"So what happens on an adventure?" Paulina asked, picking a leaf off of a tree branch. "I don't have much experience with them."
"Well," Candice answered, "this one is fairly simple. On our way to get to the Scrangly Man we can regularly expect strange things to happen and to pick up another person or persons near that time frame."
"How many more people are there going to be?"
"I don't know, but according to the Scrangly Man this castle is the last place before his labyrinth. If anyone else is going to come along they'll probably be in the city."
"I see. But if we do get any more people, could we try to make them around my age? Preferably human and a man, but I can make do if things aren't favorable."
"Okay," Johne said, creaking his neck, wondering over which hill it was going to be when he would see the castle. "If anyone else is coming along, I'll be sure to make sure they're around your age, Paulina."
"Oh, and make sure they're single."
"Maybe you should get kidnapped," Pierrot said, yawning. "And maybe spread a little something around that you are a princess. You'd get all kinds of people looking out to free princesses, and I'm sure plenty of men want to marry a princess."
"But then I'd be lying and they wouldn't be marrying me. I bet no one would even come to save me anyways."
"Wuffy would go," Nemmy said, raising the doll up high. "Wuffy save Paulee."
"Yeah!" the doll yelled out, flinging its fists around. "I'd break through the gates, I'd one-two punch all the guards, then I'd kill the dragon with a single kick to the head. Boom! Then I'd twist open the bars to your prison, setting you free."
"Wuffy save Princess Paulee. No wait for no prince."
"Thank you," Paulina whispered, kicking her feet against the Snailmobile. "It means a lot to me."
Johne stopped as a sudden knot twisted into his leg. He clenched it for a moment, small pools of muddy water gazing up at him. In one of those pools he could see himself staring back, barely recognizing the face he saw for it didn't seem to be his own. It was like a memory of someone you used to know, used to know, but can never see again. A half complete image which can't fully capture what they were, yet is all that you are left with in the end.
"Are you okay?" Candice asked, leaning down next to him.
"I'm fine, just that foot of mine from before. It's okay now. Keep moving." He stepped into the puddle, destroying that stranger within it. "We have to keep moving."
As they passed over another hill, Johne found it to be the one he had been waiting for, the kingdom resting far below and nestled between peaceful valleys. Four huge walls of grey surrounded it, filled with stone houses and buildings, a giant stronghold of a castle in its center. A castle of white marble with spires so sharp they split the light across them.
"Thank God," he let out in a breath, dragging a hand across his face. "Oh, thank God."
"Did you not think we were going to find it?" Candice said, tilting her head.
"No, not that. There's no smoke in the air. That's why I'm happy. It didn't do anything this time."
"I don't know if it is good," Paulina said as a shiver ran down her spine. "Don't you think it's strange for there to be no smoke?"
"Why would it be strange?"
"Because it's a city full of people," Wuffy continued, "and none of them are using their fireplaces at all?"
"Maybe you can't see the smoke from here." Johne scratched the back of his neck harshly, cutting an old scrape open. "We have to get closer, that's all. It'll be all right."
"There used to be so much smoke all the time," Wuffy sighed, shaking his head. "It was one of the reasons I had to leave for my health. You could see it everywhere."
"No, no, no," Johne whispered, tugging at his hair. "God...not again, please not again. Let's get going already!"
Johne went ahead, but kept close to the others, too afraid to go and see the horror by himself again. All the while he walked along he couldn't help but repeat the words over and over and over again, somehow hoping they might change something. The same way as he begged when spiraling into the shadows—when he'd pound the walls with his fists, yelling something out until his throat bled, hoping maybe someone would hear him and change it.
He kept whispering those words to himself. Not again, not again, not again...
Johne skid to a halt in front of a lowered drawbridge. It looked like it came straight from all the old fairy-tale castles. A moat, a big brown wooden gate, grey brick walls, cobblestone streets and all. Standing there at the edge of the drawbridge, staring into the city, he could see no flames. Could see no blackened twisted things lying on the ground. He could see nothing but empty streets.
"You see?" he said, utterly relieved. "I told you."
