Diaries of a Madman

When Discord breaks free of his stone prison, he proves to be much older and wiser than he was on the show. A being of ancient and unimaginable power, he forces Celestia to make a deal to save her little ponies. What she doesn't realize is that one of the terms of the deal is that she forgets ever making it. Enter Navarone, a poor human just trying to get by—or at least, to the ponies that's what he looks like. Pulled from his home by an accidental summoning from one Twilight Sparkle, Navarone is thrust into a world of ponies and more violence than he expected from such a peaceful seeming world. These are his adventures—with a few asides from everybody's favorite Lord of Chaos, of course.

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134. Chapter One Hundred and Eleven—The Damned

For two hours after my last encounter with the butcher, the bunker seemed… placid. I was hesitant to say that the place was cowed, but I no longer ran into bodies and there were no more visions. Even the halls seemed to clear up, with me not running into any more obstructions.

That should have been my first hint.

What finally tipped me off was the fact that I was following the same hall for two hours. That simple, obvious fact finally clicked and I looked around. “There’s no way this place is that big.” I walked over to one of the side walls and put my head against it, looking ahead. No curvature…

I backed away from the wall and pulled out my sword, then slashed it against the wall, leaving a gouge in the metal. Then I put it away and started walking again. Ten minutes later, I found that same gouge.

“I see how it’s gonna be,” I said, my eyes narrowing. Since I had no choice, I continued walking. There was a door I passed a few times, a door that just screamed ‘trap’ to me. When I got to it again, the lights inside suddenly turned on. If I had any other choice, I wouldn’t have stepped inside. As it was…

The smell of pine filled my nose as I entered the new room. My eyes quickly adjusted to the strong new light and I realized I was in the living room in the house I lived in as a kid. In one corner of the room was a large, sparsely decorated Christmas tree. My sister was sitting next to it, staring at the pile of gifts under the thing. My parents may not have cared that much about us, but they knew how to splurge for Christmas.

“Come on, Anon!” my sister said. “Hurry up so we can open presents!”

My mind blanked for some reason, the nostalgia of the event eroding my sense of self-preservation. I stepped forward, my naked feet rubbing harshly against the rough carpet. It was only then that I noticed I was in pajamas, not that my mind thought there was anything amiss. Jane wasn’t even watching me, seeming more intent upon the presents. I sat on the floor next to her and snatched one of the gifts up, pulling at the bow on top of it.

That’s when I heard the click. I blinked, instantly returning to the present, and noticed I was holding a live hand grenade, its pin now in my other hand. “Oh fuck!” I tossed the thing away and sprinted for the door, having to jump to my feet. The thing violently exploded two seconds later, before I could make it fully to the door.

A breath of hot air and then fragments of pain threw me back out into the hall. I hit the ground painfully and then slid right into the opposite wall, clunking my head. If I had to guess, I’d say I faded out of consciousness for a few seconds, but clawed my way back as quickly as I could. I refused to give the horrors that cursed the bunker access to my dreaming mind.

Thankfully, there were no secondary explosions behind me, so I carefully felt around my body for any damage. My back was bleeding and I suspected I’d have a major bruise on my forehead to add to the damage the acid had already done. But I could still see and I could still stand, as evidenced by me forcing myself to my feet a few seconds later.

I reached up and popped my neck with an awful crack before shaking myself limp. Tears came to my eyes from the pain that caused, but I just set my shoulders and walked right back into the room. The place was a nearly empty armory, the few guns left looking corroded and ready to break. I had a feeling any of them would misfire if I tried using them, not that there were too many left.

The place I had been sitting in front of before was a crate. I looked inside and found that I had removed the last grenade from it. Just my luck that the last one left would actually still be good and ready to explode. Fucking Russian engineering.

There was a door at the far side of the room that was actually open, so I started walking that way. However, I didn’t get all the way there before another one of the visions hit me, lighting the room back up.

“Come on, come on, where’s the explosives?” Artyom asked, rummaging around. “There’s gotta be something left!” After a few seconds of looking around, he found the box of grenades. “...One left. Not strong enough to get through anything. Someone else might need it more.” He went off to search more boxes while I fought to stop myself from strangling the motherfucker, ghost or not. His vision ended not long after.

I just shook my head and continued walking to the door. This one had been blasted open from the outside, so I figured it was probably the spearhead of the force that raided the armory, not that I really cared too much. I was looking for the exit, not to play Ghost Buster.

On the other side of that door was yet another hallway, though this time, the door I left was at the end of it. Since I wasn’t presented with a choice, I just started walking. As I passed through the hall, I heard sounds of shooting and screaming and passed several skeletons, many of which had holes through bones. A pitched battle had been waged down that hall, with a poor end for the defenders. In the confines of the small hall, it was painfully loud.

At the end of the tunnel was a small room. If I had to guess, I’d call it a break room. I didn’t have to guess, though, and I also didn’t care, so I just walked right on in. As soon as I stepped inside, another vision hit me.

“You hear the rumors?” one uniformed dude asked another, nursing a cup of coffee. “There are other survivors.”

“Other survivors across the world, maybe,” the other guy said. “What does it matter to us? War’s over. The only winner was Satan, earning billions of souls. Those survivors leave us alone, we leave them alone. The end.”

The other one shook his head. “No, not the end. They want to rebuild. And they want our help.”

“...How are they looking to do that?”

“I don’t know. The commander realized some of us were listening and shut his trap. But I got a feeling something’s gonna happen.”

“Well, if it happens, it happens. Our job is to keep God’s peace, nothing else.”

“Right, right…” And then the vision ended, leaving me once more in the dead stillness of the bunker.

“All these fucking visions… Why not show me to some ancient vodka, huh?” I asked. “At least then if you killed me, I wouldn’t have to feel it.” The bunker didn’t seem very willing, so I just sighed and continued walking. There was a door right on the other side of the break room, so I just went through it and continued following the hall down. This time it was a very short one, with a door just a few steps away.

My breath caught when I entered the next area. This wasn’t just another hallway or command station, no. This chamber was massive, spanning several storeys with walkways on each. Catwalks spanned the gaps above me, allowing the visitors a way to get from place to place easily.

I had entered the mall. It seems that the Russians hadn’t been so quick to cast off capitalism as I thought. Though without knowing more about how life had been back then, I really couldn’t say much.

Either way, the mall was a very large area that encompassed more than just a shopping district. Attached to it were an amusement park, the industrial areas, the storage areas, and a small medical and science area. I knew all that because of the map that was right outside of the little security room.

After looking at the map for several seconds, I finally found what my eyes were looking for: An emergency exit. Not an exit further into the bunker, no. From what I could tell on the map, this was a way out. Unfortunately, it was far, far away, on the other side of the science area. Once again, it might well take me a full day to get there, if I kept running into blockages and problems.

A possible shortcut came to mind and I looked up, wondering if I could fly. Sure, both of my wings were damaged from all the fighting and problems I had run into, but I’d make sure they carried me if push came to shove. However, my mind went back to the Googleplex and its mall.

I grabbed a chunk of debris from the floor and tossed it up. It bounced off some netting and hit the ground a few seconds later, telling me that I wasn’t going to be flying. And I also seemed to be at the far end of the mall, so I was going to be doing a lot of walking.

So I started walking. In the gloom and darkness, I could barely see twenty meters in any direction, even with the flashlight. There was some kind of oppressive force of darkness stopping the light from going much farther. Still, I had to thank whoever made the light. If it had died falling down that shaft, I probably would have died with it.

Though as another vision hit me, I couldn’t help but wonder if that would have been a good thing. “Look at this place, Ava!” Artyom said, looking up at all the floors in wonder. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”

“No.” Nor do I really want to again. So much wealth and opulence. God wants us to live simple lives, not full of such trappings. “It’s… something.”

“It’s amazing,” Artyom said, laughing in delight.

Several passersby watched us with strange looks. Why are they looking at us like that? Is there something wrong for showing interest in their creations? The vision cut off, once more bathing the room in a vast darkness. I continued walking once again, wondering what new horror the place would throw at me. There were already sounds of hundreds of others around me, walking and talking, a gentle muted roar that I knew from my times in cities and malls.

It was a strangely… healthy sound for a place so broken and damaged.

I have to say, I wasn’t that surprised when I ran into the first barricade. Despite being very tall, the mall wasn’t really all that wide. The metal shield before me went all the way to the top of the current storey, meaning I couldn’t just fly or climb over. As a test, I tossed another piece of debris at the top. It bounced off.

