“Deal with her – now.
Before I deal with her myself.”
There was nothing more that Pax could possibly say. The severity of the situation began to close in all around him, almost suffocatingly so. He could not ignore it. He could not deny it. The Nightmares would certainly detect this Otherworlder’s presence, and they would come for her. Any Locals unfortunate enough to be in their way were fair game.
He thought he feared Otherworlders. Most Locals do, at least in a way. But Nightmares, though – Nightmares were never spoken of.
Ashe saw him storming towards her, and she quickly stood up, trembling slightly. A sensitive pain coursed through her arm with even the faintest movement.
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know, you tell me,” he answered coldly.
She followed him as he walked briskly towards a set of double-doors, the blackness of the night waiting for them just beyond.
“What about Treeful? How far are we from Treeful?”
“We’re just on the outskirts.”
“Can you take me further in? I know someone there.”
Pax didn’t answer.
“And what about this brace?”
Again, he said nothing. He realized now what a fool he’d been, and he was angry and humiliated for it.
The two stepped outside, where Ashe continued on, but stopped short to find Pax halted behind her at the doors.
“Just keep heading east,” he said, pointing out in the general direction. “You’ll start seeing more houses. That’s where you’ll want to go.”
She stared back at him in disbelief.
“I won’t be taking you, I’m sorry. I’m not leaving the lounge. Just run. Run and don’t look back.”
With that, Pax quickly disappeared behind the doors. Ashe found herself alone once more, and for a brief moment, she felt abandoned, almost betrayed, and her heart stung in a hurtful pain. She stood there in the dark in surroundings she did not know, with only Pax’s words to guide her.
Then with reluctance, uncertain of the danger that supposedly hunted her, she turned and ran.
It was almost total darkness, save for the nearby lights of the lounge and of the distant homes. There was no moon in the black void that was the sky, and not even a single star. She raced under the looming trees and through the undergrowth, the crying and singing of the night creatures echoing in the murk. Nothing looked familiar here in the dark, and she knew she could very well lose her way. Breaking through the trees and onto a damp, paved road, surrounded by maples and cottages, she stopped and called his name.
She screamed it over and over, each utterance louder than the last. And each time, she looked all around her, her eyes desperately searching through the gloom and the shadow.
She wished with all her being that none of this were real, and that she would just wake up, but she knew better. Something happened the moment she garnered the brace. Something wrong. But why? Why was she awake in this world? And why was it suddenly so tangible and real? Her true life might as well have been a dream and this the reality, and she wouldn’t have felt any better.
Her arm pulsated in pain.
“Lance please! I need your help! Something's happened! It’s my arm, I don’t know … something’s wrong!”
Clutching her arm, she continued to search for him, wandering in the dark, unsure of whether to walk or run. But as she furiously sought after him, frantically and wearily calling his name, she failed to hear the running footsteps that approached her. Nor did she anticipate the warm and careful touch on her shoulder.
She spun around, startled and terrified, nearly hitting Lance in the face.
“It's okay, it's okay! It's me!” he said as he tried to steady her. “What's wrong? What happened? Are you hurt?”
Ashe all but wanted to cry. He was the most wonderful thing she had seen and heard in what felt like an eternity.
“… Are you real?”
“Of course I’m real, Ashe. We talked about this, remember? What’s—”
He caught sight of it then – the silver brace, shining in the soft glow of the road-side lanterns. For a moment he did not speak, but fixated his gaze on it, his eyes wide in fear. He reached out his hand to touch the brace, but fearfully drew it back.
“Ashe ... w-why do you have a Bind Brace?” His voice was a cracked and grated whisper, as if having to force out his own words.
“Can you take it off?”
Now it was Lance who wondered if what he saw was truly real, this contraption of terror and dread clamped onto the arm of his dear friend.
“No ... I can’t. It’s impossible. Sam told me about them. Only a Nightmare can remove the brace.”
“I don’t know,” he said with a dismal shake of his head. “The Nightmares made them that way.”
Lance fell silent, uncertain of what to do or say. Nightmares never came this far to Treeful Village. How did Ashe get a Bind Brace? he thought to himself. Does that mean Nightmares are here in Treeful now, at this moment?
“What can I do?” she asked him despairingly.
Lance felt his own breathing intensify, the throbbing of his heart growing harder and heavier - the onset of panic. He let out a rough, loud sigh and ran his fingers through his flaxen hair, cursing under his breath. His mind was racing.
“I need to get you someplace safe. Someplace out of sight. That might be the best hope we have. They can find you while you wear that, and they'll be looking. If they're not here already.”
Suddenly he froze, and motioned for Ashe to do the same. He noticed that the night air had fallen dead-silent, except for the sounds of their shallow, unsteady breaths. A strong gust of wind blew through them, and there was a great rustling in the trees. Lance took a firm grip of Ashe’s hand and pulled her close, his eyes darting in all directions.