"We haven't been in the city yet," Candice spoke with the damned thing called reason.
A large gulp of air filled his lungs as he began to walk over the lowered gate. The moat glowered ominously, every aching second Johne expecting to see a pale body come slowly floating up. The water eventually gave way to stone, and around every corner, over every object, into all the windows, he peered carefully. A child's face contorted with pain, a woman solemnly lying, her body gone from the waist below. These nightmarish thoughts and more invaded into him with every new place his eyes lay upon.
A growing dread approached him as they walked by street after empty street. People's doors lay open, clacking in the wind. Pies set on the windowsill to cool were covered with a thick coat of mold and fungus. Birds in cages no more than bones, their masters gone. And utter silence. Just the screech and bump of the Snailmobile mixed with the clatter of feet. This silence stuffed each one of them into a tiny little box with walls that kept growing smaller and smaller. Pulling all their nerves taught, banging on the mind with an incessant rhythm, tearing into the heart with razor talons.
"There!" Wuffy shouted, everyone's attention hastily taken like the sudden pounding of brakes on a speeding car. "Look, look."
Wuffy pointed up to a swinging tavern sign creaking ever so slightly in the wind. The old words on it had all been scratched out, replaced instead with shiny new red ones painted sloppily on to its surface. It read: All Hail the New King Rehtorb! Everyone's Invited to the Castle to Celebrate. That Means You Too, Whisper. Sincerely, S.M. P.S. Do Bring Your Friends Along Too!
Johne lowered his head, shaking it slowly. He ran a hand through his hair, turning around to his group, despair and sadness mixing into his bones and leaking out onto his face. One by one he looked them over, trying to see what each of their faces had to say about the situation.
"Well?" he asked as simply as he could. "What now?"
"It's pretty obvious, isn't it?" Paulina said, Wuffy quickly agreeing. "This was where we were going to go and now we know that something's happening there."
"But are you sure all of you want to go?" Bring your friends...it scraped along his mind, barbed wire carving ruts to plant seeds of darker and darker thoughts. "It sounds like a trap."
"Why would we come with you if all we did was stand back whenever something happened?"
"She has a point," Candice agreed. "We'd do little more than walk if only you get to face the danger."
"Just be careful, and...and everybody sticks together no matter what, okay?" He shook his head, feet sliding forward. "Everyone has to look out for everyone else."
They agreed, forcing him to push ahead, push ahead because they were all behind him doing so. If they weren't there, if Candice hadn't found him, then he could run. He could oh so sweetly run and be afraid, be free to wrap all the dark blankets of himself around his heart. But he didn't want to disappoint them. He never wanted them to find out who Johne Atticus Hawthorne really was. Especially Candice. If she ever found out what her hero was like before, she'd know she had made a horrible mistake. He couldn't allow it to happen. The feeling was too good to let go. The feeling of others seeing him as the thing he wanted to be, even if inside he knew it wasn't true.
He strutted tall and strong, keeping the shivers inside his heart out of his body. And when Candice took his arm in hers, he didn't have to pretend so hard inside about how he was. Though he took the title, he could still hardly believe himself as a hero. But whenever she touched him, whenever she was near, her belief in him flowed inside his own body. In a strange turn of events, he found her belief stronger than his disbelief, all his worries and fears dissolving in a haze. So strongly it pulsed in him that he would be willing to even fight the Scrangly Man with his bare hands to protect them. He loved being near her because she made him like himself a little more every time she got close.
They all had the same effect on him in their own ways and in different manners. That's why he cared about disappointing them. Why he cared to play the part. They were people who made him feel better, not ones who dragged him down, who would pry open his insides and disgust over the darkness waiting in there. They were told he was a hero and they accepted him without question. They didn't need any more information—they didn't need to judge him, to find out what was wrong with him. It kind of stung him inside, really thinking about them with all his heart and mind.
He hadn't realized it before, but he felt he belonged somewhere, that he was important for the very first time in his life. That he was truly happy.