I sighed and started looking for a way around. Instead of a ladder that would allow me to skip a lot of potential future trouble, I found a shop with broken windows. Judging by the mannequins, I’d say the place had been a clothing store. All the clothing had long since rotted off of them, but they still proudly stood in their places, memorials of a place long forgotten and longer still dead.

As soon as I set foot within the clothing store, I was hit by another vision, Artyom pulling a smiling Ava behind. Oh, the dresses outside were so pretty! But surely they’re too expensive…

“I’m sure they won’t mind if you try anything on,” my love told me, grinning from ear to ear.

“We definitely don’t,” one of the shopkeepers said, also smiling. “Should you need any help finding anything, just let one of us know.”

“We will,” I assured them, nodding. But I don’t think Arty will be spending much time looking at the dresses… As he led me away, the vision ended.

I blinked when it was over, having been fully absorbed into the setting. And then I shouted in shock, jumping back. Arrayed in a circle around me were all of the mannequins. There was a sound behind me and my breathing picked up as I whirled around. The mannequins behind me had moved closer, lifting their arms.

I slipped through a gap between them and ran a few steps before turning back again to find that all the mannequins moved in even closer to me, their arms raised. I started backing away, unwilling to take my eyes off them. None of them moved as I tried to put my back on something solid. After a few seconds, I bumped into something smooth and felt an insane burst of noise straight into my brain, making me scream in shock.

I jumped away from it and turned to see, not thinking about the danger. Turns out I bumped into another mannequin, which made me realize I had left about ten right behind me. Just as I realized that, I felt them grabbing me, pure pain shooting straight into my skull as the silent monstrosities screeched staticky sounds.

No mortal could survive that for longer than a few seconds. I felt my body start seizing up before I managed to push myself away from them all and burst into a run, trying to get absolutely anywhere that wasn’t around them. My destination of choice ended up being a window leading outside. There was glass covering it, but that glass completely disappeared when I burst through it.

Finally, I did what I should have done and ripped my sword away from its sheath, turning to face the monsters. However, each of the mannequins had moved back to their original spots. Feeling at least slightly safe, I let the sword fall from my hands and I fell to my knees, hands clutching at my pounding head. Without moving them, I could feel blood from my ears and it dripped from my nose onto the floor.

“This place is going to kill me,” I panted, out of breath from fear and pain.

“And?” a voice scratched at me, adding more pain to my ears. “You seek death. What does it matter if it comes for you here?”

I leaned over and grabbed my sword, then used that as a crutch to pull myself into a standing position. “I die… on my terms,” I groaned, standing. “No one is allowed to kill me but me.” I started walking again, since I was now apparently on the other side of the barricade. The ghost didn’t reply.

The pain in my head slowly subsided to more of a dull throbbing every few seconds and I put the sword away, my arms feeling too weary to carry it. Honestly, the place was starting to get to me. The appearance of another barricade did nothing to put me in a good mood. Thankfully, there weren’t any mannequin stores to either side this time. One side was boarded up and I didn’t feel like cutting through it, so I just went to the other side.

When my feet passed the threshold, a heavenly scent wafted up to my nose. My weary mind latched onto the smell of pumpkin spice and I took a few involuntary steps forward, another vision of sorts coming to my mind.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” a smiling shopkeeper asked, his arms behind his back.

“What’s that wonderful scent?” I replied, looking around the room. It looked like we were in a coffee shop or something, and it was just the two of us.

“It’s coffee,” he answered. “Pumpkin spiced, freshly brewed. It’s something we imported from America.”

“Doesn’t that seem… wasteful?” I asked. “Should we not seek to live our lives plainly?”

“My dear, God gave us pleasures like these for us to enjoy them. It seems not partaking would be more of a sin, does it not?” Maybe… “Would you like to try a cup?”

“I really shouldn’t…”

“Please, I insist. I made extra and don’t know what to do with it. Just wait here a moment.”

I awkwardly stood there as he stepped over to a machine. Surely if it was sinful, the high patriarch would have banned it. He seemed like a good man, a good leader. I might have to bring Artyom here later to see what he thinks…

Finally, the fellow turned to me, holding up a mug. “Please, try some. It’ll be hot, though.” My body took the cup and looked at the dark contents within somewhat hesitantly. After pausing to consider, I started lifting it to my mouth…

And the vision ended. Right in front of my face was a cup of some orange-red fluid that was bubbling slightly. I threw it away from me and it immediately began eating through the floor. There’s no telling how it didn’t damage the cup, but I also didn’t really care.

“We will end you,” something whispered next to me. “It’s only a matter of time.”

As I walked to the back of the coffee shop, looking for an exit that didn’t take me back into the main room, I thought back to the offer I was made in Stalliongrad. Namely, the amulet of true-seeing. Why oh why did I have to take that stupid book? Athena is a useless bitch and her books just paint more mysteries than they solve. That amulet would be so nice right now.

But alas, I had no way of getting it now. So onward I forged, deep into the bowels of the desecrated coffee shop. There in the back, I found exactly what I was looking for: A service path. It would hopefully let me leave the sad tale of Ava behind and skip a lot of the obstructions.

The door was locked, but I remedied that with the power of stabbing. Thankfully, it was a wooden door instead of one of those pesky metal ones. After looking both ways for any potential danger, I started walking down the path that would take me closer to the exit.

Nothing is ever as easy as it should be. The going was good for about fifteen minutes or so. There were the occasional obstructions and skeletons that wept or screamed at me, but nothing that was too bad. Better than mannequins that raped me with static or clerks that served me acid. I was starting to get thirsty and hungry, though, so I had a feeling those things would start getting used against me soon enough.

Finally, though, I hit the end of where I could walk. Before me was a brick wall that went up to the ceiling. The mortar had long since rotted away, so I started pulling bricks down. I quickly realized that there was a metal wall on the other side of the brick wall.

“What was even the point of that?” I muttered, tossing a brick behind me. The last door I had seen was a few meters back, so I just sighed and turned around. Imagine my surprise when I saw Ivan charging at me down the hall, his mouth dripping ichor. All the scars from what I had done still graced him, even as they still healed. “Fuck me…”

One of my hands reached back and I grabbed another brick, drawing my sword with the other. When the dude got close enough, I chucked the brick right at his face. He didn’t even flinch as it crushed into him, breaking some of his teeth. I lifted the sword to block the blow from his damaged knife, cursing myself for not breaking it the rest of the way. His other hand reached out and grabbed my shirt, pulling me closer.

My off hand drew a dagger and slammed it into the arm that was holding me. He roared but didn’t stop pulling me closer, his mouth moving in to bite. I kicked him back, cutting out with the knife at the same time. That put another hole in my shirt, but he lost his grip on me since his tendons no longer controlled his hand. Before he could recover, my sword slammed into him for the third time.

This time, however, I was thoroughly sick of his bullshit. I spun him toward the brick wall and slammed him into it, the sword still inside of him. The bricks started falling onto the creepy bitch and I slid my sword out, letting him get crushed under the weight of some bricks. In the end, his head, hand, and knife were sticking out, still struggling. I cut off his hand and kicked it down the hall. I cut the knife off at the base and threw it after the hand. Then I chopped off his head and grabbed its struggling form by its greasy hair and left the body behind, walking to the closest door I could find.

That happened to be a store that sold Christian goods, a place that I’m sure was popular back in the day. I took the head to the biggest metal cross that was still there and impaled it on the top. The thing’s mouth whirled frantically at me as I backed away, unable to make noises since it no longer had lungs.

I smiled at its anger. “The power of Christ compels you, bitch. Maybe it’ll compel you to stop being a dick. Have fun down here for the rest of forever.” With that, I walked back into the main mall area, feeling relatively good about myself. As I continued walking to the amusement park, I smiled, a verse coming to mind. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Quite literally, given that the mall was shaped like and felt like a valley, and there were shades of death all around me. “...I shall be the evil others fear, for god has abandoned me. Thy rod and staff abuse me, but I rise above and triumph regardless.”

I have never felt more emo than I just did. Holy shit. Either way, it pumped me up more, helping erase some of the tiredness that was beginning to seep into my bones. The ghosts around me went silent for nearly five minutes as well. And it was just them, too, not the rest of the abandoned place; my footsteps were actually making sounds.

This is normally the place where I’d say that should have been a sign of something, but my good luck actually continued for nearly a full hour, though I had to take several detours around dangerous or blocked off places. A theory began forming in my mind. The bunker had a limited amount of energy, and pulling forth things like the butcher used up a lot of its energy. There was no way of confirming it, but thinking it made me feel better.

Either way, after several hours of trudging through the mall, I finally crossed into the next section: The amusement park. And it was fully lit up and running. Even better, there wasn’t any kind of netting above me. I smiled, spreading my wings, and then immediately reconsidered.