“It may already be too late! We've been here too long! We need to go – now!”
Lance had not the slightest idea of what to do for his treasured Otherworlder friend. He had been told that the Bind Brace was an irremovable device – a death sentence, by all accounts – but he refused to accept this as an answer. He would take his chances with the knowledge and skills of an Engineer.
An ill-tempered, unapproachable ex-Engineer.
The two bounded down Treeful’s darkened streets, the night air growing colder and hazier by the second as a fog began to descend. Ashe kept pace with Lance as best she could, close on his heels as he dashed off the main road and cut in between homes and cottages, the surrounding shrubs and foliage thrashing their faces. They neared a quaint, modest home framed by yellow-bells, fringe flowers and crepe myrtles, their sweet aroma tainting the air.
With Ashe in hand, Lance ran to its door and pounded fiercely.
“Gage! Gage are you in there?! Open up, dammit! This is important!”
The shuttered windows illuminated as a light flicked on and the door cracked open. Slowly and suspiciously he emerged, standing in the doorway, looking confused and concerned, though his expression quickly turned sour. Lance forced a smile.
“Hey man, we need in your house. J-just for a second.”
Before Gage could say a word, Lance had already forced his way inside, dragging Ashe behind him. Gage stood back, bewildered.
“Lock the door,” Lance ordered Ashe. “Double-lock it if you can.”
“Now hold on just a minute!” Gage shouted at them, exasperated. “What the hell is this about? And why have you just invited yourselves into my house?”
“Yes, ah ...”
This was already turning ugly. Lance now feared his cousin’s reaction, or what he might say, but it couldn’t possibly be any worse than whatever awaited them outdoors. He reluctantly took Ashe’s left arm and held it out for him to see, the emblazoned brace reflecting their images.
“Can you get this off? Please say yes.”
A feeling of shock, horror, and anger jolted through Gage then. His pupils dilated and his nostrils flared as he stepped back, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I knew it ...”
“Oh please, now Gage, just hold on, before you say anything—”
“She's an Otherworlder?! You've been prancing around with an Otherworlder this entire time—”
“Can you please just remove the brace—?”
“The hell, Lance! No! I can't! You should know this! Now get her out of my house!”
“Please, Gage! Be reasonable—”
“She is going to attract Nightmares! What part of that don't you understand?!”
Gage trembled as he spoke, whether out of anger, or fear, or a combination of both.
All at once there was a tremoring shake - a violent, rapid, and vibratious shaking that tore and rumbled through the house, flickering the lights, rattling the walls, and nearly knocking everyone off their feet. An awful, terrible, bellowing sound echoed with it, like the aching and groaning of an old tree, long and strained.
Then all was still.
Gage shook in such a manner the likes of which Lance had never seen.
“Get out of my house, Lance.”
“Gage, don't do this—”
“GET OUT! Just get the hell out!”
So consumed in fear was Gage, that he picked up a nearby chair and swung it at them with full force, sending objects crashing and shattering to the floor. Lance and Ashe dodged backwards and barreled out the door in a flurry, stumbling down its steps. The door slammed shut behind them.
The two stared back in shock and unbelief before another gust of wind blasted through them, even stronger than before. Lance turned to Ashe then, looking her square in the eyes.
“I know,” she answered dryly.
“Are you scared?”
She nodded lightly.
“So am I.”
Lance had a feeling that his meeting with Gage would fail miserably. But it was a much easier route than his backup plan, one that wasn't just a simple hop and a skip away. Now, it was their only option.
“Come with me!” he said as he grabbed Ashe's hand and broke into a run.
“Where're we going?”
“I need to get you to Sam. He'll know what to do. The good news is there's a Chute that'll take you all the way to Serpientes. The bad news is that it's deep in the mall.”
“Won't it be closed?”
“Well of course, but there's a door with a failed lock - don't ask how I know this.”
They took off through Treeful, bolting down its dampened, meandering streets as hard and as fast as their legs could push them. The wind was unyielding now, and it surged and whipped around them with brutal force, burning the eyes and biting the skin. A presence of a sort was following them, they could feel it, like the tingling of skin before the bitter touch, and they sensed it at their backs. They veered off-road, sidewinding their way through trees and shrubs until the moist earth beneath them gave way to dust. The towering evergreens and maples thinned to a few, and then none at all. There, looming ahead of them in the darkness was a vast, intimidating hulk of a building.
The Olive Mall.
