Sophie had always taken her parents for granted. It was understandable, really. She was only ten years old, after all. She’d never had reason to consider the possibility that they might not be there. Sure, they went away on vacation on occasion, or left for business trips. But they’d always come back, eventually. And Vicky had always been right there to reassure her that they would be coming back, eventually.
But this time was different. Vicky was there, but she wasn’t reassuring her of anything. No one was. Intellectually, she understood the concept of death. But she’d never really been exposed to it before.
She wasn’t crying anymore, at least. She didn’t have the energy to. All the tears she had in her were used up, replaced with a sort of cold empty feeling that she really didn’t like. She was trapped here in some stranger’s house and as far as she could gather no one could tell her if she’d ever see her parents again and she hated it.
“Vicky, I wanna go home.”
“We can’t go home right now.”
“Oh.” The conversation, such as it were, dried up. Vicky stared at her PET. Dark circles underlined her eyes, belying the complete and utter lack of sleep she’d managed to get the previous night. She wasn’t the only one, really. Sophie, at least, hadn’t been able to get to sleep at all, between worry and the unfamiliar bed.
“God dammit, what were you thinking?”
“No, no, I’m not talking to you, it’s just-” Vicky sighed. “Sorry. We should go grab some breakfast.”
“Okay.” Sophie wasn’t particularly hungry, but she lacked the energy to object. “Sorry,” she said again, not really sure what else to say.
“Hey, don’t apologize. None of this is your fault.” Vicky gently tousled her little sister’s hair. “Tell you what, we can’t really go home, but once we’ve eaten we can stop by the arcade again. Maybe bring your pack along?”
“I kind of just wanna be alone right now.”
“Are you sure? There’ll be pizza.”
“I don’t want pizza. I want mom and dad and also pizza.”
Vicky sighed, smiling weakly. “Well, I can at least get you one outta three.” She put on a brave face, but she didn’t do the best job of it. She’d never been particularly good with children, and while she was better with Sophie than she was with other kids her age, that was mostly because she relied very heavily on bribing the younger sheep with pizza. And apparently pizza wasn’t quite enough in this situation. “Look, I know you’re worried. I’m worried too. But if you spend too much time worrying you’re only gonna make yourself feel worse.”
“So, what, I’m supposed to just bury all my negative emotions? That doesn’t sound very healthy to me.”
Vicky laughed. “You’re a precocious little thing, aren’t you? Look, I promise you that everything will be fine in the end.”
“How can you know that, though?”
“‘cos mom and dad left me in charge. That means I’m the boss and what I say goes. So if I say that things are gonna be fine, they’re gonna be fine.”
It was shaky logic, but Sophie was only ten years old so it was good enough for her. “Well, okay. If you say so.” She sounded dubious, but that was far more accepting than Vicky was expecting. “I’m gonna go tell the others!” She scampered off into the main part of Diane’s house, where her pack were presumably doing whatever the fuck it was that ten year olds did.
“Okay, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Satisfied that she’d cheered Sophie up a little bit, Vicky turned her attention back to her PET and looked over the text message she’d gotten from Vienna one more time in the hopes that maybe a solution would magically present itself. It didn’t. “God dammit, what the fuck am I supposed to do?” she muttered. “You picked the worst time to do this, too.”
She read the message a few more times. Apparently Viola had gone missing and the other three had elected to search for her, alone. Because that was a smart decision. Fuck. And they wanted her to keep it a secret. “Why me, though? You all hate me.”
The smart thing to do would probably be to immediately go to Dr. Baas and tell her, or go to Mama Coniglio and tell her, or go to literally any adult and tell them. But she didn’t want to raise a big fuss and then have them just sort of wander out of the Woods entirely fine. She’d probably be the one who got in trouble if that happened. But if she said nothing and they did turn out to be in trouble then it’d be her fault.
“Right. I’ll give them a few hours and then try and call them. That’s a fair compromise, right? It’s not waiting a whole fucking day, but it’s still giving them time to turn out to be entirely okay. Right? God, I’m talking to myself. I need to grab some coffee and breakfast badly.”
There wasn’t really anything more she could do for now, so she resolved to tend to her own needs. She placed her PET on her hip, and her threadlink fabric pyjamas held it safely in place as she made her way to the kitchen. Diane was sitting at the table, staring dead-eyed at her coffee. “Did you sleep well?”
“Fair. Can I have a coffee?”
“Help yourself. My home’s your home, for now.”
“Thanks.” Diane had a fairly standard coffee machine, thank god. Nothing fancy, just a normal Travers Innovations model – she was pretty sure they had the exact same one at home. One button press and coffee was produced. No need to worry about grinding the coffee or warming the cup or changing the filter or anything. It was even attached to the plumbing system, had a built-in mechanism for disposing of used grounds, and was even self-cleaning. The ultimate in no-brainer coffee for first thing in the morning. One single button to press, which was good because otherwise Vicky would probably have been sitting there for hours trying to figure out how to get it to work.
“How’s Sophie holding up.”
“Adequately,” Vicky replied with a shrug. “She’s doing better than she was.”
“I’m gonna take her pack to the arcade later.”
“Mm,” Diane replied, taking a slow sip of her coffee. “I might come with you, actually. I could use video games and bad pizza right now.”
“I hear you.” Diane was really only a few years older than Vicky. But it still felt weird to be conversing so casually with a teacher, on the same level. “How about you. You doing okay?”
“No. Still haven’t heard back from my husband or his family.”
“Mm.” Vicky didn’t really know what to say in response, so instead she just finished preparing her coffee in awkward silence.
“God, this whole situation is just so messed up.” Diane buried her face in her hands. “Like, we’ve got fifteen kids here. And that’s barely a fraction of the children who are alone right now. How many parents just left their kids alone? How can people be so irresponsible?”
“They can’t have seen this coming.”
“Even if they didn’t, they just left ten year old children to fend for themselves.”
“They had to have babysitters, right?”
“If they did, I’ve not been able to get into contact with them.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Diane spat bitterly. “How the hell is Esterwood filled with so many terrible parents? Ugh. You didn’t hear me say that, I could probably lose my job for saying that.”
“My lips are sealed. I’m gonna check on the kids.”
Vicky moved slowly from the kitchen to the living room. She didn’t feel particularly great about leaving Diane alone, given the state she was in. But she equally didn’t feel great about leaving fifteen small children unsupervised.
They had mostly divided into several small groups of two or three, content to converse and play among themselves. There didn’t seem to be any conflict going on, thankfully. Vicky didn’t really feel like she was equipped to deal with that.
“Vicky!” Sophie ran over, dragging her pack with her – a moose girl and an otter boy. Vicky didn’t know either of their names. “Vicky says she’s gonna take us to the arcade and we can have pizza for breakfast!”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Oh, what? You said there’d be pizza.”
“I said we’d go after breakfast. Pizza can be lunch.”
“See, I told you she wasn’t gonna let us have pizza for breakfast,” the otter boy interjected.
“Yeah but we’re still having pizza.”
“I’d rather have burgers.”
“Pizza’s totally better than burgers, buttball.”
“I’m not a buttball, you’re a buttball!”
“No one’s a buttball, now behave yourselves or I’ll change my mind and we won’t go to the arcade after all.” That got them to stop fighting. “They’ve got burgers at the arcade too, you can have whatever you want for lunch.”
The moose girl shyly attempted to hide behind Sophie. Her attempts were futile, considering she was easily the tallest of the three by a good foot, but it was the thought that counted. “Can I have chicken tenders?” she said quietly.
“You can have chicken tenders. I’m pretty sure they’ve got chicken tenders.”
“Okay.” The girl returned to cowering behind Sophie.
“But we can’t go until you’ve eaten breakfast. And it’s gotta be a healthy breakfast, too, okay?” Of course, Vicky didn’t particularly want anything healthy for breakfast herself. To be honest, pizza for breakfast sounded awfully tempting.
“Okay,” the three children replied in an unenthusiastic chorus.
“Good. Okay, everyone!” she said, addressing the entire room. “Head into the kitchen – don’t push each other! - and Diane and I will throw together something for us all to eat, okay? And then once we’ve eaten we’re going to spend the day at the arcade, but only if you all behave yourselves. Okay?”
