"I don't think we should be wasting time like this," Johne said.
"I do," Candice replied, Johne flinching as she pulled out another piece of glass. "You could have used the robot to break the window."
"I wasn't thinking, I just did it. And it worked out...thank God it worked out."
"Of course it worked out, how couldn't it? You're the hero and nobody dies, so I knew you'd save everyone."
"But I almost didn't, Candice, that's the point. If I had taken even a minute longer everybody here might not be alive."
"But you didn't take a minute longer." She reached into the supply bag, tearing off a piece of one of the sleeping bags, wrapping it around his hand. "That'll have to do, I'm afraid."
"Is nothing else in there?" Paulina asked quietly, stooping down to the bag. "Nothing to help with the burn?"
"Nah." Johne shook his head, bending his wounded hand, the pain barely there. "You can thank George for that. We do have some burnt down candles, old rope, a sword handle and other assorted things."
Paulina sighed, Pierrot slowly walking up as Candice flung the bag over her back.
"What now?" he asked.
"We find the people," Johne said, rising to his feet. "And after that, we find where the Scrangly Man is."
"But isn't it dangerous to stay around here?"
"Don't worry, I won't let my eyes off of any of you." He shook his head, it throbbing deeply. "But how did he get you all so quickly?"
"Nemmy go woosh," Nemmy said, lifting up Wuffy. "Then Nemmy high up. But Wuffy with Nemmy and Pierrot save Nemmy."
"I see...well, come on. We can discuss this more later, but for now let's get moving. We shouldn't stay in this place."
Reluctantly, and still with a deep fear, most of the group pushed forward, some trailing behind slightly. Johne kept ahead, but couldn't help but look back every few seconds to see if they were still there. He could see how afraid Paulina and Pierrot were and couldn't blame them for being so. All he could hope to do was keep them safe. It was his only purpose besides that of killing the Scrangly Man.
He stepped out from the empty doorframe to find himself enveloped in a dark room. It was the throne room still, but the curtains had been drawn on every window, eclipsing it in a nearly complete darkness.
"Everybody take the hand of the person behind you," Johne said, taking Candice's. "We're gonna move very slowly."
After every hand was together, he took his first sliding step ahead. It was eternity trudging across the great hall, imaginations taking hold in the shadows, playing tricks on them. Dark creatures emerged to drag about the floor. Silent spiders crawled along on the ceiling. Low thumping noises, twisting crunches silently rang. The nightmares all became real in the darkness, and if it weren't for the hands of others, they could never have moved their way through even an inch of it.
"We're here now," he whispered, opening the doors out. "Just a little longer and we'll—"
A sliding noise burst throughout the room, daylight shooting through all the windows, blinding the group. Johne was first to turn around, catching sight of all held within the room. Taking in every single one.
"Run!" he commanded, pushing them ahead. "Keep on running until you're out."
They did as he said, he making sure no one turned around in the process. He stood in the doorframe, turning back again to make sure he hadn't dreamed it. True, it wasn't a dream—it was a nightmare.
Johne found the people. He found the men, the women, the children. He found them all together, gently swaying back and forth on the ceiling, barely an inch between any one. They couldn't be real, it was the only thing he could keep telling himself. It was impossible. No one could kill so many people. No one could do such a thing. He gulped down, keeping himself from throwing-up, dragging a hand across his face. Staring into the eyes of a little girl, they had to be fake. At least he had to make them fake or he'd never be able to move on from it.
He burst out of the room before anyone could come back for him. He ran ahead to the others, safe in the thought they were all still there. They followed back through the twists and turns of the castle, a terrible fear eating away at their insides. At moments, it felt like they'd never get out, until they reached the final fateful door and daylight's warm embrace.
Freed from the horrors of the castle, they all collapsed upon the ground with tired lungs.
"What did you see in there, Johne?" Candice asked, sitting beside him.
"Something I could never describe." He shook his head, taking a deep breath. "Something I'd rather not say."
Candice leaned her head on his shoulder, a weak smile growing on him. The people were found, leaving just one thing—the Scrangly Man. The creature that could kidnap all his friends in seconds. Who could mercilessly kill anyone it wanted to. The terrifying thing that even dared him to try and kill it. And he was supposed to go there with all his friends. Bring them straight to it. He emptily took in all what lay ahead, hating himself inside, despised the hypocritical creature living in his heart, the creature that cared for all these people with him. Cared for the girl whose head lay on his shoulder.
