the knob absentmindedly, she's not really expecting anything to happen. She figures it's way too rusted and broken down to actually work.

But then water blasts down onto her. Real water, clear and freezing cold but then quickly growing warm, and then hot and hotter.

Feng Min stands there, her mouth slightly open, the shower head pouring down upon her, running down her face and chin and soaking through her coat, plastering her sweater to her body beneath and saturating her jeans. So hot it's almost burning, making her flesh smart under her clothes.

Hot water. It's been so long.

So taken aback she feels faint, she crumples to her knees on top of the drain, the water splashing down her hair and soaking it heavily against her neck and shoulders. It pools in her lap, sending clouds of steam up into her face. She watches it swirl together beneath her, black with dust from the filthy tiles.

All human comforts. All human dignity. Just feeling warm water for the first time in what feels like— fuck, for what feels like eternity, makes Feng Min fully and truly feel for the first time, physically, all that the Entity has taken from her.

She lowers her hands into it, places them palm down right on either side of the drain, watching the water become clearer and clearer, disappearing down and away. She starts to cry, despite herself. Silently, the tears lost in the warm spray.

How many minutes pass? She isn't sure. Feng Min hears the static come together behind her— stronger, for just a moment, before fading out again. She remains where she is, slumped against the tiled wall, eyes closed. She doesn't know how long she sits there in her sodden clothes under the water, but it's long enough that she only gets up when she feels it start to run cold again.

Roused from her numb state, she gets to her feet, encumbered by clothes heavy with water. Grimacing, she reaches to shut the tap off, and is immediately aware of just how chilly it really is in the Institute, even in a room without any damage to the ceiling or walls. She shakes off her coat and tries to wring as much as she can out of her sweater. A puddle forms beneath her as she steps out, at a loss on what to do about how cold she is now. She's turning towards one of the treatment beds, reaching for the ratty old blanket, when she notices a folded pile of fabric on top.

Clothes. She runs her hand over them. He's left her clothes...? Astonishment overwhelms.

Shivering, Feng Min picks the pile up and shakes it out. She's not sure what she's holding at first. A hospital gown?

No, she thinks. There's a top, and there's pants, and the pale blue color makes her think at first that they might be scrubs. But then she brings the worn, laundered fabric closer to her face, into the light, and sees the faded lettering on the breast. Well, not quite lettering— numbers.

She lowers the top as she realizes just what these clothes make her think of, feeling sick. But she's freezing, her body shaking all over, so she picks up the pants, too, and then looks around uncertainly.

There are two security cameras in the room. One points out from a corner, but the other is trained directly on her. Feng Min tries to pull the privacy curtain around the bed, but it's ripped almost in half, and she can't find an angle at which the camera won't see her.

She stares up into it, feeling exasperated, but then her discomfort becomes too much. The wet clothes feel like they're turning to ice to her body. Looking up at the camera, Feng Min says, mostly for her own sake, "If you're watching, I'm going to figure out how to kill you. I mean it."

And then she struggles to get her clothes off, unable to bear another second of being in her freezing clothes. They're heavy and stuck to her skin. Her jeans are especially a challenge; the water has turned the blood and mud stains on them into a gross, paste-like combination, and once she's fought to get them off, she has to rinse her legs in the shower again, hopping from foot to foot in the cold water. With another furtive look at the camera's steady red eye, she peels her shirt and underwear off and then quickly hurries to put the spare set of clothes on.

They're too big for her; she can tell that right away. There's no drawstring to pull the pants tight around her narrow waist. She manages to use a hair elastic to sort of knot them at her hip, which keeps them up. She's swimming in the top, but at least she's not wet any more, and that's all that matters. She doubles over to shake the water out of her hair before she heads to the door and looks out into the hallway, trying to sense for him.

"Hello?" she calls.

There's no response, but then he turns the corner, having slipped on a long white coat at some point, a book under his arm.

"Um," she starts, with a torturous sense of embarrassment, "thanks." She tugs on the oversized top, tries to ignore the imprint of numbers on it.

[ If you compromise your health with sudden temperature changes, I won't be able to get a proper reading, ] is all he says, but the look he's giving her — his one good eye flicking over her body — is somehow significant. He motions for her to head back into the room, and she does. She's hung her wet clothes up in a locker, and thinks of how funny Nea would find it if she told her she'd used a locker here as an actual locker instead of a hiding place, but she's again reminded of just how much she needs to keep held under her tongue. How much may be at stake.

Feng Min watches as the Doctor brings the machine to life with what she's pretty sure is a straight jolt of electricity from his body right into the machinery. Watching him, she supposes that there's no real use in going to the effort to plug something in when you're an indefinite source of energy yourself.

She takes a seat on the examination table. It's soft, as she both hoped and feared it might be. She tests it with her hands, bouncing a little in place when he isn't looking. Very soft.

The Doctor sits across the room before a monitor, inputting commands that Feng Min can't make out. The physical distance between herself and him makes her feel more bold, so to fill the silence and center her wandering mind she asks, "This isn't a hospital, is it?"

He looks up. He's got his legs crossed at the ankles in front of him, sitting parallel to the monitor. [ I was wondering when you'd ask. ]

"I've been thinking it for a while," she confesses, allowing herself to look up at him in the shadowed corner. The only hints of light come from the monitor and his luminous eye. "This place is some kind of..." Her mouth goes dry.

The killer before her stares silently in her direction. Feng Min shakes her head a little too urgently, too quickly.

[ Some kind of what, Feng Min? ] the Doctor prompts as he gets up. He is so, so tall, blocking out the light from the screen, two steps taking him right before her, stopped in front of the table. He looks down at her, and he does not kneel or crouch or so much as lean in. Just stands above her, like a statue, a deity's idol, a figure whose unblinking glare demands that she prostrate herself before him, just daring her to keep standing.

"A prison," she whispers. "The cameras... and the restraints. The numbers. The machines. All of this stuff... It all looks like it's designed to hurt people." She tears her gaze down away from his eyes, his face, from the dark grimace of his mouth.

[ Are you afraid? ] comes the voice in her mind, plain and scrubbed of all emotion. The Doctor's hand has come up before her, and it moves to stroke through her hair again in that unhesitating, intrusive manner of his before she can even think to move away. His sparking fingertips spread out across her scalp, causing a pleasurable little tingle that burrows beneath her skull and ripples over her thoughts. She sways into him dizzily, pressing her head into his palm. He steadies her.

"No," she breathes, and she realizes that she's not lying. She's not scared, not right now, and maybe that's the part that should scare her.

A prison. She knows it now. People had suffered here. Died here, probably, long before this facility had come to house the Entity's sacrifices. Likely — all too likely, more likely than she ever wants to know — because of him. So much information is spilling out before her, but she's still missing the crucial puzzle pieces she needs to slot it all together.

Feng Min imagine, for a moment, his hand coming up over her face, shocking her until her brain is coming out of her ears again, or closing around her throat to squeeze the life from her, or for him to slip free and employ that cruelly spiked and electrified weapon of his.

The Doctor doesn't do any of those things. He just strokes her hair, silent, then he pulls her head to his abdomen, her cheek and ear pressed to his hard stomach. She's stiff at first, not understanding, but then he doesn't do anything else, no electric shock to follow up with or anything, so she just sits there leaning into him, not daring to move her hands from her lap.

She can't hear anything but a mute humming coming from deep inside of him. He's solid and surprisingly warm, his fingers tense atop her head. She doesn't even realize he's scanning her thoughts until he speaks up again.

[ You're being truthful, ] the voice murmurs, the strength and clarity of the words flaring in and out. [ That makes you even more foolish than I thought. ]

He lets her go, taking the warmth with him. Feng Min sits back, nodding weakly. Her head tingles all the way down her neck into the base of her spine, up into her racing heart and out through her mouth. She swallows numbly. "I never said I was making the right choice by coming here."

[ And yet here you are. ] He pulls a chair up next to the examination bed. [ Lie down. ]

Feng Min doesn't feel anywhere close to sleepy, and doubts she can get there any time soon in his overwhelming presence, but she obeys, mostly because the bed isn't fully reclined anyway. She settles back against it, rigid as a first-aid practice dummy, and the Doctor crosses back over to the machinery on the other side of the wall. He begins drawing loops of cable from the arm of the machine, and he comes back with some sort of contraption in his hands that's dragging three different wires. Feng Min stares at it, mistaking it at first for the rig attached to his own head, but the design of it is more of a sort of circlet wired with sensors. She doesn't see anything sharp sticking out of it, at least— which, she supposes, might be as good as it gets around here.

"I have to put that on, don't I?" she asks listlessly, staring at it. The Doctor laughs a little at her expression, which she quickly hides as she leans forward so that he can fit it over her head. There's an uncomfortable feeling as he adjusts the fit of the device, bringing it tight down against her temples and forehead. The tension is enough to forebode a migraine.

[ This one doesn't even hurt, ] he admonishes when he sees her frown. She remains silent — which is probably for the best — as he begins the meticulous work of finding places for electrodes on her scalp, parting her hair in different sections to find the points he needs.

By the time he's finished, Feng Min is positive that she won't be able to fall asleep, not just because of his presence but because the whole arrangement is so uncomfortable. Wires emerge out of every side of her head, trailing from between the layers of her hair. It feels like she's sprouted horns, or has put on some particularly burdensome gaming headset. She resists the urge to reach up and mess around with the fit.

She eases back against the foam pillow, trying to pretend she's not anxious, and watches the Doctor as he works at the monitor, somehow navigating the flickering snow-filled screens. He eventually comes back to the chair next to the bed and sits down. He's dragged a cable over with him; it stems from the same spot in the back of his neck he'd used last time.

[ Sleep, ] he says, staring at her.

"What?" Feng Min stares back. "I can't just fall asleep like that. Not right this second."

[ Then when? ] The Doctor sounds a bit impatient.

"I don't know?" Feng Min purses her lips at him. "Can't you just, like, zap me unconscious?" She points at her forehead.

The Doctor starts laughing. [ Oh, I could. I'd love to. But it might alter the data. You may end up going under a little too much. ] He's got the book he'd brought along on his lap, like he intends to occupy himself while she's asleep. She can't quite make out the title on its spine.

"Fine," she says, huffing, and because he seems to be in something adjacent to a decent mood, she says, "Then leave." She points at the door.

[ It doesn't work that way, either, ] he says, but he still sounds amused. [ Although I understand that my face can't be easy to fall asleep next to. ]

"No, it's not," says Feng Min, unable to contest the point, but a wild surge of playfulness, the sort that's always gotten her in trouble before, has her asking, "Can you turn towards the wall or something?" Quickly, she adds, "I'm just kidding."

[ You almost hurt the feelings I don't have, ] he replies mildly, turning his attention down to the book. He's got it held down low on his lap, and the way he's staring at it seems familiar, somehow, until she deduces the reason why. She shifts forward and tries to catch his gaze.

"You need glasses, don't you?" she asks, surprised even as she says it.

The Doctor only hums at first. [ It doesn't matter. My powers enable me to see more clearly than anyone. ]

That's probably true, Feng Min thinks, because he is an incredibly effective hunter; she's seen that for herself, proved it with her own blood, and heard it from the other survivors. But he hadn't denied it, either. Ironic, she realizes, that his eyes have been permanently pried open, even though he can't see very well.

"I wonder what you look like in glasses," she presses, inching forward into the bed rail to lean towards him. She can't imagine it. Would he have favored round frames? Square ones? Metal or plastic?

[ I wonder what you look like asleep, ] the Doctor says pointedly, not raising his eyes from the book.

Feng Min snorts. "Your bedside manner sucks."

[ I'm not that sort of doctor, ] he says, finally looking up at her. [ And the compromise you've negotiated has eliminated many of my usual methods. ]

"You mean torture," says Feng Min. The more she sits here, listening to the steady static and vibrations of the monitoring equipment, the bolder she feels. He's letting her push it, she realizes. He's actually allowing this. He's inviting the questions.

[ Torture? How gauche, ] he says dismissively, a sort of growl coming out of his throat. The electricity sparks on top of his head, sending little flickers of light down to the floor. [ It's experimentation. I specialize in interrogative and disciplinary techniques. It was my life's work here. ]

"Same thing," she challenges. Her heart's going pretty fast, all adrenaline-sick, telling her to slow the fuck down, to be careful, to not push things so far that she slips off the edge.

The Doctor stares at her, a loud breath shuddering out between his teeth. [ You've got quite the mouth on you, ] he says, agitated, and he almost sounds impressed, she thinks, but maybe she's just imagining it. [ What does it take to shut you up, since you've insisted that I am not to harm you? ]

Feng Min can't come up with something to say right away, her cheeks coloring pink at quite the mouth on you. It's a condescending, abrasive taunt if she's ever heard one, and she'd heard a fucking lot during her years working her way up pro gaming ranks. Biting her lip, she tries not to grin as she shoots back, "You're supposed to be smart, aren't you? You'll figure it out."

[ Oh, I will. I plan on figuring you out completely, ] the voice in her head slips to her, and, in tandem, the Doctor's head tips towards one shoulder in a languid manner, his eye fixed upon her.

There's a sort of force, a kind of intent in the way he says it, that kills off any clever follow-up Feng Min might be contemplating. Rendered vulnerable by this remark, and seeing that now would be a wise time to pull back, she just reaches for the blankets, pulling them up over her body before abruptly changing the subject.

"Can I lay on my side?" she asks, and when he nods, Feng Min lowers herself to try to get comfortable, facing towards his chair. It takes a bit to find a place for her head on the pillow with all of the wires woven between her hair, but she eventually settles with her cheek pressed to the foam.

With nothing else to look at, she watches him leaf through the book for some time. He seems to be a quick reader; she spends nearly ten minutes following his finger as it moves from paragraph to paragraph, watching its hypnotic, regular rise and fall up the spine of the book, its path lit by the sparks that fall from his head down onto the pages. She tries to listen only to the dull static, to the whisper of his fingertips moving the pages, to the faint wind carrying the snow in through the cracks in the rooftop. She knows that she needs to let herself sink into the black. Stop with the overthinking and drift off. She wants answers. She really does, but...

Twenty sleepless minutes pass before she finally voices it aloud. The thing that's been in the back of her head since the start of all of this. "I don't think we're going to figure anything out. About this... thing. About my mind... and yours."

[ Hmm? Why come here at all, if that's what you think? ] the Doctor asks, his fingertips stopping over a passage. There is no detectable emotion in the words. Nothing to indicate if he even disagrees.

Feng Min doesn't know how to answer that. She just stares at the sideways view of him from her place on the first bed she's slept on in months— or maybe years or decades or lifetimes; she doesn't actually know. He'd made this comfort accessible to her, hadn't he? All of this is only happening with his express permission. She's just still not sure what the total cost will be to her after all of this— because she knows that it's going to cost her, sooner or later. She'll end up pushing herself too far, too hard, too much, and losing everything. Just like before. Exactly like before. It's not as if she even thinks it's going to come to anything useful to her situation, anyway. Even with a concrete answer for whatever's going on between herself and the Doctor, it won't mean anything in the end. It can't. The nature of the Entity's world will never allow for it.

So why is she here? He's waiting expectantly for her reply.

"I keep hoping," she says, and she doesn't know how to finish the sentence, doesn't know what she's been hoping for. She closes her eyes, weary. The electricity coming off of his body is bright enough to show her the warm red of her blood through her eyelids.

The Doctor doesn't have any additional questions; he doesn't even ask her to clarify. She listens to him turning pages, floating the warm sea of static in his immediate radius, wading and wallowing within its frequencies, memorizing its wavelengths. She envisions the campfire: yellow, then orange, then red. Ever-shifting but never truly changing. Burning there behind her eyes, present and alive. She loses track of her own thoughts as she focuses on it and stops trying to measure the passing time. Then the colors in her head eventually smooth out into black, and, finally, the whispers usher her in.



It's the turn of the millennium and you are five years old, young enough that everything is still happening to you for the first time. Your childhood has been sheltered, but easy. Warm. Your mother and father make sure that you never notice them struggling. Their love makes you safe from that, and from everything else, too. They pray for the wind to change and choose the upcoming year to start anew, putting all their hopes on it— and on you.

It's 2002 and you are starting to understand that life is a complex, difficult, always-changing thing, and you don't like that. You want to go back to the way things were when you were much smaller. You've always been shy. Never settled. Still struggling to fit in and understand why so much has changed in your life. You think that's what growing up must be — the reality that is change — but you don't know if you want to grow up yet. You yearn for a delay, or an escape, and you find it on a computer screen. Something alive, under your hands. Somewhere to lose yourself in. You take to being someone else so much quicker than you take to being you.

It's 2016 and your whole team is wearing the gold of victory, hoisting the cup to a roaring live audience that screams your names. It's 2014 and you get to try on your very first official Laser Bears uniform; you match your teammates perfectly. You finally have a place in the world. Somewhere you fit in. It's 2012 and your mother is weaving a silk peony into your hair, and you can see her smiling in the mirror. She could be your twin in shimmering reds and golds at the new year's celebration later. She reaches to hold your hand during the fireworks, and you look more at her than you do at the explosions of light.

It's 2005 and it's platformers and it's 2006 and it's role-playing games and it's 2007 and it's first-person shooters and it's 2008 when you eventually discover multiplayer games, titles reliant on strategy and foresight and making use of the situation changing in real-time around you... and you subsequently discover something you are very, very good at.

It's 2010 and nobody's taking you seriously. No one wants to practice games with a teenage truant known for pulling twelve-hour stretches at the local Internet café and a dream that the other regulars not-so-kindly call unrealistic. Even the staff members condescend at you: little girl, they call out, little girl, pulling your name apart in their mouths like chewing gum any time you come through the door, and you have to nod and smile like you think it's funny even though on the inside you're fucking angry, because you're someone small, and they think they're big, and you hate that you've always got something to prove. They aren't even worth your anger. Nobody is. Not your parents and especially not a bunch of strangers. You bury the hatchet of your rage and tell yourself you can't expend the energy. You try to stop thinking and caring about people in the offline world: raw reality has never done anything but disappoint you.

It's 2011 and you already have a vision of the future you want— and your parents absolutely hate it. You're the only person you know who thinks you should get to choose your own destiny. They've fought you every step of the way. Feels like the whole world has. They try to drag you back. Correct your course. You won't let them; you've decided that you're going to show them all. They will see. Everyone will. You'll become something impossible to deny. You still remember where you buried that hatchet.

It's 2013 and for a while after you move out, you don't move anywhere at all. An online friend offers you space on their couch, and you take them up on it to start, but there is nowhere else you can really call home yet. Half of you thinks you've effectively ruined your life by killing the person your family wanted you to be; the other half thinks that just means a better, truer life is now beginning, so you tell yourself you're not scared. You do have a plan. It's not an easy one. Maybe not even smart, either, but you're determined, and you can make it work. Making it work means spending less time on your friend's couch and more time sleeping in Internet cafés— countless hours spent in the same booth with the few possessions to your name tucked beneath the desk with your blanket, paying off your hours there as you spend them, carefully banking for sleep in between streaming and competing time. Your parents think you're somewhere safe, but they don't get that you only ever feel safe behind a screen. Doesn't matter that you aren't tethered to anything, that you're practically a ghost in the real world as you float between your old life and the one you're trying to make for yourself. You live in that closed loop until your patience pays off, and, bit by bit, you begin earning more than the bare minimum for your needs as both your skill and notoriety increase. You make enough for better equipment, then a place to live. Those are your priorities, in that order. The order matters. You need to prove to yourself that you can do exactly what you said you would when you left home all those blurred months ago.

It's 2009 and you already know you're not interested in directing your sharp mind towards any academic path once you're done with the obligation of high school. It doesn't matter how many games your parents take away, or where they hide your computer, or how long they cut the Internet connection; you're still not interested in studying. It seems like there's nothing in the world you could say to make them understand, and you don't know why you keep trying. It's 2011 and you pick up Nebula Arc on a whim. It's 2014 and you're the one that gets picked up this time, by an agent representing a pro Nebula Arc team, the Los Angeles Laser Bears. They want you exactly as you are— a wildly talented recruit that other teams covet the moment they see your stats. They give you a home.

It's 1999 and there are orange trees all around your home and your father shows you how to tell when they're ripe for picking or not. The fruits shine like jewels, and his warm, smiling face glows next to them. It's 2001 and you encounter an orange tree on the other side of the world for the very first time, but it's all wrong. The leaves aren't the right shade of green and the fragrance is different and the skins are just too thick for your fingernails to penetrate. It's 1999 and you're sharing them with Bàba amidst a growing pile of curled peels on the back stoop. It's 2001 and they don't taste the same any more.

It's 2003 and for the first time you shout I hate you at your mother, lashing out as a child does over something you won't even remember the next day. It's 2015 and you say it again, and you think that you might really mean it this time, because she won't just be happy for you. Go figure: it's just the first day of your annual visit, and with record timing you lock yourself in the guest room and regret that you even bothered to come. Mama has always doubted you, always, and you won't let yourself think you've ever had anything to do with it. You don't even dream of appealing to your father. You'll never get through. If your mother is a grey rock, then he is a stone wall. Even knowing these truths, it just hurts you so intensely that you've never heard either of your parents say, I'm proud. You've worked so fucking hard. They don't even know half of what you've sacrificed for what you have now. Can't they see it? Why won't they see it?

It's 2016 and you wonder what would have happened to you if you'd listened to your parents and pulled yourself back, and together, and decided to cut the cord and join the real world, with all its mundane, palatable routines. You think you'd be a lot more ignorant about a lot of things. Knowing what you do now, you think you should've chosen ignorance.

It's 2011, the last year you think you actually felt happy. Really, genuinely happy, with no strings attached or some price to pay. It's 2015 and everyone loves you, the Shining Lion, the world champion, just like you've always wanted, like you always dreamed, but you're startled when you realize you don't feel anything. You'd expected happiness after reaching the top. A life fulfilled. You only feel empty. You can only think, What now? Now that you've reached the top, what direction is left for you to go?

It's 2017 and you think that you probably overdosed last night, but you're too scared to go to the hospital and confirm it, so you stay inside all weekend, sick and half-conscious, waiting for it to pass through your system. It does, but barely. You can't decide if you're happy that you're still alive or not. It's 2016 and you don't know it yet, but you're about to make one mistake that sets off a chain of events that will eventually ruin your carefully built life.

It's ???? and you just died because a man with a chainsaw and a butcher's apron sawed you in half, the spinning teeth chewing right through your flesh and then straight into your guts. You're still alive, in too much shock to even scream, by the time it meets and severs your spine; you pass out right after that. Small mercies. It's ???? and you get your head shoved into a bear trap. Serves you right for mouthing off at the man with the cleaver. It's ???? and you're running, running, running, trying to keep up with Meg, who is so much faster than you. You think, not for the first time, about how much you hate living a scavenger's pathetic existence; you can't believe you put your life on the line for a fucking toolbox. It's all you can think about by the time the hatchet sinks into your rib cage and sends you sprawling into the wet dirt, just more wounded game for the Huntress to collect.

It's ???? and you know that it's kind of pointless, but you still sometimes wonder if you died before you ended up here in Hell. Maybe you were so inebriated you just wandered into traffic, or maybe you passed out drunk and hit your head on the way down and never woke up again. Or maybe you finally found the thing you'd been searching for all along in those bars and back streets and unfamiliar apartments, the thing you'd dressed yourself up every night to go looking for, whether you knew it then or not. Eventually, you stop thinking about it. It doesn't matter now.

It's ???? and you're watching someone be disemboweled in the powerful grip of a cold-blooded maniac, right before your eyes, and it's a good thing you've already learned not to react. Not to feel. You can't help them— you can only run and hide and hope it's not you next. It's ???? and you wish you'd just gone ahead with it and killed yourself back in the real world, when you still had a chance of actually making it stick.

It's ???? and the gaps in your memory only get wider every day. You keep records and write notes for yourself, warnings and reminders written in flurries of manic activity that you have difficulty deciphering later. You cannot keep track of how much it has taken from you. It's ???? and you can see what Sally is becoming. How it's all begun to drain out of her. You see your future. Everyone, she says. Everyone, eventually. It's ???? and there's no way to undo it. Not that it could kill you. It's 1981 and you are finally declared the director of the facility, the conclusion to an inevitability. A means to an end. It's 1982 and you know that it will take a long time for your actions and decisions to be fully understood, but one day, the world will thank you. It's 1954 and for the first time someone notices your potential. Tells you that you have a gift.

It's 1970 and the nation is in turmoil. The people don't want another invasion. Your youngest brother walks out of school with the rest of the country. Your mother frets; she doesn't like seeing his studies disrupted. He comes home to reassure her and to tell you that you are working for the enemy. That the state is the enemy. You inform him that you answer only to the Directorate— not to Nixon, and certainly not to the military, either. You tell him that the projects they have you working on are going to help put an end to this war. Maybe put an end to all wars. Your brother — your stalwart brother, the only one who inherited your father's exact deep-brown, plaintive eyes — says, with undisguised disgust, that it's all the same.

It's 1967 and the telegram from overseas, addressed to next of kin, says that he has died, and that's it; no body comes home. Your father is gone, and your family is set adrift. It's 1972 and it's starting to become less difficult. You don't look away any more. You stop asking questions. You just do the work asked of you. You're reminded repeatedly that what you're doing is important. Fully sanctioned. Heroic, even. The more you push the limits, the more they approve. You have to; there is no progress to be gained without cost and sacrifice.

It's 1962 and you always prefer to spend your time together playing chess, the both of you, maybe because it's the one thing you both approach in the same way: by tactic, method. It's when you understand one another best. You are his first-born son, and he has always expected a lot from you. You have always been the eloquent type, never at a loss for words, but when it comes to your father, you feel the crushing weight of his faith and trust and hope in you, and you can never find a way to answer that, a way to tell him how badly you want to become what he thinks — knows — you are capable of achieving. He understands. You always meet in the middle, across the chessboard, when conversations won't suffice. He is the only person that has ever beaten you at the game, and this is a fact that will hold true for the rest of your earthly life.

It's 1974 and it occurs to you that you never did obtain the medical degree you had coveted since you were a young boy. You had come so close to it — you'd gotten into Yale, plucked out of obscurity by fate, and you were well on track to graduating — when you had been recruited for your talents. You'll never truly have the title of Doctor, even though you have learned more and achieved more than you ever thought possible in these last few years with the Directorate, far more than you ever would have at Yale. You tell yourself that your education has taken this turn because you were never meant to use your gifts in a traditional manner, anyway. You are meant for something more. It's 1979 and it always makes you laugh, how a person pleading for their life always sounds the same no matter what side of a political conflict they're on or why they're there or even what language they speak. Whether it's the enemy, a traitor, a spy, a prisoner— they all scream the same things beneath the heavy hand of your experimental electroshock treatments. It's 1971 and your mentor tells you that information is everything and knowledge is power and you do the rest of the extrapolating yourself: if you can hold all knowledge, you will hold all power.

It's 1980 and you've figured out exactly which part of the human brain needs to be stimulated and the exact wavelength that must be used to elicit the response you have been seeking for so long. You believe it is your breakthrough, but you will learn otherwise soon. It's 1978 and you are staring across the operating theater at your senior officer, the maligned Dr. Stamper. He is talking at you. Something about questions. Someone is asking questions. You're not really listening. He never notices whether you do or not, anyway. You're bored. You want to go back to your laboratory— you were just in the middle of someone. You scratch a reminder into your notebook about requesting a janitor later as Stamper drones on. He is talking about grants — money, the idiot still cares about securing money — as you fantasize about bisecting the two halves of his brain, too, and putting them in separate basins. You could feed wires into a weak electrolytic solution on one side, and just stab the electrodes right into the meat on the other, and...

It's 1965 and your immediate supervisors are all astonished by your potential, this athletic-looking but bookish kid just out of high school. They tell you that you have the potential to change the world; you tell them that you intend to. It's 1977 and you rarely leave the facility any more. There is no longer any reason to. Everything you need is here, and there is nothing left for you outside. You feel that your life's work has more value than your life itself— it's not nihilism; it's logic. You are here because there is no one else who can do what you can do. No one else willing to do what you can do.

It's 1961 and you're standing in the garage with your father, holding the letter from Partisan, and he tells you — his hands on your shoulders, as though saying, I'm talking to you man to man — that you need to take advantage of every damn opportunity you get, because you're going to have to work ten times as hard as everyone else to prove yourself. That moment becomes your most distinctive memory of him.

It's 1968 and you move back home for a while to help your mother care for your two brothers. She hadn't asked you to, but you saw that they all needed you, and your studies could wait. A decade later, when you look back upon this time — that hazy summer spent as the man of the household, trying to keep your brothers out of trouble and on the right track, the difficult but necessary reckoning with your mother's grief — you do not recognize your own selflessness. You do not recognize yourself. It's 1983 and you know what you must do. You must. You have the answer. You've awakened. It's 1979 and it's no longer Officer. You always hated that title, anyway. Better that they all just call you Doctor, now. Every single one. Even Stamper, who won't meet your gaze any more. It's 1969 and for the last time someone notices your potential. Tells you that they need your gifts.

It's 1976, and you're starting to hear things. The way crazy people do. But they're not voices. They're whispers. Whispers in a language that does not exist. And that's how you know. You know that you're not crazy.



Feng Min wakes up with a shriek of pain, every one of her senses zeroed in on the stabbing sensation in her brain that has so violently ripped her out of her hard-won sleep. There is a tremor crawling from the crown of her head down her entire body; the feeling is so physical that she almost pitches herself right off the examination table as she twists awake. She claws at the device on her head with hands full of pins and needles, panicking, but the pain begins to ebb away as soon as she tries to pull it off, as if it's decided to let her breathe again. She looks around the room in confusion, chest heaving, as she recollects exactly where she is and what is going on.

Her head's throbbing. It feels like her very mind has been scalded, burned up by the assault of memories— half of which definitely do not belong to her. She can barely comprehend what has just happened, too shocked and overwhelmed to think. For a moment she thinks she might vomit; reeling forward, she retches dryly over her lap, shoulders shaking, and coughs until her stomach stops clenching.

The Doctor is still plugged right into the machine, asleep in the chair at the side of the bed. Or at least she thinks he is; his one good eye is still open. But it's completely unfocused, and the slackness in his posture and the steadiness of his breathing has her convinced that he must be out. How could he have fallen asleep while monitoring her? More urgently, how the hell had he slept through her screaming herself awake just now?

Feng Min gets out of bed, sliding off the examination table on trembling legs and extricating herself from the wires. Standing there anxiously, she decides that she has to wake him, feeling with absolute certainty that what had just happened was not a part of his experiment. She reaches out to touch his shoulder, but before her fingers can even brush against him, a spark leaps out from the exposed end of a wire jutting out of his neck and burns her palm. Feng Min yelps and looks for another solution, her gaze flicking to the cable in the back of his neck again.

He's not a computer, she tells herself. You can't just unplug him and plug him back in.

Or... maybe she can. Steeling herself, Feng Min grabs onto it right beneath the port and tugs. It snaps free, spitting sparks. The Doctor comes to with a start as she drops it. It takes him much less time to absorb the situation than it had for her; the very moment he sits up straight, he appears alert, turning to look at her.

It takes a second, but then she sees it on his face. It's in an incredibly subtle way — twitches of the muscle against the painful gear that's attached to his skull — but she knows she's right: he hadn't intended for this to happen.

How long had they been asleep? How much had she seen? Feng Min can barely make sense of all of the information that has just invaded her mind.

(It's 1973 and you think that this might be how you can help your country make things right again)

"Your memories," says Feng Min blankly.

She's never seen the Doctor wear the mood he seems to be in now. It's written in every part of his body language. He's clearly agitated, disturbed. She figures that he doesn't allot for many surprises in his life— the sort of person so confident in their decisions that they never have any kind of back-up plan, just in case. He's up from the chair, pacing over to the equipment on the opposite side of the room to pull down the monitor and take up the keyboard, not acknowledging her or what she'd said, but she's not going to let it go that easily.

"I saw what I saw," she says, stubbornly, pulling the electrodes out of her hair one by one as she follows him across the floor, barefoot and trailing wires. "Unless you can take it back, it's already done."

The Doctor's hand goes up to silence her, a warning. The screen beside him floods with lines of bright red error alerts, casting him in sanguine light. There's a threat in his posture, the way he's turned towards her, and in the intensity of his gaze; she thinks that he might be considering reneging on their agreement, after all.

Feng Min stops short right where he indicates she should, at arm's length, and chances just one more thing. She has to. Just one.

"You heard it," she says, and the impossible truth that follows is weighted with fear and wonder. "The Entity. You were hearing it in the real world."

He's as still as marble, a morbid sculpture before her. [ Another man lived that life. ] His voice is so low in her head.

"No. You did," says Feng Min quietly. She turns it over in her mind, remembers what it was like to see flashes of the world through his eyes. "What difference does it make if you talk to me about it or not? Who am I gonna tell?" She spreads her hands out in front of herself, palms up. Staring into his agonized face, she doesn't know why she's doing this. Why she's pushing at him this way. His patience for her has been so very limited, and this might be it. She can't forget that he's been right with every assessment he's made of her thus far: she's foolish, self-loathing, destructive. There's nothing real for her to gain here. Nothing that won't bring her pain in the end.

He may have been a person once, but there's a reason that he's not any more.

The Doctor considers her as the monitor next to him chirps and chimes with error codes. Eventually, he says, [ I am concerned only with repeating the experiment properly. ]

Feng Min looks up at him through her eyelashes, expressionless, but disappointment sinks down her spine and holds her in place. And then frustration follows— the insistence that she can't fail. That this all has to come to mean something, or there won't have been a point to any of it. Nothing to keep her from falling completely into the black hole of despair waiting for her and every other survivor at the end of all hope.

"I'll stay another night," she says bluntly. Sets her jaw. Fixes her gaze, doesn't blink. "And by the end of it, I'm going to know your name."

This makes him pause, and the silence that ensues is more like a staring contest. When the Doctor finally replies, there is something like resentment — but also yielding — in his tone.

[ You should watch that mouth of yours, ] he warns. The monitor before him turns off, blinking to black, and he brushes past her to exit the room, leaving her standing there alone, still hooked up to the device on her head.

And yet.

It's still there. The static he's left behind him. Calling to her, like it always does. Trying to pull her along and into it, over to him. Asking her to follow. She can feel it. She knows it.

There's a reason she's here. A reason she's been led to him. She's going to learn it.

Chapter Text

The cameras of Léry's Memorial Institute never seem to shut off, even among flickering lights and buzzing CRT monitors and sparking wires spilling from half-destroyed walls as though the building's vital organs have been exposed; the security cameras' red lights always remain unaffected by these momentary power outages. Feng Min has a paranoid thought about them rotating around to look at her any time she faces another direction before swiveling back to their default states right before she looks back again. An unsettled feeling has her anxiety rising. She wishes that the Doctor would just return and show himself again. It's so much easier to try and read him in person, even knowing what she does about how dangerous and unpredictable he truly is.

She hasn't been able to figure out where the Doctor had gone after she'd been transferred a portion of his memories. But maybe transferred isn't the right term. Maybe she's been given them, or had them forced onto her, or maybe she's stolen them from him somehow; she doesn't know what happened or how to start describing it. She only knows that he hadn't planned for it to happen. He doesn't seem the type to easily accept his mistakes; she wonders if maybe he's out scanning his personal library, pulling out his notes, revisiting his current theory about her brain.

It can't have been her fault, right? She'd been caught in an endless drop into the dark, into an infinite tunnel of her own memories, some she scarcely recalls experiencing and ones that still feel like yesterday. Some utterly random and others that are all too painfully relevant to the person she is now, the person she's become. A lot of those things, she would rather forget. Of course she fucking would. But she doesn't think that her desire to forget could have broken the system and reversed the flow of information from her mind to his. That kind of thing is supposed to be impossible.

Then again, what is impossible in a deathless world unbound by logic?

The steady static atmosphere of the facility grounds shows no signs of disturbance, even though she ends up walking one end of the building to the other to see if something sends that familiar jolt into her brain, letting her know, it's him— he's here. There's no shift in the balance of the noise layer, which makes her think that the Doctor has left the facility grounds completely and gone somewhere else within the fog.

Has he really ditched her? Is he that angry?

Feng Min keeps wandering the halls, at first thinking that she'll stubbornly wait him out until he returns. She can only assume that if the cameras are looking upon her, then the Doctor surely could be, too, so if she ends up wandering somewhere she shouldn't, she'll know to expect that he might witness it.

She did tell him that she intended to stay another night, wanting her questions answered— a suicidal declaration, at best. But there's this pervasive sense of what if, a compulsion so powerful that it engulfs all rhyme and reason. She must stay. She must know. No matter how many times it kills her.

Her mind has been tripping through the same series of foreign memories for the past several hours, struggling to disentangle his thoughts from hers. They sit there in her head like painful lesions, fit to burst, swelling by the second, stuffing her skull to the brim in the most unnatural way. She cannot think his thoughts, because she isn't him, and yet here they are in her mind, intrusive and painful and profoundly disconcerting. Their associated emotions flash through her like rays of light, joy grief wrath pride hatred determination anger longing obsession love loss, so much emotional information that she can't hope to separate it all, even now. She feels absolutely exhausted by the experience.

But Feng Min knows that if she doesn't try to preserve the information somehow, she won't be able to trust her memory later. Her memory...? No— her memory of his memories. She's already losing track of all the information in her head as she tries to reconcile it all. The details flow together like grains of sand in a sieve as she tries to hold onto them. She needs to write this down.

Paper isn't hard to come by in the hospital; she finds some in the next room over, which is some sort of study, or maybe a meeting room. There's a tattered old map mounted on one wall, but many of the details have rubbed away, and she doesn't recognize the area. There's a little cup on the window sill with pens sticking out of it, but after finding three of them dried up completely, she reaches for a No. 2 pencil. It's so old that its painted yellow coating flakes off into the palm of her hand the moment she touches it, disintegrating instantaneously. She leans into a metal filing cabinet and uses its dust-choked surface to write.

In quick, untidy script, she takes a few notes in dull graphite, trying to purge everything she observed before her mind identifies the memories that don't belong to her and disregards them— like white blood cells attacking a virus. She jots down the things that stood out to her the most — a guess at his birth year, the makeup of his family, Yale, wars and conspiracies, the experiments — but she underlines only two words, the most startling thing she had learned from his memories: the whispers. When she's finished writing, she peels the top part off from the yellow carbon copy beneath and folds them up together.

Feng Min then returns to the room with the examination table and the threatening machine attached to it and locates her clothes in the locker she'd hung them to dry in. The shower keeps her gaze lingering or a little bit, dithering. She so wants to step into it and blast the hot water and have a real shower for the first time in fucking forever, soap or no soap, but then she remembers what it had felt like yesterday, how she had cried until she couldn't any more, and the longing in her heart for the comfort of warmth makes her feel overwhelmingly weak. What gives her the right to selfishly indulge while she's out investigating a killer, while the rest of the survivors are out there covered in blood and dirt and just trying to stay even a little bit warm? She tells herself to pull it together. That caving in to stuff like this isn't going to help her keep the clear head she needs to survive. It's with a sort of rigidness that she pulls her clothes back on without reaching for the tap.

Her coat is still too damp to put on and too heavy to take with her, so she folds it and leaves it there on the bed. She should've brought some kind of bag with her. She's going to have to do that next time. She knows Nea often carries a backpack, even into trials — usually with a couple cans of spray paint clattering around inside, giving away her location to killers constantly, something Nea seems to relish in her own insane Nea-ish way — and so does Meg, who's a little bit less careless than Nea with her belongings, but not by much. Still, it seems to make it a hell of a lot easier for survivors to tote around bandages or tinctures or tools — or a sodden coat, or a strange, cryptic note on carbon copy paper — if they have some kind of backpack. It's a habit she should've gotten into when she first arrived, but Feng Min has never liked like the feeling of anything weighing her down when she's running or otherwise, so she finds herself, typically, lacking. She's still got her sweater, so she can cope with the chill.

After one more walk around the perimeter hallways trying to sense for the Doctor, Feng Min decides to take the elevator back down to the first floor, and as soon as she steps out, something finally disturbs the calm sheet of static in the air, reaching out to snatch at her thoughts with electric energy. She follows it to the front doors of the Institute and is startled to learn that the signal is radiating from beyond the exit, straight into the dense fog and thick trees. Staring it down, she doesn't feel very good about what that bodes, but, determined to follow through on what she'd said to him (sworn? promised? threatened?), she walks into the forest.

Crows sound their lamentations around her. It feels like each one of them is watching her from its own place at the top of the trees, their black eyes gleaming in the dark. She knows that they aren't real animals; they're just illusions of the Entity's, a reminder of its complete control over the Black Fog. Does it know what she's doing, or why? Can it sense the static like she does?

If she thinks about it too much, she fears that she might bring it too close to her mind— maybe even let it in. There must be consequences for all of this, somewhere. She just hasn't foreseen them yet. She keeps her eyes down and tries not to think about the crows, or anything else, for that matter. Not the Doctor's memories and certainly not her own.

The Crotus Prenn Asylum becomes apparent through the fog before anything else does, its distinctive shape and stained glass windows caught in the moonlight and glowing through the mist with the luster of an aurora. It must have been a sight to behold in its time, but now— well, she understands why Nea's friends claimed that the place was haunted. The woodsy smoke pouring out of the building's crown is choking the air and making her eyes water, but the noise has finally stopped fluctuating, building up to a tremor pulling her towards its epicenter.

Why is he here? she thinks, and then, more plainly: Why here? Because she knows he is, that he must be, without actually needing to see him with her own eyes to confirm it. She's started to memorize the texture the static leaves in her brain, to accept it when it comes over her. She knows that the Doctor is here. She'd bet one of her infinite lives on it. Their inexplicable connection tells her so.

But she doesn't know how to approach, or if she even should. The wavelength is pulling her strongly towards the asylum itself, but she doesn't want to just go charging in, not knowing yet if the Nurse is present on the grounds. The high odds of a deadly encounter with the elusive attendant of the building makes Feng Min hesitate. The Nurse is easily one of the Entity's most effective hunters, one that she's only ever outrun and escaped from by sheer, raw luck more than anything else. There's a sense of strategy with a lot of other killers, ways to outwit and hide from them— but not the Nurse, whose skill for finding hiding survivors might be even more acute than the Doctor's. She really doesn't want to go towards the asylum, but eventually, compelled by the precision of the static, she decides that she really has no choice but to go inside and find the source of it.

The tangle of hallways making up the only portion left of the building throws her off, at first. The static splinters here like a fork of lightning, making her lose the trail, the lead slipping out of her hands for a moment. She pauses to reel her head back together and focus. There's a salient sort of anticipation in her body despite how risky all of this is. She doesn't know why he's here, and she definitely doesn't know if he's okay with her seeking him out now— let alone away from the Institute. This is a first. She wants to see his reaction, but mostly she wants to know what he's up to.

She closes her eyes and listens. The humming air thickens.

Upstairs. He's above her. She's sure of it now that she's actually inside the building; she can feel it. She's starting to get good at this, and it fills her with a strange, wildly inappropriate sense of pride. Energized, Feng Min's just starting to pick her way up the sagging, ash-caked staircase when something breaks through the static's signal muffling her head and reaches through to her ears. It's the sound of something familiar.

A sort of clicking. Rasping. Someone struggling to breathe.

No, not the Doctor.

The Nurse.

For one stunned second, Feng Min freezes halfway up the stairs, just listening to both her mind and her ears confirm the same thing: the Doctor's static and the Nurse's unmistakable breathing are both coming from the exact same place.

Why is she here? Why is he here with her?

And does she really want to go walking right up to two killers, totally defenseless?

She hasn't heard much from the other survivors about the sort of habits that killers tend to take with one another outside of trials. She has heard from some of them that a few of the Entity's servants could sometimes be witnessed passing through one another's territories, or wandering the fog together, which is a mental image that Feng Min has never been able to wrap her head around. But that had been back when she still thought every killer to be a bloodthirsty, mindless monster. They hadn't seemed to be people so much as half-formed night terrors so terrifying she often couldn't bring herself to face even the most human-looking of them.

But — if the Doctor is anything to go by — they had all lived lives with texture and color and light once, a long time ago, in a world now out of reach.

Feng Min brings herself closer with each steady, measured step, leaning her weight into the wall until she reaches the top of the stairs, where she stops, wary, outside the entrance to the upper ward. The second floor has been reduced to debris, more or less. The damage suggests a major fire to her, and one part of the roof still smolders — just more evidence that the Entity has no need for entropy — but it looks like it's been so long that nature has begun to reclaim the structure. Her heart is pounding so hard that she's sure one of them will be able to hear it. She's almost right.

[ You can show yourself. ]

She pauses at that, because her first thought is, What the fuck, and then, It might be a trap, but that kind of thing has never stopped her before, and his words come across as expectant. The Nurse's difficult breaths continue behind the walls, but she doesn't hear her approaching, so Feng Min steps into the doorway, tense, trying to maintain a safe distance.

The Doctor is there, half-turned away from her. Beside him, the Nurse floats, her toes just shy of skimming the ground. Her head is dropped, chin pointed at her chest, like the force of gravity works differently on her exclusively. Feng Min is seized by fear the moment she lays eyes on her — like muscle memory, her chest starts going tight, her throat thick, anxiety turning her thoughts useless, and her instincts are shouting run, run, run — but then she catches the Doctor's gaze.

It only takes a second, but the static wraps around her like a blanket; it tells her that she is safe.

[ You arrived sooner than I thought you might. ] He's got his arms crossed, a hand at his jaw. It's a bizarre thing to see the Nurse next to him. They look like two cast members from a horror movie about a haunted hospital, or something. She wonders what they've been doing up here together. There's not much to look at and nowhere to sit— although, given the pillow case over her face and the ability to hover, Feng Min guesses that the Nurse requires neither of those things to pass the time at the Crotus Prenn Asylum.

"The fog took me straight here," she says warily, careful to use the right words. It had been more like the opposite: the signal had led her out of the fog, like a tether thrown from a boat, pulling her through the wake. But he must already know that; he's talking like he'd been expecting her to come here looking for him.

[ No. I did. ]

Of course. Why hadn't she guessed that sooner? He'd been thinking ahead, somehow. But why? And why here?

"How did you know I'd even come?" she asks him.

[ Call it an educated guess. ] His shoulders roll. The Nurse sways gently in the air as she drifts closer to Feng Min, who flinches, causing the pale form to stop short. The Doctor watches this interaction intently, but remains where he is standing. [ The reason you are here is because something has occurred to me, ] he says. [ It'll be simple to test. Sally has graciously volunteered to assist. ]

Sally?

The Nurse's head turns towards the Doctor, like she's listening closely to what he's saying. So she can 'hear' him, too? Feng Min barely stops herself from gawking, it's such a strange sight. To not have the Nurse lunging at her with a bone saw in her hand is nearly impossible to believe on its own, but... She has a name. A name. Sally. Sally! Come to think of it... hadn't she seen that name in some recollection of his...? It had come into her thoughts, colored by a strange feeling of emptiness, but she can't grasp much more from the memory.

"Um," Feng Min says, before realizing she has no idea what to say, so she shuts her mouth.

The Doctor laughs in that shiver-inducing way of his, and then he motions towards the Nurse — Sally, Feng Min repeats in her head, stupefied — and says, [ Go on. Say hello. ]

The Nurse's twitching, jerking head snaps in Feng Min's direction. She immediately wants to take a step back, anticipating the sound of her shriek and then the unpleasant terror of having the killer rematerialize next to her, cutting her down and leaving her bleeding on the ground before she even knows what happened.

But the Nurse just floats there, pointed towards her. Feng Min waits.

Silence.

She turns towards the Doctor, confused. He answers the question in her eyes.

[ You cannot hear her, ] he says, and it must be more to confirm it with her than anything, because he doesn't seem surprised; he's nodding, like he's figured something out, and his unblinking eyes have gone unfocused, as if he's already thinking about what he's learned and what to do with the information.

The Nurse's head drops again, swinging from side to side a little. Her breathing seems to get heavier. Feng Min's watching her — not like it would do any good if she did choose to attack her now — as she says, "Am I supposed to?"

[ I can, but I didn't think you would be able to. I just wanted to confirm it. ] The Doctor's sort of moving his hands at his sides, flexing and curling the fingers in an idle manner. Feng Min watches the electricity arc from one finger to another and remembers how he'd told her before that certain other killers were able to communicate with him non-verbally. The Nurse must be one of them, she realizes.

