On the northwest edge of Treeful Village resided the Red Rhombus, an uptown lounge and club that was a frequented getaway during the evening hours. Stocked with plush furnishings, fine drink, and distinct red interior, the two-story lounge was a 24-hour oasis situated between the garden hamlet of Treeful and a pocket of snow-forest known as Ferryman's Crossing - a place of legend where Otherworlders are said to mysteriously appear. But due to the lounge's location, it became fairly common to find Otherworlders lost, confused, and completely incoherent wandering down its grand halls.
And it was the overnight-clerk, Leif, who took it upon himself to round them up.
"I'm sick of this," he grumbled. "We need to move the shop further inland."
"What in the world makes you say that?" It was Cole, the club's owner and manager. He sat at the lobby register alongside Leif counting through the daily sales. Leif wouldn't answer him. Cole stopped combing through the receipts then, turned his hard sights to Leif and cocked an eyebrow.
"Oh, don't tell me. Please don't tell me you believe in those ... superstitions!"
Again, Leif didn't answer. And truth be known, he did believe in these "superstitions". He was the only one taking any action against them, running them out on sight. Leif hated the Otherworlders, seeing them as no more than pests and ill omens - the harbingers of terror. For it was what they typically brought with them - or what followed - that he feared with all his heart.
Stiff-necked Cole did not see eye to eye.
"How many times must we go through this?!" he snapped, slamming down a handful of receipts onto the countertop.
Leif knew he should have kept his thoughts to himself. This exact scenario had played out before on more than one occasion.
"We've become a mid-way point for those—"
"No, we're not!" the manager quickly interjected. "We're a social lounge, Leif! We're a commodity for our customers who are more than willing to give us money for our luxuries. That means you get a paycheck. That means I get a paycheck. We all get paychecks. And 'move the shop inland,' are you serious?" He gave Leif such a look of sarcasm, it was almost comical.
"Well, I didn't mean all-the-way-inland—"
"Have you even seen it?" Cole cut in again. "There's nothing out there. There's no money inland, I've already told you. I don't know how many times we've had this discussion." He stood up staunchly and reached for his coat hanging on the wall. "Now, I'm heading out for the night, and I'm leaving the place with the two of you. I will not hear another word of your superstitious grumblings - not another word of it. Do I make myself clear? Oh, and if I hear about you running customers off again, that will be it for you. I hate to say it."
The other employee whom Cole had referred to was Pax, a hefty, bumbling fellow recognized by his blonde curls and lax spirit. He had just sauntered into the lobby as Cole made his exit, nearly brushing his shoulder.
"What was that about?" Pax asked in earnest, having heard the tail-end of their angry dispute.
Leif stared off dejectedly in the direction of his boss's exit. He was angry, frustrated, and now had an entire shift to worry about, if not every shift. The nightly drama of Otherworlders wandering into the club in almost drunken, ghostly states was a serious problem that could not be ignored. And Cole would not take action if he didn't even believe the problem existed. The only person that Leif had now for any assistance was Pax.
Typically, it was Leif who inspected rooms and corridors while Pax stayed behind and counted the tills. But tonight, Leif had finally reached his breaking point. In all honesty, if he were to happen on an Otherworlder right now, he might very well strangle it. The last thing Leif wanted was for Cole to catch wind of a "murdered customer."
"Hey Pax, you up for patrol?" Leif asked him, trying to look busy as he sifted through a pile of sales reports.
Before Pax could respond, Leif had thrown him a two-way radio. Just like Leif, he also believed in the Otherworlders, though he found them too unnerving, odd, and almost alien, and usually chose not to deal with them.
Leif sat behind the counter and started to tally the reports, but he sat up, raking his fingers through his swept-back hair.
"Just start at the east end. Walk the hallways. Check lounge rooms. If you see anything that looks unusual or suspicious, just call me on the radio. You know the drill. Try to be quick about it so you can start on the west end. I don't want to have to see one wander down here in the lobby, because if I do, it won't be pretty."
"Y-you don't have to worry about that." Pax was bluffing.
"Good," Leif replied. "Then you know how to direct them to the exits?"
"I've seen you do this all before, it's not rocket science," he said with a nervous chuckle.
The sight of an Otherworlder was off-putting enough. How Pax was going to lead one out of the building was another matter entirely. But he wouldn't dare call for Leif's help over the radio, nor would he refuse his request. This would be his first night to make the rounds on his own, and he was determined to use this moment to overcome his benign fears. Or at least try.
