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Blending into a crowd is easier than one gives credit for, even as a wanted man with a steadily rising body count under his belt.

Dennis passes through the small cluster of basketball game attendees leaving the high school building with a leisurely, purposeful pace. He wears a plain button down; nothing flashy or that would stand to call attention. He also (uncharacteristically) dons a simple, black baseball cap tugged low to mask his face. Barry would definitely chew him out for this style clash. But no one pays him any mind as he keeps his head lowered. He follows a few steps behind a group of cheerleaders and their coach from the school a town over, the former potential unworthy candidates for The Beast.

It’s a rare occurence that he goes after such a large group that’s together. Usually, he picks them off in two's or three's every few hours in different locations. Makes it faster to drug them. Easier to control them. And when The Beast was in the mood he’d stalk the night himself, finding impure young partying deep in the woods around a bonfire too drunk to run or fight. Too carefree to worry. Too young to die— at least that's what they think.

“Aw, no, looks like it's going to rain again,” he hears one of the cheerleaders whine as she looks up at the sky.

He follows her gaze up to the cold and dark autumn sky. He hopes it will. The thickening clouds and rain will make nice coverage. Not that he's incapable of handling what was out there should a problem arise. Dennis had plans for plans. Still, it’s not a glamorous job or one he takes particular joy from (no matter how many pretty, soft girls he gets to carry in his arms) but it’s imperative to keep The Beast sustained. The all nighters he’s been pulling has been necessary. One step closer to a better, safer world in which Kevin - and others - could live without fear or shame. 

The media has decided some time months ago when citizens begin disappearing left and right not to mention the legend of The Horde in their reports. Ironically, they’d rather not instill a city wide panic, and in the process has reduced The Horde to nothing more than wild imaginings of a traumatized teenage girl in the year gone by. Most of the public was aware of their tricks and diversions, because there were whispers of something big and fast stalking innocents in the night, of children running home before the street lights turned on. First responders to crime scenes finding things they couldn’t explain. A torn car door. Bent iron gates. Maimed victims that didn’t match anything lurking in the darkest parts of the city. Nevertheless, The Horde did not take kindly to the ignorance and misdirection of the police and media.

And then there was the matter of some weird vigilante in a tacky raincoat. Sketches and poor quality photos of his profile stealing headline coverages.

He watches the girls head into the bus parking zone, the buzz of chatter dulling as they get further away from the crowd. The bus would be taking the back roads to avoid the main traffic buildup and he'll follow. Waiting until they get far enough onlyonl find their tire has caught flat. The bus carrying the football players home won't even make it out of the lot as Dennis has already dealt with that problem.

He sidesteps behind a brick column as the cheerleading coach slows her pace and begins to turn her head around. Everyone is on high alert these days. It’s exhilarating. It’s annoying. He exhales loudly in frustration. He thinks she must be a mother, they're either wholly observant or neglectful of their sixth sense.

"You know what would be good?" Dennis thinks, sarcasm thickly laced with frustration as he pulls his mind inward. "If we made an actual dent in these numbers, if we cranked it up a notch. It's time."

“The Beast does his part, and beautifully I might add,” Patricia says in a soft, clipped tone. “We shall endeavor to do better as well, Dennis.” His name falls flat and accusing on her tongue.

Dennis shrugs off the pointed accusation with the roll of his shoulders. “Patricia, they can’t all be sacred food. Can’t all be a Kevin or a Casey either."

Dennis has been thinking about Casey far too often. It was difficult not to when she was their first- his first. Remembers her with obsessive clarity, more than any other pretty, young girl he's met in his lifetime. So quiet and soft spoken compared to the other two sacrifices that day. Submissive wide eyes, long, dark hair; but those clever, red bow lips had gotten her into trouble more than once. Her gaze had been steady and sharp, stained with fear, but never disgusted. Not like the other two. He didn't notice at first, not until after she survived The Beast's first ritual.

He wasn’t the only one who mentioned her name as they sat in group. Imagine their surprise when The Beast had deemed the girl worthy. A shining light on the future of human evolution right in front of Dennis and he never even knew. 

And now he finds it impossible not to close his eyes and have her face in his mind, heavy in his chest, thick in his pants. But more than that, she makes him feel. Really feel. And he aches for a connection with someone on the outside, someone special like them. Someone to talk to like he had briefly with Dr. Fletcher.

Dennis closes his eyes. He can’t think about that particular betrayal. The feeling of acceptance Dr. Fletcher’s words had given him that night cut sharp and deep in his chest even now. She had been their voice in a world that didn’t understand them or even cared to, who fought for Kevin’s wellbeing as much as he or Patricia did. Except Dr. Fletcher (rest her soul) had reached her limit when it came to the The Beast. However, Casey Cooke was one of them, and he just wants to see her, and if allowed, touch her. Be near her. Bond with her.

“We talked about what we needed to do next,” Dennis says roughly, thoughts still on soft skin and big brown eyes. “It’s time. We're ready.”

“I suppose it is, isn’t it,” Patricia hums approvingly.

He hears the school bus roar to life and makes his way across the lot to the white, unmarked van he’s taken for tonight. Dennis watches as the bus drives past him and out of the lot. He starts the engine and follows.

 

///

 

One week later.

 

Raindrops stubbornly cling to the windows, effectively blurring the outside world. The tinny ringing of a bell signals the departure of yet another customer hoping to beat the inevitable downpour of rain. The door opens and closes, bringing a gust of cold wind insde, the aroma of dewey leaves and damp wood wafting in. Beams of red and yellow headlights in the distance pulse against the backdrop of a thick, gray sky that touches down to blend in with the earth’s muddy surface. Why anyone would want to go out and face this weather was beyond her, she was half tempted to scurry under the desk and make a nest here for the night- legality be damned.

Jean’s Outdoor Gun Range is nearly empty except for the lucky ones who got here to get in a few rounds before the weather took an unexpected turn. She exchanges nods with some of the regulars as they dawdle and cast irritated glances outside, hoping that this would only be the worst of the weekend’s storm.

Casey wraps her red hoodie tighter as another customer takes shelter inside to escape the incoming light drizzle. As cold as it is inside the warehouse she enjoys working at the range. It’s quiet (not counting the booming rapid fire of gunshots) and simple (despite the high dangers). There’s a coffee table with a stack of gun safety, hunting, and army magazines. A flat screen bolted up playing some survival show. Several waiting chairs are pushed up to the wall. The help desk she’s currently occupying where she gets lost playing solitaire on the computer inbetween paperwork, stocking, sweeping, and more paperwork.

Most importantly, it was just on the outskirts of Montgomery County, away from anyone she knew. Even when filled to the brim with customers, most of them either didn’t recognize her or didn’t care enough to ask.

Her boss and owner, Norma Jean, heads out of her office from behind the help desk. A camouflage jacket large over her small frame, brown hair pulled back in a braid, loose strands framing her sharp face and light blue eyes. Norma swings the warehouse keys in one hand, a wordless gesture that it was almost time to lock up. The jingling makes Casey cringe and ever the observant, Norma notices and abruptly stops.

It had been difficult for Casey to find a job where she could be left alone without anyone staring at her in pity or fear as if contagious. No one asking incredibly invasive questions or talking about her in hushed whispers. It may had to do with the Glock 19 on her hip holster, courtesy of Norma for her eighteenth birthday.

Casey had prepared to go into the system shortly after she confessed to the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her uncle. It was an incredibly stressful time between the trial, the therapy sessions, and reporters knocking on her case worker’s door. She was convinced that bringing it out into the light would finally break her after survivng The Beast of all things. All those people around her had felt impersonal and alienating, the exact opposite effect they were trying to go for.

And then in stepped Donna, Dr. Fletcher’s close friend. ‘'This is no environment for a young girl going through all this shit,'’ the elderly woman had muttered between the flavored cigarette in her mouth. "I think I can manage to look after you for a year, dear."

It was during that year of homeschooling and game show binge watching that she met Donna’s niece, Norma. One surprise trip to her outdoor shooting range and a dozen paper targets later she began to feel something other than numbness or hatred for the first time in a long time.

“All right, get your sorry asses out of here before it gets ugly,” Norma grins. “I’m ready to go home before the sky opens up and causes hell. And if this weather keeps up we might not be open until next week.” Norma turns to Casey. “Can you and Mason make sure everyone is gone while me and Carter finish up here?” Norma asks.

"Sure," Casey says, slipping out of the desk chair.

Even though there’s a p.a. hooked up outdoors they still had the occasional stragglers hanging around. This is a gun range after all and sometimes they don’t get the most compliant or level headed customers. 

Mason is an average, nice enough guy from the few conversations they've had; two years her senior finishing basics at college, treated his mom and girlfriend out to dinners, a people pleaser but never to the point where it compromised his morals. And, as she comes to soon learn, he never gives up.

Casey and Mason walk along the length of the sheltered shooting stands where stacks of sandbags and large earth mounds put a barrier around the otherwise large, flat land surrounded by miles of woods. The rifle range was two hundred yards, the pistol range a quarter of that, the tactical simulation complete with various barriers to hide behind and moving targets- the latter being her favorite and most psychologically strenous. There was also a smaller field for archery. Basically, a big playground for weapon aficionados. Since the range wasn’t hot at the moment they didn’t bother putting on protective muffs or glasses.

So, Casey couldn’t pretend not to hear Mason calling her name.

“Hey, Case! Slow down,” Mason chuckles, “where’s the rush?”

Ignoring him, she squints her eyes over the creeping blanket of darkness smoldering over the field. It's not like she doesn't like Mason, she was just of the strong opinion that work is work and rather focused her time committing to it, not making friends and joking around on the job which he was known for with other employees. Another reason why he's currently bothering her. Casey doesn't have a life outside of work besides the occasional home visit from Donna and Norma.

“So, everyone is getting dressed up after work and heading to the Harvest Festival next week, you going? There's going to be a lot of contests, shooting involved.”

“I'm not going.” Casey attempts a smile to smooth away the abrupt shutdown but it feels more like a grimace.

“Aw, c'mon!" Mason grins wider. "It will be fun. Might even be mandatory. The morning shift keeps asking 'is Casey gonna come because she's the best shot' and they have some cool prizes this year. Who doesn't need free cash or an all you can eat coupon?”

Casey shrugs disinterestedly and swiftly turns on her heel to head back to the office.

Mason simply laughs, finding her behavior amusing. She was certain he was one of those guys growing up who zeroed in on the quietest kid and made a project out of them. Besides, the last time she went to a gathering she got caught in the middle of a kidnapping. "Please? You won't regret it. Promise."

"I'll think about it," Casey says, knowing full well she won't.

"You serious?"

"Yeah." Casey smiles.

Mason gives an exaggerated whoop and she almost feels glad for lying in the moment, knowing it will make her feel horribly burdened the next day. But, then again, maybe they'll even have something in common outside of work if she goes.

 

///

 

“Oh, he just wants to be your friend,” Norma laughs when Casey tells her about Mason’s invitation. “Everyone loves you around here. You flush the toilet and you replace the targets when customers don't.”

“No one just wants to be my friend,” Casey replies blankly.

Norma hums, unconvinced. “Mr. Carter considers himself to be your friend,” she nods to the man.

Mr. Carter - a crotchety older man with balding hair and an endless supply of the same dark plaid shirt - is currently spitting tobacco in a plastic cup he had coffee in earlier. Their only real interactions consisting of “hello” and “good shot” and “is there fresh coffee brewed.”

“He’s my long lost twin,” Casey deadpans.

"Casey," Norma gives her an amused look.

A series of harsh rapts on the front door startles them out of their secret conversation.

A young man with curly brown hair and a long face waves in greeting from the window.

“Joseph Dunn,” Norma says in surpise, unlocking the door. “What are you doing out here?”

“Hey, everyone." Joseph smiles, eyes sweeping over everyone, noticeably lingering on Casey before looking back to Norma. “Well, I was filming earlier so I thought I'd stop by. A search team finally found that school bus, about twenty minutes from here. Should be on right now actually.”

Mr. Carter grunts. “Kinda like this damn range, it’s been closed about twenty minutes now and I’m still here. Off clock.”

Norma groans, “go on then, Mr. Carter.”

“Can’t. Now I’m curious.”

“I actually just wanted to ask a few questions before I left,” Joseph cuts right to the chase.

"What about?" Norma frowns.

Joseph flushes and shifts awkwardly on his feet. "Related to the, uh, missing bus."

Casey swallows nervously, edging towards the help desk to grab her bag.

"I don't understand," she hears Norma say.

"Well..." Joseph drags on. "It only partially has to do about the bus. Actually, I'm here to-"

Having heard enough, Casey steps forward, eyes averted. "Yeah?"

Everyone is silent for a moment. This isn't the first time reporters and the like hounded her for more information about The Horde and her life. Why wouldn't they if it got them ratings? People were still interested in The Horde and not many could offer anything new on Kevin Wendell Crumb or his other identities besides his ex co-workers looking to make a quick buck. It also piked various theories seeing as how they never found a body. Some say Kevin somehow skipped off to a different country. Others have less reality grounding speculations. She supposes if she'd just went ahead and did her 30 minutes of how-I-survived story complete with tissue boxes and a horrible re-enactment with even more horrible background actors they would leave her alone.

She'd already relived her crap dozens of times on the stand and a leather chaise in a swanky therapist's office. Dealt with true crime buffs lurking in the shadows waiting for the perfect moment to strike; you read science fiction too, huh? say, what do you think of Kevin Wendell Crumb's claims about this leaked session online? She just wants to carve her slice of peace in the world and be done with it all.

"Shoot," Casey sighs, gesturing over to the desk.

“It’s completely off the record,” Joseph assures with a small smile. “Assistant has my camera anyway.”

That makes her a feel a bit better.

“When you fought against Kevin Crumb-”

“The Beast,” Casey corrects.

The sound of the television clicks on and she thanks whoever thought of it, it felt weird enought to talk about this at her place of work. What she hears catches all of their attentions.

"… a search team has found the school bus which carried twelve cheerleaders, their coach, and driver on their way home from a football game two days ago in the surrounding woods,“ the anchorwoman reports from the desk. "We have Mark on site, what more can you tell us of this troubling update?"

The small screen in the bottom corner zooms in to Mark who is wearing an ugly raincoat and a grim expression, the background is filled with officers roaming through a mess of metal debris. "Well, Deborah, It appears that they caught a flat tire somewhere around this area and pulled over in the middle of the storm."

Casey holds her breath as the camera pans over the badly shaped bus turned over with its bumper jammed into a tree.

“It is unclear as to what happened but the current belief is that this might have been a hit and run. As you can see,” the anchorman points to the back end of the bus, “there’s a large indentation there. There has been no evidence so far on foul play or where the missing students and adults might have gone. Although, the bus door was heavily damaged and there were large tear marks on the seats which could have been caused by a bear,” the anchorman solemnly explains, leaving the site.

“You think a bear took out fourteen people?” Mr. Carter asks. “How the hell did it even get through the door.”

“Possibly on two legs and sucking in its stomach,” Norma suggests with a shrug.

“Yeah, well, that would have been a bloodbath,” Mr. Carter grunts. “Do you see a bloodbath? Because I don’t.”

Grimacing, Casey turns back to Joseph. There’s a glint in his eyes that makes her wary. “The Beast- he didn’t have any sort of weakness you can think of?” he asks her.

Her brows rise in suprise, mouth slacking. “He's alive? Have you found him? Is that why you're here?"

“Unfortunately, no. But, we may have a lead. And I know what you saw down there, from the early reports? What you experienced is not something that can be explained. That can be easily fought. No one wants to talk about it anymore but we all see the signs, and running scared when we need to confront it isnti going to solve anuthing.  Which is why I needed to ask you...how can we take down The Beast or...or even reason with him?”

"Who is we?" 

Joseph stalls. "I..."

"There was...maybe, but it won't work now." Casey purses her lips. “Look. It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t know why you’re asking but forget it, it won’t do any good so don't bother going after him. A shotgun couldn't even slow him down. You'll end up getting yourself and whoever else is involved killed.”

"More innocent people are going to die if we don't do something," Joseph says solemnly.

"I'm sorry." Casey grabs her messenger back and backs off. She says goodbye to her co-workers and rushes out to her car as fast as she can, ignoring their calls, her heart hammering in time to the slap of her shoes on the wet pavement.

Once inside, she searches her pockets, pulling out one of the miniature maps she pilfered forever ago from the display here. Smoothing it out on her lap, she grabs one of the pens in the compartment and uncaps it with her teeth. Her other hand traces the familiar spot on the map, circles the area with a shaking hand. She drives on that road all the time. To think that he was so close to her was unnerving. Casey looks down at all of the other circles on the map, a history of his possible work. His attacks random and without a safety net to pinpoint her target. She clenches the marker in frustration, revels in the pain it sparks in her palm. Casey wonders what The Horde are doing now. How close are they. 

 

///

 

The second Casey makes sure her apartment door is locked she chucks her messenger bag and hoodie on the couch, clumsily tugs off her boots, and sets to unstrapping her holster. The lull of music greets her, it was pleasant comparable to the silence and a deterrent for any thieves who may think someone's inside. She heads to the entertainment center and kneels down, fingers running through her small collection of DVDs. All she wanted was to curl up on the couch with a blanket, get the chore of cleaning her gun out of the way, and lose track of time before getting ready for a new day.

She decides on a comedy, sticking it in the DVD player. As she goes to cut the television on she pauses, frowning.

In the reflection of the black screen she sees a cluster of cleaning supplies on the kitchen bar.

Sharp panic shoots through her chest.

That wasn’t there this morning.

It’s then that she hears the soft clacking of glass against glass breaking through the rush of blood pounding in her ears.

A high pitch groan slices through the air, she recognizes it as the sound the left kitchen sink knob when turning it on.

A drawn out, forced sputter and eventual rush of water.

The ground tilts below her feet, head swimming in overwhelming fear. Her breathing is loud. Too loud. She’s afraid he might hear it as she slowly stands.

The water stops.

Casey reaches for her gun on the table. Remembers that the magazine is empty. She eyes the messenger bag on the arm chair closest to the front door, but the table is in her way so she can't make a straight shot.

Casey creeps forward.

