A/N: This will be the final chapter of this story, since it's fulfilled its purpose of explaining certain aspects of the ARG I'm involved with. It's been a fun ride, just writing and not having any plan in mind, kind of freeing, really. It may or may not mean the end for this character; in fact, if she doesn't get killed in the ARG I might just keep her around, because seriously, she is so damn cool and I don't have enough permanent OCs. Every other OC I write, literally every other one, is killed off in some horrible fashion or else goes very insane. And if not one of those two things, then they at least suffer some sort of torment. Why on earth am I so cruel to my OCs? :c
The tree branches swayed slightly in the breeze without temperature as the woman sat contemplating, her back against the tree's trunk. Her hand held a twig; the twig scratched in the loam at her feet, sketching vague drawings. She wished she had some paper and a pencil, but pencils weren't exactly something one found abundantly in a pocket dimension forest between space-time, and the closest thing to paper she had was birch bark. Hardly a reasonable substitute.
A sudden thought struck her momentarily. Maybe… maybe there were berry bushes in this forest, she could make a dye with the juice, and then…
Her mind just as quickly shut the idea down. No, it wouldn't work. She had only ever seen trees in this forest, never any other plants. Only endless black, slender trees, standing sentinel over her with arching, arm-like branches. It was almost like that forest from that one movie, she thought, the stop-motion one about the skeleton and Christmas. His name was Jack, wasn't it? Something like that, she hadn't seen it in forever… and would probably never get to again, if It had Its way…
She sighed heavily and put the twig down. This place was awfully boring without any companionship except for a faceless tree-man, and without any animals for her to watch. She could go for a walk or climb a tree or something if she wanted to, it wasn't that - she just had no desire to get any further lost in the forest, or to fall out of a tree. Again.
Come on, girl, cheer up, she thought to herself, smiling bitterly. It's… it's not all bad. There's always some good to every situation, right?
At least she was safe, there was that. And it was quiet here, almost strangely peaceful. It even had that same soothing aura many forests did, an isolated sanctuary from the rest of the world. A little lacuna of tree branches. Had she a book with her, or even her laptop, or a goddamn pencil and some paper, then she would easily find it a place of relaxation instead of a prison cell.
Yes, that's it. Think of it as a vacation. Not imprisonment.
Not that gilding the bars made it any less of a cage. A pleasant prison cell was still a prison cell, after all.
She stood, paced, brushed the dirt from her jeans. If only she could get out of here, she would, but that wasn't really her decision to make, was it? Control had been taken away from her.
Hell, who was she kidding? She'd never been in control to begin with. It had always controlled her first, ever since she was a girl. Even before she had any idea such a thing as It existed. It was fate, and fate could not be fought.
"Fuck fate," she murmured to herself, placing her hand against the tree's trunk. "And fuck this."
The sudden mental intrusion startled her, enough that she almost jumped into the tree from shock like a nervous grasshopper. Great. Just what she needed, more of feeling like a damn child around It. Still… she did owe It… despite her anger at being stuck here.
"Oh, like you've never heard a human being swear before," she said, spinning on her heel curtly. She knew it was unwise to be so rude with something that could easily kill her, but at this point, she really didn't care anymore. It wasn't as if she were going back to where she came from anyway.
/manytimes./ It responded, bringing Its arms behind Its back and clasping Its long fingered hands.
"Right," she replied sarcastically, "Scary tree-stalker with no face. Almost forgot." She turned around and began to scale the tree. She was sick of having to crane her neck to look up at It; it was beginning to make her spine ache.
/doyou. neverlearn?/ It murmured in amusement, watching her climb.
"I'm only going up to the first branch," she responded. "Because unlike you, I'm kind of short, if you haven't noticed."
/child!/ It remarked, and she got the impression it was laughing. /mosthumans. shorterthani./
"Yeah, well I sort of wish I had that kind of height," she replied, smirking a bit. "It'd make my life a hell of a lot easier. I'd be able to reach like, all the things."
She settled on the branch, leaning her back against the tree trunk and curling her legs around the limb. She couldn't quite look It in Its blank canvas of a face, It was easily seven or eight feet tall and she was only about six feet off of the ground. But at least she was able to speak with It on Its level, sort of.
She was silent for a long time. It, appropriately enough, said nothing.
Several minutes passed before she spoke again.
"I've been… thinking," she said, brushing a stray lock of hair from her face.
/andi. aswell./ Its eyeless gaze locked with hers, an invisible, intelligent sort of tension.
"I've done a lot of that lately, while I've been here," she admitted. "Mostly about the others. You know, the other humans I was with?"