"So... you mean that I can only hear you," she says haltingly, trying to understand what that means as she says it. She's definitely no telepath, that's for sure. It just reinforces what she's felt from the beginning: that whatever is happening, it must have more to do with him than it does with her.

The Doctor just gives her a half-nod, a sort of tip of his head towards one shoulder, and then he's turning back to the Nurse. Feng Min watches as he appears to hold an entire conversation with her that she has no way of understanding, because although the both of them are making expressive hand gestures at one another, Feng Min can't hear either of them utter a single word— not from him, and definitely not from the Nurse.

She's just beginning to wonder if the Nurse may be mute, too, when a woman's voice — one that's not her own — cuts into the air. But there's something wrong with it. It sounds like a person struggling to breathe. The shape and shadow of the Nurse's mouth moving beneath the pillow case is a grotesque sight that makes her own throat feel like it's closing up, but Feng Min forces herself to face her as she talks, some bizarre sense of etiquette compelling her to look.

"Y, you are..." One of the Nurse's pale hands floats up, pointing at Feng Min, and she wonders again if maybe she should run for her life, after all. "Affffraid...?" It sounds like speaking is an extremely laborious effort for her.

Feng Min nods uneasily. She looks at the Nurse, and then up towards the Doctor.

"He's not going to let anything happen to me right now," she says, somehow inherently knowing it to be true.

The Doctor makes a sort of, hmmm sound, one of those noises that comes from beyond his throat, from down in his chest, but he doesn't say anything else. At least nothing that Feng Min can hear.

"You... hhhave... a place. Hhhhere." The Nurse's head tilts from one side to the other. Something cracks and pops. Feng Min winces at the sound, her neck and spine stinging with phantom pain. "I, hhhh...helped... others... beffffore." Her ghostly pale body levitates up a little higher, then down closer to the ground. She's almost hypnotizing to watch in her disintegrating cotton gown, especially in the vicinity of the pale silver light coming from the Doctor's steady static flow. She looks almost gentle, like a mourning ghost. "Hurt... others... now. My... place... here."

The Doctor raises a hand; he places it against the back of the Nurse's shoulder, very lightly, then drops it. The motion does not go unnoticed by Feng Min. nor by the Nurse, who seems to sort of slump, arms dangling at her sides.

"Yyyyou... too," she says, her head tipped in the Doctor's direction. "D, d, don't.... forget."

[ So it goes. ] Something like a sigh, a hard and rasping exhale, hisses past his clenched teeth. He's moving towards Feng Min then, neat steps across the filthy floor. [ Excuse the disturbance. I do appreciate it. ]

The Nurse makes a motion with her hands at him. If she offers a goodbye, it must be for the Doctor only, because Feng Min doesn't hear it. But she does escape the encounter alive, which counts for a lot. She's sort of in disbelief to be calmly walking away from the Nurse in one piece on her own territory. As she and the Doctor descend the stairs and head on to the grounds, Feng Min continues to look over her shoulder, expecting the Nurse to blink in right behind her out of the ruins of the asylum, blade in hand. But nothing happens.

She keeps following him towards the tree line. He has his back to her, stopping just before the barrier delineating the asylum grounds from the fog.

[ And where exactly do you think you're going? ]

Feng Min doesn't like the way he won't look at her, so she steps around him — well, it takes two steps — and stands on her tiptoes to speak directly into his face, which still involves craning her neck almost vertically. "With you," she says sourly.

The Doctor reaches out and puts a heavy hand on her head that flattens her soles back against the grass and nearly makes her knees buckle beneath her, but he doesn't shock her like she expects, so she slips out from beneath his touch, reaching out to tug on his coat. It's warm from the energy he's generating.

"I told you I was staying another night," she reminds him, but it doesn't look like he needs her to refresh him on it. He's looking down at her clenching a handful of the stained white fabric in her fist, and it only takes him raising his hand in warning for her to let go. She doesn't back off, though, retaining her ground there in front of him.

[ No. There's something I need to do. Alone. ] The Doctor's glowing eyes above her are fixed right on her face.

"Do it later," says Feng Min, utterly serious. As futile as it might be to try to read anything in his expression, she's come to realize that there are some indicators, and that there's something unusual about his eyes; they have a depth that goes beyond the back of his head. She thinks she might be able to find him within them.

[ I am not interested in entertaining your endless questions right now. ] There's a derisive twitch on his face, and she knows he's referring to how badly the experiment had gone. He's walking into the mist, now, and Feng Min goes after him, not wanting the fog to sweep him out of reach. Even in the moonless forest, the white of his coat lit by the circuit makes him easy to follow.

"I'm not going to ask you anything," she says quickly, although the moment the words leave her mouth she knows she's not being sincere, because her intuition's telling her that she needs to ask about it. Maybe he might need her to ask about it, too.

[ I especially don't like it when you lie to me, Feng Min. You are smarter than that. ] She should've figured he'd call her out on it immediately.

"I... I know. I'm sorry." She gnaws at her bottom lip before saying, "At least tell me what the fu— what all of that was, with the... Nurse." Sally. Did he really call her that?

The Doctor eases into the change of topic with a certain caution— Feng Min's not sure he'd be so generous with information, usually. [ Sally has been here for a very long time. She lived and would have died long before you or I were even born. ]

Before you or I were even born. The Doctor's wording makes numbers come back into her head. Dates and years. His intrusive memories are impressions of feelings and sounds and sights, but organizing the information has been difficult. She's gotten a pretty good sense of things, though. If she does the math, she thinks she might be able to figure out how old he may be. Or was.

"Did she work there? At Crotus Prenn?" Feng Min tries to catch up to him, reaching out for his arm to try to get him to slow down. Touching him of course leads to a painful zap, which makes her stumble back, yelping, followed predictably by his laughter.

[ Why didn't you ask her yourself? ] There's a low, ambient glow coming off of the Doctor, primarily from the wires stapled down the back of his head.

"What? Are you crazy?" she bites back.

[ I don't know. What do you think? ] He slows, turning with one pointed glance down past his shoulder, his glowing irises darting over her. The laughter cuts in and out and skips like a scratched CD.

The obvious answer might be yes, she thinks — it's the reply she would've given before last night — but she's begun to fear that the true answer is no, and that makes all of this feel so much more precarious.

Feng Min feels uncomfortable under his direct and expectant gaze — he wants her to answer; she can feel the static pressing up on her, a sort of indefinable pressure — and she quickens her steps to move slightly ahead of him, staring at the ground.

"I'm not the best person to ask," she says, and more insecurity seeps into her voice than she cares for.

[ So you insist on returning with me to the Institute. ] It's half-question, half-statement.

"If you really had a problem with it," Feng Min points out, her brows lowering, "you'd just get rid of me. It'd be so easy for you. It is that easy for you. Just reach out and snap my neck or electrocute me or do whatever you want. But you haven't. Because you... don't feel like it. Or don't want to."

The Doctor's voice in her head seems to float in and out, giving his flat response a strange and distorted quality. [ Hmmn. Why do you think that is? ]

Good question. Feng Min doesn't have any clue. The only thing she does know is that he's keen on finding the source of her mental link with him. She doesn't think he's in any hurry, though. At least he doesn't seem to be. Anything else, well— she can barely read the Doctor's limited expressions, let alone understand what's going through his head. Apart from a lot of voltage, that is.

"I don't know. I'm waiting for you to tell me," she says quietly.

He just makes a sort of amused sound in reply, a huff that pauses his unsteady breathing, but says nothing else.

The mist begins evaporating after approximately twenty minutes of wandering the darkness with him, and then the air starts cooling. Even the light coming through the canopy shifts, and, like paint mixing together, the moonlit sky takes on a deep, dusky hue. Feng Min feels the first couple of snowflakes on her nose just as Léry's Memorial Institute comes into view. The Doctor pauses before the building, and she comes to a stop several paces behind him. He seems to be looking up, but she doesn't know what he's looking at. Unable to see what he is seeing, her eyes soon lose interest and land on him again instead.

There's a strange sort of self-possession about him, Feng Min thinks as she watches snow collect on his shoulders. She decides that it must be in the way he carries himself. At first, she'd seen only a panting, imposing monster, leering and laughing at her pain and suffering. Now, she's noticing subtler things: the way the Doctor's fingers twitch and spark when he seems lost in thought. The almost imperceptible way his brow moves now and then when he's surprised or skeptical. How, sometimes, his jaw shifts when she hears the laughter, even though she knows it's not really coming from his throat. Or the way that every movement he makes appears to be a deliberately planned choice beneath the veneer of madness. All of these things have become as fascinating to her as they are frightening, and those feelings have been growing in equal measure.

The Doctor doesn't tell her not to follow him, or to go back into the fog, so Feng Min drops back to let him walk in front of her. He allows her to trail him down the hallways, scattering the clouds of dust in the air. He's in his element here, making her think again of just how strange it had been to see him standing next to the Nurse in the asylum. He ends up leading her back upstairs, to the same room she'd left before leaving to find him at Crotus Prenn.

Feng Min eyes the bed, wanting to sit on it and rest her frankly tired legs, but she makes herself lean against the wall instead. She watches him move around the room and pick up the wires that she'd left on the floor after unplugging herself from the monitoring equipment. Reaching behind himself, he turns the power on with a curl of his fingers, bringing the machinery online with a whir before he drops into the chair in front of it.

She just watches him for a few minutes as he calls up some unknown command on the interface. She's really not looking forward to wearing the uncomfortable headgear for another night, or to the fact that she has to fall asleep in his presence a second time, not knowing if the result will be any more successful. What will she do if it happens again? What will he do? An empty feeling expands in her stomach and chest.

How much longer can she keep coming here under the delusion that any of this is going to help her situation? Even if she finds an answer, would it make any difference to someone as helpless as her compared to something as powerful as the Entity?

She's just a human. She's meat for slaughter, like the rest of the survivors. And it can choose to take her off the menu at any time.

She's not playing Nebula Arc any more. This isn't a situation where she can just call the shots amidst utter chaos and still come out on top as the hero. There is no gleaming trophy, no coveted title, no cheering crowd. A lifetime of escapism has done nothing to prepare her for the nightmare.

"Um..." Feng Min trails off, not knowing how to get his attention. Her mouth and brain are seeking for a name, something to call him. She can't make herself just say Doctor. It doesn't feel right, for so many reasons. But he's heard her remark, and he's looking at her over the top of the monitors. She brings her feet together and stares down at her shoes. "Have you even learned anything about my mind at all?"

The Doctor's chair moves back, a little. He's got one hand on his knee, the other paused against the interface. A few seconds pass; she's wondering if maybe he hadn't heard her after all when he says, [ Yes. Much. ]

He stands up. Suddenly, Feng Min is met by an oppressive wall of static. It's congealing in the air, dense with noise and light and shadow, and she realizes — maybe too late — that there's a hissing at her feet, electricity singing around her ankles, close enough to singe her jeans. Although she doesn't feel it in her body — none of her muscles have locked up — she remains where she is right there against the wall, paralyzed, watching him move towards her.

Is he doing it on purpose? She can't tell. The electricity and the noise are so very much a part of him that she doesn't think she'd be able to find the border where he ends and the static begins, even if she tried.

[ I've learned that you have the brain of an addict. ] He stops a few feet before her, hands at his sides. [ Always looking for the next rush. A sad, sick, self-hating woman. You hungered so long and so much for validation, but when you finally got it, you fell apart. ]

His words catch her completely undefended, seeming sharper, narrower, perfectly formed to slice down her corpus callosum and send her thoughts into a vortex of confusion and anger. Her vision briefly goes greyscale as the noise builds to a pitch. "You know what's not what I—"

The Doctor holds a hand up to silence her. [ So you would isolate yourself. You sought punishment for your failures. The dutiful daughter your parents once knew became a stranger to them. Your successes meant nothing if you could not remain the best. You self-destruct because you cannot face yourself. ]

His flat palm is alive with an incandescent and strange blue light. It's somehow mollifying, even as shame surges up her throat, hot and poisonous.

"Stop," Feng Min says, but her voice is so small. Almost inaudible. He closes in on her, and she vacillates again between fear and a heart-pounding sort of anticipation. Even now, there's a sense of magnetism that rises above the terror and self-loathing.

[ You long for someone to share your pain, but instead you keep it all for yourself. ] He reaches out for her. [ You think you deserve it. ]

She expects him to grab her by the throat or the head. Instead he leans in and takes her hand. It's dwarfed within his; he could probably comfortably close his entire fist around hers. She winces at first, priming to be shocked, or for his grip to shatter every bone below her wrist, but the current flowing over his fingers only washes up over her hand gently and then flows back to his, like water might.

It's beautiful. Feng Min doesn't get to see much beauty any more, so she knows it now when she sees it, and she appreciates it so much more. The electricity has a life of its own, moving harmlessly over and around her wrist, glittering in the dimly lit room. She watches the little lashes of light between his tendons, where red wires glow through the scarred flesh, and she pretends for a moment that he hasn't just examined her soul the way another doctor might examine her throat.

The current goes out all at once, shattering her trance. She looks up at the Doctor. He's already staring directly down at her. Her hand remains extended up in the air, in his grasp.

[ That's what I've learned about your mind. Would you say that my evaluation is correct? ] The only thing glowing on him now are his eyes, which never close, never shut off, never really look away.

Feng Min pulls her hand back to her chest. It's burning, all pins and needles up to the fingertips. He's right. About everything. He's been right about her from the beginning, when he'd called her troubled. It's a rhetorical question, surely meant to mock her. He's seen her failures and weaknesses through her own eyes, in her own mind. It would hardly take an expert, she thinks, to figure out that there's a whole fucking lot wrong with her.

But she knows that. Does he think that she doesn't?

"Yeah," she says finally, her tired eyes moving back to stare, unfocused, at his hand. Something as funny as it is sad occurs to her. "You probably know me better now than anybody else ever has."

Feng Min knows that the Doctor has seen things she'd have otherwise never told a soul. Things she planned on taking to her early grave. Looked in on her at her absolute worst, living each day on the constant edge of a breakdown. Learned the names of the people she'd turned on and undercut for the sake of her career. Watched as her indulgence in substances had turned to need then turned to abuse. Seen her desperately share her heart and her body with others, with strangers, trying to find someone who would understand, or else someone who would help her forget for a little while, or someone who could make her stop feeling altogether. She can feel his imprint on those memories, the sense of a mind that is not her own having ripped open and violated her subconscious.

But there's an inverse to that, too, she realizes. An important one.

"What about you?" Feng Min lifts her arms to cross them, but the Doctor reaches out to stop her, his heavy breathing shifting as he catches a wrist. It's impossible to tell what he's thinking right now, but he hasn't shocked or stunned her, so she continues steadily, feeling vulnerable and upset but mostly frustrated with him and with everything else, too. "You didn't have a lot of opportunities growing up, did you? But you knew how smart you were. You were so different from everyone else."

The memories she'd received without her consent are loose in her mind, incongruous enough that she can pick them out from her own, even though they've already faded considerably, the way the mind can never seem to hold onto the details of a dream. She still can't examine them as easily or understandably as the Doctor can her own, but she's definitely learned a few things, and the more she strains to concentrate, the more clearly defined the impressions become.

He's still soundless. Still letting her talk.

"You... you wanted to do good things," Feng Min continues, her bravado wavering for a moment, dreading his silence, unable to know what it means until he chooses to break it. "Didn't you? You wanted to help people." She closes her eyes and tries to search for the details. "You tried, but something... changed." There's a throbbing at the front of her head, right behind her eyes, when she tries to see why. She can't tell.

[ So you think you've learned about me? ] The Doctor suddenly moves, breaking away from the wall to cross back over to the machinery.

"No," she says, truthfully. "But it's only a matter of time until I figure the rest of it out." This latter part is truthful, too. Regret and shame coat her tongue as she adds, "You know me, right? I don't give up easily."

The laughter suddenly starts, so sudden and jarring that she physically recoils.

[ I should have put an end to this game much sooner. ] The words are calm although ominous, but the static field around him has drawn back. She doesn't sense the white-hot anger so much any more.

"It's too late for that." It's true, although she agrees with him. Feng Min takes one step forward, then two. When she sees that the Doctor isn't raising his hands at her, she closes the space remaining. Her gaze falls on the cables woven into his arms, looking at the way they twist and rise through the muscle. The end of one hangs loose on his upper arm like a broken bone, crackling at the end. Feng Min reaches out with her fingertip. Almost close enough to touch it.

He's watching her silently.

Be brave, she tells herself. Just this once.

"Tell me why you're here." She swallows with difficulty. "What are you being punished for?"

The Doctor rolls his head from one side to the other, laughing as as though he finds her question hysterical. It's forceful enough that the lights on the ceiling flicker. [ You think I'm being punished? ]

Feng Min's hard gaze doesn't blink. She knows she's onto something. Her intuition, the static all around her, the memories in her brain— it's all telling her so.

"Are you telling me you're not?"

The laughter fades out, like the end of a song.

"I feel like you're in my head all the time now," Feng Min continues with a murmur, and the budding headache threatens to start pounding once more. She raises a hand to her temple, pressing her cold fingertips above her brow. Why her? Why him? Why is any of this happening? Is she ever going to get to know? "The... the noise. It won't let me stay away."

The Doctor's aura of static shimmers, radiating unpredictably for a moment before settling. The equipment before him suddenly comes to a grinding stop, all of the monitors going black. He looks at her over his shoulder. [ I'll let you ask one question. ]

A spark lights up in Feng Min's chest. But it's not enough. "No," she says. "You'll show me." She drops her hand from her head.

Discontentment rolls in the back of his throat. [ I doubt you have the cognitive or physical capacity to handle direct transference. It will hurt. Much more than it did last time. ]

The wall has started to thin between them, the static parting to allow glimpses. She has to see it through.

"I— I don't care," Feng Min says, shaking her head. "I want to try it anyway."

The Doctor's forever-grinning face tilts up towards the lights, as if in thought. [ What exactly do you want me to show you? ]

"The whispers," she says immediately. "I want to know why you could hear them."



The Doctor has moved them to another room on the second floor of Léry's Memorial Institute. This one is different than any other Feng Min has seen so far: it has a view.

It's not much, but some of the window panes are broken, allowing a glimpse outside. When she looks, she sees nothing but fog in every direction. Fog and snow and that watchful, always full moon. There's nothing on the horizon beyond that. Just an absolute, endless black. She stares into it for around two minutes, trying to see if any of the stars will flicker, or if the moon will move across the sky, but nothing changes. It gives the impression that the Institute is trapped inside a snow globe.

She only notices after taking a glance outside that the rest of the room is a bit different, too. It's an office, like the one downstairs, but this one is a lot more sparsely furnished. It looks half-finished, or like it's suffered particularly from whatever damage had resulted in the destruction of the Institute. She runs her hand over the top of a short desk, disturbing a layer of dust an inch thick. It drifts down onto her shoes.

"Why here?" she asks softly.

[ You'll see, ] the Doctor says, and then he holds his arms out in front of himself, as if grasping for her, so she moves within his reach. His hands take a hold of her head, and she thinks about how the pressure of his fingertips on her scalp is starting to feel familiar.

As his fingers locate the correct spots, Feng Min says, suddenly compelled by a sort of regret, feeling a self-conscious and pathetic need to justify herself, "All of those things I did to... to myself... I knew it wasn't helping. I didn't care. That's why I did it."

[ I know, ] he says. [ I saw. You don't need to explain. ]

And, somehow, that's exactly what she'd needed to hear, so she doesn't say anything else, and just closes her eyes.

[ Are you ready? ] comes the Doctor's voice through the black.

"I think so," says Feng Min, and then, "...Yes."

There is a vivid explosion of light that burns through her mind and wipes out all trace of self. The entire world then disappears around her, and she disappears along with it.

Chapter Text

Colors shift. Paint spreads back over the walls, brightens, saturates, shines gleaming new. Around her, chairs turn upright and shift across the floor as the office reassembles itself. The hole in the ceiling closes with a rushing of steel and concrete; bright new fluorescent lights appear. The tiles come together beneath her feet, newly waxed and shiny. A view appears out of the window, a real one, a bright blue sky and the first sun Feng Min has seen in ages. The sun. But then she realizes that she's not the one seeing it. Realizes that she's not here any more. There are only—

 

There are only so many reasons you'd be called into Dr. Stamper's personal office. The formality isn't typically needed; Stamper's usually down in the lab with you, because he likes to observe. You don't mind the audience, because you've known how best to cull his approval from the moment you met the man. (I'll never understand why you didn't go into engineering, Carter, he'd say, like you're supposed to be good at one thing only, or something.) You have a pretty good feeling that you know why he wants to talk to you now.

You've only been working out of the Institute for a handful of years. You'd been offered a deal you couldn't afford to refuse. You'd deferred it for about a year, explaining that you wanted to finish your education, and then they'd come back. Your tuition will be paid off, the recruiter had promised, and also, I don't think you understand. You'll be learning hands-on with some of the finest minds our nation has to offer. You had been dealing with loans at the time, bills that threatened to cripple your future, because after your father died, you had to put your education on hold. The recruiter made a lot of promises. One of them was, We'll wipe your debts. Another was, You'll be able to complete your academic goals. You remembered your father telling you once that you had to take advantage of every opportunity that came your way, that there were no second chances. You said yes.

(Some years later, you will discover that you never really had a choice. They'd picked you out long before you ever shook hands with any of them, monitoring you for years, keeping tabs on you, waiting until the time was right. It was always going to end up this way.)

It's not the academic career you envisioned. When you asked exactly what kind of facility it was and what kind of program they intended to place you in — if there was a curriculum, or credentials — the recruiter said, The Central Intelligence Agency isn't at all like you'd think. We're better equipped to make scientific advancements than any educational facility in the world. At the Léry's Memorial Institute site, we conduct research focused on developing and applying new information-gathering techniques. It sounded like a script. A well-practiced one.

You asked, What does that have to do with neuroscience? and you soon learned the answer.

Stamper still calls you green, even nearly seven years in. He's an idiot. You've never liked the militaristic aspect of working for the Directorate. All of the senior officials are obsessed with hierarchy and seniority. There's an unpleasant kind of atmosphere at the facility, more intense than the pressure you'd encountered at school. You're constantly watched, your schedule regimented. It's exactly the sort of life you never wanted: a life like your father's was. You hate the sound of Officer Herman Carter.

Once, you imagined a life of curing diseases. Finding ways to heal and repair the brain. It had interested you ever since you were a young boy and your grandfather got sick and you learned what Alzheimer's disease was. You'd gotten into Yale with the intention of studying the human mind, wanting to know what made it work, down to the smallest parts of it. Here, with the CIA, you can do all of that and more, but not the way you initially planned.

Stamper told you, on that very first day you met him, Before you can learn how to repair a mind, you must learn first how to break it.

You've arrived at the office before the doctor has, so you take a seat in front of his desk and watch the cardinals go darting past the window in bright red streaks of frenetic energy. When he shows up, you're not too worried. You don't think there's any way he can refuse your proposal. Not if he paid attention to the charts. You've done everything he's asked of you so far. He's never left you wanting for anything, with the endless resources the Directorate has access to. The little whispers in the back of your mind are very pleased.

He's holding the folder you dropped on his desk yesterday as he asks you, Is what you wrote here true?

It's just a theory, you say, but only because you should. You know it's more than that. So much more than that. You'd tested it on yourself.

Do you think it could be helpful, applied here? Stamper asks expectantly; you can see the certainty already spreading across the old bastard's face. It's the look of a man enlightened.

Yes, you say. Just let me demonstrate it for you.

The whispers in the back of your head go quiet as you say it. Stamper has no idea what it is you've discovered. No one does. Not yet.

 

The transition from memory to black dream happens so naturally that Feng Min doesn't know it, at first. But then her senses numb out all around her— vision, hearing, touch. It's a plunge into the void, and there is nothing there to break the endless fall.

There are no thoughts in her head— no questioning what she had just seen, or what it means. No wondering why she has so suddenly slipped into the Bloodweb. There is no thinking to be done within the dead sleep. There is only existing— and the whispers. They're closer, now, coming up behind her ears and skimming down her spine and sliding into her mouth. They're all around her. But they're not like the static. The static has never swallowed her with such possessive, hungry malevolence.

A sense of shape and form causes her to consider her body. The recollection of her fragile human self. If she concentrates, she can place the outline of her hands in the shadows.

They become apparent to her there in the darkness. The whispers come up against her imagined fingers, and it feels like she's placed her hands in boiling water. Unable to do anything but allow it to happen, Feng Min watches as they begin to fade before her from fingertip to knuckle to palm, dissolving into the shadows, fraying into the whispers.

An intense pain overtakes her, centered in her head, and she knows it's just biding its time, waiting until she—

 

"Wake up. Come on—"

Feng Min awakens with a scream, thrashing and rolling over onto her side, her hands flying up to her head. Quentin's hand is on her shoulder, shaking her, and she recoils from his touch. It feels like she's taken a knife to the skull. She sits up abruptly, gasping for breath and struggling to understand that she's finally awake now— back in her own head. Back at the campfire. Oh, fuck.

It had apparently killed her, like the Doctor warned it might, but that doesn't really matter: it worked, with such realism and lucidity that it's hard to believe she's herself again now. She turns, wild-eyed, to Quentin, who's sitting back on his haunches; next to him, Laurie reaches out, stopping just shy of grasping her by the arm, her eyes wide with worry.

"Calm down! You're here! You're at the campfire," she's saying in a rush.

Feng Min gropes her sweaty face with her hands and then lowers them to look at her shaking fingers. They don't feel boiling hot any more. They're the same as ever, slim and pale and tipped with teal polish. And quivering before her now like the wings of a butterfly.

The last of the whispers fade away with a seductive murmur, leaving only the static behind.

"Are you okay?" Quentin asks. He's exchanging a look with Laurie. Behind them, Bill's leaning over, hands on his knees, to inspect her. Kate — always ready to assist — stands near him, looking uncertainly between the old veteran and Quentin, as if wondering what she can do to help.

"Yeah," Feng Min says, embarrassment gradually settling over her as she grounds herself by staring into the familiar light of the campfire. She breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth in long, even huffs, willing her body to calm down.

"I still get nightmares, too, and I've been here for ages," says Laurie kindly, not that it helps her feel any better.

After a few minutes for the others to reassure themselves that she's alright, Feng Min is left with only Quentin, who hasn't budged from his spot next to her. He's staring a hole through her skull.

"Do you want to tell me what the— what's going on?" Quentin asks. He's frowning, but it's not directly at her— he's sort of looking down, in a guilty way, like he thinks he has something to do with it.

Feng Min feels like shit, looking at him making that face for someone like her. Her head's killing her, and she doesn't know what to say or how to begin. There's no real way to talk to Quentin about this; she's not even sure how to talk to herself about it.

Quentin's got his hands in his pockets, his shoulders sagging. "I'm worried about you. And... I'm not the only one."

Feng Min's head drops. She knows there is no chance that all of her sneaking around and slipping away solo can go unnoticed forever. Her face crumples, helplessness threatening to crack the mask, but she still manages to say, "I know."

"We could lose you," says Quentin slowly. Now he's looking up towards her face, his plaintive grey eyes searching her expression. "You could lose yourself."

"We're already lost here," she says quietly, because she has no real excuse to give him. She thinks that, while he may not know the precise nature of her secret, he seems to be catching on to the danger of it.

"Nobody wants you to be one of those survivors that just disappears one day." He's holding to his point. "Believe it or not, we all care about you."

There's a knot in her throat. She wants so badly to confide in him the confusion she's feeling— the noise and the whispers and the way they both beckon to her, dissonant. The undoing of one burden only to find another. The person whose thoughts and memories now live in her head, whose fate seems little different from their own.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel; there is only the tunnel, with no end.

"Does this have something to do with those tapes? Or the hospital?"

Feng Min shakes her head no, but he seems to know she's lying judging by the way his face clouds, so she says, "Quentin, you promised you wouldn't tell anyone."

"I haven't. And I won't," says Quentin firmly. "But you need to tell me what's going on." He doesn't have to explain why; it's apparent to the both of them, and Feng Min knows it.

She laces her fingers together, timing her breaths against the throbbing pain in her head. "They're all just... just people, you know? The killers. Or they were."

Quentin looks like he doesn't know if he wants to reply, uneasy at the direction the conversation is going. "Yeah," he says finally, then he sighs. He's still looking at her in a concerned manner. "Once... Laurie and I were out scavenging. It feels like it was a long time ago..." He closes his eyes, remembering. "We ended up at Autohaven. The part with the cabin, the one with the balcony. And we were looking around for the Wraith, you know, trying to see him... and we started hearing the weirdest sound." Quentin makes a vague motion with his hand, looking bewildered and somehow sad. "And when we followed it, he saw him just standing out there, howling. Right on top of the hill. I've never heard anything make a sound like that before. It wasn't like a wolf, or like a person. Just on and on. He kept doing it. Like he was just... waiting for someone to answer."

Feng Min listens, staring at the ground. It's a story that would have stretched the limits of her belief a short while ago, but it doesn't now.

"Jake said once he was in the Red Forest..." Quentin continues, looking like he's remembered something else. "It was raining really hard and he was forced to stake out the cabin for a while because the Huntress was doing that thing— you know, where she kind of runs around the border...? Makes it impossible to get past her. But he told me, later, he watched her sing herself to sleep. Like a little kid would or something."

She can picture it in her head: Jake crouched on the awning of the old dwelling, peering into the spot before the fireplace as the Huntress curled up next to its warmth, humming her elegy.

"Do you think we'll ever be saved?" Feng Min asks softly.

Quentin's hair falls over his eyes as he considers what she's saying. Across from them, Ace has begun trying to rouse a game of poker, letting them talk under the cover of his loud voice. "I don't know. It would take a miracle from God himself."

"You believe, don't you?" Her eyes stray to the cross hanging from the chain on his neck. She can just barely make out the words sacred heart on the medallion behind it.

"More than ever," Quentin says seriously.

"Not to be disrespectful, but... why?" her voice is so quiet she can barely hear it herself.

"If I don't, then what's left after that?"

Feng Min's heart drops. She rubs her forehead and comes to a decision. "I... I'm going to show you something. You'll need to come with me. It's going to seem kind of insane and will probably get us killed. And you don't have to say yes. Do you want to join me?"

"Of course," says Quentin without hesitating, giving her a weak smile.

"Good. We're going to need Nea."

 

Nea tells them that there's no way she's giving anything to either one of them unless they let her come along for whatever they're up to. "I'm fucking bored," she complains by the campfire.

Quentin gives Feng Min a look, and then she gives Nea a look and shrugs. "Suit yourself," she says. She has a feeling that Nea will like this idea even less than Quentin will. They set out into the fog soon after that with the offering Feng Min has asked Nea to relinquish: her charcoal illustration of Crotus Prenn Asylum.

The dark mist doesn't deliver them to the asylum right away. It brings them through the cornfields first, forcing them to occupy some time waiting out the Hillbilly, who is usually seen roaming his realm at unpredictable times. They sit and suffer a couple hours of inhaling pure rot before the fog thickens enough for them to escape back into. There's a scare when the forest then puts them out at the MacMillan Estate and Quentin nearly steps right into a trap. The sound of him falling back on his ass alerts the Trapper, and they just barely manage to slip back into the trees, the sound of his heavy breathing at their backs.

But, soon, as Feng Min knew it eventually would, the Black Fog allows them to find the Crotus Prenn Asylum.

"Are you going to finally tell us what we're doing here, or what?" Nea says, looking cranky, despite the fact that she'd checked out for a nap a couple of hours ago, even as the Hillbilly had gone stomping by mere feet away as Quentin and Feng Min kept a lookout.

"Shhh," she says to Nea, raising a finger to her lips. Nea raises a finger, too— specifically her middle one. Feng Min just rolls her eyes and looks again towards the asylum. She gives the windows another scan. They haven't heard any of the Nurse's clicking or gasping sounds yet, so she ventures out. She only goes far enough to place the drawing on the cracked front step, and then she returns to where Quentin and Nea are hiding behind a pile of debris. She picks up a rock.

"Have you lost your fucking mind?" snaps Nea under her breath the moment she realizes what Feng Min's about to do.

"Uh, probably," she says, honestly, and then she pitches it. The rock goes sailing through the air and hits the wall by the entrance with a loud crack, then drops down to the grass.

Quentin's watching with an expression of slowly dawning understanding. Nea's looking back and forth between them like she thinks they've both lost it.

Feng Min waits. And then, as she hoped she might, the Nurse comes floating out of the entrance. She hovers there for a second, as if puzzled, her limply dangling arms and bare feet swaying with her in the light breeze, before she leans over and picks up the drawing. She looks at it. Feng Min watches her mouth move through the smothering fabric over her head as she heaves out each difficult breath.

Just do it right now, she tells herself, and then she launches herself out from behind their cover.

Or she tries. Both Quentin and Nea have reached out for her. Quentin's got both hands on her ankles, and Nea's got a fistful of her jacket.

"Seriously, you are such a weird bitch—" Nea's saying, but she looks terrified.

"Feng Min?" says Quentin, pained.

"Trust me," says Feng Min, even though she can't even really trust herself with this idea. She breaks free of their grip and steps out into the moonlight, exposed. She takes a deep breath and says, "Nurse Sally?"

Nea makes a sound behind her that's half hysterical laughter — "Sally?!" — and half scream of shock and frustration.

The Nurse turns — rotating slowly in place like a ballerina in a jewelry box — towards Feng Min. She's cradling the illustration in her bruised hands.

If this venture is going to end in their quick deaths, now would be the time. But even though Feng Min anticipates the blink, it doesn't come. The Nurse stays on the steps, looking at her before, finally, she speaks.

"What... do y, you... wannnnnt...?" she says. It's good that the night is so silent, otherwise Feng Min might not be able to understand her choking, quiet voice.

"I just... I have a few questions. For you. I'm sorry for intruding. I'll leave right now, if you want." All she can think of is how utterly terrifying the situation is. She knows she shouldn't drag it out very long; it seems to take the Nurse a great deal of energy to talk.

The killer's drooping head rocks from one side to another. Feng Min hears a cluster of pops released. "Your... ffffffriendsss?" The Nurse nods towards the place where Quentin and Nea are crouching.

Feng Min can practically feel their panic, as strong as a survivor's heartbeat during a trial. She tries to maintain her calm. "They're not going to touch anything. They're just going to wait there, and then we'll leave. I promise."

The Nurse doesn't acknowledge her answer, continuing to gaze in that direction. Soon, Feng Min understands why an answer isn't needed; she becomes aware of the mirage-like shift in the air behind the Nurse just as the Wraith materializes out of it from a thin net of light, looming behind her on the step. He's silent, too, just standing and staring. She goes faint for a moment with fear before getting a grip on herself again. That's all the response Feng Min needs.

She follows the Nurse into the asylum. She can imagine Quentin and Nea's respective freak-outs happening outside, especially when the Wraith placidly walks in behind her. Sandwiched between the killers, Feng Min's trying not to think about how easy it would be for the two of them to fuck her up pretty badly. Dealing with one killer is hard enough; at least the Doctor, someone she knows, had been one-half of the equation when it first happened.

The Nurse floats up the stairs, and Feng Min begins to climb them. She gives an uncertain look over her shoulder down at the Wraith, who pauses on the steps below her and stares at her with shining eyes, as if waiting for her to keep going. Total silence and stillness. He's like a tree. She can't even tell if he's breathing. Disturbed, she hurries the rest of the way up, and is relieved when the Wraith stops at the top of the staircase and doesn't follow her or the Nurse into the former therapy center.

There is no time right now to consider the bizarre knowledge that the Wraith and the Nurse seem to be spending time with one another, as much as she wants to ponder it. She waits for the Nurse to find a place she seems to like, watching her float into a streak of dusky moonlight and settle there, suspended and bright.

Feng Min figures that now is her cue to talk; she wants to cost the Nurse as few words as possible, lest she take it out on her— either now or later. "I need to ask you about... about Herman Carter."

Saying his name out loud for the first time is an uncomfortable, surreal experience. She doesn't recognize her own voice or the way she has to move her tongue to say it. A name. His name.

"Heeee was... here... jus, just here... beffffore youuu..." the Nurse says with a whistling gasp.

Was he...? Had she just missed him? She hadn't felt the presence of his static field anywhere on their journey to the asylum. Feng Min doesn't know if she should feel surprised or not. He'd come here yesterday, too, before she'd found him. She's here to learn why, if the killer before her will allow it.

"Why?" she asks. She's standing several paces away, almost up against the wall, too wary to get close.

The Nurse's unstable neck drops back, her face pointed up towards the open night sky. "Yyyyouuu."

Confusion runs through Feng Min's thoughts and derails them, but the Nurse hasn't finished speaking.

"It hassss... its rituals..." rasps the Nurse. Her hands come up before her chest, wrists flexing. She's still holding Nea's illustration, and the worn paper ripples in her grasp. "It w, will not be... pleeeeased..."

Feng Min looks up towards the sky, too, now, and she understands now what the Nurse means. It.

"You shhhhould... n, not come heeeere... againnnn..." the Nurse goes on, and Feng Min would almost think her tone was accusatory or morose if she could really understand it through the panting for oxygen.

"I know," she says quickly. "I'm sorry. I won't." She wonders if now is the time to go.

The Nurse's ankles cross beneath her gown; it's a strange thing to see, with the way her toes just barely skim the floor. "Heeee's... not thhhhe... s, sort of doctor... you'd thinnnnk he wassss..."

"I didn't think so," Feng Min says, without humor.

"More of a... scientissssst..." the Nurse lets the drawing flutter like a flag as she moves it back and forth in her hand. "I usssed... t, to work withhhh... the insssane... Now, we are... all alike... All the sssssame..."

Feng Min thinks back to what the Nurse had said to the Doctor yesterday: you, too; don't forget. "What did you mean yesterday when you talked about having a place here?"

"Gr, great pain... calls ffffor... great punissssshment..." hisses the Nurse tiredly. Feng Min thinks that she's nearing the limit on this conversation.

"Okay," she says softly, although she badly wants to ask the Nurse to elaborate. "Can you tell me... I mean, if you know... Did something terrible happen at the Institute...? Or... here?" She turns to look at the burned-out surroundings, amazed that the building is still standing.

"Yessss," says the Nurse, and Feng Min assumes she's answering both questions, because that's all she says.

Nervously, her whole body tensed to run just in case, she ventures a dangerous question. "Did you... want to do what you did...?"

An agonized sound comes from the Nurse. Feng Min doesn't know if it's associated with her labored breathing or not. "I hhhhad to... had to... I, I haaaad to..."

For the first time, Feng Min notices something she hasn't before: there's a sort of translucence to the Nurse's body, around her legs and arms and shoulders. It's a sight that is more discordant with reality than even the floating. Like she's fading away into the scenery. She wonders if the Nurse would even show up in a photograph— or in a mirror. A few beats pass while she stares.

It comes to her that she's got enough information from the Nurse to chew on, and she'd better take her chance to leave while it's still available. She lowers her head. "Thank you," she says. "That's... all I wanted to know. I'll leave you alone now."

The Nurse doesn't respond. She simply leaves the room, floating out into the hall. Feng Min follows her cautiously, wanting to bolt down the stairs but knowing that sudden movements are probably a bad idea. She pauses at the open doorway. The Wraith is still out in the hall, where the Nurse has drifted up next to him. He's got his head tilted sideways, staring at her with his typical blank expression. Before Feng Min can think of what to do, he breaks his gaze, turning to place a blood-crusted hand on the Nurse's shoulder, as if leading her away.

I don't understand, is all Feng Min can think, watching them go down the hallway together. And then logic kicks in again, because it doesn't really matter why the two killers are together, only that they've left her unscathed, and so she runs down the stairs for her life, sprinting across the lawn back towards the spot she hopes Quentin and Nea still are.

They have stayed, and they look stunned out of their minds to see that Feng Min isn't injured in any way.

"What the fuck!" Nea shouts at a volume most survivors would call unwise.

"What she said," says Quentin, who's apparently broken a sympathy sweat. He reaches out to pat Feng Min on the arm as if confirming that she's still in one piece.

"Thank you," is the first thing Feng Min says, reaching out to grab Nea's hands. Nea colors and gives a yank to pull them away, her lips pressed together in a sour-lemon way, but Feng Min is too exhilarated by the plan working to be discouraged. "I think she liked it. Your drawing. Well, I mean, she didn't rip it up or anything. It worked."

"Yeah, yeah, okay, you're welcome, but what were you doing in there?" Nea demands to know, her dark hair swinging into her eyes. She's climbing to her feet, shrugging on her backpack and quickly heading for the trees, like she can't wait to get off of the asylum grounds. Feng Min and Quentin follow just as gladly.

"I... I had a theory. I don't think some of them want to hurt us, outside of the trials..." says Feng Min. It's not the truth, but it's not a lie, either. Nea seems to think it over, but it's apparent that Quentin knows that's not the whole story, so she continues, "You can't tell anyone about this. Not until I... figure things out."

The trees soon thicken, and the sense of having crossed the border solidifies as the depth of the darkness changes. "You owe me," says Nea tersely. "You're fucking nuts. You really are. Next five trials with me, you're giving me anything you loot."

"Deal," says Feng Min easily. That seems like a small price to pay for Nea's silence, at least until she or Quentin figure out that she really has no idea what she's doing.

"I won't tell anyone," says Quentin resolutely, shaking his head. "You know that."

"Stop making me look bad, asshole," says Nea, and soon enough they're all talking like normal again, tossing jokes back and forth as if Feng Min hadn't just shown the both of them a fundamentally reality-changing side to the killers.

It seems to really hit Nea only later; Feng Min catches her slinking off on her own to meditate on it, a dazed look on her face. Quentin, for his part, continues to give Feng Min worried looks by the campfire, but his silence remains golden. For now.

 

[ I wasn't sure if I should have expected your return. ]

The voice in her head comes limbless, floating from no notable point as she enters the Institute through the back of the building. Feng Min takes a look around, wondering if the Doctor is standing nearby, but the only things moving are the security cameras in the reception area as they focus their opposing perspectives on her. She self-consciously reaches up and runs a hand through her hair, then tucks her hands into her sleeves, folding her arms across her chest as she walks through one of the puddles created by the melting snowflakes coming in through the broken skylights.

The static had taken her here. The Entity had put her through a rough gamut of trials recently, a fast-paced blur of pain and fear and exhaustion. She'd paid off Nea's request for scavenged supplies pretty quickly. One trial after another. Feng Min had lost count; the Entity would sometimes do things like this, working the survivors non-stop, making it feel like days until it let them go to sleep for a little while before pulling them back in again. It is never satisfied, only placated by the pieces it tears off their fragile, worn-down souls every time it comes to take them from the hook.

But the static had come to her so strong and so clear that when she found herself free of Haddonfield for the second time in a row, she knew that the dark mist would take her directly there. And it had.

Not knowing where to project her voice, she just talks as she walks, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. "It killed me, didn't it?"

[ I warned you. ]

"Yeah. What did you do with my body?"

[ I drew your blood, ] he says plainly. [ It came to take you. ]

Not wanting to know the details of that — just glad that she'd already been dead when he'd done it — Feng Min moves on immediately to a more important point as she takes a shortcut through a bathroom to what she thinks is the approximate direction of the office. "I still saw what you were trying to show me. Why... why didn't you think I'd return?"

[ I suppose I was mistaken to assume that what I showed you would deter you. ] The voice in her head seems to have its own echo on the tiled walls. [ But perhaps it's better that you've come, so that I can inform you that I no longer need you— I've drawn my conclusions about your particular... condition. ]

Feng Min pauses by one of the grime-coated sinks, startled; that isn't what she'd been expecting to hear, although she's not sure what she had been expecting. "What?" She looks up towards a security camera positioned right above a shower stall. It stares right back at her, red light shining. Her condition? Does he mean the way that she can hear him? Has he solved it? Is that it, then? Why, suddenly, has he decided that he no longer needs her?

[ You're almost at my office. I'll explain there. ] His tone is paradoxically both courteous and disparaging.

There's a throbbing beneath her skull again. A black sense of malaise begins its slow crawl through her.

The office appears dark, at first, from outside the doorway — the yellowy light of the chandelier isn't present — but when her eyes adjust, she sees that there is a pale blue glow coming from behind the desk. It's never truly dark, she realizes, around the Doctor. He'd been made in light.

When she gets her eyes on him, she sees that he's generating enough brightness from his body to be able to read the notebook on his desk as he leans forward in the chair over it. He closes it when she comes up to his side, and she has to take a moment to reconsider his size, again; it always takes her by surprise, somehow, when she looks at him, even as she's gotten used to being in his presence. He's still taller than her, even though he's sitting down.

Seeing him again brings about feelings that Feng Min has no idea how to categorize, but is at least learning how to name: confusion, fear, wariness, anticipation. Relief.

The last one is what scares her. The way curiosity keeps winning out over wisdom. Instinct over sense. There is no direction she can predict when it comes to her own emotions: all she knows is that she desperately wants to know more about Herman Carter, if only to learn why he had become a predator, and she prey. Why it had worked out this way, and not vice-versa. It feels like if she can learn the answer to that, if she can learn what makes a killer and what makes a survivor, she might be able to understand what has happened to her.

But if he no longer needs her, she might never come to know. And that's the thing: that's the way it should be, the way she knows is safest and sanest. Like the Nurse said, she has a place in this nightmare, and it's nowhere near his. They need to stay far, far away from one another. She knows that she should just hear him out and leave and pretend that none of this ever happened, but...

[ I noticed something interesting during the transference process, ] he says, breaking into her thoughts.

The Doctor is cast in blues and shadows, his eyes pinpoints of focused light in a face she cannot fully make out. She leans into his desk, looking at him sidelong, her heart thumping a bruise into her ribs.

"What was it?" she asks, just a whisper, although she knows that he's going to tell her, anyway.

I no longer need you.

[ Your brain shows signs of trauma. ]

"What?" Feng Min asks blankly. That's nowhere near what she expected him to say.

The Doctor's static field widens, and the silvery light catches the spines of the hundreds of books lining the walls, flattening the shapes into two dimensional blocks of faded colors. [ I hadn't realized it before. I was focused mostly on your memories, trying to see if anything unusual stood out. I was looking in the wrong place. ]

"I mean— what do you mean by trauma?" Feng Min asks, feeling unsettled. She knows her life had gone off the rails, a little — well, a lot — but trauma? To give it a label as serious as that would be having to admit that she'd had a complete breakdown.

[ No, ] he says, as if reading her thoughts; for a moment she has to check to make sure that he isn't touching her head. [ You have a brain injury. ]

She goes still, just looking at him there in the armchair. "A brain injury?"

The Doctor's got one elbow propped on the desk, and he's resting his cheek against his closed fist as he stares at her. [ Have you ever experienced a concussion? Any sort of incident where you might have hit your head? ]

"Outside of this place? No," she says.

[ If you say so. Your brain shows otherwise. ] He gives a disinterested hum, tapping the tips of his fingers on the surface of the desk as if waiting for her to leave.

"So..." Feng Min starts, suddenly feeling very small and overwhelmed and lost, "what does that mean?"

[ Given that your brain is ordinary in every other way, the origin of the anomaly appears to be the injury. ] He waves a hand, a short jabbing motion in the air. [ I believe that the damage you sustained has allowed you to hear me, but not others with similar psychic ability, like the one you call the Nurse. It's unusual, but not impossible. Any human being's brain can be altered in such a way if you have the knowledge and the resources. It was a primary component of my research. You seem to have attained the ability to receive my voice through this unknown trauma. ] He's looking her right in the eyes, and she stares back. Neither of them can blink right now. [ Beyond that, it means nothing. ]

Feng Min drops her hands to her sides, feeling sick. "What means nothing?"

[ It's a coincidence. Circumstance. ] The Doctor's wide eyes twitch, just a little; she can hear him breathing out through his ever-clenched teeth. [ And it no longer interests me. ]

It knocks the wind out of her, and she doesn't even know why. There's this feeling of abject rejection, being so suddenly pushed away by someone who had let her close enough to allow her to recall his own memories but then refused to explain why. Desperation wells in her guts.

"But I just learned your name," she says brokenly. And I haven't even gotten to use it.

[ Yes, and I've also showed you more than enough to demonstrate that you will gain nothing by continuing to consort with me, ] the Doctor says, his tone indicating both warning and threat.

"So you want me to stay away," she says, her voice pitching, growing thin and inaudible.

[ You've disrupted my existence for long enough already, haven't you? ] he says, almost charitably, but his voice in her head is still low and dark.