Once more, Vicky got a chorus of ‘okay’ in response from all fifteen children. She sighed with relief as they left the room in an orderly queue. She could breathe a little bit now that she wasn’t the adult in the room. Vicky wasn’t built for responsibility. She wasn’t good at it, but she didn’t really have much of a choice. Being a guest in Diane’s house was predicated on helping her deal with the small menagerie of children, and so she would.
Vicky’s train of thought was derailed by a small pair of hands gently tugging at her arm. She turned and found the source; the moose girl from Sophie’s pack. “Um. Are you okay?”
“Hm? Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? You don’t really look okay. You look tired.”
“I am tired,” Vicky responded before thinking better of it. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing some coffee and a day at the arcade can’t fix. You go join your friends, okay?”
“Okay,” the moose girl responded before turning to rush off after the other kids. Vicky quietly watched her go. She didn’t really know any of Sophie’s friends very well, but they gave a good enough first impression, or at least the moose did.
“I should probably learn their names at some point,” she muttered to herself before following the children into the kitchen.
Viola and Erin hadn’t gotten as much time to rest as they would have liked, given the situation. They had about a minute before Viola’s PET got a call from Vienna. The conversation lasted for about half an hour, and mostly consisted of tiredly recapping what had happened to each pair after the group had been separated. Viola was very pleased to see that Vienna was mostly unharmed. Likewise, a look of incalculable relief spread across Vienna’s face on learning that Erin hadn’t died.
“How, though? Last I saw you, your arm was gone and most of your blood was on the outside.” Ursula frowned. “I checked the first aid kit and it wasn’t exactly well stocked. Some bandages and disinfectant and that’s it. Not even a basic pencil, which still wouldn’t be enough to fix that serious of a wound.”
“It’s... going to be easier to explain in person,” Erin replied. “I assure you that I’m going to be fine, though. I just need a bit of rest.”
“I don’t know if we’re gonna have time for you to get rest, though. We’re on a time limit now, remember.”
“Yes, which is... worrying. To say the least.”
Vienna sighed. “Well, you’re not dead. That’s by far the most important thing.”
“Yeah, but she’s absolutely not in any state to be going through a fucking ‘obstacle course’, whatever that even means,” Ursula added.
“Neither are you, darling. You’re more of a fighter than any of us, but your ribs are going to slow you down a lot. To say nothing of Vienna’s arm and ankle.”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves.” Everyone went quiet when Viola spoke up, turning to look intently at the rabbit. She instinctively cringed away from the sudden attention focused on her. “Um, th-that is. Our first priority should be to meet up before we do anything else.”
“That makes sense. Safety in numbers and all that.”
“I don’t know,” Ursula interjected. “That just means more people who can’t fight that I’ve gotta look after. And, once again, I’m not exactly at the top of my game.”
“We packed your Inertial Dampener, right?” Vienna said after a moment of thought. “Viola can wear it and turn it on if things start getting dangerous. That’s one less person for you to worry about.”
“Hopefully by the time we get back together we’ll have recovered a bit more thoroughly from our earlier misadventure,” Erin added.
“Yeah, yeah, just trying to keep our bases covered. It’s a good idea.”
“Okay, then. That’s our next goal.”
“Hhhhhhold on a second, though,” Vienna said, frowning. “It’s a good plan, ‘cept we don’t know this city at all. No idea of any landmarks or anything. How are we gonna find each other?”
“We’ve got our PETs. That will have to do for now.”
“Ugh, I never figured out how to use the stupid peoplefinder app.”
“Well you’re gonna hafta ‘cos my PET’s fuckin’ gone.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Vienna nodded dismissively. “Hopefully Ami’s not going to count this as rulebreaking, though.”
“Ech. That’s a good point. We should come up with some kind of backup plan, then.”
“I’m not too worried, she was pretty specific that we weren’t allowed to get outside help. Our PETs aren’t outside help.”
“We should still come up with a backup plan, darling.”
“Yeah, I’m with Erin on this one. Don’t really got any ideas, though.”
“Well,” Viola interjected again only to briefly freeze up when everyone turned their attention to her once more. “Uh. Um. I was gonna say. Why don’t you two just try and get out of the park for now. Then Erin and I can circle around the perimeter and if it’s not too big we’ll meet up eventually. The soldiers might still be there, but if we stay away from the exit we should be fine.”
“Ha! Viola’s really on the ball today. I didn’t even think of that.”
“It’s a good plan,” Erin added. “We’ll head back to the edge of the park. Let us know when you get out and then stay in one place.”
“Gotcha,” Vienna said. “Gimme like five minutes to figure out the peoplefinder app, though.”
“It’s really not that hard, you know. How have you never had to use it before?”
“It’s never come up!”
“Here, look, let me-” The call abruptly ended with Vienna and Ursula wrestling over the PET.
“Well, that’s that, I suppose,” Erin said with a shrug.
“I’ll turn on the peoplefinder,” Viola said, taking her PET back. “Are you going to be okay? You didn’t exactly get much time to recover.”
“I’ll be fine. Probably.” Erin certainly didn’t sound fine. She sounded tired. Better than when she was actively in the process of bleeding out, but far from being in the state to go on a big adventure of any kind. “Once we meet up with Vienna and Ursula we can think about finding somewhere safe to rest and recuperate.”
“Okay. We need to think about food, too.”
“Ugh, I didn’t even consider that.” Erin frowned, gesturing to her backpack with her head. “I brought some energy bars. Compact enough that I could bring a lot of them, in case we got lost. But even with careful rationing it’s not going to be nearly enough for five days. I doubt it will be enough for today, not if we want enough nutrition and calories to be able to deal with whatever our AI friend has in store for us.”
“We can deal with that when it’s relevant,” Viola said succinctly. “For now, we just need to focus on the plan. Once we’re together, then we can figure out what to do next.”
“Right.” Erin slumped against the building. “We also need to figure out how the fuck we’re going to explain Aubrey and Titania.”
“Well. If Vienna and Ursula do have their own whatever-they-are, they should be able to see and hear Aubrey and Titania in mirrors. We can just find a building and introduce them.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Well, Titania did that thing where she sort of... came out and covered your body, right?”
“Could she do it again? That might actually be quicker and easier than finding a mirror.”
“I don’t know.” Erin reluctantly pulled herself away from the building and turned to face her reflection. “Could you?”
“No,” Titania said, quickly replacing Erin in the mirrored surface of the window. “We’ve already burned through quite a lot of prana today. Using too much more is... bad.” She frowned. “I can’t remember the details, but it’s very very bad for the host they it run out of prana.”
“I don’t really know what prana is, but I very much don’t want to find out what happens if I run out of it.”
“Okay, that’s out then. What about Aubrey? Do you have any idea how to, uh, come out?”
“No, but I can figure it out by the time we meet up with the others.”
“Okay. Okay, that’s good. It’ll be a lot easier to convince them you actually exist if you can show yourself to them face-to-face.”
“Right,” Aubrey replied. She didn’t sound convinced. “That, or their own whatever-we-are decide to make themselves known.”
“We really need to come up with something to call you until you remember what you’re actually called,” Erin said.
“Sorry. I really wish we could remember anything specific.”
Viola made a face. “That sounds like something an eight year old would come up with.”
“No, it does, which means I’m the authority when it comes to names sounding like the work of an actual child.”
“May I make a suggestion?” Erin interjected.
“Well, as far as we’re aware, Aubrey is the first of them to make herself known to us. So how about we call them Aubreys? Or Kadabras, to avoid confusion.”
“Enhhhhhhh,” Viola replied with a frown. “It’s better than slimeoids, I guess, and it’s only temporary.”
“Hey, Slimoids wasn’t that bad.”
“It was pretty bad,” Titania interjected. “Sorry.”
“Pah, fine, I know when I’ve lost. Have you finished setting up the peoplefinder app, Viola?”
“Yeah. Looks like Vienna managed to get it online on her end, so now we’ve just gotta find ‘em.”
“Okay,” Aubrey said. “In that case you should probably leave. If you need to talk with us, your PETs are a reflective enough surface to work.”