/isaw. onlythree. humans./ It responded, tilting Its head. Funny, she never quite could read that gesture fully, or understand why It did that so often.
"And one snake-man… thing, right," she added, shifting to a more comfortable position on the tree branch. "But… yeah, I've been thinking… Remember I said… well, I said the day you brought me here, however long ago that was… that maybe there was some way we could help them?"
/yes./ It responded, that dark and dangerous gaze never leaving her. /idea. ihave./
"So you'll help us?" she responded, feeling her heart jump hopefully. Did she really convince It to help a group of beings lesser than It?
/allmust. fighttogethernow. humans. fears. all./ It shifted Its sight to the forest beyond, turning Its head away as it did so. /divided. wefall. anddie./
"… But if that's the case, Slender One," she replied, thinking carefully on her words, "If that's the case, then why bring me here? Why hide me?"
/didnot. forwar. notready./
She was quiet for a long time once more, reflecting on Its words. It wasn't running away, was it? It wasn't running scared. It was merely considering Its place in things… and hers?
She didn't understand why It even cared about her, or any of her friends, when human beings were merely tools for It to use and dispose of as It wished. But clearly, It was intelligent enough to consider all of the options It had… and right now, It had the same exact options as she and everyone else did.
To fight, or to perish.
"… I… understand," she finally replied, looking up from contemplation, and It gazed down at her unshakably.
"Yes?" She had gotten very used to It considering her a child by now, despite how much she disliked being called such. Surely, she was a child to It; after all, It had to be immeasurably ancient…
/youare. unlike. yousee. morethan./
She smiled at that. Was that Its way of complementing her, or just Its way of saying It liked her?
/both./ It responded, reaching a pale hand to brush against her hair. Its touch chilled her and made her feel a sickly dread, but she was well used to that feeling by now. It was likely something that It couldn't help causing anyway, just as she couldn't help the need to breathe, or the fact that she bled if cut.
Oh well, at least she knew that It liked her now. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing remained to be seen…
"So," she responded, smiling a bit. "This idea you had… what was it?"
It bristled a bit, swaying with slow, gentle motion, almost imperceptibly moving as It thought.
/youwould. notlike./ It admitted, turning Its gaze downward to her once more. /isnot. pleasant./
"I've probably been through worse," she responded. "And Hell, if it's the only way to help them…"
"I probably don't," she admitted. "Then again, there's an awful lot I don't understand, Operator. I don't understand why I'm so damn important to you, or why you even care what happens to a random group of human beings. I don't understand how in the hell you work, I don't understand why you've been watching me in particular for so long, and I don't understand half of what you say sometimes. I'm only human."
She blinked in confusion.
/icould. giveyousomething. weapon. butwouldnot. bepleasant./
"Probably not," she admitted, "But losing my best friend to those shadow things wasn't exactly a walk in the park either, now was it?"
She was once again silent for a long time, thinking on what to say next. It similarly said nothing.
"… You know," she murmured, voice barely audible over the rustling black leaves, "… If accepting this weapon… If accepting it meant I would have to serve you… I'd gladly do it."
The being seemed almost taken aback at that, but not surprised.
/whygive?/ It asked, Its gaze boring into her with intense curiosity.
"… I'd sacrifice anything I had to for my friends," she replied. "Even my life. Even freedom."
It didn't seem to know how to react to that statement, Its line of sight turned down again in thought.
/verynoble./ It responded, tilting Its head in the other direction.
"… Maybe I care too much," she added, smiling gently. "Then again… I owe you. You saved me from possible death by those things. And from possible death by the other Fears. Sure, I might not be able to go back ever again, but at least I'm safe. And however foolish it is… I trust you. Enough."
It looked up at her once more, an intense severity behind Its sight.
/yourchoice. butknowthis. itispain./
"… I've been in worse pain before," she replied. "I'm not as fragile as you think. I want to help them, no matter how damn bad it gets. Even if it means I'll end up dead. I just… I don't want to hide here forever like a coward. Because I'm not. I'm not a coward."
/ibelieve./ It said. /comedown. fromthere./
It reached for her with long arms, picking her up securely under the arms like a toddler, and she yelped. She was probably no more than a featherweight to It, but all the same, it felt awkward to be held in such a fashion.
It gently set her on the ground, and stared down at her with that same dark intensity it always had.
/child. whatigive. cannotbe. takenback. doyou. truelyaccept?/
She looked down in thought, considering her options. Stay here, a prisoner of her own fear and indecision, or take what could be something painful, permanent, and life altering if it meant helping those she cared about most? It was her choice, she could back out now if she wanted to. She could hide here forever, in the quiet, in the forest… but what sort of a life was that?