If I get caught by something on the ground, I could fight. If I got caught by something in the air, I would fall and probably hurt myself. And, after taking a moment to look around the amusement park, there were plenty of things up there that could catch me. Flags, moving rides, flying undead birds that were starting to swarm toward me, and that’s all I saw before I fucking booked it to the nearest building.

Imagine my surprise when the building I ran into was a house of horrors. I almost turned around to try my luck with the skeletal birds that were somehow flying, but decided just about anything would be better than getting torn to shreds. Besides, there was no way the haunted house some ghosts could come up with would be anything near as bad as the one Luna and I made so very long ago.

...Though it might end up being more lethal.

However, before I could start walking through it, one of the visions kicked in. That was all I had time to notice before I was standing at the end, bleeding from a cut on my arm. “What the absolute fuck?” I asked, looking around me in surprise. “What happened?”

The bunker didn’t answer my questions, of course. It never did. Since there was nothing else for me to do but go on, I did so, clutching at the wound to try to stop the bleeding. After all, I didn’t want the smell of blood in the air.

As I walked, watching the skies for more birds, another vision hit. “We really should get that looked at, honey,” Artyom told me, looking in concern at my arm.

“It’s nothing, dear,” I told him reassuringly. “I just need to cover it and it’ll be fine.”

“Still, someone should be told of that danger. We need to find an employee. What if a child gets hurt?”

“...Yes, we should tell someone. Let’s ask him for directions.” My gaze was suddenly directed toward a smiling clown.

Oh god, oh god, I know exactly where this is going. Please, no, please…

Sure enough, the vision ended, leaving the clown standing there. Smiling. This was no evil clown, born of darkness and hate. This was a normal clown, a fellow that seemed to want to just bring a smile to my face. One of my feet involuntarily moved back, ready to sprint away.

“Well hello there, little girl!” he said in a happy voice, his smile deepening. His makeup seemed to stay in one spot while the rest of his face moved, strangely enough. “Would you like a flower?”

“N-no thanks,” I hastily said.

He took a step closer to me. “Now don’t tell me you’re afraid of clowns, little lady. Nothing scary about me at all!”

God, how can I get rid of this bastard? “Uh…”

“Hey now, don’t you worry. Did you lose your parents, little one?”

Does he really think I’m a little girl? “...They told me we were on the way to the doctor,” I said after thinking for a few seconds. Maybe he’ll give me a shortcut.

“Well, that’s no good! But don’t you worry, we’ll find them. You stay close to ol’ Popsy the Clown now, alright? How else would you hear my amazing jokes?”

“...Alright.” He held out a hand that I stared at. Should I take the risk? Call me a fool, but I slowly wrapped my fingers around his.

“Now come along, dearie! We have an epic journey ahead of us!” Curse my inherent trust of strangers. Ponyland has made me soft. Either way, he led me off, swinging my arm back and forth. “Do you like jokes, dear?” he asked a few seconds after we started walking down the empty thoroughfare.

“Sure.”

“Wonderful! Say, do you know what material this clown-suit is made from?”

Crushing loneliness, broken dreams, and oceans of tears? “No, what?”

“Poly-jester!” God fucking dammit. The cheesiness of it got me to smile, at least. “Ah, such a pretty smile… You know, I think I might go with you to the doctor. I mean, I’m feeling a little… funny.” I face-palmed, a smile across my face. He giggled at my predicament.

I figured it would be my turn, though. “Hey Popsy, what do you call a man with no arms that gets in a fight with his cat?”

“Oooh, that’s a hard one… Hm. Do you call him by his name?”

I smiled and nodded. “Claude!”

He burst out laughing. “Oh, my dear, maybe one day you’ll be a clown, too! But just be careful; you have really big shoes to fill!” I know I shouldn’t have laughed at that, but for some reason, it just made me start giggling. “See there? Nothing to frown about at all. You know, I bet your parents wouldn’t mind if you took a little detour… Wanna go on some rides?”

My eyes widened, but before I could tell him hell no, he picked me up and tossed me into the seat of a small roller coaster we had been passing. I struggled to get out, but he hopped in next to me and pulled the bars down, locking us both in place.

“Just sit tight,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “You’ll love it, I promise!”

I saw my life flashing before my eyes as the ancient and rickety thing began to move, then pick up speed. Imagine my surprise when the thing actually hit the end without either of us dying. Or at least, without me dying or him disappearing. Sure, I felt like I was going to die several times, but that was just the normal roller coaster feel.

My fingers lost their death grip on the safety bar when we slowed to a stop. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked, pulling the bar up. “Want to go on another?”

“I… I really should uh… meet my parents,” I said, not wanting to trust this ghoul for any longer than I had to.

“Well, it’s a long walk to the next district. I’m sure we can have all kinds of fun on the way!”

“...Fun. Right.” I need to ditch this clown. Get my defenses down, then murder me while I’m unwary.

“That’s the spirit! Now, shall we?” Before I could say anything, he hopped out of the car we were in and grabbed me, then set me on his shoulders so I was piggybacking him. “Onward!” He started walking off, making me clutch awkwardly at his bright orange hair. “Careful up there, dearie! You’ll learn what it’s like to spend half an hour doing your hair one day, trust me.” Sexist bitch.

“Sorry.” I didn’t even mean to apologize, it just sort of happened. Damn place is getting to my mind.

“Say, do you like animals?” he asked after a few seconds of walking.

Eyeing the skeletal birds that were circling us but not attacking for some reason, I said, “...Not really.”

“Well, that’s a shame. But I can make other things, don’t you worry!” He pulled out a used condom and started blowing it up and then I realized that it was a balloon and I’m just a slut. When it was full, he tied it off and then started twisting it in all kinds of shapes. Finally, he held it up. “A hat for you, my dear,” he said, passing it to me.

“...A hat?” I mused, taking it from him.

“Yes indeedy! A perfect fit for that pretty little head of yours, I bet.”

Truth be told, I didn’t want the thing anywhere near any part of me, but playing the ghost’s game seemed a wise idea when he was carrying me with a vise grip around my legs, holding me in place. I sighed and put the hat on my head. “It fits,” I told him.

“Wonderful! Just sit tight and let me make you something else.” Despite myself, I watched his hands flow about as he blew up another and then began folding it. Not too long after, he blew up yet another and started folding it as well. Soon, he held up a green flower. “For you, dear. To match your pretty eyes.”

“That’s… actually really neat,” I said, taking it from him. “Thanks.”

“No problemo, girlie.” After a few more seconds, he looked down at his wrist, where a broken watch was sitting. “Oh my, I can never tell if this thing’s right or not. I know it is twice a day, but it’s so hard to tell when… I suppose that’s what I get for throwing it out the window.”

He waited for me to ask the obvious question, so I bit and asked, “Why’d you throw it out the window?”

“I wanted to see time fly!” God dammit. I couldn’t stop myself from chuckling, though.

...And that’s how things went. The skeletal birds above us circled menacingly, but they kept their distance. The clown continued cracking jokes and dragging me onto rides, each one larger and more convoluted than the last. Truth be told, the entire thing was both terrifying and amazing at the same time. Despite several chances to kill me, his hand never once turned hostile.

Things were going so well, in fact, that after a few hours, I fell asleep on his back. It was an absolutely stupid mistake, but his rhythmic gait and being extremely tired both put me over the edge and I just passed out.

I never expected to wake up again, which is why I was very surprised when I woke up with the clown standing over me, smiling. I was lying on a bench and we seemed to be under the last working light in the entire amusement park.

Needless to say, I bolted upright immediately, then softly cursed when the pain from all my wounds hit me at once. “Relax, my dear,” Popsy said, gently patting me on the shoulder. “You’ll be safe for a little while longer, don’t you fret.”

“...What?” I asked, looking up at him. That was the first time he broke character. The dude was still smiling, but it seemed forced. The makeup on his face was starting to flicker, as though he was losing himself.

“This is where I have to leave you, girlie,” the clown said, sighing softly. “And I’m so, so sorry for what’s going to come and what you’ve been through.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, standing.

“All this. The horrors you’ve seen. The horrors that lie ahead. We aren’t all bad. And we were able to protect you for just a little while. We’ll stop Ivan from following you, but we can’t do anything for the places ahead. Just don’t let the others lead you to section E, past industrial.”

“...What’s section E?”

“Even prisons of the damned have places to store the worst inmates possible,” he sadly said. “Goodbye, girlie. I hope I never see you again.”

“Popsy, wait!” Instead of waiting, he faded away. The light above me began to flicker before slowly fading out. I pulled my flashlight back out as the place was wreathed in darkness, looking around for any signs of the friendly ghost.