“Understood.” Erin knelt down to put her backpack on, and then slowly stood up, her legs shaking slightly. “Viola, would you be a dear and give me a hand? I don’t really think I’m quite up to walking on my own just yet.”
“Okay,” Viola replied with a nod, quickly darting over to her friend’s side. “Lemme just...” She ducked underneath Erin’s arm, slipping her own over the mouse’s shoulder. “Okay. There. That should be good enough.”
“I’m sorry about this.”
“It’s not your fault, you literally got shot.” Viola smiled weakly. “Come on. Let’s go find the others.”
“That sounds like a plan. Lead the way, darling~”
“God this thing is so awful.”
“I still can’t believe you don’t know how to use it.”
“Like I said, it never came up! Esterwood isn’t big enough to get lost in and I’ve literally never been anywhere else in my entire life.”
“You’ve absolutely been on vacation to Locksmouth or Anchorsway or something at some point, and there was that time in seventh grade-”
“Let’s not talk about that.”
Ursula rolled her eyes, but was about as eager to talk about her most recent visit to Locksmouth as Vienna was. “Besides, didn’t they literally teach us how to use it in elementary school?”
“Yeah, like a decade ago.” Vienna glowered at the sorry excuse for a peoplefinder app. “It’d be more useful if it came with a map or something.”
“Yeah, they should have programmed it with the layout of this underground city no one knew was there.” Ursula rolled her eyes. “What does it say?”
“I don’t know.”
“What the fuck do you mean ‘I don’t know’, there’s a dot that’s us and a dot that’s them and a little line that shows the scale.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s broken or something. Look at this,” she said, shoving her PET in Ursula’s face. “Tell me that this is right.”
Ursula frowned. If the app was correct, then Vienna’s PET couldn’t be much more than a block away. “That’s... odd. Maybe the park isn’t as big as we thought it was?”
“Maybe this stupid app is a piece of shit.”
“Man, you’re supposed to be the levelheaded one, I’m the one with the bad temper.”
“Listen, I’m in a lot of pain right now and you’re not wearing a shirt so I think I’m allowed to be a little frustrated.”
“What does my lack of a shirt have to do with anything?” Vienna gave her a Look. “Oh. Right, I forgot.”
“What do you mean, ‘I forgot’?!”
“I keep telling you it’s not a big deal! Look, it’s not like I’m naked or anything, I’ve got my sports bra on and I’ve got understickers under that. It’s fine.”
It wasn’t really fine, as far as Vienna was concerned. Yes, she still technically had a shirt on, but if anything that just made it worse. Ursula had the smallest breasts of the four of them, but she was hardly flat-chested, and her sports bra was very tight. But the real star of the show when it came to Ursula’s figure was her abs. Like a washboard. Vienna tried her best not to look too much. “Let’s just get out of the forest for now. We can worry about finding the others after we’re out.”
“You know, I distinctly remember this park being a lot smaller when we first got here,” Ursula grumbled as they began the trek. “Definitely less trees.”
Vienna shrugged. “We didn’t exactly get the chance to take in the scenery earlier. Kinda busy getting our asses kicked.”
“No, I’m definitely sure there’s more trees than there were before. Bigger, too. We could see the city over them, remember? Now we can’t.”
“We’ve probably wandered off the beaten path. Ow, fuck.”
“D’ya want a hand?”
“Yeah, sorry, I’m limping pretty bad.”
“Here,” Ursula said, circling around in front of Vienna and kneeling to the ground. “Get on.”
“I’m taller’n you, this way I don’t need to duck down awkwardly while we walk.”
“Oh my god.”
“Listen we can deal with your weird sexual hangups later. Just get on and if you get a boner I’ll fuckin’ live.”
“Oh my god.”
Vienna remained reluctant, but still got onto Ursula’s back. She draped her arms over Ursula’s shoulders and wrapped her legs around her waist, trying her best not to press too hard against the larger girl. “Come on, babe, you’re gonna need a better grip or you’ll fall off.” Vienna swallowed heavily, but tightened her legs anyway.
“There we go. Hup!” Ursula rather abruptly stood upright.
“You’re not very heavy,” she explained. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“Right. Here, you hold my PET.”
They spent most of the walk in silence, Ursula focused on following the app and Vienna focused on not focusing on the sensation of her boobs pressing against Ursula’s back.
“You okay?” Vienna asked, peering over the doberman’s shoulder.
“I think you’re right about the app being broken,” Ursula said. “We’ve been going for a while but we’ve not gotten any closer to the others. In fact, I think we might have gotten farther away.” She frowned.
“I guess we’re gonna hafta find our way out of here on our own, then.”
“That’s not the only issue, though.”
“Like I said, we’ve been going for a while. The others got out, and I don’t think they coulda gotten very far given the state Erin was in.”
“Maybe we were close to the edge of the park. Erin and Viola went out, we went further in. It’s not like it’s unusual to have a big forest in the middle of a city.”
“I don’t know,” Ursula replied tersely. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“It’s not like the park just magically turned into a forest or anything,” Vienna replied, though her tone of voice made it clear that she wasn’t entirely sold on her own logic. The forest had gotten denser the farther they went, the trees getting closer and closer together, touching each other and then pressing into each other. Like a wall of wood on either side of the pathway they found themselves on, with the canopy entwining together into a roof.
“Okay so this isn’t normal.”
“I... think I’m coming around to that line of thinking, yeah.” Vienna instinctively gripped Ursula tighter. “I mean, Ami said that she set up an obstacle course for us, right? Maybe we wandered into some kinda maze.”
“Okay but I can see her faking the sky, but growing a forest into a maze like this seems like it’d be really time consuming. If it’s possible at all.”
“It’s gotta be possible, we’re in it.”
“Anyway I think maybe we should consider finding a different route. Head back the way we came and see if we can’t at least find our way back to the entrance.”
“That seems dangerous. What if the guard dudes attack us?”
“So long as we don’t try to leave we’ll be fine,” Vienna replied uncertainly. “From there we can get our bearings and figure things out from there.”
“Well, it’s better than nothing,” Ursula grumbled. “I’ve still got a bad feeling about this, though.” With that, she turned around and began the long trek back where they’d came from.
Only to immediately come to an immediate halt, because the path they’d just taken wasn’t there. There was nothing aside from more tightly-entwined trees.
“What the fuck?”
“We totally just came from there, right?”
They stared at the wall of trees, their conversation (such as it was) looping through various mostly identical expressions of disbelief for god fucking knew how long. “Okay. Okay, don’t panic. It’s fine. We’re fine. We can just... uh...”
“We’re fucked, aren’t we?”
“No!” Vienna quickly replied, refusing point-blank to give into panic. “We just, uh, need to find a way out of the maze. That’s all. There’s gotta be a way out. Right?”
Ursula tightly pursed her lips as she stared at the walls that surrounded them. “Yeah. Because everything else about today has made perfect sense so far.”
Vienna opened her mouth to scold Ursula for her pessimism – it was the last thing they needed. But whatever she had to say was cut off by a deep, rumbling noise. Like the roar of a distant beast. “What the fuck was that.”
“I don’t know,” Ursula responded. “But like fuck do I wanna be anywhere near it.”
“God please.” With that, Ursula turned and ran deeper into the maze as fast as she could manage.
Viola couldn’t pinpoint exactly when she noticed that the city streets had transformed into a narrow stone path carved into a mountainside. One would think that would have been fucking obvious. But the transition had been so perfectly gradual that she hadn’t noticed until it had already happened. “Um.”
“Shit. I was hoping you wouldn’t say anything and I could write this off as blood loss induced hallucination.”
“No. Sorry.” It wasn’t the only problem, either. The tracking app was acting up – for the past twenty minutes of walking it had claimed they were only a few blocks away from the others. The display hadn’t changed, at all, in spite of the obviously visible progress that they had made.
“I think that perhaps we should take a bit of a break,” Erin said nervously. “We’re obviously making no progress so I think some time to take stock of the situation is warranted.”
“It’s pretty cold,” Viola countered. “I don’t know about you but I didn’t exactly dress with mountain climbing in mind. If we keep moving we’ll at least stay warm, right?”