She was tired of doing the wrong thing. She had made enough choices that she regretted. Playing games with Cold Boys. Releasing twisted Archangels by mistake. Going willingly, though out of fear, with a breathing, faceless tree to a forest outside space-time. She certainly hadn't made very wise decisions, but she couldn't take them back now, could she?
And hiding from them out of shame from what she'd done sure as hell wouldn't help… now would it?
No. Your friends need you. They need help. They're floundering out there, you saw that, they can barely figure out what they need to do… You have to be there to help them…
She took a deep breath, steeling herself for her decision, knowing she could not take it back once the words escaped her lips.
It nodded slightly, black tendrils sliding out and branching.
/iam. sorry./ It said, locking Its gaze with her again.
"You're… you're sorry?" She asked, confusion marring her face. "Why are you -?"
She didn't get any more words out after that.
The tendril struck her forcefully, sliding into her chest, curling around her heart, and all she knew was agony. Excruciating agony, and the intense feeling of being incredibly, horribly exposed to everything around her, a raw and inflamed nerve. She could not speak for the pain, could not scream, could not even move. Her limbs twitched sporadically, her eyes and tongue were burning to ash, her mind raced with thoughts panicked and pleading.
whywhywhywhywhywhydididothis whywhywhythiswasaterriblefuc kingchoicewhywhywhy?!
/calm. please. inhale. exhale. breathe./
Something inside of her shifted, something not belonging to It, something not unlike sharp vines or roots. They forced their way outward through her skin, twining through her ribcage, wrapping around her spine, twisting themselves between her skin and muscles. They cut her to ribbons; the thorns and spikes on them tore her flesh.
Her body could take no more torture, and she collapsed, her consciousness blinking out as suddenly as a snuffed candle.
She was staring up at the grey sky, the trees standing sentinel over her with their arm-like branches. The breeze with no temperature brushed her skin and face gently, caressing her like a concerned lover.
That was what she remembered first.
Her body and mind ached all over, a bruising pain. Like she'd been run over by a semi, scraped up, and then cold-clocked.
What in the hell had hit her?
It was standing over her, watching gravely as she awoke. Watching… with concern?
It could feel concern?
"Y-yeah… yeah, I-I'm okay… I-I think…"
She winced as she sat up. She felt insanely dizzy, and very, very odd. Something had changed in her. She wasn't sure what.
But she didn't quite feel like herself anymore.
For one, she felt more… powerful, more energetic, as if she had more strength in her body somehow.
For another, her skin felt… odd, almost a bit itchy and rough. Something… it felt like something was embedded in her skin, something thin and snaking.
She peered down at her arms… and wanted to vomit.
Black roots twined through her skin as if it were topsoil, raised, branching lines embedded into her flesh. Her hands… They were no longer hands, they looked more like thorn branches, like twigs far too numerous for what should have been her fingers… but they did not break, though she attempted to snap them off.
She ran her branches along her skin. It felt like bark, despite holding its normal color.
The worst was not yet seen, however, until she glanced into a nearby puddle, leftover from some rainfall past.
Her eyes… she had no eyes. Only black holes that somehow could take in the nightmare that was her face, a face as struck with horror as it was horrific. Something ink-black coated the inside of what remained of her mouth, now more like an abyss, a gaping maw of darkness. The black roots beneath her skin continued up her neck, across her face, curling and branching…
"Oh my God," she choked, feeling as if she were close to a breakdown. "Oh Christ…"
/please./ It intoned, stepping towards her. /please. calm./
"No, I will not fucking calm down!" She screeched, and something slid from her back, extra branch-like limbs she didn't realize belonged to her at first, limbs that flailed and threatened to attack It. "Look at me! Look at what I fucking am now! I'm… I'm…"
She collapsed, vision blurry from tears. She cried, and droplets of ink fell to the forest floor. Her branches quivered in despair. Dear God, what was she?
"… What am I…?"
A bark-textured hand touched her back, an attempt at reassurance.
/youare. you./ It replied, an oddly gentle aura of comfort radiating from It. Funny how she didn't feel ill around It anymore, how she didn't feel so afraid of It…
She blinked back black tears, wiping at her eye sockets with her arm. Anger began to replace sorrow.
She stood slowly, shakily, branchy limbs curling around her frame in protective comfort. Its words did nothing to quell her internal anger. Anger at herself, anger at what she'd become…
She shrieked in rage and thrashed at a nearby oak trunk with her branching limbs, leaving deep gouges in the bark, deep enough to expose the pale xylem beneath. And she did not stop, striking again and again, screaming in outrage and despair, emotion escaping like a tidal wave. Devastation. She felt devastation.