The amusement park was abandoned and silent, save for a few rattling sounds that I couldn’t place. After a few seconds, I jerked my flashlight up, looking in the sky above me. Hundreds of skeletal birds were still flying. As soon as my light flashed on them, they surged toward me.

I spun around and booked it into the medical area, cursing my horrid luck. Thankfully, I made it into the confines of the next area. Not so thankfully, the birds followed me. But instead of attacking, they broke apart as soon as they passed the bounds and their bones just slammed into me. That was annoying, but thankfully not flesh rendingly dangerous.

Before the bones even hit the floor, another vision assailed me. An older fellow in a doctor outfit was talking to the lady behind the counter. “If we get any new guests today, can you send them to me? I would like to… talk to them.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea… doctor?” the secretary asked.

“As long as they can be convinced, there’s nothing illegal or wrong about it,” he answered with a smile. “I’ll treat them as needed and talk to them while doing so. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”

“...Of course not, doctor,” she sighed, looking away. The vision ended at that point, leaving me alone in a ruined hospital waiting room. There were a few metal pots that looked like plants had been there at some point. I shined my light around, looking for anything of interest or that might be dangerous. Several hallways led off.

After examining my choices, I picked the largest hall, since I assumed that would be the one that led through the research/medical place. Since even if there were signs, they probably would have been in Cyrillic text, I had no clue if I was actually going the right way. I could only hope I’d be able to stay on the ground floor and not have to go up to find god knows what. Thankfully, the medical/research place was supposed to be small, so I was hoping it wouldn’t take me very long to get through it.

I should have learned long ago that hope is a commodity I’m not allowed to have.

The first sign of trouble was the massive metal bulkhead that blocked me off from getting further through the tunnel. My suspicions that the place was blocked off and didn’t just end mostly came from the scorch marks on the wall like they came from a welding torch and the scratches that looked kinda like fingernail marks.

Personally, I didn’t want to think about what would make someone want to try scratching a steel wall. I also didn’t want to think about whatever may have dragged them away. Since there was nothing else for it, I just sighed and turned back. As I was doing so, I caught a flick of shadows behind me that I instantly turned toward, aiming the light at. Of course, there was nothing there.

I drew my sword and began looking for a side passage. “Whoever thinks they might be stalking me, know that I killed your butcher three times. You may have infinite lives, but I have an infinite amount of fucks to not give. Go ahead and try me.”

Several doors were open along the sides of the hallway I was in, but after looking in them, I saw that none of them had any exits. And worse, most of them contained dismembered skeletons, the bodies of which were usually on beds.

As I walked, looking for another way out, my mind couldn’t help but drift to what might have happened to the people in the bunker. I know I didn’t want to think about it and I tried my hardest not to care, but the place was the direct proof I needed to say that humans once existed on the planet. Despite myself, I started thinking about their downfall.

Whatever happened was obviously violent and involved infighting. One guy mentioned that the farms kept going down and I had seen plenty of evidence of cannibalism. I knew that cannibalism can technically be fatal if you eat a guy with prions, but it probably wouldn’t have caused the brutal insanity I had seen in other places. Or was that just the true height of human cruelty?

People removed from hope and given insane leadership are willing to do truly insane and horrible things. There was evidence of that all throughout history. That Bishop Igor fellow seemed like a right proper dick, so I could see him leading them down the wrong way. Ivan wasn’t much better, and it seemed the hunter I ran into was also a villainous sort.

But could so few truly seed a downfall as brutal as the one that occurred within the bunker? Somehow, I had a suspicion that I’d find out sooner than I’d want.

My thought train came to an end when I found a side path that went both left and right. The left side was clear, with nothing blocking the halls and no signs of anything odd. The right side was littered with bones and a miasma of death seemed to be seeping from it.

Needless to say, I went right. The place was trying to get me killed, so the safe way would seem like the unsafe way. Or at least, that’s what I was hoping would be the case.

Whispers started coming to my ears as I walked. Half-heard mutters and faint conversations assailed me, but I paid them no mind; Morrowind prepared me for dealing with things like that. What was more disconcerting was the rattling I began hearing around me. It wasn’t coming from the bones I was stepping on, since that was more akin to snapping.

After about a minute of hearing it, I stopped and tried to pinpoint which direction it was coming from. The damn tunnels were echoing too much to make that possible, though. I did, however, notice that the bones seemed to be… moving. They were rolling back, to some point behind me.

Since there could be anything back there, I shot my head and body back, trying to see whatever was making the bones drag across the floor. However, when I looked back, there was nothing there. And by nothing, I meant literally nothing; the bones were gone, the hall was gone, the light didn’t even shine.

I spun and began fucking sprinting down the hall. Something within me was afraid of that void, and I had a feeling that getting caught in it would be a bad thing. The rattling picked up and I started to feel a suction behind me as well, something trying to pull me back. After taking a quick look ahead to make sure the path was clear, I put the flashlight in a pocket and just booked it, picking up as much speed as I could even with the vacuum.

That turned out to be a mistake, as I tripped over some kind of bone on the floor. I was forced to put my plan into place sooner than I was expected, jamming my sword into the floor as I fell and holding on for life as the suction picked up.

“I can save you,” a voice whispered in my ear, bypassing the roaring wind that was screaming at me. “Pull you out of this pit.”

At what cost? I have no interest in your deals!

“Cost? My dear, there is no cost. There might be… side effects, but I’ll be there to guide you through all of them.”

I’d rather die.

“Then die you will. And when you die, you’ll be here, with us, forever. And that butcher you mentioned would like to spend a little quality time with you, I believe. You’ll have a fun time moving your blessed sword when you’re incorporeal. Accept my help or suffer eternally.”

Now or later, I’ll suffer anyway. I won’t give you the satisfaction of winning like this.

I took a deep, deep breath, used the strength I got from sleeping to pull myself forward, and wrenched my sword out of the floor, casting myself into the void.

“You lose, Anonymous,” a voice said before blackness consumed me.

There’s no telling how long I was out. When I woke up, I was lying on a hospital bed and completely naked save for the collar and broken chain still around my neck. A mostly normal fellow was standing over me with a needle in one hand. The ‘mostly’ part came from having shadows where his eyes should be. “Let’s give you your medicine now,” he said with a smile, lowering the needle down to me.

I wasn’t having any of that, and knocked his hand away from me, then rolled off the bed on the other side. His smile hadn’t faded, so I kicked the portable bed at him. It slid right through him and he took a step to me.

“You need your medicine, dear,” he said, lifting the syringe.

“Like hell I do!” I slid away from him along the wall, looking for any kind of exit. Imagine my surprise when there were no doors leading away at all. All that was in the room was me, the doctor, the bed, and the syringe. Oh, fuck me.

As I was distracted by that realization, the doctor grabbed the chain attached to my neck and poked me in the back with the needle, then pressed the plunger, instantly filling the area all around the needle with pain. My body started seizing up as the drug worked its way through my system, but I wasn’t about to go down without causing some damage to this motherfucker.

One of my wings shot out and slapped the guy back and I whirled around, the needle still attached to me. It went flying out and I punched the mofo right in the face. His head jerked back and he lost his grip on the chain, but he quickly recovered, having taken no damage and still smiling. “Your medicine has been administered. Rest, so we may see the effects.”

“I will not be a subject,” I hissed, putting both of my hands around his throat.

“You already signed the contract,” he said, holding up a paper. On it, Ava’s name was printed at the very bottom. “Now rest.” His hand shot out and phased into my head. I instantly lost consciousness yet again.

This time, the body I woke up in wasn’t my own. I was still just as naked and considerably more female, but I had no control over my actions. It was nice to see such a large bosom on me, but the person controlling me seemed less interested in them than I was. “Where am I?” she asked, sitting up and looking around. I appeared to be in the same room, once again with no exits.

An intercom clicked on and said, “In our experiment room, Miss Ava. Would you kindly count to ten for us?”

The lady did so, slowly counting. When she finished, she asked, “Where are my clothes?”

“We removed them, as they would interfere with some of the tests. Please stand.” Ava did so, her sexy legs stretching out and then down. She was able to stand easily. “Now, please tell us what you’re feeling, as you feel it.”

“...Okay.” Her body suddenly started to walk. “What? What’s happening? I’m not doing that!”

“That is a side-effect. Please, what do you feel?”

“...Nothing,” she said as her body slowly walked around the smallish room. “This is strange. When will it stop?”