“You left some dirty dishes on the counter,” a heavy, familiar accent says. “I cannot stand dirty dishes on the counter- especially if they’re not stacked up properly.”

She stumbles and nearly trips over her own two feet at the sound of him, heavy dread settling in her chest leaving the rest of her feeling light and dizzy. She freezes. Looks around. Nothing in her proximity to throw. The table will slow him down but it won’t be enough to even open the front door.

Through the curtain of her hair she slowly sets her eyes on him.

Dennis is leaning on the kitchen bar with his sleeves rolled up and arms crossed, he looks as casual as one could be in a home you broke into.

Casey turns to fully face him, the bag feeling miles away now. It would be foolish to even try to reach for it. Throat closing and face hot, she tenses as Dennis’ eyes roam down her body to the table, settling on the gun, not worried in the least belieivng it was loaded.

Damn.

Dennis unfolds his arms and wordlessly gestures to the couch.

Casey shuffles over to it and sits. Not needing to be told she also places the Glock into his waiting hand.

He wipes the gun down with his yelllow cloth before easily dismantling it to her surprise, and neatly aligns its parts on the table side by side. Once done, his attention is back on her.

Casey has to press herself into the couch to properly look at him looming over her. He’s wearing the same pressed, dark gray uniform and jacket he wore the first time he arrived in her life. The well fitted outfit highly meticulous and disconcerting, the material stretching in all the most intimidating places as he brings a hand up to rub his shaved head while staring her down.

A moment passes before he exhales slowly through his nose and looks away. Belatedly, she realizes she’d been holding her breath and greedily inhales, her small frame wracking with shivers.

Dennis moves to sit closer than personal boundaries would allow, the couch dipping under his weight and tipping her even closer to him, the smell of soap and bleach burning her nose. Straightening, she wraps her arms around her middle, becomes as still as an animal in the vicinity of danger.

Senses on high alert, it doesn’t go unnoticed that he’s staring at her again through the television’s reflection.

She wonders, not for the first time in her life and not with him, if she's going to die.

“It’s, uh…it’s nice to see you again.” he says finally, voice low and sounding strangely genuine.

Casey remains silent, not sure how to reply to that. She almost died because of him and now he’s sitting on her couch pretending as if they’re old pals? Although, this does give her comfort in some way, knowing there was possible leverage if she couldn't physically fight him if it comes to that.

For now, she watches as he rolls down his sleeves and buttons them up. When he finishes he puts an arm out in front of her and the sudden action takes her off guard, her breath hitching in the quiet as his chest presses against her. His movement slows to a halt. They’re faces are inches apart. His body heat coming off in waves. He's so close she can count the hairs on his five o'clock shadow. The stitches on his coat. The subtler lines etched on his face.

The messenger bag ruffles noisily as he grabs it and dumps it on her lap. Unclasping the latch, he digs through it using his cloth and eventually plucks out her phone and proceeds to place it in his pants pocket.

“I see you…” he cuts himself off to let out a small sigh and leans forward to straighten the tv remote. “I see you’re doing well for yourself, all alone.”

Casey swallows through the lump in her throat, holding her bag as if to act as a barrier between them.

Dennis sighs again and sits back, tongue darting over his bottom lip. She contemplates jamming one of the Glock’s pieces in his thigh, but by the time she’d rush forward he’d have put a stop to it. Besides, if he could survive two shotgun pumps to the torso he can surely handle a hole in his leg. And oddly, she felt concern as thoughts of Kevin and the others rose to mind.

“What have you been doing?” his eyes sweep over the small, almost bare apartment. "Hm?"

“Working,” she answers quietly.

Dennis hums, low and throaty and it makes her bones vibrate. “Aren’t we all. But this is no way to live, Casey, especially at such a young age.” He shakes his head in disbelief.

Her name on his tongue for the first time makes her shiver and only serves to produce more questions that sticks in her throat. Casey opens her mouth to say something but is at a loss for anything that makes sense. “I…I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”

“You’re going to come with me. Patricia wants talk to you.”

She clutches the bag tighter, feels her muscles tightening slowly in defense. If anyone put her on more edge than him it was Patricia. She still remembers the white hot fear at the dangerous look in the woman's eyes as she went after Marcia with a knife, it frightened her like nothing else. No. She can’t leave. This is her territory and her advantage.

“Why can’t we talk here?” her voice breaks then, a weak smile as if to assure him she won’t try anything.

Casey can't think of a reason why they would seek her out after all this time and she didn’t want to find out. Whatever it was couldn’t be good. Funny how she’d been tracking them only for them to be doing the same.

Dennis works his mouth around, chest rising up and down increasingly faster as he slowly, unblinkingly gives her body a drawn out once-over. He shakes his head. “No. We're leaving.”

Dennis sits up, smoothing the creases in his shirt. When Casey doesn’t move he looks down at her, brow furrowing. “Wait,” he says, face scrunching up in distaste. “On second thought, go take a shower first and change out of those clothes. You smell like, uh, gunpowder and rain. I’ll wait.” Dennis sidesteps towards the door, shoves his hands in his pockets.

With much effort, Casey wordlessly pushes herself off the couch. There was no point in pleading or asking questions that would be answered only when he saw fit. Dennis is a man too sure of himself to change his mind. He doesn’t appear bothered leaving her alone either. She figures he might have scoped the place and found there’s no window in the bathroom, and seeing they’re on the second floor anyway…

So, Casey heads into the bathroom with her clothing and toiletries and takes her shower; water on full pressure to drown out her choked sobs.

By the time she’s done she’s cried herself numb.

When she finds her compsure to get out she puts on her layers. A camisole, a white long sleeve, and her red hoodie.

She must have taken longer than she thought because Dennis is going through her bedroom closet with her messenger bag in hand.

“Before we step out I’m going to recommend that you don’t try anything,” he says, moving out of the closet. "Behave."

Every door she passes as they walk down the hall is mockingly loud. There’s the sound of an action flick booming, the droll of a conversation, dogs barking. It's like her neighbors are in a completely different plane of existence, wrapped up in their safe, little spaces.

The lot is dark and wet, grasshoppers chirp in the distance, the clouds squeeze out the last of their tears.

Dennis unlocks her car and opens the passenger door, she climbs in and he slams it shut. With shaking fingers, she reaches for the seatbelt.

“I don’t understand,” she finally says what’s been on the tip of her tongue for the last hour.

“Understand what?” Dennis asks.

“Why’d you come back for me?”

Dennis fixes the rearview mirror and starts the engine. Gives her a look as if she’s missing some bigger picture. With The Horde she probably is.

“The Beast already told you. You’re pure,” he tells her as if it were obvious, frowning as tears begin to roll down her cheeks. 

Chapter Text

"Careful."

A twig snaps under Casey's boot as she steps over a thick vine, the sound louder than normal in the stillness of the forest.

"One of you must really like animals," Casey prompts, casual.

"One of those things most of us share in common, I guess," she hears him say. "I find them tolerable."

They've ditched the car a few feet back to follow a poorly made dirt trail. She's stepped on a lot of twigs since then, the sight and sound of civilization long gone. He's a few paces behind her. Wherever they're heading is isolated and deep in the woods. He didn't drug or blindfold her, but just because he’s calm and amiable now doesn’t mean she’s safe, in her experience, it can mean the exact opposite.

Eventually, Casey spots a small cabin ahead, mostly hidden by unchecked moss and vines being swallowed into the wood's own design, constructed with fairly large logs with a chimney sticking out the top. There's a small patio in the front with a lone chair and cracked, crystal chimes dangling from the roof. The windows are boarded up, and there are rows of firewood stacked up on the side.

"Here?" Casey can't imagine someone like Dennis living here with his pressed button downs and aversion to mess. She trudges up the set of steps, her body burning and aching from being on high alert for so long. The jingling of keys can be heard from behind. She greedily eyes the key he slides into the lock.

Dennis clears his throat. "Wipe your shoes on the mat before you come in, please."

Doing as instructed, Casey then steps through the threshold and the door shuts and the key locks it in place. Making a noise of discomfort as he flicks on the lights, she slowly adjusts to her new surroundings. Whereas the cabin appears small on the outside it's a rather large, open spacious area. There's a simple kitchen on the left with four stools around a rectangular table; woven baskets and plants and fruit set around for decoration. A large pantry stocked with preserves and canned goods. A sofa sits in the living-room on the right with two armchairs on either side, a wall to ceiling brick fireplace, antlers heaved up on the wall, wooden decorative pieces spanning from nature to tribal to religious. Further back on the right seperated by the wall there’s a hallway. It looked lived in with its warm colors and clashing furniture and decorations. A place she could have seen herself moving to if she had the money.

She's not so sure about that now.

Although the windows are boarded up good and tight, slivers of pale moonlight filter in where beams of dusty rays hit the polished, mahogany floors. She hopes this place was abandoned before he got here but the working lights and touch of personality screams differently, and she doesn't really want to think about that right now. It won’t matter to her own survival.

"Wait here," Dennis orders.

As soon as he leaves she presses her face against the closest window to peer between the cracks of the boards, soggy leaves and towering trees too dark to make out any significant markers of where they are. This home is off road though, far away from any other home or living person.

Casey runs her hands through her hair and wills herself to keep it together. She has no options right now, no clue as to what they want with her

The clicking of heels draws her attention and Casey straightens, breath quickening. The sight of Patricia is just as - if not more - alarming then Dennis. Her pleasant, almost motherly behavior off putting and jarring when she decides to spring. "Casey," Patricia exclaims, arms outstretched in greeting, blue, fringed cardigan draping down her arms as if they were wings; or a Black Widow spinning her web.

"Hello," Casey manages, eyes wide and mouth parted.

Patricia gives her a warm and inviting smile. "Sit! Sit, sit, sit. I am so delighted to see you again after The Beast told us the good news." Her smile widens affectionately as Casey obeys. "Tea?" she doesn't wait for an answer as she practically glides her way to the stove where there's a big, ancient looking kettle. "Something to warm you up from that dreadful weather outside, my dear."

The room falls silent while Patricia begins to prepare the tea, the pointed quietness more glaringly obvious in Patricia's presence compared to Dennis. Casey's eyes fall to a drawing on the table, its edges trapped underneath a candleholder. Hedwig's signature is scrawled hastily in crayon in the bottom corner of the paper. Removing the candleholder, she tugs the drawing closer. It was a large, black creature formed by smooth, neat scribbles, it's mouth opened threateningly to show off its fangs. Several stick figures cirlce around it, either praising the creature or ready to be sacrificed she can't decide. Next to the creature was a much smaller stick figure, though more detailed than the others in a red outfit.

Patricia looks over her shoulder and hums in amusement. “Hedwig wanted you to have that."

Casey's gaze lowers uneasily to her red hoodie. She sets the drawing back down. “You wanted to talk to me?”

"Yes." Patricia spins around, her gaze cold and unwavering and all seeing. "Tell me, Casey, what do you want in life?"

The question throws her off guard. "I...I haven't really thought about it." Casey wants to say to live but she suspects Patricia would only be highly amused by that answer. It's been so long since she's been able to do anything else besides survive, she was still enjoying her freedom, goals as a whole or pertaining to the future simply wasn't on her agenda.

"Well, I'll tell you what I want for you. What we all want for you." Patricia walks to the pantry, oblivious to Casey's inner turmoil. "Although, it's not necessarily what we want, but what you want for yourself. So you can better yourself,” Patricia calls out. "And maybe even change the world."

Casey feels her mouth pull into a confused frown, the speech beginning to sound like some motivational speech you only listen to when you've got one foot off a building. “Better myself?”

Patricia comes out of the pantry with a box of chocolate hobnobs and sets it on the counter to tend the pot. "Yes," she says, deceptively soft, "isn't a purpose something you would want?"

"I don't want to hurt people," it takes the first and last of Casey's drop of courage to get those words out.

"My child," Patricia shakes her head, tilting it disapprovingly. "We’ve hurt no one of importance. Milk?"

“Uh. Sure?”

"We are not going to be adding any sugar tonight, not when it's already so late, but I promise you'll like it."

Rifling through the cupboard, Patricia gets out a tray, two china cups, and a plate. It was hard to believe this was the same person who can talk of murder as easily as sugar or milk.

"Here we go," Patricia sets the tray in the middle of the table.

Under Patricia's gaze, Casey takes a sip. "It's good," she says honestly.

"It's Russian tea, it's got jam in it, imagine that," she scoffs, eyebrows rising in amused disbelief. She pulls out a chair and sits, grabbbing her own cup.

"What if the world doesn't change?" Casey asks as light and polite as possible. "What if it isn't meant to?"

Patricia produces a match from her skirt pocket, lights the three candles on the table. "Even after encountering The Beast you still seem to have so little faith.” She blows the match out and sets it on her plate, places a hand on Casey’s wrist. “No worries, we'll work on that.”

Casey grips the tea handle tighter, the cup burning her knuckles, she brings it up to disguise the tremble in her bottom lip. The first real tendrils of sheer terror seeping through her clothes and resting in her bones.

"The trials you've suffered through will shape you for the worse, yes, but if you look deep enough you may find something useful there. Something that's always been there."

Casey sets her tea down on the table harder than intended. The liquid sloshes dangerously against the rim. She feels sick.

"There's no need to be tense, silly girl. You are one of us, and we don't harm our own kind. We shouldn't have left you alone to figure things out by yourself," she softly confesses, tucking a strand of hair behind Casey's ear. “But we're here now. Finish drinking your tea before it gets cold."

Reluctantly, Casey takes another sip. The jam does little for its strong, bitter taste.

Patricia leans forward, the chair groans. "Now that you know this and have met The Beast you'll come to find your ideologies may not be so different from ours"

"What do you mean?" the words come out slurred. Squinting, she blinks furiously to sharpen the edges of Patricia's sudden hazy frame.

"More will be explained to you tomorrow." Patricia tightens the hold on her wrist. "As for now, I gave you something to rest. We actually had this place in mind for a while now, do you like it?" her nose scrunhes up in glee. "I find the fresh air to be so energizing- therapeutic even. We all love it. Should have thought of it sooner, but you know how difficult that transition is from city to small town to..."

Patricia's voice begins sounding far away. The image of her blurry and swaying. Rising. Or is she swaying backwards?

Eyelids drooping, Casey pushes herself up from the table. Drops back down in her chair with sluggish limbs, feeling dizzy and unbalanced at the motion.

Her skin is tingling. Tingling everywhere. Ears ringing. Chest light. She leans her elbows on the table. She feels strange. Tired. She feels euphoria. Casey's eyes close against her will.

"You have a big weekend ahead of you," is the last thing she hears Patricia say.

Casey blacks out.

 

***

 

'The thrill, Casey, is about whether you can or can't outsmart this animal.'

Casey levels the barrel in the darkness. The presence of something evil spreading through the air, sucking her down into the ground.

'The thrill, Casey...' her father repeats.

She slides the fore-end back against the rear.

'The thrill...'

Casey opens her eyes.

The first thing she registers is the hot fan of breath in her right ear.

"Did you like my drawing," Hedwig whispers.

Casey jerks away with a startled gasp, clamoring upright in bed. She instantly regrets it, doubling over to take in huge gulps of air to settle her queasy stomach.

"I thought for sure The Beast was gonna eat you last time." Hedwig grins, swaying back and forth excitedly. "But he says you're special, did you like my drawing?" Hedwig is sitting cross legged on the bed in front of her, yellow jumper bright and headache inducing in the dim room.

"It was really nice, Hedwig," Casey pants, mouth watering threateningly.

Hedwig frowns, scooting back to the edge of the bed as he makes a face at her. "Do you have, like, a hangover? Are you going to throw up, etcetera?"

"M'fine." Casey shakes her head, regrets it, then leans against the bed shivering in relief when her hot cheek presses against the cool, metal frame.

"Ms. Patricia made you breakfast. You were taking so long to wake up I almost ate your bacon."

She wasn't sure she wanted to ingest anything Patricia made ever again.

"I hope you're not thinking of trying to trick me again because that won't work anymore. Ms. Patricia says I'm a good learner now. She's proud of me." Hedwig puffs out his chest, tilts his chin up with an air of importance.

"I'm not going to trick you, Hedwig," and then for good measure adds, "as long as you promise not to trick me. Deal?" Casey offers a pinky finger in truce.

"How do I know if that's not a trick?" He lisps, cocks his head and narrows his eyes. "Hm?"

"But it's a pinky promise," she says hoarsely, eyes wide with faux wonder. "You never, ever break those."

Hesitating, Hedwig reaches over and curls his pinky around hers. "Okay," he drawls in an you-better-not-be-lying way. "Deal."

Letting go, Hedwig flops on his back and her stomach lurches unpleasantly. “Guess what, I have my game station in the living room. We can go play two players. I have Mario Kart and Sonic the HedgeHog and Crash Bandicoot, etcetera. But you can't play with the red controller, that one is mine.”

"That sounds really fun," Casey lilts her voice approvingly. "But I have to get ready for the day first."

"That's cool, we'll have to play later anyway when you're not busy."

Casey's head snaps up and it's a miracle she doesn't throw up. "Busy with what?"

Hedwig's eyes roll over to look at the front door, he shrugs. "I dunno."

"Hedwig, you just made a promise."

Hedwig sighs, put upon. "I'm telling you the truth! Mr. Dennis and Ms. Patricia wouldn't tell me and spoil the surprise."

"I believe you," she says quickly, not wanting to get on his bad side in case she needed him later on.

The words have their effect because Hedwig looks at her. "Do you wanna know a secret?" He smiles wide, closed mouth, eyes filled with mischief as he turns on his side.

Casey leans forward interestedly. "What?"

Hedwig takes in a huge breath and whispers conspiratorially, "I think Mr. Dennis likes you, y'know?" He waggles his eyebrows, giggling. "He likes, likes you. He probably wants to even marry you."

Deflated, Casey sits backs. "Oh...wow." 

"I know!" He gushes before smiling again, narrowing his eyes accusingly. "Do you like him too?"

Casey's mouth opens in bewilderment, it was way too early for this. "He, ah, seems nice," she simply says, considering Hedwig's intentions.

Hedwig hums in agreement. "Yeah, no offense but I'm kind of over you now. Well, I have to go now, Mr. Dennis let me take the Light to see you but he has to get ready. Bye!"