Feng Min shakes her head, struggling to drag the lid back onto the pit of emotion inside of her. It's a frightening, out-of-control feeling that recalls the worst of her experiences in her last year on Earth— the public humiliation, the betrayal by her teammates, her hysterical and irrational choice to punish herself through drink and vice. She should be glad that the Doctor wants her to stay away. That's what she'd wanted, from the beginning— to get an answer and then to part ways to do with the information as she saw fit, so that she could then focus fully on just surviving the trials. But now...

Had her objective shifted? The goalposts changed? When had it happened? At what point had she lost sight of her strategy?

She doesn't remember when the static had truly begun its transmutation within her. She had tried to disentangle it, to get it out of her head, but recently she's come to realize that it has attached itself to her, absorbed all the way through her like a neurotoxin, soaked into each nerve in her body, affecting her in nearly every way. It's there, nested in her head, always telling her that he's still there, too, on the other side of it. She'd wake up from a particularly disorienting trip into the Bloodweb, relieved to be free of the dark whispers, and find her fall broken by the dense noise.

Feng Min realizes that she's come to find it comforting, the way it makes itself known all around her even as it is present inside of her. The static feels stable. Feels like it's always been in her head, in a way.

And the source of that dark noise is right here in front of her.

"I can't," she says finally, her voice trembling. "I told you. It won't let me stay away."

The Doctor — a man she now knows was, is named Herman Carter — considers her in silence.

Feng Min's hands float up to her chest. Her fingers feel weak, incapable of grasping, like the rest of her does. But she folds her hands over her sternum, trying to steady her voice. "Don't you feel it?" she asks, desperate to know. Does he? Has he felt its pull?

He gets up from the chair, and the faceted glass of the chandelier spreads the electric glow coming off of him into dozens of little fractures of light on the ceiling. It's both dazzling and dizzying. Instead of answering her question, he says, [ Does it matter? ]

He seems... not angry, no, but she can sense that something is off. Wrong. The energy coming off of him is dangerous right now.

"You have to," says Feng Min, her heart in her mouth claiming her voice before her brain can. "I know you do. You... you wouldn't have shown me those things otherwise. You wouldn't have spared me when... that thing happened, when you choked me."

Herman Carter is staring down at her. She notices for the first time that the coat he's wearing today is dark, making him fade into the walls, impossible to define against the shadows.

[ All of this is best left forgotten. Think of it as a favor from me to you. ] The sparks falling off of his shoulders begin to blink out, throwing the entire office into darkness, before lighting up again.

"No," she says.

He observes her in silence.

"You don't want to admit it." Feng Min realizes it as she says it. Now it feels like her distress is unleashing words she knows are probably wiser not to say, but she can feel the urgency rising in her to overwhelming levels. "Is that it?"

[ What difference would it make? ] he rebuts instead of responding.

"I don't know," she says, her jaw going tight, "but don't you want to find out?"

There's an indelible tension that draws all the noise together, distilling it into a painful truth: he must sense it, too.

[ I don't think you want to know what the Entity does with those who have outlived their usefulness or exhausted its patience, ] the Doctor says, canting his head at her. [ Or what I do with the same. ]

"Then..." says Feng Min, trying to keep her expression neutral, "go ahead and hurt me."

Silence holds for a beat, and then she extends her anxious hands, reaching for one of his. He lets her take it, lifting his heavy arm for her, and the touch doesn't shock her, although she can see the live charge gliding down his forearm. She turns his hand over, gently uncurling the coarse fingers, and runs the pad of her thumb over his crackled and sparking palm. He watches as she brings his hand up to her own throat, closes her grip around his wrist and pushes it there, insistently. Gambling on the chance that he won't squeeze.

"Do your best. Try to scare me off," she says numbly. "But I'll be back."

The Doctor neither flexes nor closes his hand around her neck. [ What exactly do you want from me? ]

There's this need inside of her that's screaming, destroy me. Permanently, once and for all. Feng Min half — maybe a lot more than half — wishes it were possible. That he could shock her brain beyond all conscious awareness and check her out of this Hell for good. She wants out of the nightmare, the fog, the Entity, the trials, the deaths and deaths and deaths, her own and the others' and everyone's, forever. But he can't do that for her. She doesn't think there's anything he could do to make her back down. The static is the only thing that feels level in the nightmare. The only thing that doesn't change. Her discovery of it had been more of an awareness than an attainment, her mind just acknowledging what was already there.

"It's not that I'm not... afraid of you," she says. "But you're not... You can't be that different from... me, or the others, or... anyone. I know I have to be here. I just don't know why yet. I think you know it, too."

He pulls free of her grip. She's not surprised he won't sustain the touch. When she told him that she'd keep coming back, she meant it. Reckless as ever, it doesn't feel like she has any other choice but to follow her instincts.

[ Make no mistake, Feng Min. ] The Doctor looks up towards the television mounted on the wall in the opposite corner of the office. It turns on with his glance alone, flaring with noise and lighting up the entire office. She sees that there's a faint red luminescence glowing through his dark skin, down from his jaw to his neck before disappearing past his collar. A cable? His jugular vein? Both? [ I was aware of its voice. Its whispers. I heard it every day. I sought to learn its language. ]

The television's shiny convex screen changes now with a motion of the Doctor's fingers. A badly distorted recording begins to play. There's a series of numbers in the lower right corner of the screen that Feng Min can just barely make out: 21.12.79 03:39.

[ I listened to it. I knew what it was doing to me. I had many chances to stop it, but I chose not to. ] He's looking at the screen, not at her, as he talks in her head.

It's black and white, the footage so blurry and damaged that the human figures on screen just look like indistinct, ghostlike shapes, all fuzzy around the edges. The camera's mostly trained on a person who might be restrained in some manner, judging by the angle and unnatural stiffness of their body. And the fact that they keep screaming, over and over. The audio track is weak and degraded, but not enough to muffle the cries of agony and fear.

The Doctor's voice is in the background. His real voice, Herman Carter's voice, the one he'd had when he was a real person in the real world, the one that had felt like it had come out of her own mouth through his memories. It's slower, the pitch dropped, has some actual human quality in it— but she'd recognize that laugh anywhere. The laughing. The screaming isn't loud enough to block it out.

Feng Min closes her eyes and puts her hands over her ears, not wanting to see or hear the awful thing happening on screen, but, like his voice, the images and the sounds are in her head. "You don't have to show me this," she says, teeth grit. "Just tell me."

[ Do you want to know what I felt when I was doing these things? ] The image on the television changes again— this time to a tape labelled 02.08.81 21:42, with barely differing content. Just a new voice doing the screaming.

"No," she says, grinding her palms into her ears with crushing force. It's not enough to silence the video. "I don't want to know. Turn it off."

He answers her anyway. [ Nothing. I felt nothing. ] The image flickers, swapping rapidly from 31.01.78 20:40 to 25.06.79 01:36 to 15.11.82 15:19 and more. Infinite chains of numbers. Infinite sounds of distress and pain. Infinite images of anguish. [ They had already committed their crimes and rescinded their rights to live among the rest of humanity. The body count was an unfortunate but necessary side effect. And in my line of work... bodies were in limitless supply. ]

"Stop," she says, strained, turning her face away. Had he known what would happen to him after a lifetime of such cruel work? Where all of it would lead him? Did he know what punishment lay ahead?

She ponders: is the sentence justified?

The television turns off, and the office is dark again. Feng Min's eyes have to adjust to his glowing silhouette. She's shivering, feeling nauseous from the sights and sounds of such extreme torture.

[ I thought you wanted to learn about me. ] His tone is patronizing in a way that she really doesn't like.

"I do," she says miserably. "But I want the truth. No one... nobody feels nothing."

The Doctor makes a sound like a sigh— not in her head, but from his body. It's discordant, a melancholy sound made through a mouth that refuses to move. He drops into the chair, bringing a hand to his temple like he's got a headache. It's a strange motion on him, despite the fact that Feng Min has never seen him without something painful-looking stuck in his skull. He doesn't say anything to her. She gets the impression that he'd like her to leave, which only keeps her standing there, and as the silence goes on, she moves a little closer, until the tips of her boots are encroaching on his shoe and she's standing between his knees.

He turns his head to regard her, and then he lifts a hand to take her by the waist. Feng Min flinches, seeing the current building over his knuckles, but the shock is almost immediately dampened by her leather jacket. He closes his arm around her and pulls her down onto his lap, above his knee, and, anxious but curious, she lets him.

He's solid, and she's small enough that she can drape her legs across his thighs. The Doctor is just staring down at her with that alarming, permanent expression of his, and she doesn't know what else to do, so she reaches up, cautiously, towards his face, her fingers shaky. Like he's an unfamiliar animal. One that might bite.

There's an undeniable, existential sort of terror in her right now that stops her heart, telling her that she's right to be afraid of this man who acted like such a monster that he eventually turned into one for real. But then there's the static— the noise, telling her that there is no black, no white, and no such thing as monsters. Only grey. And human beings.

Feng Min's fingertips alight upon the wires running up his head, pausing at the ridges where they've been stapled right into his skull. She stops before reaching the gruesome-looking ports at the crown of his head that flare with electricity, not knowing how deep down they go, or if they're dangerous for her to touch.

"Did you do this to yourself?" she murmurs. The whole rig makes her feel afraid, but she's mesmerized by it, too, the way the wires seem to be so wholly integrated inside of him. She wonders how it works, how it all comes together inside of his body, and if it could be manipulated or changed.

[ No. ] The Doctor tilts his face into her hand. She cups his scarred cheek. His skin is warm, she thinks. Of course it is.

"Does it hurt?"

[ Often, ] he says.

The gnarled texture of the left side of his face makes her think of a burn. She brushes her fingers, very carefully, over his high cheekbones, across the bridge of his nose, lower down under his jaw, and he lets her. As though brushing sand away from artifact, she thinks she can picture his face in her mind's eye, beneath the tortured mask. His real face. Just for a moment, it's there, like one of his hallucinations.

Feng Min has to take her hands away after that, suddenly conscious of her weight in the Doctor's lap, of the heat radiating off of him, of the empty feeling of loneliness in the face of such unnatural intimacy. There's a compulsion — so strong she sways with want — to press her ear to his chest and listen to learn if his heart beats at all or if it sings with the current, too.

"You... you look tired," Feng Min says, trying to distract herself, and even though the Doctor's face is paralyzed in such a lively expression, it's true. He looks exhausted, like he'd appreciate the chance to just close his eyes. So much of his skin is the varying shades of a bruise, a body warped beyond human limits. He hadn't been nearly this big as a human. She knows that. The point of view had been a tall person's, yes, but nothing close to the vantage point he holds now. It makes it even stranger now to think about how the Entity had preserved her and the other survivors in their fragile human shells, pound for pound of flesh and blood, even as it had twisted and mangled its killers.

[ My mind is always active on some level.

"Is it because of all of this?" she says, looking at the wires running down his arm as she lifts his hand with both of hers. This time, it's not to bring it to her throat— she merely presses his fingertips to the crown of her head. "What else can you do...?" 

[ I can incapacitate you completely, if I want to, ] he says, and she feels something shiver into her brain, so subtle she wouldn't have noticed it if she hadn't become so used to the noise lately.

She suddenly slumps against him, slack and lifeless. She can't move a muscle— not her head, not her hands, not her eyes. Nothing. His arm locks around her waist and props her up like she's a doll, her head dropping towards her shoulder at an angle that makes pain flare up in her spine. It's not anything like when he'd paralyzed her before in that stiff, painful, muscle-seizing way; this time she feels nothing, like she's been completely disconnected from her body. The Doctor cups the back of her skull with his other hand, and he seems to be inspecting her, looking into her eyes with an aloof sort of interest, like he's estimating her health.

Feng Min tries to open her mouth and say something, but she can't. There's no sensation of being attached to her own body; her nerves have gone dead all over, the signals disrupted en route to her brain. The Doctor lets her linger just long enough to really start to scare her, before he suddenly lets her go.  She sits up rigidly, her hands flying to her chest; there's a weird smothered feeling there, even though nothing had been preventing her from breathing. "I didn't ask you to show me," she gasps, her expression scrunching up.

[ Yes, you did, ] he says, his hand brushing over her side.

"Yes, I did," she says, nodding; suddenly, she doesn't remember just what they were talking about. In fact, she— "Wait. Stop doing that!" Feng Min shakes her head rapidly, like that's going to loosen his grip on her will. It scares her just how abruptly and naturally the agreement had come into her head. It had felt like such a genuine thought, for a moment. He'd done it once before, she remembers. It had been nearly unnoticeable then, too.

The Doctor laughs. It's not so scary this time, even though what he's talking about isn't any less sinister than she'd expect. [ You wouldn't even notice it if you didn't know what to expect. How can you know that I'm not manipulating your behavior even now? I could easily make you surrender all control to me completely. ] He leans back against the armrests. [ You feel lost. You want me to tell you what to do, don't you? That's what you're really after. ]

Is she? Feng Min isn't sure what the truth is now. She thinks, no, but then she thinks, yes, but which feeling can she trust right now? Her uncertainty must be showing on her face, because he's laughing again, which is what makes the whole situation suddenly seem very sobering and very wrong. It's too much, too fast, and she climbs off of him and the chair altogether, staggering back into the desk. Her hip collides with the corner, and she reaches to her side to rub the sore spot, looking at him warily.

The Doctor stays right where he's seated, shoulders shifting with amusement. He's reaching out for the notebook, like he's content to get back to whatever he'd just been working on. Feng Min doesn't know what to do now; there's an oil spill of contradicting thoughts and feelings in her head, mostly confused ones, and she needs time to understand it all.

[ Don't come back here until I next come to find you, ] he says.

"Okay," she says, before it strikes her: he's never come to seek her out before. So that means... for whatever reason, he's not done with her yet. As much as she isn't sure what to believe lately, about herself or anything else, there's that much. She's not going to ask why he's telling her this, but she's willing to wait to find out. "I'll wait, then, um... Dr. Carter." She adds the name and title only after thinking about it for a second. It sounds awkward, and he seems to think so, too.

[ If you wanted to know my name so badly, you should use it, ] he says flatly.

Feng Min lifts a hand to rub at her warm cheek. "...Herman," she says. It's less awkward this time. Seems more real. She makes herself practice it on her way back through the fog so that she won't hesitate to use it again.

Chapter Text

Meg and Dwight are sure to give the rest of the survivors plenty of warning before the 'holiday party.' We're doing Secret Santa. Don't get yourself killed over it or anything, but see if you can scav some kind of gift for your match. It leaves them all with a decent chunk of time to try to scrounge something together. Nobody really expects anything flashy— that's not the point, Dwight explained. He and Meg both seem to badly want to do something to inject some cheer into their collective spirits. The nights have seemed colder, lately, and they're all feeling it.

Feng Min gets what they're trying to do, or at least the spirit of it, even if she's never been one to celebrate Christmas, so she accepts participation with no protest. She's matched with Jake as her recipient, and it's a relief; he's practical, making him easy to find a gift for. She comes up with a pair of leather knee pads pinched from the MacMillan Estate grounds. They're old, but they're not too worn out, and she'd like to see Jake start doing more to protect his knees during trials. She's always seeing him in trials crouched on the cold ground dismantling sacrificial hooks, so she thinks he'll appreciate it. She's wrapped the gift up in old newspaper and set the bundle under the tree with the rest of the presents.

Everyone's come together and pulled through pretty decently. Feng Min is impressed by the effort and resourcefulness the others have put into the décor. She'd helped Bill and Quentin hook up a scavenged battery to some string lights that someone had brought back from the swamp, and other survivors had picked out a tree close to the campfire to adorn. Claudette and Laurie had assembled garlands from old curtains and sheets stolen from Haddonfield and Springwood, and Nea had fashioned some charming little paper animals and stars out of pages torn from a picture book she'd found in the Red Forest, which were hung like ornaments.

There's even music, thanks to Kate and her guitar, and whenever she takes a break from it, Quentin hops on to keep the tunes flowing. He's not as good as her, but he isn't bad at all, and the constant strumming seems to warm the air up. Everyone's gathered around the campfire with renewed energy. There's a few of them missing, either at a trial or out lost in the fog, but Meg keeps saying that the party will just keep going until everyone has a chance to drop in.

Ace has produced liquor from some previously unknown stash of his — he talks about saving things for special occasions, which really says a lot about the guy's optimism or stubbornness or maybe both — which puts Feng Min at an impasse again. She ends up lingering back from the festivities, which isn't out of character for her, anyway, watching the others trade toasts and wishing it were that easy for her, too.

When it comes time to exchange gifts, Feng Min is approached by Meg, who has apparently been made her match. Meg looks excited. Whatever she's holding is about the shape and size of a baseball, covered in a dull red cloth. "Be careful, it's heavy," she warns as she hands it over.

Feng Min takes it — it is heavy — and tries not to look like she's confused. Meg watches eagerly as she pulls away the cloth, leaving her holding a strange object. It's round, but not smooth. The structure is comprised of gears, six of them, each interlocking with one another to form a sphere. When she pushes on one with the tip of her finger, it spins, causing each of the others to rotate, too. Other than that, it does nothing.

Whatever it is, she decides that it's not really a bad gift. She had a pretty big collection of knick-knacks lined up in her dorm once, much of them gifts from adoring Laser Bears fans. It's interesting and pleasing to the eye, like a three dimensional puzzle. "Where'd you find this? What is it?"

"Claudette and I dug it up around the swamp while looking for bog laurel. I don't know what it is. I thought you would think it was cool," says Meg with a warm smile. She's right. "What do you think?"

"It is cool," says Feng Min. She shifts it from hand to hand. It's got the weight of a large melon. "Thanks." She's glad it's just small enough to be kept in her new backpack, which she usually leaves lying around the campfire. She takes a few minutes to tinker with it, manipulating the cogs forward and backward. There's a fluid quality to the movement; she can't hear a sound coming from the gears' teeth coming together, not even when she holds it up to her ear. When she gives it a hard enough spin, it continues rotating for an extended period of time, just spinning endlessly in the palm of her hand. She has to reach out to bring the motion to a stop.

She puts the sphere away so that she can give Jake his gift. He brightens when he realizes that she's his match, holding his arms out as if welcoming a hug. It's unusual for Jake, and, flustered, Feng Min reaches over with one arm to sort of pat him on the back of the shoulder before leaning back again.

"Oh," says Jake when he tears away the newspaper. "Wow. I was just thinking the other day that if my mom could see me here on my knees in the dirt all the time, she'd get so mad at me. She used to hate it if I came back inside with even a little bit of mud on my clothes." Feng Min watches as, in the middle of this anecdote, his gaze moves somewhere distant and sad, before coming back to her. "Thank you. Seriously."

"It's nothing." She thinks of her own parents, now, too. It's hard not to in this atmosphere of celebration. She can't remember the last time she'd really enjoyed the holidays with them. 2014, maybe? 2013? She wishes she could recall, and wonders what they're doing now. If they're waiting for her, looking for her. If they even noticed. If they still care.

The unsettled and strange feelings that Feng Min has struggled with since the last time she'd seen Dr. Herman Carter have only intensified. Her experiences in the Bloodweb have been unpleasant almost every time now, a wakeless torment of whispers leaving her without any kind of rest. She's come to find that, during trials, her aura reading abilities sometimes don't seem to work the way that they should— the images flickering, the whispers lifting higher than the heartbeats, confusing her. The repetitiveness of trial after trial has never felt more exhausting, especially after being told by the Doctor that she needs to wait for him to come find her. For what or why, she still doesn't know.

The static seems to be the only balm to the whispers. It's always there, even during the worst pain, giving her something to focus on when she's been injured in a trial and just trying to get through it, or when she's facing down the deadly end of some killer's weapon. Every time she wakes up, it's the first thing she looks for.

There's a commotion nearby, and Feng Min learns that Kate's gift to David is apparently a tattoo. She's got a bottle of ink and a sewing needle and is explaining, "I know what I'm doin', okay? Did this myself." She reaches up to tug down the strap of her tank top, exposing the outline of a moon above her breast, which makes Dwight turn away in embarrassment.

"I'm mad for it!" says David, slapping his knees with enthusiasm. He looks like he's pretty drunk already. So does Kate, too, come to think of it.

"A tattoo, though? A prison tattoo? How do you know it'll even last?" insists Dwight, greatly concerned. "And this isn't really a sterile environme—"

"We'll see, yeah?" says David, smacking Dwight on the back so hard that he knocks the wind right out of him, making him wheeze and keel over. David then begins unbuckling his pants, which is the moment that Feng Min chooses to look away. "Right, then, Kate, we put it 'ere, on my arse—"

Turning her attention to the others, Feng Min observes as Nea hands her gift over to Quentin. It's a sketch of him and Laurie, apparently drawn covertly from across the fire. Quentin looks bashful, but he takes it and shows it to Laurie right away, who seems like she'd happily keep it for herself.

"I think they know," says Quentin, and he's trying to keep his voice down, but Feng Min can hear him pretty clearly.

"You think so?" says Laurie, a little sarcastically, but she looks so content, in a way Feng Min hasn't seen before. The moment Quentin is distracted, Laurie makes a shhh motion at Feng Min, and then she slips up behind him to dangle a sprig of amaranth up above his head, holding it there until he eventually turns around and notices it.

When he does, a big smile slowly warms his sleepy face, teeth and everything, and — with a somewhat embarrassed but defiant look at the others — Quentin takes her around the waist, tips her in his arms, and kisses her right on the mouth. Laurie locks her arms around his neck and over his shoulders, smiling against his lips.

"Now they know," she says.

Ace stands up, nearly falls over, and then starts clapping. "Congratulations!" he says, although nobody seems to be sure what he's praising them for. There's a big wet stain down the front of his sweater where he's spilled half a drink on himself. Bill's nearby, thrusting a ragged old towel at him.

Seeing everyone together like this — smiling, laughing, some light in their eyes — hurts, in its own strange, small way. Just knowing that this happiness isn't going to last — that it can't last — is enough to taint it completely. The specter of their dark, unknown future hovers impending. When Feng Min looks hard enough, the happiness starts to seem less genuine and more desperate. Everyone wants to forget their reality. Everyone. She knows she can't be the only one that wants to run away from themselves.

That thought drains every last bit of her remaining energy, so Feng Min takes a seat by her backpack and takes the gear sphere out again. She sets it on her lap and lets her mind wander as she toys with it, half-wishing she had a drink.

Eventually, Nea drops down next to her, all limbs and shredded denim and blurry with drink. "Needa talk to you," she says thickly. Her nose is reddish; Feng Min can smell liquor on her breath. She doesn't like where this is going. She's been waiting for Nea to lose her limited patience and bring up the topic of what she'd shown her and Quentin sooner or later. Nea's been giving her far too many strange looks lately for Feng Min to be able to convince herself that she'd just magically forgotten the whole incident somehow.

"What is it?" she says, reluctantly. She leans away, not wanting to smell the alcohol.

"Something so fucked up happened. At the asylum. Few trials ago." Nea's reaching up to slide a hand under her hat. It falls off behind her; she doesn't notice. The dark hair beneath is damp and sweaty; she looks nervous and jittery. Not a happy drunk today, observes Feng Min. "She got everyone. 'Cept me. We had two gens. I was bleeding from, like, my fuckin' femoral or something... Just laying face down. Couldn't even sit up. I was trying to crawl away, but it was like I was having the world's worst period in my pants." She gives a snort-laugh at herself before her expression drops dead serious again. "Anyway. She comes... comes 'round, and grabs me. I couldn't kick her or anything. I mean, I was seriously about to pass out. I was just gonna let her hook me. And she... I heard it. I heard the hatch." She looks up at Feng Min now, her icy blue eyes clearing. "And then she dropped me in it. And I was out."

Sally let her go...? thinks Feng Min in wonder. She's heard about things like this before, and although nobody present at the campfire now could claim to have ever seen it happen with their own eyes, it was rumored that sometimes, sometimes, for whatever reason, a killer would choose to let the last of their number go. No one knew why, or even if the rumor were true. But now Nea's telling her—

"She spared you?"

Nea's whole face reddens. She looks angry. Distraught. Agonized, in a way. "This is your fault," she says with difficulty.

"I... I'm sorry," says Feng Min, because she knows Nea's right without having to ask how it's her fault. She'd rattled the status quo. It might have been a mistake to inflict her insight on Nea, too; she knows that Nea keeps herself going by never asking too many questions. "I really did need your help."

"Why?" Nea demands to know. "What the hell did you do?" She's got a bottle clamped between her knees, which she now pulls up and takes a sip from. "How do you know her name?"

It should be easy to just say something, right? Just anything. Feng Min should be able to look Nea in the eyes, like a friend, and tell her something. Anything. Even if it's not the entire truth. She's wondering what to say, melting under the glare, when she feels something shift around her.

The noise. It quivers like a single plucked violin string, then stops.

"Helloooo?" Nea's voice is softening. Suddenly, the bottle sways before her; Nea is offering it. "You want a drink? It could loosen your crazy ass up a bit."

Broken from her focus on the frequency by this sudden temptation, Feng Min overreacts with alarm, reaching to shove it away by pushing her palm against Nea's elbow. Nea yelps and sloshes some on herself.

"What gives?" she snaps, looking somewhat humiliated, as she stares down the front of her wet top.

"I don't need a drink," says Feng Min tensely. "I... I'm sorry."

"You coulda just said so," says Nea. "I— look, I'm not trying to start a fight, okay? I just want to know what the fuck is going on with you." She reaches out for Feng Min's arm, almost hesitantly; she seems too shy to actually touch her.

Feng Min tries to think of how to answer, wavering on the razor-thin edge of Nea's questions, but her thoughts are disrupted again by a ripple in the static. It feels... close, close enough that—

It's him, she thinks. Feng Min sits up straighter and then clambers to her feet, forgetting for a moment that Nea is watching her with concern and frustration. She can't decide if his timing is awful or auspicious, but, either way, the Doctor has come for her, and she knows that he'll be expecting her to go straight to him.

"Let's talk about this sometime later... without the alcohol," Feng Min suggests, strained, not knowing if Nea will like that, given how suspiciously she's eyeing her.

"Fine," says Nea. "Promise me."

"I..." Nea's looking at her like she's afraid for her. Feng Min bites her lip. "I promise. Okay." She'll have to think about the repercussions of this vow later. For now, she checks to be certain that the other survivors are sufficiently distracted — they won't notice a damn thing, not with how inebriated most of them are — and then she slips into the trees with one final look at Nea, who's still watching her as she leaves.

The sounds of music and laughter fade quickly, and they're gone the moment Feng Min has crossed fully into the Black Fog. Knowing that none of the killers can come close to the campfire, she follows the static. Walking towards the danger, out of the radius of safety. No wonder Nea had been looking at her the way she had. She suspects that she may really have lost her mind in some ways.

It takes a few minutes of walking in a nearly straight line to find the Doctor. He's impossible to overlook even in the wall of dark trees thanks to the current that follows his every step. He's a beacon of light and humming sound.

Feng Min doesn't know how long it's been since their last encounter. It feels like it's been a while, although she thinks it hasn't. She does know that she hasn't met him in a trial since she'd last seen him in his office, which makes his appearance here in the forest that much more unexpected. He'd come for her. He'd really come for her— he'd meant it. It's only now that Feng Min becomes aware that she hadn't been completely sure if she could believe him when he told her to wait.

It's a strange feeling, having him seek her out. She's only ever seen him before under her own pretenses. There's this weird dopamine-hit feeling at being back in his presence after he'd told her that he apparently felt nothing about her brain remained worth investigating. She wonders what his pretenses are, if he even has any.

[ What is that? ] the Doctor asks instead of greeting her. He's looking down at her hands, and Feng Min realizes that she'd brought the gear sphere with her without even thinking about it.

"It's a Christmas present I got," she says awkwardly, holding it out to him. She anticipates a shock when he touches the metal, but she sees that he's got leather gloves on today, surprising her. She doesn't think she's ever seen him wearing those before. The long-sleeved coat he's got on today is unfamiliar to her, too; it's dark, concealing most of his silhouette in the shadows.

[ Christmas? ] With a scoff, he takes it from her; it looks as small as a ping pong ball in his hand. He seems to intuit its mechanism immediately, setting it rotating with a push of his thumb.

"Well, you arrived in the middle of the party. It's Christmas, according to Dwight's calendar," Feng Min says, shrugging.

[ Is it? ] The Doctor seems faintly amused as he hands the gear sphere back to her. Feng Min tucks it under her arm.

"Yeah," she says, taking a moment to enjoy the mirthful tilt of his shoulders before adding, "Should I have found you a gift?"

As he turns to cut through the trees with intent and direction, the Doctor's laughter sends the crows shrieking up through the canopy. [ Really, now? I can think of a few things I might like. ]

Feng Min is surprised that he's playing along, although she's not sure what to make of that comment. "Don't— don't say something weird," she says, taking a few long strides to keep up with him as she swats branches out of the way.

[ Fortunately for you, the only thing I require right now is your attention. ] The Doctor makes a motion with his hand as if indicating that Feng Min still isn't walking fast enough for him, although she's already doubled her pace. Huffing, she speeds up.

"Right," she says, trying to get a look at his face in the shadows. "I was going to ask why you came for me now."

[ You'll soon see, ] he says, and he doesn't elaborate, increasing her confusion.

Should she be afraid or concerned about where he's taking her? She's not. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Any reasonable, sane person would be afraid— of him, of his vague words, of his unknown intentions. Feng Min hates that she's just not certain. So she walks in silence with him, trying to keep her head clear, letting her eyes drift unfocused in the darkness. She knows it's just her in her head right now, but how can she be sure?

The thing that she's been struggling with the most is that it feels right to be near him, like the magnetic force of the pull inside of her is finally at rest as long as he is around. At the start of all of this, she realizes, she'd felt drawn to the hospital itself, thinking that the building was what had called to her. But the focal point of the static has always come back to Herman Carter, long before she'd become aware of it. It's always been him. Always.

It's so dark, and the mist so heavy, that the gradual change of the flora around her happens imperceptibly, at first. The humidity begins rising, the chill in the air dissipating. The soil beneath her sneakers becomes spongier, damper. The smell of pine sap and ashes and rain turns to noxious perfume and decay. It's that last part that shocks her senses and makes her acutely aware of her surroundings.

Feng Min comes to a stop. In the light of the Doctor's glow, she examines the plants around them. She sees wide, waxy leaves. Vines. Large tropical flowers. Astonished, she realizes that he's led her to a part of the fog that she's never seen before.

"Where are we?" she asks. Her voice sounds small and muffled in the heady atmosphere of the rainforest.

[ Look, ] the Doctor says, and he moves ahead of her. She sees that there's an opening through the palms, and she follows him through it.

There's a clearing there, and the roaring of waves, loud enough to compete with the static ever-present in her head. She's shocked to lay her eyes on a small, sandy beach beneath a twinkling early-evening sky of pale stars, like the sun has just finished setting. There is an ocean here, too, one that she knows is surely an illusion of the Entity's, but it seems to stretch out into the horizon forever and ever, and it makes her heart jump and her breath catch in her throat with a longing for freedom.

Up on the beach is what looks like a little motel. It's got a bright, flickering neon sign, written in a language that Feng Min doesn't recognize or understand. It's falling apart, the roof mostly caved in. The beach itself is a chaotic scene— umbrellas, lounge chairs, towels, and more are thrown around haphazardly, as if the area had been cleared out very abruptly, without any warning. There's a thin line of dying light at the very edge of the sky above the water, turning the ocean crimson and letting stars come through the night spread above. The sand glows lilac before it.

It's beautiful. And yet it makes Feng Min feel the same way any other place in the Entity's realm does: there's a distinct feeling that something awful happened here, that something terrible beyond words took place on this beach. Dropping to the ground, she pulls her knees up so that she can unlace her sneakers and take them off. When she does, she digs her feet into the silky white sand and stands up again, amazed at just how familiar and real it feels.

Nearby, the Doctor is motionless, looking out onto the ocean, his expression betraying nothing, as usual. He looks a little strange in his long, dark coat there on the beach.

"What is this place?" Feng Min asks him, kneeling to pick up a colorful object peeking out from beneath a towel. It's a fashion magazine, dated 07/1994. She flips through a few pages of blandly smiling models before letting it drop back on top of the towel.

[ It is a dead zone, ] the Doctor replies. His arms are folded across his chest. [ A discarded place that is no longer in use. ]

In use? She thinks she knows what he means. There can only be one meaning.

"This was a place where trials happened?"

[ Yes, ] he says.

Feng Min reaches out to run her hand over the colorful nylon pattern of a beach umbrella, still propped up at an optimal sun-shielding angle. "What happened to the killer that was here?"

[ I can't answer that, ] the Doctor responds, and he sounds displeased, like he wishes he could.

There's a slight warm breeze coming in from the west, carrying with it the salty edge of the ocean. Feng Min badly wishes to go running into it and then start swimming, just to see how far she can go. Drowning is one of the few ways she hasn't died in the nightmare yet. She tries to imagine what it must have been like for trials to happen in this place. Where the generators might have been. If its killer would have been more comfortable in the water or on the shore. Where all the best hiding spots were. It's a sad thought.

"How many survivors and killers have come and gone from this place?"

[ Too many to measure. ]

That answer gives Feng Min some idea of just how long the Doctor has been in the Entity's realm. She has a feeling it's been for far longer than most of the survivors have been around— not that there's any conceivable or realistic way to measure time here, not with the way it seems to stretch and stop and reset at will according to the Entity's needs.

The Doctor goes silent, as if he's allowing her another couple of minutes just to take in the view, and then he says, [ Come, ] and walks back towards the trees. Feng Min pulls her shoes back on to follow, relieved to leave the eerie little vacation spot behind.

This time, she pays close attention as they progress through the dark forest, and she watches as the plants slowly transform and change around them with every step. The humidity evaporates into a chill, and the palms and ferns turn into birch and alder and oak. The leaves begin to change color, to warmer hues. When she sees the moonlight coming through the tree line, Feng Min moves ahead of the Doctor and breaks through first.

It's a high school, all brown brick and picture-perfect Americana. She turns towards him. Another dead zone...? His wordless stare back at her seems to confirm it. The sky has turned a deep black, and the moon is full; it looks like it's around midnight. Banners outside of the school seem to indicate that some kind of event is happening inside. Feng Min heads right for the front doors; they're unlocked. The Doctor follows her at a leisurely pace, taking his time as she moves into the front foyer.

The interior is ordinary in every way, but Feng Min feels strangely unhappy in the school's dark, empty halls. Her wandering takes them to the gymnasium, which is fully decorated for a dance. Homecoming? Prom? She isn't sure. There is an unoccupied stage with a podium, and abandoned snack tables; when she leans over to look, she sees that the bowls are still full of clear, bright pink, sweet-smelling punch. Streamers and confetti are scattered all over the place. A colorful floor decal proudly declares the school's team name: the DEVILS.

She suddenly doesn't have any questions she's comfortable asking about this place, and when she turns to leave, her companion simply follows her; he takes the lead again only once the fog closes around them.

The Doctor ends up guiding Feng Min through a series of locations that she's never seen before. Forgotten places abandoned by the Entity, each of them a completely separate world in the void. They encounter a patch of forest with a small, modest one-story cabin in it. The cabin gives off highly sinister vibes, and he seems to think so, too, because he doesn't go near it, and they move beyond that realm quickly. They pass through a gated, wealthy suburban neighborhood lined with pastel-colored homes and neon convertibles and blood splatters on the sidewalks. They briefly explore an underground subway station, one with massive damage to the tunnels that could only have been caused by explosives. He even shows her a summer camp, a serene little lakeside place with colorful tents and a large mess hall.

Then they come to an airport terminal, with gates and a baggage claim and everything, but the layout is confusing, twisting in and out; although there are signs everywhere apparently indicating directions, they get turned around a few times. It reminds her of the Institute's misleading signage and looping halls. Feng Min imagines that surviving a trial here would have been very difficult.

They decide to take a break in the departures area. There's a kiosk nearby with overpriced snacks and drinks, along with other random items. Feng Min wishes she'd brought her backpack. She breaks open the display case with a few determined whacks of her elbow and the gear sphere — it doesn't even sustain a scratch — and grabs a few packs of cigarettes, hoping they'll earn Nea's favor later. The Doctor has taken a seat in the waiting area in front of gate B14, and once she's fit everything she can into her pockets — candy included — she heads back over to him.

[ You have a sweet tooth, I see, ] he says.

"Do you?" Feng Min holds out a package of Skittles at him. She's still not really sure if he can move his mouth enough to actually put anything in it, let alone enough to eat, but it still feels less rude to offer him some than to not offer any at all.

[ My tastes are expensive, ] he says, eyeing the candy with distrust. If he could roll his eyes, she imagines he might, right now.

"Doesn't answer my question," she says, smiling despite herself.

The Doctor gets up to lead the way out again. [ Let's focus. We still haven't found what we're looking for. ]

"What are we looking for?" Beyond the DEPARTURES sign of the gloomy airport, the forest awaits, and as soon as they enter the fog, the dead zone behind them slips out of sight.

[ A barrier, ] he says simply, and she knows better than to ask what he means; she's just going to have to wait and see.

The next place they uncover is some kind of prison. It's nothing like the Institute— this place is a true prison, a high-security facility for lifetime stays. It's a claustrophobic place with a suffocating atmosphere, with multiple floors stretching up many stories and a hivelike layout. The cells are close together and cramped; bland beige paint is peeling from the walls. Every step up the industrial-built metal staircases rattles and echoes. It would have been nigh impossible for a survivor to go undetected here with a killer looking for them, she realizes, and she's glad, again, that the places the Doctor has been showing her have been long since abandoned by the Entity.

Feng Min takes a quick look into one of the cells. It's sparse, with only a toilet, sink, and a bed. That's it. She looks over to him, where he stands at the head of the staircase, waiting for her. She decides to chance asking, carefully, "The... the kind of prison the Institute was... It wasn't like this, right?"

[ No, ] the Doctor says, apparently amenable to answering. [ Léry's dealt with inmates of a different breed. Political prisoners. War criminals. Spies. Defectors. Traitors. Those whose actions put the public and the country at risk. ] He's not looking at her as he heads back down the stairs to the ground level.

She had guessed as much, already, between everything she's seen and heard and experienced through his memories, but to have him confirmed it is sobering. "So it wasn't a place designed for serving out long sentences."

[ It was a place where sentences ended, ] he says with finality.

She plays back his words in her head as they move through the forest. Spies, traitors. Political prisoners. What does she know about those things? Not much. Her world view, her experiences— they couldn't be any more different. Her confusion regarding who and what he was, who he might still be— none of it is getting any clearer for her. What had he been searching for, with all of that experimentation? All those hours of cruel torture?

And why had it brought the Entity so close to him?

Feng Min expects them to end up in another realm, but they don't— or they can't. The forest seems to swallow them up this time, leading them through indistinguishable trails of trees, allowing for no true sense of direction. The Doctor doesn't appear to be disturbed by this; he only keeps walking, resolute. She understands why when the darkness begins to change around them. It gets thinner somehow, like reality is negligible in this area of the forest.

The gaps of shadows between the trees grow larger, and the Doctor moves towards the empty spaces left behind. It's so dark, the blackness so absolute, that she can only rely on his audible breathing to navigate her path through the fog. She trails him in complete darkness for some time, eyes wide open but seeing nothing as it deepens. She grasps onto the back of his coat to ensure that she doesn't lose him in it, and eventually she sees a new sort of light in the distance. Not the cold silver-blue coming off of him— it's warm gold, just a ribbon of it limning the air like a freeze-frame of a lightning bolt. She doesn't know what she's looking at, really, until they get close to it.

It's some sort of hole, she realizes. Some kind of cut in the shadows. She doesn't understand how it exists even as she stares at it. It just hovers there, amber and orange rays leaking out of it, providing barely enough light to see him by. She's compelled to try and touch it, but she can feel an intense heat on her face as she looks, so she keeps her hands to herself.

Beyond it, there is nothing; it is as dark and featureless as a jump into the void.

"Is this a barrier?" Feng Min asks, remembering what he told her.

[ Yes. But this world continues to grow beyond these limits. Picture a cancer cell— something that multiplies uncontrollably. It abandons old parts of itself just as quickly as it mutates new ones. ] Jerking his head into the darkness, he continues, [ This world is not just physical. Everything around us is alive— a smaller part of a much greater whole. Think of this as a blank foundation to build on that. Potential for potential. ]

"What happens if you cross it? Or touch it?"

[ I think you can guess. ]

A painful death, most likely; Feng Min doesn't really need or want to know. She takes a little step back from it. The light is... familiar, somehow. The way it shimmers. She realizes that she's seen it before, around the sacrificial hooks— any time before the Entity showed up. Oh.

"The light has something to do with the Entity, doesn't it?" she murmurs, studying his face for confirmation, trying to see if she can read it.

[ Of course it does. I am sure you have noticed that it prefers to make only select parts of itself known. We see only what it allows us to experience of itself. Its true form doesn't even exist on this plane. ] The Doctor's bulging eyes take her in, the whole once-over. [ And it isn't accessible to you nor I. ]

Keen for more information, Feng Min doesn't know if she should try to be cool about it or not. She ends up stuttering as she asks, "Then... then where does it exist?"

He raises a hand to his jaw. [ There is more than one layer to this reality— to any reality. The one you call the Wraith understands it better than any of us. ]

The Wraith. She remembers him standing near the Nurse, how he'd seemingly waited for the two of them to finish their conversation. He'd looked at her in a way that had indicated lucidity, too. Is the Doctor suggesting that she go ask him about the true nature of the Entity and its world? Feng Min doesn't think she has it in her to approach another killer, let alone under the stringent watch of Quentin and Nea— and probably, soon, the others, if she doesn't find a way to placate them both.

"What does the Entity look like?" she asks eventually. "There's the claws, but..."

[ It's in everything you see around you. But if you mean its full physical form, I cannot say. No one has ever seen it. I don't even know if it has such a thing. ] The Doctor moves away from the barrier; there is nothing else to see. As they walk away from it, the black horizon seems to warp behind them, deflating and folding in on itself. Feng Min is disturbed by the way the shadows fill in the spaces left behind, pushing them back into the infinite sea of trees. She doesn't think she'll be able to find a barrier area again on her own, and wonders how much more the Doctor knows about the Entity's world.

She's starting to become a little exhausted as they walk. Between the deluge of new information to chew on, all of the things stuffed in her pockets, and having to keep track of the gear sphere, Feng Min is ready to sit down for a bit.

The shift into the next realm is immediately noticeable, because the atmosphere turns hot and dry. Above the canopy the sky soaks up a gradient of reds, magentas, and purples, casting dusky light. As they step out onto the dirt, a warm wind blows Feng Min's hair into her eyes; she brushes it away and sees a sparse red desert filled with tall, precarious-looking mesas. Cacti and sagebrush grow uninhibited here, dotting the landscape with strokes of life. The only sign of civilization is a small brown building on the side of a stretch of highway. It has a couple of gas pumps attached — they're old, with no slot for a credit card anywhere — and a sign, but the letters are all worn away. Feng Min knows one when she sees it, though: it's definitely a bar.

"Do you know how to get back to the Institute?" The air is hazy with dust, making her eyes water. She reaches up to rub at them.

[ Generally. I am sure you know that the fog doesn't always obey. ] The Doctor looks down at her as he leads her towards the lonely building. [ You look tired. ]

"I feel tired," she admits. "We don't usually go exploring out that far. It just... It sucks to get killed when you're only trying to find some bandages or something warm to wear."

The Doctor reaches out for the swinging double doors and holds one open for her. Inside, the bar's dusty tables are all empty. The floor is well worn down from years of drinking and dancing. There's one wall covered in license plates— all of them from Arizona, different decades and editions. Most of the place looks totally undisturbed; stools even remain lined neatly up by the bar. Behind it, Feng Min spots dozens of colorful bottles and a handful of familiar labels— a lot of them look full, too. The glassware is still in place next to the taps, neatly stacked as if some bartender had readied the display for a raucous night of serving. The cash register's drawer is partially open; glancing inside, she sees American bills. All in all, seems like a pretty typical motorcyclist's rest stop.

She watches the Doctor slide onto one of the stools at the bar and is sort of amazed that the seat can even support his mass. He's got his elbows on the counter top, looking lost in thought, taking no notice of her examining his profile. She wants to ask about the specific purpose of him taking her to all of these places— is there something he's hoping she'll notice or recognize, or is he actually trying to teach her what he knows about the Black Fog? Is it something else she doesn't or can't understand yet? And why? The more she learns about the Doctor, the more questions she ends up with.

Feeling anxious in his presence and needing something to occupy her hands and mind, Feng Min's attention sweeps back towards the bottles, and she slips behind the bar. The sink still produces water when she runs the tap, so she sets the gear sphere on the counter top and starts rinsing the dust and grime out of the drinking glasses one by one. She looks up at the array of alcohol as she works, her eyes glazing over. Lots of different labels she knows. Most of them look pretty dated. Numbly, without really thinking it through, she reaches for a bottle of rum with an unbroken seal.

Just one drink, she thinks. Just while she's here. It's the sort of logic she used back when drinking was the only thing that could keep her mind distracted from her miseries and failures — it's never 'just one,' never was — but she won't know how to find this particular place again, anyway, so maybe she can get away with just one. And it's not like she has to get up early the next day for practice or anything. She's got no more deadlines, no more schedules, no more obligations. No one left to disappoint except herself. She knows that taking a shortcut to courage like this is wrong, that she's shattering a sober streak she could never have hoped to attain on her own in the real world, but she has questions she wants to ask that she can't bring herself to voice. Not without something to relax both her nerves and tongue.

And she's been good, hasn't she? She'd resisted the last two times, and the stakes then were much less important... right? Fuck. Feng Min knows that she's just resorting to the same old excuses she used to justify all her bad decisions back on Earth, and yet...

[ I thought you hoped to give up drinking, ] observes the Doctor, cutting into her thoughts. The fact that he's both closely watching what she's doing and commenting on something he'd only ever played voyeur to in her memories — not something she'd ever brought up with him herself — immediately embarrasses her, but it doesn't seem like he's at all concerned about hurting her feelings or offending her, so she makes up her mind.

Feng Min takes a deep breath and lowers her gaze. Her head hurts a little. "Yeah, well," she says bluntly, "do you want one too or not?"

[ So you can watch me struggle to drink it? ] He laughs, his heavy breathing racking up loud. [ I don't think so. ]

"I'm sure there's a straw around here," Feng Min says, checking the cooler. There's ice in it. She doesn't bother contemplating how it's stayed frozen for so long and grabs some for her glass.

The Doctor hums, watching her move behind the bar with the bottle in her hand. He's removed the gloves at some point; they're laid out neatly on the counter top. [ You think you're cute, don't you? ]

"Um," she says, looking up into his steady eyes and secretly feeling kind of proud that she's not flushed from his condescending taunting like she might typically be, "you said it, not me." She cracks the cap on the bottle and pours the rum out over the ice, watching the cubes tumble over one another and float to the top before moving around the bar and taking a seat at the stool to the Doctor's right. She tries to ignore his staring as she shakily raises the glass to her lips.

The fact that it tastes as good as it does is disheartening, although she'd expected that. The rush, after so long without, is almost instantaneous; she's so unused to it now that it makes her throat burn and her empty stomach grow hot, sensations that had eventually stopped affecting her after months and months of constant, persistent drinking. The burning in her throat feels like a real measure of sobriety. Proof she'd gotten it out of her system. She's both upset with herself for caving in and intensely relieved that she did.

[ I wonder if you've ever considered that it might be somewhat risky to get intoxicated around me? ] the Doctor offers.

Feng Min shakes her head. "Our deal's off, right? You said it before— if you want to hurt me, you will. Does it matter if I'm blitzed or not?" she points out. The liquor's already making her feel a little bolder, which should be worrying. The person she becomes when she's heavily intoxicated is a side of her personality that she doesn't want to embody now, or ever again— especially not in the Doctor's presence.

He goes hmmmh out loud at her, this time from his chest, and just watches her take another sip. Feng Min looks down into her glass, and then up at his face, so twisted in such a state of alarm. The wires running down the side of his head crackle brightly, catching her attention.

"Why don't you just take it off?" Feng Min asks, motioning with her glass to the equipment framing his head. The rig looks fine-tuned around his face, like it had been built specifically to stretch his features to the absolute limit, and not a bit more.

[ I can't, ] the Doctor says flatly. His teeth come together by a fraction of an inch, jaw shifting.

"Why not?" Her eyes trail up to the top of his head, where it looks like the device intersects with his skull.