There was, however, an item of curious origin in Pax's possession that might aid him, should he need it. Hidden away in a drawer of the front desk was a most peculiar object - a hinged brace of fine silver, embellished in elegant designs and patterns. It was given to him one day by a visitor in terrible shape - a Local, or perhaps even an Otherworlder - frightened and injured as he clutched a bloodied and battered shoulder. He hugged close to the wall, and whether or not there was an arm attached to that shoulder, Pax could only wonder. Fatigued and speaking in a faint, cracked whisper, he begged for Pax to take the brace, and that if he gave it to an Otherworlder, it would help bring calm and clarity to their panicked minds. The visitor was gone the moment Pax took his eyes off him, and he was never seen again. But the item remained in Pax's keeping ever since, and he did not speak a word of what he witnessed to anyone.
Pax walked down widened halls, stopping by sultry-lit lounge rooms and looking for anyone who might not belong. Lulling tracks of mood music played quietly overhead, relaxing and easy on the ears. The soft murmur of voices permeated the hallway, accompanied by occasional laughter. The sounds of contented guests filled the warm atmosphere, and as Pax continued on, there was not one person - Otherworlder or Local - who appeared out of place that he could find.
Ashe didn't know how long she stood before the mirrors of the elegant restroom, adorned in red tile and mosaic stone. She couldn't even comprehend what she was doing there, or where she was. All she had was the nagging sensation of panic, and her heart raced. She could not very well see, for her vision was blurred and darkened, and her sense of hearing soft and muted. Ashe did not appear in Treeful Village this time, nor was Lance there to greet her. Instead, it was the cold and silent snow-forest of Ferryman's Crossing, alone and disoriented, where she ran until she reached a red, oddly-shaped building, though she had no memory of doing so. Light-headed and dizzy, something within her kept urging her to seek help, to find someplace safe and out of sight.
Because it was coming. They were coming.
Nearly blind, Ashe carefully made her way out of the restrooms, using one hand along the wall to feel her way down a hallway. The surrounding voices of complacent Locals were no more than murmurs to her ears. In her heightened sense of dread, she tried to move faster. She wanted to run, but with each attempt, her legs became tangled and she stumbled. Then suddenly, despite the muteness of her hearing, she heard a sharp voice call out to her.
Ashe froze, trying to stable herself against the hall's siding.
Pax was about to call off his search and head back to the lobby, having so far found nothing.
But out of the corner of his eye, he saw her in passing, and regretted then that he didn't keep walking. He knew what she was, and the ghostly sight of Ashe down the hallway sent a terrible chill down his spine.
Please don't move, please don't move.
She slowly turned towards him.
Pax fumbled anxiously for his radio, but remembered his staunch refusal to call Leif, and he clipped it back to his side. It was only a girl. He could handle this.
"I-I'm gonna have to ask you to follow me to the lobby," he stammered boldly.
What kind of an order was that? What am I even supposed to say to them?
She did not respond, but took an unsteady step in his direction.
"S-Stop! Don't move!"
He frantically searched himself for any means of self-defense, but had nothing. So he grabbed his radio, holding it out at arm's length, shaking.
There was silence between them, Pax too afraid to speak, and Ashe virtually unable to.
[[[Pax? Pax are you there?]]] the radio blared loudly. Pax was so startled that he flung the radio hard against the wall.
[[[Pax, how's it goin' down there? Come in, Pax!]]]
Pax stared hard at the radio lying on the floor. Even Ashe eyed it fearfully. Pax shifted his gaze from the radio, then back to Ashe, unwilling to take his eyes off her.
[[[Pax, this is Leif - what're ya doin' out there?]]]
Then suddenly she spoke.
Pax nearly jumped backwards.
[[[Hello-o-o-o-o?]]] blared the radio again.
Pax lunged for the radio.
"Hey Leif, I-I'm fine, just give me a second."
"Lance??" pined Ashe again.
"My name's Pax, not Lance. I-I don't know who Lance is."
[[[Pax! What's going on?]]] Leif continued to buzz him.
Pax, who typically did not have a temper, was about to lose it.
"Leif would you give me just one second?! I ... I've got a customer, okay? I'll check back with you, geez."
This time he switched the radio off, clipping it back to his side.
At this point, Ashe tried taking a determined step forward, only to lose her footing from the vertigo that continued to plague her. But out of sheer reflex, Pax jumped in to catch her.
"Whoa, hold on there, take it easy!" he said as he took her arm.
"I-I need to get somewhere!" she cried in a frantic tone.
"Where? Where do you need to go?"
Pax could hardly believe himself. Here he was, trying to usher out Otherworlders. And now he was having a conversation with one.
"I don't know," she replied. "Just away from here!"
"Look, missy, you're going to have to try to calm down and—"
Suddenly, it dawned on him.
He remembered the silvery brace that lay stuffed in a drawer of the front desk - the one that was supposed to calm the mind of an Otherworlder. Perhaps, if he were to somehow give it to her...
"Hold on!" Pax suddenly exclaimed. "I have something that I think can help you!"
"But I just need away from—"
"Everything's going to be fine, okay?" he assured her. "I know where it is, it's in the lobby. I'll take you down there. You'll be fine, don't worry."