Hedwig slides off the bed and leaves, slamming the door shut. She notes that he doesn't lock it; not that she has anywhere to go.

After a moment when she hears nothing Casey kicks the covers off and leaves out of the room. There's four other doors in the hallway and she tries them all only to find them locked with the exception of the bathroom. She searches the shelves and drawers with no luck. There's an unopened toothbrush and a towel which is presumably for her.

Ten minutes later, she wanders into the kitchen where the only source of light is. There's nothing else to do besides pretend to make herself at home while she waits for their next move and what it might mean for her.

That's when she hears a strange, deep huffing from outside. Casey freezes. She hears it again, a deep, wet rumbling. Then the sound of heavy scraping against the wooden door soon after. The second scrape is longer and louder and she begins to hyperventilate, throat closing up. 

Casey creeps over to the window and peeks between the boards, looking around to find nothing but darkness- until the darkness moves. A loud huff sounds near her ear and she quickly jumps back.

In front of the window is one of the largest bucks she's ever seen, his old eyes seem to look right through her. She blinks and it's gone as fast as it appeared. Confused, Casey hurries to the next window to track it only to find or hear nothing. Was it her anxiety playing tricks on the senses? Her sluggish brain still half asleep?

She spots Dennis coming around the house and she hurries to sit at the kitchen table, numbly staring at the plate of bacon and eggs. There's a small vase with a single sunflower set next to a glass of orange juice.

She barely registers him behind her or that he'd even came in. Leaning over her, he nudges the plate closer in a wordless demand before sauntering into the living room.

"Have you seen any bucks around here?" Casey hesitantly asks.

"I haven't," he replies slowly, glancing at her plate in annoyance. "Eat, you'll need your strength."

Casey props her fist under her chin, grabbing a piece of bacon. She can hear Dennis moving things around in the living room. The drag of glass against wood, pages flipping, and statues thudding while the house creaks and groans in protest, the irritiating high pitch whistling as the wind tries its best to blow the house down. His fidgeting goes on for two more strips of bacon before she looks out of the corner of her eye curiously, watching as he straightens and rotates objects and pace back and forth.

A moment passes before Dennis catches her staring. "Hey, how you feeling?"

"Okay," she mumurs awkwardly. "Yourself?"

Dennis looks slightly taken aback by the question before he schools his face into one of neutrality. "Fine."

When he gives a pointed look at the plate again she forces a forkful of the now cold eggs in her mouth. Dennis goes back to pacing before he decides to sit in one of the armchairs and stare off into the distance.

"Is there anything I can do to help," she says, becoming increasingly worried by his behavior.

Sighing loudly, he squeezes his eyes shut, turns his head away from her. "Not allowed," comes his rough response, so quiet she barely hears it. He checks his watch for the fourth time since he's been in, as if willing time to go faster. "I'm taking you out soon," he explains in a montone voice. "We're hoping you'll see things in a new light if you haven't already. In the meantime, just make yourself comfortable."

His words offer her the exact opposite of comfort and her fork clatters onto the plate. It takes her time to process the sheer panic coursing through her, the abrupt awareness she feels as she pushes her chair back. She takes her dishes to the sink and cleans them before loading them in the dishwasher, the simple actions expelling her nervous energy. Because she needs some normality right now to keep her grounded.

At a loss, she decides to join Dennis in the living room and curls up on the couch to keep him in view. She grabs one of the magazines on the table, not to read but just hold; the glossy paper twisting under her fingers a constant reminder that this is real.

"Dennis..." Casey waits for him to look up at her to further speak. "I don't know what you want me to do, but I don't think I am what you you or Ms. Patricia think I am."

He stares at her blankly, fingers crossed and settled in his lap. "But you are," he says emphatically, brow furrowing. "You're special."

Casey looks at Dennis, really looks at him when she hears the hope and slight desperation in his voice. He raises from his chair to sit next to her on the couch, their bodies separated by a single cushion. "We're going to take care of you here. There are so many things you should see and know and feel."

A thought occurs to her. "Why did Ms. Patricia give me a sedative last night?" Now that she thought about it had it really been necessary when she could have just been locked in her room.

Dennis works his jaw agitatedly, eyes averting. "So The Beast could have your scent."

She exhales shakily. "What? Why would he need my scent?"

"You used to hunt," is all he says.

Casey shudders at the implication, dread falling on her shoulders like a heavy coat. "I don't do that anymore," her voice is strained.

"And you're a good shot."

"You're a good hunter," she responds.

"I'm sure you are as well."

Casey shakes that thought away, terrified. "So is The Beast," she picks her words carefully, "maybe...Ms. Patricia and The Beast won't need you anymore then."

There's a long, tense pause where Casey regrets those words and how he may react to them.

It was her only angle at the moment but now she wasn't sure it would be in her best option to play it if his loyalty to The Beast is as blinding as Patricia's.

"Like how this world doesn't need you, or care beyond a television screen or newspaper headline?"

She inwardly winces at that, his words echoing between her ears in the same tune she's been playing for a year. Part of her wants to open her mouth and mention Norma or Donna, but they seem so far away now, and she feels horrible for thinking that but what has family really given her besides loss and pain?

"No one seemed to care before then, am I right?" Dennis says, hard and flat. "Or maybe they did notice little things now and then and decided it wasn't their business, or it wasn't worth their time, or they'd make a note and say something later- maybe."

The couch dips unevenly as he moves closer and Casey fumbles backward, effectively cornered between him and the couch's arm. She focuses on the designs of the rug, mentally traces the little mazes she sees there, the tufts of fabric sticking out and going against the current. Anything to ignore his words and closeness. Her eyes burn as they trail up the coffee table's legs, the deep grooves in the marble resembling tree bark.

"Maybe they sent you to a school counselor the first few years, and then it was a long line of detentions, right?" His words come out in a rush, as if he's been waiting a long time to tell her this. "All those one on one's after class with people who said they were concerned, yet they never bothered to take a second and think there was more to the story with you."

Casey bites her lip so hard it burns. Anger and pain bubbles in her chest, spreading through her body like a fever to where she can't pinpoint who or what it's directed at. Casey tilts her head up to look him in the eyes but she sees no joy or smugness on his face, only the cruelness of hard facts.

"I know this because the same thing happened with Kevin. All that hope, those little bouts of courage - the little he had - was squashed into nothing because he never listened to reason. The unworthy won't see things like we do. Not ever," his voice rises angrily. "But The Beast is going to change all of that, starting with you. You-" Dennis sighs through his nose, hands clenching and unclenching as he stares her. "It's time."

The world is shaded in hues of green and gray and blue, a thin layer of fog hovers over the forest floor. Mist clings to her skin. Casey savors it, knowing she might not be able to again.

He doesn't lead them to the dirt trail they arrived from last night as she expects but around the side of the cabin. There's a set of double doors leading into what she suspects is an underground cellar. Dennis retrieves his yellow cloth from his pocket and opens one. He stares at her, face softening sympathetically. "I'm sorry, but what you are about to do is necessary," he says matter-of-factly, gesturing down the cellar's steps.

Casey wipes her face, the tears she fails to catch slide down to her chin and drops on her boots. Lips pressed firmly together, Dennis patiently waits as she collects herself. She takes a deep breath. Then another one. She heads underground.

The cellar is freezing, it's brick walls damp and smelling faintly of mildew and mothballs. Dennis follows closely behind and shuts the door, enveloping them in darkness until his hands are on her shoulder forcing her to turn to the trail of lights strung up the ceiling in the far corner. His chest presses against her back as he pushes her further towards their destination, blindly stumbling in the dark, she has to refrain from grabbing him to keep steady.

It takes a while to realize she's not in the cellar any longer when brick and concrete turns bumpier under her palm and fuzzy mildew is replaced with the smell and crumble of fresh dirt.

She's in a tunnel.

"What is this?" She sputters, voice cracking. "Why am I here?"

In the distance, just barely, Casey can make out the soft sound of crying. A row of doors on both sides come into view. Casey sobs openly now, tries to look away from what was happening.

Dennis squeezes her shoulder, turns her around. “You’re going to pick someone out. Someone pure for The Beast.”

Chapter Text

"I can't," Casey says, scared and bewildered and caught completely off guard. "I don't understand how I'm supposed to do that."

"You can," Dennis says lowly, his eyes hard and lips thinning determinedly as he grips her shoulders tighter. "And you will."

Before she can come up with an adequate response he's forced her back around and for a split second she's being carted off towards an underground bunker at a zoo instead of a makeshift, dirt hall.

"Wait!" She shouts in a desperate attempt to stall, her mind running rampant. "Why does The Beast want to find someone pure?"

"The Beast desires a flock to spread his message," Dennis explains, "and for that he needs someone else young and pure who is attuned to other's suffering. That's where you come in."

"And you think I can do that?"

Dennis stops them at the very last door, back stiff as he procures a set of keys from his pants pocket. "Yeah, we've all talked about it and we found you insightful, clever, strong," he replies somberly. "Patricia- we believe you have a gift or a sight for this type of thing that we don’t."

Casey is lost at what to do with this frankly perplexing information that she holds a sight, whatever that means, and yet it might be the key that saves or destroys her depending on how she approaches this new revelation. This is their purpose for her in their ideal world, some sort of scouter to sniff out young, worthy candidates for their cause. And it's an unsettling thought she will have to believe herself if she wants to have their trust.

He shoves the door open revealing four teenage girls, and to her surpise two guys, all huddled around each other on two seperate cots. Their hair and clothing are in various disarray, some crying anew when she and Dennis step in. Three of the girls, she recognizes, are in the cheerleading uniforms which are plastered all over the news right now. The other girl and the two guys appear to be fresher prey, more put together in their appearance. Although, one of the guys' eye is freshly bruised in a blotchy red and purple, she figures it was repercussion of a failed attempt to overpower Dennis at some point.

The group becomes hushed and the room thickens to a stuffy, apprehensive air as they curl into themselves and each other, taut and defensive and scared.

"I need all of you to get in a single file line," Dennis orders. "Now."

The teens hurriedly stand, awkward and clumsy, wordlessly manoveuring themselves to stand shoulder to shoulder for their inspection, the lesser than heading straight for the slaughterhouse. Casey nervously shuffles on her feet next to Dennis, looking past the other teens to the drywall. They are going to die here- most, if not all, if Casey has any say apparently. Frustration and anger and helplessness flares up at the sudden responsiblity heaped upon her shoulders.

She thinks of the cameraman - Joseph - and wonders if maybe she tried harder to help that night instead of running would she be in this situation again? Would anyone else? Or was this all unavoidable, The Beast too powerful to be stopped even by a mileu of bullets and armored tanks. The Beast told her long ago that he wasn't human and she'd been able to avoid thinking too deeply on those words while focusing on others, but now she's staring the truth in the face and realizes that the world may be, in fact, changing as they prophesized whether anyone liked it or not. She swallows down the sick feeling of encroaching guilt and tries to stay in the present.

Dennis strolls down the line in a way that says the group has been causing him trouble recently. They keep their heads down to avoid any overt attention but he stops anway, right in front of one of the girls: a petite figure with long, red hair and donning a patterned halter top. He inhales sharply through his nose and the girl glances up, flinching back when he points an index finger at her hair. "What- what is that?" Dennis stutters, low and ragged. "Did you-" he growls in disgust, "what is that - that - in your hair!?" his tone rises.

"She got sick right before you came in," a curvy, brunette cheerleader next to the girl in question hastily responds.

Red Head's face and chest flushes to match her hair, her shoulders rising up to her ears as Dennis looms over her, nostrils flaring.

"She’s overheated and tired and scared," the guy with the bruise tries to explain from the end of the line.

"Help her get cleaned up," Dennis snaps at the brunette. “And clean whatever mess she made in the bathroom, I put the cleaning supplies under the counter. And I'll bring you something for the smell.” The brunette gladly takes the blonde's hand and hurries to the bathroom.

Casey forces herself to look at the two girls when they pass her by, she examines them all in a removed manner, focuses on their stained, dried tears and rumpled clothing rather than the fear in their eyes and the fewer who still look as if they have some fight in them.

"I'm sorry," Casey whispers when Dennis gets close enough. "I need time."

Dennis nods. "Fine. Ten minutes."

He leaves and Casey is thrown to the pack of wolves. She can't do this. It isn't right. Whether she decides to randomly pick out one or two of them or try to play by The Horde's and The Beast's rules it feels wrong either way to decide who lives and who dies.

Unless, she really does try and find someone whose suffered enough to be considered pure in their eyes. And then maybe it would be worth it- and that thought scares her the moment it runs through her mind, sounding exactly like their line of thinking.

"I'm Amanda," one of the cheerleaders says with a welcoming smile- a tall blonde with sharp eyes and obviously the leader of the pack as she steps forward with the intent to assimilate her in their victim party. "Where did he grab you from?"

"On my way home," Casey lies smoothly, not wanting to attract any excessive, unwanted attention with her familiarity of this situation. 

“What did he want from you? He didn't do anything, did he?" Amanda asks, frowning in concern.

The sympathy in her voice makes Casey look away uncomfortably. “He just took me straight here. And I don’t really know what he wanted. He wasn’t making much sense.”

“Is anyone still looking for us?” the third cheerleader whose sporting a multi-colored pixie cut asks from one of the cots. "It feels like we've been down here for ages."

“They’re still looking for you,” Casey replies evenly. “They, um, found your bus yesterday.”

"He grabbed you all alone? Pixie Cut asks.

Casey nods.

"That's Lauren," Amanda nods to Pixie Cut. "And what’s your name? You look sort of familiar,” she frowns again.

Casey hopes her shrug appears disinterested in pleasantries considering where they were and timid by Amanda’s personal questions, instead of tense and awkward. "How many of you were there before?" she blurts out instead, “and where did he grab all of you?”

"There were three more people a while ago, I think, going by everybody else's accounts," the bruised-face guy pipes up. “He took took them from their rooms, I want to say about eight hours ago but I’m not sure. Don’t know how long we’ve been in here, we were seperated into small groups at first until he crowded us in this room. Guy grabbed me, the other guy, and Fiona- The red head, from a kegger in the woods. Dumb of us considering we knew he was out there, right?"

"Maybe he's got us in this room to grab even more people from the streets, or finish us all off. Hell, maybe both," the other guy states grimly from one of the cots, his glasses slides down his nose as he jitters his leg. “Fuck. Shit! He’s going to fucking eat us! He's going to eat us and- and shit us out! You've all seen the news and what this guy is capable of."

Lauren lets out a high keen at this and dissolves into tears while Amanda glares at him.

Other than figuring out the group’s dynamics, Casey doesn’t know what to look for, except maybe signs of herself in the girls perhaps but she doesn’t see any so far. Lauren is now being comforted by Amanda while she scolds the guy about ‘teamwork’ and ‘being positive’ similar to how she’d probably give a pep talk to her teammates before a big game. Bruised-face guy heads over to the bathroom to check on the other two girls. Eventually, when they come together again they all go round their pretend circle giving details of their life and solemn hopes about seeing their loved ones again when they get out of this hellhole.

Casey only half listens. She doesn't want to get invested in their schemes or attached to any of them, not wanting to risk the chance of being recognized, or get in trouble with Patrica and Dennis. They all seem like nice enough people, although a little optimistic about their chances. She wonders if they would feel the same way in this situation if they were divided. Alone. If they had no choice but to rely and believe their captive’s words instead of the kind, familiar faces in front of them. If they even knew who he was; a friend or a neighbor or an uncle.

“...we will get out of here,” Casey catches Amanda's reassuring pep talk mid-speech that reminds her too much of Claire, and the group greedily sucks up her words. Lauren and Red Head more desperately than the others. “Alive. We just have to wait for the right opportunity and bring our A-Game. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. So we're going to remain clear and level headed, suck up our tears, and get ready to fight back.”

Before Casey can ask what opportunity they’re waiting for the door opens again and everyone whips around. Dennis wordlessly gestures for Casey to come with him.

Casey shrugs off Bruised-Face's defiant touch on her bicep and ignores Lauren's fresh tears as she stands.

Be strong, Amanda mouths to her.

 

///

 

Dennis takes her to another door down the hall. The room holds a table and several chairs, there's a coffee machine on a counter also shared with a small television currently settled on the news station in a low hum. A picture of Fiona's smiling face flashes on the screen before flickering to the anchorman standing by a rundown shack, the floor littered with beer bottles and trash.

Knowing they were going to be here for a while Casey sits in a chair at the table, Dennis takes the one across from her. There's another vase with a sunflower placed in the middle of the table. Her head rolls back to the ceiling where the bumps and ridges of white paint begin to burn and blur the longer she stares in a whimsical hope that she can just float up and be removed from this.

“The first time is always the hardest,” she hears Dennis say. "Doing things like this."

Casey shifts her head to find him staring at her with a troubled expression. She waits for the it gets better part but it never comes.

"I didn’t find anyone pure yet, but I’ll try harder." She tells him what he wants to hear and watches his shoulders sag, lines smoothing over into exhausted relief.

"Good."

The name Kevin Wendell Crumb catches his attention on the television and he crosses his arms over his chest, blinking heavily as he ducks his head down to stare at the table. They sit there in silence, both lost in their own thoughts for a long time.

"What was your mother like?" Dennis asks, breaking the weird tension permeating the room.

Not for the first time she’s thrown by his offhanded topic of choice, too soft and disquieting to be considered manipulative, he is simply curious. "I don't remember much about her," she admits honestly. "She died when I was five."

"Oh," he murmurs, and then, "I'm sorry to hear that."

"She was nice,” Casey confesses quietly, sounding far away, tired and faintly amused. “And she told me stories sometimes. And made me laugh a lot. I remember that."

"That sounds lovely."

A tightness wells inside her throat, she glances up at him. "What was Kevin's mother like? I mean, I've heard things, obviously, about as much as you've probably heard about me but..."

Dennis only smiles tightly, bitterly. He rotates the flower vase around. “Monstrous. Painstakingly meticulous," he sucks his teeth, moves the vase an inch over. "Unforgiving.”

Casey leans forward interestedly. This is good, she tells herself, this is progress. "A lot of people are going to come for him eventually, you know. It's inevitable. They'll find you, Dennis, do you really believe you can keep this up?"