[ These restraints only hold things in place, ] he says, understanding her line of thought. He waves a hand by his temple, flinging sparks down on the bar top. [ The facial paralysis is also the reason I cannot speak. ]

Feng Min is startled — facial paralysis — but within the same moment, she's wondering why she hadn't figured it out sooner.

[ You look more surprised than I do, ] the Doctor says, the laughter ringing again against the little bar's low ceilings.

A spell of dizziness takes her when she tips her head back for another gulp, and she tells herself to slow down, but instead she just swallows and asks, "So how did it happen?"

[ It's not obvious? The Entity, ] he says, a hand lifting to the crown of his head, where his fingers press into the spaces between the cables and ports. [ It restricts what abilities it allows me to access. ]

Feng Min tilts her head, leaning in — swaying a bit — to try to have a look. "But you can still use telepathy...? Or whatever it is you want to call it. I can hear you. And during trials, you always manage to get almost everyone with the... the static. The madness."

The Doctor shakes his head dismissively. [ Humans like you are easily manipulated. Your brains are simplistic— like mice. ]

She huffs, both agitated and somewhat charmed by his arrogance. "Okay, whatever. If you're so smart, why don't you just try manipulating the Entity into letting you out of here? You understand it, right?"

[ No, ] he says. [ It is far more complex and more powerful than you could imagine. My understanding barely scratches the surface. Even suggesting that you could do something as simple as manipulate it is failing to understand its nature. It is a force beyond comprehension. To even begin to understand it, one would need to find a corporeal form first. ]

Right. And, according to him, Feng Min recalls, the Entity's true form — if a living nightmare of death could even have such a thing — has never been seen. She believes the Doctor when he says that, even if she still doesn't understand why he's telling her these things. She ponders it as she swings her legs at her stool, feeling the tipsiness spread throughout her limbs; it is not unlike the prickling sensation of his static flowing over her body. She drains the rest of the glass quickly and then spins on her seat towards him to reach out for his head.

The Doctor moves back for a second, recoiling as if uncertain of what she intends to do, but then he leans forward to let Feng Min's hands touch the top of his head. Seeing that he's receptive to her touch — maybe she should have asked first, but it's too late for that — she gently feels around the places where the ports are drilled into his skull. So this is how the Entity keeps an eye on him. A short leash on a choke collar. It had been right in front of her face all along.

"Can't you try, I don't know... rewiring yourself?"

[ Of course, ] says the Doctor, and Feng Min might be imagining it because she's getting buzzed so quickly, but he seems to be proud of her for arriving at that idea. [ I've tried many times. The results have been less than promising. I've eradicated portions of my own memory in the process, and I only know that because of extensive record-keeping. ]

Feng Min lowers her hands, realizing something.

"The Entity's scared of you," she says. "That's why it did this to you."

[ Scared isn't the right word, ] the Doctor says evenly. [ It does not feel things the way that you and I do. ]

"But," she insists, "it must think that you could be some kind of threat to it...? Or it wouldn't have... wired you up like this."

[ I derive no pleasure from subservience to a god I do not believe in, ] he says acridly.

Feng Min reaches over the bar for the bottle of rum and pours more out onto the remaining ice, which has melted into slivers at the bottom of her glass in the evening heat. She thinks again about gods— how she's never really been sure of what or who to believe in, even before she'd come to the nightmare, and how, even after all of the shocking and impossible things she has seen, she still doesn't know. Quentin's faith might be unshakable, but Feng Min doesn't know what there is to believe in any more, or if there ever was anything there in the first place.

"Did you mean what you said to me last time?" she asks quietly. "About the... trauma. In my brain. Do you really think that's it?"

The Doctor slants his head. [ Yes. Your brain activity is compromised in select areas of your right cerebral hemisphere. The particular damage you've incurred resembles that of many patients once processed at Léry's. ]

"You mean people used in your experiments...?" Feng Min asks, just to clarify. She's still struggling to understand the idea that she'd received brain damage somehow, because she can't think of a single time it might have happened. Not when she was conscious, anyway.

[ My research into thought control was based primarily on manipulating certain processes of the brain using electricity to expose... vulnerabilities. ] The Doctor reaches out to pull the glass away from her, and her fingers scrabble for it, but she lets him slide it across the bar top. He just lets it sway between his fingers, allowing the ice to swirl around inside. [ I'm sure you've heard of ECT. ]

"Yeah." Feng Min is eyeing the drink, half wishing he'd hand it back, half wishing he'd pour it out over the floor. "It's not... not really popular any more, is it?"

[ It was controversial from the start. It's been poorly understood by the scientific community. ] Lifting his hand, the Doctor extends a finger into the glass, and Feng Min thinks he's about to put it in the drink itself, but as she watches, a high-voltage electric charge bursts across the still-swirling surface. The amber liquid flashes blue, then purple, before the bolt splinters down into it, bursting like dozens of little violet flowers beneath the ice before fizzling out. When the Doctor slides the drink back to her, it's completely melted.

"You used it to hurt people." Feng Min brings the glass close to her chest as she leans into the counter. It's lukewarm now.

[ I was authorized and encouraged to use proven criminals to further my research, ] he says, as if correcting a fact.

"So what? You're going to tell me that you did it all for your country?" The warmed rum immediately burns on her tongue on her next sip, and she coughs a little.

[ No. ] He sounds insulted, but it must be more at the principle of the thing, not directly at her, because he goes on a brief rant. [ My country? Service is not loyalty. It was never about that. I was recruited. Specifically selected. Saying 'no' was not an option. ] The Doctor levels a look at her. [ But I was given unlimited access to anything I wanted for my research. I could not care less what country funded that research. It just happened to be the one I lived in. ]

Feng Min reaches into her memories— or past them, trying to remember what she knows. About Herman Carter. About his past. She tries to pull up the colors and feelings and impressions she'd gotten from her brief brush with his mind, and something surfaces: family. A brother...? No, two brothers. And...

"Your father was an American soldier, wasn't he?"

[ Yes. You remember. ] He meets her gaze. [ He came back from the Korean War only to die in Vietnam. It isn't a unique story. ] Although Feng Min searches his immobile face for any sign of nostalgia or regret or grief, she can't find anything, not even the tiniest twitch. [ But, as you can imagine, it didn't help my impression of the country I served. ]

Feng Min thinks about how relatively comfortable her life has been. Her parents had struggled, yes— she knows that they'd always worked hard, so much harder than she'd ever been grateful enough for. But she'd never had to live in a world without them, never had to worry about any of the burdens that come with the loss of a guardian figure. Her parents have always been there for her, even when she tried her best to stay away and distance herself from them.

"I'm sorry," she says, because there's nothing else to say, really.

[ It was a long time ago. ] The Doctor makes a motion that's a little like a shrug; the electricity wavers. [ It's strange to recall memories like this. I think I prefer not to. ]

That's right, Feng Min realizes. He's telling her things directly, of his own accord. No wires, no electrified touch digging directly into her brain, no memory-snatching. She knows that she probably won't be able to handle direct transference again — as if she ever could — so this might be the only way she can learn more about him and what brought him to this point.

"I... I like hearing about you," she mumbles down into her glass.

[ I know, ] he says. [ You shouldn't get used to it. ]

Feng Min laughs a little, muffled, into the lip of the glass as she finishes her second drink, and then she sets it down, empty. Her head feels thick with it— it used to take her a lot more liquor to get properly drunk like this, which makes her wonder again just how much time has passed in the nightmare. The exhaustion is creeping up, too, making her slump against the counter.

[ You should rest. ]

She tips her head up to look at the Doctor. Was that genuine concern? she's itching to say, or, maybe, Are you worried about me? like he'd asked her once.

But she just says, "Yeah," and gets up. She proceeds to stumble almost immediately as the world flips sideways, and catches herself on the stool again to regain her footing. The alcohol's really hitting her now, and so with it the inevitable regret; she can feel him watching her critically.

There's a couple of couches laid out by a beat-up old pool table, and Feng Min heads over there. She sinks into the soft cushions and feels a lot better as soon as she's not on her feet; the dust that comes flying off of the couch and into her face doesn't even really bother her. The Doctor sidles over, as well, bringing with him the warmth of the static. When he takes a seat next to her, she lets herself bask in it a little, watching the current dance across the floor and then disappear.

The Doctor stretches his legs out, like he intends to rest them for a bit, and leans back into the cushions. Studying him, Feng Min tries to understand why being in the vicinity of his glow feels so comforting. Compelled by the liquor and a surge of loneliness — physical, emotional — she leans into that comfort and edges close enough to him to slide an arm over his chest. It's not something she'd do, ordinarily, but right now, it feels like the only thing there is to do.

The noise goes quiet, as if testing, or resetting, and then the Doctor shifts to accommodate her, his arm curling down around her waist. Feng Min tips her dizzy head onto his shoulder and holds her breath, disbelieving. He isn't pushing her away. He's not looking at her, either, though— the flaring twin eclipse of his irises nearly disappears behind the black pupils as he stares unblinkingly into the lights on the ceiling.

Carefully, she allows herself to relax, just a little bit, her body sinking against his side. He smells like the hospital does— like chemicals, snow melt, smoke. Is the contentment she feels — the sense of being grounded, of being pulled back to shore — real, or not? If it feels right, does the answer to that question even matter?

And why? Why her? Why him? She's still lost. Brain trauma? It can't be that easy, can it?

The Doctor's hand is snaking up the length of her spine, pausing between her shoulder blades before his fingers trace up the nape of her neck to stroke gently through her hair, sending little tingles over her scalp. It's incredibly soothing, lulling her into a hypnotic state. Feng Min wonders if maybe she's fallen asleep already and is dreaming it.

"Herman," she murmurs.

[ What? ] She imagines that he could read her thoughts right now if he wanted to, with his fingers on her head, but he's asking her, anyway.

"I'm choosing to trust you," Feng Min says, hoping that she won't regret it, kind of expecting him to call her troubled or foolish or sick again for her blind leaps.

But he just sighs, and his arm tightens subtly around her to hold her against his side. Maybe that's answer enough.

In the monody of noise, as her mind searches for sleep away from the roiling black whispers, there is a sense of despair. A knowing. A feeling of impending change.

Chapter Text

The murmur that wakes her sounds at first like the whispers, or the static: an incomprehensible humming fading in from dead silence, taking shape to slither into her skull, seeking out her brain. Entropic vibrations that ring on the same cosmic level as her very soul. There is no bad dream or violating memory or painful jolt to wake her up screaming this time— just that soft, droning hum. As consciousness spreads back through her body and her ears and mind become gradually more alert, Feng Min realizes that she's not actually being whispered to, or even beckoned by the static. The sounds are voices. Human voices. Opening her eyes, the bright orange flames confirm to her just where she is: the campfire.

The survivors around her are engaged deep in conversation, and her waking nearby seems to go unnoticed. She sees that a group of them — Bill, Meg, Tapp, a couple others — are conferring about something nearby with a man she's never seen before. She stares, blearily, at the guest, before vertigo hits, and she turns away, reaching to rub her eyes with her hands.

Was she transported back here by the Entity in her sleep? Killed...? What happened to the Doctor? Disoriented, Feng Min tries to sort out what she last remembers. Wandering the forest. The desert. Arizona license plates. A rest stop. A place on the fringes of the nightmare, somewhere grey and fragmented in the fog. The Doctor... Herman had showed her so many things she'd never seen before. Not just abandoned realms, but the potential in the shadows on the outer edges of their world. A barrier.

This world continues to grow beyond these limits. Everything around us is alive.

Sitting up, she tries to sense for the noise, attempting to focus her concentration on the static. It's at a lull, she feels, but it's there, like it's retreated to a room in the back of her head and switched off all the lights. Feng Min wonders if she should try to achieve a clear signal again by heading back into the forest, but she also feels so physically exhausted that she knows she'll be instant dead meat if the fog chooses to sweep her into a killer's territory. Any killer's territory.

As the other survivors quiz the new guy — he's tall, dark, and handsome, dressed in outdated clothing with a haircut to match — Feng Min gropes at her pockets. She's pleased to find her haul, the candy she'd pinched, still in there, albeit squashed by the pressure of her sleeping body. The gear sphere has made its way back with her, too, sitting in the dirt right next to where she'd just been resting her head. She's stuffing the snacks into her backpack and has just picked up the cigarette packs when Nea appears before her, at a crouch, as if cued by the presence of nicotine.

"What's that?" she asks, hands on her knees.

Feng Min slides the sphere inside of her bag and holds out the two packs of cigarettes. "For you," she says.

Nea takes them immediately, swiping the boxes away with fingers so quick that they're gone in a flash — Feng Min has an inkling that she's got some shoplifting experience — but her tone remains skeptical as she says, "Right..." Feng Min watches her clear blue eyes flick over to the other survivors with the new arrival, before they land back upon her. "You'd better put on that backpack, gamer girl. We're leaving."

"We are?" Feng Min asks, although she hardly feels surprised by the suddenness of this proposal. She guesses that Nea must have a lot of questions; of course she'd take the first opportunity to ask them. As exhausted as she feels, she knows that she owes her some answers, so she closes her backpack and slips it over her shoulders. Nea looks like she's already prepared to leave— she must have been planning this for a while, watching and waiting for her to wake up.

"Going scavenging," Nea calls out, although it goes mostly unacknowledged by the others, who are used to seeing one another come and go, and are more interested in the strange, besides. Meg is the only one that waves them off.

As she and Nea stalk towards the trees, Feng Min asks, "Who's the new guy?"

"He says his name is Adam Francis and that he's been here for two years." Nea shrugs. "Never seen him before." She's got a flashlight in her right hand and is using it to swat the branches away to clear a path through the forest. "Happens sometimes. He says he got split from his group of survivors after a really bad trial. That's how Ace ended up here, too. Showed up one day all covered in blood and asking around for people we never heard of. Whenever someone... goes away... we just kinda hope they found a new group of poor motherfuckers out there in the forest. Better than the alternative."

Feng Min thinks about time again. Time, and how much it means and doesn't mean at all. She thinks about Nea's vague words about the alternative, too: the truth that, eventually, all of them will disappear from the nightmare, fade away like thousands upon thousands upon infinites of survivors have before them, and none of them can predict how or when or why.

"Do you think we'll ever know how many people have been brought to this place...? By the Entity...? How many more people might be out there right now?"

"You ask too many questions," says Nea in a short manner, her careful steps taking her neatly over a fallen log.

"Really," Feng Min says, persistent. "How many people have you met here?" She hops over the log to catch up with her companion. "How long have you been around the fog, anyway?"

She doesn't really expect Nea to answer either question, and is surprised when she responds to the latter, very quickly: "Almost five years."

The number isn't a lot. Feng Min knows that. Five years is just a drop in the bucket in the full length of a human life. But five years is also an entire quarter of a life for someone Nea's age — close to her own age — and in that moment it seems like a lot, like an unfathomable amount of time to spend in the Entity's nightmare. Five fucking years. She doesn't know how long it's been for herself, wouldn't want to count the time even if someone paid her, but five years?

There's a reason Feng Min doesn't like to think any further than the next trial, or her next encounter with the Doctor. If she does, she knows, the precarious slide down to complete and total despair is just one dark thought away.

"God," she whispers.

"That asshole can suck it," says Nea bluntly. "God this, God that. The only god there apparently is is the one that's fuckin' torturing us. There's been people who say they've been here for... shit." She makes a disgusted noise. "Jake? Claudette? At least ten years. Both of 'em. Bill and Ace? Way longer. Don't ask; they won't tell you. Laurie's also getting up there."

This is something Feng Min hadn't known yet about her fellow survivors, and it makes her feel sad and nauseous to hear. Part of it is empathy, but there's a selfishness to the feeling, too, the self-preserving part of her frightened by the possibility of decades of punishment trials happening to her, too. She doesn't know if she has it in her to hold out that long, or how the others have even been doing it. Is it because the Entity has offered them no other options? Is that what keeps them going? The lack of choice is the most frightening aspect of all, her future unfolding out before her in the form of one bad omen after another.

There is nothing she can think of to say in response to that, maybe because there is nothing to say. The horrific truth stands all on its own.

Nea slows their pace eventually as the changes in the atmosphere around them become apparent— the air gets drier, the trees more bare. The mist takes on the hue of an aurora, the full moon gleaming like a pearl as the clouds pull away. The greenish sky is instantly recognizable; a look exchanged between herself and Nea confirms to Feng Min that they're somewhere on the Autohaven Wreckers grounds. The smell of rust and the towering piles of scrap become obvious once they're past the tree line.

Feng Min knows that they're not really out scavenging — she knows that Nea is eventually going to redirect this conversation to what she's been up to lately — but it still makes her nervous to be in the Wraith's realm, a territory they are definitely not welcome in. She remembers something Herman had told her yesterday about him. Something about the Wraith understanding the Entity's nightmare. Understanding its reality. She's still not sure what conclusion he'd wanted her to draw from that information.

"It's fine," says Nea, apparently having caught the worried look on her face. "I brought extra batteries and everything." She holds up her flashlight and clicks it on and off a couple of times, as if to remind Feng Min what it does. She's used to seeing Nea pull off some impressive maneuvers in trials using it, and she knows that the Wraith is particularly sensitive to light, so it does reassure her, just a little. Not that she'd admit it, if she were put on the spot.

"And if your aim sucks?" she prompts. "I'll be watching."

"Well, we can't all be pro gamer snipers, or whatever," says Nea.

"I don't play any of the sniper characters in Nebula Arc," Feng Min responds, although she suppresses a smile.

"Shut up, nerd." Nea gives a good-natured eye roll before she approaches the gas station. She pauses to scan around the degraded old pumps, listening, before she seems to decide that she hasn't heard anything suspicious and climbs in through a side window. Feng Min follows her, struggling to haul both of her legs up on the sill before swinging her body over. It's a lot easier to get herself over obstacles when she's got the momentum that comes with running.

Nea's digging around in the drawers below the dust-caked cash register. She slides around a pile of yellowing receipts and produces a few rusty paper clips, which she tries carefully to test for flexibility. Feng Min watches as one paperclip implodes into a little pile of dust between her fingers and shakes her head.

"Wasn't that a team game?" Nea asks her suddenly.

"What?" Feng Min moves into the aisles, pushing aside a few cans to see what's left on the shelves. They're convenience store staples: cat food, preserved fruit, pasta. All with expiry dates from decades ago.

"The game you played pro for," says Nea.

Oh.

It feels like it's been a long time since Feng Min sat down and really thought about video games at all, let alone Nebula Arc. She'd given up on her life's passion so completely before the Entity had found her— gone straight from a routine of nothing but structured, competitive escapism to cold, harsh reality, before she threw herself entirely into the dark embrace of a new form of escapism within vice. Her life had become so fucking empty, and it didn't matter how much she drank or who she slept with or what she did to herself; none of that filled it up again, none of it gave her life meaning, because the truth was that she was the empty one and had been all along.

And then she'd found herself here.

"Yeah." Pale with memory, she shrugs her backpack off and lets the straps slide down into the crooks of her elbows.

"But you don't play well with others," says Nea pointedly, staring directly at her from behind the register. "You're not a team player." If she notices her discomfort, she says nothing, or she's working with it.

Feng Min first wants to say, This again? or maybe So what, get over it, but Nea's right. About her selfishness, her impulsiveness. The way she's always placed her survival over the others' from the start, from the very first few trials. She knows that she's not the only one who does it, not the only survivor willing to abandon allies to keep themselves from harm, but she thinks she's definitely the only one that's been sneaking around talking to one of the killers on top of that. It's what makes her deserve to be the one that Nea's got under the microscope like this. She wonders if that's where Nea's going with this. If she is, Feng Min doesn't think she's very well-prepared to defend herself— or at all.

"I was," she says quietly. "I thought I was."

"So what happened?" Nea's procured a can of spray paint out of a crate. She's got it in her left hand, shaking it rapidly, but it must be dried out, because Feng Min can't hear the telltale click-clack.

"I don't know what you're asking me," says Feng Min, which isn't really a lie, but Nea's direct questioning is making her wilt, a little. "It was a long time ago."

Nea lets the can clatter to the floor, and Feng Min flinches at the sound. Nea shoots a look up at the ceiling, like she's thinking, and slips around the shelves to walk into the garage. Feng Min follows her to find Nea leaning into the driver's seat of the green pickup truck there, combing through the glove compartment.

"Did you miss your old home? When your family moved to the U.S.?"

It's an abrupt topic change, but the words home and family bring her parents' faces to mind immediately. Feng Min winces, turning away from Nea to look through a locker, her eyes moving restlessly over grease-soaked old rags and bottles of motor oil lined up inside. It reeks, so she closes the door again.

"I... I didn't really miss China," she says, eventually. "Because my parents were with me." That had been all that mattered when she was little. Everything had been so simple then. All black and white.

"Lucky you," says Nea from inside the truck, on her hands and knees over the seats. "I hated America. It was so different from Sweden."

Sweden. Feng Min finally now has a place to put to Nea's accent, which she hasn't yet been able to identify. "Was it hard for you?" she asks softly.

"I was lonely," says Nea, twisting to glance back at her. It's a difficult confession, and her expression shows it. "But I also wasn't really... wasn't really doing anything to help myself."

Feng Min mumbles bleakly, "I get that."

"Come on," says Nea, pulling herself upright in the driver's seat. She pats the passenger spot next to her and jerks her head at it. "Hurry up."

Sighing, Feng Min crosses over to the other side of the truck. After some wrestling with the rusted and stuck door, she pulls herself up into the seat. The inside of the truck smells like old cigarettes and dust, the windshield completely clouded. It feels bizarre to be sitting in a vehicle for the first time in what feels like years, an uneasy reminder of their long-lost lives on Earth.

"Nea..."

"Shut up. I'm still talking." Nea's hands are on the steering wheel, gripping and releasing. "I was a shitty kid. I'll be the first to say it. I caused as much trouble as I could, whenever I could. Drove my parents fucking crazy. Gotten arrested, been expelled. But I was just bored and angry. I never hurt anyone. Never did anything that bad. Not so bad I'd deserve to end up someplace like this." She shoots Feng Min a sharp look. "So... that can't be true for you, either."

With an uncomfortable hum, Feng Min notes, "I guess you've been thinking about the 'are we in Hell' question again...?"

"Be serious," says Nea, pained. She leans into the dashboard. "I'm trying to be real with you. Look, I don't really know where I was going with all of this..." She ducks her head, her hard mouth twisting. "I just want to know what you're... what's going on." She's got the cigarettes out of her backpack, sliding the driver's seat back so that she has some room to lean over and strike a match.

"What's going on, huh...?" Feng Min repeats weakly, disarmed by Nea's plaintive honesty. She reaches to begin cranking her window down as soon as the smoke drifts into her face, but the closed garage door doesn't provide much ventilation, anyway, so when Nea offers her the pack of cigarettes, she just takes one, because it's not like it's going to kill her when so many other things will get to her first.

Nea even lights it for her, motioning her close over the armrest, using her own hand to shield the flame of the match from Feng Min's closely hovering lips. When she pulls it away to shake it out, Feng Min leans back, taking in a lungful of smoke. She's never been much for cigarettes, not when far more tempting substances were always in reach, but there's a little buzz that tingles in her head on the first inhale. The thick, bitter taste of it is worse than she remembers, but she holds it in her mouth for a few seconds before directing it out of her window.

"It's something to do with one of the killers." Nea's staring right at her still, unwilling to back down. "Quentin told me." She adds, quickly, "Don't get pissed at him or anything. I really had to dig at him."

Feng Min isn't angry. Mostly, it makes her anxious. "Who else did you tell?"

"No one," says Nea. "So what is it?" She lifts her feet and plants her sneakers up on the dash, askew of each side of the steering wheel, as she leans into her reclined seat. Feng Min gets the impression that she's only feigning casualness from the look of consternation on her face.

She needs to tell Nea something. Even if it's not every detail of the truth, she needs to be honest and give her some kind of answer. As awful and irrational as it all may sound.

"I don't know if you're going to even believe me," Feng Min starts, hesitant. She watches the ash on the tip of her cigarette collapse into a little pile on her thigh, which she reaches to wipe away, smearing it like chalk on her jeans.

"You're freaking me out," says Nea, irritably. "Just tell me."

Say it. Just say it.

"The Doctor," Feng Min forces out, looking staunchly down at her lap, her shaky fingers letting the cigarette drift to her lips again. "I can talk to him. I mean... I can hear him. In my head." Her free hand rises to her temple. "It happened the first time I ran into him, and it wasn't supposed to happen, and I wanted to know why, so I..." Saying all of this out loud brings about a strange, out-of-body feeling that makes it hard to recognize her own voice. Feng Min rubs her sweaty hands against her knees, the cigarette shaking between two clamped fingers. "So I went and found him, and he wasn't... Well, he didn't try to kill me, or anything. He wanted to know why, too, so that's what..."

Feng Min trails off, unable to follow her own story, alarmed by how dangerous and foolish it seems when talked about in this manner, when she doesn't know how to fully justify her decisions to Nea or even to herself.

"The Doctor? That fucking psycho?" Nea's expression of betrayal and confusion slides quickly to revulsion and fear. A disgusted grimace warps her mouth into a scowl as she grinds her cigarette out on the dashboard, only to immediately reach for another. "That's who you're out there with?"

"I'm not—" starts Feng Min, her defenses rising, "I know what I'm—"

Nea's harsh look of disbelief shuts her up quickly.

"Sorry," she says, the word numbing her lips. She stares into the smoke with stinging, glazed-over eyes.

"You have to stop. Whatever you're doing, you need to stop," says Nea, disturbed. Her chest expands on a hard inhale, rising under her loose shirt. "The Entity... the killers... they're all the same. You can't trust them. That's how it is here."

It's a difficult — no, impossible — point to argue. They both know it. Feng Min hasn't been here as long as Nea has. Or for the apparent eternity the nightmare has existed. No one truly knows long it has been, only that it can't be measured. No one knows what motivates the killers to carry out sacrificial trials, or why each of them even exists here in the Black Fog. But what everyone does know is that the Entity's killers are the enemy— that they always have been, and always will be.

"People have tried," continues Nea, leaning into the window on her side. "There used to be more people here who... who knew some of the killers. Like Laurie and Myers. I remember this one guy... I forget his name. It was a long time ago. I'd just arrived. I was still getting used to everything. And I remember, just, I was called to this trial, and he was there, and he told me, 'that's my daughter.' It was this really nice place. A park. Cute playground. All kinds of slides. Had this little pond and boats and everything. She really did look like a little girl, you know. A dead one, but little. Maybe up to my chest. And he went up to her and he tried to talk to her and then I just... I just watched her rip his fucking head off." Nea lifts her palms to her face to cover her eyes, briefly, as if exhausted. "We started seeing him less and less around the campfire, and then we stopped seeing him at all. He might still be out there trying to reach her. I don't know. But there was nothing he could do."

Haunted by the mental image, Feng Min whispers, "What if she didn't have a choice?"

"So what if she didn't? Killers work for the Entity. They're a part of that... the sacrifice process. That part never changes." Nea shifts unhappily in place.

Feng Min thinks about what she knows now about Herman Carter. It's far from the whole story, but she thinks that she has enough spread out before her that she can't just concede to everything that Nea's saying. It's strange— it's not that Nea is wrong, it's just that—

"I know it sounds crazy," Feng Min says, "but it feels like there's something I... need him for." She moves her lips soundlessly after those words, unable to think of a way to explain the sentiment. How can she describe the quality of just knowing, especially when it comes to someone like the Doctor, who, for all she knows, might be more entrenched in her mind and in her decisions than he's letting on, as much as she wants to think otherwise...?

Nea's giving her a look somewhere between helplessness and disappointment. "He's messing with your head," she says, more aptly than she seems to know.

Feng Min frowns, tossing her cigarette out of the window and hugging her sweater around her body. "I know he could, if he wanted to," she says. "I just don't think he is."

"Why wouldn't he? Bet he'd get off on it." Nea's tone edges cold, even mocking, which agitates Feng Min more than she wants to admit.

"Stop," she says thinly, stopping herself just shy of outright denying it, not wanting to come across like she's defending one of the killers tasked with tormenting and killing them all. That's not it. It's not even Nea's fault, really; it's her own fault, for not knowing how to explain.

"Fine. Whatever. You want some fresh air?" Relenting, Nea begins climbing out of the driver's seat. The whole truck groans and screeches as the weight shifts around inside and Nea slams the door closed. Feng Min takes that as a cue to get out, as well, and she follows Nea out of the garage.

Outside, the moon hasn't shifted places, but the color of the night sky has deepened enough to make Nea pause. Feng Min knows that, like her, Nea is trying to recall how to predict the Wraith's dormant periods. The survivors' shared knowledge holds that the deeper the darkness, the more likely it is that the Wraith is awake and alert for intruders.

They exchange a look — no, not safe — and head right back into the gas station. Nea moves again towards the pickup truck in the garage. "We're gonna have to crash here," she says, reaching around the back to unlatch the tailgate. "I think maybe three hours? But Bill would say to wait four or five, so..."

"So we should just sleep," says Feng Min, relieved, both because she's ready to move on from the current conversation and because her lingering exhaustion has got her feeling like a dead girl walking.

They set up their sleeping bags in the bed of the truck, and then they head back into the station to drag some pallets from the scrap piles outside into the aisles, straining to be as quiet as possible as they lean them against the shelves, just in case they need to pull off a quick distraction later. Nea checks the door chime at the front of the store to ensure that it's working as usual; it never hurts to have a sound indicator for warning, especially given the Wraith's ability to go unseen. Ideally, there'd be more than two of them out scavenging — there's always more safety in numbers — but she appreciates that Nea wanted them to be alone to ask her questions.

Back in the garage Feng Min climbs into her sleeping bag, sliding her backpack underneath her head to try to alleviate the discomfort of the hard metal beneath the thin layer of insulation. Still, as far as sleeping arrangements go, it's not so bad— the cold ground next to the campfire is even more uncomfortable. The garage at least shields them from the wind.

"So?" says Nea, finally, once they've both settled a little and are listening for the distant ring of a bell. "Is he the one who told you about 'Sally?' Who are they?"

"Yeah," Feng Min replies, at a mumble. She's staring up at the roof of the garage, where mold appears to grow uninhibited. She can barely believe that she's talking about Herman with someone else. It feels like she's glitched into a different, scarier reality, one with much higher stakes. "He was a research scientist. And she was a real nurse, once. Some of them... They talk to each other. Maybe they get lonely sometimes. They're just people." Her voice drops into something small. "They were."

"And now they're people who torture and kill us," says Nea abrasively. "Did you forget that part?"

"No," snaps Feng Min, but she feels hurt, and it shows on her face before she can hide it. How could she forget? It's all I think about, she wants to say, but instead she just turns away.

She feels something brush against her shoulder, and when she looks over, she sees that it's Nea's hand, which moves down to her elbow before reaching down to clasp at her own. Feng Min stares back towards her as Nea locks their fingers together tightly, clenching. Her grip is strange, the shape of her hand unfamiliar, but just about the same size.

"Feng Min," says Nea, stricken, "I'm sorry. I just..." She squeezes tight again, and then lets go, pulling her hand back to her chest like she's been shocked. "The shit you're telling me is scaring me. Doesn't it scare you?"

The immense guilt Feng Min feels upon hearing that apology makes her feel completely unworthy of Nea's anxiety and concern. "I know."

Nea goes silent. They lay awake for a little longer, just trying to hear for any sign of the Wraith coming or going, watching as the night sky expands outside the window. It starts to get colder in the garage, enough to penetrate their sleeping bags, so when Nea ends up shifting closer, Feng Min doesn't push her away; instead, she lets her head tip onto Nea's slim shoulder, listening to her slow breaths as they share warmth, and tries not to think about the future.



Feng Min doesn't recall falling asleep, but she must have, because the next thing she knows, she's being shaken awake by Nea, who's kneeling above her in the bed of the truck, pale and frantic. And then the thing she notices after that is a sound— that of a bell, two rings, at an unmistakably close distance.

"Get up," Nea's whispering. "We need to go."

Still half-asleep, Feng Min begins shoving her sleeping bag into her backpack. She's only got it half closed before Nea pulls her off of the tailgate and towards the exit. Stumbling, Feng Min nearly knocks over one of the pallets, causing it to rattle noisily against the shelves, sending cans scattering all over the floor. She watches Nea react to the mistake, the way anger and then fear both flash through her body like lightning.

Feng Min barely has time to mouth, Sorry, I'm so sorry, before the echo of that foreboding bell reverberates within the little store, and the Wraith materializes into view in a waterfall of embers. He's right fucking there, blocking the doorway, and he doesn't give them any time to even think of what to do; with a growl like splitting wood and dry leaves, he raises his club at the both of them and lunges.

"Watch it!" shouts Nea, ducking low. The swing barely clears her head, knocking her hat askew. She goes careening into the shelves after that, and the Wraith advances upon her again for another stiff, precise swipe.

Feng Min jumps forward and grabs for the pallet, the same one she'd almost knocked over, and she manages just in time to hurl it into the Wraith's body as he dives for Nea. He gives a spine-tingling snarl, one that speaks to every survival instinct in her brain, and Feng Min watches, frozen with fear, for the couple of seconds it takes for him to crack it in two with a crash of shattering wood and flying splinters so he can step past the obstacle. He makes it look as fragile as the shell of an egg.

Her delayed response costs her. The ridged end of the club comes sailing for her gut, and he's too close for Feng Min to get away. She tries to suck back a shriek as it bites into her side, right through her sweater, its hard edges splitting the skin between her ribs. She nearly falls over, collapsing back into the wall, stunned by both the impact and the pain, but then Nea's grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving.

"Go!" she instructs, and Feng Min gets what she's trying to push her towards: the open window.

Dazed and only faintly aware of the blood pouring hot down her side — right down past the waistline of her jeans, soaking into her underwear, flowing all the way down her leg — Feng Min staggers for it. A concentrated push of energy lets her launch herself through the window, knowing that as soon as she's through it, she can be out of the Wraith's swinging range in seconds. She puts some distance between herself and the gas station as she hears Nea shout, followed by the sound of the Wraith howling.

Looks like that flashlight came in handy, after all, Feng Min thinks. She presses a hand to her side. Her warm blood is sticky against her palm, and the smell is making her nauseous out in the humid night air. She stands behind a pile of scrap metal, pondering her injury, too afraid to look and see how bad it might be. Nea still hasn't emerged from the gas station. Feng Min doesn't know if she should just head into the forest, but she can't just abandon her. This is no trial; there is no open exit gate to aim for.

It's the Wraith, she reasons; she's watched Nea run circles around him, time after time. She'll be fine.

Feng Min finds herself thinking again about what Herman had told her about the Wraith. At least she knows now that this particular killer is not amenable to conversation. She'd never gotten the sense that he'd be safe to approach outside of trials, anyway. She thinks that his presence when she'd gone to see the Nurse was more tempered by the Nurse being there than the other way around, and now she's sure of it.

She hears Nea yell something, but she can't make it out. Then there is the toll of a bell, and after that is silence.

Feng Min holds her sweater against her side, trying to soak up the blood. She thinks it's slowing down, a little. Wincing, she increases the pressure and listens. There is no heartbeat. No tone indicating that he might be near. But there's also no Nea; she can't hear anything of her. Fuck. She has to do something. The whole reason they'd come here was because she owed her answers; she's not going to just leave her behind. Feng Min scans her surroundings, trying to find a place where the atmosphere shimmers, and when she sees nothing, she begins limping towards the gas station.

Climbing back through the window she'd exited from is difficult, now that the adrenaline's wearing off and the pain is really kicking in. She's bleeding all over the place, big fat dollops of it all over the wall and the sill. Gasping, Feng Min wrangles both herself and her backpack over it, and calls out, "Nea?"

Nea makes her location known immediately, and she's apparently deeply unhappy that Feng Min has returned for her. "Damn it! Why didn't you leave?!"

There's this wheezy quality to her voice that makes Feng Min's stomach turn a somersault. She follows the sound to its source. Her companion is crouched behind the counter, and Feng Min gasps when she sees the condition that she's in. She knows that she shouldn't — that by now nothing should shock her, no matter how gruesome the injury — but the sight of Nea's leg hanging at this particular angle is something she's never seen before. It's shredded up in a way that makes the phrase hanging on by a thread come to mind.

"Where is he?" Feng Min whispers urgently, kneeling next to her injured friend. The pain in her side seems like a numb inconvenience now that she's realizing she's got to get herself and Nea out of the scrapyard in one piece.

"I don't know. He's going to come back," warns Nea, scowling. "He went looking for you. You need to leave. Now."

"Let's go," says Feng Min, and she reaches to try to loop one of Nea's arms over her shoulders. Nea tugs back, groaning, her pale hands coming up to try and push her away.

"Are you kidding me? I can't walk on this leg," says Nea, her eyes bulging at Feng Min, like she wants to curse her out for thinking it was even possible. "Just go. I'll see you at the campfire."

Knowing exactly what that means, a rush of fear overcomes Feng Min. No— not quite fear. Something like it, though. Something like grief, as strange as it feels. A sense of helplessness that she can only compare to the heart-wrenching, hopeless kind of sorrow that comes with loss. Feng Min is not surprised that grief somehow still exists in her heart, as useless as it is in this deathless world; it is in infinite supply.

"No," she pleads, not wanting Nea to be asking her to walk away. Not believing it. "Come on." The blood on her hands is drying to a thin coating, making her fingers feel slippery as she tries to pull on Nea's shirt to get her up. "Get up, Nea!"

"Stop!" Nea spits at her, looking aghast with her efforts. She seems afraid, staring with those hard eyes of hers, and Feng Min realizes that it can't be easy for her to refuse the offer of help, and that she's really only making it harder for her. Paralyzed by this thought, and by the fact that she is going to have to walk away from her friend, Feng Min very nearly considers just staying there with Nea and seeing what happens.

But then the bell rings out, and Nea shoves at her again.

"Nea," Feng Min tries; she can feel something salty track down her cheek, hit her lips. She puts her weight into her legs and attempts to lift her again. "Nea—"

And, somehow, she manages it. Although Nea shouts and pushes at her, Feng Min is able to struggle to her feet with Nea propped against her. They stand there for a moment together, two gravely injured women swaying with fear and blood loss, but there is no time for rest or reprieve. Getting Nea up is just the first part, and not even the hardest part: now she's got to get her the fuck out of here. Nea's destroyed leg drags in a grotesque manner as Feng Min tries to bear more of her weight and help her out of the gas station. It's agonizing, step by painful step; Nea is obviously trying to stay silent, but she's choking with pain at every little movement.

There is the pounding of a heartbeat, somewhere nearby.

"You— you fucking idiot," Nea whimpers, and when she realizes that Feng Min isn't going to let her go, she puts her weight into her good leg and tries to brace herself against the wall so they can pick up the pace and stagger their way outside. They make it out through the back door as the bell tolls again, closer. He is actively searching for them, and the trail is getting warmer.

The tree line isn't very far, and she locks her eyes on it and holds her gaze there. She's too scared to look back, lest she spot the Wraith's cloaked form and lose her composure. Feng Min's practically dragging her fellow survivor at that point. Nea's leaving behind a bright red trail of blood in the grass. Some of it might be her own, too. The pain in Feng Min's side comes and goes with each footfall and the repeated pressure of Nea's mass dragging her down. She can barely believe it when they reach the trees; she's so relieved she could cry out.

The dark mist is ever-present and always welcoming in its own malevolent way, and for once, Feng Min is happy to see it. When they break into the fog, it seems to anticipate them, enveloping them in the blink of an eye, easing away the heartbeat and the fading toll of the bell. The sky above them smooths out to endless black; the smell of rust dissipates. They are safe, as loose as the definition of that word has become.

Feng Min lets go of Nea; she can't physically keep herself upright any more. She goes crashing to her knees, and, next to her, Nea collapses with a yelp and rolls over onto her side, cursing and whimpering weakly.

"That was so fucking stupid, Feng Min," she barks— or she tries to, but it comes out like a wheedling huff. It doesn't sound good.

Feng Min turns slowly towards her. "I know," she says, weakly. "I couldn't—"

"Fuck," says Nea, faintly, and she spreads out flat on her back in the dirt, looking stunned. The color is quickly draining from her face, which has Feng Min crawling over to her side, panicking.

"What's wrong?" she asks, uselessly; she can see what the matter is. Nea's lost a lot of blood. She reaches out to try and help her up a little, guiding Nea's head to her lap. Nea shifts uncomfortably and grits her teeth, her cheek resting against Feng Min's thigh. She'd hoped that by some miracle they might be able to make it back to the campfire right away, where Nea would be healed again, but it's starting to look like the road ends here for them.

"Should've brought Quentin," groans Nea, her eyes closing. She's breathing out in short little pants that are becoming thinner and thinner. "Bet he could patch me up."

"I don't think so," whispers Feng Min, staring down at Nea's blood-splattered face.

"How about him...? The Doctor," says Nea. Feng Min isn't sure what she means by it, until she detects just a hint of mirth in the whisper.

"I wouldn't trust him near you," she says, biting her lip instead of smiling. There's a swelling in her throat.

"Nice... that you... care," mumbles Nea, her hand clenching and unclenching next to Feng Min's knee. She can just make out the shape of her fingers in the moonlight filtering through the trees. She's not sure whose blood it is that's on Nea's hand, but she sees that more and more of it has soaked the ground beneath them both.

A calling from somewhere deep within — the earth beneath their feet, the mist, the sky, her soul — is the first sign of the Entity. The thunder shakes Feng Min's mind loose and guides her gaze upwards through the fog to the canopy, where a hole in the sky has opened.

A shower of light falls, a mist of brightly flickering sparks that swirl like shooting stars. Most of them fade into the night, but some of them begin to come together just above their heads, the light weaving in and out and over itself. The slow process of the Entity manifesting holds Feng Min as captive as it always does, and she just stares as the sharp edges and needle tips come into form out of the darkness, close enough to just barely miss touching her. But it's not her that the Entity is after.

The claws flex and slide, in an impossibly delicate manner, beneath Nea's limp body. There's an overwhelming feeling of hatred, then— of wanting to reach out and wrap her hands around one of those spindly appendages and try to crack it in two like a dry crab leg. But Feng Min knows that she won't be able to actually do anything. Knows she can't even if she tries.

The light begins to intensify as soon as it makes contact with Nea's corpse, and Feng Min watches as she just comes apart, just like that, like she's being pulled into threads and wisps of fibers and smoke in the air. Except it's not that. It's light, her body peeling apart into the light, the light collapsing back into the darkness, leaving only a shadowy facsimile in the shape of her behind. Staring into it feels like enough to make her lose her mind completely.

Feng Min tries to turn away. The light doesn't let her. It wants her to look. It's asking her to look. It's telling her to look. Telling her, right in the back of her head, in her brain, talking directly to her heart.

When had the Entity begun whispering to her? Telling her to watch, watch as it takes Nea, watch as it would take her, too, just as it had before, just as it would again, just as it always would—

The light seems to explode outward around her, opening a thousand bright lesions on her body that shine white heat, and then—



Feng Min is shivering in a half-conscious, feverish state. Light and shadow both play behind her lids in fading measure; the blurry shapes disappear entirely when she opens her eyes. There's a chill in the air, so the first thing she does when she comes to is fold her arms over her chest, hugging her body.

She realizes the reason she's so cold; the floor is like ice. She looks down and sees familiar greying tiles beneath her splayed knees, but she can't remember just where it is she recognizes them from— at least not until she looks up and sees that she's in one of the grimy shower stalls at Léry's Memorial Institute.

Getting to her feet as quickly as possible, Feng Min reaches for her side. The wound is gone; her sweater is in one piece, the skin beneath smooth and injury-free.

Feng Min's immediate thought is, Did Herman find me and bring me here?

There's no sign of Nea anywhere— nor her backpack, for that matter. Feng Min checks in the stall she'd woken up in and in the ones around it, but she doesn't see it, so she heads out into the hallway.

The static is there, dense and foreboding and somewhere nearby. Feng Min anticipates it, watching as it flares across the floor towards her, but instead of the sense of connection she's become used to, there is something very, very different. The moment the electricity makes contact with her feet, it rolls up through her legs and plants its spikes in her brain, making her shriek and convulse painfully as her hands fly up to her head. Her cry shatters the silence and reverberates across the tiles.

No. This isn't right. Something is wrong.

Feng Min slaps a hand over her mouth to silence herself as she goes bolting for the nearest window. She knows what this is.

It's a trial. She's in a trial.

A heartbeat begins growing in her ears. Her own, she thinks, but something's coming. Her scream has given her away. She wonders if he'd recognized her voice in it. Feng Min heads into one of the waiting rooms, slowing her steps down, trying to focus through the static's corrosion of her mind.

Quiet. She needs to remain quiet, find a generator, just get through the work and then get out of here. She hunkers down with her back pressed to the side of a vending machine, listening as the familiar laughter of the Doctor begins echoing down the halls and through her head. It's followed quickly by a shout— who is that? Ace? Maybe the new guy?

The survivor's footsteps come closer, so close that soon they're racing past the open doorway, and Feng Min braces herself as the heartbeat closes in. She's got her hands over her ears, even though she knows that it won't do anything to help her— the static has a way of getting inside, no matter what. She knows that more than anyone, at this point. She watches as electricity ripples across the floor in dancing waves, the white glow of it blinding her with swirling, incomprehensible visions.

Somewhere — very close, and then leading away — the Doctor laughs again.

The noise splits through her brain, severing her tenuous willpower and making her whimper before she can bite back the sounds. The whispers blossom in their place, a simmering discordance that coats her mind in thick black tar and makes it hard to think or plan or do anything. The pain makes her scream again, and even her hands over her mouth don't shut her up.

Where is he? He has to be close, right? Feng Min isn't going to tell herself that this trial is going to be any different from any other. Like the Nurse had said, they each have their own place. Their own roles. Hers is to try to survive.

Her scream does draw someone close— Jake, who's approached so quietly that Feng Min hadn't even noticed him at all. He crouches next to her in the greenish glow of the vending machine. He's got a faint sweat on his brow, but looks unaffected otherwise. She's glad to see him, especially because his reliable composure is something she can anchor herself to, but what he says to her wipes any inkling of optimism from her mind.

"There's only three of us," he says, his dark eyes focused right upon hers. "I'm pretty sure."

"What?" Feng Min manages, trying to understand his words through the noise crowding her head. It's like hearing a different song in each ear and not understanding either.

"There's me, you, and Adam. That's it," says Jake. A muscle in his cheek twitches. Feng Min thinks the madness is getting to him, too, but Jake's always had the ability to restrain himself in a way no other survivor can. She wishes she knew his secret.

Jake pulls Feng Min to her feet by the arm and towards a generator. She follows him in a state of confusion, trying to understand what this means for their situation. It can't be good. She can't tell what direction the noise is coming from any more, or if the Doctor is even close or not. Somewhere — she doesn't know where — she hears Adam shout again.

Jake presses her down in front of the generator, and Feng Min stares at it, the loose parts and coils that need rearranging. Her field of view constricts, flashing in greyscale patterns. When she reaches in to try to realign a wire, she's hit with a wave of pain, and her fingers slip; the wire sparks, and the generator shorts out, blasting exhaust in Jake's face. He grimaces and falls back. The sound is deafening in the open hallway, and Feng Min is convinced that she feels something shift in the body of noise— it's turning back towards them.

"I'm sorry," she manages. Her tongue feels obtrusive in her mouth, the words distant and hollow.

Something insists on her attention. Feng Min turns her head in time to catch the glittering pink glow of an aura, a few hallways to her right side. She can see the Doctor's outline for a moment, distant, lunging over a generator. It's enough to tell her that he's still occupied with Adam.

"It's fine," she warbles, just barely, at Jake. She reaches back in and grabs for the wire. It's still hot to the touch, but she tries to ignore it. It's not even that bad, compared to the pain in her head.

Jake's staring at her, and then down the hallway, and he looks troubled. He edges back from the generator, and then, his expression shifting, he reaches out for her arm. "No," he says, suddenly, "no, we have to—"

Feng Min becomes aware, all at once, that there is a presence right behind them, and the Doctor's laughter is there, too. She turns in time to see him right there behind her with a baseball bat in his hands, and she wonders, How? What happened? before she realizes: the aura she had seen was wrong. It's worse than the times it had happened before, when sometimes the images were hard to see, fading or blinking out or flickering. He'd looked like he was in another place completely. He had been so much closer than she'd thought.

That's all she really gets time to consider, because the Doctor gives her this look that reads incredulous somehow, and then he's swinging the bat right towards her face.