“When the testing is over.” Ava suddenly stopped walking and her arms lifted. Her fingers slowly started stretching and then flexing normally. “Full range of motions.” Her arms lifted above her head, and then lowered back down. She slowly got to her knees and then her arms lifted up. She started doing pushups. After ten, she stopped. “Please lie back on the bed, Miss Ava. It seems that the first set of tests with the new nanomachines was a success.”

“...Nanomachines?” she asked, her body walking to the bed automatically. “I thought the primate banned those!”

“You thought wrong, Miss Ava,” the voice said. “Now rest.” Our eyes closed and that was the end of that vision.

The first thing I noticed when I became conscious again was pain. The epicenter of the pain was where the motherfucker poked me with the needle, but it had spread all throughout my body. “The subject seems to be… resisting,” a voice said.

“I’ll… kill you…” I groaned, pushing myself up. It hurt, but the floor was cold and I refused to be on the ground in front of someone.

“Sit!” the voice ordered. My body struggled to obey, but it seemed that Flo was actually finally fucking doing something and fighting whatever the dude put in me. “Subject has foreign entities defending her body. Higher dose recommended.”

“I recommend you shove it up your ass,” I replied, finally getting to my feet. I reached up and loudly popped my neck, staring the scientist right in his shadows. “Kill me.”

His right hand lifted and another syringe appeared there. “Administering higher dose.”

My left hand shot out and wrapped around the hand with the needle and I pulled him toward me. Then I slammed my right arm into his elbow, shattering his arm. The syringe dropped and I grabbed it before it fell, slamming it into the dude’s neck and pushing the plunger. “Higher dose administered,” I hissed. “Now go back to hell where you belong!”

His head slowly turned to me and I let the syringe go, backing up. “Going back on the contract is unwise, Miss Ava.”

“I never claimed to be wise.”

His body jerked forward and something poked into my stomach, then a similar pain spread through the front of my body. “Higher. Dose. Administered,” he slowly said, his shadowy eyes staring into me.

“When I escape, I’m going to forget you,” I hissed. “A scientist that rots in obscurity. Enjoy the time while you have it.”

“Rest,” he ordered, pushing me back. My body obeyed, continuing backwards until I hit the wall. Then I slid down, becoming numb once again.

My eyes opened again and I was once more in Ava’s body. This time, she didn’t move. “Rise,” the intercom said. Ava’s body sat up. “We will begin more advanced tests today. There is a chance you won’t remember any of what is about to happen.”

“Why?” Ava asked.

“That is one of the points of the tests,” the intercom answered. One of Ava’s arms lifted up. “This may seem distressing. Remain calm.” Ava’s arm began to… change. The fingers elongated and stretched in ways they absolutely shouldn’t.

“What are you doing?!” she screamed as they manipulated her body. I could feel the bones moving, but there was no pain.

“We’re testing,” the intercom said. “Is there any pain?”

“Stop!” The changing immediately stopped and the arm reverted. “I never agreed to this!”

“The contract you signed agreed to medical testing. We are doing medical testing. You did, in fact, agree to this. Now, was there any pain?”

“I don’t want to do this anymore!” Ava shouted, struggling against invisible bonds.

“Rest.” Her eyes closed and that was that.

When I woke up again, my body felt like it had been in a fire. The desire to die was worming its way into my mind yet again, but the desire to murder was still stronger. To that end, I slowly pushed myself to my feet.

“I did not tell you to rise,” the eyeless doctor said.

“I will not bow,” I hissed, standing to my full height. The guy was taller than me, but that wasn’t important at the moment.

“All subjects will be brought to order,” he replied. “Perhaps an implant is needed. It will give us more reception.” He lifted another syringe in one hand and a scalpel in another.

“Flo, if you’re listening, now would be a good time for an adrenaline boost.” I don’t know if she was listening or if it was just the anger and rage inside of me, but I felt something surging in me. My first move was kicking the dude between the legs, though I didn’t expect that to do much.

When it didn’t, I grabbed the hand with the syringe and broke the arm the same way as I had before, then slammed the needle into one of his shadow eyes, depressing the lever. He swiped at me with the scalpel, perhaps annoyed. I blocked his arm with one of mine, then slid my arm around it and pulled up, lifting him to his tiptoes.

From there, I punched him in the face and let his arm go, sending him to the floor. He lost his grip on the scalpel and I scooped it up, slamming it into his other shadow-socket. A hole slid open in the wall and two large guys with no faces entered.

“The patient is being uncooperative,” the doctor calmly said. “Restrain her.”

I smiled slightly as the two large guys lifted their hands to grab me. One lunged while the other hung back. I dodged around the one that lunged and feinted toward the other. He fell for it and lifted his arms to block, but I sprinted for the door. Something snatched at one of my wings and ripped out a handful of feathers, but that didn’t stop me from bolting.

However, as soon as I got out of the room, I realized there was no reason to run. All of my things were suddenly back on me, so I was no longer naked and unarmed. I ripped my sword out and turned to murder the shit out of some undead, but the flashlight revealed nothing behind me. Once again, I was standing in an empty hall.

The pain was still there and it felt like something was trying to tear my insides apart, but at least someone wasn’t trying to shove stuff in me again. I took a deep breath, then let it out and put the sword away. After deliberating for a moment about which way to go and then realizing it probably didn’t matter, I set off once again.

“Hold on, Flo,” I whispered as I walked. “Keep fighting that shit. As soon as we get outta here, Ice’ll help you win.” If we get out of here.

Things calmed down in the bunker again after that. There were still the normal whispers and I felt eyes all around me, but nothing big happened. I guess experimenting on me and summoning three bigger ghouls was enough to drain it for a while. Or maybe the few good ghosts were doing their best to help me out.

Either way, the corridors of the hospital district were soon enough replaced by the sprawling amusement park and that’s when I realized I went the wrong fucking way. After sighing and contemplating suicide again, I turned back around and started walking before the birds could find me.

Several hours and detours and boobytraps and boring visions later, I was staring at the entrance of the industrial district. Which, if I was lucky, would be the last stop before escaping. I needed to escape quickly, too. The magic sustaining me was making the hallucinations worse and I could feel myself becoming more and more jumpy as I went further in. My hands were shaking and the flashlight seemed to flicker slightly with every step I took. It didn’t help that I was also very thirsty and getting very hungry.

Anyway, as soon as I stepped through the doors to the next district, another vision hit me. “What do you mean, you’re going back?!” I demanded, trying not to make too much noise.

“You heard the others,” Artyom whispered. “The elevator is locked from the bottom. Someone has to activate it for the doors to open!”

“You’ll be killed!”

“Maybe. But I have to try, my love. It’s either this, or die like rats while we wait for a locked door to open. Just think: When we get out of here, we can live in peace with the Americans.”

“If they’re really there,” I bitterly answered.

He grabbed me and pulled me into a gentle kiss. “They’ll be there,” he said when he pulled away. “I’ll always love you,” he added, caressing my face gently.

“I’ll always wait for you,” I whispered as the vision faded, tears coming to my eyes. Then my mind came back to me and I quickly shook my head, clearing out the tears.

That’s when I heard the first of the loud bangs, then heard klaxons wailing. Several more bangs started happening and then the lights above me flicked on, revealing part of the industrial complex that made up this corner of the bunker.

I was standing on a fully enclosed catwalk above a large number of machines of indeterminate purpose. Each had gauges and sensors and were starting to kick back into gear. Chains leading from the floor to the ceiling started moving. Engines kicked on. The catwalk I was on started vibrating slightly, but not enough to make me worry.

Since my only choice was to go forward, that’s what I did. The other wall didn’t seem that far off, so I was hoping I could get there without the catwalk shattering under me. Even if it did, as long as my damaged wings still worked, I could just fly to the exit.

There were a few ladders and doors leading out of the enclosure I was in, but I didn’t see any exits outside the one on the other side of the catwalk, so I just kept walking. Also, I probably should have been questioning how the machines were all running, but honestly, I didn’t care. I just blamed the ghosts and tried not to think about it.

When I got to the middle, I found a large hole in the floor of the catwalk. I backed up a few steps and then vaulted over it, then broke into a sprint since I had a feeling adding sudden pressure to something that’s already broken was a bad idea. Sure enough, more of the catwalk started falling through behind me. I got to the door shortly after, so it wasn’t much of a problem for me.

On the other side of the doorway was a hallway of hallways. Then I looked up and realized that I was looking at alleyways, not hallways. In front of me were several buildings that were separated by large crevasses in the forms of alleyways. The buildings went from the bottom of the room to the very top, so I couldn’t fly over them, and the alleys were too narrow to fly through.

I sighed, took a moment to pop my neck, and started walking down the first alley I saw. A few meters down, I realized there was a blockage ahead of me that I couldn’t climb, so I turned around and started walking back. There was another blockage behind me, one that definitely hadn’t been there before.