Those were the reasons why he cared. Why they mattered to him. Why he still walked ahead instead of running away. They would follow him forward, but he knew if he ever went back, it'd be a path he'd travel alone. Forever.
He slowly slipped his hand into Candice's, needing that constant reminder with him so he wouldn't forget those things he just learned.
"Keep your eyes peeled," Johne said as they walked into the royal hall. "Whatever it is we're looking for we'll probably find it in the throne room. But we have to all search together, no one goes anywhere alone."
The floors below their feet were mirrors perfectly reflecting their walking images. Above, mirrors were planted as well, so when the floor and ceiling reflected on one another a version of infinity inhabited their forms. White marble pillars shot out of the ground, gold tapestries and ornate hangings all about. The one room they had found themselves in seemed to have over a hundred different passageways and doors they could go through at any time.
"What now?" Pierrot asked, unsettled at all the images of himself around the room. "Do we search through all the different ways?"
"I'd personally start at the door with the arrow," Wuffy said.
They all turned their gaze towards the door he spoke of. Nailed into one of the pillars beside it was a wooden sign fashioned into the shape of an arrow, an arrow pointing straight toward it. Guests this way, it read. Johne nodded, the others following behind him as he moved to the door. It opened without resistance to reveal a steep staircase crawling up in a spiral so no one could tell how tall it was.
They travelled forward up the stairs, Johne continually looking back to see if everyone was okay. When the last step was reached, they entered into a hallway to find another sign waiting to usher them along. They followed these guides all throughout the castle, going around corners, through dozens of different doors, and up and down stairs until their legs felt were ready to fall off. As they were about to stop and rest, Pierrot decided to open one last pair of lavish doors.
And they were there.
The doors opened up at the end of the throne room, a large red carpet stretching across the length of it almost touching their feet. The ceiling was as high as a cathedral and as exquisitely designed and created as one. Light flooded in through the large windows, drowning all around in its glory, making the shimmering black floors blinding to look at. At the very end of the large carpet, and up a few stairs, stood the throne. A magnificent totem to all of vanity and splendor, an item making everything around it obsolete, worthless. Even the soul sitting in it.
"Everybody stay still for a moment," Johne said, unable to keep anxiety out of his voice. "Hey, can you hear me over there!"
"Yes," the figure at the throne yelled back with a scratchy voice. "I can hear you, Whisper, and I have been waiting."
"Who are you?"
"I am the king. I wish to reward you for your efforts against the Scrangly Man." The king's hand motioned for them to come forward, something in it creepily stilted. "You truly are the greatest hero."
"Where is everyone?" Johne continued with suspicious eyes. "What did you do to them?"
"I did nothing at all. The Scrangly Man did. I need you to save them for me."
"What's wrong? Where are they?"
"Why don't you come closer?" The king's head twisted to the side, his hands folding together. "Come on, you aren't afraid of me, are you?"
"No, no one's afraid of you."
Johne took a step ahead, everyone else one step behind him. They all slowly headed towards the ancient figure wrapped in his purple robe. The tapestries twisted into life, whipping about where they hung, a pointed face with a terrible grin plastered across each one. As they walked along, the faces in the tapestries turned with them, always their black and empty eyes watching. Always wanting to drag them into that sickly darkness.
"Stop," the king said, raising his hand up, Johne at the bottom of the stairs. "Let me have a good look at this hero." The king's head slowly lifted up from its slumped over position. "Ah, the 'greatest' hero ever...yeah right!"
The king let out a childish giggle, his head beginning to swing around violently, at least what was left of it. The right side of his face was caved in, stringy flesh attached to the parts remaining. Paulina let out a short quiet scream that quickly faded away, leaving only the click and clack of the king's jaw ringing in the air.
With a sudden twist, the king's head turned all around, falling from his body onto the floor and crumbling like a vase. In its place, sticking out from a hole behind the throne, was a hand. A hand small and grey wrought from steel. The childish voice giggled and laughed, everyone moving closer and gathering together.
"You should have seen the looks on your faces!" the child's voice called out, a loud exhaust bang ringing through the air. "Oh, Whisper, heroes aren't supposed to be so easily spooked."