Shrieking, Feng Min drops low and goes colliding into a wall. The weapon barely misses her head, and something sharp rips past her shoulder instead, shredding right through the flesh and out again. She screams. The momentum is so powerful that the bat thuds into the wall next to her cheek with a strangely solid sound. She looks up in terror to see why— there are nails sticking out of the head of it, nails covered in her own blood, and the Doctor's reaching to give it a hard tug to loosen it from the wall.

Feng Min jumps to her feet, biting back a howl and closing her hand over her bloodied shoulder. Nearby, Jake looks about ready to bolt, but he's watching her, taking in her delayed reactions. She hurries over to him just as the Doctor frees the bat.

Herman, she wishes she could call out to him. Herman— But then what? She doesn't know. She's not going to plead for his mercy, as terrified as she is. But she's also completely taken aback by just how intense the fear is, this sudden and jarring reminder of her place in the nightmare. Just prey. A scared little rabbit between the jaws of a predator, awaiting the inevitable bite.

She can't. She can't say anything. Especially not with Jake right here. And Herman's not saying anything to her, either, even though he could. The only thing in her head is the noise— and the whispers behind it. His voice is nowhere in it.

Jake takes off running past one of the treatment beds blocking an intersection of hallways. He splits off to the right at the last second, so Feng Min turns left. It's instinctive more than anything— she just wants to get away and nurse her shoulder. She's looking for an open window or something else — anything else — she can jump over, trying not to look behind her. She can't tell how close he is. The noise is so intense that he could be right behind her, for all she knows.

A familiar carpet comes into view, and Feng Min realizes that she's run towards the office. Panicking, she tries to head back behind the reception desk and sees with terror that the basement steps are right there— and so, too, is the Doctor, who has chosen to follow her instead of Jake.

He's got white bandages wrapped around most of his head today, like a burn victim or something, and it's hard for her not to point out a similarity between the implements sticking out of his skull and the ones sticking out of the end of the baseball bat, as if now were any time for conversation.

Feng Min drops her hand from her ruined shoulder. Her blood is dripping all over his carpet. She watches as it soaks right into the pile and disappears in the dust.

One bright red eye is fixed right on her. The last time she'd seen him had been so different, and she can't shake it. She'd let herself feel stability— a dangerous and foolish decision.

It seems like he might be waiting for something, but it's only for the briefest moment, because then he's swinging the bat at her again, and although she's already halfway out of the open window across from his desk, he doesn't miss this time. The bat catches her in the side and sticks; she can feel it, the way the nails puncture her belly and glance off her ribs. She screams as he makes this shuddery, running-out-of-breath sort of noise and yanks it free. Although she tries to thrash, she slumps over the window sill, her blood pouring down the wood paneling, and then he grabs her and puts her over his shoulder, one arm engulfing her middle.

"Stop!" she cries, all instinct.

She sees Jake then, running into the office just a little too late. He looks at her, and then he looks over and seems to realize where they are— where the basement is. Feng Min digs her elbows into the Doctor's shoulder blades as he carries her down the stairs. Up at the top, she can see Jake just barely out of view, waiting to make a move.

"Hey—" she wheezes, suddenly desperate to hear him say something. To hear Herman's voice. Not just the Doctor's laughing. "Wait—" She tries to twist around, groaning from the pain in her shoulder, wanting to reach up to his head, try to brush his neck or touch his scalp between the bandages. Anything to just make him acknowledge her.

He doesn't say anything. She listens to his breathing as he carries her down the rest of the way, heading towards the hooks, and then he—

and then he drops her.

Feng Min whimpers and cries out as she hits the ground, writhing as she tries to understand which hurts more— her shoulder or her side. She looks up and sees, through the wall of noise and the haze of pain, the silhouette of the Doctor above her, regarding her with silence.

"Herman," she says, or tries to say, but nothing comes out.

He turns away and walks up the stairs.

Feng Min thinks, numb from shock, that now she knows she must be seeing things.

She listens to the heartbeats head back up into the office, and then the sound of Jake's muffled exclamation as he tries to find a way out somewhere up there. The sounds eventually fade away in one direction as she continues lying there in the basement.

He'd let her go. He hadn't hooked her. He'd let her go.

This is a bad thing, she thinks. She doesn't know how she knows. But she knows.

Feng Min lets herself roll over on the dirty floor, trying to shift her body away from the blood gathering beneath her, and stares at her surroundings. The basement always looks the same, no matter where she ends up encountering it. It's always like this, looking like a place someone put together by hand, some kind of underground shelter, the floor covered in old filth. But then there's the light.

She's always hated the basement, and she thinks the light is why. It makes the basement feel like the strangest place in the nightmare, even in a world whose features constantly change— sometimes right in front of her own eyes. It's the light that's always felt strangest of all, coming out of the walls of a place supposed to be underground, solar-bright in intensity.

She wonders, for the first time, where the light comes from.

"You okay?"

Feng Min looks up. It's the new guy. He's got a bunch of bandages wrapped around his leg, wet with blood, but he's holding a red tin box, and she sees that there's still a few rolls inside as he crouches next to her and begins making quick work of wrapping her shoulder. He starts off slow, but he seems to quickly get an idea of what to do, his hands moving fast enough to rival Claudette's talents as a medic.

"Yeah," Feng Min says, although she couldn't feel more confused or disoriented right now. The Doctor had let her go. He'd injured her and let her go. That's not what they're supposed to do in trials. Isn't it?

Isn't the Entity watching?

Adam makes an attempt at padding the wound at her side — it's difficult, with where the injury happens to be — and helps her to her feet. Just as he does, they hear the crash tearing through the sky.

"Jake," Feng Min gasps as his aura comes into view. She hadn't even picked up on the fact that he'd been placed on a hook as Adam had been healing her.

Something is off. Nothing seems right about this trial. Having only three of them to begin with, and then her aura reading failing, and then the way the Doctor had just let her go. Feng Min has a terrible feeling about all of it. Once Adam has helped her up to the top of the stairs, she pulls away.

"Go," she whispers. "I'm gonna try to... try to fix a generator." Her shoulder's throbbing, and she's not sure she'll really be able to do anything with that arm, but she knows that she has to try. What else is there to do?

Adam stares at her, but then he turns around and runs off in Jake's direction while Feng Min tries to find a generator. She's slowly trying to pull her focus back together above the static— the pain from her wounds is actually helping, she's got to admit, giving her something else to concentrate on.

It's not more than a couple of minutes later, however, that she feels the gravity around her reconfigure as the Entity comes to claim its sacrifice. Immediately after that, it happens again — so fast that she couldn't do anything about it, even if she set off running now — and Feng Min becomes aware that she is now alone in the hospital. Alone, that is, except for Herman Carter.

The whispers begin again. This time, they are not soft. They churn in her ears like waves crashing. She walks down the hallways as quietly as she can, feeling more lost on the Institute grounds than she ever has before.

When Feng Min finds the hatch, she doesn't feel the relief that she usually does— the sense of a shortcut gladly claimed, a way to skip through to an easy victory. This alternate opportunity for escaping a trial is always a rare find, one she's encountered only a few very lucky times before. This time, it doesn't feel right. There is something sinister about it now. She feels as though she has violated some important rule, even though this trial had unfair stakes from the start.

The hatch sits there, waiting for her, a darkness deeper than death. As she lowers her body into it, she thinks she hears something buried far down below inside the shadows, calling out to her. Maybe singing.



Back at the campfire, she finds Nea, as well as Adam and Jake. All of them — Feng Min included — are fine. There's not a spot of blood on their worn clothing or any markings on their flesh.

Feng Min sits down next to the fire, overwhelmed.

"Did you get the hatch?" It's Jake, from behind her.

She nods. His hand brushes her shoulder, and then he's gone.

The fire continues its endless burning before her bleary eyes. At some point, Nea sits down next to her, and instead of saying something about their last encounter — there's so many things she could say — she just leans in towards her and asks, "What's the first thing you'd do if you got to go home right now?"

Feng Min looks over at her. Nea's hair is concealing half of her face, obscuring her expression.

"Come on," says Nea. "Answer."

"Cry," says Feng Min, the first answer to come to mind. There's a painful knot in her throat. She feels like she could sob, right now, even though it wouldn't make sense to Nea or to anyone else at the campfire. Wouldn't even make sense to herself.

"That's a waste of tears." Nea shakes her head with a sorrowful little laugh and slides an arm around her shoulders, but she doesn't ask any more questions after that, and Feng Min's eyes stay dry.

Chapter Text

The exit gates don't light up when they finish the fifth generator.

Feng Min is trying and failing to stop the bleeding. It's coming out of Quentin's thigh in pulses, splattering all over her shirt and speckling her forearms with red blotches as she fumbles with the little bottle of styptic powder. The blood's making her hands slippery, so when she finally gets the lid off, the contents explode out and rains down on Quentin's soaked lap like snow, useless and irrecoverable. It quickly disappears, gumming the blood up into a coagulated slop that collects on top of the denim. "Fuck!" Feng Min hisses in rage as she checks to see just how much she's spilled.

Quentin's head rolls into the crook of her arm, but the movement is slack and not purposeful. His irises look distinctly grey in the blur of the hazy dream world, a place drained of all color and light.

"Why won't it open?!" Feng Min screams over to Laurie, who's standing at the exit gate with her hand on the switch. She tries to staunch the wound with the heels of both palms while Quentin gasps shallowly, his violent trembles turning to a consistent shiver. She can see the light going out of his eyes, and she can't do anything but watch it happen right in front of her, just the way she'd been forced to watch it happen to Nea out in the fog, not so long ago. "He's about to bleed out!"

"I don't know!" Laurie shouts back, distraught. Feng Min watches her give it another frantic yank before she looks back over her shoulder at their surroundings, nervous. Even with the slow-time movements in the dream world, the exit gates shouldn't take this long to open. Laurie has been pulling on the switch over and over, trying to get a reaction from it.

Not a single one of the three red bulbs is lighting up.

In Feng Min's lap, Quentin's gaze has lost focus completely, pointing blankly up into the sky. She knows he's screwed, right then, and that there's nothing left she can do. The blood flow may be lessening beneath her fingers just from the sheer pressure she's been putting against the wound, but she knows that the blades slid deeper than any styptic agent could ever fix. She knows that. But—

Why is this happening?

They'd finished all five generators. Krueger had nabbed Meg pretty early on in the trial, but then Laurie had managed to swap out with Quentin for a while, trying to distract the killer and keep him busy while Feng Min sneaked around to the generators scattered throughout the quiet little neighborhood and its preschool. Quentin had gotten slashed a few times, but nothing too bad. He'd always been good at escaping injury, or at least bouncing back from it, especially when it came to Krueger, and usually once they had all the generators done, he'd be raring to go whether he'd been hurt or not, but now—

She'd finished the fifth one herself. There's no way they'd missed any. Feng Min had counted. She knows that they finished five generators. So why? Why won't the exit gate open? They could have been out minutes ago, when Quentin could still sort of walk. He would have made it. She and Laurie could have gotten him through safely, between the two of them, if the gate had just powered up.

The look on Laurie's face tells her that the other young woman feels just as disturbed as she does. And then Feng Min watches her gaze slip from her own over to somewhere behind her head.

"Heads up, Feng Min!" Laurie cries out suddenly, breaking away from the switch. Her long legs send her off like a shot.

The edges of the world around them, gossamer-soft and glimmering, make every movement feel slower and more difficult, like walking the bottom of a lake— a consequence of the sleep state caused by Krueger. It takes Feng Min a moment to react even as Laurie bolts away, her head is so dense and heavy with exhaustion. She gets to her feet as the song closes in, and the killer with it, laughing as he approaches them from down the street.

Quentin is already as good as dead when she lets him go. If he hasn't yet begun his death rattle, she knows he will soon.

Feng Min sucks in a breath through her mouth and tastes ashes on her tongue as she starts to run. She watches Laurie launch herself into the backyard of a two-story house; Krueger follows her with a laugh like sandpaper. She can hear him call out to Laurie as he pursues her straight into the empty home: "Aw, Laurie, what went wrong?"

It's the same question that's still violently ricocheting in Feng Min's head, but she can't allot herself any more time to contemplate what has happened. She hears a crash from inside the home, and then a thud, like something being knocked over, and, after that, a bloodcurdling scream from Laurie, one that makes her whisper, "I'm sorry," over and over under her breath even as the Entity breaks through the trial's boundaries for its third sacrifice.

Although Feng Min searches for the hatch, heading to the places she knows it's wont to appear, she knows she's fucked as soon as she steps into Krueger's basement home and doesn't see it.

Hiding from the Nightmare in his own domain is useless. He knows how to walk the dream and find them within it. When he locates her trying to slip out of the back of Badham Preschool and past the playground to the street, Feng Min doesn't even bother trying to run, although she still tries to land a few good kicks in before he gets her on the hook.

"Fuck you!" she snarls, half-shriek. Krueger just laughs at her. As if to add insult to injury, he doesn't even stay to watch— he just walks away, as if saying, My job here is done.

Even though Feng Min knows that there will be no exit for her even if she does break free, she still tries to reach up and see if she can wiggle off of the thing, gasping in pain. When she fails, provoking the thunder-crash of the Entity unfurling in the sky above her, she thinks, again, What went wrong?

Like any nightmare, the landscape of the Entity's realm has always seemed mutable. But now, she finds herself thinking about it in the terms of a video game again, the way she did when she had first woken up in the realm, before the shock had begun to wear off.

Feng Min wonders if the Entity is responding in the way a sophisticated game program might— trying to recalibrate itself, to throw unanticipated challenges at players who had become too familiar with its exploits and habits. Upping the difficulty. They'd missed something. They'd messed up somehow. That has to be it. That's what it's trying to tell them, right?

Then again, Feng Min considers as the death god's spines begin twitching in towards her, rippling like the lashes on the end of a whip, there's no way the answer is that simple.

There is no one left to come and save her. It has won. It will now feed on her, as it has before. As it will again.



Sleep becomes less common for her. It's not as though it was ever really sleep to begin with, at least not in the sense of providing her any actual rest, but Feng Min's found herself just lying awake and staring into the campfire more often than not now.

Venturing into the Bloodweb feels like scraping a dull razor blade over her brain, making her recall what it had felt like to wake up hungover and nauseous every single day for the greater part of a year. It's strange to feel that way, after spending so long in the Entity's nightmare, a place where everyday annoyances like hunger and headaches and sore throats don't really happen. So when Feng Min does sleep, she sleeps lightly, never dropping too deeply into the black.

On some nights, it pulls at her, and she knows what it is trying to say. Knows that it's asking her to let it share its secrets and impart its visions, so long as she allows it to exact its toll in return.

Feng Min has never been certain of what exactly it is that the Bloodweb chooses to extract as its price. The other survivors have always claimed not to know, but everyone could agree that, upon waking, there is always a sense of something missing.

She doesn't really know if she can trust her aura reading any more. She's not sure if she can after the last time. It hadn't just been a symptom of the Doctor's madness, because she's experienced his madness before, and even though it could be torturous on the mind in a thousand different ways, it had never skewed her aura reading abilities before, and they had never failed her against any other killer.

No— the problem could only lie with her.

It's hard not to be distracted by thoughts of when she might encounter Herman Carter again. She dreads it being in a trial after the strange experience she'd had with him last time. There are still so many questions she has yet to ask him. So many answers he still owes her.

Attempts to reach the hospital through the forest don't work. Feng Min can't pick up any sense of him or the Institute among the thick trees, like the proverbial station just isn't broadcasting. She wonders — hopes? — he'll come for her again the way he did before, waiting for her in the dark mist beyond the campfire's barrier. She yearns to ask him about all of the things he'd shown her lately, and to get his thoughts on the anomalies that have been happening in trials— because they're becoming a lot more frequent now.

Sometimes it's something small. Like how Jake had pointed out recently, at the Asylum, that not a single wooden chest had appeared on the grounds. Typically, they could rely on checking through them for some first-aid supplies in a pinch, or some tools that might make the job go by faster. There were none during that trial— not even in the basement, a spot that had always been reliable before. On one occasion, on the farm grounds, sacrificial hooks had appeared in clusters so close together, in such convenient reach for the Hillbilly, that there was no chance any of them could escape being thrown up on one. Then there was what had happened in the swamp: they'd found that the Hag's hex totems were completely out of their reach, high up on top of the riverboat. They hadn't been able to figure out how to get to them, and without the ability to cleanse the curses, they were doomed from the start.

The strange occurrences keep happening as Feng Min enters trial after trial. Some are normal and proceed the way she's used to; others, in increasing number, do not. During another trial in the rain-choked Red Forest, Feng Min and her fellow survivors discover that there are just enough generators, and no more. It's an utterly hopeless effort; the Huntress, with her beastlike herding instinct, keeps them all so thoroughly distracted that not a single generator is completed between the four of them.

After they are returned to the campfire, nursing phantom wounds, David and Bill get into an argument, with David upset that Bill had challenged his aggressive approach with the killer.

"We were all fucked, anyway!" David shouts. He's right in Bill's face, having started ranting the moment they had all materialized back beside the fire.

"So you were just gonna keep catching hatchets with that ugly mug of yours?" Bill responds flatly.

"Oh, sod off now!" David raises a finger as if to jab Bill in the chest, but he's at least smart enough to not actually do it.

It's an awful thing to watch, the way he gets so heated that Tapp eventually has to stand up and get between the two of them and tell David to "Sit the fuck down before you do something you're really gonna regret!"

Nobody's ever heard Tapp say the word fuck before, which seems to be more than enough to subdue David. The detective puts a hand on the younger man's shoulder and gives him a firm push towards one of the fireside logs.

David snorts — really snorts, like a mad dog or something — but he drops down and takes a seat next to Nea, face twisted into a scowl. Nea not-so-subtly slides a few inches towards the end of the log, her expression reading, I'm the first one outta here when he loses it.

Bill does not look fazed or intimidated. With a rigid correction of the slant of his cap, he nods to Tapp and says, "You know damned well he wouldn't try anything. Hothead bastard. He'll say 'sorry' later."

David makes like he doesn't hear the old veteran, staring into the fire with a bitter look on his face.

Although the situation has been diffused, the tension remains, because no one has addressed the real issue: the anomalies that have been happening during trials are making everybody more anxious and tense than usual— and that's saying something, Feng Min thinks, considering the amount of stress they're already accustomed to operating under.

Jake tells them that he's seen some unusual things happen before, that survivors long gone could have accounted for it too, but only rarely during his long stay in the nightmare— typically reliable tools disintegrating at just a touch, or medical supplies found missing or spoiled overnight. Some of the others describe past trial realms that wouldn't appear right, more akin to mazes, not a place to hunt down sacrifices but more of a place to play around with the food first. It is impossible for any of the survivors to say how these anomalies happen, or why. None of them know that — maybe none of them can know that — regardless their wisdom or creed or seniority around the campfire.

Nea seems to think she knows something, though, by the way she keeps looking at Feng Min. Like she's waiting for her to raise her hand and say something. But she just keeps her mouth shut and avoids eye contact and makes excuses when Nea keeps trying to confront her and get her alone again to talk.

The survivors try varying offerings, testing to see if they can change their luck by pleasing the Entity. They burn different combinations of flowers that Claudette ascribes symbolic meanings to and random, seemingly useless junk and kitsch they've all come across or dug up from around the nightmare: bundles of ribbons and lace, bottle caps, paper bags, packets of seeds. Old notebooks and handwritten invoices and handfuls of nails. Shards of mirror and stained glass and ceramic. None of them can sense what's working and what's not.

Feng Min thinks that the Entity isn't interested in their efforts. She doesn't want to point out to the others that the rules of the game — of the sacrificial trials — had never actually been directly explained to any of them at any point, so they were always subject to change. She suspects that the other survivors will not appreciate her pragmatism, and she doubts that Nea would be able to keep her mouth shut after overhearing such a comment.

She knows that she should have taken a cue from Baker a long time ago and begun taking notes on everything she's learned. About Herman, about the killers, about the nightmare, and about how it all goes together, or if it even does.

Herman...

Why had he let her go during that trial? She still hasn't figured that out, and the more she thinks about it, the more upset and confused she feels. There is no way he hadn't noticed that there were only three of them. Is that why? Did it matter to him? To the Entity? He'd dropped her on the floor, violating the duty of their roles in the Entity's game. It had given her enough time to be found by Adam, to get patched up and eventually escape through the hatch.

In doing so, Feng Min fears he may have called attention to them. To her.

She thinks grimly to herself about how everything she's ever done always seems to come down to her most fundamental trait: selfishness. During her disastrous pro gaming career, it had never really mattered to Feng Min just how many people she had to kick down on her way up or what personal sacrifices she might have to make, as long as she reached the very top. Ambition had carried her onto the throne of the Shining Lion, but then her inability to cope with maintaining the perfection she strove for tipped her right into its jaws, and the lion had eaten her alive.

But... what could the Entity do to her that could be any worse than what it's already done to her? She's died too many times to count by now. Hundreds. Thousands of times. She's been killed in ways she'd never imagined or considered or even heard of before. Had her head hacked off, her spine crushed, her aorta severed, her throat cut, her guts devoured. Taken an axe to the back of the skull and felt her own body split in two under the shredding teeth of a chainsaw. Choked to death by the Nurse and beaten unconscious by the Wraith and stabbed right through the chest by the Shape and gotten her fingers hacked off by the Clown and... and had her brain activity flatlined by the electric-circuit touch of the Doctor.

She persists in trying to find Léry's, even though the results continue to be unpromising. When reaching out into the static, trying to get it to reach back for her, Feng Min finds only a flat landscape of noise. Nothing to tether her mind to and follow. It's there, she thinks, but it's like it's on mute; there's no spot she can get a hand-hold on it. When she tries, it slips out of her brain before she can grab it, the signal lost in the dense fog of the forest surrounding the campfire and crowding her head.

Feng Min loses track of time. She barely keeps tabs on it to begin with, but it all seems to smudge together like daubs of paint, passing in a numb blur of sacrifice after sacrifice.



There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with Autohaven, at least not when Feng Min first looks around and takes note of it, after the fog has swept herself, Jake, Ace, and Kate up. They all materialize in the same area, which, as Feng Min has come to learn, is usually more of a bad thing than a good thing. Some of the others see it as an opportunity to quickly collaborate on locating and starting a generator, but Feng Min knows better than that, slipping away before the killer heads over and has their pick of the lot of them.

She breathes a sigh of relief when the first generator she repairs solo lights up just fine, and, hoping to ride her luck out, she goes to look for another.

There's a cabin-like structure in this part of the wrecking yard, and a generator sits there on what remains of what Feng Min guesses was once a porch. It leaves a fairly open sight line out towards the grounds, but Feng Min is usually quicker to spot the killer before they're able to spot her. Not that it helps, half the time. But they've already got two generators down, and she thinks that Kate and Ace have got the Wraith pretty busy over on the other end of the walled-in territory.

Feng Min kneels next to the generator, rolling her tired wrists in preparation for the arduous and logic-defying task of powering it— connecting wires to sockets that lead nowhere. She's got a good start on it, setting the first and second of the pistons going, when her eyes slip away from the expansive view of the yard to stare briefly into the cabin.

A mark on the wall catches her attention. A series of black smudges right on the wood. She squints at it. What is it? At first, she thinks it's a letter of the alphabet, but then it sort of comes together in her mind. It looks like a crude stick figure. She wonders if Nea has been here recently with her charcoals, but she knows Nea's distinctive tagging style, and stick figures aren't a part of it.

Something about it really bothers her, like she should understand what she's looking at.

And then a bell tolls behind her.

Feng Min doesn't even have time to start screaming before the Wraith has pulled her off of the generator, lifting her from the ground to throw her over his shoulder.

"No!" she yells. As useless as it always is, the instinct to survive still remains. That one thing — desperation to survive, to live, to not die — never fades. It's the strongest feeling Feng Min has ever known. Stronger than adrenaline. More than victory. The drive to live at any cost, no matter how hopeless, is always there inside of her. Even in this deathless place.

As the Wraith carries her towards a hook close to the outer perimeter, Feng Min catches a glimpse of Jake, waiting covertly behind a pile of scrap. She doesn't try to signal him, lest the killer take notice. Had he seen the stupid, embarrassing mistake she'd just made, allowing herself to become so distracted that the Wraith had been able to walk right up to her and grab her?

The hook ensures that she pays for that mistake. The Wraith drops her on it before immediately striking the bell, his visage folding back into nothingness. Just as he does, another generator sounds out, and he glides towards it as she screams and thrashes in agony. Feng Min quickly loses sight of the mirage among the piles of scrap and crushed cars. Her vision is shaky with pain. Through the greenish fog, she soon hears Ace shouting distantly.

Ace meeting bad luck is never a good omen for any trial, as she's come to find.

Jake comes up around the back of the hook, and Feng Min doesn't hide her expression of relief when he reaches up for her, grunting as he plants his feet into the ground to lift her off. The meat hook rips free of her flesh with a disgusting sound of crunching bone and flesh. Her blood immediately begins dripping all over the front of his coat, but Jake doesn't even blink as he helps her get her footing again.

Having a hole ripped through her shoulder is an injury Feng Min runs into more often than not in trials — even when she escapes, it's usually not without having spent some time on the hook — but tears of pain still jump to her eyes as if it were the first time again, just like always. She can feel the cold air in the wound. She grinds her teeth together and jerks her head hard at Jake, motioning silently out towards the sky, where the Entity has switched its attention, presumably for Ace.

"Yeah," breathes Jake, affirming what she doesn't need to say. He breaks off at a stilted run, and for the first time Feng Min notices that he's nursing his own injury; one of his pant legs is red all the way down past the knee, giving him the gait of a wounded deer.

She staggers back over to the generator that the Wraith had disrupted her on. This time, she doesn't look inside the cabin. With shaking, blood-streaked hands, her wound burning like fire, Feng Min manages to get the remaining two pistons going, and finally it comes online.

"One left," Feng Min whispers to herself. "One left." Their team's not in the best shape, but everything's otherwise been proceeding as normal. No anomalies so far. Good.

Her left arm, from shoulder to fingertip, has started to feel cold and leaden. She tries to roll it, seeing if she can provoke some sensation, but she knows that the more blood she loses, the worse her dexterity is going to become, to the point that she won't be able to work on generators any more.

The sound of an explosion rocks through the grounds, and golden sparks begin raining down through the trees. Feng Min flinches and shivers. Who had it been? Kate or Ace? Maybe Jake? She doesn't want to look up into the sky to see whose body it might be.

And it's not like it matters. It's happened before; it'll happen again. She's better off shutting down everything but her ability to focus. No distractions.

Feng Min finds another generator that she tries her best to work on, but her left arm won't stop shaking, and she can't extend or flex her fingers very well; they keep curling in back towards her palm when she tries. The machine backfires on her twice in a row, hurling oil and soot all over her clothes.

She doesn't even have it halfway done when the Wraith finally catches up to Kate, who's been trying hard to keep him occupied. She knows it's her because of Kate's melodic screams. Feng Min clenches her teeth and resists the urge to scream, too, in frustration. Although Jake makes an effort — she's watching him try to beat the Wraith to a hook, right by a broken-down old yellow school bus — the Entity comes quickly for Kate, perhaps in part due to the angry thrashing she had done on its hook.

Feng Min reaches in for another wire and manages about twenty seconds with her one good hand before the generator backfires for a third time. She's not surprised when she hears the Wraith's bell going off nearby. But with it is Jake's voice, too.

"Get up!" he shouts. It is unusual to hear Jake raise his voice in this manner. "Follow me!"

Jake comes sprinting around the side of a rusting crane at least two stories high. The Wraith isn't far behind him, following with patient strides, as though walking barefoot in an environment where broken glass and rusty nails seem statistically likely doesn't bother him at all.

Feng Min stands, and Jake grabs her by the arm as he whips past her, forcing her to run with him. It's a good thing that her legs still work just fine, even if she's not exactly sure-footed thanks to all the blood she's lost. She only understands his urgency when she sees what he's got in his right hand: a blackened old key.

It's a fairly rare trick, tough to pull off— the survivors don't run into keys a whole lot while out scavenging, and whenever they've been fortunate enough to bring one into the trial, they often never get to use them. The circumstances in which they are useful are difficult to encounter; a key is the only thing that can enable more than one survivor to access the hatch.

But Jake's running with purpose, like he knows exactly where the black lock is, so Feng Min follows him. It's difficult to keep up with him even though he's the one with the leg injury— she thinks she's lost a lot more blood than he has. When he directs them towards the dilapidated little shack in the corner of the yard, she finally spares a look back over her shoulder.

The Wraith is just a few paces away. In swinging range in seconds, probably. Feng Min chokes on her terror. "Jake!" she cries desperately.

They make it into the shack just in time. Jake throws himself to the floor, on his knees, to shove the key into the lock, and Feng Min flees through the entrance right as the Wraith tries to lands a hit on her. She musters her remaining strength and pivots on her left foot to use her good arm to pull down the pallet.

The Wraith goes staggering back, snarling, and raises the club again. Feng Min looks at it, and in that second, she sees something. And it clicks.

Oh, she thinks, staring at the yellowing skull. At the little stick figure stamped in dried blood on the cranium. The very same symbol she'd seen written in soot inside the cabin. That's where she'd seen it before.

Behind her, there's a creaking sound, and the darkness begins to sing, providing a way out.

"Come on!" Jake urges her, and just as the Wraith shreds through the pallet, he jumps to his feet and throws both of his arms around Feng Min's body. Pain flares in her shoulder as Jake hugs her tight to his chest and then lets them both tip backwards into the open mouth of the hatch. She clutches at him as they free-fall into the blackness. The Wraith's roars fade away above them, and then the shadows swallow them up completely.

It's still no escape.



Her head clears. The pain does not.

The campfire is there, as it always is after a trial, the molten gold of its light never changing hue.

Feng Min looks down at herself. She sees blood all over her pants and her jacket and smeared on the sleeping bag beneath her leaden body. There is an ache inside of her that makes the left side of her body scream. She sits upright, gasping, and cries out. Her gaze follows the blood up her own shirt and sees that it's coming from her shoulder. From the arm that hangs dead at her side, incapacitated. Still.

"Oh," she says faintly.

The world before her wrenches sideways, sending her crumpling forward and collapsing over herself like a released puppet. She hears an exclamation. Meg, maybe? Feng Min ends up slumped over on her injured side. Her shoulder is still bleeding freely from the gash torn right through the back to the front, even though it shouldn't be. She's supposed to be healed now; she and Jake had left the trial successfully through the hatch. That's how it works. That's how it always works. It's supposed to.

"Feng Min!" Laurie cries, having appeared kneeling next to her at some point in the last few seconds, quickly followed by Adam, who reaches down to feel around her neck for her pulse. His large fingers pin a spot right below her jaw, and through one cracked eyelid she sees him checking his watch. Feng Min is too lightheaded to tell him that she's not dead yet.

"What? What happened?" Dwight's voice has gone up a few octaves in concern as he hurries over, looking between Laurie and Adam and Feng Min. "Oh, Christ!" He stops short in an almost cartoonish matter, feet shuffling in place uncertainly before he squares his shoulders again. "Is Claudette around?" He directs this last part across the campfire to the rest of the group. Feng Min's gaze wanders past it as Laurie and Adam roll her onto her back.

For the first time, she notices that Jake's also in rough shape. Meg and Kate are looking him over by an adjacent log, where he sits with his head tucked between his knees, his shoulders and back rising and lowering with each measured breath. His clothes are still stained with blood; he's sitting in a stain of it. Kate is trying to persuade him to show the two of them the wound on his right thigh, but Jake keeps shaking his head no, his own hands folded over the injury.

"How did this happen?" Dwight asks Laurie urgently as he makes some space next to Adam for Claudette, who's coming over with a first-aid kit open and ready.

"Don't... know," Feng Min mumbles with great effort, her voice rattling in her throat through shudders of pain. She barely has the energy to flinch as Adam stabilizes her by the shoulders so that Claudette can press gauze into the wound. She tries to twist her head to look at Dwight, but the action takes more strength than she's able to expend. "We escaped. But..."

Adam and Laurie have her body braced between their knees, working from both sides to ease her over onto her right so that Claudette can examine the other end of the injury. Dwight doesn't press her to continue; she watches him pace over to Jake, who only accepts some degree of wound care once Dwight persuades him to let him look at it. Good, she thinks distantly. It's not fair that he got hurt, too. Not fair for him. No. Fair for her? She isn't sure. Her thoughts are starting to slow and stretch out, getting further and further away from her— and taking the pain away with them, too. Around her, Feng Min can feel Claudette and Adam trying to clean the wound out and pack it, and it should hurt like fucking hell, but all she's starting to feel now is sleepy.

"Hey, no!" says Laurie, sitting up taller and raising her voice as she takes notice of Feng Min's fading consciousness. "You can't fall asleep! Not right now. I'm sorry. Just a little longer." Feng Min feels Laurie's hands on her face, gently shaking her awake. She opens her eyes and stares up at her again. The firelight bouncing off her blonde hair is blinding.

"We need to elevate her a little," Claudette says from somewhere on her right side.

"Feng Min," says Laurie, louder and clearer. Her face gives Feng Min something to focus on. She manages a weak little nod and feels slightly more alert. Losing consciousness would be bad. A bad sign. She knows it. She needs to fight the fatigue.

Laurie takes her hands, and Adam and Claudette manage to get her into a reclining position. Dizziness overwhelms her, but when Adam offers her some water it is quelled almost immediately. She drinks gratefully with what little energy she has left, tipping her head back and swallowing with some difficulty. The water gives her enough stamina to stay alert as the other survivors dress her wounds. She starts to feel less lightheaded, and is amazed that she didn't bleed out. When Claudette finally deems her to be not critical and orders her to rest, she curls up onto her right side and tries to sleep. As she finally gives in to her exhaustion, she catches parts of conversations among the other survivors:

"...you ever seen it before?"

"I'm starting to think that..."

"This isn't supposed to happen."

It takes Feng Min a moment to place the voice on that last one. Jake. That makes her open her eyes again. She sees him sitting beyond the flames with his leg all wrapped up, looking around the campfire. His gaze lands on her own.

It lingers.

Feng Min is too tired to think about what Jake is trying to tell her with that serious, silent look, but it stays with her as she falls asleep.



Feng Min wakes some hours later from a restless and featureless sleep. Her left arm and shoulder feel like they're on fire; the entire limb is so stiff that she can barely move it, and attempting to do so makes her gasp out in pain and immediately rocket up into a sitting position, choking for breath. These sensations quickly and unpleasantly shunt her towards full consciousness, her eyes snapping wide open and bulging.

As Feng Min takes in her surroundings and counts out who's present at the campfire, it hits her that her experience at the last trial had been real: she and Jake had escaped a trial — fairly, within the rules — but they had come back from it injured, anyway. She presses her right hand to her left shoulder just to confirm the reality of it again, but just touching it lightly makes it hurt even more.

It's not supposed to be this way. They're supposed to be healed, restored to their natural states so that they can give the next trial their all again. The strongest — often the only — motivation any of them have to endure the Entity's games is the promise of respite from pain. She's always thought that part to be necessary for the Entity; if the sacrifices are about shedding blood and causing death for it to indulge upon, why keep its prey injured and impact the hunt? Doesn't it enjoy seeing that first blood drawn? Wouldn't it rather see them really fight for escape? Being injured negates all of that. Better to hit reset and start a fresh new game than to keep replaying the same level with all the same moves, she figures.

Just not this time.

"I've got to talk with you."

Jake's there kneeling next to her. The first thing that Feng Min takes in is that he's got a bandage wrapped around his leg from thigh to knee, and it's stained in deepening shades of rust. But he's got color in his cheeks, and his eyes are clear; he is looking at her with focus and intent. Despite his injury, his mental faculties appear perfectly fine. It forebodes a feeling in the back of her head that she doesn't like, and she feels a violent lurch in her gut.

"What about?" Feng Min sits up straight as best as she can, trying not to look like she's in pain as her shoulder responds to the movement with what feels like a knife straight into her chest. She rolls her weight onto her right hip instead.

Jake looks her over. His thick brows are set low, contemplating, before his gaze shifts, his dark eyes staring down at something on his lap. "It's just a few questions."

Feng Min glances down, too, to see what he's looking at. Her heart just about stops when she sees what he's holding: her backpack. Open. And some familiar cassette tapes, visible right inside of it.

She hadn't done anything about the interview tapes after she and Quentin had listened to them together in Springwood. She thought about throwing them away, or destroying them, but she ended up tossing the six little cassettes into her backpack to decide what to do with them at some later point. That later point never ended up happening; they've been sitting unnoticed at the bottom of her bag ever since. Innocuous little things with unremarkable labels. Nobody would look twice.

Feng Min still can't forget the screams she heard on them.

The alarm on her face must be apparent, because Jake asks, "What's going on?"

He's staring right at her now. It's hard to tell what kind of expression he's giving her, because it betrays nothing at all.

Why had he looked through her backpack? When? How much has he figured out? Had he found a way to listen to them?

He noticed something, thinks Feng Min in shock, the last time we were at the Institute. When there were just three of us. When Herman dropped me in the basement.

"I..." she starts, her voice numb and unguarded.

"Some weird things have been happening during trials," says Jake, reaching down to pick up one of the tapes. He holds it between his gloved fingertips and turns it over to display the little label. #76-0093. "And I've noticed that they've mostly been happening when you're around."

He's not wrong. That's the scary part about it. The anomalies seem to happen an awful lot when she's in a trial. Feng Min tries to come up with a way to respond when she realizes that Tapp is there, too, standing nearby observing the two of them. He looks troubled. And right behind him is...

"Quentin," she says.

He's there with his shoulders slumped, looking sorrier than she's ever seen him look, his red-rimmed eyes creased in regret. "I really didn't say anything," he says to her, his voice strained. "I didn't, Feng Min. It's just... I'm sorry."

She barely hears him, because panic has begun to grow inside of her. Feng Min takes a full look around the campfire, finally, and sees that it's actually everyone that's watching her conversation with Jake. At least everyone that's there. She sees Claudette, Ace, Kate, David... and Nea, standing much further back than the others, over by the tree line, her expression disturbed.

Fuck, thinks Feng Min.

Jake slides the backpack off his lap, as though inviting her to take it. With her right arm only, Feng Min shakily reaches out to feel inside for the tapes. Six of them, still. All accounted for. She's trying to think of what to say when Jake asks, "What would be on those? If we checked them?"

Feng Min needs a moment to turn that over in her head. He doesn't know what's on them, she realizes. And Quentin doesn't know much more than that.

"Look, Feng Min, nobody's angry," continues Jake. His eyes are flicking over her face, like he's trying to determine her thoughts. Although he keeps his voice low, it seems like everyone around the campfire can hear him quite clearly; everybody present is tuned into this particular shitshow. "But you've got to be straight with us. If you did something, or saw something—"

"Maybe it's just bad luck?" comes a voice that Feng Min has to search around for to identify. Meg is the one that has come to her defense. "I mean... if you've been here a long time, you know, you'll see some weird stuff eventually..." she trails off, her cheeks flaring brightly.

"Bad luck doesn't work tha' way," says David incredulously.

They don't know. Not the specifics. The odds that she might be able to talk her way out of this one are improving slightly. Feng Min's desperation has got her in strategist mode, seeking a way out so that she doesn't have to explain. She's not nearly ready. Not now.

"Quentin knows there's something going on, but he wouldn't tell me what." Jake stares down at the tapes, then looks up at Tapp and around at the others before he turns back to her. "And I... respect that. I'm trying to respect that. So... I'm asking you directly."

Feeling Jake's intense gaze upon her, as well as the other survivors' scrutinizing stares, Feng Min starts to feel like she's been placed beneath a spotlight again. Like she's got a crowd to please— one that demands a certain result from her. One camera shoved at her face and another one focused on her hands, broadcasting her performance live for millions to discuss and analyze, all of them expecting her to put on her best performance yet. Each and every time. Just one more win. One more. One more. One more.

She thinks she can hear her own rapidly beating heart in the silence.

"Are you accusing me of something?" she asks as unemotionally as she can manage.

The words strike out and cut the air in a painfully stark manner. She holds Jake's gaze as she casually slips her hand back into the bag and feels around again. There's not much else inside, beyond the tapes. The crunchy, dry texture of preserved flowers. The cool, smooth faces of a few coins. Leftover wrappers from the snacks she'd scavenged from the forgotten airport Herman had shown her out there, lost in the fog. Some random knick-knacks she'd picked up around realms she intended to try as offerings, things like ticket stubs and laundry tags and assorted little tools. Junk, really.

And the gear sphere, sitting heavily at the bottom. Feng Min regrets that her interesting little holiday present is going to have to go with the rest of it. She wants to apologize to Meg. But she's only got one chance.

"No," says Jake.

Behind him, Tapp steps forward, and says, in what Feng Min is sure is one of his most professional tones, "In here, everyone's actions matter. That's the one thing I've learned from being in this place. That's what we've all learned." He looks over his shoulder at the others. Quentin's pacing by the fire nearby, hands in his pockets, head low. Ace is trying to look disinterested, clearly uneasy with the tense tone around the campfire and itching to crack a joke to offer some levity. Claudette's sitting on a log with her head in her hands, like she wishes she weren't there and having to listen to any of it at all.

Feng Min can't see Nea by the tree line any more. She's not sure when she must have slipped away.

"Some things that we do here can affect all of us," says Tapp. He crouches next to her and Jake, offering Feng Min a tired smile. It's got genuine warmth behind it— warmth, but mostly weariness. "So, for everyone's sake... We just want to know if there's something you need to tell us."

Tapp sounds almost kind about it. He really is giving her a chance to come clean, to own the truth and share it. Now is the time. Jake still has yet to look angry, too. Nobody really does, she realizes as she looks around at the other survivors. They're all too emotionally exhausted to feel that way, Feng Min thinks. She knows what that's like. The others are shades of disappointed, tired, trusting, hurt. But not angry.

She's fortunate for them, really. She could have ended up with a much worse group of people, one that might forcefully carve the honesty out of her instead of just asking for it. She does owe them the truth. A great measure of it.

But she can't even imagine what will happen to her if she tells them what she has been doing between trials. That she's been spending time with the Doctor. They'll look at her like she's lost her mind. Like she's betrayed them all for some kind of advantage over the rest of them— and they wouldn't even be wrong, considering how the last trial with him went. They'll never see her the same way again. If they don't immediately cast her out, they'll ostracize her, because they won't be able to forget that she had gone and broken the rules and chosen to keep breaking them even after she'd found her answer.

And then, isolated from the other survivors, completely alone...

What would happen to her then?

Feng Min thinks about the pain in her left arm as she draws the backpack closed by the pull cord. She's glad the injury isn't on her right side, otherwise she's not sure she'd be able to pull off what she's about to do.

She gets a good grip on the backpack by the strap and shifts onto her knees, and then her feet. Jake eyes her warily as she gets up.

"Feng Min," comes a firm voice. Quentin. He's moved closer, shifting uneasily from one leg to the other. His bone-white face is pleading with her. "Maybe... maybe it's time, you know what I mean? It might just be time to..."

"No," she mumbles. The backpack hangs loosely from her right hand.

Quentin is the only one who seems to get what she's going to do before she actually does it. He reacts fast, launching forward and clawing at her arm while shouting, "Wait, don't—!"

But it's already too late.

Feng Min swings the bag back with her right arm and then hurls it directly into the flames, where it lands with an explosion of sparks and flying embers and sends the other survivors scrambling for cover. Claudette nearly falls over the log she's been sitting on as she tries to get up and away from it. Kate yelps and trips into Ace in her attempt to leap back from the massive spill of hot ashes at the toes of her cowboy boots. The campfire snarls and accepts the offering, quickly engulfing the backpack in a blaze of light, wafting the scent of burning plastic and cotton.

"What did you just do?" asks Jake, breathless beside her. His voice hasn't lifted above its typical low tone; she's never heard him raise his voice in emotion before, and now is no different. But there is something in it which tells her that, right now, controlling it may be a lot harder for him than usual.

Feng Min barely hears him. She just stares into the roaring fire, feeling something grow and grow and grow inside of her, knowing that there's no room for it, that it's going to burst out of her at any moment and destroy everything around her. She knows what's happening to her right now. It's a panic attack— she's not unfamiliar with them. They'd been almost daily after the game that ended her career in 2016, a constant state of high-strung tension and existential misery and self-hate and blame. But it's been a long, long time since she had one that felt like this, one that feels bigger than her, bigger than the situation she's gotten herself into.

Hugging her deadened arm to her chest and seeing her fellow survivors staring at her in shock, all Feng Min can really think is, I have to get out of here, the thought so desperate that it feels like a matter of life and death. She needs to get away. Now. She needs to be far away from the others and their questions and their unheard truths and the burning tapes.

Although Quentin attempts to maintain his grip on her, she manages to wrench herself free, propelled by sheer animal instinct. He makes an effort to try and grab at her again, but is caught off-balance when Jake stumbles into him while also attempting to swipe for her. Meg jumps forward, too, but between the three of them, none of them are able to catch her.

She flees in the ensuing confusion and runs straight into the forest. There's an opening in the trees, not far away, and although her shoulder might be injured, there's nothing wrong with her legs, and not even Meg can catch up as she bolts straight through the brush. She's already past the tree line by the time the rest of the survivors properly react.

"Feng Min!" someone calls after her. Claudette...?

"Come back!" Tapp. Even more distant-sounding.

The trees close in quickly behind her, enveloping her in their shadows. The dark mist of the forest always behaves as though it has been waiting for her, and right now, she's never been more grateful. If the other survivors are smart, she thinks, they won't come after her. The fog has already taken her along its path; there is no guarantee it will take the rest of them with it, too.

Once the sounds of the campfire have completely disappeared, and after running for a good three minutes through the unchanging mass of trees, the adrenaline finally drops off, and Feng Min slows to a sudden stop, panting. Her chest hurts— not just from the sprinting. The effort of trying to ignore the pain in her arm is just too much along with the chaos exploding in her mind, and she finally lets out a shuddering sob that turns into an effort to blink away tears.

Jake was right. What did she just do? When confronted with the opportunity to tell the truth, she destroyed the evidence and ran. Like a coward. Like she's always run away whenever she couldn't face herself, a bad habit that will not fucking die. She'll need to return to the others eventually. She has to. It's the nature of things here in the Entity's world: the fog has given her shelter for now, but it will also eventually force her to go back.

Feng Min feels, abruptly, dizzy. She reaches out towards a tree, placing her hand on its slim trunk to keep herself upright, and looks down at her shoulder to examine it in the moonlight. Although the bandages have stayed in place, they're not enough any more. There's a freshly growing bloodstain coming through the cotton.

The fact that her wound has begun bleeding again is what tips her fully over the edge, and Feng Min stops trying to hold away the tears, choking out another loud sob. There is no responding echo. If she bleeds out now all alone in the forest, she wonders, what will happen to her? Will the Entity just return her to the campfire, the way it usually might? Why can't she trust that it will this time?

Is it all just a coincidence? Or is she being tested?

Feng Min doesn't know how much longer she can keep wandering in the fog. As she walks, each step grows steadily more difficult and heavy, and she becomes less aware of her surroundings. The trees begin to blend together in the shadows, forming abstract shapes that become all the more hazy in the thick mist limiting visibility to just a few feet. The calls of crows meld together with the whispers of the cold night wind. Soon it's all become monochromatic and indistinct around her, just darkness and murmurs. She keeps forcing herself onward anyway; something's telling her to keep going.

She's not sure if she imagines it when the trees begin to part. If the sky is a certain color, she wouldn't know it; everything's started to look the same shade of grey. She feels sad and afraid and tired and more lost than she has ever been.

With blood streaming out from beneath the bandage all down the front of her shirt, Feng Min's legs finally give out on her, and she drops to the ground.

The last thing she feels is a snowflake landing on her eyelid.



The whispers are still down there in the dark. The pain keeps her floating above them, near the surface of consciousness, her toes skimming the depths. They're content to stay down there for now, satisfied with merely reminding her that they are there, and that they will be waiting for her return.



Feng Min's eyelids slide shut just as soon as she's opened them; the fluorescent lights are hurting her eyes and provoking a lingering headache.

Her body is sore. It's not just her left arm and shoulder any more; it's spread out to her entire back and down her legs and into her other arm, still finding new ways to hurt her. She gurgles out something like a whimper, unable to help herself, as she realizes the extent of it, counting pain from the top of her head to just about the bottom of her feet. Even her throat hurts. She cannot recall ever feeling so sore before. Sure, she's been subjected to all types of gruesome injuries, but never in her time in the Entity's realm has Feng Min ever experienced a morning after where she has had to feel the residual physical effects of those injuries.