“That’s a good point,” Erin conceded. Viola seemed fine enough, but she was wearing far more appropriate clothing than Erin. The mouse had a fairly standard modern fashion sense, and that meant her clothing was tight-fitting and somewhat revealing. Or they were supposed to be, but her sudden change in figure had left them hanging loosely from her body. Plus she was missing a sleeve for obvious reasons. The threadlink technology would keep them warm, but that did nothing for the parts that didn’t have clothing covering them. “Ah! Actually, I believe I packed some spare clothing. I obviously didn’t plan for this exact situation, but I did see the possibility of us getting lost in the Woods coming so I packed some jackets. It’s not much better, but it should help stave off hypothermia.”
“That’s good. We should probably take inventory of what you packed, actually. Just so we know what we’ve got.”
“We have a plan, then.” Viola carefully sidled up to the mountain, taking Erin with her, and the two sat down and rifled through Erin’s backpack.
Most of the space was taken up by Ursula’s inertial dampener – the initial plan had been to take several, but in the end there was only room for one. It was relatively compact, but still a fairly bulky piece of tech. “I probably should have made her wear it,” Erin mused. “I could have fit more food and supplies.”
“Yeah, but this way we at least have it on us in case we need it.” Viola turned it around in her hands. “I get the impression that whatever’s going on, it’s got to do with that obstacle course Ami mentioned.”
“Ugh. I hope the others are okay.”
Viola sighed. “I think for now we should probably be worrying about ourselves.”
“Mn. That’s a good point.”
Besides the inertial dampener, there were a few much smaller portable charging units for their PETs and the small first aid kit. Viola had used a lot of the bandages in her futile attempts at dressing Erin’s wounds, but there were still quite a few left. Still, Viola couldn’t help but feel a small pang of guilt at the supplies they’d wasted. It was otherwise an incredibly basic kit, so they’d likely need everything they had. There were also a good amount of protein bars, slightly squished by the inertial dampener and the first aid kit. And, beneath all of that, were several changes of clothing. More than Viola had really expected – enough for all four of them to completely change outfits. Which Erin proceeded to do so – her current clothing was thoroughly stained with her own blood. “I might as well just dispose of it here,” she said. “I don’t really relish explaining to my parents how my top ended up... like this. Assuming I ever see them again.”
“I’m sure you’ll see them again.”
“I’m not feeling particularly optimistic right now. But you’re right, it’s probably best not to dwell on the worst case scenario.” She slowly peeled her top off, revealing white fur underneath – stained dark by her earlier wound. “Ugh, I’m going to have to wash this off at some point. Somehow.”
“We can cross that bridge when we get to it.”
“Right.” She took a moment to adjust her understickers – her sudden change in figure left them not quite correctly fitted. They were pale pink, shaped like cut diamonds. Viola tried not to look but failed miserably. In spite of not being her normal, insanely stacked self, Erin was still fairly attractive. She was petite, lithe, with subtle feminine curves that appealed to the rabbit in an entirely different manner from Erin’s normal appearance.
Though, granted, Viola would be the first to admit that it wasn’t hard to turn her on. Still, she suffered conflicting emotions over the fact that literally all her friends were hot. She yanked her gaze away, blushing furiously.
“You know I don’t really mind if you look,” Erin said, though she was also looking away and blushing furiously. “If we were in a more normal situation and I weren’t sure you’d be uncomfortable with it I’d, um. Never mind.”
“No! Um, I mean. It’s fine. Now’s a bad time.” Her blush deepened, if that were even possible. “I’ll be honest, though, I could kinda use it.”
“Really?” Erin seemed incredulous. “I thought-”
“No, it’s just... Vienna won’t, so it felt weird to, you know? But, I mean, I already kind of got... really thoroughly OC’d last night by Ursula, so that ship’s kinda sailed.”
“Oh. Well, maybe once we get down the mountain and find the others we can have a quickie.” She wriggled awkwardly in place. “Do, um, you know..?”
“She made me promise not to tell.”
“Oh. That’s fine, then.”
“It’s dumb, though.”
“Well, clearly not to her. I get the impression she takes it somewhat seriously.”
“Yeah, but I’ve got no idea why.”
“Well,” Erin said, finishing her change of clothing. “You can ask her after we climb down this mountain.” After a moment’s thought, she bunched up her bloodsoaked shirt and unceremoniously tossed it over the edge of the path, earning her a confused look from Viola. “Fuck it, I figure this probably isn’t real anyway so it’s not like I’m littering and I don’t want to lug it around until we find a trash can.”
“Fair enough,” Viola replied with a shrug before slipping Erin’s arm over her shoulder and lifting the mouse into a standing position. “C’mon, let’s get going back the way we came. Either we end up back in the city and from there we can try and find our way back to the park, or we don’t in which case I think it’s prolly safe to just assume that it doesn’t matter which way we go anyway.”
“That’s a good plan,” Erin replied as they began the long, slow trek back down the mountain.
Only to almost immediately come across an obstacle that hadn’t been there before. “Well,” Viola muttered. “That answers that, at least.”
The obstacle, specifically, was an enormous stone statue. It took up the entire pathway and then some, dangling slightly off the edge and buried slightly into the side of the mountain. Almost like it had been carved out of the side of the rock, the same way the path had been – although, again, clearly it hadn’t been there moments ago. The subject of the statue a woman, possibly a lioness, though no lion either of them had met was even close to as large as the woman the statue depicted, nor did any of them have the statue’s wings. It lay on all fours, its back bent at an unnatural angle so that it could gaze out along the path regally. Almost like it wasn’t a woman so much as an actual fucking lion with a woman’s head. Its eyes were inlaid with some sort of jet black stone, giving it an unsettling and almost alien appearance. As the girls approached, Viola couldn’t help but marvel at the detail that had gone into the sculpt. She could see the texture of each individual strand of fur, make out the sinew of its musculature, the wry smirk on its face.
The wry smirk that was widening into a toothy grin as the statue slowly lowered its gaze to look directly at them. “Hello there,” it said in a soft, purring voice. “My name is Phix. And you, my dears, are lunch.”
Vienna was, at this point, fairly certain that this wasn’t a normal park. There weren’t even any noticeable trees any more – she wasn’t sure if it was because the foliage had gotten so dense it had all merged together or if they’d at some point transitioned from outside to inside. The dirt path had been replaced by stone pavement – or possibly just outright a floor, she wasn’t certain. The trees had seamlessly transitioned into wooden walls, and the canopy had woven together into a high ceiling. At this point they might as well have been inside. The path, or hallway, or whatever it was, was long and winding and empty.
She wasn’t a fan, if she was honest. She wanted to stop, to take a moment to get her bearings and come up with some kind of plan to escape. But even if she could choose to stop – which she couldn’t, still riding piggy back on Ursula – she couldn’t stop. Because the noise was still there, somewhere behind them or in front of them or to the side of them, she didn’t fucking know. All she knew was that there was something else in the maze with them, and it was fucking pissed.
“How long have we been running for?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t exactly been looking at the clock. You holding up okay, Vienna?”
“I’m fine,” she lied. Hanging off of Ursula’s shoulders wasn’t exactly comfortable long term, especially considering the way her running jostled things. “How about you?”
“I could keep going.”
“Good because I think it’s getting closer.”
“Yeah, yeah, I hear it,” Ursula grumbled. “Gotta tell you, this is kinda getting old. Are we, like, supposed to do something? Or what?”
“I dunno. I’ll be happy with not getting killed by whatever’s chasing us.”
“Yeah but I can’t keep running forever. And ‘run until you can’t run anymore and then get eviscerated by some horror movie-ass monster’ sure sounds like a shitty obstacle.” The second sentence was spoken much more loudly than the first, pointedly directed at their unseen tormentor.
“Please don’t taunt the robot.”
“I’m just saying!”
“Yeah, well, I’m getting the impression that just saying is probably a bad idea.”
“Ugh, fine.” Ursula picked up the pace of her running, further jostling Vienna.