Dennis moves the vase again, frowning now. "It's the only way to make it safe for Kevin, you've seen and talked to him. He can't handle this world we're in."

“You won't stop, even if it might end up hurting him trying to make it safe?" she challenges after a moment. "Or killing him?”

“It won’t,” Dennis protests firmly. “The Beast will make sure of that.”

Casey eyes him closely. “And what will Kevin say to you? Or about you when this is all over?”

“Nothing nice, I imagine," he hums, frown deepening. "It doesn't really matter. Sometimes you have to do ugly things to form something beautiful out of it later.”

There’s a beat of silence where she leans even closer. "Who taught you that?" She murmurs. "Ms. Patricia?”

Dennis shifts. “Someone ugly."

Wincing as she scoots back the chair, Casey moves and sits in another one next to him. She carefully drops her hand on his arm, feels his muscles tighten at the gesture, his posture going visibly rigid and his fists clenching. It is a double-edged sword: on one hand she can't begin to understand, in her heart, the fierce protectiveness from the hell they were formed under but it makes her ache all the same, on the other she knows she needs to win his favor if she wants to escape. She realizes that a consenting touch may be as alien to her as it probably is to him. And she's fully aware that she's treading in dangerous territory with nothing but a sliver of faith in him but she squeezes his arm reassuringly, her own body on high alert.

Attempting to wedge doubt between Dennis concerning Patricia and The Beast again would be foolish, at least so soon, she's still sore from the familiarity in which Dennis painted their respective childhoods. Patricia's conversation with her last night too close for comfort as well, she desperately wants to believe that she has no connection with the woman. And there's the ugly truth of it: there's a piece of her carved out by them- all of them; Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, The Beast- even Kevin and Barry and Jade and the others. She wasn't sure what was left of her anymore or who she even was since she she pointed that shotgun at her uncle when she was five years old. And she worries with increasing dread who exactly does Patricia and Dennis see when they look at her, what they were molding her to become under this cabin, and what acts do they expect her to commit for them.

Timidly, Casey slides her hand up and easily fits it in Dennis' soft, warm palm. "Well, I don't think you're ugly or terrible or any of those things," she says. "And I think...we can be friends. If you want."

Dennis glances up at her before averting his gaze again, nerves and guilt among other things coiling behind his pupils. It takes a lot to not to instinctively pull away when his hand gently squeezes hers back. "Yeah?"

Casey nods, hesitant at first but then more convincing, offering a small smile.

Sighing, Dennis shakes his head, features darkening. "No. No, you shouldn't want that. To be friends with me, I mean, I want you to. I, I, uh, get...it's hard for me to think clearly sometimes," Dennis cuts himself off, agitated. He straightens in his seat, fidgets with the vase again, his breathing rougher.

"I trust you," Casey forces herself to say, rubs her thumb over his hand soothingly. 

"You really mean that?" Dennis breathes shakily, the corners of his mouth tugging unconvincingly.

“Yes.” Casey brings her free hand on top of both their hands. "We should- we should get to know each other better," she moves closer. "Like friends do. We can just sit here and talk."

They stare at each other for a long moment where she doesn't know what he's thinking about or how this is going to end. 

Tongue poking the inside of his cheek, Dennis drums his free hand against the table. "Talk like you did with Hedwig before you tricked him?" he finally says.

Her heart drops. Casey shakes her head roughly. "No. Of course not, that was before," her voice comes out in a desperate whisper. "But I trust you, we're the same, right? And I want to help. Let me help you."

Tilting his head away, Dennis' eyes glaze over and he falls silent.

"Dennis?" Casey gently calls, ducking forward to get him to look at her and bring him back from whatever he was thinking. She reaches the hand on top of theirs out to bring him back, afraid she's losing him to Patricia or The Beast.

Dennis jumps out of his chair, knocking it back. Casey stands up, eyes wide with terror. He darts towards her, quickly crowding her back against the wall. She knocks her head against it, hard. His hands move trap her in and her own flies up to press against his chest to keep him away.

His face crumbles and for a few heart stopping seconds she thinks he's not giving in to Patricia or The Beast but his own compulsive urges.

"Dennis," she says again, too terrified to recognize her own voice.

"No," he says, pressing closer to bow his head against her shoulder.

"No?" she echoes weakly, confused.

"No," he repeats with the shake of his head. "I, I know what you're trying to do. So don't," his voice falls into a broken whisper, a desperate plea. "Please? I'm not- I'm not allowed. Not unless you want. I'm not allowed to think about you like that. Patricia-  you're trying to distract me, and I am not Hedwig, okay? So just stop," he grits out.

"Dennis, I wasn't trying to trick you, I promise," her voice wavers. His breathing is ragged against her neck and she shivers as his lips press aginst her collarbone. "I'm your friend, okay," Casey tries again, her hands slides up to his shoulders and she tries to push him up. "Look at me. We're friends, aren't we?"

A strangled sound rumbles in his chest, but then Dennis nods, and the motion presses her more firmly to the wall. They stand there, unmoving, where she counts to thirty-seven before he slowly pushes away and without glancing back at her, rushes out the door, leaving her alone.

Panting, Casey slides down on the floor and folds into herself, trying to register what just happened. She wasn't sure what she did wrong or said that could have triggered him. Or was it Patricia interfering? Was the woman onto her?

Casey isn't how much time passes staring blankly at the wall across from her, the door was left cracked open but she doesn't dare an attempt to escape, not knowing how close Dennis was. She still had to be safe, she was one of them and Patricia told her last night they wouldn't harm their own kind. Just maim, probably, her traitorous mind supplies. Casey eyes the door, waiting with trepidation for her fate. It's not until a series of screams and shouts wakes her from her stupor that she picks herself up from the floor and heads out of the room.

A body rams straight into hers the moment she steps out and knocks her into the wall and its perpetrator shrieks. Casey shakes out the disorientation and steps back to find Lauren, shaking and teeth bared like a wild animal.

Her shirt collar is stretched and her chest is flushed. The look in her eyes is hysterically wide, it's then that Casey glances down and sees there’s a broken piece of glass in the girl's hands wrapped around a torn cloth. The glass is dripping with blood.

“I stabbed that fucker!" Lauren says, wide eyed, seemingly shocked by her own behavior.

"You what," Casey replies nervously.

"We need to get out of here, now!” Lauren grabs her wrist and jerks her forward.

"Where? Is he still alive?" Casey finds herself saying, too scared to look back as Lauren forces her to move. "Where are the others?"

"He's still alive," Lauren says, "he-"

BAM!

A gunshot cracks and pierces through the air, the bullet hitting just a few inches from them sending up a plume of dust and they immediately duck down on the ground.

Casey quickly shrugs out of Lauren's grip and slowly, slowly raises her hands in the air, fear coursing through her and shutting everything down but the instinct to survive.

Both girls turn around and Casey sees Patricia at the end of the hall with her Glock in hand. To say the woman is furious would be an understatement, her entire face is red and her mouth pulled into a feral snarl as she fixes Lauren with a seething glare. Casey is certain the bullet had missed Lauren by accident.

"Close the door," Patricia demands in a cold, hoarse tone at Casey. “And lock it.”

Glancing at Lauren whose hands are also now up, Casey stands and hurries over to Patricia who drops the bloody key ring into her waiting palm. The group of other teens are ducked low inside the room and have pushed the cots in front of them protectively. No one moves as Casey shuts them back in and twists the key in the lock.

"Good girl," Patricia croons lowly, hand outstretched for the key.

Casey presses herself to the wall between the two, noticing Patricia is favoring her left leg, dark petals blooming on her upper right thigh into one big spot on her long skirt.

"Did you know," Patricia begins calmly, a tight smile on her face, "when a subordinate challenges its leader in a dominant hierarchy the subordinate, more often than not, dies."

Lauren shakily wields the piece of glass in front of her, bottom lip trembling as she opens her mouth.

"No, no. Don't do that," Patricia lilts dangerously. "The time for forgiveness is over. What do you think should be done?" she addresses Casey with an arched brow, wraggling the gun questioningly. "Want to give it a go?"

"Oh, let go," Patricia says with a mixture of mock sincerity and exasperation when Casey doesn't answer. "You are doing a service, trust in me. Open your eyes. All your life you've been following the wrong path boxing yourself in with people who don't deserve you. Aren't you tired?" she whispers emphatically. 

Biting her lip, Casey fixes her eyes to the floor and wraps her arms around her middle. "Please-"

Patricia sighs, interrupting her. "Of course, in the wild the beasts don't have guns and it will be a waste to spoil her with a shot to the gut, with my frankly shoddy aim I won't be good for a leg or a foot." Patricia lets her cardigan slip to the floor and Casey can feel the woman's gaze on her. "Why don't we let someone more experienced handle this, hm?" 

Without any further explanation the gun is being pressed into Casey's hand then and she looks up, shocked. Patricia isn't paying attention to her any longer as she double forward, her breathing becoming faster and rougher. Her voice deeper. Her body bigger.

Casey and Lauren share a look before the latter turns and dashes down the hall with Casey close on her heels. She runs and doesn't look back, vivid memories flashing through her mind she doesn't dare. The panicking screams of the other teens can be heard but she doesn’t slow down, muffled by the door they're trapped behind as they hear the coming of The Beast.

Casey presses a hand to the wall as she comes towards the end of the tunnel and into the black, shapeless cellar, her neck craning up for an exit source. Her boots splash in the puddles on the concrete floor. She reaches out blindly, swipes at air. Lauren's crying and calling for her but it echoes back from all around. And he's getting closer. 

The brightness of the moon makes her cry out. Lauren beckons her in the right direction.

Colliding hard with the steps, Casey shouts in surprise as much as pain when she stumbles onto them. With the slap of rough footsteps drawing nearer she grits her teeth and hauls ass further up, grunting when she trips and reaches out to keep balance, her hand scraping against the brick wall. She can hear the roar of The Beast, feel it rumbling underneath the soles of her boots on the crickety steps. When her head breaks the surface Lauren tugs her up the rest of the way. The sky above is smoky and scattered with dots of burning white, the wind screams, icy tendrils whip down her back.

She hits the ground running. Her palm is burning and wet, her left ankle throbbing for reprieve. The trees and vines thicken the deeper they go and they're quickly soaked through with rain and sweat. Lauren leans against a tree when they can't see the cabin anymore, the broken piece of mirror still clutched in her hand. 

Casey checks to see how much ammo she has. Patricia had it fully loaded. 

Lauren crouches low and eyes the area nervously, twitching at every hoot and rustle and rolling thunder over the hiss of heavy rain. "We're going to make it," she says. "We're going to make it, right?"

Casey isn't one to give false hope so she says, "stay low and be quiet. We need to move."

"If he comes will you be able to shoot that thing?"

"It won't do any good." The only thing on her mind is if The Beast would kill her too. Even if she was pure, chances are that if you got in the way of The Beast and his food it could get ugly.

"What do you mean it won't do any good?" Lauren demands, staring at her.

With a growing unease the longer they're out there standing around she remembers something- The Beast has her scent. "You need to get away from me," she demands urgently.

"What?"

"Get away. I'm not safe."

"What are you talking about!? We have a gun!"

"It won't do anything, trust me, just go. Okay? We're better off seperated." The words fall flat and unsure the longer she talks but she backs away from Lauren anyway. "You'll be safe."

"She will die here!" The Beast proclaims loudly.

Casey makes a swift turn to the left, gun at the ready, to face nothing but an endless row of trees.

"Where is he?" Lauren cries over the rush of rain, hurrying over to Casey to stand behind her.

Gritting her teeth, Casey blinks hard into the darkness of the forest. The large, intimidating sillhouette of The Beast shows itself for a flash before hiding behind the trees.

"What are you doing!? Shoot him!"

Casey's aim wavers. "I told you to go!" she hisses.

"Shoot him!"

"You are a child of purity and you protect filth!" The Beast growls, darting behind the trees and slowly getting closer.

“What is he talking about?” Amanda cries, stumbling backwards. “What are you doing?”

Casey moves away from the girl, lowering her gun. "Go," her voice is strained, pleading.

Lauren's face scrunches up in shock and anguish and betrayal before she throws her broken glass down with a strangled yell and runs, screaming for help that won't be coming.

Casey watches her struggle into the thick of the forest, bloody and helpless, the weight of her soaked clothes dragging her down.

A hot fan of breath brushes her neck. Casey tenses reflexively, a whimper escaping between her lips, the gun hanging small and limp in her arms. Every inch of her skin prickles at his closeness. She doesn't breath. Or move. Her life doesn't flash before her eyes, nor her future. The world around her is silent and time stands still until it's just the two of them. She's going to die. He's going to kill her and she's not going to do anything to stop it.  

Surprising her, The Beast roughly shoulders past her and charges towards Lauren with a speed she’s never witnessed before. Casey exhales in relief, a choked sob rising out of her sore throat as she heavily collapses against a tree. She watches The Beast expertly weaving through the the rough terrain of the forest, not slowing him down one bit.

Numbly, Casey raises her gun again and trains it on The Beast's head.

Frustration rises up her throat and she wipes wet strands of hair away from from her face, dropping her arms again. The girl isn't going to make it very far. She has a minute before The Beast catches up to her. She's going to be torn apart. She's going to feel everything until her brain begins shutting down well into the carnage. Her last seconds horrific, the last thing she hears being the slick of her own insides. The last thing she sees is The Beast.

Casey draws her gun back up again with steady hands to the back of Lauren's head.

Inhales. Exhales.

She pulls the trigger.

The bang echoes in the woods and Lauren drops with a thud, the birds spying above scream in distress as The Beast reaches the girl seconds after, dropping on his knees to devour his prey.

Casey lowers her arms, grasping to get a hold of the reality in what she'd just done, and backs deeper into the woods.

 

///

 

Joseph climbs out of his car and ducks inside the home of his mom and dad in record time to beat the rain, the warm, heady scent of apple pie and the sizzle of meat on the grill greeting him. He shakes the raindrops out of his hair and looks round the living room where several neighbors and friends raise their hand or beer in greeting.

His dad was holding a get together/neighborhood watch meeting that turned out to be quite a success over the years he's organized it. With everything his parents have seen over the years it was hard not to let that aspect of their day and night jobs seep over into his personal life. Mom didn’t mind it, especially with all of the patients she gets in the E.R. these days and the grizzly photos of The Beast’s victims making their rounds in her line of work.

His dad is manning the grill out back, saved from the rain by the the awning as he fries up a couple of burgers and dogs. Joseph announces that he’ll help bring the food in and steps out, closing the patio door.

"Looks good." Joseph smiles when he eases down into a lawn seat. “How’s, uh, how’s work going?” Of course, they aren't talking about his security job nowadays but the one where he stalks the night and confronts serious offenders and cold blooded killers without a scratch on him.

David looks back inside before saying, "going okay, still no leads with this new gig though."

"I talked to Casey Cooke the other night."

David looks up from the grill in surprise. "Damn it, I told you not to do that," he sighs.

"I know, but I had to!" Joseph slumps in his seat dejectedly. "Didn't find anything out new though and now I'm feeling pretty crappy so there's that."

"I told you I can handle this- alone," David adds and points the fork at him accusingly. "You've gotta stop doing this."

Joseph purses his lips. "Oh, and leave you to it all alone, Mr. Holmes, my mistake."

The main reason Joseph got into the news broadcasting business was to tell the truth and be the kind of hero his dad is; sans the powers. It's not like he was getting hurt and he even tipped his dad off on a couple of dangerous people that otherwise would have racked up more casualties by the time the police got a reliable scent.

David chuckles wearily. "What happened to my son believing I was invincible, huh?"

"That was before there were other invincible people out there," Joseph stabs the fork into a sausage and one of the neighbors heading towards the kitchen give him a questioning look through the window. "You can't do everything by yourself," he mutters.

David smirks, confident and unphased. "You worried about your old man?"

Joseph tries to fight his responding smirk and fails horribly. "Old is right.”

"Listen," David says more seriously, smile dimming. "I don't want you getting yourself fired from your job sticking your nose where it doesn't belong, or something worse chasing after clues in the dark with this guy."

Great. Now he was getting the equivalent of the buddy system talk? Joseph was far from just another civilian in his Dad’s meetings. "They have people scoping the woods, they're keeping it pretty quiet so this thing is going to turn out ugly no matter what, you know a few others went missing recently."

David grunts. "I don't think a buncha locals with guns - or suits with shiny badges - is going to help much, at least according to you," he says, grabbing the fork from Joseph’s hand and arching his brow.

Joseph scrubs his hand against his face with a heavy sigh. "No, I'm pretty sure it won't. Guns aren't going to slow this guy down according to Casey Cooke too, and no one is going to belive her about him being like you- well, except us."

"If it comes down to nothing but our fists then..." David shrugs, it is what it is.

"How does that even work," Joseph snorts incredulously, "two inhumanely strong guys fighting against one another. Are you going to get a black eye for the first time ever?" he jokes because the alternative was too terrifying to think of.

David laughs. "Maybe."

"What if they find out who you are and what you can do?"

"I'll make sure you and your mom are safe."

Joseph wants to say what about you, but holds his tongue. His dad was stubborn, it’s where he got his own streak from.

"Do you think Elijah Price knows about this guy?"

"Doesn't matter. He can't do anything when he's still locked up. Jesus, what's with the twenty questions. Go take the plate in and grab another one," his dad chuckles.

Joseph is about to do so when he hears the sound of a familiar voice and immediately plops back down in the lawn chair, eyes rolling exasperatedly to the ceiling. "Ah, man I cannot catch a break!" he groans.

"What? What is it?" David asks in amusement, turning around to peer inside the house. "Oh, hey, Norma!" he shouts loudly, catching her and everyone else’s attention.

“How does she know where we stay?” Joseph asks. “Wait, did you already know I went down there so you called her over.”

David laughs mockingly similar to the cartoon villains he used to watch on Saturday morning as a kid. “Sure did. She offered a discount on gun safety classes for the watch group.”

Joseph inwardly groans and waves meekly as Norma strolls to the patio door and peeks her head out. "Hey, Miss Norma."