The sheer size of the mall itself was overwhelming, and Ashe had no idea where it was they might enter, but Lance did. Here on the edge of the desert, they were exposed and vulnerable out in the open, but the thought of making it indoors drove them harder. Pushing themselves at full speed, they swung left and headed to an outstretched overhang at the mall's front, where a small set of double-doors came into view. They slowed to a stop under the tall canopy of the overhang as Lance paused, taking a moment to examine the doors while Ashe looked on, nervously. Gingerly, he pushed and handled each door until one gave way with a click and a sharp whine. Pulling it open, he drew Ashe inside.
It was eerily still and silent within the mall, and almost entirely dark, save for the sparse lighting that emanated from its depths, reflecting off polished, brick walkways. But it was just enough light that enabled them to see through the gloom. For a moment, their troubles were forgotten as Ashe took in the aura around her. The bricked path ahead of her curved and coursed through its dark abyss like a river, begging to be explored. And along the pathway were shops of every unimaginable kind, their treasures displayed in lighted windows adorned in old-fashioned awnings. Ashe's eyes sparkled in wonderment.
“Don't get too excited, I'm supposed to get you to Serpientes, remember?”
Lance's words suddenly brought her back to reality.
“At least I finally get to see it, just like you wanted?”
Lance smiled and chuckled softly. “Well, it's not really the moment I had in mind, circumstances being as they are, but I suppose it's better than nothing.”
“We can come back, though, right?”
Lance looked at Ashe wistfully, but turned away as he began to pace.
“Sam will get you fixed up, don't worry. The guy's a genius. He's like a walking encyclopedia, and there's not a puzzle out there he can't solve.”
Suddenly he noticed that Ashe spoke to him with perfect sense, and that she no longer seemed disoriented or muddled.
“You're a lot sharper today than I think I've ever seen you.”
Ashe let out a small laugh. “You think so? I think it's this brace. I can't remember much from before, but after I got it, it was like the whole world was clearer to me. I felt clearer. Like I was actually here and alive. I can't describe it.”
Lance was suspicious. The brace was Nightmare enough, but had a Nightmare actually administered the brace, Ashe wouldn't be here talking to him. Whoever had actually forced it on her was no Nightmare.
“Ashe, do you remember anything about the brace? Someone had to have given it to you. Can you remember who it was?”
Ashe paused as she racked through her mind, but a trace of movement caught the corner of her eye, and she quickly looked up towards the double-door entrance.
There it was, framed in the light of the coming dawn. Tall and foreboding. Draped head-to-toe in a hooded cloak the color of the moonless night. Had it been any darker, and he would have been nearly invisible. Something long, thin and wickedly sharp jutted from his back, a weapon akin to a spear or javelin that he carried. His hooded form stood there in statue-like stillness, looking straight at them.
Ashe froze where she stood. She wanted to move, but her legs refused, as if they were no longer there. She tried to call for Lance, but could not utter the words. Even breathing was difficult as she wanted to gasp for air, but could hardly draw a breath. Her heart began to race as terror overtook her, and there was little she could do to stop it.
Suddenly she was jolted to her senses by a sharp pain in her left arm. Lance had grabbed hold and dragged her behind as they made a run for it. Ashe could only glance back in bewilderment.
“Who was that?!”
“A Nightmare,” he replied raggedly, his voice broken and breathless. “Stay with me! And don't look at it - I'll lose you!”
Lance and Ashe had not truly known fear - not until now. What they perceived as fear before was far away and distant, ever present and ever watching. What they felt when it finally drew close to them, and looked them in the eye, was unlike anything they could control or comprehend. Like a cold, sharp blade ripping through their innards. Like their very souls being torn from their bodies. And now they ran harder and faster than they'd ever had to run in their entire lives.
They bolted down the bend in the path and cut through a department center filled with clothing and various odds and ends, turning each corner so swift and sharp as to nearly lose footing. Then all at once, their entire world opened before them as they burst into the cavernous, grand expanse that was the belly of the mall. Ashe was so awestruck that she would have tripped had Lance not caught her by the arm. They raced down a cathedralesque court lined with elegant columns, and aqueducts filtering water into narrow troughs below. Ahead of them was nothing but thick gloom and shadow, and it was impossible to see beyond. Behind them was just the same, but an even darker shadow trailed after them. Lance reached for Ashe's hand again as they banked a right and fast approached a welcoming sight of colorful Chutes, faintly illuminated by rows of tiny lights.
They would not have much time. As they arrived at the larger and more robust of the Chutes - emerald green and adorned in decorative, serpentine scales - Lance shoved Ashe into one, his hands and breath trembling.
“Look for Sam - you'll be okay.”
“What about you?!”
Lance began to step back and away, his eyes wide and moist.
She reached out to him, crying and sobbing, and tried to step out, but the roar of the Chute's vacuum grew louder, and a powerful suction began to pull at her feet.
“Lance please! No—!”
And in that moment, Ashe was gone.
Gone in a Chute that traveled underground across the Great Expanse to a little town known as Serpientes.