Almost as if the world itself had overheard Ursula’s complaints, they rounded a corner and found the hallway opened up into an enormous chamber. Where the hallway had been mostly featureless aside from the trees, the chamber was lavishly decorated. Gold and silver and gemstones were inlaid into the walls, forming elaborate murals. What they were murals of, of course, neither Vienna nor Ursula had any fucking clue. There were people, pre-splice by the look of it, having some sort of celebration or another. Neither was exactly a history buff. The murals were broken up by torches, embedded rather dangerously into the wooden walls. There was also ornate furniture, though given the sheer scope of the room there wasn’t nearly enough. It was scattered about and overturned, too, like there had been some sort of scuffle. In the centre of the room was a large circle of dead grass, surrounded by a circle of what had at some point likely been a flowerbed but was now withered and brown. There were several structures that had probably been fountains at some point but which had dried up at some point long ago.
The thing that stood out most, though, the centrepiece of the chamber, was the massive statue in the centre. It was made of some sort of jet-black stone that gleamed in the dim light of the labyrinth, obsidian muscles catching the flickering torchlight, highlighting the exquisite detail. It was a statue of a man, a bull by the looks of it, though his body was completely lacking in fur. They could tell for certain, because the sculptor had taken care to detail every individual strand of fur on his bovine head. Cracks and crevices in his horns, the sinews of his muscles, veins popping on hands tightly entwined around a massive axe, even flecks of sweat on his broad chest. The only detail that seemed to have been spared was his manhood, which was conveniently covered by the axe. It was gigantic, too – Ursula barely came up above its knee.
At the base of the statue was some sort of plaque. “Hey, move a little closer, I wanna read what it says.”
“No. Fuck that. I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that statue’s totally gonna come alive and try and kill us.”
“Oh my god. Ursula, this is real life, we’re not in a horror movie.”
“Yeah tell that to the magical forest maze.”
“Just go up to the plaque and let me read it then we can get back to finding a way out. I promise you the statue won’t come to life.”
“Fine but if it does, I reserve the right to say I told you so.”
Vienna rolled her eyes. “Fine whatever.”
Ursula moved slowly and carefully, taking her sweet time to get close to the plaque. She knelt down in front of it, leaning in to read the inscription. “It looks like it’s in Greek. I don’t read Greek. Do you reed Greek?”
“I read Greek. Lean in closer and let me see.” Ursula did so, but the writing was faded enough that Vienna still had difficulty deciphering it. “Okay. Hold on. Okay, it’s barely legible and it looks to be in a really old dialect, but I think it says something like... ‘All hail Asterion the Second, Mighty God-King of Crete and lord of the Labyrinth. May his glory last for all eternity.’ Or something along those lines.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Must be some pre-splice historical figure or something. Records got lost during the skin plague but Ami still has some and recreated this? Somehow?”
“I dunno.” Ursula shivered nervously. “I don’t like it. We should get going.”
“Yeah that sounds like a plan. Sorry, I was kinda hoping that there’d be more relevant information there.”
“Well, we know we’re prolly in a labyrinth, not a maze.”
“There’s a difference?”
“A maze has an entrance and an exit with a bunch of branching paths and dead ends. A labyrinth’s only got the one way in and out and only one really big path that leads to a big central room.”
“Where’d you learn that,” Vienna asked incredulously.
“Wouldja believe it came up in a video game?”
“Yeah, that tracks. But does that mean we have to go back the way we came? Because we tried that and it didn’t work.”
“I guess we hadta get to the centre first? Anyway, we should try that again, see if-” Ursula froze, her ears perking up. “Wait, what was that?”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“Shhhhhh,” the canine hissed harshly, listening carefully. “There’s definitely something...”
“Actually yeah, I definitely don’t hear anything. Where’d the roaring go?”
“Fuck!” Ursula dove to the side, and Vienna’s body moved on instinct, creating a shield around them as one of the walls burst open.
Vienna and Ursula stared in horror at the animalistic monster before them. It wasn’t like a post-splice human, nor was it the animal head on pre-splice human body of the statue. The creature was truly a midpoint between man and beast, a massive wall of muscle and fur and horn and teeth. It was humanoid, but its muscles were so massively swollen it likely couldn’t stand on two legs if it wanted to. Not that it needed to stand upright in order to tower over the two girls. Its eyes were like two embers set into its jet black body – literally, with smoke and fire wafting from the sockets. And it was looking directly at them.
“Uh. Asterion the Second, I presume?”
The beast responded by opening its mouth and unleashing a deafening, inhuman roar of blind fury, rocking the shield with a burst of hot, wet, air and splattering it with spittle.
Vienna swallowed heavily, desperately trying to think of something to say or do and coming up blank. “I told you so.”
“Not the time, babe.”
Phix grinned widely. Wider than was really comfortable. Her lips were practically nonexistent, and her mouth reached almost back to her ears. The end result was less a mouth and more an enormous gash in her face that revealed countless perfectly triangular teeth. Viola took a shaky step backwards, taking Erin along with her.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Phix rumbled. Almost purred. “The path is narrow, and it’s a sheer drop from here aaaaaaaaall the way to the base of the mountain. Best to look where you’re going~” She stretched her feline body, arching her back to give the two girls a better view of her enormous stone wings. “Mmm, and I definitely wouldn’t turn your back on me if I were you.”
Viola got the picture, and stopped backing away. “What do you want?”
“I believe I already told you. I want lunch.” She leaned down until her face was inches from the girls. “Of course, there’s not exactly much meat on either of you, but I can’t afford to be picky. Not many travellers pass this way anymore. You would be surprised how fast word can travel even if you leave no survivors.” With every word she spoke hot, moist breath washed over them, a stark and unpleasant contrast to the frigid mountain air. It reeked of overripe fish, decaying corpses, and a metallic tang of blood.
“Oh,” was all Viola could manage to say. When Ami had promised obstacles, she hadn’t exactly been expecting this. She wasn’t really sure what she had been expecting. But it wasn’t this. Some sort of giant monster threatening to eat them, like something out of a fairy tale. Of course, this wasn’t a fairy tale. If this were a fairy tale, the hero would deftly defeat the monster through some fantastical feat of wit or strength or daring or all three. Viola would hardly describe herself as a protagonist, let alone a hero. And right now she could barely even move, let alone perform feats of anything. Taking a look to her side, Erin looked to be in even less shape to save the day.
“Oh, but just eating you all would be too easy. Boring. I like to play with my food. Besides which, there’s Rules that must be followed. Traditions that must be upheld.”
“Oh, good. Another game.” Viola didn’t sound particularly thrilled.
“Don’t be like that. I’m sure you’ll have a delicious time.” Viola cringed at the food pun. Partly because it was a pun and partly because she was terrified. “It’s not terribly hard. A simple game of riddles. I will ask you questions. If you answer them all right, then you may pass unharmed.”
“And, um. If we don’t?”
Phix’s grin widened, reaching past her ears and curving down to her neck. “I think you know exactly what happens if you fail to answer even one question, child.”
Viola swallowed heavily.
“Now then, no more dallying. Let’s get right to it. My first riddle is thus. What-”
Phix’s grin vanished completely, replaced by a look of confusion and shock. Viola turned to look at her companion, who gave the beast a stony glare.
“My mother is an anthropologist specializing in pre-splice Grecian myth and culture,” she said, gaze narrowing. “I grew up immersed in the works of Plato and Homer and Sophocles. I’ve read Oedipus Rex probably a hundred times. I know what you are.”
Phix fully transitioned into a deep, angry frown. “Well. It would appear I underestimated you. I’m going to have to work harder if I want to provide you with a real challenge.”
“Try me, bitch.”
“Very well.” Phix leaned back and up, up, up, reminding the two girls once more just how big she was.
“What has roots that no one can see,
Reaches higher than the mightiest tree,
Up and up and up it goes,
And yet never did it grow?”
Viola wracked her brain for the answer, but it didn’t come. She stared blankly ahead at nothing, desperately focusing on untangling the poetic language. “U-um. I don’t... Can we discuss this?”
“O-oh. Okay. Um...”
“A mountain.” Once again, Erin spoke with unshakable confidence.
“What? Mountains grow, that’s how they even got there in the first place. The plate tectonics collide and-”
“Correct,” Phix said tersely.
“N-no it’s not!”