Now, I was planning on just ignoring the buildings, since I was sure they had to be death traps. Why else would they be activated, after all? But with both sides blocked by unclimbable materials, I walked through the open door on one side of the alley.

I immediately regretted that decision when I realized I was standing in a meat processing plant and there were several industrial-sized grinders running at full speed. “I should have just died at birth,” I sighed. That was yet another mistake, because on the sound of my voice, several more of the apparitions spawned, all in various states of decay, and began rushing toward me.

Excalibur quickly came to my hands and I bisected the first one, removing his legs. The others ignored his sacrifice and continued charging. One reached out a hand that he quickly lost, then slammed his arm at me like a club. It didn’t really hurt that much, but it knocked me off balance while I was trying to cut the head off another one.

That was all they needed to drag me to the ground, unfortunately. These weren’t skeletons, with no muscle or coordination. These were proper ghouls, hungering for flesh and letting their hate coordinate their efforts.

Unfortunately, those efforts happened to include trying to fucking eat me. I fought like a fucking deer, but despite heavy losses, they finally managed to force my sword away from me and force both of my arms to the ground. My only saving grace is that they seemed to have other animalistic urges as well.

So while they were fighting for precedence over who got to tenderize and then add extra flavoring to their meat first, I was struggling very viciously with the bastard pinning my body down with his. He was missing several teeth, but those he had were filed down and sharp. His pale-white eyes stared down at me with no emotion.

“If you don’t fight them,” I said, “they won’t let you have a turn. Probably won’t give you any meat, either.” That put some emotion in his eyes and his grin faltered. “That’s how things work down here, right? The strongest get everything they want? Prove to them who’s strongest.”

His grin came back. “While they argue, I’ll just take,” he whispered, his voice strangely calm and even. That wasn’t quite what I meant. But either way, he let go of my arms to undo his belt and that’s when I ripped out one of my daggers, burying it into his skull. He shrieked in either pain or anger at the deception, and all the others turned back to us.

Since they didn’t bother removing my sword or doing anything with it, I just grabbed it from where it had been lying and rolled to my feet, making a desperate swipe at the first bastard that came near me. It cut him in twain and the remaining five backed off slightly, unwilling to rush me now that I was armed and pissed.

The one with the knife in his skull ripped out the unenchanted weapon and staggered to his feet before rushing me with the dagger. I knocked the dagger away from his hand with my sword and then buried the blade into his sternum. He croaked as I kicked him back off, sliding the blade through his side to do more damage.

One of the five thought that I might be distracted by his friend’s valiant sacrifice. I taught him the error of his ways, kicking him between the legs and then slicing through his arms as he reached for his private area. He roared in anger or pain, so I shoved my blade through his neck.

The other four rushed again and I backpedaled, knowing I couldn’t let them get me on the ground again. One of them was holding a metal pole that he struck out at me with. I blocked it and pushed back, throwing him off balance. Before I could strike him, another one grabbed my sword arm.

I grabbed his hand where he was grabbing me and twisted it and my body around, throwing him off guard and slicing partially through his body where the sword hit him. That got him to let go and I jumped back again as the pole dude swung at me. I bumped into one of the others, who had gotten behind me to try to grab me.

He succeeded in wrapping his arms around my torso and he began trying to bite through my coat to get to my shoulder, since my neck was still covered by the collar. Since it was a really heavy coat, I ignored him for the moment and sliced through the fourth guy, who tried coming at me from my non-sword arm. It was a bit of a reach and it made me turn, but that ended up being a good thing since the pole guy was slamming his weapon down. Instead of cracking my skull open, it broke the head of the guy trying to bite me.

That made him let go and he fell backwards and right into the meat grinder that I hadn’t even noticed until then. It was a foot or two away from me and inlaid into the floor, making me wonder what the fuck kind of safety regulations the fucking Russians that owned the place had. He tumbled in and was ripped to shreds. I was a little too busy to get any satisfaction from that since I was fending off the guy that grabbed me earlier.

Since the grinder was so close, I tossed my sword aside and grappled the ghoul. He grinned, thinking that he had the advantage since he was stronger. I disabused him of that notion by spinning with him and then kicking him backwards a few feet, right into the grinder. The look of surprise on his face amused me right up until a metal pole slammed into my back, almost knocking me into the grinder myself.

I spun around in time to see it coming at me again, giving me time to jump to the side, out of the way. The monster wielding it took a few steps closer, swinging it overhead down at me. I stepped back until the pole hit the floor, then slammed my foot down on the top of it. His grip was apparently weak, because he lost hold of it.

That surprised him long enough for me to punch him right between the eyes. He backed off, clutching at his face, so I grabbed his pole and slammed it into the side of his head, knocking him into the grinder.

After taking a moment to look around to ensure that all the bastards were down, I nodded and tossed the metal pole aside and went to grab my sword and dagger. Both were looking pretty nasty, so I jammed them into the nearest monster’s body and then wiped the blood and gore off on its shirt.

With my blades put away, I took a moment to consider why a butcher would need to exist with a meat processing plant. Then I took another moment to consider why a meat processing plant would exist in a place that didn’t have a sustainable meat supply. Then I stopped caring and started walking, looking for the exit.

The building wasn’t overly large and the trail of bodies let me find the side I walked in from easily, so finding an exit on the back of the building was simple. A sigh came to my lips when I realized my only option was to go into the next building; both paths to my left and right were closed off yet again.

Then I took a closer look at the barricades and realized I could climb one of them. I poked my head into the next building and found that it was full of wood chippers. I sprinted for the barricade and started scaling it as quickly as I could.

As I climbed, I began to hear more rattling and then whispers from behind me. I knew looking back would be a bad idea, so I just kept fucking climbing. However, I couldn’t stop myself from looking back when I got to the top, right before I threw myself over the side. There were several chains floating out of the building I left behind, seemingly attached to things.

One of them suddenly pointed at me and then I heard what sounded like a child screaming. All of the chains started pointing at me and that’s when I jumped off the top, using my wings to float me down safely on the other side. The screeching stopped as soon as I touched down, but the rattling picked up and I heard something hitting the barricade. Needless to say, I fucking booked it, heading down the street and then taking the first turn I found that led deeper in.

That pathway was clear, so I sprinted down yet again, but I could still hear the rattling even when I got down to the far end of the street, where a building cut me off. There were no side exits, so I just went through the doorway, hoping I wouldn’t run into anything less dead than it should be.

Or worse, having something run into me.

The building I entered was full of pipes and the temperature within was nearly stifling. Several of the pipes were rusted through and large amounts of filthy water were pouring out. The entire place was steamier than Cadance’s sick fanfictions and I very dearly wanted to take off my heavy clothing. I powered through, knowing I’d need them once I left the place since all the sweat and the cool temperature would make me very cold very quickly.

If I had to guess, I’d say the building I was in had something to do with water filtration. The water got boiled to clean it, then sent to where it was needed. Though how there was any water left after so long, I had no clue. Once again, I blamed the ghosts.

I could probably also blame the ghosts for the pipe that burst right over me, shooting scathingly hot steam down at me. It hurt worse than fire and added to the large number of other serious injuries I had, but I kept going since I had a feeling that stopping at that juncture meant death or worse.

The water filtration place wasn’t very big, at least. When I got out of it, I took a moment to wipe away the water that was pooling where the steam hit me. My hand came away very bloody and that’s when I realized that steam will just absolutely ruin your day.

It didn’t help my mood that the screaming was starting again behind me, though the chains didn’t seem close enough for anything to see me. I took off sprinting again regardless, not wanting to be around when whatever it was got through the plant.

At this point, my internal map of the place was completely gone. There were large buildings leading up to the ceilings on all sides, several roads were blocked off, and I was just sprinting as quickly as I could to get away from whatever was chasing me. I started to hear some kind of chanting from behind me, intermixed with the chains, but I couldn’t make it out and was purposefully ignoring it.

After taking a few more streets, I was forced to enter another factory. The chains were getting closer, somehow catching up with me. As soon as I stepped into the next building, I immediately felt relief from the sweat and blood that was pouring down me. Hellishly loud turbines shot air all around me, presumably circulating the air within the bunker.

That was all well and good, but none of the turbines were covered. There were several dozen very large spinning fans of death all around the room, each pulling or pushing at me. The temptation was there to turn around and walk out so I didn’t get sucked up and chewed to bits, but the rattling was even louder, so I knew I had to push through.

My first few steps were slow and careful, as I was making sure I wouldn’t get pulled off my feet or something. After I realized that I’d be safe as long as nothing actually pushed me, I started walking at a more normal speed, watching out for anything that might want to push me.