Trials always ended with two things: her death or an escape, and, either way it took to get back to the campfire, she'd always be returned unscathed and made strong and whole again. She's been so very trusting in that, counting on the fact that it is guaranteed to happen after the conclusion of every violent ritual. She's never had to feel a wound start to age, when the adrenaline finally wears off and the soreness sets in. Now, she feels all of it. It's enough to bring tears to her straining eyes. She takes a minute to collect herself before she gingerly rolls over onto her right side on the mattress—

Wait... mattress?

She looks up to find a tattered blue curtain hanging in front of her. Stunned by recognition, Feng Min lurches forward, reaching out to snatch it aside.

The room appears to be empty, aside from her, but it's unmistakable: she's in one of the patient rooms at Léry's Memorial Institute.

The sense of relief she feels — real, genuine relief — at being back in the Institute is not exactly reassuring, especially not with her current situation. But she's here. Again, after so long, somewhere in the wide black space between trial and campfire. It feels like forever since she'd last had a conversation with Herman. A real conversation.

How had she ended up here? The Entity? Maybe the Doctor? Had he found her in the forest and brought her inside?

Feng Min eases her legs over the side of the bed and stretches her right arm out so that she can manually extend her left, grabbing her wrist with the opposite hand. It hurts like hell, all wooden and rendered useless by sore, quivering muscles. She drops it right away and notices that her wound dressing may have been adjusted at some point; it is secure, although bloodied. She examines the red-brown stains under the buzzing lights and sees that there's nothing fresh leaking through, which seems like tentatively good news to her.

It takes her a few minutes to tie her sneakers with only one useful hand available, and while she does that, she tries to tune her mind to the static, seeing if she can sense the Doctor's presence. She can't feel anything unusual among it— it's just a broad sheet of noise. Soon, she gets to her feet and heads into the hallway, intent upon finding him.

As she walks down the hall, the colors around her seem to shift from sharp to dull, like a lens changing focus, and the scattered wall monitors swell with noise. She's still slightly faint from the blood loss, and her head hurts a little. It's hard to tell how much time has passed, or even where exactly she is inside the Institute. After walking down two nearly identical hallways and sensing no sign of the Doctor, she pauses for a break by a window to rethink her plan. When she idly looks into it, she expects only an endlessly snowy night sky, but instead she sees something strange: it's raining.

Feng Min reaches out for the rattling shutters and forces the window open the rest of the way so that she can stare out into the rain. She's never seen anything but snow around Léry's before, but there is no doubting what she sees. She extends her working arm out and feels it splashing onto her palm. It's real enough— at least as much as the snow was. Withdrawing, she pushes the shutters closed again and notes how the rain's soft droning blends seamlessly with the static inside the Institute's abandoned halls.

Feeling uneasy, Feng Min moves away from the window, and, eventually, her aimless feet carry her to the treatment theater, a part of the facility that still truly frightens her. The televisions mounted there in some dystopian vision of voyeurism are running the usual visuals and sounds— the distorted screams, the glitching laughter. Even now, with no generator in sight and no survivor to distract with the bombardment of distressing images. Who are they playing for?

Disturbed, she climbs up to the observation deck and heads over to the control panel. She knows there has to be a way to turn them off, some kind of obvious failsafe. She begins pulling switches with her good arm, listening and watching for their effects. Many of them don't do anything at all, presumably because the associated machinery or function could no longer work, while other buttons control various lights in the treatment theater, which shut off one by one in response to her experimentations.

Feng Min reaches for a small silver switch, one with the paint rubbed away all around it, and finally finds what she's looking for: this one shuts the monitors off, and, with it, the heart-wrenching, mind-scrambling noises. The silence is absolute. She allows herself a little sigh of relief—

[ You're awake. ]

— and gasps as the sudden voice in her head draws her eyes immediately to its source: the Doctor, standing right on the platform below the deck, looking up at her. His approach had been so silent, she hadn't noticed a thing.

"Yes," she whispers, and then she feels very dizzy, her knees threatening to drop her right where she's standing. "It's you."

Although she'd been trying so hard to return to the Institute, even before she'd gone and run from the other survivors, Feng Min realizes that she hadn't really thought about what she would do or even feel once she actually did.

The Doctor has his long black coat on, and without the light of the screens to help, he's lit up only from beneath the grate, which throws his silhouette into relief and causes him to cast an imposing shadow on the opposing wall. His face leers at her in its familiar and menacing way, one eye bulging wildly like a laser sight in the darkness, the other stapled shut. The punishment stick hangs inert from his side, holstered on his belt. He looks as intimidating as ever, this man-turned-monster she'd hoped so badly to reunite with without ever truly asking herself why.

Herman tilts his head at her, as though questioning her stunned silence.

[ It isn't a good idea for you to be up and moving around, ] he says, and then he slips out of her sight. Feng Min leans into the control panel, trying to watch for his movements. The electricity comes rippling across the platform floor towards her shoes before she hears his steady footsteps on the stairs.

Herman emerges on the upper deck and approaches to help her upright, and it takes putting her hand against his rough forearm for Feng Min to accept that he is not a hallucination after all.

It feels like it's been a very long time. Feng Min's existence in the Entity's realm has been marked by gaps and leaps and pauses, stretches of time that seem to either extend for eternities or pass by in a single breath. Maybe she'd last encountered him in that trial yesterday. Or maybe it was more like months ago. But words like those — days, months, years — don't mean anything here. They never did.

Feng Min leans into his side, even after she's gotten her bearings. Herman stands there and lets her, but he drops his arm. [ You should resume your rest. You're not in the best condition. But that begs the question... ] He moves back to stare at her face, but then his twitching eyeball flicks to her shoulder, and he lifts a finger to point at it. [ Is this wound not from a sacrificial hook? ]

She looks down at it, too. Of course he'd recognize it. She guesses Herman has probably performed hundreds or thousands or maybe millions of sacrifices for the Entity.

"Yeah," she says, reaching up with her right hand to cover the bandaged wound. "I... I came back injured from the last trial. The Wraith got me on a hook, and we left through the hatch, but... I was still like this. Jake, too." The torn muscle and flesh throbs, and she realizes belatedly that she's sweating from the effort of coping with the pain. She must look like a total fucking mess, all pale and shaky. "I don't know why." She moves her hand and sees that a dark stain has begun to wetly bloom again through the cotton, and she covers it again before he notices.

[ Mm... Interesting. ] Feng Min can practically hear the maybe-literal gears turning in his head.

"But that's not why I'm here." She pauses. She doesn't really know why she's here. It was terror that had driven her into the forest. A reaction of pure fear. She'd felt afraid of the other survivors, of the threat of everything falling apart— so afraid that she'd run away from it like she'd fled from the fallout of every other stupid fucking mistake she'd ever made in her life.

Something inside of her tells her that she still has many more mistakes to make yet.

Herman steps away from her to turn towards the control panel. He flips the switch that powers the monitors back on, but this time, they blare nothing but static. He stares out at them, like there's something there to see. [ I did find you at the front doors. ]

The last thing Feng Min remembers is passing out just as she realized that she'd actually managed to find Léry's Memorial Institute while wandering the fog, panic-stricken and bleeding out. "I guess I lucked out with the cameras," she says.

[ Cameras? No. ] Herman looks over his shoulder down at her. [ I heard you call for me. ]

Surprised, Feng Min's mouth drops slightly, before she utters a belated, "What?"

[ Do you think that I would fail to notice your presence? ] He turns a key in the center of the control panel, causing the lights to flicker on all across it, and then tugs it free to drop it into his pocket before facing back towards her. [ Call it a disturbance in the Force. ]

It takes a moment for her brain to place the reference, and once she recognizes it, she begins laughing, startled. "Wait. Star Wars?" The deep breath she has to take after that sends a sharp pain throughout her shoulder and arm, and she sucks back a gasp, just barely managing to keep her smile from turning into a wince. "You really are just a geek, aren't you?"

[ Oh, it's been a long time since I've been called that, ] says Herman, laughing in his chest as his voice, lilting with amusement, leaks into her head.

"I mean, it takes one to know one." Feng Min carefully kneads her palm against her shoulder, trying to quell the pain. "Remember that I once made a living playing video games."

[ Yes, ] notes the Doctor. [ That incredible talent of yours that you threw away. ]

That kills her mood immediately. Her face falls. "It's too late to cry over it."

[ Is it? ] he responds, but the question seems to be rhetorical, because he just continues talking. [ Tell me why you came here, if it wasn't for my help. ]

"I..." Feng Min trails off. "I mean, I guess it was." She looks down at her shoes. "For your help. I don't know. I wasn't... I wasn't really trying to find y— the Institute. I mean, I... I was. For a while. It just wasn't on purpose this time. But mostly, I... I'm upset with you," she says, too tired to stop herself from just outright saying it. "There are so many questions I..." She clenches her hands into fists at her sides and stares up at him.

[ I know. ]

When he doesn't continue or offer any insight, her troubled thoughts land on one question. "Why did you let me go last time? You... you can't do that. It's not what we agreed on. And it's not..."

[ You would be surprised at what I can and can't do. ] There it is again— that familiarly condescending tone. Feng Min had actually missed hearing it. He wheezes as he continues, [ Haven't you noticed anything odd lately? ]

This last question seems like a pivot, and she has to really think about it, wary of what he means, wary of telling him what she suspects. But...

Feng Min stares at the Doctor and wonders if he'd chosen to read her mind while she was passed out. It wouldn't have been difficult for him to mine her memories in her sleep; he has done it before, after all. Does he know just how close she'd come to the other survivors learning about her covert meetings with one of the Entity's most reviled killers?

Feng Min takes a shuddering breath, trying not to think about the others, or what they're saying or thinking about her right now. "Yeah. There were three of us in that trial. And... with the Wraith, and my shoulder... I just have a feeling that these things that are happening are my fault."

Maybe it's all connected: herself, Herman, the unusual things that have happened in trials lately. Saying it out loud — my fault — makes it seem so much more obvious. She's been doing something that a survivor just isn't supposed to do. She'd come to this unbelievable and strange agreement with one of the Entity's servants, and she'd kept pushing it for far longer than she ever should have, way beyond the boundaries she'd first intended to maintain.

Feng Min knows that she can't expect the other survivors to accept her story. She knows that they won't and can't understand what she knows: that the Doctor has his own force of will, and that it seems — she thinks — more and more that it does not entirely or even mostly align with the Entity's. But nothing she can say will persuade the others of that. Not when she's spent so much time in secret, hiding things from them all. Not when Herman isn't even capable of speaking to them for himself.

[ Obviously. ] The Doctor disrupts her thoughts with an answer she hadn't expected at all. He doesn't seem to be very concerned by it, either.

"Isn't that a bad thing?" she asks him, her voice wary as she tries to carefully stretch out her aching left arm.

When his laughter pierces into the air — not in her head but in her ears — Feng Min jumps at how sudden it is in the otherwise silent treatment theater. It winds forward then backwards, hahaha then ahahah, sounding like it's gotten stuck on a loop. The sound sends a chill down her spine, and she bristles, shaking her head hard.

"Please," she interjects sharply. "Just. Don't make this into another riddle. I'm... I'm sick of them. I want you to just be honest with me." It's a pretty hypocritical thing to ask for, with the way she'd run away from Jake and the others' questions. But how can she ever respond to them if she doesn't get the answers from Herman first?

The laughter stops. When his voice slips back into her brain, it is not mollified, but it is dead calm, and he does not address her statement. [ Your wound, ] he points out, having noticed the fresh blood seeping through the bandages. [ It needs attending to. ]

"Yeah," she mutters, clutching at it. "But don't change the subject."

[ Come, ] says Herman, offering her his arm once more. Feng Min wants to say, My legs work just fine, but, truth be told, she feels the pain all over, like she's been hit by a car, so she hooks her good arm into the crook of his elbow and leans into him as he helps her down the stairs of the observation deck. As they reach the bottom, he says, [ Maybe you'd like to use one of those? ]

He is motioning at a wheelchair that appears to have been abandoned in the middle of the hallway. It's got poorly aligned wheels, rusted spokes, and a dark stain on the back of the seat. Feng Min looks at it and then shakes her head no.

[ You'll walk? ] He tilts his head at her.

The blood flowing from her shoulder has begun to streak down her arm inside of her shirt. It's a gross, sticky feeling, and it's making her lightheaded again. She looks at his open palms turned towards her, and asks, with a slightly self-conscious duck of her head, "Can't you just carry me? It's... it's not like it's hard for you." She's willing to take another bumpy ride on a killer's shoulder if it means giving her screaming muscles a break.

Herman laughs again, but it's not his usual frenetic rattle. [ Fine. ] He has to really lean over — almost kneel — to get low enough to scoop an arm under her knees, defying her expectation that he would just toss her over his shoulder. Feng Min slides her good arm around his neck to stabilize herself, reminded of what it felt like to pick up and hold her parents' cat as he pulls her to his chest. She feels somewhat silly once he's actually picked her up, but he has no remark for her clouded expression, nor for the way she is bleeding freely onto his coat.

She's still not fully familiar with how to navigate the halls of the Institute — usually, she just wanders, waiting to find something, the way she and the other survivors do out in the fog when they're trying to scavenge for supplies — but Herman proceeds with a real sense of purpose. Each of his long strides sends an unpleasant shock of pain through her shoulder, which she tries to ignore along with the literal shocks numbing her fingers where they're pressed up behind his neck.

In the ensuing silence, Feng Min's thoughts return to the things that have been weighing her heart and mind down. She knows that she can't leave the Institute without getting some major answers this time, because she doesn't know when she'll next have a chance to return. Once she formulates a question in her head, she chooses to keep her head low, chin to her chest, instead of speaking up into his face.

"When I told you that I thought the weird shit happening in trials was my fault, you said it was obvious. Why?"

It takes a moment, and Feng Min thinks he's not going to answer at first, but then he does, his tone shifting thoughtful beneath the buzzing layer of static in her brain. [ The Entity may be its own sort of god, but it is not perfect. Nothing is. I'm sure you've noticed the way it changes constantly in a manner that cannot be predicted. How its landscape cannot be fully charted. ]

Although she tries, Feng Min can't follow his train of thought. "What do you mean? What does that have to do with me not being healed after a trial?"

Herman delays his answer again, mouth twitching around his stutter-stop breathing.

[ I don't think I can explain it to you properly if I don't tell you about my research first, ] he says finally.

His research. Oh. Feng Min still doesn't know much about it. She knows that the CIA had been supporting his studies— funding his experimentations. The sheer size of the Institute, a complex that she now understands to be a government facility, makes her think they had plenty of resources to spare for that purpose. But that's about the extent of what she knows— the how and why of his research are still unknowns to her. She can only recall sights and sounds of the inhumane cruelty she had discovered and been exposed to; she cannot divine a purpose.

"Do you want to tell me about your research?" Feng Min looks up at him, into his glowing red eye casting burning highlights on her face. "I mean, isn't it top-secret CIA stuff?"

[ I strongly doubt that the non-disclosure agreement I signed upon my recruitment remains valid here, ] says Herman, and then he laughs at his own joke. [ 'Top-secret CIA stuff' or not. ] A pause. [ Also, anyone who would actually care about such a breach is now dead. ]

Feng Min nibbles at her lip so that she doesn't have to wonder whether or not he's still joking; mostly, she just feels anxious and confused about everything, and newly nauseous from the pain in her shoulder. "Well, okay. But do you actually want to tell me about it?"

Herman's tone turns disdainful; at least, that's what Feng Min thinks it sounds like, but his words are phrased in a disappointed manner. [ Really, Feng Min? Do you believe that I'm just humoring you, at this point? How boring that would be for me. I am trying to teach you things. Things no survivor ought to have any right to know. You wouldn't still be here in my territory, otherwise. Pay attention. ]

As soon as he says it, she feels ridiculous for not realizing it sooner. After he'd told her to leave him alone, he'd still acquiesced when she'd pushed it. He'd gone out of his way to find her out in the fog. He'd shown her the dead zones— and a part of the barrier. He's been trying to teach her things. Things beyond their initial agreement. It's a startling thought, one that's difficult to wrap her head around.

It's so opposed to everything she knows about the Entity's killers— even everything she knows about Herman Carter.

"Why?" she asks, even though she has a feeling she's already supposed to know. She's staring at the knot on his tie, right below the place where the cannula disappears past his collar.

The static floods in to fill the silence that follows her question. It parts only when Herman chooses to speak again.

[ You told me that you felt you had to be at the Institute. With me. But you did not know why yet. ] His twitching eye is staring straight ahead.

"Yeah," Feng Min murmurs. "And I said you knew it, too."

[ There is your answer, ] he says simply.

The fact that Herman has laid his cards on the table without any hesitation or riddle or pretense — for once — renders Feng Min speechless.

"Oh," she breathes, and then she falls silent, but she has to curl her right hand into a fist so that it doesn't tremble. She'd known it, in her heart, just like she'd known about the static's very precise sense of purpose— the way it always seemed to guide her back here, to the Institute, to Herman. She'd known that he must have felt it, too. Even when he said otherwise. Especially when he said otherwise. She'd made the choice to trust him, despite it.

Feng Min presses her cheek to Herman's shoulder. She hopes she's not imagining it when his grip tightens subtly on her in return.

As he walks her back towards the recovery ward she'd woken up in, she recalls the other survivors' reactions to the tapes in her backpack. The mistrust and wariness in their eyes, and how afraid it had made her feel. Now, Feng Min realizes the real reason it had made her feel so afraid, why it had made her panic and bolt away even in a badly injured state, the others screaming after her: subconsciously, she wanted to protect what she had with Herman. What she has with Herman.

The sudden awareness of this fact — all the things it could mean, most of which she doesn't even want to think about — makes Feng Min feel sick.

[ Here. ]

Herman speaks again out of nowhere, his demeanor having not changed at all over the past few minutes. He directs her towards the bed she'd woken upon before, leaning down to help her onto the beaten-up mattress.

Feng Min shifts around to get comfortable. As she lets go of the Doctor, a little spark zaps her left arm, but she barely feels it, given how much it already hurts. She tries to stretch it out again, but she can't get it to fully extend any more. She's starting to feel, with no small amount of regret, that she'd probably be better off just dying than trying to heal this particular injury.

Herman's opening a cabinet below a series of backlit x-ray images. Feng Min watches him for a bit, and then she tries to pick the conversation back up. "What do I need to know about your research?"

The Doctor goes, hmmnn, out loud, from his throat, and then continues in her head: [ I'll answer your questions so that you can draw your own conclusions. Is that fair? ]

"Fine," says Feng Min, ready to agree to almost any condition to finally get some straight answers. "Then just start from the beginning."

[ This place... Léry's Memorial Institute. You already know that it was a clandestine black site of the Central Intelligence Agency. ] Herman doesn't wait for her confirmation before continuing. [ When I was recruited, I was quite young. I did not truly grasp the enormity of the prospect laid before me. At that point in my life, I had been struggling. ] Herman pauses. [ I saw it as the only chance I might have to gain access to the education I needed to pursue my goals. At the time, curing diseases was the only thing I sought to do with my knowledge. It was what I was promised. ]

"Right," says Feng Min softly, carefully carding through the foreign memories she still has echoing in her head. She remembers humble origins and few resources. A life hard-lived, opportunities few and hard-won. Hope and ambition and... naïvety. Naïvety that allowed him to be taken advantage of. A lot like she used to be, really.

[ It didn't take long for me to learn the true nature of the work at the Institute. I had my reservations. But... when you are told that what you are doing is for the good of the country... for the good of your fellow man... ] Herman turns towards her. [ I thought electrostimulation could be used therapeutically. That it could render prisoners agreeable. My mentor wanted more, and told me to think bigger. ]

He's pulled a roll of bandages out from the cabinet, as well as a white bottle which Feng Min guesses must be antiseptic. She takes this as a cue, and she reaches to very carefully begin peeling the blood-soaked wrapping off of her shoulder. Each little tug hurts. "Your mentor... Otto Stamper, right?" she asks as she works the loose end of the bandage over and under her armpit.

Herman watches her as he continues. [ Oh, he was a brilliant old bastard. Not half as intelligent as me, mind you, but he'd earned his rank. Took everything far too seriously for my tastes. You could never tell that man a joke; he had absolutely no sense of humor. But he never denied any of my research proposals. And he held the checkbook. Until I did. ] There's an amused sort of lilt in the Doctor's voice, like he's recalling a fond memory.

"He told you to... push the limits. Like there weren't any rules to follow... or laws.." She strains to remember. "It felt like he was using you."

[ He certainly thought he was. ] There's an satisfied edge to that statement. [ Electroconvulsive therapy was not complex or interesting to me. Not at first. It is simple to induce pain with it. Anyone could do it— you just need to know the right settings. ] He hums somewhere in his chest, rocking back on his heels. [ I was adept at achieving satisfying results. As an interrogative tool, pain is fairly persuasive... but it's hardly accurate. You can never guarantee that it will solicit the whole truth. ]

Herman is standing cross-armed in front of the bed, watching as the bandages puddle into a red-soaked pile on Feng Min's lap. She's trying hard not to do too much visualizing of everything he's describing, struggling to reconcile the monstrous man standing in front of her with the human life he had lived, the one her instincts keep reaching back to. "Because people can still lie even under duress, right?"

[ Yes. I could put my subjects through an incredible amount of pain, but it was never enough to guarantee the answers I sought— not for an interrogative purpose, and not for my research, either. So I began experimenting with voltage. With direct and indirect contact. With low and high stimulus. I visited all possibilities. I was meticulous with my work, oh, to the point of madness. It was a madness I threw myself into. There was so much to learn in the chaos. I wanted to pick it all apart. I had so much to prove; the more I knew, the more I needed to know. You see, when you are dealing with the human brain, the smallest change can... break it. But I did not want to just break my patients. A broken brain will not yield information. ]

He stops at the height of his growing rant, all at once, and she sees that his dully glowing eye is cast into a time long ago. His wheezy, heaving breaths don't miss a beat.

[ I wasn't certain what sort of result I was looking for until I actually found it. ] He refocuses upon her as Feng Min pulls the last of the bandages free. Her shirt is crusted in blood all around the shoulder, armpit, and chest, the flesh all shredded up, and it hurts just as bad as it looks.

"Fuck," she mutters as she looks at it, amazed that the blood loss hadn't killed her out in the forest— or even back at the campfire.

Herman pauses his story as he leans over her to stare at the injury. [ We'll need to clean it, ] he says.

Feng Min looks at him, and then down at the wound. He's right. The blood's so dark on her white-and-red shirt that it almost looks black where it's been saturated the most. But, with a laborious effort to shrug her shoulders, she points out, "I can't just get my arm out of my shirt. I can barely move it."

The Doctor turns towards the tray table next to the bed and picks up a pair of scissors, and he reaches towards her with them immediately, causing her to yelp and inch back.

"Wait!" she blurts. "What are you—"

[ To get your arm out of your shirt, ] Herman says, looking at her like he can't believe she'd have the nerve to move away from a pair of scissors going right towards her face.

"But I like this shirt," says Feng Min, alarmed, looking down at the colorful little coffee cup design. It's another reminder of home manifested by the Entity. She remembers it as a lounging and relaxing kind of shirt, the kind she'd throw on for early-morning coffee and e-mail checks; here, its more useful function is to insulate. There aren't a lot of clothes among the survivors' stash that fit her well, and few things she can call her own. "I don't think I'll get another one if I can't take it back with me to the campfire."

[ Oh. Pardon me. I didn't consider how important fashion can be in this living Hell. ]

Feng Min glares up at him. "You've shown up at trials in a suit vest."

Herman begins laughing. [ I have, haven't I...? You've got me there. At least I match my ties. ]

She lets herself relax enough to smile a little, too, the corners of her mouth twitching up. "I guess I should get it off..." Sighing, she looks down again at her irreparably bloodstained shirt. "Do you have anything else I can wear?"

[ If you don't mind the inmate uniform, ] he says. He takes her question as permission and reaches out to cut a slit down the shoulder of her shirt, halfway to the elbow. Once he does that, Feng Min reaches up to peel the fabric away from the wound to expose it, hissing as it rips free of barely-dried scabs, leaving little red and white fibers sticking behind. Blood begins welling freshly at the ragged entry site, right below her collarbone and above her armpit; it doesn't exactly smell great, either— like stale meat. Feng Min turns her face away from having to acknowledge it.

As Herman soaks a length of cotton in the alcohol, Feng Min asks, keen on distracting herself from what she is certain will be an extremely painful process, "So what was the result you found? Through your research?"

The Doctor hums in assent. [ Eventually, I found that I could push my patients beyond the threshold of ordinary pain. There would come a point where they would actually stop their protesting and their screaming, even though they surely felt it. They simply existed with it to the point of total catatonia. Transcending pain in this way allowed for a state of extreme suggestibility. ] He reaches towards her with the cloth, and Feng Min props her arm up on the bed rail so that she doesn't flinch too hard at what's coming. [ As I continued to develop my theories, I began to think that I needed to feel it to understand it. I had to know what my patients felt to understand exactly what it meant to render the human mind vulnerable. To strengthen my own mind, I had to expand my knowledge, and so with it my power. ]

Herman presses the wet cloth to the wound, and Feng Min jolts, a whimper bursting hard and heavy out of her chest, making her lose her breath. It stings so bad that he might as well have thrown a handful of salt into the wound. She rocks in place, on the edge of blacking out, and squeezes her eyes shut. "Give me a minute," she says, counting out the seconds as the initial lash of pain begins to fade slightly, from flame-hot to ebbing embers.

[ If it hurts, you should express it, ] says Herman, his clinical tone soon betraying his mirth. [ I do enjoy the sound of your screaming. ]

Feng Min stares up at him from under her bangs, scowling. "Every time I start to think that you must not be all that weird, you say something to remind me that you totally, definitely are." She steadies her breath; the pain is still there, but it's mostly mitigated. He's a very effective distraction. "You experimented on yourself?"

He nods as he uses the cloth to soak up the blood; the white fabric quickly begins blooming into pinks. [ My reasoning was sound, but it was a fool's decision. I wanted to learn what my patients were feeling. But, instead, I believe I broke something. I began to hear noise. ]

"Noise?"

[ I can recognize it now as the whispers. At the time...? No, of course not. ]

Herman doesn't need to explain that one. Noise. Whispers. The Entity. The thing she can hear every time she closes her eyes. Now, several of the things Feng Min has gleaned from Herman's memories are starting to make sense, coming together in her head like the scene of a tapestry.

[ I noticed something strange immediately. I thought that I had done irreparable damage to my brain, and... in a way, I suppose I had. ] Herman pulls back to rinse the cloth with more alcohol. Feng Min's wound is stinging in the open air; it's taking a lot of patience not to reach up to pick or rub at it. [ But when I could hear the whispers... ]

She waits for him to continue.

[ When I heard the whispers, I could receive insights about the world around me and the people within it. It wasn't much, at first. It began like a stronger sense of intuition: I became attuned to when someone would be resistant, and when they would not, and adjust my formula accordingly. I could tell when someone was hiding something— when there was more to dig for. Eventually, I began to catch pieces of their thoughts. The whispers allowed me an empathic knowledge of my patients; I could hear them, and I used that to perfect my techniques. I felt that I had uncovered the key to unleashing latent psychic ability in humans. That I could awaken the human brain to a higher consciousness, and I would be the first one to ascend and to lead. And so Project Awakening took form. ]

It's the first time Feng Min has heard that name, but it's what Herman says about the whispers that disturbs her most— the way he's talking about it so mechanically, as though cross-dimensional contact with an immortal, ravenous, ritual-obsessed death god was simply something to be expected in his line of work.

Herman nudges her, and Feng Min turns her body slightly on the bed so that he can get to the entry wound at the back of her shoulder. The pain starts anew when a fresh wet cloth presses in, making her breaths hitch. She feels his hands go still, and he doesn't resume cleaning until her breathing steadies.

[ The human brain has incredible potential, Feng Min. It's a beautifully evolved structure. Complex and miraculous. There's still so much we don't know about it. So much that even I do not know. ] There's a sort of awe in his voice. [ But... there are some truths that cannot and should not be understood. I never considered that the whispers had their own intentions. When I realized that I was being spoken to — directed — my mind had already become as vulnerable as my patients'. ] Herman's fingertips are warm against her wound, even through the cloth. [ By the time I felt I had found the answer, my fate had already been decided. ]

Feng Min closes her eyes and takes deep breaths through the pain as he cleans the wound out. His touch is surprisingly gentle, perhaps to compensate for the fact that a low current remains buzzing through his fingertips, and she wonders what he might have been like as a real doctor, if only the CIA hadn't intervened in the path of his life. If he could have cured diseases the way he once wanted to.

Herman has gone silent, making her realize that he's come to the conclusion of what he'd wanted to say for now.

She considers his memories within their contexts now. The whispers. The experiments, always so horrifically and unforgivably inhumane. More than once, he'd told her that he had welcomed the Entity's voice when it had come, but Feng Min is beginning to wonder: just how much responsibility does Herman bear, if it had been speaking to him so directly? Where is the line? When had he stopped being human? Was it before or after hearing the Entity's whispers for the first time? Does it really matter what the answer is when the truth is all grey, never black or white?

She's come to realize that, in choosing to trust him, she must accept that Herman is — in some way — a prisoner of the Entity, exactly the same as her. He is shackled to his fate of violence just as she is shackled to her fate of suffering— patterns that continued from their waking lives straight into the Black Fog. It all feels so purposeful, the way it links together and makes so much sense. This frightening truth is difficult to manage against the very real fears that come with it— about the other survivors, about the anomalies that have been happening around her, about the Entity itself.

But, although it is undeniably frightening, Feng Min can't conceive of not trusting him, at this point. The feelings that she has developed for Herman Carter are more than just empathy. They're personal. The thought is drenched in despair, making her emotions reel more violently than even the pain does.

With the disinfecting finally done — Feng Min looks into the cart and sees that a great amount of reddish-pink water has pooled in the tray — Herman begins to pack the wound with gauze. By now the alcohol and discomfort, as well as his electrified touch, have numbed the area enough that it's starting to grow more tolerable. It allows clearer thoughts — and questions — to surface.

"Herman?" she asks softly. "How did the Institute come to be destroyed?"

Behind her, he is using a pair of tweezers to place and tamp down the gauze. [ I felt that I could finally prove my theory. It told me what I had to do to reach the culmination of my life's purpose, and I was compelled to... so I readily did it. ]

This seemingly unrelated anecdote seems to be all that he is willing to supply. Feng Min just nods and waits for him to continue.

[ The Entity has punished me in many ways. It has taken much of my memories. It has limited my abilities. It has remade my flesh. But none of these are its worst punishment. ]

Feng Min looks up over her shoulder at him. Herman looks back at her, all bared teeth and glittering light. Not long ago, she'd asked him what he was being punished for, and he'd laughed it off, refusing to answer.

[ Its worst punishment was the gift of clarity. It allowed me finally to see myself as I really was. All of the years I had burned away in my pursuit of power. The goals I had lost sight of. The stranger I used to be. The thing I had become. ] Herman reaches for the bandages and begins to re-wrap the wound— steady hands, working over and under. [ It was enough to drive a man mad all over again. And sometimes... ] He trails off. [ Sometimes, I think about it and have to laugh. ]

He doesn't.

Feng Min turns towards him. Her shoulder has started to feel slightly better. The sterile smell of alcohol is at least a lot more pleasant than the smell of blood. "What did you learn about it...? The Entity?"

[ In my former life? Only in retrospect can I make sense of what I learned. I know now that it is reliant on human memory and emotion. That it seems to need it. And that it will change and adapt in response to it. ] Herman secures the bandage over her shoulder with a carefully placed pin. [ It's what it has been doing to you. ]

"I... oh," says Feng Min, absorbing that. "I... I thought that... You let me go, that one time, and before that, you showed me more of the nightmare... so I've been afraid that we... that I've been angering it. The Entity."

[ That's possible. ] Herman stands, crossing the room to dispose of the bloodstained bandages in a sink.

"You don't sound very worried about it."

[ Because I'm not. ] Herman doesn't offer anything else, helpful or not.

Feng Min thinks again about what he'd said about drawing her own conclusions. About the nightmare being reliant on memory and emotion. She thinks, also, of the campfire, and of the last thing she'd seen: the cassette tapes tumbling into the flames.

"So, then... that isn't enough to really anger the Entity. It's just... sort of reacting to me. To you." Feng Min looks up into Herman's face to be sure that she's going in the right direction, and when he doesn't interrupt, she continues. "But then... can the Entity be influenced to react? On purpose?"

He's immediately pleased, judging by the way his brow jumps up, and he sounds it, too. [ Yes, ] he says. He's come back over to her bedside, and he's dragging a chair with him across the floor, which he sets down and sits in. He puts his arms on the bed rail and leans in, staring at her intensely. Just staring. As if waiting.

Feng Min feels that what she says next will be important.

"And that's..." she trails off, her voice lilting in wonder. "That's what you've been studying here in the nightmare, isn't it? Your 'other research.' That's what you're studying."

Herman makes a satisfied sound in the back of his throat. [ Yes, ] he says again, seemingly enjoying watching the dominoes fall in her head.

And fall they do, one after the other, lighting up the answers in her mind. Feng Min is feeling a tentatively renewed sense of meaning. Something else to focus on. Something else to drive towards.

Impulsively, she reaches out with her good hand and grabs for Herman's where it rests on the bed rail. He lets her take it. "You think there could be a way out of the nightmare, don't you? That's what the research is for."

[ Of course, ] says Herman, and his bared teeth have never looked more like a smile. [ You've been a dutiful student, after all. ]

Speechless, she just sits there, staring at him. Out of the nightmare. Out of the nightmare. Is it possible? Can it be possible? The Entity would surely never allow for it— not purposely. To manipulate the Entity into such a thing would take a degree of planning and understanding beyond any of the survivors' knowledge, or even beyond the killers'. But... if anyone could do it, she thinks, it has to be Dr. Herman Carter, one of the most brilliant minds she has ever encountered. Maybe the most brilliant mind she will ever encounter.

"Let me help you," she says finally.

[ Think carefully about it, ] Herman says with such undisguised seriousness that it makes a knot form in her throat. She squeezes his hand, and they sit there for a few seconds, staring at each other, before Feng Min turns away, gripped suddenly by a feeling she cannot define.

She has a million questions about everything— about what it all means and the details of what he's been studying and how she could help him with it and whether or not she even could. But it's also a lot to think about, and she doesn't think she's in a state to approach it yet. He's right; she does need to rest.

Feng Min finds herself looking down at his hands again. The glowing red tendons. The little wires intersecting under the rough, patchwork skin. She turns his hand over and spreads his fingers out to examine his palm. There are no wires there, but nothing else beneath the rough texture, either. She can't even make out his lifeline.

"You could have been a healer," she says.

A little glow begins to form between Herman's splayed fingers, but when the lashes of electricity come up against her own hand, they only cause a faint numb feeling on her skin, little prickling darts of harmless energy.

[ These hands will never heal, ] he says to her, his open eye fixed on her face.

"They just did," she murmurs. The contact with his warm skin is making the pain in her shoulder more bearable— it's numbing out the muscles up her left arm, making them slacken. She notices, too, then, that the static — in her head, in the room, among the hospital grounds, and most of all coming straight from him — is moving over and around her like a blanket. "You always feel so warm."

[ That's apparently what happens when your heart functions as a generator. ]

Beneath the black coat, Herman is wearing a button-up shirt and tie, like he usually does. Feng Min stares at his broad chest before she reaches out, unable to resist the impulse, to press her palm left of center on his chest, and notes immediately how hot he is right there, over his heart. He does not move away as she absorbs the warmth with her hand. A generator, she thinks, wondering if perhaps he meant it literally. She can feel the heat radiating out of him in waves, and, even more curiously beneath it— a deep, bone-vibrating hum stemming from the center of his body, detectable even through his coat and shirt.

In the darkness, she can make out the dullest hint of a glow through the fabric, a dull, shimmering swath of luminescence she might have mistaken for the static, if she were in a less focused state. She stares at it to make sure that she's not just seeing things. It's definitely real.

"I... I want to see it." She jerks her chin up, looking at him. "Underneath."

Hearing nothing in her head, and seeing no twitch or change on his frozen face, Feng Min reaches for his tie with a determined expression. There is no hesitation; it's not hard to make herself do it. That in itself is an anomaly. Once — it feels like a long time ago, even if it wasn't at all — she'd had to get heavily intoxicated just to get herself to touch another person, just to give herself the courage to even fucking do it when she didn't really want to, and she'd forced herself to do it night after night, anyway. Now, she's stone cold sober and terrified, hardly believing what she's doing, but she knows what she wants to do, and Herman does nothing to stop her as she tugs the tie loose with her right hand, easing the knot down.

[ Feng Min... ] he begins, and his voice sounds both distorted and distant in her head.

"Please," she whispers.

Even with her sitting up on the bed, Herman is still taller in his chair. When she doesn't stop trying to pull the tie free, he reaches to grab her by the wrist. [ Think clearly about what you are doing, ] he warns. It is not a threatening warning. She thinks she senses a real thread of concern in it, the same kind he used on her when calling her troubled and sick.

Feng Min flexes her fingers and tries to wiggle her wrist out of his grasp. There's a sense of shame in her— a deep shame, broaching wild, existential panic. But there's also a sense of exhilarating relief that comes with the guilt, of finally letting go of a burden. Catharsis at caving to this complex feeling inside of her that she still doesn't know how — is too scared — to name.

"I'm thinking more clearly than I have in years," she says in a quivering voice, and somehow it's the complete truth even though she's not certain of anything at all.

Herman just tilts his head towards her, shuddering out several heaving, agonized breaths. She studies his face, trying to read into his gaze. Into the smallest flicker of muscle. The wide grin on his face twitches, teeth clacking together, breathless gasps still rattling around in his chest like loose dice. For a moment, she thinks he might start laughing at her, but something in him seems to collapse, and then he says, [ You wouldn't lie to me, would you? ]

"No."

His hands are moving— she hears a click, then a thud, and sees that he's lowered the bed rail so he can lean in towards her more. Not wasting another moment, she pulls the tie free by undoing the knot, pulling the loose end from his collar before letting it drop. The silk pools in a little pile on the dusty white sheets.

Herman gets up from the chair and sinks down onto the treatment bed next to her. It groans beneath the added weight of his enormous form, and she wonders if the frame can actually handle it, but once it stops creaking, the bed goes still again. Feng Min shifts forward on her knees, until she's right up against his side, eye level with about his collarbone, and he turns towards her as she reaches for the buttons on his shirt. It's easier to perform this particular task with just one hand, but her shaky fingers stretch the action out into an agonizing, tense awkwardness. One by one, she undoes the buttons, counting each one out in her head: one, two, three, four, five...

But then an astonishing thing is exposed when she gets to the sixth one and his shirt falls open. There are the wires and cables she'd expected to see, just like the ones she knew about on his arms and his neck, diving in and out of the surface of his skin like serpents, trailing down from the throat to the collarbones and over the sternum and into the pectoral muscles. Although they light up in a mesmerizing way, carrying electrical currents from one part of his body to another, they are not the main attraction. Even more surprising and unearthly a sight is the glow emanating from his chest, just left of center. It's like there's a furnace in the deepest part of his body, or maybe a star, burning so bright it glows even through the dense plate of his rib cage.

The color shifts below the surface of his skin like a swimming pool lit in the dark, sepulchral red to purple to blue. The thick wires implanted over the area, knotted in scar tissue, quiver with light.

Feng Min presses her hand against Herman's side, right below his ribs. His skin is smooth and unmarked there, touched by neither the wires nor the electricity, but it still burns to the touch, fever-bright. When she spreads her fingers apart, the glow in his chest flickers like a candle, and when she pulls her hand away, a spark jumps off of his skin, as if trying to follow her. It makes contact and stings, but doesn't hurt. With a nervous hum of laughter, she lets her fingers drift towards the strange glow she still can't tear her eyes away from.

His skin is very hot just left of the breastbone, enough that she snatches her fingertips away just as soon as she reaches the spot, startled. Herman is eyeing her reactions, his hands resting idly on his lap. There is something restrained in his manner — like she has suddenly become the faux clinician and he the mock patient sitting through the examination — that Feng Min is trying not to feel intimidated by.

"What is this?" she asks, carefully reaching out again to flatten her palm over the center of the glow. It feels like touching a warm stove.

Herman looks down at her hand on his body. [ I have a heart, if that's what you are asking. It generates voltage. ]

Feng Min closes her eyes. Her hand is starting to feel numb and heavy where it's pressed over his chest, but, soon, beneath the thrumming and twitching she feels inside of him, she feels something else, something much more natural and expected— a steady thudding. A pulsing. A very strong and persistent heartbeat. It makes her hold her breath, just feeling it for several intervals.

She grows dizzy and drops her hand, not knowing what emotion has just gripped her.

[ You look troubled. ] There's that familiar word again. He moves as if to put a stop to things, his large hand reaching to cover hers, but Feng Min just shakes her head quickly.

"No. I... I just wondered." She reaches out for his arm, and although he gives her a wary twitch of his brow, he doesn't stop her when she moves closer. "If you had one." She slips a knee over his thigh — it's big enough to ride like a saddle all by itself — and when he seems to tolerate that, Feng Min shifts her other leg to set her weight into his lap, between his knees. There's a generous amount of room for her there, and she drags her hand down from his chest towards his stomach. There is a battlefield of further scar tissue there, skin melted and re-solidified into painful, stretched shapes. "And now I know."

The glow in his chest now lights her shirt up in its ragged and bloodied condition. The newly applied bandages seem to be holding just fine, still unstained and white over the wound, but there's dried blood and dirt and god-knows-what stuck to her skin all around the area. She can't imagine she looks very appealing to the average person. But Herman Carter is not the average person; she senses that he does not mind any part of her in this state as his broad hands move around her and eventually come to settle on her hips. In a smooth motion, he slides them right beneath the back of her shirt, and she feels his textured fingertips pressing into the little spaces between the ridges of her spine, roaming up from her tailbone to the middle of her back and then higher, up between her shoulder blades. He drags her shirt up with his touch, and Feng Min follows the rhythm he is setting, managing to wrest her right arm free so that he can help her slide it down her left.

Herman grabs the torn garment and lets it fall off the side of the treatment bed. There's a considerable amount of blood still visible smeared all down her left side, a sickly orangey-brown color in the artificial lighting. His sweeping eye takes in the sight of her. She'd worn no bra — she'd never worn one much in the real world, managing just fine considering her less-than-average bust size, and there was even less reason to put on any chest-restricting layers now that she was in the world of the Entity — and so she is now fully exposed from the waist up. But she keeps her hand right where it is, against his stomach, and lets him stare. Now's no time to feel spooked by his gaze, is it?

Nothing comes from his mouth or into her head, but Herman's hands are still moving, slipping from around her waist to glide up her sides. She can't quite believe what is happening; there's a sort of stinging feeling his adept fingers carry as they move over her skin, and when he assertively brushes one over her right nipple, Feng Min feels a distinct jolt that immediately causes goosebumps to flare all down her stomach and arms. She catches her breath.

Herman laughs, fingers going still against the underside of her breast. [ That shouldn't have hurt. ] His hand is broad enough that she thinks he could cover her entire chest with it.

"It didn't. I was just... surprised." She tries not to look as overwhelmed as she feels, and ventures a little smirk as her fingertips dig into his stomach. "Why don't you show me what else you can do?"

[ Oh? ] Herman's rapid-fire laughter reverberates. [ Are you sure of that? ]

He takes her by the waist and then rolls her onto her back, laying her flat so suddenly it makes the room spin for a moment, reminding her of his deadly strength and his ability to apply it at will. It's a sobering refresher of the law of things. Of how easily he could choose to hurt her, now, and of how he doesn't. Not this time. When his shadow moves over her, she extends her good arm up towards him, trusting. He obliges, letting her loop it around his neck and hug him close as he settles over her. She lets her thighs come apart, and he leans into her, his hips coming flush to pin hers to the bed. He is big in a truly unwieldy way, too much for her to comfortably accommodate, and so very, very obvious pressed up against her like this.

The pressure his weight creates on her crotch makes her want to squirm back against him, or at least enough that she can bring herself roughly level with his eyes, but he's pinning her pelvis down with his mass. She can roughly make out the shape of him even through their clothing, restrained but big, just like the rest of him. He feels half-hard already, laid out against her belly, making her realize that she hadn't ever really tried visualizing just how big, before.

Herman's hands are back on her body, massaging up her stomach and over her breasts, his touch avoiding the wound. His hands leave the sensation of pins and needles in their wake, and she's not quite sure if the warmth she feels all over is because of the large amount of blood she's lost recently or genuine arousal or confusion or the continuous waves of static, a tide never-ending. But he feels good, pressing up between her legs, and for a moment she can perfectly recall just why she had spent so much time trying to run away from her problems by commodifying her body. It made it easier to forget.

But this dangerous thing she is doing — dangerous in so many ways — is eclipsed by the lonely chasm in her chest, as dark as his is bright. His solid form above her, his delayed breaths in her ear, his rough palms numbing the spots they move over. She's wanted this, even if she hadn't known it would be in this form, or in this way. She's longed to feel certain of something for so, so long, even just briefly.

And she wants him. She's been longing for him for longer than she'd realized, this strange not-quite-man, not-quite-monster. Coming to know him is been the only thing that's ever given her any real sense of purpose in this hell. Whenever she'd felt compelled to return to the hospital, to the static, it had only ever meant returning to him. Wanting to be near him, where the constant noise in her head could be at both its loudest and most silent, but always, always there.

Feng Min presses her forehead into Herman's shoulder and wraps her thighs around his hips, trying to pull him in closer. He lets her, entertaining her ineffectual weight, but his hands are moving down from her breasts to her bare stomach and then to the hem of her shorts. She closes her eyes and inhales his strange metallic scent as his fingers work the button and zipper apart. She raises her pelvis to help get them off; Herman just slips his fingers under the waistband and yanks them down. He sits up only long enough to let her kick them away.

Herman slides a hand between her legs and runs his thumb down the seam line of her tights, right over her pubic mound, causing her to groan. He breathes out a sort of half-laugh and pushes his finger inside a rip at her inner thigh. Feng Min hears the nylon splitting as he tears a hole through to the crotch. He doesn't spend much time contemplating her underwear, instead just hooking his fingers into the gusset and tugging it aside. His fingers make contact with her vulva almost immediately, stroking lightly over her with the same numbing sensation.

Feng Min vocalizes sharply the moment his fingertips locate her flushed clit and cover it. She keeps anticipating pain — some kind of intense shock in a very sensitive area — but it has yet to happen. The numbness is strange, but it doesn't hurt. Still, her heart is only accelerating, faltering between curious and afraid.

"What— what is that?" she manages to say as Herman massages her clit, making her hips twitch. The more his abrasive fingertips rub against her, the warmer they feel, and the pins and needles sensation intensifies, spreading out from the point of contact out to the rest of her.

His fingers go still. He stops and eases up a little, head rolling towards her. [ Are you alright? ]

It's a strange thing for him to ask. At least it feels that way. It's unnatural, at best, because asking things like are you alright? has never exactly been on the task list for killers. Feng Min wonders why he's even asking her. And then she wonders why she's wondering when she could just go with it.

"Yeah," she whispers, and although he's only getting her steadily more aroused, there's a sudden, intense feeling of self-hatred that overwhelms her. The selfishness of what she's doing — what she's done, what she's about to do, all the mistakes she knows she has yet to make — is undeniable. So is the internal loathing that comes along with it: once she goes this far, there won't be any coming back.

Herman is staring down at her, into her face. As though reading her thoughts, he says, [ Let's stop. ]

Feng Min shakes her head. No. It feels too late to stop. But that's just another excuse; it's that she doesn't want to stop.

"It's okay," she says softly, trying an encouraging little smile up at him. "I swear."

His permanently stuck mask of horror appears to scrutinize her for a beat longer, a laugh dying out somewhere in his chest, but when she reaches down to guide his hand back down between her thighs, he goes along with it. She shudders when his fingers press back against her, tightening her arm around his neck while he works his index finger into her, the cracked texture only making the prickling numbness that much stranger as it spreads out into the nerves inside of her.

"That's... that's good... like that," Feng Min groans when he begins moving it in and out of her slowly, inducing a series of rippling shivers throughout her whole body. A backing track in the back of her head keeps trying to remind her of how easy it would be for him to inflict grievous harm upon her in this way — and supplies her the mental visuals to go along with it — but it's becoming quieter and duller in the face of her persistence. She's slick enough that he can insert another finger into her cunt soon after the first, surprising her with how thick they feel inside of her. She curls her body upwards into it and tilts her face to look at him, watching as the electricity both flares and fades at the crown of his head.