Rusted squeaking pierced through their eardrums as the source of the voice wheeled itself out from behind the throne. It was the small robot from the Scrangly Man's play, the one who ran the ticket booth. Up close, Johne could see the horrific grin stretched even further across its face in bright colors, could see the incessant twitching of its long wiry fingers.
"I wasn't scared of you then and I'm not scared of you now," Johne stated, taking a step forward. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Good, good, that makes me proud." The robot clapped its hands, the pinwheel on its new hat rapidly spinning about. "Very proud."
"Johne," Paulina whispered before he could respond. "Johne, is that the Scrangly Man?"
"Scrangly Man?!" screamed the robot, clasping its face. "I hope not. I'm no more the Scrangly Man then Whisper here is."
"Where are the people?" Candice asked, walking right up to the robot, closer even then Johne dared to. "Do you know what happened to them?"
"I was about to get to that." The robot wheeled itself up near the throne, zipping about back and forth. "The Scrangly Man took them, and now we'll have to see which one of us can save them."
"What do you mean 'us'?" Johne stomped forward, grabbing the robot in an animal passion. "You're gonna tell me where the Scrangly Man is, you're gonna tell me where all the people are, or I'll tear you into a million pieces."
"But, Whisper, we're on the same side. We're both heroes here!"
"You're no hero. You're a monster, one of them."
"You're the one to be talking. You're wasting precious time we don't have."
"What time are you talking about? What's going to happen?"
"We gotta save your friends in time before the Scrangly Man does something bad!"
"My friends? My friends don't need saving, they're right..." Johne's stomach tied itself in knots, head going light, his heart stabbed through every chink of its armor. "God...no...no..."
Nothing. Not a trace was left of any of them in the great hall. No door was left opened. No tapestry fluttered about. No image reflected. Nothing at all. It was as if they were never there in the first place, that he had dreamed them all into existence.
"Where the hell are they?!" he screamed, his chest heaving. "Tell me or I'll kill you."
He picked up the robot, ramming it into the throne repeatedly until a large dent formed on its side. It felt good, so very good , to hurt the thing. He hadn't done it in a while and the taste was sweet. The bang of metal calming his nerves.
"I told you I'm not the bad guy," the robot said. "Listen to me. The Scrangly Man took them. We can't stay here. We have to save them."
"Then where do we go?" He smashed the robot one final time, his breath wheezing. "Where are they?"
"Ahem," the robot coughed. "The Scrangly Man isn't much one for subtlety."
The robot pointed off to a door not very far away from the throne. Red arrows were painted all around, pointing directly towards it. On the door, carved straight through the wood, were the letters S and M.
Johne tossed the robot aside, running towards the door. His hand grabbed the handle, but a large squeak rang out—it was made of rubber, squeezing it again giving the same results as before. He pushed against the door with gritted teeth, but it wouldn't move. So, setting his shoulder against it, he rammed forward. Again and again and again, trying harder with every shove, but still never to move it even an inch. Not with all the strength his raging emotions gave him could he do more then make the bones in his shoulders ache.
"Let me try," the robot said, wheeling up.
The robot came over and laid out its hand near the door. It put one finger beneath its thumb, took a deep breath, then flicked its finger against the door. The hinges ripped off, the door shooting forward and shattering against a wall at the other side of the room. The robot sang happily, going ahead with swinging arms, but Johne stood for a moment, staring at his shaking hands. He couldn't move the door. Not with everything in him, not with everyone depending on him. He could not move it.
He ran in after he heard the robot gasp, soon finding himself with a gaping mouth, his body trembling like a damned child's. He quickly held himself, struggling to keep his shaking legs up, cold infecting his body. It hurt. His heart hurt more then he could stand with every beat, each pounding pulse of blood twisting his mind into even tighter knots. He felt like throwing-up again, but he couldn't. He couldn't get his body to do anything. For what could he do?
All around the room his companions were strewn about. Each one within his sight, yet all of them out of his reach.