"Hey," she says amusedly as she watches him scramble to sit upright. "Need a booster seat there or is the plate too heavy for ya?"

Joseph blushes. "I'm so sorry about the other night, it wasn't my intention to upset Casey."

Norma shrugs one shoulder and offers a smile. "I'm sure she's fine. She's handled worse."

"Well, could you tell her for me, please?"

"I'll pass it along. I was actually planning on going by her place tonight anyway with some free burgers. Make ‘em big, Dunn."

“Yes, ma’am."

Joseph smiles, relieved that he wasn’t about to be chewed out twice in one night. "Thanks."

"I'll see you two later."

"You're the worst dad ever," Joseph grumbles while he just laughs loudly at whatever face he's currently making.

“Yeah, yeah...” he drawls.

"And for the record?" Joseph says, "I still believe in you."

"Aw," David drawls, though his eyes light up with sincerity. "Thanks. Show me that by staying out of trouble."

"Sure," Joseph smiles, not listening one bit, he has a lot of work to do.

Chapter Text

Dennis is forced into the Light without warning, bombarded with the unpleasant sensations of rain and fluids and aches. His muscles are on fire, eyes burning, and mouth filled with blood that is not his own. Inspecting himself over, he has no shirt or shoes; possibly his least favorite part of taking the Light after The Beast.

Without glasses he resorts to squinting pitifully around the dark woods, but he doesn't have to look far to see the cabin's lights, or the black, shapeless blob against the tree in front of him. Casey is curled up and unconscious, appearing much smaller hugged around a twisting, disfigured trunk.

Crouching down, he regards her pale face covered in scratches and dirt. A swell of anger sits hot in his chest at this startling deviation from their plan. Anger at himself for being emotionally confused and not handling the situation, at having Patricia take over. He gets an arm behind her neck and the other under her knees and cradles her close. Her head lolls as he stands, shielding her face away from the downpour. Holding her in his arms for the second time felt so strange, unreal, and wrong

At a loss as to what events could have lead to the cluster of mess he's now dealing with, he is aware that the filth and rain and blood is clearly his punishment.

Dennis' mind is uncomfortably silent as it usually is nowadays. Left alone with his own anxiety and frustration. Ever since The Beast’s arrival, it has shared consciousness with Patricia rather than himself. He was aware coming into this initially that he would be her muscle, but now she's treating him as such and nothing else. Dennis hates not working with all of the information available, of being completely out of the loop like a petulant, disobedient child until forced to do grunt work. 

As of now, his focus is on getting inside the cabin without any more difficulties. He hurries up the steps. Hitching her up, awkwardly fumbles for the keys, unlocks the door, and shoves it open.

Dennis heads to the bathroom and places her down in the tub. He turns the shower on and focuses back on her, pushing the hair out of her face. His fingers linger in her hair, sifting through the dark, soft locks, marveling at how pleasant it feels. Several moments pass like this. Eventually, his fingers trail down her brow, swallowing anxiously as his thumb over the curl of her lashes, knuckles brushing down rosy cheeks. To the corner of her pink, parted mouth.

Slowly drawing his hand away, he looks down to see the clear water quickly turning a murky, light brown. Mud and grass and tiny branches drizzle down the drain. It quickly clumps and water begins to fill up. The sight of it leaving makes him less anxious but his mind is screaming that he needs to be cleaned. Now. So he snatches a few washcloths hanging on the metal rod fixed to the wall and climbs in. He stands underneath the showerhead, blocking most of the water from hitting her. Her eyelids begin fluttering weakly and she moans quietly, head rolling against the tiles. 

She was a distraction that he couldn't afford right now, not emotionally at least. He thought that she would understand what they were trying to do here, but maybe he was wrong. Made a fool out of once again. Or perhaps she was right about Patricia. He let out a sigh between his teeth, scratches his brow irritably. They couldn't do this without Casey or a tight unit in-house...

Ignoring the list of problems to the best of his of his abilities, he removes his pants which leaves him only in underwear. He grabs a bar of soap and starts scrubbing, until he's as clean and pink skinned as he's going to get. He sees Casey moving more from the corner of his eye and idly thinks that he's going to have to clean her as well. He groans at the thought, covering his face with a hand as if that will shield him from the thought. The urges seem to prevail more when he's worked up in a state, it didn't matter whether he was experiencing negative or positive emotions. And acting on it more often than not only makes him feel regretful, disgusting, and weak. 

Another weary, heavy sigh pulls from his chest and he runs his hands down his face.

When Dennis opens his eyes again Casey is staring at him, wide eyed like a guilty pet caught getting into trouble. Her fingers grasp the lip of the tub, struggling to move herself up further into a sitting position. Her eyes flit to the door and then back to him. 

"Don't you move," he warns lazily, narrowing his eyes while he swipes water from his face.

Casey thinks she's too frightened to try to escape or do anything. Her eyes roam over Dennis' near naked body and sharp fear spikes painfully through her chest. She sucks in a rattling breath, forcing herself to breathe, to think rationally. But there is nothing about this entire situation that makes sense and she begins to think the worst.

Dennis shifts on his leg and she reflexively jerks back. "You've been a bad girl, haven't you?" he says.

Too fearful to speak she merely shakes her head which appears to only anger him further, his mouth pressing together thinly, hands clenching as if he'd like to get them around her throat.

"You tried to run..." he tests the theory aloud, staring intensely at her.

Casey shakes her head even more aggressively though it puts a ringer on her neck. There are things they can do to her worse than death, ones she doesn't want to give them cause to act on.

Unconvinced, Dennis sucks on his bottom teeth, contemplating things she can't garner, his gaze half lidded. 

"We have to get you clean," he says, bending down to grab her.

"No!" Casey shouts, pleading. She pushes herself against the tub, arms in front of her to keep him away.

Dennis doesn't give her a second chance, his arm moving lightning quick to seize her right bicep and jerk her up. Her shoes squeak against the floor as she attempts to pull back, slipping and hitting her head on the tile wall. She cries out. Fortunately, it wasn't a heard fall but coupled with the splitting headache she already has it's enough to stop her.

Dennis huffs angrily through his nostrils and yanks her toward him. Casey uses that momentum, reels her free arm back and slaps him across the face. Hard. His head snapping to the side at the force.

Her heart sinks with dread at her short burst of anger. Slowly, he turns back to her, face flushed and breathing heavily, the only sign of his fury in the dark of his dilated pupils.

His reaction stalls her as he goes for her again, anger rumbling in his chest. She shoves at him and pounds her fist against his chest but the shots are sluggish and do no damage.

"Get off me," she snarls, trying to turn away as he cleans her face none too gently. His hand moves up to clasp the back of her neck, keeping her in a firm grasp, completely immobilizing.

His ministrations make her feel helpless like a naughty child who played in the mud after their parents specifically told them not to. It also makes her feel completely violated. Although he's careful about his bare skin coming into contact with hers it doesn't take away her paranoia. She tenses with anticipation whenever he moves lower and she thinks he's about to undress her, but he leaves her fully clothed, his touches quick and firm. Casey weakly twists and turns, silently pleading for space. 

Finally, he stops altogether and lets the washcloth fall with a splat. He shuts the water off and steps out, hauling her beside him and letting go. She stumbles and doubles over the counter just in time before falling to the floor, chattering teeth and creaky bones. And then the world becomes dark and hazy while he dries her hair, then the rest of her. Asking him to stop is pointless so she just stands there and takes it, unable to meet her own shameful, reddened eyes in the mirror placed mockingly in front of her. Casey bites her bottom lip to stop from breaking down, can taste the blood in her mouth, knees shaking as he dries between her thighs. Patting down her calves. By the end of it the towel is more wet than she is. She knows this act is about humiliation more than anything, she's just thankful he let her keep her clothes on.

The wind is knocked out of her lungs when he wraps an arm around her middle and drags her out of the bathroom. She cries out as her knees hit the floor and then she's being hauled up again, out into the hallway.

Past her room. 

She can't breathe. He's going to cave in under himself this time. He's going to hurt her. He's going to rape her. She starts up her struggling again, shouting at the top of her lungs.

"Please don't do this," Casey sobs, "Please! Dennis!"

"Be quiet," he says absentmindedly.

Pressing the heel of her shoes into the floor does little to slow him down, it only further agitates him. He picks her up and slings her over his shoulder and she wriggles around helplessly.

The slam of the door against the wall pulls a startled scream from her throat. And then she's falling down on the floor. Her arms shoot out protectively in front of her. He slaps them away, grabbing her jaw in a vice grip, his thumb and forefinger digging into her skin.

"I don't want to hear another word from your mouth," he says calm and low, threateningly. Like a disappointed parent on the verge of enacting physical punishment. 

She clamps her mouth shut so fast her teeth click together. Satisfied, he releases her and walks over to the closet, pulling out a fresh pair of clothing. 

Horrifyingly, Casey realizes that her only real, solid chance of getting out of here was shutting her out. He's angry and hurt with her. Since he first showed up in her apartment he'd made it clear that he put his trust in her, and now she's betrayed it. He's not going to let her leave his sight anymore, and whatever reprieve she had in the snatches of solitude she was granted is now gone.

Casey crumples into a ball on the ugly, brown and tan patterned rug, the fight in her seeping into the cheap, scratchy polyester. She stares into the darkness under the bed, where the only monsters that should have been real to her hid. She stares until that darkness stretches over the floorboards and around her, climbing up to the ceiling and covering the entire room. She mourns for the life she's never had or ever will. She mourns for the teens still locked in the cellar, if they aren't already dead. For Claire and Marcia.

For Lauren.

She should have pulled that trigger on herself. Let The Beast devour her. She'll always belong to monsters in some way or another, whether it's the ones inside her head or a physical manifestation in the real world. She knows that now, even as a tiny part of her heart refuses that darkness. Casey tells herself it's just the woods, bringing back old memories and feelings. This is where it all started after all. The woods.

She's a murderer. The weight of that thought fully sinks in, has her lightheaded and queasy, numb and unreal. And she's hidden that part of her for years, let it fester and rot, seep into her all while believing she was never capable of the ugliness her uncle had shown her.

Was this her fate too? All of those years suffering only to get a hint of peace before plummeting back into hell again? To become a monster herself. What was the point?

Angry tears fall hotly down her cheeks, slides down her nose to drip on the rug. Sniffling, she swipes at her eyes, her breath ragged and uneven.

"I don't understand why you're trying to fight this," Dennis says, causing her to look up from where he's idling by the end of the bed. "We're trying to help you."

"I don't want this." The words come out of her mouth before she can think twice.

Dennis slams his fist against the wall and she flies upright, on high alert. He advances towards her, facial expression blank of any motive. Casey moves back up, scrambling back on her hands and feet between the small space of the nightstand and bed. He traps her there, kneeling down on his haunches, both hands on either side of the bed and stand.

"You're..." he pauses, running his tongue along his mouth in contemplation, an annoyed hum rising up his throat. "I thought you would understand why we're doing this. That you'd be relieved...happy, even. But you won't see the light," he says quietly, solemnly. "Will you?"

"I already have," she says weakly. 

Tearing his gaze away from her, Dennis laughs in disbelief, smiling darkly.

Casey's eyes roam across his face thoughtfully, no longer pensive of his proximity. As much as she wants to get far away she can't deny that Dennis and the others fascinate her. That she understands them more than she lets on.

"What you want for me, that's not who I am," she says, changing tactics. "I'm not like The Beast. Or Patricia. Or you. I- I'm a killer now though...but I can't do it again. I can't watch that again," she babbles on frantically, chest heaving.

Dennis regards her once more, closely, brows furrowing in confusion. "What do you mean, you killed someone?"

But Casey barely registers him now, drawing into herself. "I killed her so her last moments wouldn't be so terrible. Being eaten alive.."

"And if it was your uncle?" Dennis challenges. "Would you do it for him?"

"That's not the same," she snarls.

"It is," he replies, just as heated. "They will grow up to be just like him if they aren't already."

"So what are you saying? That...that The Beast preys on young predators?" The idea was ridiculous and unreal but so was this entire situation.

"What happened in the cellar?" Dennis says instead. "After..." he doesn't finish, his failure to maintain the order he was well known to handle clearly etched on his face.

Casey hesitates. "You don't know?"

He sits down indian style in front of her, rubbing his hand over his head furiously.

"She didn't tell you? Anything?" Casey asks hesitantly, noticing the doubt plain on his face. 

He shoots her a look that easily translates to what do you think? So Casey doesn't ask anymore questions and they sit there in silence for a while.

She muses on her earlier theory about The Beast and feeding and her role in all of this. Since The Beast is the first of his kind it would make sense that he needs help identifying his own kind. But he can find food, which happens to be other predators like himself- but so much more obviously less than. That's where she comes in, being young herself and 'pure' could make her an excellent tracker in his eyes.

Thoughts of her physical state turns outward to the small space she's backed herself in between the bed and nightstand. Her gaze shifts to Dennis whose own eyes look far away behind his glasses.

Cocking her head curiously, Casey carefully shuffles closer, heart pounding. As soon as her fingers glide against his jaw she feels the muscle jump and she bites back a gasp. He doesn't move again. Bashfully, her hand lands on the still red, angry cheek she'd slapped, electricity tingling up her nerves. She smooths her thumb over the mark she's made, cups his jaw gently over the swelling, like a pink rose opening and growing in the palm of her hand, its wam rose petals peeking between her fingers. She hit him and he had retaliated in kind, in his own way. But there's no more harm done. No guilt or apologies. Just like that it's forgiven.

A broken exhale against her wrist diverts her attention back to the man himself. He's staring at her, eyes half lidded.

Without thinking too much of it, she moves out further from the space and wraps her arms around his neck and rests her head on his shoulder, simultaneously trying to send signals of apologies and her future cooperation through the embrace.

The silence that follows is long and heavy and during it she marvels at how ordinarily human he feels. Soft skin running hot, moving under her. It feels like any other hug from a person, not that she has a lot of experience in that department; but it's as comfortable as hugging Norma. And to her surprise he accepts it, his arms resting lightly against her sides.

"I know you only want what's best for me," Casey says, muffled into his shoulder. "Please. Please don't shut me out- you must know what that's like, and...I don't want to be alone." Her admission makes everything feel so much lighter, free of burden. There was nothing else she can do but go along with what they say now, she might as well place her trust in him.

"Okay, that's enough. Let go." Dennis' voice is demanding but soft and she obeys, pulling back to her original sitting position.

She's put him off kilter and left him flustering, smoothing down the folds of his shirt. But he looks back up at her, the doubt he might have had melting away with her sincerity, leaving him a little less rigid than his normal demeanor

A small, relieved smile flits across her face. "Thank you."

The comment visibly catches him off guard and he ducks his head, hiding his face further in the darkness. It doesn't help, only dramatizes his features, the lines etched on his face pulled down into doubt.

"There's something inside you," Dennis says, looking at her once more. "Special. You may not see it as good, you may even think it's evil..."

It's her turn to look away now, caught off guard visibly shaken by his words not for the first time striking a chord within. Her connection to The Horde thickens and entwines like a knot, forever looping around each other, impossible to untie the longer they're together. 

Dennis ducks his head lower to meet her gaze.

"But you wouldn't be here without it," he tells her. "Stop hiding from it and be thankful, or you might find yourself unable to control it."

***

Casey wakes with a start, eyes blinking rapidly, unaware that she had fallen asleep. The noise from the storm outside is deafening, blurring together into one huge, indescribable scream. At least, she hopes it's noise from the storm, and not someone from the underground cellar. Rubbing her eyes with the heel of her hand, Casey stares blearily at the wall in front of her. 

The branches scratch against the cabin noisily, shrieking on the edges of her eyesight, boring into her temple. The frosted over windows make exaggerated, frowning faces at her predicament. The walls lean over her, threatening to topple under the great, big puff of the wolf - the Beast - whenever he sees fit. 

Too many noises and colors blend together. The taste of dust and rainwater and mold sit heavy on her tongue, she scrunches up her mouth, swiping her tongue around. Alarmed at the barrage of stimuli suddenly rushing in out of nowhere, Casey props herself up on her arm. 

She zeroes in on the tinny, crinkling annoying sound niggling in the back of her head. Like smoking firewood or crumbling a piece of paper. The bed groans under her weight when she shifts forward, crawling to the edge where that sound becomes louder. She presses her hands over her ears to block it out, but still it comes, spine tingling and nerve wracking. She stops at the end of the bed post and looks down to the small cave of blackness nestled between the mattress and post. Completely disturbed now, she tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and bends forward. She shudders at the sound, it's the only thing she can hear now. 

A childish thought pops into her head, that the monsters under her bed have finally come for her. If only they had come sooner, she bitterly thinks. But it's not under the bed, strangely, maybe it's a rat although she hasn't seen any yet. Besides, it would be shrieking right now if it got stuck, also so much smaller. The fact that she hears it at all while the storm ravages the sky and land is a mystery to her.

Frowning, Casey decides to dig her fingers into the hole and immediately comes into contact with something small, hairy, and wriggly. A startled, displeased yelp escapes her and she squeezes her palm shut. One high pitched shrill from the creature later, accompanied by the sickening sound of of grating and crushing and the irritating noise that first caught her attention stops.

Pulling her fingers out of the small crevice, she opens her hand to look down at the mess she's made, the blood and guts of a spider smeared across her skin.

Casey shakes her hand with a disgusted grunt and falls back into solid warmth. A crack of lightening splits her head in half and highlights the room, whipping her head around she finds Patricia. The room falls to darkness once more.

"Frightened?" Patricia's voice washes over her. "Of the storm, I mean." How she failed to notice Patricia there was beyond her, so intensely focused on the other noises and presences around her.

She wonders how pitiful she must look, cowering and shaking at every loud sound. She flinches when the rain pelts down even harder against the cabin, like bullets ringing down on tin cans. Thunder seems to roll and shift the earth itself, vibrates up and down her body.

Patricia looks unaffected by it all, poised on this dingy bed as if it were some swanky chaise lounge, her feet tucked under her. A green and black cardigan is wrapped around her tan sweater and long, black skirt. She leans over to the nightstand and opens the top drawer, procuring a few tissue papers and offering them over. Casey wipes the spider gunk off her hand and hands it back when Patricia outstretches her hand.