Phix glowered down at the two girls. “Next riddle,” she said, failing to acknowledge Viola’s objection.
“Voiceless I cry,
Wingless I flutter,
Toothless I bite,
Mouthless I mutter.”
“Correct,” Phix hissed in quiet irritation.
Erin nodded slightly. “Good job, Viola.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Be careful with your answers. I think I have a good idea of where it’s going, but I’m not sure yet and I don’t want to risk either of us getting eaten.”
“Okay,” Viola replied in similar hushed tones.
“I cannot be seen and cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard and cannot be smelt.
I lie behind stars and under the hills;
All empty spaces by me shall be filled.
I come out first, and follow after,
Ending life and killing laughter.”
“I thought so,” Erin muttered, and then spoke louder. “Darkness.”
“And next I suppose you’re going to ask me what you have in your pockets?”
“Ah,” Phix said quietly. “It would appear I have underestimated you again. You’re a clever little wretch, aren’t you?”
“Just well read,” Erin replied in that snidely pleasant tone that Viola found so familiar. “Really, you should have gone with ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’, if you wanted to mine literature. That one has no answer. Or you could have just made up your own riddle.”
Phix’s gaze narrowed, and her frown intensified into a furious glower.
“I thought so,” Erin replied, grinning smugly. “You can’t. Of course you can’t. Computer’s aren’t known for their creativity, after all.”
“I wanted to give you a fair chance,” Ami replied. Not Phix, but Ami’s voice coming out through Phix. “It’s no fun if you couldn’t possibly win. ‘s why I picked Greek myth and why I picked riddles from books that survived the Splice. But hey, pro tip? No one likes a sore winner.”
“But I am the winner,” Erin replied, her smug expression widening into a triumphant grin. “Now get out of our way.”
“Are you kidding? What kinda sphinx only asks four riddles. That’s not a good number of riddles at all. ‘s gotta be five, right?”
“Fine,” Erin said, still grinning. “One more riddle I already know the answer to.”
“Very well. The final riddle.” Ami was no longer speaking through Phix, settling back into character. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. Inhale, and then exhale. And when she opened her eyes once more, the predatory grin had returned to her face.
“Why did Erin Leroux move to Esterwood when she was eight years old?”
Erin’s confident grin vanished in an instant.
“H-hey,” Viola interjected. “That’s not fair. That’s not a riddle.”
“As the one asking the riddles here, I respectfully disagree,” Phix replied coldly. “Besides,” Ami continued, breaking character once more. “It’s like I said; no one likes a sore winner.”
“It’s not even an interesting question. Her mom works at Locksmouth university, right? She probably moved here to be closer to her job or something.”
“Wrong,” Phix replied.
That caught Viola off guard. “What?”
“You heard me. Your answer was incorrect. But, well, you’ve been on a winning streak and I’m feeling magnanimous, so I’ll let your friend have a chance to answer correctly.”
Viola slowly turned to look at Erin. The mouse’s face was pale, her mouth flat and her eyes wide. “What’s she talking about?”
“I-” Erin started, and then stopped. “I don’t- I can’t.” She pulled away from Viola, taking a shaky step backwards. “Please don’t make me,” she said, almost on the verge of tears.
Erin took a few more shaky steps backwards before dropping into a squatting position, pulling her knees tightly against her chest and clutching her head. “No no no no no,” she muttered. “It’s fine. I’m fine. They fixed me. I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.”
“Erin what’s wrong.” All thoughts of the monster, apparently called a sphinx, vanished from Viola’s mind. She didn’t give a fuck about Ami’s stupid game. Right now Erin was clearly descending into some sort of panic attack, and Viola’s only concern was to help her. She rushed over to the mouse, kneeling in front of her and placing her hands gently on the slightly smaller girl’s shoulders.
“Don’t touch me!” Erin screamed in response.
Viola immediately pulled her hands away. “Okay,” she said, simply, before turning to give Phix a dirty look. “What did you do to her.”
“Merely asked her a simple question,” Phix purred in response. “One that it seems she is unprepared to answer. A shame, really. I was hoping you would last a bit longer, but it seems you’ve already lost.”
“Only because you cheated!” Viola shouted, filled with a sudden indignation.
“I did nothing of the sort. I said I would ask you questions, and I have asked you questions. Honestly, I should have disqualified you when your friend jumped the gun on the first one. I followed the rules to the letter, and you both have lost. Fair and square.”
“Bullshit!” Viola shouted. That same sudden swell of courage from when Ami had first made her presence known filled her once again, and she rose to her feet. “That wasn’t a fair question and you damn well know it! Just because Erin was kind of a poor sport doesn’t give you the right to kill us!”
“I suppose you have something of a point,” Phix conceded. “It’s not particularly interesting to take out half of the players this early in the game.”
“Y-yeah! So you’ll-”
“So I’ll only kill one of you~”
Viola wasn’t given the opportunity to react. Considering she was made of stone, Phix moved incredibly fast. The rabbit found herself abruptly pinned under a massive paw, larger than her entire body. Only her head remained free, a gigantic stone claw pressed gently but firmly against her neck. She tried to struggle, and found she couldn’t. She couldn’t move at all. Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe.
The sudden commotion seemed to have been enough to break Erin out of whatever nervous breakdown she was experiencing. “W-wait! Don’t hurt her! I’ll answer the question!”
“Oh, it’s faaaar too late for that, child. You’ve already lost, and now you pay the penalty.”
“I’m the one who lost! Leave her be!”
Phix lifted up her free paw, extending her claws. “No. No, I don’t think I will. This one’s got much more meat on her bones.”
“Stop it!” Erin screamed desperately. “Stop it! Let us go!”
“No. If you cannot pass me by overcoming my challenge then you have to pay a penalty. That’s how it works. Which means that unless you think you can beat me in a fistfight, then Viola Coniglio dies here.”
Viola didn’t exactly have the best view of the action, but she could gather roughly what happened next from the context clues alone. Erin took a step forward, and in doing so a green inky substance flowed out from seemingly nowhere and covered her body. Another step forward and her body seemed to flow bigger as she moved, going from just barely under five feet to large enough to look Phix in the eye. One final step accompanied by her fist flying forward and colliding with the statue’s face. The beast stumbled backwards, freeing Viola. She took the opportunity to scramble out of the way of the fight.
Titania grabbed Phix’s raised paw before the sphinx had a chance to lower it. She squeezed, a loud crackling noise echoing across the mountainside. “What!?” Phix cried, caught completely off guard. “How did-”
“Shut up.” Titania’s voice came from Erin’s mouth, cold and empty. There was something about it that profoundly unsettled Viola, beyond just the overt violence as the gigantic Kadabra pulled Erin’s fist back and sent it flying once more into the sphinx’s face with a sickening crunch. She pulled her fist back again before once more sending it flying, and again and again and again. “Die die die die DIE!” she said, and then shouted, her voice building in intensity with every strike. She sent her fist flying one final time, but this time instead of punching she grabbed the beast’s face firmly with her hands, using it to gain leverage as she wrenched its arm off.
Phix screamed in agony, an inhuman noise like millions of billions of bees making as loud a noise as they were capable of in unison. Titania seemed unfazed, pulling the foreleg back, back, back, before swinging it directly into the monster’s stony visage. Or what was left of it, at least, barely recognizable as a face after the pummelling it had been on the receiving end of.
The collision between foreleg and face was enough to destroy both, reducing them to rubble. Phix’s lifeless body twitched slightly, before collapsing to the side and sliding its way down the mountainside. Titania watched it fall dispassionately, barely even seeming to register that she had won.
“... Oh,” she said quietly. There was a warmth to her voice that had been absent during the fight – if you could really call it a fight. More of a one-sided beatdown. Not that she sounded particularly happy about events, mind. Just the opposite, in fact. She sounded horrified at what she had just done.
Of course, Viola didn’t exactly have the biggest sample size. Titania only managed to say exactly that before collapsing forward. The ink flowed away, back to wherever it had came from. And with it, the size, leaving Erin’s unconscious body lying in the snow.
Asterion’s meaty fists collided with Vienna’s shield, repeatedly and rhythmically. The rabbit winced slightly with every thunderous collision. “You gonna be okay?”