Barely able to walk on her own, Ashe leaned into Pax and his large bulk, who awkwardly assisted her as they lumbered down soft-lit corridors. Upon reaching the lobby however, Pax halted, only to find Leif unexpectedly absent.
All the better for Pax.
Leading Ashe to the desk, he searched hurriedly through its drawers, digging through supplies and tossing out papers and other objects. Then he paused. There it was before him, towards the very back, buried under all manner of dust and debris, for years at least. Its sterling body shone and glinted in the light.
"Here it is, I found it!" he beamed as he grabbed the brace, holding it in the air for Ashe to see.
Pax did not know what this object was - what it really was. He had no idea of its making, or maker. He had no knowledge of its origins, or where it came from. And he failed to notice the rows of sharp, metal teeth lining the innermost side of the brace.
The brace's working was beyond the comprehension of most, for it was made by a higher, more terrifying power.
Gullible Pax only had the desperate words of an unsettling visitor that he never saw again - and he believed it.
Ashe clung to the desk's counter, the dizzying vertigo nearly overwhelming. Her vision was a blur and her hearing a mere murmur; her mind and senses a clouded fog. She could barely grasp the world around her and she seemed to slip ever deeper into an abysmal unconsciousness. But through her darkened vision, she saw Pax's heavy form come cautiously towards her, a gleaming, metal object in his hand.
"Alright, now hold still a moment," he said as he approached. "This should just fit around your arm like so, and you'll feel better in no time."
Ashe grew more frantic, blindly pacing in all directions, occasionally peering up at the lobby's towering ceiling, its grand centerpiece a dazzling chandelier. She tried to run, but not before Pax caught her by the arm.
"Hold on! Don't you run off yet! You're gonna be fine, I promise! Just calm down - would you stay still?!"
She tried to struggle free, but Pax kept a firm grip, working the unhinged brace around her left arm, where it clamped shut with a loud snap.
Ashe cried sharply in pain - a terrible, piercing cry that reverberated throughout the entire lobby and tore through Pax's very being. She gripped, tugged, and pulled at the brace as she fell to the ground, her mind spinning, the pain biting, searing into flesh and bone. Blood seeped from the brace and rolled down her wrist, hand, and fingers, ending in little drops. Pax could only stare helplessly at her pitiful form, stunned and horrified.
It was then that Leif appeared, having stormed out of a back office, bewildered at the sight in front of him.
"Pax! What the hell is—"
Then he saw Ashe, crumpled in a heap on the floor, still tearing and clutching at the blood-smeared brace. For a moment he stood there, stupefied and silent, a look of horror across his face as he shot darting glances between the two of them.
"Pax, what have you done?!"
"It's not what you think, Leif—"
"Do you have any idea what the hell she is?!"
"Would you just let me explain?!" Pax argued. "She's fine! She'd not like the rest—"
"I sent you to do something simple!" Leif shot back. "What the hell is this?! Why can't you follow the simplest tasks?!"
"I thought if I could just talk to her—"
"She's an Otherworlder, Pax! She's a Nightmare magnet!"
"I-I had that thing that was supposed to help her!" Pax stammered pitifully. "I-I don't know what happened—"
"You did this?! You put a damn Bind Brace on her! Do you even know what that is?! Well guess what - now you've got all those blasted terrors alerted to where she is!"
It was then, at that moment, that something peculiar began to happen in Ashe's mind. Through all the commotion and the burning pain, her ears opened, and the surrounding noises became distinct and discernible. Her eyes unclouded, and everything in front of her grew clear and defined. The sights and sounds around her suddenly made sense.
As if she were awake.
She felt aware - truly aware, just as you are now.
Like having been underwater and then surfacing for air. Like a darkened room that was suddenly alight. She could see! She could hear! And she could understand every moment of it! Ashe was aware, and she realized then that what had once been mere dreams were now very real, right in front of her eyes. She listened keenly to the two clerks as they screamed at each other, clenching the brace that held fast to her arm.
"Do you wanna to see Nightmares, Pax?! Do you?!" continued Leif. "Is that what you want?! 'Cause that's what's fixin' to happen!"
Ashe managed to right herself. The bleeding had stopped, and the pain of the brace had reduced to a numbing pressure.
"Can any of you get this thing off me?" she asked them gingerly.
Pax and Leif had stopped in mid-sentence as they stared back at her, blankly.
"Please?" she pleaded again.
Leif shifted his fuming glare back to Pax.
"Get her out of here," he ordered. "I don't care what's out there. I don't care what you have to do, or where you have to go. I want her out of here and away from the lounge."
Ashe was hit with a pitted feeling of dread. "What?!" she cried. "Where am I supposed to go?!"
"Leif—" Pax interjected, in an attempt to reason with him, before being cut off.
"Deal with her - now - before I deal with her myself."