/releaseit. angershouldnot. becontainedlong./
She could release no more rage, and fell to her knees before the injured oak tree, breathing heavily in exhaustion.
"No. Not really," she sighed heavily, looking upwards at the tall being before her. "But what the hell else can I do? It's not like feeling sorry for myself will fix this…"
She sniffled and hugged herself, her own branches cradling her. It had a point. A very good point. Besides, it was rude to shirk a gift, even if it was a horrific one…
"You've been through worse, girl," she murmured, smiling sadly. "Worse than this. It's alright… th-there's good… in everything… Even this…"
She glanced at the oak, now damaged beyond the ability to live. Half its phloem was missing; its heartwood exposed to the air. It was destroyed.
She looked on in shock, abyssal eye pits widening in awe.
"Did… Did I… do that?"
/yes. youare. morepowerful. thanyouknow. usewisely./
And instantly, she understood. She understood what she had to do, and why, and how.
It bolstered her.
But her friends… would they still recognize her… after…?
"… Will they accept me now…?" she wondered aloud, her voice barely a whisper.
/ifnot. perhaps. notfriends./ It responded, tilting Its head in thought.
Sometimes, despite how cryptic It could get, It made perfect sense… if one only listened with proper ears. Sometimes, she wondered if It only spoke to her because she could hear it.
Now she wondered if it was because It saw her as a kindred spirit now, a like soul. No longer human, but something else entirely. Something… more. Yet unchanged inside, always her, despite how she looked or whatever she was now…
"… You're actually very wise, you know that?" She replied, smiling slightly. It probably looked terrifying with her new face, despite her intent.
/experience./ It responded, turning Its gaze towards the forest beyond. /nomore. timeleft. itstime. togo./
It slowly began to walk away, lanky, stilt-like gait making strangely silent strides.
"Hey… Hey, wait!" she cried, running after It. "I can't move that fast! Dammit!"
It didn't stop.
"Get back here!" she cried, frustration building. "You get back here or I'll… I'll…"
/no. youcome. tome./ It responded, glancing back only momentarily.
"Fine, if you're going to be that way!" she yelled, crossing all six of her branch-like arms and glaring at the tall being several feet from her. "Jesus Christ, it's not like I can tele-"
It felt as if something suddenly grabbed her by the gut and yanked, pulling her forward, and suddenly she found herself directly next to It.
"… Okay, what the fuck was that?" She exclaimed, still reeling from the sudden jolt.
"Did… you do that, or did…?"
Something about that made her smirk in amusement. Teleportation.
She could teleport.
It paused in its stride suddenly, and waited for her to catch up.
/awindow./ It said, taking a single elongated finger and drawing it slowly through the air before it. Something shimmered, warped, and opened up.
And as she came closer, she peered through and saw them. The others. Those she'd been taken from.
She wanted to cry.
"… H-home…?" she asked, looking upwards to It.
/home. sweethome./ It replied, and extended a hand to her. /come. throughthewindow./
She didn't dare contain the grin on her frightful features. This time, she took Its hand of her own accord, without hesitation.
And carefully, gingerly, stepped through the gap with it, as if taking her first steps into the world all over again.
/thebranches. giveyou. awindow./ It spoke, looking down at the small crowd before It. A crowd that she recognized.
One woman, Hooligan, stepped forward, showing very little fear. She had seen enough Fears by now that she was used to it.
"Did you… did you bring Shadows back with you?" She asked, looking up at the tall being and into where Its eyes would be, if It had any.
/thegirl. iswithme./ It responded, stepping the rest of the way through the portal and bringing Shadows with It.
The crowd watched her emerge, strangely awe-stricken, yet recognizing her despite her nightmarish form.
/whatthe. girlis. now./ It responded, letting her step forward.
She shook slightly, walking slowly. Her branches quivered in nervousness. She wasn't used to feeling minute temperature changes, the sunlight on her extra limbs, the sensation of every slight motion in the air sending vibrations through her branches. It was overwhelming, almost too much. No human could have dealt with so much information.
Then again, she wasn't really a human being anymore, was she?
"Shadows…?" Hooligan murmured, approaching her slowly.
She smiled at hearing her name, and raised her voice, unchanged and just as familiar as ever despite her strange looks.
"Hi guys…" She murmured. "… I'm back."
Hooligan smiled broadly and ran up to her, clinging in an embrace. Thank God she was alright. Changed and weaponized, but alright.
Shadows wrapped her branches around her friend, fighting back tears and swallowing the knot in her throat.
"Welcome home," Hooligan said, unable to hold in her own tears, and the others began to crowd around her. "Welcome back."