It couldn't leave them behind, for despite caring, the dumb beast would never be brave enough to go there entirely alone. Those facts told him a lot about himself. It told him he was still Johne, not a hero. He didn't want to know that after all he thought he did to make himself different. He was still himself, despite everything. Still the very same person.
He lifted the arm whose shoulder Candice was leaning on, placing it around her. He didn't want to be the same person any longer. He wanted to be the hero. He wanted to not be selfish, to care for others, to not throw himself away like a piece of trash. He knew it would never happen in a moment, he wasn't strong enough for such change, but he would try. Try. Try for them. For himself. For the girl who called him a hero.
And that told Johne a lot about himself as well, told him things he had thought were no longer possible for a man like him.
"But what about the people?" Wuffy asked, happily back on the Snailmobile.
"People gone," Nemmy said, yawning.
"We could spend forever trying to find out what happened to them," Johne said, keeping silent his weeping heart, "or we could go straight to the person, the 'thing', that knows what happened to them."
"The Scrangly Man?" Pierrot put in quietly.
"Yes, the Scrangly Man. We defeat it and stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again. I don't suppose, Wuffy, you know of any labyrinths?"
"No." Wuffy shook his head, hitting it with his hand. "I'm afraid I don't."
"Anyone?" Everyone shook their heads no, Johne's mind slipping deep into thought. "That means we'll have to find out for ourselves or find someone who does know of any labyrinth."
"Stop," Candice said, reaching out a hand.
"What is it?"
"Could we make a quick stop?" She pointed out to her right at an aging shop filled with books. "We could use some new ones back at home."
"Well, I guess everybody needs to break for a little bit." He rubbed the back of his neck, taking in a deep breath, fondly remembering his first day with Candice. Funny thing was he couldn't even tell how long it had been, be it an hour, a day, a week, or a month. "Anyone else want to come in?"
"We're fine," Pierrot said. "We're not much of book people."
"And you, Paulina?"
"I never learned to read," she said, rubbing her arm. "So I can't be much a book person."
"I'll have to teach you when we're done," Candice said. "I have lots of books at my house."
"When we're done? You'd still talk to me when this is over?"
"Why not?" Johne put in, quietly examining the strange happiness on the girl's face. "We can all still be friends when this is over."
"That's nice." Paulina smiled, sitting down by the Snailmobile, her heart light in her chest. "You guys can go now. I'm fine here."
"Okay, but nobody leave this place. We'll only be a few minutes. You ready, Candice?"
But he found the girl had already headed off to the store and ran in after her. As he entered, he found it a most strange sight. For though the whole city came out of his childhood fantasy stories, the store itself came from a modern bookstore, minus electric lights.
He saw Candice in one of the aisles quietly picking books up and then placing them back down again. The selection was stranger than the store itself. Modern celebrity memoirs mixed with books over a thousand years old, along with many titles Johne had never even heard of before. One book in particular captured his attention. A gigantic black tome trimmed with gold, an image of a tree surrounded by birds on its front. The Complete Guide to All Animals Species, with no author stated.
Opening the book, he fluttered through pages casually until he suddenly stopped, startled by an illustration leaping into his vision. He put his hand to the drawing, knowing it was one of the creatures that the little ones were. His finger ran along the page till it located the passage related to the illustration, immediately beginning to take in the words laying there.
The Nerdlihc, or 'Mirage Worms' as they are sometimes called, are a rare form of giant moth notable for the fact that most never even make it to the metamorphosis stage. Little is known about these creatures because of their rare nature and their natural environment of the desert. They have common characteristics of other giant moth predevelopment stages, but are unique in their maggot-like appearance, sandy color, and the incredibly long time they take to mature. Their size ranges from a housecat when young, to a medium-sized dog at their peak. There are no known records of how long it takes for one to mature to metamorphosis, but the longest recorded study over three hundred and eighty-nine years and four generations found that even in the elapsed time it did not mature. Most don't survive in the wild for even a fraction of that length, making Nerdlihc Moths some of the rarest creatures in existence.