[ Your body is so tense. ] Herman tilts his wrist and pushes his fingers in at an upward angle, making her hips jump and sending a ripple through her inner muscles that makes her clench against him. The numb feeling is spreading not just through her hips but into her gut, too, up through her intestines into her stomach and the surrounding organs. It gives her a strange, floating, preparing-for-surgery feeling. The only natural response is to forget the instinct to strain and settle, shuddering, against the mattress. His fingers begin to move easier inside of her, slipping wetly out to glide back in as he continues, [ There you go... Relax. ]

Feng Min nods as though it were a suggestion offered under hypnosis, pawing at his chest as she grinds back against his hand. The longer his fingers are inside of her, the more intense the bizarre numbing sensation gets; it's up into her ribs, her lungs, her heart, each nerve folding into it once the numbness makes contact. It's not that she can't feel what he's doing; she can feel him and more, but there's also this strange sense of being removed from her own body, like the strings tethering her mind to her physical flesh are being cut loose, one by one.

"H-hey," she starts, clawing at the back of his neck, her mouth lolling open. "I— ah—" She forgets what she'd wanted to say when Herman presses his fingers in right up to the knuckle and she feels the heat literally intensify inside of her, bursting flame-like and all too much. She taps him on the back of the left shoulder until he's looking at her again, sideways, brow lifted inquisitively.

[ I see that you're particularly sensitive here... ] His voice is languid. Arrogant, even. It's pillowed in the static in her head.

"Shut up," Feng Min groans, feeling her face grow hot. She can feel the bulge in his pants, still half-hard, digging into her thigh, and she wants to get her hands on him already. Herman's still teasing her with his finger when she reaches down to his belt to make her point. He retracts his hand, dragging wetness onto her leg, to help her, pulling open the belt and loosening it so that Feng Min can reach for the zipper on his slacks. Once she's tugged that down, she slips her hand into his pants to get a feel for him. Fuck, he's hot to the touch, very literally— a scorching heat just as concentrated as the one in the center of his chest. She presses her palm inwards, feeling out the shape of his cock, heavy and searing even through his briefs. She swallows dryly and turns her gaze downward so that she doesn't have to meet his gaze as he pulls his pants down at her urging.

It's too dim to really be able to see what she's doing — the strongest light source is the one coming through his rib cage, but it's an ambient, suffusing glow — so she feels around mostly blindly. Without the use of her left arm, it's a little awkward — he feels like a two-handed job, if she has to be honest — but she eventually gets a grip on him and frees his cock from his underwear with a tug. Once she has her hand wrapped around him, she notices something strange almost immediately. He's as big as she'd expected — how could he not be, with that enormous body of his? — which both excites and freaks her out, but it's not that which strikes her as strange. It's the texture she can make out along the length of him; they feel like supernaturally-tough veins in places she's never encountered them before. Feng Min clasps her hand around the tip carefully and squeezes, trying to visualize what she's touching.

There are something like ridges on his cock, she decides. She can feel them, hard and mostly lengthwise on the underside and certainly no part of any human anatomy that she happens to be familiar with. She cautiously runs her fingers down them, and, when she feels a responding tingle, realizes what they are.

"Wires...?"

[ They're everywhere on my body, ] Herman says, his voice altogether far too composed for a man whose most delicate organ she's got in her hand. Although, Feng Min supposes, his voice only exists in her head, so she listens instead for the real cues to his state— the tempo of his breathing and the vocalizations he's still able to produce from his throat. Those sound a lot less unruffled, each breath not quite meeting rhythm. It gives her a little boost of confidence, enough to get brazen with him.

"What'll happen if I put my mouth on it...?" she wonders aloud, feeling a little bolder with every passing second as she reaches for the head of his cock. She dares a little glance back up at his face as she meets the sensitive tip; it's just barely exposed.

He shudders, head tipping from one side and then to the other. [ Now there's an experiment... ]

Feng Min's curled fingers slide his foreskin back to expose the glans. She reaches for the smooth tip and immediately discovers a wire that seems to slip right through it, up through the head and then down underneath. When her thumb presses over it, he lets loose another shudder, and she's reminded of the sounds she's heard him make in trials when frustrated, or struck by a clever survivor's flashlight.

"Was that a good thing?" she asks, curious.

The pad of her thumb feels like she's just pressed it to a piece of ice for a minute, gone all cold and numbed-out. It doesn't stop her from doing it again, stroking the wire that emerges from the slit and feeling the prickling sensation redouble. She wishes she could get both of her hands on him instead of just the one, because the compulsion to keep touching and exploring his strange, not-quite-human body is strong.

He just nods in response to her question, head drifting, and Feng Min gets a tighter grip on him and begins stroking. He feels enormous in her hand, not even comparable to any of the partners she's been with before, but that makes sense; she's dealing with an entirely different degree of human, here. When he pushes his hips forward, she feels his cock bob up against her stomach, growing harder. She notices for the first time that the glow coming from the wires running in and out of his body has brightened, rendering him in silver-blue chiaroscuro.

"Let's..." Feng Min stops, not knowing how to say what she wants. She lets go of him and reaches for the waistband on her tights. He seems to get the message, sitting up slightly to slip her tights and underwear off the rest of the way, stripping them down her legs with confident hands and tossing them off the side of the bed to join her ruined shirt. This leaves her totally nude, apart from the bandages, which still seem to be doing their job; she hasn't started bleeding again, at least.

Herman's gaze lingers on her. It's impossible to tell where exactly he is looking.

Feng Min looks up at that single solitary eye, glowing blood-red in the dark. His face no longer makes her wince to look at.

[ You won't be able to take this back, ] he says. Warning her. She shivers.

"I know," she says, her voice low. She reaches to cup his cheek, and he throat-laughs, shoulders shaking. The laughter is not at her; it seems to be more for him. Then, louder: "I know."

Gazing up at him, Feng Min begins to really see and understand how the wires in his body all come together. He's truly a sight to behold; she doesn't understand how the man she's looking at could possibly be alive, at least not in the same way she is. She looks at the way the cables transition from his neck to his collarbone, down into his arms and into his chest, all of it integrated, a closed circuit in flesh. She can see it working before her eyes, sparks leaping from one pathway to another, through muscle and blood and copper. It's mesmerizing, moving with the same gentle tempo of the static.

[ What are you looking at? ] He glides a finger down her side, from her ribs to her hip, lighting her nerves up like little beacons.

Softly, she says, "Just... you."

Herman readjusts his position to climb above her, knees on the mattress, and Feng Min thinks his shadow alone could be enough to keep her pinned down as he steadies himself between her spread thighs, his hands moving to grip her by the hips. Each of his fingertips has the strange sensation of an electrode once more, pressing gentle but firm into her skin. When the wires running down his arms hum, so do her muscles— a tightening in the sinew, a flutter of tendons.

She's afraid. Not of pain. Not necessarily. Feng Min has become well-acquainted with pain, so it's not that. She thinks she's not really afraid of being shocked, either; she's been electrocuted before, and it's not like it could kill her, even if it killed her. It's not the physical part she's afraid of.

It's true that she can't take this back. That she'll never be able to strike any of this from memory if she comes to regret it— and the chances that she might come to regret it are immense. But she's been breaking the rules for him from the start. He'd broken the rules for her, too.

It feels like this is one of the only lines they haven't crossed yet.

Was this the point the static was trying to pull her towards? Was it inevitable? Is it her decision? His decision?

Whose decision?

His hands sink craters in the mattress on either side of her head as Feng Min looks up at him. The device at the crown of his head rains harmless little sparks down on her face.

Just flashes of light. So brief.

[ Feng Min... ] he starts.

Impulsively, she reaches up and covers his eternally-silent mouth with her right hand. She feels his teeth against her palm, but he doesn't jerk his head away; he just looks at her. His hands have slid up her thighs, stroking, making the muscles jump and tighten.

"Don't," she whispers in response to his wordless, questioning gaze. "I'm fine."

[ Then tell me what you want. ] He squeezes her right below the hips. She feels the oppressive weight of his prick against her lower abdomen again.

Feng Min groans. "You can look into my mind," she says. "You know what I want." She tips her chin up, trying to clutch at his shoulder and tug him down towards her.

Herman's hands flare hotly into her skin, gripping. [ No. Tell me. ]

"You," she says. "I want you. Right now."

Herman finally relents at these words, slipping his hands up and underneath her body with a growl to gather her in his arms. Feng Min strokes her hand over his shoulder as he adjusts his position, letting his cock slide up between her labia until the underside of him is wet. She can feel the distinct shapes of the wires in him pressing into her, too, sending numb little sensations in spirals throughout the surface of her skin. He feels hot, especially against her swollen clit, and his ragged breaths — so unnerving-sounding — have taken on a new cadence as she ruts into him, locking her legs behind his back so that she can get some leverage on the friction. It's not long before she's craving more, not satisfied with just grinding.

"Please—"

He seems to understand, making a sound like, mm, and then elaborating, in her head: [ Last chance to change your mind. ] His voice sounds clearer than usual in her mind, unfettered by the crackling distortion that typically accompanies it. His singular open eye is luminous in the dark.

"Why would I change my mind?" Feng Min asks softly. The bed creaks as she reaches up for him again, her fingers alighting carefully over the bandages wrapped all around his head, between the sharp implements sticking out of his skull. She feels a flush of electricity bubble up around her fingers, making them quiver, as she cradles his jaw. "Are you going to hurt me?"

Herman tilts his head into her hand and just stares at her. [ I don't intend to. ]

Feng Min recalls — not so long ago, or maybe forever ago — a moment where he had subtly threatened her. When she hadn't really known him, not even a little bit, and certainly not enough to have been putting herself in such a vulnerable position with one of the Entity's executioners.

Do you think you could stop me, if that's what I decide I want from you?

It had scared her deeply then. But not nearly as much as it should have.

"Come here," she whispers, hooking her inner elbow around his neck and pulling him down, until his chest is pressed to hers. He seems to be cautious of placing his weight against her, but even though her shoulder still aches, she doesn't really mind the pressure. She's barely acknowledging the pain right now. "Let's just..."

Feng Min trails off, struck suddenly by the surreal sight of him above her, light swimming beneath his skin. He's a wonder even here, in the ruins of this prison, in the dust and decay and dark. Even looking at him — at the wires that so impossibly invade his body, granting him an exoskeleton of light — she has never recognized him to be more obviously, painfully human than now. A little lucid part of her is still asking herself how she got here, and why.

"I don't know if you're going to fit," she says uneasily when she feels his cock bump up against her again, an awkward attempt at a joke at the most inappropriate time. She regrets it right away, but he laughs anyway, and the sound makes her relax, a little, instead of making her uncertain like it typically would.

[ And yet you seem undeterred. ] He gives her an intense look.

She bites the inside of her bottom lip and nods.

She's no virgin, not by a long shot, but nothing happens when he presses up against her at first. Just a lot of pressure. She'd already felt full with just two of his fingers; Feng Min is not exactly sure how this is going to work out for her. If Herman is feeling any doubt, he's still choosing not to just shove into her, and she appreciates that, even if she thinks it might actually be easier to just get it over with in one go.

She can feel the little ridge of the wire twisted down the underside of his glans rubbing up against her as he attempts to take it slowly, and she tries not to let her discomfort show on her face as he aligns himself with her entrance and uses his hand to try to guide himself in. Feng Min reaches down to try to help and feels the numbing sensation against her fingers again. It's spreading out into every point of contact, something she's actually grateful for; she thinks it will make things a lot simpler.

"Right... right here."

With a shaky breath outwards, Feng Min tries to lessen the tension in her body and angles her hips so that the head of his cock can slipinside of her. She anticipates pain, and of course it's there, sharp and sudden, making her face go pale and Herman pause above her. But then the frozen-fire feeling blooms inside of her the way it had with his fingers, creeping through her nerves, disrupting pathways of feeling. The intense hurt folds completely to this new sensation, and she experiences it in full.

"Oh," she groans; the sound melts into a whimper when he reaches to hold her hips down so he can ease into her gradually. The numbness and the pressure move deeper into her body as he sinks into her, and it's like nothing she's ever experienced before. She can feel the strange texture of the wires running down the length of him; the humming sensation becomes clearer the further it buries inside of her.

Herman tilts his head up to look at her, studying her face again. She can hear him breathing out through his teeth, much heavier than he typically might.

"I'm alright," whispers Feng Min, answering the question in his gaze. She reaches up with her sweaty hand to rub her thumb over his cheekbone, right beneath his closed eye, wanting to say something else, but not knowing just what to say.

He doesn't respond, but he does make a sound from his throat, something like, oh, or maybe ah, as he takes her hand in his left one and pins it down next to her head. Feng Min weaves her fingers into his and squeezes, watching as light bursts from between his knuckles in brief little burning flashes on her flesh.

Beneath the initial ache and the feeling of flattened nerves is something else— something hot and sharp. He begins moving slowly inside of her, just a couple of inches at a time, testing her shallowly to see if her body is relaxing. As the grey haze of static in her head thickens, so too does the pleasure, sudden and intense and throbbing beneath the numbness. She can only lay there and tolerate it at first, her mind trying to make sense of the otherworldly sensations.

"S... stop teasing me," she keens against his ear.

Herman's hand tightens on hers as he obliges, pushing back into her hard enough to make the gurney pull away and then thud back into the wall. This causes a burst of pins and needles all throughout the lower half of Feng Min's body that spreads up her spine and seems to settle in her brain, crackling wildly. She writhes beneath him, sucking back another whimper. He's a lot bigger than she is deep, and she thinks he's already reached her limit. Herman laughs above her, but he just keeps giving her what she wants, picking up the pace.

Feng Min has to lift herself slightly to get some purchase on the worn old sheets, pushing herself up onto her right elbow. This gives her a better view of the two of them tangled up together, of her bruised and bloodied body and his marred and mutilated one above her. Her sweaty thighs around his hips. His brightly glowing heart lighting up the deep wound on her shoulder. Him disappearing inside of her.

How surreal, she thinks faintly; is any of this even happening?

"Harder," she murmurs around the little breaths coming out of her mouth. "You can go harder."

She doesn't need to ask him twice. [ Oh, with pleasure. ] With a staticky sigh of approval that disrupts his uneven breathing, Herman grabs her by the hips and pulls her bodily to the edge of the bed, causing her to yelp in surprise. Adopting a standing position next to the gurney, he shifts his footing and pushes back into her as far as he can get himself. He's got the entire weight of the lower half of her body in his hands, holding her hips up off the edge of the bed.

It feels like her core is melting, all of the nerves collapsing axon by axon, and Feng Min can only stare up at him and let it happen. The pain in her left shoulder and arm are still there — she thinks her wound actually might have started bleeding again at some point when she was moving around on the bed with him; she can smell blood — but it's all but lost in the expanse of conflicting sensations inside of her.

Wanting to focus on the feelings, she closes her eyes, and for a bit she just feels him fucking into her slow, surprisingly restrained, filling her to utter capacity and melting every one of her muscles in response. There's a disembodied feeling of hearing her own unsteady breathing— of being linked to the sensations, but only in a third-party kind of way, like she's another person entirely, watching herself submit to him. She opens her eyes only when she feels Herman let go of her hips with one hand, which he flattens against her abdomen, his palm pressing right above her pubic bone.

Feng Min blinks her blurry eyes and stutters, "What are—"

She doesn't get to finish her question. There's a sudden flare of light that explodes between his knuckles, and then every muscle in the lower half of her body seems to seize all at once. Feng Min yelps helplessly as she feels her cunt involuntarily tighten down on him, sending a literal shock of intense pleasure through her guts. He's still thrusting into her even as her muscles draw together tight enough she almost forces him out, her heels kicking uselessly at his back.

Herman groans low, apparently pleased. The inertia of the shock makes Feng Min start trembling. She can feel sweat prickling all over her body, and her hips twitch, bucking up into him of their own accord. He holds her steadily, unwilling to give up his control so that he can continue to fuck her at his chosen tempo, and it's already almost too much.

"Oh, fuck," she whimpers, her good hand scrabbling at the sheets. She feels damp and sweaty from proximity to his heat; her hair is plastered to her face. Feng Min has never really known what to do with herself when totally at someone else's mercy; it's never really happened before, in this way. She'd lived her whole life exercising such a freakish level of control over her own decisions and actions without ever regarding anyone else's input or opinion— so much so that even now, surrendering control to him so completely is a terrifying free-fall experience.

[ Too much? ] His voice is overwhelming in her head, taking up all of the room that the static isn't. He's laughing, the scowl looking more like a grin again in the harsh fluorescent lighting as he looks down at her. She notices for the first time that he's got a sheen of sweat on his body, as well, even on the twisted, rough patches of his skin where the Entity's corrupting touch had lingered longest.

"No," she moans, too worked up to give him anything but the answer he so clearly wants. "No, n-no— do it again."

His thrusts begin to slow, and he laughs. It echoes and floats the static, making it sharpen and brighten in her mind. [ You've become rather demanding, haven't you? ] But even as he says that, she can see the glow along his fingers brightening, prepared to oblige.

When he shocks her again, it feels like her entire brain shorts out, a little— at least that's what seems to happen, because her vision goes all white, and her whole body goes tense, arching up from the mattress in a way she cannot control. Herman holds her fast so that she doesn't collapse back against it entirely as she convulses against him, little moans pouring incoherently from her mouth. She squirms, panting, and reaches to clutch at his forearm.

Herman's hand is still balanced on her abdomen, primed for another shock. Her sensitivity has heightened so rapidly and so suddenly that even the light pressure of his fingertips on her stomach is making the little translucent hairs there stand on end. Feng Min wants to reach out and hold him, but she can't quite do so from her position.

"Let... let me on top," she demands, her voice hanging needily in the air and dripping with desperation.

[ If you say so. ] Herman gives an approving groan of amusement as he lowers her hips. His strong arms come around her waist and clutch at her so that he can sweep her into his body and reverse their positions, pulling her into his lap with an arm around her waist. It happens very suddenly, from one blink to the next; she finds herself straddling his lap before she even knows what to do.

The muscles in Feng Min's legs already feel all tight and shaky and sore and numb above all, but she's barely thinking about it as she settles against him. She can feel herself dripping all down the insides of her thighs, aching for more stimulation. Herman grabs a hold of his cock to guide it back inside of her, the head nosing up against her ass before finding its mark and sliding into her cunt once more. She sinks her weight onto him, shivering out a sigh as she feels him stretch her out, dragging the hard ridges of the wires inside of her.

Herman's hands splay out over her ribs, his rough fingertips finding the spots in the grooves between, where her heartbeat seems to drum right against his fingers. She finds herself watching his expression as she rests her arms over his shoulders, slowly grinding her hips back and forth to get a feel for being on top of him. Being upright is a very different sensation; she's not quite sure at first what to do with the control until she feels a sudden, wild compulsion to kiss him.

Just as soon as it comes to her, she realizes that she can't. Although she has stopped finding his face frightening, his bared teeth and inert mouth mean that she'll never really be able to brush her lips against his; it is physically impossible.

She's never actually liked kissing, historically; she'd avoid it as much as possible, even when she'd been at the height of her substance abuse, landing in a different stranger's bed every night. It had always seemed to be too intimate an act, something too personal— one she could barely ever bring herself to do. Something better left off the list.

Now, though, she finds herself wishing she could when she can't. It's the sort of irony she's become used to encountering in her life, especially in the Entity's cursed realm. But then she realizes there's a way to settle for a compromise— she can still lean in and carefully press her lips to the spot right below his shut eye, one of the few patches of unmarked skin showing through the bandages. She kisses him there, and then lower, her mouth brushing over the cold metal contraption forcing his mouth open. She drops her lips lower, against his jaw, down to the spot beneath where it meets his neck.

Herman shudders. He tips his head to the side and lets her do as she wishes, his hands dropping down to her rear and squeezing to pull her into himself. He's begun thrusting up into her from below, bouncing her on his lap. Feng Min just indulgently lets him pick up the work as she puts her open mouth against his neck, wanting to feel and taste more of him. She expects the taste of blood, and it's there, but she tastes sweat, too, the saltiness reminding her that he is still human, after all. Her tongue goes numb and tingly right away at the contact, his skin scalding beneath it. It feels like licking a battery, she realizes, recalling the one time she had done it as a curious child, on a dare.

His left hand reaches up to the back of her head, fingers tangling into her dark hair and gripping to cradle her head against his throat. She whimpers as he rocks her entire body with his utter control, and, fuck, she thinks she might actually be able to cum like this, just from the feeling of him using her so thoroughly, so confidently. It doesn't hurt, even though it should; no, it's all pleasure, the way the overwhelming sensations demand that she let go of her excuses and pretenses. It invites her to throw herself into it, compels her to give up, and she does— readily.

Soon, Feng Min can't differentiate between the static and the pleasure, or between his breaths and the sound of the circuit crackling, or even his heartbeats or her own in her ears. It all becomes the same feeling, eventually, and as it builds, she becomes afraid of how intense it is becoming.

"I— I can't," she squeaks when she feels an abrupt, involuntary clench of muscles again, "I can't, I—"

[ Yes, you can, ] he interjects, and he thrusts up into her particularly hard, making her whine sweetly. She nods, dazed, and chokes, the sounds lost against his scarred throat.

How long ago had she been at the campfire? Or in a trial? How long ago had she come here, to the hospital? Even recent memories suddenly seem like they're very far away, dragged off and out by the static. The only thing that matters is the now that she shares with him.

When she whimpers, "Herman," right against his neck, she doesn't even know that she's said it. His name comes out of her mouth and is lost quickly in the flickering light streaking through her mind and body as he pounds into her from below. She buries her face in the slope of his shoulder and just lets it subsume her, her breaths going ragged and pitchy with pleasure. She doesn't know where she is, or who she is, and it has never mattered less.

Herman's gone mostly silent aside from his wheezing breaths and broken groans, but she knows when he's reached his limit, because an intense, sharp jolt lances through her whole body. Even the light dancing over his shoulders, streaking down his arms and legs and stomach, seems to intensify— so bright that it threatens to blind her.

"Come on," she pants, rocking against him eagerly, her thick tongue feeling swollen in her mouth. "It's okay— you can—"

There's another shock that rips the words right out of her mouth, making her see stars as Herman drags her hips down and holds her there on his cock. She can feel it jumping and twitching, every powerful pulse of it, and her thighs tighten around his hips to encourage him, choking back a cry and squirming against his body as he fully expends himself inside of her. It's unfathomably hot, bursting with the crash of a firestorm at her very core, flooding her with warmth, so much of it that it gushes out around his length and starts to pour out of her with him still inside.

When she feels the tension leave him all at once, Feng Min crumples into his body and presses her face to his chest, which is burning hot against her cheek. She feels Herman wrap his arms around her waist and listens to the strange rattling noises in his throat. He doesn't say anything; he just holds her and breathes unevenly through his mouth, sparks raining off of him and down her back.

They sit like that for what feels like a long time, still joined together as they come down from the high, but it's just a couple of minutes before Feng Min recovers her breath and her mind. She's reluctant to move, but eventually she has to upon realizing that she can't feel most of the lower half of her body. Her muscles and nerves are still humming and numbed out, and it feels like they will be for a long time. It's strange when she lifts her hips and crawls off of him, like half of her body isn't really there, like it's happening to someone else. When his cum begins leaking out of her, she can barely feel it. She just stares at it splattering her thighs and the bed sheets and thinks, That just happened.

Feng Min rolls over onto her side, exhausted in every single way— physically, mentally, emotionally. She feels slightly shell-shocked as she lays there, looking over at him. Herman is still sitting up, staring back at her, as expressionless as ever.

What she wants now is silence. But there is no true silence around the static. Around him. In her head.

Tears suddenly fill her eyes, and Feng Min isn't sure why. She doesn't feel sad; she's sure of that. But she doesn't feel happy, either. She reaches to rub the tears away and tries to ignore the ache in her chest before looking at him again.

"Can you just... lie with me here?" she murmurs.

[ Yes, ] says Herman. He has no remark to make on her tears, something she is grateful that he overlooks as he carefully lowers himself, somewhat awkwardly managing to sort of lie down on his side next to her. The gurney is certainly not made for someone of his size, but he fits, mostly because she is petite to begin with.

He reaches out for her, and Feng Min sinks into him and buries herself in his arms. The closeness is a lot to bear. She starts to shake; the tears keep welling up, even when he rests his chin on top of her head and strokes his fingers through her hair in the way she'd come to find so soothing and reassuring.

Feng Min realizes all at once that she is going to have to think about what her feelings for Herman will mean for her relationships with the other survivors. She fears that she may one day have to make a choice— that it may be one day soon. And she feels extremely selfish for wishing that the choice could be made for her. Out of her control. So that when it all inevitably goes wrong, she doesn't have to blame herself.

But she'd gotten herself into all of this in the first place, gotten herself tangled up with someone she shouldn't have. With a killer, one of the Entity's servants, with someone responsible for hurting her and so many others— forced or not.

The circuit lit up all around Herman's body has dimmed considerably, and as they lie there, Feng Min feels her nerve endings coming back to life, flushing warmly beneath her skin as normal sensation slowly comes back. She closes her eyes and breathes, trying to steady her turbulent heart and clear her head and not fall apart completely. She can always do that later. She's good at it, after all, she notes with bitterness.

When the numbness drains entirely out of her body, Feng Min allows herself to talk again, thinking she has finally swallowed the knot in her throat.

"I want to know more about what you're studying here in the nightmare," she says quietly, speaking right below his ear. "Will you show me?"

Herman's gentle fingers in her hair stop. [ I wondered when you would ask. ]

Feng Min understands now, with hindsight, what Herman had meant by showing her parts of the nightmare she'd never seen before. He'd been gauging her interest and perceptiveness. Knowing now what he intends — to teach her, whatever that comes to mean — she says, "Thank you," and goes quiet again, pressing her forehead to the spot right above his glowing heart.

Herman pulls the thin sheets over their bodies. He's still holding her tight as she falls asleep.



She dreams this time. Something close to a true dream, or at least as close as the Entity might allow for.

She dreams about her parents aging without her, growing old with nobody around to care for them. Her few friends recalling memories of her less and less before they all stop talking about her altogether. Her ex-team moving onto bigger and greater things, having never really needed her at all. She dreams about how her name — Feng Min, Shining Lion, it doesn't matter — is now the pause at the end of a question, waiting for a response. A blank line ready to be written over. Something misplaced. A memory lapsed. Maybe irrecoverable.

Does anyone miss her in the real world?

Is there still a her?



Feng Min wakes up abruptly, breathless and soaked in sweat. She tries to roll away and sit up, but finds herself trapped in someone's embrace. She struggles for a second longer before she calms down a little and remembers where she is.

Herman's still there, clearly asleep judging by the rhythmic moving of his chest, his arms wrapped around her. At some point, one of them had kicked the sheets onto the floor, but he's so warm — like a massive heater — that she doesn't miss them.

Breathing deep to steady her racing heart, Feng Min attempts to relax, closing her eyes again. Just a dream, she tells herself. Just a dream about... nothing, really. About nothingness. She tries to put the mental images of her parents and friends and ex-teammates out of her head, pushes them back into the shadowy corners of her memory, trying to distract herself with something else. It's only then that she realizes that she's actually not sore in any way— not even in her shoulder. It's so strange to be free of the pain that her eyes fly open in alarm, and she has to dislodge Herman's arm from her body to sit up and examine her wound.

She gasps.

The bandage is soaked in red— there's not a spot of white left on it. The blood is new and wet, and it leaks out from under the bandage to streak down her arm and clavicle and breasts and ribs and drips onto her lap. There's so much of it that Feng Min is shocked it's not hurting at all. Confused, she looks down, and then cries out at what she sees.

The sheets are bloody, too. Not just where she'd been lying, but everywhere— so much blood that there's no way it had all come from her. It's flooded the mattress, flowing off the sides of the gurney into an enormous lake on the floor. Feng Min panics, not understanding what she's seeing, and then she realizes where the blood is coming from, her eyes darting to Herman, gaze running frantic over his body until she locks onto his face.

It's his head. It's cut open, this perfect circular incision sawn right through the top of his skull, splitting it like a fault line, cranium pulled off and discarded to expose the sickly-looking, pulsing brain beneath. Wires run out of it, trailing from long spiked sensors buried in the meat. Blood runs down his face, into his eyes, his nose, his mouth. It's all down his front, all over his body. All over her body, too, actually— for the first time, Feng Min looks down and sees that her hands are covered in it, no, with more than just blood, actually, globs of nerve tissue and spongy flesh stuck under her fingernails like she's been digging for something, and she screams



And then wakes up again.

"No!" she shrieks, ripping out of the nightmare. She sits up, hysterical, and looks around wildly, the shriek dying in her throat as she realizes that she had still been dreaming. Pale and nauseous, she lifts her hands to stare at them. No blood. Her shoulder's still wrapped securely— and it hurts like hell, enough to make tears prick at the corners of her eyes. She looks at the sheets. No blood there, too.

But there's no Herman, either. She's alone.

"What...?" she rasps in confusion. She slides towards the bed rail and looks around, and immediately knows that something is wrong.

She's not in the same room she'd fallen asleep in. The Institute tends to be disorienting even on a good day, but Feng Min knows that the layout of the beds in this room is completely different than the one she'd just been in. She definitely hadn't fallen asleep on that bed. She slips off of the gurney on wobbling legs, sensing a dull pain in her lower body that makes the muscles in her legs go stiff. She steadies herself against the rail to look around again.

"Herman?" she tries, before elevating her voice, her gaze flicking up towards one of the cameras: "Where are you?"

There is no response.

Feng Min finds her shorts on the end of the bed, and she slides them on as quickly as she can with her one hand. Her shirt, laying in a torn and bloodied heap on the floor, is useless. Shivering, she moves over to one of the cabinets and begins opening drawers until she notices a rusting old laundry hamper in the corner. She moves over to look through it. The clothes inside look like they've been there for decades, and probably have.

She pulls some of them out. They're all pale blue inmate uniforms, like the one she'd worn before. She slips on the smallest one she can find; its long sleeves engulf her hands. She feels better once she has some clothes on again, or at least more secure, and after she's got her sneakers back on, she's anxious to find him.

Feng Min leaves the room and begins walking down the hallway. Something doesn't feel right. It's in the air.

Recalling the desperate intimacy she had just shared with Herman only makes the Institute seem that much emptier and lonelier now. Had he left while she was sleeping? Why? Had he placed her in another room? Shouldn't that have woken her up?

The static out in the hallway is dense. Her sneakers crunch on fragments of stone and tile and dust on the floor. The noise layer is resistant, and it begins buzzing in her ears in a way that sends a chill down her spine and makes her blood run cold.

No.

Across the hallway from her comes the thud and hum of a generator warming up, and Feng Min's heart nearly stops beating.

No, she thinks again, but when she steps into the bathroom, she has no choice but to accept what she's seeing.

Nea is there, working on a generator with her back turned to Feng Min, her hair hanging in her face as she leans over it. When the other girl hears her footsteps, she stands up and turns around, before immediately stepping back in shock.

A trial. The Entity's pulled her right into a trial. With Herman. Of course it would. Feng Min wants to laugh. She wants to cry. She wants to scream.

"F-Feng Min?!" Nea blurts out, before putting a hand to her mouth, blue eyes widening. "What the fuck are you— holy shit!" She drops the spring she'd been holding, and it bounces on the tiles out of sight behind a stall as she rushes over.

"Nea," Feng Min manages. Both her face and her voice fail to hide the turmoil she feels.

Unexpectedly, Nea grabs her by the shoulders and just stares at her from an arm's length away. Her mouth moves in silent shock, before she finally asks, her voice wary and strained, "When did you get back?"

Feng Min squirms beneath her grip, her wound aching, but she doesn't try to get away. There's something in Nea's expression that's scaring her, now that she really looks at her. "What...? What are you talking about?"

"It's been, like, weeks. We thought you were..." Nea's voice cracks, and her fluttering brows go high. "How could you do something so stupid? Where were you? And what the fuck are you wearing?" Nea looks like she wants to slap her in the face, or maybe hug her, or maybe push her out of a window. Feng Min can't quite tell. But she also has no idea what the fuck Nea is talking about.

"I don't... It hasn't been weeks," she says, startled. But Nea's expression is so fraught that Feng Min can't make herself believe that she is lying.

"What? Yes, it has." Nea gives her an odd look and finally lets her go. She crouches to pick up the coil, her cheeks flaring pink. "I can't believe you're back. Are Jake and Claudette with you?" she asks, her tone swelling hopeful.

Jake and Claudette...?

"Nea," says Feng Min, struggling against a sense of steadily increasing doom, "I don't know what you're talking about." She kneels slowly and carefully next to Nea by the generator, reaching to take the coil from her; Nea surrenders it without complaint. Fixing generators is at this point second nature to Feng Min, even now.

Nea finally seems to get it. She goes even paler. "You..." She reaches up and presses a hand to her temple. "You don't...?" She trails off, understanding all at once. Her entire demeanor darkens. "When you ran off, a bunch of us went after you. And Jake and Claudette still haven't come back." Nea's jaw sets hard; Feng Min can hear her teeth grind together. "Dwight says it's been almost a month."

A month.

"But I wasn't..." starts Feng Min helplessly. "It wasn't that long. I... I just ran off, and then I was... somewhere else, and then I was here."

"Yes, it has. Were Jake and Claudette with you?"

Feng Min shakes her head, and a horrific guilt begins to settle over her as she considers what Nea is saying. If she is telling her the truth (and why wouldn't she?), then Jake and Claudette might be in trouble somewhere.

Or, worse, they might not be somewhere. They could be nowhere at all, and it would be her fault completely, because they'd still kept trying to help her, even at her most selfish and cowardly.

My fault...

Nea swallows and goes silent, leaning into the generator. Feng Min works on her side dully, trying not to think about anything lest she have another panic attack. She wonders if Nea can fully read the guilt on her face, and if the others figured out the details of her secret while she was gone.

It's my fault.

When they finish the generator, Feng Min takes Nea by the hand, locking their fingers together to guide her to the next one. Nea's not her usual degree of chatty; she can sense that learning that Feng Min knows nothing about Jake and Claudette's whereabouts has disheartened her. So she stays silent, too, walking with Nea through patches of grass and snow coming through the floors. She lets the static lead her, and it does, guiding her through the labyrinthine halls right to a generator inside a waiting room.

Nea's observing her deft navigation of the hospital with narrowed eyes. She doesn't comment on it, but it sounds like it takes her some effort to ask, "Where have you been?"

Feng Min reaches into the generator to get the power supply going, realigning a loose cable. "I know you won't believe me, but it's really been less than a day for me."

Nea's expression flashes hurt. It's clear that she thinks she's being lied to her face. "You're right. I don't." Nevertheless, Nea joins her on the generator, and after a couple of minutes of fumbling with the wires and passing tools back and forth, she starts talking again. "You know, I went out looking for you. Like, a dozen times."

Surprised, Feng Min glances over the generator at her.

"I ended up at the asylum a few times. And the Nurse— our friend Sally..." Nea says this last part sarcastically, blue eyes going skyward. "She left me alone every time. I knew she was watching me. But she didn't actually try to kill me, or anything."

Feng Min hates the idea of anyone putting themselves at risk to go out and look for her. Especially when she's not sure she would return the favor. "I... I'm sorry. I freaked out. I just panicked and ran. I didn't know what to do. I thought that..."

"You thought what?" demands Nea. "That whatever fucked-up shit you're doing with the shock-doc was going to come out? News-fucking-flash: it will, especially now that you're back. They're halfway there already, Feng Min. I'm surprised Tapp hasn't cracked Quentin by now. Not that either one of us actually knows what the hell you're up to." The hurt is back in her expression. Nea looks like she has been betrayed, and Feng Min fully understands why.

"Is Quentin okay?" she asks quietly.

"He's fine." Nea reaches out and bumps Feng Min behind the elbow. "Listen to me. If you want to salvage whatever trainwreck shit you have going on right now, you're going to have to take the jump and tell everyone first. Because if you don't, they're going to find out another way, and I'm guessing you're not gonna like it."

Feng Min laughs bitterly, shaking with it. It makes her shoulder hurt, turning the humorless giggles to wheezes that bring Herman's face to mind. "I know," she says in a faint voice. "But I have no idea where to start."

"Figure it out," says Nea harshly. "Because you're running out of time."

They finish the generator just as the edges of the static field approach for the first time. The Doctor is definitely in trial mode; Feng Min can feel it from the way the static immediately grabs hold of her from her grounded shoes and begins crawling up her body into her soul and her brain. It's so cold and cruelly different than the immersive pleasure it had given her so recently, and the moment it gets into her mind she feels the threat of the madness pushing her to scream.

"Fuck!" her companion curses. Nea is quick to get to her feet, pale and sweating. Electricity arcs up her calves and thighs, and she dances in place like she's trying to shake it off. It's the first time Feng Min has seen her cope with the effects of the Doctor's power, and it becomes clear quickly that it really unnerves her. Nea looks like she's about to start panicking at any moment.

"Go!" she urges Nea, giving her a push. Nea stumbles out into the hallway, her expression twisting between fear and agony, and Feng Min swallows a scream. The static field intensifies under her feet, and the pulse of the heartbeat begins in her ears. "Go find somewhere to-"

The electricity around them redoubles with a loud sizzle. Nea freezes in place and drops to her knees before a wheeled cart turned over on its side in the middle of the hallway. She starts screaming— and giving away their location.

"Nea!" Feng Min cries, but it's hopeless. The heartbeat is almost immediately upon them, and she can't bear to look. Not now. The timing is so bad. She feels afraid, again. Not of him, but of the trial. Of what has to happen. What he is obligated to do to her.

The Doctor appears at the end of the hallway, ablaze and incandescent, and he does not pause at the sight of Nea or even at her.

Feng Min bolts, but Nea fails to keep up with her; she'd turned instead to try to scramble through a window into an adjacent room where the Doctor wouldn't be able to reach her before she could parkour away like usual. But she'd apparently frozen for a moment too long, because, as Feng Min watches, the Doctor simply reaches into the frame with a laugh to grab her by the back of her shirt, ripping her from it so hard her legs go swinging back against him, before he tosses her over his shoulder.

"Hey!" Nea screams, frantic, kicking against him. Electricity is moving up her arms towards her head, and her eyes only get increasingly more wild and afraid. "Stop!"

"Fuck," hisses Feng Min under her breath.

My fault.

Knowing the static is her grim advantage, so Feng Min forces herself into action through it, even as the noise shatters like glass splinters in her head and makes her want to scream her lungs out. The decision to intervene and try to spare Nea is a sudden, reckless, guilty one, but, as with all of her bad decisions, she knows she has to see it through.

She runs after the Doctor with her eyes locked on the back of his white coat and Nea's face, sprinting through a bathroom and quickly swinging over a window to cut him off at an intersection of hallways. Feng Min yells, "Over here!" to get his attention, and he turns to look at her with Nea still thrashing on his shoulder.

The moment he looks at her, the static on the floor bursts and strengthens, drilling through her brain and making her cry out. The Doctor — Herman — is looking at her like he would at any other survivor. Laughing, like it's funny. Of course. She almost agrees.

He's chosen to be silent again in her head. This time, she's grateful for it. Grateful, even as it feels like her heart is cracking in two.

She manages to distract him long enough for Nea to kick herself free with a, "Fuck you!" She lands like a cat, crouched on all fours, then springs up and gives the Doctor a full-body shove before she runs straight down the hallway without giving Feng Min a second look.

Herman stumbles back, snarling, his head snapping in Nea's direction and the dust she's literally kicking up. And then he looks back at Feng Min.

"Now what?" she says softly. He's silent.

Before either one of them makes a decision — flight or fight — the sound of footsteps comes down one of the halls, and Herman turns immediately away from her to pursue the lead. Feng Min doesn't linger— she runs after Nea, trying to identify her footprints in the dust. She finds her crouched in a bathroom stall over a chest, but Nea stands up when she sees her.

"Don't fucking do that!" she shouts. It echoes off of all the tiles, making Feng Min wince. Nea's dark hair is stuck to her forehead and cheek by a streak of blood; Feng Min sees that she'd sustained a cut to her hand trying to get away. She thinks she's going to be accused of working with the Doctor, but what Nea actually says is, "You have to get out of this trial!"

"What?" Feng Min reaches for Nea's hand, trying to use the hem of her shirt to dab at the blood. There's a deep slash across her knuckles.

Nea gives her a harsh look, pulling her hand to her chest defensively. "If you don't, how do we know you'll even get back to the campfire?"

The question, even in Nea's resentful and stubborn tone, slips a ligature around Feng Min's heart. "Oh," she says softly. She stares down at her shoes as Nea turns back to the contents of the chest.

It makes sense. Feng Min wants to get back there, too, if only to start figuring out just how badly she'd fucked up and what she'll need to do to salvage the remains.

Nea soon instructs her to stick to the generators; they've got two left. The other two survivors in the trial turn out to be Ace and Kate. Out of the four of them, Feng Min knows that she is admittedly the fastest and most skilled at repairing, but she feels wrong just sitting around working on a generator while she listens to the approach and fade of the heartbeat as her allies trade off injuries and turns on the hook.

They'll be okay, she tries to persuade herself. Nea's fast and loose approach to trials would tend to be an asset more often than not, and Ace's high-risk-high-reward style would seem to bring good luck to anyone around him. And Kate had toughened up considerably, herself— she'd learned to channel her emotions into resilience. Between the three of them, they could buy more than enough time for Feng Min to finish the generators.

She manages to get one completed just as the Entity breaks the barrier above them. With just one generator left, Feng Min knows Nea wants her to stay on task, but when she hears both Nea and Ace shouting, it's hard not to get up from her work on the unit in the treatment theater to investigate. It's while she's making her way over that the Entity rips open another hole in the atmosphere. Her heart rate picks up. This kind of scenario is never a good thing; trying to rescue teammates from sacrificial hooks already holds a high amount of danger even with just one person hanging.

Feng Min is unable to reach Ace or Kate in time. She knows it by the way the sheer force of the Entity's presence shudders through her like a soundwave. The hallways have taken her around and out and back again, and the static crowding her head is starting to really hurt. It feels like her brain is about to start melting. She needs to find Nea, and she has a feeling she'll find her wherever Herman is. She staggers blindly through the halls, hands pressed to her hurting head, and tries to find the outer edge of the static radius. When she does, she hears Nea's shouting immediately.

The Doctor's laughing loudly down the halls as he pursues her. He seems to enjoy Nea's particularly frantic and anxious reactions to his power; Feng Min can hear her screaming over and over, like he's shocking her just because he can.

Come on, she thinks as she picks a new generator close to where she can monitor the two of them. If she works quickly, and if Nea keeps it up, they can both get out of this, still.

Focus. You got this.

She listens as Nea expertly baits the Doctor away from her location and back again. She can hear Nea running circuits around the treatment theater; she imagines that she could probably go all day jumping off of the observation deck. She stays on the generator even as both the heartbeats and Nea's yelling fade away.

Soon, the generator starts singing in record time, even despite Feng Min's migraine and her useless left arm, and she hears the adrenaline-rush sound of the exit gates going live in the distance. She jumps up and runs into the perimeter hallway.

If she can just get out of the hospital with Nea and back to the campfire, she can decide what she needs to do, and help figure out what happened to Claudette and Jake, and...

She finds Nea at the exit gate already, her hand on the switch, apparently having given the Doctor the slip long enough to get it started. Feng Min breaks into a run when she spots her, thinking, oh, thank god. One of the red lights comes on with a loud tone.

"Nea!" she says, relieved, but that doesn't last for long. She whips around to look as the Doctor's laughter floats out through the doors from the waiting room.

The second bulb on the exit gate lights up as the Doctor comes out of the doors, so large before the entrance that Feng Min knows neither one of them has a chance of getting past him. Confined to the small area before the exit gate, Feng Min is forced to make another fast decision when she sees him lunge for Nea.

"Run!"

She shoves Nea out of the way so hard that Nea goes flying onto her ass, but Feng Min trusts that she'll recover fast— and she does, bouncing to her feet as the Doctor's swing follows through against Feng Min's side, sending her crashing into the bricks, her entire body seizing as the electricity blasts through her. She collapses when he rips it free. It's on the same side as her already injured shoulder, but somehow she still feels it even under all the pain she's already in.

The Doctor staggers back and makes a sound that Feng Min thinks is supposed to be a laugh. But she's never heard him sound like that before.

Nea leaps and grabs for the switch again as he regains his footing. She manages to keep it down for the few seconds it takes for the final light to turn on and slide the massive door open, revealing the way out.

The Doctor looks at Feng Min down on the ground, and then up at Nea, who's dashed halfway inside of the gate already but is frozen there, staring at Feng Min with great reluctance and fear. It's apparent that Nea doesn't want to leave her there.

"Get up!" Nea screams at her. "What are you—"

But Feng Min can't. Her whole body's shaking from the shock and from the noise flooding her brain. She shakes her head no. "Just go!" she yells.

The Doctor leaves her there and swings for Nea again. Nea says something in a language Feng Min does not recognize — a curse word, by the tone of it — and just barely avoids the hit. Her eyes are helpless and apologetic, but she does as instructed. She runs. It takes her only a moment to disappear beyond the barrier. The Doctor's laughter dies off when she is past the threshold, having escaped him this time.

Feng Min is still on the ground, right below the switch, her back against the bricks. She doesn't see the point in getting up and trying to run or find the hatch. Not that she could; the shock has rendered every muscle in her body numb. She moves weakly, pulling herself up straight.

Whatever Herman does, she decides, she'll accept. Making that decision feels like determining where her loyalties lie.

She waits for him. When he walks back over, a silhouette pausing above her, she takes a moment to collect herself before looking up into his face resolutely.

"Do what you have to do," she says softly. She wonders where she will end up after this. The campfire is what she hopes for, but doesn't entirely believe in.

Herman regards her. She keeps waiting.

And then, instead of picking her up, or shocking her, or taking another swing at her, he does something entirely unexpected.

Breathing slowly, he kneels before her and extends his hand.

She takes it.

Chapter Text

When Herman’s hand closes around hers, Feng Min can feel the tension in it— how the muscle’s gone all rigid up his arm. He helps her up by practically lifting her to her feet, and the sudden movement sends a splitting red-hot stab down the length of her left arm. She sways and chokes. His weapon had really bitten into her bicep, and it’s bleeding freely now, although that part barely matters, really, given that there’s still a hole tunnelled through her shoulder.

The room spins around her in living illusions— the bright red lights above the exit gate switch, the white halogen leaking out the front entrance, the blazing silver glow forming the Doctor's aura. The colors all come together, strobelike, and Feng Min turns her face away, choosing instead to close her eyes.

"I sh… shouldn't have done that," she mumbles, less coherent by the second as the blood trickles down her arm. Her knees shake as she tries to gain her balance. "It's… this is a bad idea."

Next to her, Herman is holding her upright, looking out towards the fading horizon beyond the gate, where Nea had slipped through just moments before. There's an underlying dread reminding her that they are, again, breaking the rules. Rules that Feng Min is starting to suspect were only ever arbitrary.

Herman had told her before, what felt like just hours ago, that he wasn't concerned about angering the Entity. She's finding it hard to adopt the same faith, and it's all she can think about as her head bobs up so that she can look tiredly into his face.

[ You must leave, ] says Herman. He's still staring out the gate, but his hand is pressed between her shoulder blades, helping to steady her.

"Wait," Feng Min says, pausing to wheeze. She can hear the pat-pat-pat of blood falling in big dollops on the shoes of her sneakers as she continues, "How long… how long has it been?"

[ What? ]

"Since I saw you… since we…" Her physical proximity to him is impossible to ignore, especially when she can feel the warmth coming off of his inhumanly hot skin. A rush of memories, vivid and recent, fill her mind, but the pain in her body is contorting the recollections, staining them in a foglike haze. Reminders flash through her mind of the way his hands had felt moving over her skin. How painstakingly cautious he'd been of her injury. How badly she'd wanted to kiss him. How he hadn't withdrawn when she'd started crying, but just stayed there, silent. Just there with her.

Herman scrutinizes her, and she thinks she sees his expression soften. [ A day. If that. ] But then his body language shifts tense again.

Still, her breath leaves her lungs all at once, shuddering out of her mouth in an expression of relief. It doesn't illuminate anything about what Nea had told her about her absence — that she'd been missing for weeks — but it's reassurance, in its own fucked-up way.