Pierrot lay tied up at the top of the ceiling, the ropes holding him slowly starting to tear. A winch was nearby connected to the rope to lower him down with, but it glowed a molten red, Johne clearly seeing the heat waves passing over it.
Paulina was laid out straight on a large wooden plank, iron shackles holding her down at her ankles and wrists. Above her a sharp blade rocked back and forth as a pendulum would, growing ever nearer to her frail form.
Nemmy and Wuffy stood on a tall pillar with thin holes all along its sides. Randomly shooting out of one of the holes every second was a long blade as sharp as a diamond, shining and terrifying. It would push off anyone if it hit them, and it was more than likely there was a hole where Nemmy and Wuffy stood.
Finally, he saw Candice. He ran up to her, clawing his hands at the metal until they started to hurt so much he couldn't take it anymore, banging his head against the steel wall while tears rushed out after hiding so long. After trying to run away.
Candice stood in a glass box barely big enough to fit her. Surrounding this glass box was a large amount of water. And the object keeping the water in was a larger metal box, a metal box with a single porthole to look in at Candice with. He put his fingers slowly up to the glass, trembling as he could see a tiny crack on the box she was in.
He quickly turned around and started going between them all. It was almost impossible to save one, yet he was expected to go and save them all? How could he grip the fire without having his flesh torn off? His hands couldn't tear through steel. If the blade hit him, his skull would crack oh so easily on the ground below. He then turned back to Candice, seeing another crack appear on the glass.
"What do we do?" he muttered, random spats of twitching and shaking coming over him. "What the hell do we do?!"
"I'm thinking," the robot said giddily, "of the best way in which I can save them all and make you look the worst."
"You know how? Y-you can save them right now?"
"Of course, Whisper, I'm not like you. I can actually get some things done." The robot yawned, patting its belly. "But it's so much fun watching you."
"They're going to die, damn it!" Johne fell to the ground and crawled over to the robot. "I don't care if I can't save them, but if you can, you have to. You have to. I'll do anything."
"Okay, here's what you're going to do for me. First, you're gonna admit I'm the better hero."
"You're the better hero," he said, the frightened Nemmy holding Wuffy.
"Secondly, you're gonna admit you're a sham, no good at all."
"I'm a fake...I'm no good to anyone." Pierrot's arms held onto the rope, but he couldn't pull himself up.
"You're worthless, you're stupid, you're a waste of life."
"I'm worthless, I'm stupid, I'm a waste of life."
"That's right!" The robot laughed, circling around him in glee. "But words are easy to say. And it's easy to admit something, to stick with that label because you're too much of a weakling to make yourself a new one. So, as my final request, I'm going to make you do the hardest thing of all for you. And if you don't do it, all your friends will die here and now, just because you weren't strong enough."
"To hell with the words!" Johne grasped the robot by the neck, teeth savagely bared as if ready to rend flesh from bone. "I would kill myself right now if that's what it would take. I would die to save them. Kill me, but please don't...don't let them get hurt."
"Dying's easy, the easiest thing of all." The robot backed out of his grasp, laying itself on its back. "The thing I want you to do, Whisper, is to try for once. Try instead of giving up right away. Can you do that?"
"I can't." He grabbed the robot which was now limp in his grasp, exhaust fumes no longer puffing out of it. "I'm not strong enough. I'm not good enough to save anyone."
He dropped the robot, the metal clanging in the air briefly blocking out the noise of the rope starting to untie. Of the pendulum swinging. Of the sword sliding in and out. Click. Crack. The snap of the glass. Crick. Crack. He turned around, standing up, staring through the porthole. Clack. Crack. Candice looked back at him, putting her hand up against her glass prison, and she smiled. Just smiled. Crack. And, suddenly, for the first time, he could hear their voices all calling out to him. To him alone.
Fist tightened, he ran forward and swung it into the glass of the porthole, shattering it in one strike. The water poured out with tremendous pressure, pushing him back, washing away some of the blood from his cut-up hand. The water flowed and streamed over to the rope winch, a tremendous cloud of steam filling the air around it. Johne ran over to it, placing his hand upon the handle, but quickly retracting it with burning flesh and a muffled scream. As the water continued to pour, he wrapped his hands in his sleeves, taking a tight hold upon the handle.