He slowly closed the book, looking over to Candice, fingers twitching slightly, his heart beating slowly and painfully. His mouth opened, but the words would not come out. He counted down from ten, numbers falling into zero, then tried his mouth again.
"Candice," he said quietly. "Can I ask you something?"
"What is it?" she replied, a stack of books starting to pile up in her arms.
"The little ones, back at home, have they ever, you know, turned into something?"
"What does that mean, Johne?"
"They're kinda like worms and maggots and such." He took the black tome, hiding it below a pile of other books. "Have any of them turned into a moth or something?"
"A moth?" She tilted her head to the side as she walked up to him. "Why do you ask?"
"I passed by a book of animals. It...it reminded me of them, made me think of that."
"It only happened once," she said, throwing another book on the pile. "It was the first one I ever found. I called her Wendy. I never thought she would change, but she did. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw, but the moment I saw that, I knew I could no longer keep her. She didn't need me anymore. So I let her go, let her go and she never came back."
"When you found Wendy, how big was she?"
"I could cradle her in my arms like Annie."
His gaze focused on the floor, then he turned his head up to Candice. He stared into her eyes and he truly understood. He understood why she was the way she was. Why she was so different. Why he mattered so much to her even if she didn't realize it. Even if she had forgotten how long it was she had been waiting. He knew why he felt so close to her, why she felt like a part of himself. She was lonely: she was the same as him. And the loneliness made it null, made one forget about everything. Made it so unimportant. Made the days blur and drift away.
"Let me get those books for you," he said, taking them from her hands. "Find any good ones?"
"I won't know until I read them."
Johne smiled as Candice opened the door for him, and he saw the others watching Pierrot walk across a miniature tight rope he had made. His smile kept as he looked upon their faces, guessing at their lives. At how long each had to wait. And his heart no longer hurt for the same reasons.
For this was a world he could relate to.
"Where to next?" Johne asked himself, standing outside the city gates. "Do any of you know of any other places where we could find some people?
"I've only been to this city and the village," Wuffy answered.
"I've been with my mother," Paulina said quietly.
"Pierrot is always traveling," Pierrot answered, but lowered his head sadly. "But Pierrot can rarely find his way back to the same place twice on purpose."
"I don't know anywhere either," Candice said, spinning all around and trying to decide the best direction to head in.
"So we go with our gut," Johne said with more assurance then was in his heart. "Who knows, maybe we'll get lucky."
"What?!" squealed a whiny voice. "You're just gonna go with your gut?"
Johne turned around suddenly to find something very sharp barely scraping by the tip of his nose. It was another nose, a long and sharp nose, the owner of which twisted its head before springing backwards with its long accordion legs.
"Is that how a hero gets things done?" the Scrangly Man asked. "We've been through all this and you're supposed to get lucky?" The Scrangly Man leaned down, its fingers trailing along in the dirt and leaving large ruts behind them.
"Everybody get behind me," Johne ordered, huddling the group close to the Snailmobile.
"Yeah, real smart idea, get behind Whisper. Helluva lot a good he'll do ya." The Scrangly Man lifted its head up high and laughed into the air a wretched and hollow laugh. "He sure ain't the kind of guy I'd get behind. If you know what's good for you, you'll all leave now. Delightful as you are, Whisper is the only one who matters."
"You aren't gonna lay a single finger on any of them," Johne answered. "I'll kill you before you do that."
"Look at me!" The Scrangly Man's hand quickly reached ahead, tapping Candice on the head. "I touched her, I touched her. But, what's this? I'm not dead! The great Whisper didn't kill me." The Scrangly Man sighed, its neck cracking with the sound of a falling tree. "I don't like things happening by chance, or by luck, for that matter. I'd rather lead you there myself then have you find it that way. This is getting boring anyways, so let's skip ahead into the final act, shall we?"
A raven flew above the Scrangly Man, the Scrangly Man's hand quickly shooting out towards it. Paulina turned away, Nemmy starting to cry as the bird wriggled and writhed, its body halfway down the Scrangly Man's fingers. The Scrangly Man grabbed the bird with its other hand, tearing the creature off, gently licking the blood trailing out on its hand.