Feng Min can feel his curiosity growing in her mind, probing for answers even though he hasn't said another word, so she elaborates, "Nea told me it's been weeks since they've seen me."

[ A time discrepancy? It's not unheard of. ] Herman's posture eases up a fraction, and he shakes his head. [ It's something we can talk about later. But I wouldn't suggest extending this delay. You need to leave. ]

He's right, but she hesitates. Ideally, she'd leave and be back at the campfire. That's what Nea had been hoping for, when she'd tried to rush her out of the trial, so desperate to ensure that she'd make it back. Even after all she'd done, the other survivors had still gone looking for her. They even want her back, if Nea is anything to go by.

It should be a heartening thought, but it isn't. Not when it comes at the expense of Jake and Claudette.

Feng Min looks out through the exit at the fog gathering thick at the threshold. She envisions the campfire and the others, wondering what they've been doing while she's been gone. What they've figured out.

She realizes that she's afraid to leave.

Herman seems to be able to tell. [ Don't allow your troubled mind to cloud your judgment. Return to them. I have no issue with forcing the matter, Feng Min. ] He only needs to insinuate what forcing the matter might entail— Feng Min is all too aware of the hook positioned right inside the front reception area. And she even finds herself considering it as she looks down at her ruined arm.

"Okay," she says, forcing herself to breathe in and out— slow and even. She just needs to focus. The strategist in her knows that the pieces in her game are in a precarious position, and that she has limited time to course-correct before the whole thing blows up in her face.

Her first priority needs to be finding out where she stands with the others. The second is Jake and Claudette. The static coils up in the center of her skull when she thinks about the two of them and where they might have gone. Feng Min still can't believe that any of them had bothered to follow her. Of course it'd have consequences. She's starting to feel like every little thing she does has some sort of consequence here, but she can't stop the avalanche that she'd set off ages ago. It just gets bigger and bigger.

"Herman," she says, her eyes locking on his always-focused gaze. "I need a better way to find this place. On purpose."

He looks at her silently, then gives a sort of laugh that comes across as disbelieving but empty. [ That's a tall order. ]

"We can't just keep going hoping I'll eventually run into you." She darkens at the indifferent roll of his shoulders, and leans into him, planting her fist against his chest. "I always wonder if… if every time is the last time."

[ You don't need to worry about that. ] The laughter grows— not mocking; just reacting. His hand lifts to her head, his calloused fingertips smoothing her bangs out of her eyes. She doesn't feel the invasive buzz of him slipping into her mind. [ Nothing here is ever truly the 'last time.' ]

"I wonder," she murmurs.

Herman escorts her towards the threshold. Feng Min lets go of his arm once they're at the last set of brick pillars. When she does, something materializes before them— an ominous set of black spikes that explode out of the ground like a lightning-struck tree, splintered across one another and raining familiarly-glowing sparks. Herman looks at them. When he steps back, they disappear, and she understands immediately. It is a barrier that the Entity would never permit him to cross.

[ I'll attempt to come find you soon, ] he says to her.

She just nods so that she doesn't stutter or say something she regrets. But when she sees him just standing there, waiting for her to go, she's still not quite ready.

Impulsively, Feng Min throws her arms around his waist and presses her face into his sternum. She lingers there until he reaches to hold her, his large hands pressing to her back. It hurts, and she knows that she's bleeding into his coat, but she just bites her lip and pretends she's fine. When she pulls away, there's a large, deeply saturated stain right above his belt.

This sort of favoritism — this kind of tipping of the scales — is a big component of why Feng Min feels like she has committed such an egregious betrayal of her fellow survivors. The thought clocks her cold, and she abruptly drops her arms and steps back, leaving Herman looking at her with just the slightest raise of his brow.

But all he says is, [ Go. ]



The mist gathers around her, diffusing the murky light of the snowstorm outside of the Institute before it eclipses it completely. It pulls her into the grey, leaving her disoriented and directionless, not knowing which way is up or down or sideways.

And then the light of the campfire begins to swell before her. It scatters rainbows through the heavy mist, and, when it clears, leaving her blinded, she hears a round of gasps.

"Feng Min!" Laurie's up on her feet, hand to her mouth.

"I told you so!" Nea bellows from her side, jumping up from the log she'd been slouching against.

Laurie approaches first, followed by Dwight. There's just a handful of them around the campfire; Ace and Kate appear to have yet to return from the trial. She sees Meg, and then — with a rush of nerves — notices Tapp lingering nearby. Even he looks startled, brows up high.

"Where have you been?" Laurie asks breathlessly. She reaches out and throws her arms around Feng Min, who flinches reflexively in response. But—

There's none of the pain she expects to come with Laurie gathering her around the shoulders and crushing her against her chest. When Feng Min glances down, she sees something that makes her eyes go just as wide as the others': her wounds are gone. She feels no burning from her left shoulder or arm, and when she looks down and moves it, it flexes painlessly. Even the blood on her clothes is mostly gone, the way it would be after any trial. Most trials.

The others are waiting for her to talk, waiting awkwardly in silence. Feng Min looks up at them, dazed and unable to mask her relief.

Dwight seems to take this as a signal to give her some space. "Hold on, guys. Let's… We'll ask questions later, okay?" He waves a hand as Laurie steps away, mollified but aglow with a tentative smile. Dwight nods at her and then scrutinizes Feng Min. "You feeling alright? Looks like you should sit down."

"I feel fine," she says in response, immediately. It feels like she'd started to forget what it was like to not be in pain, and the sudden lightness of her body and the looseness in her muscles gives her an entirely new appreciation for the Entity's habit of washing the survivors' wounds away post-trial. The gratitude she feels right now — however imbalanced — almost makes her forget that the other survivors probably have a lot of questions for her. Almost.

"I can't wait for the others to get back," says Dwight. He looks tired, but he's smiling. "They're going to be so glad you're okay."

Feng Min looks across the flames towards Nea, who stares right back at her, before turning to Dwight. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?" Not like she would know.

"Yeah," says Dwight. He looks beyond her, just past her shoulder, and his eyes grow distant behind his glasses. "Are…?"

"...Jake and Claudette with me?" she finishes. Saying their names feels dirty in her mouth. Like she'd lost the right to speak them, and needs to earn it back. "No."

Another silence ensues around the campfire, which spews a litany of sparks at their feet.

"Didn't think so," says Dwight, and although he smiles apologetically, Feng Min has no idea why he's doing her the courtesy. There's no way he doesn't know that it's her fault just as much as any of them— she can feel it in the atmosphere around the survivors as the shock of her return begins to wear off and the reality that two of their number are still missing returns.

Laurie's bent over behind one of the logs, reaching for something. Meg hops over to assist, and Laurie hauls it into her arms. Feng Min recognizes her sleeping bag right away.

"We saved your stuff," Meg says with a little smile. "Well, the stuff that we could still save."

Laurie hands the sleeping bag to Feng Min, and she takes it, feeling the roll deflate slightly in her arms. The feeling that she has not done anything worthy of this sort of conscientiousness is not lost on her.

"Thanks," she says, fearing that if she says anything else her voice will crack. But she's not about to have another panic attack. Not when she's just gotten back. Still, the dread of knowing that they're eventually going to bring up the elephant in the room again has her on edge.

Laurie helps Feng Min set her stuff out again in its usual isolated spot, which has been encroached upon by Adam's belongings. Laurie carefully rearranges them on top of a worn blanket and helps Feng Min make space.

"It's getting crowded around here, isn't it?" Laurie chirps conversationally, blowing her layered hair out of her eyes as she sorts through a tin box of first aid supplies, counting out rolls of bandages and handing Feng Min a small share. "Sorry," she explains. "When you disappeared, we cut into your supplies. Not that it helped much! You're better with those toolboxes than most of us."

"It's okay," Feng Min says, shaking her head. Being alright with the others picking from her scavenged supplies is the least she can do for them, at this point. She pushes the bandages back towards Laurie.

"Don't be silly," says Laurie, depositing them back in Feng Min's lap with a smile. It's clear that she won't take 'no' for an answer, so Feng Min slides them beneath her sleeping bag.

"Oh!" comes Meg's voice, causing them both to look up in her direction. "I've got something for you, Feng Min!" She neatly leaps over a log to fetch a dark red backpack, plunging her arm into it to dig around. "It's right here. It rolled out of the fire."

Meg holds something out towards her. Feng Min takes it, and its weight makes her forearm drop. She steadies her grasp. It's the gear sphere— Meg's strange little holiday gift. It had been in her backpack when she'd thrown it into the fire, and Feng Min remembers thinking that it was a shame it had to be burned along with the tapes, too. But here it is, sitting in her hand, covered in soot. She rubs some of it away with her thumb, burnishing the metal to a gloss.

"It's not burnt," she says when she sees the silver shine through, a sort of wonder in her voice.

"Guess not," says Meg.

Feng Min attempts to set the gears spinning, but ash and dust is caked between the teeth, so she just places it down on top of her sleeping bag. Maybe she'll bring back some water on the next scavenging trip out and try to clean it up. Water is typically hard to come by within the nightmare— it's not that they have the thirst for it, but it's always been useful to have stocked in a med kit and to clean themselves with. Usually they'd try to locate the Red Forest, and from there they'd have to post patrols while collecting rainwater drop by drop. It took hours, and was always a nerve-wracking and sometimes deadly endeavor.

The others give her some space soon after that, which Feng Min uses to take a quick, dreamless nap. She feels a little rush of gratitude when she wakes up exactly where she'd fallen asleep.

Kate and Ace eventually find their way back to the campfire. David and Bill also show up around that time, slipping out of the forest and kitted out like they'd been on a supply run. Each of the survivors greets Feng Min with the same kind of disbelief, and then she has to watch every single time as each of them realizes that she doesn't have Jake or Claudette with her. They flinch and make expressions she's only ever seen them make when they've been badly injured or dying in trials.

"It didn't feel that long," she tries to explain, when they finally ask about it again. They all tell her the same thing: it's been about a month. Feng Min can feel their apprehension growing as her tongue trips through the words. "I… I got lost. In the forest. And after I… After I went to sleep, I woke up in that trial with Nea… in the hospital..." She tightens her hands over her knees, blanching. "It felt like I was just here yesterday." Because she was, at least from her own point of view; it's starting to give Feng Min a headache, trying to put it all together.

"I mean…" Tapp starts. He sighs, leaning forward on his log to rest his elbows on his knees. "These kinds of things have happened before. Just wish we knew how. Or why."

"Maybe that big bitch in the sky just does it to fuck us up," says Nea informatively. "I think it gets bored sometimes and just, like, starts throwing darts at its Wheel o' Torture."

Feng Min gives her a cautious, nervous smile. So maybe Nea believes her, after all. It's all much more than she deserves.



The cellar beneath the sagging structure smells of rot— wet driftwood and decaying plants and traces of what Feng Min recognizes to be death. Death has its own smell. She'd never encountered a dead person before she'd arrived in the Entity's nightmare. She'd been to a couple of funerals when she was really little, but mostly she'd hidden in her mother's coat and fallen asleep. Here, she'd become highly familiar with the scent of death. The way it would sit, thick and curdling sweet, so deeply that you were still smelling it long after you weren't around the dead thing anymore.

That's just one of the reasons Feng Min usually tries to avoid having to venture beneath the pantry in the swamp. The wet ground always sucks at her boots and slows her steps, and God help any survivor unfortunate enough to trigger one of the Hag's sigils down there in the dark with its few exit paths. She's done it herself a few times and paid the price for it, so usually she'll try to get to the generator on the top floor and then get far, far away from the area.

But there's no doing that now, because the Hag is stalking the perimeter of the building. It's forced her and Quentin down there into the damp marsh, where the two of them huddle near a large iron cage, listening to the Hag's scratchy snarling as she lopes around the building.

Quentin is the only survivor who hadn't greeted her with a look of total shock, instead just sort of nodding like he'd been expecting to see her again. They hadn't really gotten a chance to talk before the fog had pulled them both away and replaced them in the swamp. They had materialized on the edges of the marsh together; although they'd tried scouting from the top of the pantry, neither of them have been able to spot who their other two allies are in this particular trial.

With the Hag circling obsessively outside, it doesn't look like either of them will get a chance to sneak away to a safer area any time soon.

"I think there's swamp water in my shoes," Quentin mutters beside her. He's crouched with his back against the wall, staring down at his sneakers.

Feng Min suppresses a snicker. "Nea knocked me right into the reeds once," she says, recalling a trial when Nea had been in such a hurry to get out of the cabin and past her that she'd blown Feng Min backwards and right into the water. "I was soaked. Still got out, though." Mostly because she'd pushed herself in a blind fury, wanting to show Nea up, shivering the entire time. It had worked, at least.

"Think you can get us out of this one?"

The image of an exit gate appears in her mind. One that won't light up or receive power. And Quentin's face from down there on her lap. Blood draining from it.

Her smile drops. "We'll see."

Quentin goes silent, fingers drumming out on his knee, his purpled lids half-drooping. When he does speak, it's low. "You know I didn't betray you, right?"

Taken off-guard, Feng Min stammers. "I… no," she says. She exhales shakily. Now or never, right? "It was… my fault. I should never have asked you to keep a secret. You or Nea. And I've kept you both in the dark, too. I'm... sorry for that." The word sorry doesn't come out easily, and saying it seems fleeting and pointless in the face of their reality. There is no way she can truly make things right with the others, Feng Min knows, unless she starts telling the truth.

The whole truth.

"That's not what I mean," says Quentin, looking at her sideways. "I don't have a problem with keeping secrets. But I think you might."

Startled, Feng Min tries to catch his gaze. "What?"

"It's killing you. Everyone could see that. It was so obvious." Quentin shakes his head. "I can't keep making excuses for you and this whole thing."

Feng Min nods, but Quentin isn't finished speaking.

"Just trying to… cover everything up, and forget about it…" His wavy hair flops forward into his eyes as he drags a hand down his face. "Maybe that works for a little while, but it's not going to work out in the long run. Never does."

"I know," she replies, strained. "Nea's been saying the same things, Quentin, I know. And I'm going to make things right."

"How?"

"I don't know," she whispers, forced to admit that she has no idea where to start. Even if she sits all of the survivors down one on one, what should she say to them? Where should she begin? It feels like no matter how she attempts to explain herself, it will never be sufficient enough explanation for her actions and decisions. Out of context and in context, she's not sure she could ever justify it.

She's thought before about how she'd feel if she found out that Meg, or Nea, or any one of the others has been spending time with one of the killers. Except it's not just that, any more. The Doctor is no longer just a killer she'd negotiated a dangerous deal with. He's no longer even the Doctor in her eyes. He's Herman Carter, someone she'd come to know on a human level. Someone imprisoned here just as much as she is.

Quentin doesn't probe her for any more answers, but his mouth is set in a stiff line. The two of them are forced to move to the other side of the structure when they realize that the Hag has set up several traps near the window exit. When they do, they see why she's been so protective of the area: there is a softly glowing collection of candles gathered beneath a totem stashed in a corner. It would be easy to miss for someone just walking by, but Feng Min and Quentin are crouched low to the ground.

Her companion kneels before the totem as Feng Min looks out for trouble. She watches as Quentin disassembles the structure, pulling frayed rope from the supports — femurs, maybe? — and loosening the trio of disintegrating, yellowed skulls on top. They drop to the wet ground with a sickening thud. He douses the flames last, and, with a roar that causes the sky to tremble, the curse breaks.

She and Quentin flee quickly, knowing that the Hag will be on her way immediately. When they've successfully escaped the pantry for the cabin, they're finally able to get to work on a generator without threat of it suddenly backfiring.

"Do you care about him?"

Feng Min stops on her side of the generator. A spark flies out and stings her cheek. The question leaves her speechless.

"Do you?" Quentin repeats, dead serious in both tone and expression.

He and Nea must have been talking. Feng Min can only guess just how much they'd figured out.

She thinks about Herman. The warmth of his chest pressed to hers. The way he'd held her. Right before letting her go.

"I…" she says, trailing off, and then, "I think so." Her voice breaks. She wants to cry again.

"That sucks," says Quentin, but his tone is less chastising than it is sympathetic, and she can't do anything but agree, nodding. It at least breaks the melancholy for a moment, letting her release a little laugh of self-pity.

"Yeah. You have no idea." She sucks back the knot in her throat. It hurts, making her shudder, but she gets it under control.

"Tell me about it sometime. When we're out of here." Quentin reaches over to squeeze her hand briefly, right over the knuckles, before he turns his attention back to the generator, and so she does, too.



Talk of searching for Jake and Claudette is a frequent topic around the campfire. Some of the survivors believe the effort to be hopeless — Ace keeps reminding them all to 'be realistic,' which feels a little rich coming from him — but most of them don't seem to have tired of trying to look for their missing companions. Feng Min isn't surprised; Jake and Claudette are two of the survivors who have been around the campfire the longest, stable fixtures that everyone had come to depend upon.

She joins the others on as many expeditions out as she can, and, somehow, none of them comment on how she'd suddenly developed such a willingness to venture into the fog with the others. The personal responsibility she feels for their disappearance is the heavy and humiliating burden she takes on her shoulders when she joins the other survivors in their search, knowing that she had caused the problem that she was now trying to solve.

They treat her with kid gloves, like she's a ticking time bomb that they all toss between themselves, and nobody wants to be holding on once it explodes. Feng Min wishes she could fix it, but she still doesn't know what to say to any of them, or how to start saying it.

She and Nea are waiting at the bottom of a tree as Meg hoists herself up to scramble up the side of the trunk and pick over the heaviest branches to manage a better view. She leans out and doesn't even twitch when the branch begins shaking beneath her weight.

"Looks pretty clear," Meg says, before looking down at the two of them. "Well, I mean, if you count nothing but fog in every direction as being clear."

"Alright. Come down, Princess." Nea spreads her arms wide, staring up at Meg perched several feet above them both.

"I'm not about to jump in your arms again. You'll drop me." Meg wobbles a little as she carefully lowers herself just enough to slip down to a lower branch.

"Everyone deserves a second chance," says Nea stubbornly, gesturing with her open arms.

"Just ask if you want a hug," teases Meg as she drops to the grass between them. She leans in to give Nea a brief embrace, patting her on the back of the shoulder in a sportsmanlike way.

"So…" starts Feng Min, glancing out through the trees. "Should we go ahead?"

"It's just the fog," says Nea, snorting. She rolls her shoulders and pulls on the straps of her backpack. "Odds of getting our shit kicked in are low."

Feng Min knows that she's right— the killers have just as much trouble navigating the dark mist as the survivors do. She nods, and Nea slides a flashlight free from a side pocket. She clicks it twice, right in Feng Min's face, and grins.

"Come on," Nea encourages. Meg's already moved ahead, her flame-red hair the brightest thing among the trees. Feng Min picks up the pace, keeping her eyes on Nea's back.

Up ahead, Meg is sweeping their path clear with a large branch she'd yanked off of a dried out, decaying tree. "I miss hills," she says suddenly.

"Huh?" Nea says.

"Hills." Meg looks over her shoulder at the two of them. "Everything's so flat here. Sometimes a girl just wants an incline. Keeps your ass toned."

"Your ass is the nicest out of anyone's here," says Nea bluntly.

"Bet you say that to all the girls," Meg says, laughing.

Nea shrugs. "So?"

"I used to just go running up and down the hill near me and my mom's place. Over and over until I felt like throwing up, and she was leaning out of the kitchen window yelling for me to come back inside." Meg's steps slow slightly. "I think she thought it was a body image thing. But I didn't know any other way to burn off the energy. I even got her to start running with me, for a while. Before she got sick."

Feng Min exchanges a look with Nea, who looks like she's familiar with this bit of information.

"I wish I knew how much time has passed," Meg continues. She hasn't turned around to look at either one of them, speaking directly ahead of herself. "Maybe this is all like one of those dreams that feels like it goes on for years, and then you wake up and see that you've just been napping for a couple of hours…"

Wishful thinking, Feng Min almost says aloud.

"Or maybe it's been ten years. Like Claudette and Jake." Meg's voice develops a slight tremor— high, thin. "I shouldn't think about it."

"No," says Nea firmly. "You shouldn't."

Feng Min's stomach churns. "Do you think maybe they're… back home?" She regrets saying it instantly. That's wishful thinking.

"That's the best case scenario," says Nea glumly; it's clear that it's not a possibility she believes in. Meg apparently doesn't, either, because the conversation dies there, and they continue their trek in silence.

It's the scent that hits her first— heavy and perfumed. Then it's the way the fog changes, thickening into steam. Feng Min stops short, her heart fluttering with familiarity. She's smelled this scent before. It's—

"Flowers?"

Nea's stopped, too. She and Meg are staring into the brush around them, which has shifted noticeably. Large pink flowers loom from fanlike leaves, and the cold mist around them has turned suffocatingly warm. Meg is looking around with an expression of utter confusion when, finally, it clicks into place in Feng Min's head.

"Wait," she says, barely a squeak. She stares straight ahead and jogs past her two companions. She can hear the sound of the ocean now.

She doesn't know if she should feel surprised when she steps out of the forest onto the sand. The little motel with its collapsing roof looks exactly the same as it was when the Doctor had first shown it to her, buzzing neon sign and everything. The blood-red sunset spread like a ribbon across the horizon is all the same hues it was the first time, too. A warm breeze drifts by, catching her hair, as Meg and Nea come through the trees behind her. She turns just in time to see them both gawk, eyes bulging.

"What the fuck," says Nea. Her backpack slips from her shoulders and hits the sand with a thud.

"Wait," says Meg worriedly. "We should be careful. We don't know if—"

Feng Min takes a deep breath. "There's no killer here. It's a dead zone," she says.

They both turn to stare at her, and she swallows nervously.

"Like a leftover place," she mumbles down at the sand. "One the Entity doesn't need any more."

"How do you know that?" Meg asks. Next to her, Nea is silent. Feng Min figures that she has already worked out the answer in her head. It doesn't take much of an educated guess.

"I've been here before," she replies. A partial truth. "Look around. There's no generators." She watches as Meg does just that, her eyes flicking up and down the shoreline.

Nea leans over to pick up one of the white plastic lounge chairs, setting it upright. "And you didn't tell anyone there was a beach here?"

"I… I really didn't think I'd ever find it again," murmurs Feng Min, which is a whole truth.

"Is that real?" Meg says. She's looking out onto the ocean. Feng Min remembers wanting to run out into it when Herman had brought her here, but they'd been on the move, and they hadn't lingered.

"It looks like something bad happened here," says Nea. She's looking at the mess spread out on the sand. She stops short in front of a colorful beach towel that is stained a familiar rustlike color.

"So basically like every other place here…" says Meg, trailing off. She spreads her arms and lifts her open palms to the sky. "The wind is so warm. Like a real beach." She looks a little antsy, casting looks between the water and both Feng Min and Nea. "Are you sure there's no killer here?"

Feng Min nods, hoping Meg will run out of questions soon. To her relief, Meg just smiles and begins kicking off her shoes.

"What are you doing?" asks Nea, eyes narrowing.

"I just want to go in the water. Just for a second," says Meg, somewhat apologetically. She drops to the sand and slides her socks off. "Don't you?"

"I guess," says Nea reluctantly. "What if there's, like, a big killer shark? What if this is just Jaws?"

"Like getting eaten by a shark is gonna hurt more than a chainsaw or whatever?" Meg rolls her eyes up to the darkening sky. "At least that would be new and exciting."

Nea's mouth twitches into a smile, before she sighs and begins removing her sneakers. "I don't even like the ocean. It's full of garbage and shit."

"Good thing this isn't a real ocean, huh?" Meg begins rolling her leggings up past the knees, before taking note of Feng Min again. "Come on! You too."

"I'll just wait on the beach," says Feng Min. She wants to, but it doesn't feel right to go splashing about in the water when she's supposed to help look for Jake and Claudette. She drops into one of the lounge chairs with her backpack and tries on an encouraging smile. "It's okay. Go ahead."

"Suit yourself," says Meg, getting to her feet. She kicks up clouds of sand as she takes off down towards the water at a running leap.

Nea's still stripping off her jeans. She's wearing boxers underneath, which doesn't at all surprise Feng Min. "You sure you don't want to come in?" she asks, frowning.

"I'm fine," says Feng Min, pressing her lips together.

"Look, I get it. You feel bad. But you don't have to be a stubborn bitch about it. What's the point in punishing yourself? How many times are you gonna get the chance to go swimming here?" She's scowling as she hops out of her pants and kicks them across the sand.

Feng Min tenses, bristling. Nea's words are grating on both her head and her heart. "I don't want to," she says tersely. She can't bring herself to meet Nea's eyes.

Nea's eyes turn cold again. The way they used to when Feng Min was still new to the nightmare, before they'd become… what, friends? Can she really call Nea a friend? She's not sure. She thinks Nea is going to try convincing her again, or maybe insulting her, but she just says, "He showed you this place, didn't he?"

It's impossible to deny. Feng Min nods mutely.

"And?" Nea prompts.

"And…" Feng Min starts, her gaze flicking past Nea towards Meg, who's waist deep out in the water. "And I didn't take you both here on purpose, if that's what you're asking."

Nea moves her weight from one leg to the other. She looks tired. "Okay," she says, and then takes a deep breath, repeating herself: "Okay."

Feng Min watches Nea head into the water to join Meg. They don't stay in there long— maybe ten minutes, by her count. At one point, Meg swims out towards the sunset, but not far from shore, she comes to a stop, as though some physical barrier has appeared. Not surprising.

She finds herself wishing that she could sit down and talk to Nea. Just explain things. Answer her questions. Give her the full story, even if it doesn't mean making anything better. Maybe Nea's the place to start. Feng Min tries to just close her eyes and feel the warm breeze and take the moment for what it is, but her stomach still feels so twisted up.

When Meg and Nea come back to shore, dripping with water, she greets them with two of the cleanest towels that she can find. Meg looks refreshed and full of energy all over again, but Nea's mood hasn't seemed to shift much. It worsens when, on their way towards the tree line with its thickly sweet flowers, Meg says, "Claudette would love to get a look at these," her hand reaching out to brush along the soft pink petals.

"Yeah," mutters Nea, but her expression is hurt. She swats aside the branches and slips between the trees. "I'm fucking freezing. Let's go back to the campfire."



The edges of the static field begin creeping quietly, intruding into her dreams. She's deep in it, caught in the black, endless plane of the Bloodweb, where the whispers have grown loud enough that she knows — in some still-lucid part of her mind — that she will wake up feeling completely unrested.

But the static is a disruption on the topmost level of consciousness, beckoning her to rise to the surface again. It gets its hooks in her and pulls, breaking her away from the whispers and dragging her outward. The part of her that can still think, the part of her that's not swallowed up inside of the whispers, grabs onto it and doesn't let go.

Feng Min wakes up dry-mouthed and sweating, sitting up in her sleeping bag to look around the campfire wildly. She half-expects to see Herman standing there in front of her, but of course he isn't. She reaches up to rub at her eyes and sees that the other survivors are mostly asleep, with a couple of exceptions: Adam's nearby, laying on his side, paging through Baker's notebook and scribbling notes in the margins of a sheaf of papers, and Ace is awake as usual, polishing a stack of coins.

She tries to center her brain on the feeling of the static. It's still there in her skull— not as strong as it was when she'd been asleep, but it's there. There's no real way to tell if Herman is nearby, or not. She half-wishes he'd just use his abilities to seek her out directly— the madness induced by the noise during trials has always been so effective at locating survivors.

As soon as that thought runs through her head, she freezes.

"Locating survivors," she repeats to herself, mouthing it silently. Her heart rate picks up.

Jake and Claudette. Of course. Why hadn't she thought of it sooner? Herman's powers are incomparable among the killers when it comes to finding survivors. Although she'd seen Jake struggle — effectively, at that — against them, she knows Claudette can't possibly be immune. With Herman's help, she might just be able to find them and redeem herself.

She knows that neither Adam nor Ace will ask any questions when she gets up, so she reaches over for her boots to pull them on and lace them up. Now that she has an idea in mind, she can't get going soon enough. She glances into her backpack for a couple of seconds — just some basic first aid supplies — and deems it good enough before putting it on and getting to her feet. As she'd predicted, both Adam and Ace don't acknowledge her when she jogs to the forest's edge.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Herman will actually want to help her. There is no reason that he even should. It's a huge favor to ask— more than a favor, it's a burden. It's not like he's invested in Jake or Claudette or really any of the survivors.

Except for her. But maybe that's enough.



The snow is falling in gentle waves as she approaches the doors of the Institute. She brushes it from her hair and shoulders as she steps inside the reception area, and immediately addresses one of the cameras: "Herman?"

She waits. His response comes, delayed, directly into her head, as though he were talking right into her ear. [ One moment. ]

Feng Min drops into one of the rusting seats. It creaks and wobbles beneath her as she crosses and uncrosses her legs, anxious. As soon as she hears his footsteps approaching from down the hall, she jumps to her feet again and turns around. He's there, the same as ever, and she's reminded again of how she'd told him that it always feels like the last time whenever they separate. Similarly, seeing him again always feels like the first time.

She offers him a hesitant little smile. He can't smile back, of course, but he says, [ You look well. ]

"Oh," Feng Min says, looking down at her left shoulder. "Yeah, I… The last trial, with you… When I got back, I was okay again."

Herman nods. [ Good. ] He folds his arms across his chest. [ Since you're now here— ]

She cuts him off. "I need your help."

He tilts his head down at her. Feng Min cranes her neck so that she can lock eyes. Like him, she doesn't blink.

"There's… Something happened. Two of us… Jake and Claudette. I don't know if you know which ones they are. He's the one with the toolboxes, usually. And she has—"

[ The healer, ] he says.

"Yeah," says Feng Min, surprised. She shuffles her feet. "They've gone missing. For… for a long time, I think. And… I think you might be the only person who could find them, at this point."

Herman is silent. His arms tighten over his chest. Eventually, he says, [ This has nothing to do with the plans I intend for the both of us. There is research I must show you. ]

"I know," says Feng Min weakly. "And… And I want to. As soon as possible. But… but right now, I…"

[ This realm is so vast that it is unlikely that even I could ever find them. ] He sounds skeptical, but, she realizes, not entirely dismissive.

"I know it's— it's asking for a lot," she whispers, horrified to realize that her voice is trembling and that a tightness has formed in her throat. She realizes that she'll need to give him the whole story if she wants any chance at convincing him. She clenches her hands into fists and continues, with difficulty, "I wasn't telling you the whole truth. Last time. When you found me passed out in front of the Institute."

Herman doesn't say anything. There's just the sound of his labored breathing.

"The other survivors… They figured something out. I mean, not… not about you, not exactly. But they figured out that I was… that I've been up to something. And I just— I completely freaked out." Her face crumples. "Just like I always do when something goes wrong. I just freaked out and ran away."

[ And you made it to Léry's. ] His voice is toneless in her head.

"I was afraid," she says brokenly. "It's always like this with me. I don't… I don't know how to deal with it. Or with anything. I didn't know what to say, so I ran."

[ Why did you not tell me this the first time? ]

"I told you," she says dully. "I was afraid." She tries to swallow the quiver in her voice. "And I thought, maybe you'd… maybe you'd just look into my head again. For the truth."

Herman drops his arms to his sides. His expression twitches between the metal wires and cables stretching his features apart. [ I haven't searched your brain at any point when you were not aware of it. ] It confirms something she'd only suspected before, and she's not sure if she should be surprised or not.

"And… the others went after me. Except Jake and Claudette never came back." She drops her head.

[ Would it bother you that much if the others of your kind knew? About… this? ] His tone is clinical and detached, his head canted.

Feng Min is surprised that he's even asking, but then she realizes that he seems to be more interested in her psychological response than anything else. "I'm just… They won't trust me any more. They don't know you. Not like I do." She dares a peek up into his face.

[ I see. ] He pauses. [ I have nothing to fear from your companions finding out. ] He leaves the obvious unspoken: that Feng Min has plenty to fear for herself. [ How are you so certain that they will abandon you? ]

"Do you think they won't?" she challenges.

Herman simply stares at her, before saying, [ If I choose to assist you, and we do locate your friends, you will have to confront them. ]

Feng Min nods. "I know," she says.

It's not lost on her that if Herman does help her find Jake and Claudette, she'll have to explain just why she'd been wandering the realm with a killer looking for the two of them. She'll have to explain. It'll be hard, she knows, but… She thinks she might be able to do it with Herman there.

"So… are you going to help me?" she asks softly.

He reaches out to run his large hand through her hair, fingertips cresting on her chin. [ I'll advise you now: don't get your hopes up. ]



Feng Min feels uneasy the moment she spots the flashing red and blue lights of a police cruiser. Lampkin Lane is quiet, and there's no sign of movement, but there never is, so that's no guarantee of safety. It's one of the places she least likes to be, primarily for its associated killer. But being next to Herman's side makes her feel safer than she has ever been in this memory-capture of Laurie's hometown.

Herman has been intensifying the effects of the static in bursts as they walk, and it's got Feng Min in an antsy state. She keeps straining to hear something — anything — from out in the mist or in the trees, but there is never any response. Now and then, a crow will take off, disturbed by the current of electricity, its eyes focused piercingly on the both of them.

They haven't been talking much; Feng Min can't tamp down the guilt she feels at extracting a favor like this one from Herman. She can't tell if he's bored or not as they search the landscape of the nightmare. She's pretty sure that he doesn't think they're going to find Jake or Claudette, and the pessimist in her is inclined to agree.

"Herman," she says finally as they cut through a backyard. She'd tugged him away from the open street, too nerve-wracked to take a chance at the exposed sight lines, even in his company. She's become familiar with Myers' habit of appearing in the blink of an eye, and she'd much rather take an escape route through the back of a home than the front of one.

[ Yes? ] He walks around the other side of a hedge and climbs up onto a porch. Feng Min trails after him. There are no lights on inside the gutted house, but when he steps inside, the glow coming from the sparks pouring from his body casts a silver light on the peeling walls.

"What exactly is it? Your research. About the Entity." She reaches to touch him on the back of the right elbow. It zaps her, making her yank her hand back, but she tries again. This time, it doesn't hurt.

He looks down at her. [ It is about determining its nature. ]

"We talked before," she says hesitantly, "about how it can be… influenced." She makes a grab for his hand. He only ever seems to use his left one to build charges. He lets her take it.

[ Yes. ] Herman turns his face up towards the staircase. Feng Min feels a sort of vibration coming from him that travels up the length of her left arm, right to the bone. He seems to determine that there is nothing worth checking out up there, and he tugs her towards the back door again. [ Let's establish one thing first. This place — the nightmare, as you've called it — is reliant on memory. ]

"What do you mean?"

[ The Entity cannot expand its boundaries without accessing human memory. The places you have encountered here — even the ones that are no longer occupied — would not exist if they hadn't been plucked from the memories of one of its… chosen ones. ] He deliberates on those last two words, and still sounds uncertain as to whether or not they were the right ones to use.

"Like Léry's Memorial Institute. It really did exist. Back in… the real world. And this place, too. Laurie calls it Haddonfield. She says she used to live here." She looks up into his face for confirmation. "So, everywhere else in the nightmare must be…"

[ Yes. A place that once existed on Earth. ] He lets go of Feng Min's hand so that she can move ahead of him through the back door, and she reaches for it again when he joins her at the fence. [ It is incapable of original thought… So to speak. ]

"Why?" she asks.

[ I can't be certain. ] Herman steps over the fence while Feng Min scrambles up over it. [ But from a neurological point of view… The effect of emotion must be considered. ]

"The others…" Feng Min starts, furrowing her brow. "They think it… feeds on us. Not just… when we die. They think it likes when we're miserable."

[ Of course it does. It also likes when you are hopeful, or scared, or genuinely happy. ] She watches as a light forms between Herman's fingers, exploding outward into the next yard over. The electricity causes the grass to ripple. Feng Min smells smoke, but she hears no telltale screams.

"It doesn't care what we're feeling?"

[ No. Just as long as you are feeling something, it is satisfied. ]

Feng Min fits her fingers in between his and slows her steps. "What about… apathy? What if you just stop feeling anything?"

Herman casts her a sharp look, his glowing white irises piercing right through her. [ Then it no longer needs you. ] She can tell from his tone that this is not a good thing, and she doesn't want to know the details.

The next home over is boarded up in the back, so they head up around the side of the building. When they get a glimpse of the view across the street, Feng Min notices the ever-present pumpkin sitting in front of the home with the FOR SALE sign. It reminds her again that Lampkin Lane is Myers' territory, renewing her anxiety, but she shakes it off and tries to stay on topic. "If everything here is constructed of memories… What did you mean by the effect of emotion?"

[ Memories can change, ] says Herman bluntly. [ The recollection of them. The feelings tied to them. ] He moves aside to allow her through the front door ahead of him. Feng Min begins coughing as soon as she steps inside, raising her sleeve to her nose to shield herself from the dust. Herman doesn't flinch when he walks in, though she can't help but wonder if the dust bothers his always-open eyes.

"What about… manipulating them? On purpose? Like…" Feng Min hesitates, reluctant to broach a topic she doesn't know nearly enough about. "Like… what you did. For the CIA. You know, um… altering someone's mind state." She winces.

He breathes out, long and shuddery. [ You're on the right track. ]

"If a memory can be manipulated, then could the nightmare itself be manipulated?" They pause in the kitchen while Herman appears to concentrate on sensing their surroundings. Feng Min hovers by one of the counter tops, waiting for him to answer.

[ That's the idea. It's about figuring out how, ] he says eventually, apparently deeming the house empty. But he leans into the other side of the counter, studying her. [ It's a shame that you have me on this errand, otherwise I would gladly show you my notes… ]

Her face falls. "I'm sorry."

He shakes his head. [ I can see that it is important to you. You're not the friendless type you prefer to present as. ]

Feng Min can feel the redness rising on her cheeks. She wants to say, well, what do you know? but she stops herself, because she already knows the answer: a lot. Instead she says, "It happened because of me. I feel like I have to be the one to fix it." She shakes her head, tucking her chin in. "I don't know how I'm going to repay you."

[ We can negotiate that if the venture is successful, ] he says, and she doesn't miss the little chuckle that follows. She's still blushing, but it's for a different reason now. He continues like he doesn't even notice. [ For all of my efforts at the Institute at trying to uncover a true method of mind control, I never discovered anything that wasn't granted to me by the Entity. Even my ability to search memories was given to me by it. It is only a small fraction of what it is capable of doing with and to the human mind. Any one of those you see here, haunting these realms… Each of us has only a taste of its power. ]

"It could take it back, right?" she asks.

[ At any time. It isn't threatened by me. ] His voice turns toneless again in her head and curiously glitchy. He hasn't sounded like that in her mind for a while now. It clears up as he continues. [ I don't think there is any chance that it could ever be killed. How does one kill a thing that exists all around you? You can't. ]

Her heart sinks a little. "Then why bother trying to figure it out?"

[ I said that it can't be killed. Not that it can't be… ] He trails off, as though trying to pick a word. [ Tricked. ]

Shifting uneasily, Feng Min looks out of the open window with its tattered curtain into a night sky that she knows holds no real stars. "You talk about it so openly. What if it just… What if messing around with it like this just gets you…" She clasps her hands together behind her back, white-knuckle tight. "What if it decides it doesn't… need you anymore?"

Herman tilts his head at her. [ As I said, it isn't threatened by me. Why should it be? To it, we are curiosities. It doesn't care what we do, or how we do it, so long as it is fed. We are little more than lab mice: useful for a single purpose, but easily replaced. ]

She's not convinced, and the worry she feels over him isn't exactly a comforting thing, either. "What do I have to do with any of this? I'm not like… like you. The Entity hasn't done anything to me. I'm just…" Prey. Vulnerable. "How am I supposed to help you with this?"

Herman laughs, and she listens to the sound spin back and forth and bounce off of the tiles. [ Exactly. ] He reaches up with both hands to touch the crown of his head, where the ports burrow through his skull. [ Your mind is untouched by it. It allows for… new possibilities. ]

Feng Min is confused. It feels like she's been handed another cryptic puzzle to solve, and she doesn't know what to do with it. She wants to ask, why me? but immediately realizes that she already knows: it has to be her because Herman has never been able to establish direct communication with any other survivor, let alone establish the kind of trust that would be required.

"I think I get it," she murmurs.

[ Not yet. But you will. ] Herman offers her his hand, and she takes it. He leads her out of the home. They don't talk as they move through the next few houses, and Feng Min tries not to dwell on the information she's just learned, wanting to focus on the immediate task of locating Jake and Claudette.

As they pass the park with its jungle gym, Feng Min thinks aloud, "This place always reminds me of home."

He glances down at her. [ Which one? ]

"The one in America, I guess. I don't remember a lot about living in China." She shrugs.

[ What do you remember about it? ]

Feng Min wonders if he is just humoring her, but he seems genuinely curious, so she says, "Orange groves. Our prefecture was known for them."

She remembers the smell most of all. Every spring, the oranges would ripen, and the breeze would carry their scent all throughout the city and right along the river that cut through it. She'd visit the market with her mother and they'd return with bags and bags full, and then they'd go door-to-door together, offering them to neighbors.

Recalling this memory hurts in a way she hadn't expected. She doesn't want to think about her childhood or about her family. Not right now. Instead, she asks, voice wavering, "What about you…? Where did you grow up?" She doesn't exactly expect him to bite, and she's surprised when he does.

[ Hartford. ] He exchanges a look with her. [ I never saw it again after being placed at the Léry's Memorial Institute site. ]

Feng Min's heart suddenly feels heavier. She regrets asking. "Were you happy…?" She stops, then clarifies. "Before."

[ It feels so long ago that I'm not sure I remember. ] Herman floods the street with static and waits. There is no reaction from anything except a caw from a single crow perched atop a garbage can, staring the both of them down. [ I don't dwell on it. Nothing that happened to me can be changed. ]

"You seemed lonely," she murmurs, thinking back to the brush she'd had with his memories. Glimpses into the life of a young man with limitless potential and few opportunities and a great burden on his shoulders. A young man who had been preyed upon by those who had recognized his naïveté and pounced. A young man carefully shaped into a tool. A weapon.

He seems to understand what she is referencing. [ I didn't feel that way, ] he says eventually.

"I was, too," she says softly, shaking her head. "I… I didn't want friends. I didn't think I needed them. I just wanted to be the best. I didn't want to get distracted. I never really thought of what I would do if I actually accomplished it. And then I did, and everything fell apart, and… and I had nobody. No one was there. I was falling apart, and no one was there." Her voice cracks on the last couple of words.

Herman's thumb strokes over her knuckles. It's sparking, and it stings, but she understands that he is trying to comfort her.

"I know you're right. About not dwelling on stuff that you can't change. But I always wonder if I'd even be here if I just…" Her voice turns bitter. "If I just asked even one person for help. I lost everything. Everything. My career and my family and my talent and… myself."

[ If you allow yourself to continue thinking in that manner, you'll drive yourself insane, ] he says. He's walking her out towards the tree line, and only now does Feng Min realize that they've canvassed the entirety of Lampkin Lane.

"May 7th, 2017," she says as they come to a stop, right where the paved street ends and the fog begins. "That's the last date I remember."

[ You'd do best to forget it. ] Herman says stiffly, and she thinks he's going to leave it at that, but then she watches as his shoulders slump, and he sighs. [ Don't think that I don't understand what it's like to lose oneself. I do. ] He turns towards her and leans over slightly so that she doesn't have to turn her chin up so high to look at him. [ But you aren't lost. You're right here with me. ] His voice is remarkably gentle where it nests in her mind.

Feng Min feels her eyes start watering. "Yeah," she whispers, and then, impulsively, she throws her arms around his waist and buries her face into his warm chest, where beneath she can feel the humming of his heart endlessly generating power. His arms close around her, and for a while they stay like that, and she thinks to herself that the sound of a killer's heartbeat has never been so comforting before.



When snow begins to fall all around them, right through the canopy of the dense trees, Feng Min wonders if they've circled back to the Institute somehow. But then a cold breeze hits— sharp enough to make her turn her face away from it. When they break through the fog, she finds herself blinded by a great expanse of white.

Her eyes adjust quickly, and she immediately knows that she's somewhere she's never been before. There is a great mountain range visible on the horizon, and she can see a ski lift that extends so far up into it that she can't make out the suspended seats after a certain point. There is a large cabinlike structure in the distance as well, strikingly dark against the snow.

The cold hits her immediately, and she lets go of Herman's hand to hug her arms around her body. She looks up at him questioningly, wondering if they have discovered another dead zone.

[ I don't recognize this realm, ] he says, as though reading her thoughts again. She notices that the current that usually tracks around his body has stopped.

"There's no way they'd be in a place like this, right…?" Feng Min asks, mostly to herself. Her teeth are close to chattering.

[ I doubt it. ] Herman appears unaffected by the cold, despite his bared arms. That makes sense to her— his typical body temperature is so much higher than hers to begin with. [ You aren't dressed for this sort of weather. We should leave. ]

"No," she says abruptly. "We need to check." She makes a grab at his arm, straining to look up at him. She can feel the tip of her nose going numb in the chilly wind. "Please."

His gaze appears wary, but he still moves ahead of her towards the cabin. [ I'll look. You should take shelter. ]

"No," she says again. "If you find them and I'm not there, they're just gonna run away screaming." A beat. "No offense."

He laughs. The sound is swept up in the wind and carried away.

The cabin is dilapidated, looking as though it's been sitting unoccupied for decades. She recognizes it as some kind of ski lodge, or maybe a hotel; there's a reception desk right in the front, and she can see room keys hanging from little hooks behind it. She notices that there's a coat check there, too, with a few highly outdated-looking ski jackets hanging on the rack. She immediately scales the desk to grab at one, a bright purple number with acidic green and hot pink accents. It's enormous on her, and incredibly unfashionable by her standards, but— then again, she thinks, she's in the company of a man who never witnessed the world progress beyond 1983, anyway.

Feng Min feels better immediately once she's got the coat on, zipping it up all the way to her chin. The Doctor watches, humming in amusement, as she climbs back onto the desk to get back to the other side.

[ I wonder what it's like to be so small you struggle to climb a desk, ] he says.

She goes red. "Shut up," she says. "I'm… I'm average. You're the one that's different."

He offers her a hand to help her hop back down. She grasps it. [ It hurts my neck looking down at you survivors sometimes. ]

"Wow," Feng Min says dryly. "Poor you."

Herman's grimacing mouth twitches, and laughter spills out. [ Something tells me you aren't being sincere. ]

"How'd you guess?" Feng Min shoots him a smug little look as she tugs him towards the main area. When they walk in, the first thing she notices is that the large fireplace in the center is lit, and her smile fades.

"Someone's here," she says, suddenly nervous.

He doesn't reply. Instead, he simply raises his left hand. She watches the ground as the charge builds and then hits the floor, licking her boots. It shivers out towards the fireplace and worms its way into the side rooms before fading away. [ If there is, they aren't nearby, ] he says finally.

Relaxing somewhat — but only a fraction — Feng Min walks towards the fireplace. She drops down into one of the faded orange seats, leaning in to try to warm herself up. Feeling the heat on her face causes her to remember the dead zone with the beach again, and she wonders if she ought to tell him about it.

She hasn't decided yet when Herman says, [ I'm going to do a quick check upstairs. ] Feng Min looks up and sees that there's another floor with a large staircase twisting up towards it, so she nods.

"Okay," she says softly. "I'll be right here."

Herman disappears up the steps without another word. She can hear his heavy footfalls moving on the creaking floorboards for a while, until he moves so deeply into the building that she can't hear him any more.

Exhaustion rolls over her all at once, and she slumps in her seat. The whole venture seems pointless, she has to admit. There's no part of her that truly believes that she can find Jake or Claudette, even with Herman's help. The nightmare is so vast and ever-changing. They could be at another campfire. They could be back in the real world. Or they could be… somewhere else. Somewhere the Entity wouldn't need them any more.

Feng Min buries her face in her hands, elbows to knees, wishing she had a drink to quell the building headache. When she hears footsteps coming back towards her, she thinks it must be Herman, and she raises her head slightly. "Did you—"

Her neck snaps back, and there's suddenly pain all throughout her scalp. Her hair is being yanked so tightly that it makes her gasp and cry out. Her hands fly up in confusion, not understanding, and she thrashes.

"What are you—" she shrieks, but then an arm locks around her neck, and a knife appears at her throat.

"Don't move," says a voice right into her ear. A voice she definitely doesn't recognize.

Chapter Text

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."

"You think?"

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.

"What the—"

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.

The madness.

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.

Fuck—

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.

No.

"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.

"...How...?"

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."

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.

"Wh—"

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 Mi