"It's okay. Everything is all right now," Patricia says softly, gaze moving down to stare at her hand with an odd expression. "Come sit by me."

Casey obeys and Patricia puts an arm around her shoulder, pulling her in so that she has no choice but to rest her head on the woman's shoulder. A maternal gesture that discomforts her. Patricia's fingers smooth down her hair deceptively loving and rests her head on top of Casey's. All of this intimate contact with The Horde since her arrival has been strange, turning her head around and making her confused. 

"Yes," Patricia croons, the 's' long and drawn out. "I know what this is about. There's no need to feel conflicted over what you've done, dear. Or what you're going to do. These are small things you needn't worry about anymore. Poor girl," her cadence lilting soothingly, hypnotically. "You've been prey so long that this new transformation might be incredibly confusing and difficult for you."

Casey doesn't argue, just sags further into Patricia's hold. A heavy sickness is settling inside the bones of her body, her earlier freezing, sodden state coupled with the physical and mental exertion finally taking a toll on her body.

"You can't convince me- or yourself," Patricia continues lowly as if reading a scary bedtime story, "that the world is simply so black and white for you. This and that. Right and wrong. Human nature is never so simple and you, my dear, have taken the brunt of it all your life and done nothing."

"I did," Casey argues pitifully, "I fought back."

"No," Patricia sharply refutes. "You cowered and squealed, like a little pig when the big bad wolf came knocking at your door. That's not fighting back. Admit it, would you have said anything about your uncle if not for The Beast's influence that day?"

Casey's heart hammers in her chest, self disgust drowning inside of her. But Casey knows the truth even if she can't admit it out loud. What were the chances of her speaking up about her uncle if she hadn't been kidnapped by the Horde? Slim to none.

"You belong to a new class of animal. An Apex Predator unlike any other, born through the horrors of life, arisen frome the bones of prey, the ashes of your old self."

The thing is that she was proud of herself. For a little while. She had been fooling herself into thinking she had did it all on her own without The Beast's dark influence.

Patricia hugs her tightly, resting her chin atop her head again. This hug is different from the one she shared with Dennis earlier, Casey hadn't been manipulative in that moment, she was flayed open for him to see. But she does nothing to move away or fight back from Patricia, shame flooding her at how easily she's caving in, at how weak and lost she is. Closing her eyes, she can almost trick herself into believing she's being cradled lovingly by her mother. Maybe because she was talking to Dennis about her earlier. She's so tired, all she wants to do is sleep and never wake up.

"Did you think...that you were that girl's savior when you pulled that trigger? That you were sparing her some drawn out, painful end? She's still dead despite your perceived act of grace and heroism. And she would have never understood real pain or how to treasure her life, not like you."

Casey wants to stand up and scream at the top of her lungs that the girl's name is Lauren but the words are choked in her throat, too tired to come out. Despite her better judgement she stays silent and still, engrossed by the passion in Patricia's words.

"But you are alive," Patricia says the last word in a hushed, reverent tone. "Continuing to survive in a world of predators. The same predators who made us who we are and will only accommodate you so far. You can't make it out there alone, Casey. You never could. You're not meant for this world. Oh, they say things will get better with time to the boy who was beaten by his mother, or the child neglected or abandoned by their parents, taken advantage of by their predatory uncle. But the broken will never have the fulfillment they seek unless the world and its ways truly change. And that can be done only through pain."

Patricia's fingers wrap tightly in the strands of Casey's hair and she tugs back, enough to make her gasp in discomfort, stopping just on the edge of real pain.

Patricia pauses, rolling Casey's head around until she's staring up into her eyes, alight with fondness and a grin that teetered on leering. "They will never know or understand the depth of your pain and how its shaped you. Shielded and protected you. Made you. You think you're free but look at yourself. Still alone and lost and miserable."

Casey blinks back tears, willing herself not to cry in front of her. She searches Patricia's eyes, tries to remind herself that this woman is a manipulator and liar, to latch onto something other than the truth she's been running away from.

"But now you have blood on your hands too."

The reminder makes her heavier, she sags underneath her kill, like carrying a soaking, bloody pelt on her shoulder.

"Let's get you something to eat."

She doesn't argue, letting herself be guided up and out of the room and down the hallway to the kitchen. Everything is too sensitive and bright and detailed, the fog over her eyes lifting to reveal the true colors underneath. She must be coming out of some stupor, calm and clarity after a great shock.

Patricia settles Casey into one of the kitchen chairs and waltzes over to the stove. "You're freezing. A nice, hearty stew will warm you right up. I already had prepared it before your arrival, and after the day you've had you deserve it."

"The others," Casey begins hoarsely, "are they still in the cellar, or..." Or did The Beast get them too?

"No need to worry about that as of now," Patricia replies airily. "We have something else lined up for you tomorrow that I believe you will appreciate."

Casey wonders if Dennis had talked to Patricia, and if he will tell her something - anything - for what she must do tomorrow. There will be no more crying or begging or diversions. The quicker she does what is required of her the less painful it will be - she hoped.

A bowl of stew is set under her nose, steaming and inviting for her chilled bones. She pokes the contents with the spoon provided her; beef, carrots, potatoes, and green beans floating in the perfectly seasoned broth going by the grumble of her stomach. As far as she can tell, there's no crushed pills to make her sleep or any other substance. A piece of bread and glass of water is offered, she inspects that too.

"Did you know that very few spiders have good eyesight?" Patricia says, catching her attention while taking her first bite. "Imagine that...a. creature with as much as eight eyes.They rely on touch and vibration and taste to find their prey. You, however..." Patricia frowns and furrows her brow inquisitively, "have proven over the course of the day to have very good eyesight."

Swallowing down the revulsion of her morbid comment, the image of Lauren running for her life drops like lead in her stomach, Casey stammers awkwardly. "It- it was like tunnel vision," she whispers in confession.

The precision of that shot under the stressful circumstances had surprised her. She'd never thought - or wanted  - to take another shot at someone again. She carries a gun for protection, to hopefully ward off attackers by the mere sight of it. She'd never imagined things would go so far as to having pull the trigger.

Patricia's eyes lighten with amusement. "Don't sell yourself short. You have a natural talent."

The spoon slides out of Casey's grip, plopping down in the bowl, splashing broth onto the table. "No." Finding that spider...shooting Lauren, both had unnerved her more than she wants to admits to Patricia. It doesn't mean she has some sort of ability. Does it? 

Patricia draws herself up and wraps her cardigan tighter around her shoulders. She smiles thinly, eyes hard. "Go to bed, Casey. You have a lot to think about. And a big day ahead of you tomorrow."

 

 ***

 

The next time Casey wakes she knows it's morning, can smell it in the air, the silence. She inspects hands as if they're disconnected from her body. They don't have any telltale signs of what she's done but she swears she can feel and see the blood staining her palms.

Her head feels like it's been filled with water and when she tries to process yesterday's events it sloshes heavily against its walls. She shakes away its fuzziness and sits up, leaning on her elbows.

Her eyes land on the clothing laid out for her at the foot of her bed: the white dress gifted by Norma's mother and her favored red hoodie. Little Red Riding Hood, just like in Hedwig's drawing. Shucking off her clothes from last night, stiff and stale and earthly smelling as they were, she was glad to put on a dress for once. She spots her boots stuffed with a fresh pair of socks and puts those on too. Her hair is a mess and she does her best to smooth it down and untangle it, managing to make it look like she was mauled by a dog rather a bear.

Hearing footsteps coming down the hall, she turns  on her heel and faces the door, steeling herself for what was to come.

“Casey,” she hears Hedwig giddily call from behind the door, its hinges creaking. He pokes his head in and grins toothily. “Game time."

Chapter Text

"Hi, sweetheart, how are they treating you in here?"

Elijah smiles. She always asks that and his answer never really differs. "They're treating me just fine, mom. How's my store?"

His mother wraps her hand around his, squeezing affectionately before taking her seat in the chair across. "It's doing well. I had you for a son so I'm pretty sure I know a thing or two about comic books," she teases, her voice wavering a little near the end.

In her eyes, this is what's got him in this mess in the first place. But she doesn't blame the comics so much as herself and his childhood, forced into isolation more often than not from others until she'd pulled him out of it.

He eyes the bag in her lap with interest. "Did you bring it?"

"I did." She carefully slides the item out, the guard behind her tensing despite the bag having been cleared by security.

Being in the same room with a man who has planned and executed wide-scaled disasters can make people a little jumpy.

The glossy, thin comic lights up the white room with a swirl of colors. He's pleased to see she'd got it all the way here and through the hospital's search in perfectly mint condition. That was his mom, determined and efficient.

Elijah takes it in his hand with reverence.

"When you ask people who was the first superheroine to be portrayed in her own comic, who would you guess?" He asks her, sometimes passing her somber, silent moments when she visits by quizzing her.

Mrs. Price hums thoughtfully, settling back into the chair, a tiny, grateful smile pushing past her tired features. "Well..." She drawls, "Wonder Woman immediately springs to mind, but something tells me that answer is too easy.” She narrows her gaze knowingly.

Elijah barks a laugh. "Indeed, it is, mom," he says approvingly, grinning at her smug look. "Although, a lot of people do believe her to be the first."

“Oh?” She prods, an amusing glint in her eye. "I'm going to have to brush up on my history then, wouldn't do good to run the best comic book shop and not know that."

Elijah hums, nodding, and gestures towards the comic in his lap. "It was actually Sheena, Queen of the Jungle who debuted in Great Britain in nineteen thirty-seven that was the first. She was an orphan girl raised by animals who eventually became able to speak with them. She was also proficient with weapons, protecting them from the likes of her own kind. She went on to be the first of many jungle queens.”

"Why were you so insistent that I bring this comic to you?" Mrs. Price asks. "You usually ask for more too. They're not taking them away, are they?" She arches her brow and throws a pointed glare at the guard.

"No, no," he says quickly. "Not at all. It's just... I've been thinking..."

Mrs. Price's brows furrow. "About what, baby?"

"About that man you told me about in the news. The one that kidnapped those girls last year?"

She nods in confirmation.

"I've been thinking a lot about him." 

"Oh?"

Actually, Elijah has been doing more than just thinking. He'd been avidly following any lead in the newspapers and during his computer time in the rec room. Even the staff would whisper about Kevin Wendell Crumb, shuddering at the inevitably of him being strapped up and rolled down these halls.

And the more Elijah would find, the more hopeful he became that Kevin was just like him and David Dunn. Possibly even more extraordinary than David. 

Everyone has to adapt eventually, and you either have that ability or you don't. Just like Sheena the Jungle Queen- whether it’s of their own free will or by force, the truth will be brought to light," Elijah explains. "She could have been a plain, weak human but her potential had been unlocked, shedding her old identity to become someone better, stronger. And with her existence came dozens of heroines like her."

"What does that have to do with the Crumb boy?" Mrs. Price asks, leaning forward.

"Because, this man - The Horde, The Beast - could bring in a whole new era," he says with excitement. He refrains from adding that he would be there every step of the way, guiding his soon to be partner into that world.

His mother smiles sadly at him. He knows what she's thinking, that he is still stuck in his mind somewhere as that scared little boy too afraid to go outside and get hurt. That someone from the bright, fantastical panels of his imagination will come and save him from this terrifying world he'd been born into. But that little boy had always been Mr. Glass, and every fiction story holds a bit of truth in it.

What he knows for certain is that he will come face to face with The Horde very soon. He plans accordingly.

 

///

 

"I'm really not in the mood to play, Hedwig," Casey says as he forcibly drags her into the living-room.

"But you promised," Hedwig whines, dropping her hand to cross his arms with a little pout. "We're not breaking promises, are we?" He says accusingly.

Casey swallows the ache in her throat and shakes her head minutely.

Hedwig's face lights up and he rushes over to the television and begins hooking everything up, huffing at the long, twisting cords.

Moving over to the couch, Casey slumps in it with an inaudible sigh, her eyes burning with every sluggish blink. Was this her life now? Repaying the freedom The Beast had offered her that night with her loyalty? Could she stomach it? She shakes those thoughts from her mind and the rest of her worries with it.

The opening theme from Mario Kart blares loudly through the speakers, startling them both. Hedwig jumps up and down excitedly and hurries to sit beside her on the couch, thrusting a black controller into her hands. Something in her loosens with the sigh she releases; she can do this, at least. 

Casey chooses Princess Peach and Hedwig picks Bowser.

Hedwig snorts at her choice. "I am going to kick. Your. Butt."

About five races in once the surreality of her situation ebbs away into nothing more than the tension in her shoulders, Casey eagerly loses herself to the repetitive music and barrage of colors of Rainbow Road. She immediately makes a rule of no more than three bananas per race after the countless times she's spun off the rainbow, making Hedwig howl with laughter. She gets her revenge with some well timed shells, their scores neck and neck.

Hedwig keeps bumping into her, jerking back and forth with every turn and attack he makes.

Casey actually smiles, a tiny huff of laughter escaping her. "You know all of that moving around won't make you a better driver?"

Hedwig knocks his elbow into hers, grunting as he rams his kart into hers, tongue poking between his teeth in concentration. "Says you," he scoffs, "I'm totally winning right now."

They play until her thumbs get sore and her hands cramp up.

"Did you pass the test?" Hedwig asks, pausing the game and dropping the controller in his lap to massage his hands.

"The what?" She says before the words fully register, uneasiness flooding back through her. "Uh, no. I don't think so," she says quietly, ducking her head to stare down at her hands.

"You gotta," he says, a slight exasperated. "The girls down there are a buncha bitches, and the guys tried to hurt me. They made fun of me- I had to tell Ms. Patricia and we showed them," he says, tilting his chin up smugly.

"I'm sorry to hear that."

Hedwig frowns, thoughtful. "Hey, are you gonna be, like, our sidekick now?"

Casey mirrors his frown. "Sidekick?"

"Yeah, like, Batgirl or somethin'."

At a loss of words, Casey shrugs. 

"If you be our sidekick no one will ever hurt you again either. And maybe you won't look so sad, etcetera. You don't hafta to want to be alone all the time, you remember when you told me that? Last time?"

Biting her trembling lip, Casey nods, her heart aching. "I do."

Grinning, Hedwig hops off of the couch. "I'm going to go make some hot chocolate. I'm allowed to do that all by myself as long as I use the microwave and not the stove. Do you want some hot chocolate?"

"Sure, Hedwig." Sliding off the couch, Casey trails behind him.

"Good. You're gonna need your strength for what Ms. Patricia and Mr. Dennis are going to make you do," he teases.

Stuffing her hands in her pockets, Casey shudders, suddenly cold. "What are they going to have me do?" She asks, despite her better judgement.

Looking over his shoulder, Hedwig's mouth pulls down in confusion. "Hell if I know," he grins, a scary combination of viciousness and ignorance. "They just said it's gonna be a doozy."

 

///

 

"Get out of the way! Get back!" David hears his co-worker, Paul, shout as the large crowd of stadium attendees weave back from a young man running down the corridor.

Something large and sharp glints in the man's hand.

David pushes through the onlookers, as the man grows nearer. "Excuse me," he says, rolling his shoulders, waiting for the right moment as the man comes up on one of the entrance to the seating area.

The guy barrels through, shoving people down onto the floor, his gaze intent on escaping into the the rows of people.

David breaks out into a run, the man in his line of sight. David stops right in front of him, planting his feet and widening his arms out. "I gotcha, you little..."

More focused on Paul tailing him, the guy rams straight into him and grunts heavily at the impact, dropping to the ground in a daze with absolutely no exertion on David's part.

Paul reaches them a minute later and doubles over, face red and eyes squeezed shut as he coughs and wheezes. “David…" he pants, "you’ve gotta tell me what gym plan you’re on.”

He chuckles in response.

The rest of the day passes by uneventfully after that, and at the end of the day he heads to the employee locker room to change when his phone rings.

"Hey, honey," he answers with a smile, opening his locker.

"Hey," she echoes, sounding slightly off. Hesitant.

David straightens, on high alert. "What's the matter?"

"It's nothing," she sighs. "It's... silly."

"What is it?" He coaxes, moving to sit on the bench.

“Are you off work?" She asks.

"Yeah, I'm about to change right now."

"Are you coming home straight after?"

That gives him pause. And it shouldn't. 

"You’ve been busy a lot lately,” Audrey admits, sounding tired. “Between work and the watch…I feel as if we’ve barely spent any time together. I miss you."

“I know," he sighs, regret thick in his voice. "I just want my family to feel safe. This world is getting more dangerous every day." He would know. "I promise I'll make it up to you soon," he says softly.

Audrey sighs again, worry in her voice. “Just…don’t pull away from me.”

"That is the last thing I want to do," he says, earning a short laugh from her. "I love you, Audrey,” he says with such firmness that should hold no more doubt on her end as he presses the phone just a tighter, his voice picking up just a little closer.

“I know," she responds with that familiar smile in her voice that he was waiting for. "I love you too."

Hanging up, David changes into his street clothes. He'll put on the police scanner in his car and listen for any signs of The Horde lurking out in the streets, telling homself he'll go straight home if he gets nothing.

What he doesn't expect is his son waiting for him at the stadium's entrance, the look on his face spelling trouble for his plans.

We're going to see a dead body,” Joseph tells him the second he's in earshot.

"God, you're morbid and you need a hobby." David grimaces while Joseph smirks to himself. "What is going on with you these days?"

Ignoring him, Joseph leads them outside to his car. "You're asking all the wrong questions right now."

“Alright, does this dead body got anything interesting to say?”

Scowling, Joseph makes a gesture for the keys. “And I'm the one you're calling morbid?"

"I'm just saying, you show up here excited," David shrugs, "talking about a dead body..."

"It's a lead to Crumb."

David doesn't say anything else, tossing over his keys and hurriedly climbing in.

The drive is a little over half an hour away, he soon recognizes the area as being incredibly close to the stranded bus that had been torn apart. Joseph refuses to relinquish any information, smartly knowing that he’ll be left behind if he relents.

Rain beats down on the hood of the car like war drums, loud and persistent, fog growing from the edge of the windows.

Finally, they pull into a deserted parking lot, no other cars or buildings in sight. The headlights sweep over the sign, making David jerk upright, his gaze following it in disbelief until it's blanketed in darkness.