"One bird? Why, that's not enough, is it?"
The Scrangly Man grabbed the bird by its chest, ripping it in half, feathers and blood falling to the ground. The Scrangly Man twisted his head towards each half, then tossed them into the air. Instead of falling, though, the wing on each half began to flutter rapidly about, somehow keeping them in the air. More blood oozed out from their bodies, and where those red seeds landed, small dark trees with sharp branches sprang from the earth.
"We're off to see the Scrangly Man, the wonderful Scrangly Man of Odd! He'll kill us all and beat us dead, then hang us out to dry. Oh, we're off to see the Scrangly Man, 'cause we all want to die!"
The Scrangly Man laughed, jumping backwards, flipping over and over again, the ravens trailing behind and planting their trees. As the trees stretched out a path ahead, the Scrangly Man dissolved away into thin air, all becoming silent. Johne turned to the group, at Pierrot and Wuffy trying to calm Nemmy. Of Paulina breathing heavily and leaning against the Snailmobile. Only Candice's vision encompassed what was ahead. Of the birds with their organs falling steaming to the ground, at the trees bleeding and leaving black puddles on the earth around them.
"This looks like where we have to go," Johne said, kneeling down and digging his face in his hands. "I won't blame any of you if you don't want to come any more. You all almost died already, I know, and this has nothing to do with any of you."
"This does have something to do with me," Candice answered, walking up beside him. "This is our adventure. I won't sit by and let you go there alone."
"Johne...Candice..." Pierrot's voice fell quiet as he slowly turned away. "I can't go. I won't take Nemmy there and I won't leave her alone. I'm sorry, I really am, but this is not what we're used to. We would be a burden anyways."
"I understand," Johne said.
"Then let me go!" Wuffy triumphantly roared. "I'm not afraid—I'll go and defeat the Scrangly Man with my bare hands. He killed me once, but he didn't succeed, and I'll get him this time."
"But, Wuffy," Candice spoke softly, "don't you think Nemmy would miss you? What if Pierrot needs help protecting her? You're one of the strongest people here, and I'd feel much better if you'd protect the people that don't come."
"Well...uh...I guess, if you say so..." Wuffy kicked a rock, then picked it up and threw it. "I'd be better against the Scrangly Man..."
"I know, Wuffy, I know."
"And you, Paulina?" Johne asked, turning to the melancholy girl. "Do you want to come with us?"
"I just met you all...I just started this adventure, but now it's coming to an end already. It'd be pretty stupid to see so little and stop so soon." She lowered her head, holding her arms. "I guess I'm a stupid person then."
"You're not stupid," he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. "There'll be other adventures, ones that won't be like this. We'll all make it to the end on those ones."
Paulina flung forward and hugged him warmly, a smile forming on his face from this contact.
"Be careful, Johne."
He turned around and started to walk up to the beginning of the path when something pulled at his pant leg. It was Nemmy, her bright blue eyes meeting up with his.
"For Johne," she said, lifting up her old stuffed bunny toy. "He keep Johne safe from the Scrangly."
He took the bunny in his hand, rubbing his thumb through its fur and across its floppy ears. He lowered down onto his knees and hugged the little girl kindly.
"Thank you, Nemmy."
"Goodbye," she said, kissing his cheek, then running back to Pierrot.
"It seems like it's just us," Candice said.
"Yeah, sure does."
"Are you ready for this?"
"I have the bunny." Johne lifted the bunny up, gently placing it inside of his coat. "Now the Scrangly Man definitely can't hurt us."
"He wouldn't have been able to anyways." She took his hand, leading the first steps ahead. "You're the hero, he's the bad man. The bad guys don't win, the heroes do. That's our story. That's how it goes."
"Yeah...that's how it goes."
Johne took one last glance back to his friends, then forced himself to the path ahead of bleeding trees planted by flying death. A path leading to a place where a demon hid with ten long fingers as sharp as knives and a heart as empty as nothing. A demon with black soulless eyes wishing to drown him in darkness, to push him down into those pools until the oozing tar filled his lungs and his body was limp. But those things couldn't happen, for he was the hero. The one to save the day.
Because that's how it goes.