“It doesn’t hurt, but I can’t keep this up forever.”
“How long can you keep it up?”
“I don’t know I’ve kinda never had to do this before.”
“Fair enough,” Ursula muttered. “I guess it’s gonna be down to who runs out of stamina first, then?”
“He doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”
“That’s fine ‘cos I’ve got no fuckin’ clue what we could even do if he did stop attacking long enough for us to fight back.”
Asterion picked that moment to stop his relentless pounding, opening his vast maw to unleash another deafening roar. In spite of the shield, Vienna’s ears flopped in the wind his bellowing created, though thankfully the accompanying spittle splattered against the transparent barrier. Still, that was a small consolation. His breath reeked of rotting corpses. “Oh god,” Vienna said, gagging slightly.
“I’m gonna book it.”
That was all the words that needed to be exchanged. It was all they had time to exchange as the beast immediately chased them. Ursula barely had time to run a few feet before having to dive out of the way. She slid across the ground uncomfortably – her ribs screamed at her to not do that again. “Fuck!”
Asterion charged over them, sliding to a stop a few feet away. He practically drifted, less like an animal and more like a car. Or, more accurately, like a cargo truck. He pivoted around to face them again, pawing at the ground like-
Well, like an angry bull about to charge. “Okay, we’re not gonna get anywhere like this. We need some kinda plan.”
“I’m gonna punch ‘im.”
“Well, I don’t hear you suggesting anything better.”
“I feel like not getting into a fistfight with the giant angry monster is by default better than getting into a fistfight with the giant angry monster.”
“Okay fine I won’t punch it but we need to do something.”
Vienna clutched tightly to Ursula’s back. “I’ll, uh, think of something.”
“Well think quick ‘cause he’s gonna charge again at any minute.”
“Okay uh maybe I can, like... move us out of the way without dropping our shield?” She frowned slightly. “Ugh, I’m grasping at straws here. How would that even help in the slightest? I wish I had more than one hand free so I could protect us and also, like, do something. Bludgeon it or whatever.”
“Hm.” Ursula narrowed her eyes, carefully scanning the arena. “Wait. Fuckin’ duh.”
“I have a plan.”
“Okay, cool, mind filling me in on it?”
“Just keep him from killing us until I can get us into position.”
“Wait hold o-ack!”
Ursula darted forward, at a slight angle from Asterion. The bull roared again, charging forward, but Vienna yanked her hand to one side and the shield slid with it, taking the two girls out of the way just in time. “Nice!”
“Thanks, can you tell me what the plan is?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve fought this exact boss in like a billion video games.”
“Ursula that doesn’t fill me with confidence.”
Asterion skidded to a stop once more, using the momentum of his body to turn around and face the girls once more. He roared, a deep, animalistic noise of raw rage. “Okay good we’re in position.”
“Ursula please tell me what the plan is.”
“Drop the shield.”
“Don’t worry. This’ll work. Just drop the shield. We need to bait him into charging us, then you’ll put the shield back up and get us out of the way at the last second. Simple!”
“That’s a terrible plan. Why would we even want to-” Vienna’s words caught in her throat as she realized exactly where Ursula had positioned them. “Wait you’re not-”
“I one hundred percent am,” Ursula replied with a confident grin.
“Oh my god.”
“Hush, this is gonna be awesome.”
“Are you insane?!” Vienna countered desperately. “He is absolutely going to kill us!”
“We’re gonna be fine. This guy’s a chump.”
“He’s like five times our size!”
“Chump. Drop the shield!”
“Okay, what’s your plan then?”
“...” Vienna dropped the shield.
“I reserve the right to say I told you so when we die.”
“You already filled your I-told-you-so quota for the day, babe. Hey, ugly! Come and get some!” Ursula shouted at the beast, pounding her chest with a balled-up fist and then immediately regretting it as a sharp, burning jab of pain shot through her body from the point of impact. “Ow. Right. Broken ribs.”
“I’m suddenly filled with unshakable confidence.”
“Hush,” Ursula hissed before turning to face the monster. “C’mon, ya’ ugly sunovabitch! Come at me! No shields, no superpowers, just mano a mano, fist against fist! Fuckin’ hit me, bitch!”
Asterion roared once final time before charging forward once more.
“oh god we’re gonna die.”
“Just be ready to get us outta the way- Now!”
Vienna pulled out the shield again as quickly as she was capable of. Part of her worried she’d waited far too long, but frankly she didn’t have the time to worry. It was this or death, and so she chose going with the plan. The terrible, terrible plan. With a rough, forceful wave of her hand, using as much of her body as she was capable of while riding piggyback, the two girls went flying to the left while Asterion continued to barrel headlong into the statue.
“Fuckin’ nice!” Ursula cried triumphantly as the massive bull collided with the statue. Asterion fell backwards, stunned and the statue crumbled into large chunks of rubble that fell directly on top of him.
“I can’t believe that actually worked,” Vienna panted from exertion.
“Okay now hit ‘im with the shield while he’s out of it.”
“Right!” Vienna dropped the shield before reforming it in the air directly above the pile of rubble and limbs and sending it crashing down as hard as she fucking could. Up, and then down, over and over with all her strength. And it was taking her strength, she realized. She’d never really experimented with her power’s limits before now. And that was coming back around to bite her in the butt. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep it up.
Unfortunately, it turned out to not matter. Asterion pulled himself upright (or as upright as he got) from the remains of the statue, letting out another cry of rage.
“It’s okay, I’ve got a plan.”
“Because your last one worked so well!”
“Exactly! Glad you’re starin’ to see things my way, babe.” Ursula continued to grin, almost eagerly. “We just need to do that again until the motherfucker stops movin’.”
“Ursula, in case you didn’t notice we’re kind of out of obstacles to make him crash into.”
“I dunno what you’re talking about, I see one real big obstacle we could still use.”
“Now you’re getting it,” Ursula said before turning and running. “Come on, let’s get out of this shitty labyrinth.”
“Now’s, uh, probably a bad time to be criticizing the robot.”
“What are you talking about, I ain’t criticizing shit. This is fuckin’ great! If we weren’t probably gonna get blown the fuck up I’d be having the time of my goddamn life.”
“You’re a lunatic.”
“Yeah, and you totally love me for it~”
“I...” Vienna sighed. As much as she was terrified for her goddamn life, she did have to admit; this was kinda fun. Exhilarating. In a kinda fucked up sorta way. “Just... please try not to get us killed, okay?”
“I am like seventy five percent confident that we’re not gonna die.”
“What happened to one hundred percent?”
“Looks like our friend’s come around. Get ready.”
“Ugh, if we die I’m gonna kill you.” Still, Vienna once again dropped the shield.
“Hey look Dipshit McGee, we’re defenceless again! Don’t worry, just keep on doin’ the same stupid thing! I betcha this time it’ll work!” Asterion didn’t even bother roaring, immediately charging forward, faster than before. “Shit I think we pissed him off.”
“What the fuck do you mean ‘we’?”
“Shut up and get us outta the way!”
Vienna didn’t need to be told twice, bringing the shield back up and pulling them off to the side just in time for Asterion to collide with the wall of the central chamber, breaking through it and then continuing on through several more layers of maze, off into the distance.
“Huh. That... actually kinda worked out in our favour?” Vienna said, in between exhausted panting.
“How d’ya figure?”
“He’s so pissed he’s just going all the way through the maze,” the rabbit replied. “Or I guess Ami decided we’d figured it out so she might as well not bother with any more fucking around.”
“I don’t really care either way,” Ursula said. She wasn’t as exhausted as Vienna was, but she hadn’t exactly been relaxing while the bun did all the work, either. “C’mon, let’s go make sure he’s out of the picture.”
They moved fairly slowly, carefully making their way through the path that Asterion had carved. It was surprisingly easy going, all things considered. “God, I can’t believe that worked.”
“Yeah me neither.”
Ursula shrugged. “I mean, I kinda figured that this isn’t real, right? Like, it can’t be. Maybe it’s some kinda trick with holograms or something. So I thought ‘well, how do you fight a giant bull in a video game?’ ‘cause this is basically a video game, right? But, uh-”
“Can we get back to you being surprised that worked?”