The rattling and chanting got louder and I started to make out actual voices in the chanting, though I couldn’t tell what was being said. Each one sounded like the voice of a child. The chanting eerily stopped, but I didn’t have time to wonder why before the screeching started back up, sounding like it was coming from right behind me.

I fucking booked it, sprinting through the turbine factory. The rattling increased in volume until I had to turn around to look or risk getting hit by chains. I saw just one of the chains floating toward me, something nearly invisible at the end. “Run!” it pleaded, ghostly tears dripping from its face. “Run and hide!”

Despite its words, both of its arms were opening to try to grab me. I ripped my sword out of its sheath and sliced right through the ghost. It screamed, but continued reaching for me. I dodged to the side from its clutching grasp and tried cutting at the chain instead. The links cut and the entire chain broke all the way back. The screeching immediately stopped and the ghostly child disappeared.

I started running again as all the broken links got sucked up into the turbines, emitting an ungodly shrieking noise and the sound of rending metal. But even above that, I could hear the horrid wailings of whatever was holding the chains as it realized I freed one of its slaves.

The chase resumed, but it resumed with me out of the building since I found the exit. A ghostly child stood at one end of the new alleyway I found myself in, waving me toward him. The other side was empty. Needless to say, I sprinted to the empty side, not even considering listening to a ghost kid.

As soon as I got to the next crossing, I turned right and started running that way, casting the occasional glance back to check for chains. They were behind me as I was turning again, and that’s when I realized I turned right down into a dead end. The place was barricaded all the way to the ceiling and there were no doors leading anywhere. The rattling was picking up and I had a feeling that going back would end with me face-to-face with whatever was controlling them.

That’s when a small panel opened up in one of the walls and the ghost kid waved me toward him. After considering my options, I sighed, put my sword up, and ran over to the panel. It was really low, so I had to get on my hands and knees to enter. As soon as I got inside, he closed the panel again and disappeared, leaving me in another factory. “Some answers would have been nice,” I muttered darkly, taking off at a run again to look for exits.

That run quickly turned into a walk when I realized I was standing on a catwalk above an absolutely massive grinder. This thing made the ones in the meat processing plant look like wee little babies. Judging by the large amount of empty boxes all around, as well as all the trash, I figured I found my way to either the recycling area or the trash area. Either way, the thing was so large and powerful that I could actually feel a suction down there.

And I was over it.

On catwalks.

That were rusty and in some cases broken.

My ‘running’ turned into very meticulous and careful steps. I would have flown, but my wings had seen better days and I didn’t want to risk the suction since I was missing so many feathers. Thankfully, there were doors on all four sides, so getting out shouldn’t have been too difficult.

One of these days, I am going to remove the word ‘should’ from my vocabulary.

Several of the chains broke down a door on the far side of the building and then immediately started screeching. Seeing a chance to perhaps get rid of a few of the chains at the same time, I took a risk and started running to the center of the catwalks on the other side of where he was entering.

That risk almost didn’t pay off, given that one of my legs broke through the damn catwalk. Thankfully, it didn’t feel like any metal pierced my skin, but I immediately realized I was stuck. I set about getting free as more of the chains pushed inside the building.

They started screeching as soon as I pulled myself out of the trap. I considered ditching my plan, but decided that if I didn’t take the chance, I’d probably not get another. So I continued running to my target, which was a couch sitting on the edge of the catwalk right in front of an exit.

Three of the chains started surging straight toward me, which is what I was hoping they’d do. Whatever was guiding them seemed content to stay on the other side of the door, which I was very content with. As soon as the chains got very close to me, I kicked the couch off the side. As expected, they broke right through the cushions of the couch and continued flying toward me…

...Up until the weight of the couch dragged them down, into the grinder. All three chains followed the couch into that moving mass of death, getting torn to shreds and dragged further and further in. Of course, I turned to the door and sprinted through as soon as I saw the chains getting pulled in.

Upon looking both ways to decide where to go, I saw one of the kids at one end of the long stretch waving me toward him. Despite everything warning me that it was a stupid idea, I decided to run toward him, putting my fate into his ephemeral hands. As soon as I got to him, he pointed left, then disappeared. I shrugged and went left, honestly not caring that much anymore. If the little bastards wanted to thank me for freeing them, I was happy enough to take their help.

There was yet another one at the end of the long path I was on, once more waving me on. I picked up the pace to get to him before he could disappear, hoping the chain bastard behind me was still having trouble with the grinder. This one pointed me straight ahead, so I just continued running, drawing ragged breaths and wishing I could stop from all the pain that was burning across my body.

Unfortunately, stopping didn’t seem to be an option in my foreseeable future, because another of the kids was in front of me, pointing me to the right. I followed his finger and kept pushing forward. At the end of this stretch was no child, so I just kept going straight until I hit a blockage. By that point, the chains were once more rattling, so I figured entering another building to hopefully lose the bastard was in order.

The building I entered this time looked like a simple warehouse, thankfully. The urge to go slowly and not take chances was in my mind, but the need to get away from the chains overtook that very quickly. I was getting strange vibes from the place and that’s when I realized it reminded me a lot of the warehouse where Taya and I fought Miguel.

If that wasn’t a sign to get the hell out quickly, the sound of chains entering the building behind me was. I slowed down long enough to pull my sword out before speeding back up. It sounded like the mass of chains were in the building now and the remaining children were once again chanting. However, this time I heard an overtone of growling, something angry and evil accompanying them.

I was starting to think I made an enemy. That didn’t bother me, as long as I could get out of the bunker before he could do anything to me.

The chain I suddenly found wrapped around the collar on my neck proved that unlikely. It suddenly yanked back, tripping me up and almost making me lose my grip on the sword, but thankfully not choking me because of the collar I had on. Soon enough, it began reeling me backwards, pulling me to some uncertain fate even as I struggled to break free.

I. Will not. Die here! With that thought of defiance, I lifted my sword up and started randomly slicing around behind me, trying to hit the chain and break it. I heard the sound of the blade hitting the chain a few times, but I didn’t get a good enough hit in to actually break it.

That’s when I rolled over onto my stomach so I could get a better view at what was happening. With that view, I was able to start hitting the chain more effectively. It still took several hits to break, but I finally broke through it and immediately pushed myself up, sprinting the other way. The monster roared and the chains started rattling like crazy, seemingly shooting off in random directions.

One of those random directions happened to be directly at me, and I felt the ghostly grip of a crying child freeze my left arm all the way through, making it completely useless. The painful icy sensation started working its way through the rest of my body, numbing everything it hit. I yanked back from the kid and slammed my sword down on its chain, thankfully slicing through it in one hit. Once again, the rest of the chain shattered as the child was freed.

And once again, I fucking booked it, finally finding a door out of the building. Another child was standing on one end of the alley, waving at me. I awkwardly ran to him, my left arm flailing about because of the numbness. At that point, I was thankful the power and the lights came back on, because there was no way I could hold both the flashlight and my sword.

This child pointed me left, so that’s the way I went. However, there was no other child ahead of me. That’s when I realized how it worked: Save a child, get a single hint. From the rattling I could still hear behind me, it didn’t sound like there were too many children left. Maybe five, if I was lucky. I’d need to make the hints count.

...Assuming the kids were actually trying to help me.

The directions I got from the last kid led me straight to another building. When I stepped inside, I realized I was in a little bunkhouse, presumably for workers that needed to take a break or something. As soon as I entered, a vision I really didn’t have time for kicked in, showing Ava cowering in the corner, holding a battered kitchen knife. The sound of chains and crying from outside was very noticeable and Ava flinched every time one of them made an extra-loud sound.

The vision then ended, though the sound of the crying and rattling was still very much present and getting ever closer. As soon as I started moving again, the screeching picked back up. I’m making way too much fucking noise, Christ. So I fucking booked it, running to the far side of the building where a door was open.

Sprinting might not have been the best choice. Three chains burst into the room from all around me. One from behind, one from the door on my left, and one from the door I was running at. The two that weren’t in my way didn’t concern me that much, since the main threat was the one I was actually running at.

The ghost child seemed to be crying steam or something as he reached out at me for a hug. I dodged around his fumbling grasp and grabbed the chain with my left hand, which had thankfully regained feeling. That turned out to be a better idea than I was expecting, because it suddenly started pulling back out of the door very quickly, helping me get away from the others.

Right before it pulled me out of the building, I brought my sword down at the part in front of my grasp, shearing the chain and sending me flying through the door, unattached to anything. I caught myself with my wings and started sprinting toward the ghost child that was now waving at me.