“A morgue?” he says, slowly casting a confused look at his son. “I was thinking more along the lines of a graveyard or...or an open casket funeral type thing."

Joseph snorts. "Like that's any better?"

The car pulls to a stop and Joseph kills the lights and engine. "Just came from shooting the scene a little ways ahead of where the body was found, got some information out of the locals but they don't want to release the victim's name just yet."

Nodding wordlessly, David grabs his raincoat where it's sat in a box in the backseat. He pulls his hood up and opens the car door, the muted sound of the rain now obnoxiously loud. “Good call," he all but shouts over his shoulder as he steps out of the car. He ducks his head back in as Joseph goes to open his door. "Stay here."

“What? But dad-”

David slams the door in his face - lovingly, of course - and proceeds to the back of the building.

Grumbling to himself about lousy, loner fathers, Joseph pulls his own hood on and quickly follows him.

He watches his dad make quick work of the lock and it lands with a thud on the wet pavement. Even after all these years he marvels at his father’s abilities with childlike wonder. His dad, however, looks thoroughly displeased.

They stare each other down stubbornly until Joseph points out that they don't have time for this, they went on a drive to break into a morgue and appropriateness went out the window long ago.

They don't waste any more time. Joseph takes out the flashlight he'd had in his hoodie and they hurry down the halls looking for the right room. They pick the lock in lieu of brute force and head inside the room and go down the strip of names on the cabinets.

"Here," Joseph says, heart pounding.

David slides the body out and Joseph tries to be casual as he looks away. Even under the privacy of the white sheet he can still imagine the horrible death this man must have endured at the hands of The Beast.

David rolls the sheet down as far as the man’s belly button.

“So?” Joseph prods. "It's The Beast's handiwork, isn't it?"

“Reminds me of a snake wrapping itself around its prey," David mutters. "Breaking its bones to make it weak. Ultimately, left to suffocate.”

Joseph swallows down bile, clears his throat. Grips the flashlight tighter over the body. "What now?"

“Now I just have to confirm our suspicions.” David covers the man’s upper body once more, leaving only his hand out.

Joseph watches as his dad's hand hovers over the man. This particular ability had been unknown to David during the initial stages of fighting crime, but ever since The Beast arrived on the scene he's beggining to find out more about himself.

David presses a hand to the stiff, cold corpse.

Flashes of a memory run through his mind: of the old man walking up the steps of a cabin in the woods and unlocking the door. Just as he makes it past the threshold and turns around The Beast is upon him. He ends his life as quick and without a second thought.

"What did you see?" Joseph whispers, eyes wide.

“A cabin in the woods."

“You think it could be where the kids are?”

“In the middle of nowhere deep in the neck of the woods..." David nods, runs a weary hand over his gray beard. "I’m betting on yeah. The only problem now is finding it.”

Joseph picks up the notepad attached to the end of the deceased’s slab. “Well, let's hope Mr. Perry wasn't a shut in with no family, it's a small town, we should find someone to give us some information."

"We're going to need to move fast," David says, grim. "Those kids don't have a lot of time."

Chapter Text

"It wasn't supposed to be this way."

She'd been drifting off, floating in the silence of her mind, when Dennis' voice startles her back in her surroundings. Senses sharpening once again. 

Sinking back into the worn, battered couch, Casey's gaze lifts up to see him standing in front of her, hands clasped behind his back. He's wearing a black military jacket, a dark blue and white checkered button-up underneath, and close-fitting black jeans. Casey hadn't heard him come in, his heavy combat boots should've alerted her to his presence. 

She was getting too comfortable around them perhaps, never having noticed Hedwig leaving the room. The empty mug of cocoa no longer on the floor by her boot clad feet. She was far too warm with the hot, thick liquid flowing through her and little else, making her feel sluggish and fatigued. She supposes drowsiness is a better alternative to the sliver of fear niggling in, like larvae in an apple.

"Like what?" Casey asks, frowning.

"Doesn't matter now. It's time." Dennis chews his bottom lip, dark gaze roaming over her slouched body and far away look. Whatever fervent energy he had the night before has been sapped from him, replaced with solemn resignation in the lines on his face. Ready to escort her to their makeshift ceremony.

He appears to be in no hurry despite his announcement, a thoughtful frown on his face as he looks at her– through her. Ambling closer, he takes a seat beside her. The cushion she's sitting on dips and Casey tilts inadvertently towards him, hand darting out to right herself, her fingers brushing against his thigh. She mumbles an apology when she hears him sigh, long and loud. Casey tucks her white dress in before burrowing her hands in her red hoodie. 

Too close, Dennis has a tendency to invade other's barriers, doesn't think twice about it. In fact, they all do, their motives always different. This time around his closeness was very much welcomed, it makes her feel less alone in whatever's to come.

Dennis folds his arms, mouth working as if he wants to say something. 

Casey licks her lips nervously, beating him to it. "How's your leg?" She asks, half stalling and half genuinely curious. 

His pant leg was currently stretched, revealing the slightly raised area of his thigh where he must have bandaged the wound after leaving her room last night. The thought of them being seriously injured had been deeply upsetting for her, she'd originally thought the worst when Lauren had said she stabbed Patricia. 

In Casey's mind they're near invincible, existing in the memories she's replayed numerous times over, carefully picking them apart to examine the ways in which they've formed the person she is now. 

Cupping his hands in his lap, Dennis' head rolls down to his thigh with a small frown. "Fine, had worse" He shrugs, no big deal. "Thanks." 

She doubts Dennis would make a fuss anyway if possible. However, Hedwig hadn't appeared bothered by the wound either. The implication gets stucks in her throat, mouth dry. Casey allows a swell of sadness to pass through her, nodding.

That thought brings up one important question. "What will happen if I fail?"

"Then you fail," Dennis tells her, voice rougher. His eyes are everywhere but on her. "And you go back to your life," he adds with a hint of bitter derision, ducking his head down.

"Oh."

That's all? They drop her back into normalcy, disappointed, and precede back on the run like none of this happened?

It doesn't settle well within her even though she knows it should leave her overjoyed. Casey wants nothing more than to escape their twisted, unrealistic expectations of her. For the people awaiting their fate in the cellar to be safe. 

The problem was leaving them here alone on borrowed time, to eventually take more lives and being gunned down when they're found is not an option for her. Constantly on edge waiting for the latest news where she can get it; worrying if they've been sighted or taken into custody or killed. 

To her surprise, Dennis reveals the messenger bag she's come with on the other end of the couch. She'd been so focused on him she hadn't noticed. Casey takes it, the finality of it being her last day hits. A cold ache fills her lungs like water, rendering her breathless. The possibility of rejecting them or vice versa would throw her world into chaos again. Leaving the roots of her pulled up and carelessly hacked at, until there's nothing but a lifeless shell.

She knows this is not good, this powerful hold they have on her. The way their beliefs have shaped her life, the same ones that's gotten so many people murdered are the motivation that keeps her going. It's what allows her to look in the mirror without regret. Makes her feel less alone on days when social competence escapes her. Keeps her grounded when she wakes from nightmares in a cold sweat. 

If things were different, where she'd feel there was a sliver of a chance in persuading them to see her way then she would do everything in her power. Counterarguments have come to an end now. There's only results stretching ominously on the heels of their shadows.

Casey fiddles with the strap of her bag, both ignoring his presence and savoring the warmth of his proximity. Dennis doesn't rush them to leave. She's thankful for that. He doesn't want this either, not anymore, that she can tell. There's a shift in the air between them in their next stolen glimpses, a private mutual understanding of sorts on the situation. 

"Casey..." Dennis turns to face her, catching her attention. He leans his shoulder against the couch, the leg towards her bent. The intensity in his eyes which once left her frozen in fear – so much darker than the others – now pulls her in. Everything condensing down to just the two of them. Face to face, sharing the same air, and worries. He looks at her like she's the sun and he's a dying man waiting for it one last time.

"Yeah?" She implores in a small voice, turning slightly towards him with wide eyes, heart beating fast.

"Whatever happens..." he speaks slowly, so soft and earnest it has her leaning in, allowing it to wash over her. "Just know you'll always be special." He says, hoarse. "All right? You matter."

It takes a minute for his words to sink in, and when they do she bites her lip, hard, to stop from combusting. From losing it altogether. As if he's read her mind, leaving her splayed open a shame filled well and filled it with something she's never experienced before. The numbness her self defense brings melts, like a thin sheet of ice at the first gentle prod. Goosebumps raise along her heated skin, a helpless sob rising up her throat. 

Casey shoots up and stumbles away on weak knees, needing to move around and away from him. Expel the pent up, unchecked emotions she's feeling. Sniffling, Casey pulls her hood up and shoves her hands in its pocket. "I think I'm ready now," she says, voice wavering. 

She hears Dennis get up, the old couch groaning in relief. She tenses when he walks behind her, keys jingling noisily. Casey swipes an index finger under her eye before a stray runs over and swivels around, a gust of wind tumbling inside after he opens the door. 

All of her mistakes, her pain, and failures stir a muddy storm in her eyes while they roam over the woods. Her present distress opens old wounds, like gust of winds through eaten leaves and rotten wood. The body remembers and offers no sympathy when it does. It pulls and pinches at her skin and digs its unforgiving fingers into her pelvis, an unpleasant, dull ache sits between her legs. It sparks a feverish rejection inside her suddenly oversensitive body.

Phantom pains.

She grimaces going down the last few steps. "There's a lot of bad memories in the woods for me." Once again offering pieces of herself to the Horde no one else will ever know, or be able to digest properly. More bad than good, indeed. It's not doing any favors for her straining psyche. Ever since coming here she's been grappling with strange sights and noises.

"We'll be out of it soon enough." 

It's cold. The farther they go the noisier it gets, every sound explosive between the loaded silence of things left unsaid. The wind brings in a faint scent of sweet firewood smoke somewhere. She hopes the rotting stench of Lauren's corpse baking somewhere in the afternoon sun doesn't waft in with it. Someone will retrieve her body eventually, Casey takes a small comfort in that.

It isn't survivor's guilt she's feeling, neither did she go through it with Marcia and Claire. If there had been an ounce of self blame for their deaths she would've swallowed it a long time ago, succumbing to an eternal sleep. Casey will no longer punish herself for John's sins.

The fact that it was a mercy killing matters little, the weight of Lauren has been hefted onto her back. Casey feels responsible in some way to honor it, such as humane hunting practices operate, refusing to let any part of their kill go to waste. 

"Do you ever have nightmares?" Casey blurts out, stepping over a large fallen branch.

"About what?" Dennis walks ahead of her, hands shoved into his pockets. 

"About the people you took, knowing what happens to them."

He doesn't answer for a long time and when he does it's harsh and short, directed at himself more than her. "Sometimes," he grunts. "What's it matter?"

"Do you get them a lot?"

"Why're you asking? Because of that girl?"

"Lauren," Casey says.

Dennis stops, running a hand over his head in frustration. "That should've never happened," he grounds out, livid. "It wasn't your fault, she was dead either way. So put it out of your mind."

"Like you put it out of yours?" She mutters sarcastically, intending to storm past him.

Dennis grabs her bicep. "You grazed her," he says. "She was still breathing, after."

Casey glares at him. "Don't do that."

"Patricia...she wanted you to think otherwise. Thought it might push you towards us."

"Screw you, you're lying," Casey bites out. "It was a perfect shot. I saw it."

"You saw what you wanted to believe." Snatching her hand, he digs the other into his jacket pocket and pushes a set of keys – her keys – into her hand. He closes her fist around them, his hand still enclosed around hers. "You don't have a lot of time."

The colors of the woods start to blur together, runny as watercolors. In other brief seconds everything sharpens, she can identify every ridge and groove in the tree bark and leaves. She focuses on the roughness of Dennis hand, the details of his white knuckled grip. Casey blinks rapidly, eyes burning, the world growing fuzzy. 

"You need to leave," Dennis says. Pleads.

The world under tilts and spins, the air in her lungs becoming sparse. Was she panicking? Casey gasps and reaches out with her free hand, clutching at the arm of Dennis' jacket.

"What's wrong?"

She shakes her head, his words muffled and slow. It sounds likes she's underwater, and there's a terrible, powerful storm screaming down the tunnels of her ear drums. 

Dennis stops them, puts a hand on her shoulder. "Aye. Talk to me, what's the matter?" He demands, apprehensive.

Casey leans against him more for support. He's saying something again, it gets lost in the noise inside her head. 

It's the night before all over again. The seconds slowing down as she'd watched Lauren running towards nowhere, the Beast advancing on her fast. The bang, her body dropping. Casey letting the darkness engulf her. It was curling up in the corner, screaming and crying thinking she was going to die. It's her uncle over her at the age of five, hand pressed against her mouth.

"Casey!" Dennis barks, jostling her. He sounds distressed which makes her panic more.

Her throat constricts as she inhales, choking from the unsuspecting pain and shock that pierces her leg, liquid fire spreading everywhere.

He's calling her name and it sounds so far away, bobbing out of range to the beat of her racing heart. There's screaming, she can't tell if it's his or hers echoing in her ears.

She drowns in the voices.

///

Sunday meals in the Dunn household has become a tradition since Joseph had gotten older, moving out.

Sure, one week it was breakfast and the next dinner; the point was they always find time to link together Sundays. The heavy workload will be starting the day after for Audrey, while Joseph's depends on the week's big story. David's job was a little more unpredictable, both at the stadium and his vigilante endeavors.

As a physiotherapist, Audrey never knows whose going to come through her door, be it a stroke victim, a car accident victim, or some college football star with a strained muscle. David's job was hectic as well, although he keeps the more violent, drunken stories about rabid sports fans between him and Joseph– Audrey's pacifism can't stomach it. As for Joseph, he's seen some ugly things behind the camera in his field, and then some.

For now those particular discussions have been tucked away and folded under the table. Until Joseph's phone buzzes. 

Opening it with one hand, his forkful of spaghetti hovering inches from his mouth. Dropping it back to his plate, appetite gone, he slides his phone over to his dad while his mom is busy piling salad into a bowl.

David looks up at Joseph whose all tense anticipation. They finally have the coordinates to the Horde's victim, a little ways off the grid.

"What are we waiting for?" Joseph whispers, already halfway out of his seat.

"Hm?" Audrey looks up.

"Nothing!" Joseph panics, chair scraping loudly as he shoots up from his seat.

David grimaces and gives him a warning look.

Having never been great at lying, especially to his mother, Joseph quickly changes the subject. "Let me get that for you." He stacks her sauce smeared plate on top of his. "You've done enough."

Audrey twists her mouth disapprovingly, cocking her head, silver strands shimmering against dark hair. She'll go out to the salon in an hour or so. "I didn't get my arm chopped off, I strained my wrist," she says with a roll of her eyes, waving her casted hand around. "I'm not helpless."

Joseph gives her a one armed hug before heading over to the sink to rinse the dishes. "Yeah, well, I'll do it because I care regardless."

David stands and kisses his wife goodbye. 

"Where are you two headed off to?" She asks.

"The bar."

"The store."

David and Joseph exchange glances.

"The store, then the bar," Joseph blurts out.

"Okay. You two have fun."

David chuckles as he and Joseph head out and down the sidewalk. "Jesus, kid, wanna run down our lines next time?"

"She didn't expect anything," Joseph defends.

David's mouth quirks. "Or maybe she just felt bad for you. Probably thinks we're up to no good."

"Well..." Joseph drawls humorously. "We kind of are in the name of the law." 

"That's a matter of perspective– and it's wrong, by the way.

Joseph laughs and they stop by a row of parked vehicles. "This is unlike anything we've ever faced before," he says sobering up. "Not just this guy but the circumstances. This isn't in the suburbs or local park." He looks up at the clear blue sky, by the time they arrive to the cabin the sun will be setting.

Sensing his worry, David says, "it'll work itself out." 

Joseph unlocks his van. "I have some flashlights and stuff handy for us just in case." And a Glock 43 locked in his glove compartment, not that he was eager to use it on anything other than paper. Besides, if this guy was resistant to bullets Joseph hopes it would slow him down a bit.

"Us?" David rounds the van and gets in while Joseph cranks the engine. "You don't think you're actually trekking along with me do you?"

Joseph frowns. "There's no way I'm letting you wander off in the middle of the woods with no signal, no real plan or exit strategy, or any kind of backup!"

David brows rise, incredulous. "I go in, get the kids, and get out. That's my plan. And if possible finally face down this guy and drop him off at the nearest police station."

"What can they do?" Joseph mutters, pulling out into the street. "He bends iron bars dad. He took two shotgun shells in close range.”

“Speculation." David denies, waving the words away which makes Joseph sigh. "And you no choice in the matter. You know I can't put you in danger like that."

Joseph's face hardens. “You’ll protect me.”

“That’s not the point, okay? This isn't some petty thief or harasser on the streets, he's a serial killer." David looks out the window, away from his son's stubborn gaze. 

With a shake of his head, Joseph worldessly relents, speeding down the street with no intention of sitting this one out.

Chapter Text

Cool water splashes on David's hand. Fingers twitching, they curl into a fist. He looks up at the canopy of trees holding the sun at bay. It's already dark and it won't be long until sunset, he wants to make it out of here before it does. At least he has some element of surprise, green security poncho blends in with the lush vegetation.

David cautiously approaches the boarded up cabin, boots crunching dead leaves underfoot. He's climbing the steps when a sharp snap from behind has him whipping around with wide eyes, fists at the ready. He drops them as fast as he'd put them up.

"Dammit Joseph.” He sighs. At least he has enough good sense to cover his face with a dark green and yellow ski mask, only his eyes and mouth visible.

"You look like a burglar," David dryly comments.

"Very funny. There's supposed to be a cellar," Joseph says, unbothered. "I bet you anything that's where they're being kept."

Shooting his son a disapproving look, he takes one last glimpse at the cabin before following Joseph around back. His eyes scan the woods for any sign of the Beast, his anxiety pulling on a thin thread now that Joseph was here. "What's with this reckless behavior lately, huh? Do we need to have the talk again?"

The first talk happens when Joseph is fifteen during summer vacation. David was pursuing a serial rapist turned serial killer. Joseph having been following David for some time on his walks through Fairmount when his son saw ran right into the suspect. Needless to say, he was given a stern talking to, and David took some time off after the scare.