Slowly he twirled it around, his hand gripped tightly despite the horrible pain. Pierrot's body was getting closer to the ground inch by inch, when Johne stopped halfway, looking over at Nemmy and Wuffy.
"Pierrot!" he called out, keeping the winch in place. "How strong do you think the rope is?"
"I-it is still pretty strong," Pierrot called back.
"Strong enough to support Nemmy and Wuffy too?"
"It will have to be," Pierrot replied, already beginning to swing his weight forward.
Pierrot shifted his body, swinging closer and closer every time. And with every swing, another strand of rope peeled away. Nemmy stood as far out as she could get on the pillar, holding Wuffy in one arm, reaching out the hand of the other to Pierrot. Pierrot's hand reached out barely scraping Nemmy's as the blade pierced out inches below them. Pierrot swung back as quickly as he could, taking them both into his arms as the blade shot up from where they once stood.
Johne quickened his pace of wheeling them down, the strain even greater with the added weight. His arms felt ready to tear off, but they still pushed ahead. The rope couldn't hold all the way, snapping and dropping them all to the ground, but to his relief they were a few feet above it when that happened.
Shaking his weary head, he ran over to where Paulina was, almost slipping from the water on the floor. The pendulum was five feet above her heart. His hands grabbed at the rusted metal but he couldn't tear it off.
"Johne," Paulina said slowly, color draining from her shaking form. "I don't wanna die. Please don't let me die. Please..."
"Close your eyes, Paulina," he said, frantically looking for something to help him, holding her hand. "Keep those eyes shut, don't say a thing, and when you open them again this will all have been a bad dream."
"A bad dream, a bad dream," she repeated over and over again.
"What do we do, Johne?" Pierrot whispered, trying as futilely as him to tear the shackles off.
"We just need something—God!" Johne ducked down quickly, the pendulum swinging by. "Pierrot! Quickly, bring over the robot."
Pierrot ran ahead, dragging the robot back as fast as he could. Johne leaned down and grabbed the head of the robot, pulling it off in a sharp twist. With an almost madness he pounded the head into the old shackles and started shattering their frames into nothing. He jumped back quickly as the pendulum swung by, a few inches left between it and Paulina. He smashed the last shackles and pulled Paulina into his arms, rolling away right before the pendulum struck.
Paulina opened her eyes and began to cry, holding tightly to him. Keeping his arms about her, he helped lift her onto her feet. Then, without warning, Johne felt more things hitting into him. He saw Nemmy, Wuffy, and Pierrot hugging him as well. And it made him forget. Made him forget the pain in his hand, he was soaking wet in freezing water, and they all almost died. It drove those things away in the most peaceable manner.
"Thank you," Paulina whispered, kissing gently his cheek so close to his lips it made his heart jump for a moment.
But there was one thing he didn't forget. He broke away from their arms, running over to the steel box. It was drained of water up to the porthole, but there was no way through the metal and the window was too small to fit through.
"Johne!" they all screamed.
Something flew by him then: the pendulum blade. It had fallen off from its support and had come straight in his direction. The blade struck the front of the box, tearing through its frame as if it were opening a can, and embedded itself in a wall along with the piece of the box it had torn away. So it was that Johne stood still as a statue, the box opened before him.
The glass shattered into snowy fragments around Candice, and she ran up and flung herself into his arms. He felt her hair in his hands, and turned his gaze up to the ceiling, not wanting the water in eyes to be seen. He sniffled a little, hiding his face down close to her hair. The others gathered around him and something felt right. It's not something most anyone in the world would care about, something feeling 'right'. But he never before had the simple gift it was. Nothing ever seemed to fit...it always had to be forced into a place not made for it. So 'right' in that particular moment of time was all of the world to him.
"Thank you," Candice said, holding his head close to hers. "You're the best hero that ever lived, and, and you get to be my hero. Thank you, thank you so much for being here."
And that made it all of Heaven and Earth.