“I was kinda, you know. Improvising?”
“Oh my god.”
“Listen this isn’t exactly my element, okay? Call me when Ami’s got a big guy with boxing gloves on and I’ll beat him up, but I’m not used to fighting giant monsters so I kinda had to guess.”
“Oh my god.”
“Don’t you ‘oh my god’ me, young lady.”
“Ugh. Are we almost out of the maze yet? Because I really could use a fucking na-”
Vienna’s words caught in her mouth as they exited the labyrinth. Of course they did.
“Oh shit,” Ursula hissed.
Asterion towered, just barely managing to stand on two feet. All the better to loom over a terrified Viola. The much smaller rabbit stood, frozen in terror, an unconscious and much smaller than normal Erin draped over her back.
“Viola, run!” Ursula shouted. The bull’s head snapped in her direction, and he let out another deafening cry – the force of which caused Viola to fall backwards onto her butt. “No! Fuck!”
“Oh god,” Vienna repeated, on the verge of tears. She had no idea what to do. No plan. No time to come up with a plan. No time to do anything. The monstrous bull turned back to Viola, raising a gargantuan fist into the air before bringing it plummeting back down on a collision course with the terrified bun and unconscious mouse.
Only to collide with thin air.
“Stay the fuck away from my sister!” Vienna practically screamed as she pulled herself off of Ursula’s back.
“H-hey, Vienna, wait-”
Vienna didn’t wait. She charged forward, ignoring the pain in her arm and leg. Ignoring the strange, inky substance that flowed from seemingly nowhere, slowly enveloping her body. It was red, crisscrossed with white lines in a familiar brickwork pattern. In most any other situation, Vienna would probably have had an awful lot to say about this. It was a lot to take in. It completely changed the way she looked at her powers, at her dreams, at herself.
Or it would have, in most any other situation. But right now, there was only one thing on Vienna’s mind. “I said to stay the fuck away from my sister!”
Asterion opened his mouth to roar, only to catch a flying right hook to the face from a massive sphere of red and white. He stumbled slightly, only to take another blow from the left. Vienna swung her fists, alternating between right and left, and the wireframe spheres moved in perfect sync with her, pushing the beast back out of the park and into the street. She pushed forward even as Asterion backed away, farther and farther until he found himself backed up against a building.
He raised a colossal fist in a desperate attempt to swipe at the smaller rabbit, only to find his arm unable to move. Caught inside one of Vienna’s shields. He yanked and struggled, to no avail, and his escape attempt was quickly cut off with a forceful uppercut followed by a downward slam that crashed his jaw into the pavement. Vienna honestly wasn’t sure whether the resultant crunch came from the bull or from the road, and frankly she didn’t give a fuck. “Fuck,” she muttered, pulling her fists back as the dazed creature slowly pulled himself upright. “YOU!” she shouted, punching with both fists as hard as she could. The shields mirrored the movement, colliding with Asterion hard enough to leave him embedded in the side of the skyscraper. He stayed there for a moment before limply falling out, collapsing onto the ground.
“Now that,” he said weakly as spiderweb cracks spread through his stony body. “Is more like it.”
That was the last thing Asterion the Second, God-King of Crete said before he crumbled into dust.
“And fuckin’ stay down,” Vienna muttered as the inky coating slowly receded to wherever it came from. The pain, which had faded with the adrenaline and the whatever-the-fuck-that-was, returned full-force. Not that she had the energy to care. Or to do much of anything other than collapse backwards onto the hard asphalt.
“Vienna!” Viola cried, running over to where her sister lay.
“Hey, Viola,” Vienna said weakly. “’s Erin okay?”
Viola nodded vigorously. “She’s just asleep, I think.”
“That’s good. Actually, a nap sounds nice.” She allowed her body to sprawl across the hard ground. “I’m gonna pass out for a month, that sound good?”
“I don’t think we can manage more than a few hours.”
“That’s fine. Just need to recharge the ol’ batteries.”
With that, darkness crept in from the edge of her vision and Vienna found herself drifting off into unconsciousness.
Viola attempted to drag Vienna and Erin to somewhere more comfortable, but ultimately Ursula ended up doing most of the work on that front. “It’s fine,” the doberman reassured, but it still made Viola feel useless. She had managed to completely fail to contribute to getting past Phix – and as a direct result, Erin was completely burned out. Likely growing big enough to beat the sphinx had used up the last of her prana, whatever that even was. Which was entirely Viola’s fault, as far as the rabbit was concerned. There was a small part of her that wondered what, exactly, she could have done differently that wouldn’t have resulted in a worse outcome, but that was outweighed by the part of her that pointed out that doing something would have been better than nothing. And then of course she’d almost immediately bumblefucked her way right into the path of the giant bull thing – Asterion, according to Ursula. And as a direct result of that, Vienna was also unconscious. They were operating on a strict time limit, and half of their party was already out of commission less than a day in.
And Viola had done exactly fucking nothing. She hadn’t outsmarted the sphinx. She hadn’t outmanoeuvred the bull. And she couldn’t even move her friends to somewhere comfortable to rest. She was useless. Just a fucking load. And she hated it, because it was her fault they were there in the first part.
Ursula lay down on the soft grass of the park. “How’re you holdin’ up?”
Viola grunted in response, squatting sullenly a distance away.
“I’ll take that as a ‘badly’ then.” The doberman sighed.
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Well, that’s fine, ‘cause we’ve got more important things to talk about.” Ursula slowly pulled herself upright and walked over to Viola, who reluctantly stood up in turn.
Viola winced. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m not mad. Not at you, at least.” Ursula narrowed her gaze. “Your sister just turned into a weird monster that looks like her but made out of ink. Where’ve I heard that before?”
“I, um-” Viola slowly trailed off into nervous silence.
“Answer me. Now.”
“D-do you mean-”
“I’m not talking to you, Viola.” Ursula’s gaze narrowed. “I’m talking to Aubrey.”
“Look,” the larger girl said with a sigh. “I don’t exactly get the best grades and I’m a lot better at punching than I am at thinking, but I’m not stupid. You literally fucking talked to me in my dreams last night and now Vienna’s turning into something that looks an awful lot like whatever you are and Erin’s short and regrew an arm and everyone but me and maybe Viola’s got superpowers. I can see that something’s up. I’m not a fucking idiot.” She forcefully – but not too forcefully – jabbed Viola in the chest. “Now, it’s pretty clear that you’re the same thing as whatever just fuckin’ did that with Vienna, so I’m not gonna give you the courtesy of finding a reflective surface. We need to talk. Now.”
Viola stared at Ursula. Confused, intimidated, and a little bit turned on. “Um, I- O-okay. Give her a second to figure out how to come out.”
It took Aubrey a bit under a minute to start coming out, but eventually the same inky substance that had previously enveloped Vienna and Erin did the same to her. A familiar translucent blue, outlined in shimmering green. One moment Viola was standing nervously before Ursula, the next Aubrey Kadabra was doing the same.
Ursula didn’t seem to be particularly pleased by that fact.
“Um. Hi, I guess. It’s good to meet you. Or meet you in person, that is.”
Ursula took a moment to respond, before sighing heavily and shaking her head. “Yeah. I thought so.”
“Hm?” There was something... off about Ursula’s voice. Different from normal. It was her voice, that much was certain, but at the same time it sounded almost like someone else was using it. “Ursula?”
The doberman closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her muzzle in frustration. Not a gesture she normally did. Aubrey and Viola both felt a sneaking suspicion deep in the pit of their stomach, one that was confirmed when Ursula’s eyes snapped back open and were no longer Ursula’s eyes. Ink flowed forth, black and dotted with what almost looked like outer space. Stars and planets and galaxies, outlined in burgundy red. She reached down and grabbed Aubrey by the throat before she could react, and hoisted her up to eye level.
“You,” Ursula’s Kadabra hissed angrily. “You and I are going to have a very, very, very long conversation about exactly how colossally you’ve fucked up.”
Trapped in a mysterious underground city and separated from each other, Viola and her pack find themselves fighting for survival on a tight time limit. Their obvious next step is to get the group back together.