Joseph laughs nervously. "No idea what you're talking about."

"Yeah, yeah..." He grumbles under his breath. Spotting an axe hacked into a log, David pulls it out with ease, never missing a step.

When they get to the cellar his suspicion is correct, he brings the axe up and cuts the lock off in one fell swoop, leaving the chains rattling as they slide to the floor. He and Joseph haul open the double doors.

Joseph takes out his flashlight and flicks it on. "There's a ladder."

David shoots Joseph a hard look. "Stay close to me."

They descend down the wet and grimy ladder, chill and damp seeping through Joseph's green army jacket. Joseph inhales the bitter odor of mold and nearly gags, nose burning.

He sweeps the light over the room where broken jars of preserves and jugs of moonshine are coated in dust. There's a sack of small pumpkins in the corner, brown and mushy. The man probably brought them down with intent to store them before he met his fate. "Jesus," he murmurs.

David brushes up against him, making sure he has it together. Other than a weakened stomach he's fine. Joseph nods confidently. They march forward.

Passing rows of cobwebbed shelves and tables standing on their last legs, a haze of yellow light appears not far off. They pick up the pace and realize the light is coming from an entrance.

“What the-” Joseph staggers in disbelief. He clutches the flashlight tighter, swallowing audibly. He trails after his dad down the dirt tunnel, occasionally looking over his shoulder as the exit grows smaller.

It was like something out of a horror movie, and suddenly he didn’t feel so confident.

When they come upon the first door of several David hurries over, pressing his ear against it. Several seconds tick by before he shakes his head, Joseph checks the ones across. 

"I don't think he's down here," Joseph whispers.

That being said, David begins ramming against the doors, knocking them down. Joseph is inspecting the last few; an empty kitchen and room no larger than a closet, there's a discarded blue sweater on the ground.

An indescribable noise travels faintly down the hall before it's snuffed out by David's grunt. Joseph shuts the door and swivels his head towards the source of noise, brows knitting. 

A young woman, sobbing.

Heart dropping, Joseph darts over to the last door. "Hey!" He calls out, hands smacking against the door.

He's responded to with shuffling and hesitant voices.

"Whose there?" A guy responds nervously.

"Over here!" Joseph calls out to David. "Don't worry, we're here to help."

“Everyone back away from the door!” David barks and reels back, ramming against it until it weakens, groans, and pops.

Joseph flinches with each loud thump, hair plastered to his sweaty forehead, dripping down his mask. Face hot from the thick wool material. He wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand, plastic flashlight squeaking under damp palms, waiting with trepidation for what may come down the long, narrow hall.

The group of teens scream as the door comes down with a bang, sending up a mushroom of dust. Joseph clenches his eyes shut and covers the lower half of his face. 

When it clears several terrified faces stare back at them.

"C'mon," Joseph urges in a choked voice, feeling as if he swallowed a gallon of dirt anyway. He motions them to start moving.

It breaks them out of their daze, all of them rushing to the door at once.

With a heavy heart, he notices some of the missing teens aren't there. He's memorized each of their faces and names, keeping up with every breaking story, filmed around the areas they were taken. Hell, he'd seen some of their parents on scene.

Agony clenches at his chest, nearly makes him fold in two. He digs the heel of his hand where the pain clots up thick and heavy, tries to knead it smaller. It only makes it more pointed...they were too late. 

"I'm gonna need you to pull it together, okay?" David orders lowly, dropping a comforting hand on Joseph's shoulder and squeezing.

"Okay," Joseph exhales shakily. It takes a few more breaths before he's steady again.

"My friend Laura," one of the girls speaks up, face ashen and twisted in anguish. "She got away with another girl but that man went after them.” 

“We'll find them," David assures, nodding at the wide eyes teens awaiting their next plan of action.

///

"We need to drop her off at a hospital somewhere."

The low, raspy timbre of Dennis' voice, accent thicker than usual, pulls her back to the shores of consciousness. The blackness she's been swimming in dilutes to a murky gray.

Patricia's soft, lilting cadence dips through the darkness as well. "She will be fine. A fainting spell is no cause for such alarm."

"This is the second time and this time she still hasn't woken up." His voice cracks at the end. He's pacing back and forth, antsy, the sound of his footfalls like thunder. "We should've left her alone. This is all wrong."

"Your mind always had a way of running away from you, dear." Patricia tsks sadly. "Stick to the facts. Rely on what you see with your own two eyes. Have a look here." The sound of paper rustling. "This is meant to be. Or do you believe me to be wrong?"

It's a challenge Dennis doesn't rise to. Whether it's out of respect or he's simply taking account what he says Casey doesn't know. She shifts and grunts uncomfortably, bringing a hand to her head to rub at the dull ache there.

"How you feeling?" It's Dennis' face that greets her when she opens her eyes. His heavy brows are drawn low, the corners of his eyes creasing with worry.

Casey waits for something out of the ordinary to happen. For her vision to frizz or her mind to betray her. It doesn't. Dennis is staring down at her expectantly so she sits up and leans against the headboard, confusion growing as she mentally checks over herself to find nothing wrong.

"Better than before."

"What happened out there?" His voice is tight with frustration. 

"I...don't know." She looks down at the flower printed bed sheet, Patricia's voice still floating around in her headspace. Only it's her words from last night, a mix of soothing and foreboding, about eyesight and spiders.

As she mulls through this Casey realizes she's been absently rubbing her thigh, the pain no longer there. With no explanation on the searing burn from earlier. She looks over at Dennis' leg as if possessed to do so and shudders, feeling cold all over at once.

She wraps her arms around herself, willing to not have a panic attack. The very thought of the incident enough for her leg to burn again, seize the meat and tendons of her thigh. She tucks her legs to her chest and winces despite not feeling anything at all, white dress riding up to the source of her confusion.

It looks like their plan for her was back on now. Dennis is visibly on edge, enough to not drag her back outside. She regrets assuming the worst of him before, his shoulders slumping in defeat. Good deed gone wrong.

"I wouldn't have left anyway," she says. What good would it have done either them, pretending as if the damage hadn't been inflicted.

He scowls and collapses beside her drawn up legs. He leans his elbows on his knees and buries his hands in his face. He refuses to comment on that and Casey wonders if Patricia is still lurking in the forefront of his conscious. "You're strong but you aren't stupid."

Casey smiles. "Well...neither are you."

He sucks his teeth, a discontented growl rumbles in his chest. "I'm not smart enough," he says.

"You're enough. Kevin would have never gotten this far without you."

Dennis' mouth twists up in disbelief, chin dimpling. "Doesn't matter. If he knew how he'd disappear forever. This life isn't for him. Or us."

"I get really lonely sometimes." Casey tells him, watches his brows jerk with interest. "Things are so much better now. But I'll always have to live with what my uncle did to me. Kevin will have to live with certain things too," she explains gently. "It won't automatically get better in this new world you're hoping for. Not every wound heals back perfectly."

"We've made no progress in all this time," he reluctantly agrees, chest heaving as he grows upset the more he talks. "We haven't found anyone else like us." He glimpses at her, the corner of his mouth turning up sadly. "Other than you."

Casey swallows, twiddling her hands. "Isn't that enough?" Heart pounding, she adds quieter. "It was for me."

The sound of crumpling paper diverts her attention to his hand slipping a paper out of his pant pocket.

Alarm jolts through her. Her heart takes a dives, skitters down her breastbone, rips her chest wide open. The map that was once in her bag, only for her eyes, is now in his possession.

Her eyes lift unwillingly to meet his hungry stare. "Your things fell out when I was carrying you in here." He sounds so guilty, like a peeping tom who went further than intended, stealing her discarded underwear.

Casey just sits there, mouth agape in stunned silence.

"I didn't think this was of any importance at first." He lays the map out on his lap, smoothing the worn and folded edges down. Flexes his fingers like he wants to get them around a bar of soap. "It was Patricia who realized pretty quickly that the markers were familiar."

Casey stares at him unblinkingly, waiting for him to reveal what she already knows about herself. Another dark and filthy shame she's been covering up from others.

"You've been tracking us."

There was no point in keeping this secret any longer, storing it away improperly with virgin hopes and dreams, as if she hasn't been repeatedly dirtied and defiled by life. Casey finds she doesn't want to hide it anymore. 

"Yes."

Dennis had been right in her embracing this side she's kept under wrap for so long. It wasn't necessarily good but it hasn't been vile– to her, at least. It's that ugliness which has kept her alive for so long, revered as is by the Beast. It's what gets her to look in the mirror every morning. Keeps her grounded whenever she wakes from nightmares. Or social skills failing her and she feels all alone again.

"Why?" Desire hovers over her, chest bumping against her knees, looking at her like he wants to drag her away where no one will find her. Except he knows it's wrong so he doesn't. "Even if you found us what did you think would happen?"

Casey stares at him despite instinct telling her not to do so, like poking at a sleeping bear. They'll never let her go if she reveals the extent of her feelings, submits her mind and body to their vices. She's already said enough, offered up her sins at the feet of her captor turned savior. What's one more?

"I thought it would make me feel less alone. Knowing you were still out there. Alive," she admits, eyes welling.

Because Patricia had been right as well in the Beast having saved her from her uncle, and herself. She's never felt more accepted or understood than that night at the zoo. She is tethered to them, it's the first rope she's ever tied around herself. She'd thought, perhaps in her wildest of fantasies, she could lift them up the same as they've done for her.

"I saw this going differently too," she says, recalling his words earlier, she suspects wasn't meant for her ears. In a way, bringing both their most private thoughts out in the open. Things that will leave people screaming away from her. They will say protect the poor girl, she's been damaged beyond repair. But how can they begin to comprehend when existing in an completely different world? 

She latches onto his words, like honey oozing out of its hiding place, just as sticky and messy as her own truths. "Maybe it still can be. If you let me help you– and Kevin. We can figure out something together."

Dennis' gaze moves around the room thoughtfully, tongue prodding his bottom lip. He clenches his eyes shut and groans, shaking his head emphatically. "We can't. This is the only way."

"Listen, kidnapping these people won't help. You won't find what you're looking for that way."

"Please." He begs, face scrunching up, pained.

"Can't one person be good enough?" She suggests, hand outstretching incredibly slow. The last time she'd tried to touch him yielded a horrible reaction. She decides to risk it, that he can sense her earnestly.

"Don't." He sounds completely wrecked as he jerks away, she uncurls her legs to get closer. He doesn't move again.

The tips of her fingers skims up his jaw, and hot, anguished puffs of breath tickles her palm. She moves up to his cheek, where soft warm flesh twitches under her caress, making her breath hitch. Traces the edge of his nervous brow, so slow, his lashes fluttering against the edge of her thumb. They're breathing heavy now, sharing space, air. His body trembles, she holds herself like stone. Both on the brink of crumbling. Smoothing up his temple, to the outline of his prickly shaven head, shooting sparks of pleasure up her arm. Her touch dances over the shell of his lobe before her hand slides back down to rest on his cheek.

Dennis sighs through his teeth as if burned, rests into her touch.

She strokes her thumb just at the corner of his mouth, the pads of her fingers tingling, quivering the strings connected to her erratic heartbeat. "See? It can be like that," she says, breaths short and quick. "All the time. No more running, or hurting people. Just us. Would you like that?" Casey asks.

A heavy clang from outside cuts through the thick air.

Dennis pulls away from her and stands, eyes slitting in confusion. He gives her one last glance, starved and gnawing on their revelations.

The noise persists.

A low, frustrated growl emits from him. Dennis gives her a look – a last desperate warning that she's already decided to refuse. She stares back at him stonily. He storms out of the room.

He leaves door wide open.

Casey sits there until she can't hear him anymore before getting out of bed, then down the hall. He's left the front door wide open as well.

She moves on autopilot, out the door and  down the steps. Refusing to think twice, she runs towards the back of the cabin to find the cellar doors wide open. The chain link has been snapped in half.

Climbing down, she nearly slips a few times on the icky bars in her haste. Arms out, she blindly manoveurs ahead until she sees the light leading into the tunnel, to the sound of wailing and the inhuman noise that rises to meet it.

She sees Dennis first, whatever is left of him surrenders to the Beast. He fades away, breaths turning laboured, ragged. He rolls his shoulders, skin stretching and muscles flexing. Dim yellow light sways above him casting his form into stranger and bulkier shapes. The whites of his eyes crack and bleed red, pupils enlarging to swallow stormy blue irises whole. An eclipse during the oncoming sunset. The muscles in his face jerks and twitches. He bares his teeth where covers a third of his face, snarling and bucking like a rabid dog at the group of teens.

"Get away from him!" A hooded man shouts at her. 

Casey looks between the two strange man, bewildered. Ignoring them, she takes a few timid steps closer to the Beast, his head bowed and shoulders squared in warned aggression. With growing horror she knows it's too late. They were on the Beast's territory and he had no intention of backing down.

The Beast hurtles forward with a nerve-wracking roar, the teens scramble back as the green hooded figure charges.

The impact is loud as they collide with each other. A terrible sound. Grappling with the other, Casey is shocked to see the man holding his ground, getting an arm around the Beast's waist and shoving him into the wall.

The other man and teens make a run to the opposite wall while the Beast gains the upper hand. He gets a hand around the man's neck, as if toying with its food, dark gaze gleaming sadistically as the man grunts in pain. The man jabs at the Beast's ribs until he releases his hold, a right blow in the jaw sends his head smacking into the wall.

Casey watches the others try to flee in her direction while the Beast is occupied. 

Spotting his food fleeing seems to give him a surge of energy. Fisting the hooded man's coat, he flings him back with a yell. 

"Shit!" Someone yells, the group fucking with eyes wide as saucers.

The man goes flying back in the air, his catching on the twisting wire connecting the lights. The lights go snapping down, exploding to the floor.

Dust coats the tunnel in a yellow haze and panicked scream ring in her ears.

Covering the lower half of her face, Casey presses against the wall and crouches low.

"I can't see!" Someone wails.

"Where is he!?"

Casey pushes forward, hands sliding across the wall until she sees colors. She stretches her hand out towards the blot of red and blue. "Grab my hand!"

They make contact and she pulls them forward, guiding them to the wall. "Keep going straight and stay low," she commands.

"Everyone stay to the wall and keep moving!" A voice in the distance yells.

A blur of green sweeps in front of her and a body is smacked into the wall.

They're so close.

Casey's hyperventilating, shoving a few more bodies forward and instructing them to reach the cellar and up the ladder.

Another hand comes into view out from the  fog while Casey calls out. She goes to grab it when the Beast is slammed between them.

His gaze rolls to her for a split second before shoves forward with a bellow that rings in her ears.

The Beast and man are pummeling each other from the little she sees, with no intent of slowing down. It's brutal and heavy handed. The image burned into her mind.

The teens break off from the wall screaming, bolting past the the fight and Casey. She remains moving ahead with a masked man comes into few. She stumbles back, gasping. Who the hell were these people?

He grabs her shoulders, easing her backwards. "You need to get out of here," he says.

Casey looks ahead of him, chest heaving,  trying to find the Beast. There was no way in hell she was leaving Kevin to these men.

"Everyone is gone," the masked man says. "It's not safe!"

Wrenching her hand away, Casey hurries past him, his fingers clutching futilely at her hoodie.

She runs right into the arms of the Beast.

The air punches out of her when she slams into his chest. She breaks out into a cold sweat, a whimper slipping from her lips. Terror nearly makes her fall over, not out of fear of him hurting her, rather than the all consuming awe in his suffocating presence. She places her hands against him trying to pull away and meet his eyes. To find her voice and plead for him to stop. He paws at her middle keeping her close, body tensing as the masked man stands stricken beg her. Pushing Casey behind him, he lunges at the man.

He comes at the masked man on all fours, shooting up to shove the masked man back. His back hits the wall and he goes down, slumping over. Still.

The Beast throws his head back, roaring triumphantly before he swivels back around to a crouch, advancing.

"No!" Casey shoves past him and falls down to the ground in front of the man, ignoring her stinging knees on the impact. She throws her body over the unconscious man, her other hand shooting out in hopes to appease him. "Please! Don't do this," she begs, voice wavering. 

The Beast freezes, lips uncurling, blacked out eyes regarding her in a way she can't begin to decipher. Casey holds her breath, waiting his judgement.

The green hooded figure barrels into him with all he's got, a shout ripping from his chest, knocking them to the ground. He digs his elbow into the Beast's snarling face, barely remaining upright as the larger man squirms underneath. He grips the Beast's face, smashing his head onto the ground with a sickening smack.

The Beast goes limp, eyes fluttering shut and mouth slackening.

Casey lays there, speechless.

The green hooded figure pulls himself to his feet, panting. He nudges the Beast with his foot and Casey exhales in relief as his chest rises and falls. 

Her bloodshot eyes only tear away from him as the hooded man walks up, the upper half of his faces shrouded in darkness. Even so, she can sense his worry over his friend.

"You have to get your friend out of here and leave," Casey demands, scared tears lodged in her throat. She hauls herself up to lean against the wall, adrenaline draining from her, leaving her sore and aching. "Now."

The man looks over to the Beast and then back to his partner. He stumbles over and falls to his knees, two fingers pressing against the other's masked man's neck. Seemingly satisfied, he gets an arm under the guy and hoists him over the shoulder.

"You're Casey Cooke," he says, voice strained and hoarse from over exerting himself.

Casey swallows down a new wave of fear and paranoia, her eyes refusing to leave the Beast's. "We need to get out of here."

She can't stay here, not with this strange man waiting for her. And she can't change anything confining herself in this cabin with them. The Horde will leave when one of them takes the Light. Casey will have to find them, or they will find her. That was inevitable.

They make their way out of the tunnel and climb up tthecellar where the others are waiting, too afraid to go it alone in the woods.

The hooded man say there's a van.

Casey considers running, aware of the man's eyes on her, the tear streaked faces of the others as they look around. Waiting for Lauren to appear.

Steeling herself, she reluctantly follows as they begin the trek into the woods. She'd made a promise to herself to face whatever comes her way today. She makes another to keep her resolve today and from here on out. There would be no more running for Casey Cooke.