When the slave master realized he had lost yet another of his pets, he roared in rage, making his remaining pets whimper and cry in fear. The one to which I was running flinched, but didn’t disappear until he pointed me off in the right direction. At that point, the chains went silent, and that’s when I knew I was probably in some real trouble.

The very loud sound of stomping confirmed that newfound knowledge. I heard what sounded like a whip being cracked and jumped to the right just in time for a chain to slam into the ground next to where I had been standing, completely silently. When it whipped back, I saw that it had actually left an indentation into the ground, not that I was spending much time paying attention to it; I was a little busy ducking into the nearest open door I saw.

That almost turned out to be a big mistake, since I was once again on a large set of catwalks. This time, however, the catwalks were suspended over massive vats of chemicals of some kind. The mistake came from slamming into the railing as soon as I ran in and almost falling over.

I recovered by spreading my wings and taking off, flying over the suctionless vats. The chain bastard was hopefully stuck to moving around the catwalk.

I learned that hope is a bad thing when a chain wrapped around one of my legs and started pulling me back. However, I wasn’t going to go without a fight, putting as much strength into flapping my fucked up wings as I could. The tentacle-chain monster didn’t much care for that, and started whipping the chain I was trapped on up and down, possibly trying to throw me into one of the large vats.

That would end very poorly for me, so I very much wanted to avoid it. On one of the upswings, I stopped flapping my wings and just rode the motions of the chain as it flung me up, then did a backflip of sorts so I was upside down, facing the chain. My sword flicked out and sliced the fucker in half, making it lose its grip on me.

At that point, I was falling head-first directly toward one of the large vats of some kind of bubbling liquid. My wings shot out and I pulled out of the dive, soaring right to one of the doors. I folded my wings before I got to it and hit the ground at a dead run, sprinting toward the child whose chain I just severed.

The little bastard disappeared after pointing me in the right direction, as they always seemed to do. Don’t they think I wouldn’t mind a little company? Ungrateful bastards. Either way, I ran off yet again, hoping to put more distance between me and whatever was holding the chains. I realized at that point that I still hadn’t even seen the damn thing, and resolved at that point to keep it that way, if possible.

It didn’t want to make that possible, it seemed, for I heard the whip sound again and dodged to the left. The chain left yet another indentation, but instead of sliding back toward the guy, the thing shot at me and tripped me, making me lose my grip on my sword.

When I realized what happened, I scrambled toward it on all fours, grabbing it as soon as it was within reach. That turned out to be just in time, as one of the ghost kids grabbed me around the middle, sobbing in anguish as he tortured me with his icy death-grasp. I screamed in pain and shock, then rolled to try to get the fucker to let me go. It didn’t work, but I did get inside a doorway, cutting line-of-sight off the owner of the chains.

As soon as that happened, the ghost flinched away from me and let me slice its chain, freeing him and leaving me numb from the waist down. That still left my upper body and wings to fly off, though. Getting into the air was normally hard without being able to jump or run, and doubly so when my wings were fucked, but the stomps were getting louder and I refused to get caught on the ground by whatever it was.

So I took off and got my first real look of the facility I found myself in. My first guess was some kind of metal processing place, since there were several pots of what looked like lava being carried around the building by a conveyor belt that was raised well off the ground. I flew toward what looked like a good hiding spot, hoping I could stay hidden until my legs were good to move again.

That hiding spot happened to be next to where the conveyor belt was constantly passing by with loads of boiling hot metal. The heat felt like it was making me blister, but I could hear the monster entering the building and I knew that moving again would be suicide.

So I tried to control my breathing as I cowered in silence, listening to his stomping footsteps all around me. As I waited, the ghost child that I just saved appeared in front of me. He put a finger to his lips and then peeked over the side, looking around. One of his hands casually brushed against my legs, making them both flinch as they woke up, but he waved me down.

After about thirty seconds of the monster stomping around and getting increasingly louder, the boy looked at me and then pointed to one of the metal buckets, then pantomimed pushing. My eyebrows shot up and I frantically shook my head no. He nodded his head yes and faked pushing one again.

My shoulders sagged and I stood up as quietly as I could, moving toward the conveyor belt. He held up a hand and peeked over the side, then started counting down with his fingers. My nerves grew and grew as the count got shorter until I was shaking like crazy.

When his outstretched hand became a fist, I body-slammed one of the heavy and insanely hot bowls of molten metal, knocking it off the belt. Before I could travel too far on the conveyor belt, I jumped back into my hiding spot and waited.

The wait was over before I even realized it started, since the roaring became so loud so quickly that it passed beyond the spectrum of human hearing. All I could do was feel the sound waves reverberating through the air and the facility, shaking the entire building. When the vibrations stopped, the boy pointed to my sword and then pointed over the side. I sighed and hopped off, raising my weapon to defend myself instantly.

As it turned out, there was no need to; all that was left of the guy holding the chains was a nondescript slag-heap of quickly cooling metal. However, all three of the remaining children were still attached to that heap by their chains. I took a deep breath and then cut the chains holding them hostage.

As soon as the last one broke, the metal form of the monster next to me imploded. I didn’t give any kind of fucks what that meant, since I was in far, far too much pain. I grabbed the nearest metal pipe to use as a walking stick and limped my way out of the building.

As soon as I got out, another vision hit me, the sound of crying coming right back to me. Tears sprang to my eyes as I hobbled away from the cursed factory district, down a lane that was sprinkled with blood and lit by fire and rapidly cooling metal. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered over and over as I walked, the tears flowing freely from my face. “I couldn’t save you… So sorry, so sorry…”

The vision ended when one of the ghost children appeared before me, holding out a hand. I ignored him and hobbled along, too tired and in too much pain to even care. He grabbed me by the arm anyway. And then another appeared and grabbed me by the other arm. Then the rest of the children I cut free from the monster appeared as well, each taking hold of me.

They slowly and gently picked me off my feet and started carrying me, taking me away from the destroyed factory district. I was in no position to fight back, so I really hoped none of them had plans to hurt me.

Thankfully, it seemed that they were more of the exceedingly rare good ghosts, and carried me over to a very long ladder at the far end of the factory area. I had only been carried for about five minutes, which didn’t feel like anywhere near the amount of time I needed to recover from all the shit I had been through.

They set me down on my feet at the base of the ladder and each pointed up. My wings sagged and I put the sword up, then dropped the metal walking stick. With that, I unceremoniously began to climb as all the children below me faded away.

My body was broken and battered. My mind was jumpy and weak. Climbing that ladder felt like it took as long as ‘just five more minutes’ when you accidentally turn off your alarm instead of hit snooze.

When I finally, finally got to the top, I found myself in yet another dark hallway. I sighed and pulled the flashlight out, clicking it on. Then I started walking—or hobbling, if I’m honest.

It didn’t take me long to get to the end. And by the end, I meant The End: There was nothing fucking there. Not only was it a dead end, but it was a dead end with a skeleton sitting there. I collapsed right next to the skeleton, and honestly started crying in a mix of helplessness, pain, and just plain giving up.

Before I closed my eyes for a very long time, another vision hit me. “Artyom, you promised…” I whispered. “Please, open the door! Please, come back to me!” The vision ended and that’s when I realized I was sitting at the door Artyom had been trying to open.

I closed my eyes.

I blinked in and out of consciousness several times over the next few minutes. Flashes of my friends, crew, and Taya came to my eyes, though none of them seemed to make any sense. I figured it was probably my life flashing before my eyes, since not even I can take so much damage and come out of it completely on top.

Then I opened my eyes, a breath of fresh air coming to my nose. Not stale air that felt like it had been in a bunker for millions of years, but clean air, air from outside.

I flinched and looked around, then realized something was lying on top of me. I almost freaked out when I realized that something was soft and furry and also my daughter.

“Nav?” a familiar voice asked.

“...Spike?” I hoarsely whispered, my throat for some reason feeling horribly parched.

“You’re back!” he shouted, ripping me out of bed and into a hug. That, of course, woke Taya up, who immediately joined in on the hugging when she realized what happened.

“What do you mean, back?” I asked, accepting the hugs since my entire body felt like it was bandaged.

“When we found you, you were completely crazy!” Spike said, pulling away from me. Taya was still too busy hugging me to say anything, so she didn’t add her two cents. “We tried everything to bring you back, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, Zecora got together with that weird bird lady and they did something to you and it worked!”

“...What the hell even happened?” I asked.

“We were kinda hoping to ask you,” he said, rubbing at his neck.

“Humor me,” I answered. “I’m in enough pain that I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere. So by all means, what the hell happened?”

He grinned and sat down at the foot of my bed, and then began to talk.

 
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