A few minutes later, Marina and I were walking through the carnival once more. We were passing a spinning teacup ride as the other girl shook her head. “I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on. Are we really inside Denny’s head? Like, literally inside her? Is this what it’s like when you possess someone?”
I swallowed slightly. “Not exactly. I mean, there can be mental constructs. I’ve got something like that when I’m training with… one of my new friends. She helps me out inside my head, and she’s got this whole virtual reality sort of thing. But this seems different, somehow.” My shoulders rose in a helpless shrug. “I guess we just have to roll with it. Weird stuff happens in this universe.”
“I’m pretty sure weird stuff happens in every universe,” she replied before leaning over one of the game booths to call, “Denny! Denny, it’s okay! We just want to talk!” Pausing then, she grimaced. “Saying it like that makes it sound like we actually want to do more than talk, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s hard to make that sound right,” I agreed before looking around once more. Several other versions of Denny, or Aspects as they called themselves, were in sight. The Pixie, who had introduced herself as Peanut, was zipping through the air, hovering over one aisle, then another in a frantic, clearly disorganized aerial search. Meanwhile, the fire-controlling, red-skinned Aspect (her name was Flak) was flying a bit more slowly, but with more deliberateness. Then there was Bijou, the bunny-girl, who could apparently phase through solid matter. She kept running back and forth through the booths and rides, searching under everything in sight while fretting out loud. The shabbily-dressed werewolf, who we had come to find out was named Feisty, was moving along one of the other aisles. I caught a glimpse of her now and then, slowly pacing while sniffing intently in an attempt to catch the right scent.
Everyone was looking for the… I wasn’t sure if ‘regular’ Denny was the right term or not. They were all helping us search for the Denny we knew. But nobody was having much luck. This mental construct of a carnival was enormous, and it seemed like there were hundreds of places for her to hide if she didn’t want to talk to us. And that was if she was even actually in the carnival. What if she had taken herself out of this particular construct and was somewhere else entirely? Was that even possible? I had no idea. I didn’t know enough about any of this. For about the millionth time that day, I wished someone like Sariel was here. She’d have a much better idea of what to do. She probably would have solved this entire situation by now.
As it was, all we could really do was keep walking around while calling the girl’s name and hoping she would both hear and listen to us. It wasn’t exactly the best plan, but it was all we had. I really wanted to find Denny. She had to hear that what happened hadn’t been her fault, that she hadn’t done anything wrong. We had to tell her that she wasn’t turning into a monster, in a way that she might actually believe. But first we had to find her.
While Marina and I were looking under another booth, just in case the girl was curled up there, someone came around the corner. I looked up to see yet another half-Alter Aspect of Denny. This one wore military fatigues, and had hair that was very short, like a buzzcut. Other than that, she looked a lot like the Denny we knew, aside from something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Coming to an abrupt halt, the military-Denny snapped a crisp salute. “Bang-bang, reporting in. We believe we have movement in the haunted house on the southwest side.”
Haunted house. Right, why hadn’t I thought of that? Given the mood she was probably in, it made sense that Denny would have hidden herself inside the scary place. Marina and I exchanged looks before turning that way. Before we could go anywhere, however, Bang-bang spoke up behind us. “Pardon, it’s a bit of a hike and, given the urgency of the situation, we can get you there faster, ma’ams. Walker?”
That shadowy, cloaked figure appeared out of nowhere and held her hands out to us. “If you’re actually gonna help Denny, come on. Before she disappears again.”
I only hesitated for a second before reaching out to catch her hand. Marina had already done the same, and we instantly vanished from that spot. I felt my stomach twist itself into knots, which was an odd feeling considering it wasn’t my real stomach. Or any stomach. This whole thing was just a mental construct. So… actually, I had no idea how that worked. Clearly I wasn’t in my actual body right now. But was my real body still outside? Was it in limbo? Was I sort of technically possessing her? Were we both– huh. Yeah, I had a lot of questions. But right now, all that mattered was finding Denny.
As soon as that wave of disorientation and nausea filled me, it was gone, as we found ourselves standing in front of the haunted house in question. It was at the end of a long, winding path through what was supposed to be a graveyard. The tombstones themselves were covered in webs and moss, while the dirt around the graves was pushed up, with bits of broken coffins visible. Clearly that bit was intended to make it seem like the dead had torn themselves up out of their own graves. Which, as far as that sort of thing went, was pretty effective.
Then there was the haunted house itself. The place looked like an actual mansion, five stories tall and covered in dark vines and more spiderwebs. It was positively creepy, even just from standing out here on the brightly lit path next to the rest of the carnival. I really wasn’t excited about going in there, not when I didn’t have any powers right now, or any weapons. It just didn’t sound like my idea of a fun time. But then, this was just inside Denny’s mind. Nothing could actually happen to us, right? Nothing would happen. We were going inside to get Denny so we could talk to her. That’s what mattered. We just had to find her in there.
Landing nearby with a short burst of flame, Flak stared up at the house and swallowed. “The bad place. She shouldn’t be in there. Why did she go in there?”
“Bad place?” I echoed, looking that way. “What do you mean?”
It was Letters who answered, stepping up on the other side of us while speaking in a quiet, subdued voice. “We have lots of Ammon’s memories locked up inside there. The bad ones. The scary ones. Why would Denny go in that place? There’s nothing good in there. It’s where we locked everything terrible away.”
Marina answered immediately. “Because she thinks she’s bad too. She’s trying to lock herself in the bad place because she thinks she belongs there. She killed Perrsnile. So she thinks she deserves to be locked up with the other bad things.”
Without another word, the girl gave me a pointed look before stepping forward. There was a loud, anxiety-inducing creak as she pushed the gate open and started along that path toward the front door in the distance. I was right behind her. Letters, Walker, Flak, and Bang-bang followed suit. The other Aspects were staying outside, and the four who were with us didn’t seem that happy about being there either. I had a feeling this place creeped most of them out pretty badly. Which, if it was holding what they said it was, I really couldn’t blame them for. I wasn’t exactly eager to see any of Ammon’s memories myself. This whole thing felt like a terrible idea.
Glancing to the side, I saw the gravestones. They had names on them, and dates. It took me a moment to realize what they were. The graves were for all the people Ammon had killed. These were the names of all his victims. That thought made me swallow, as I realized just how large the cemetery really was, considering the thing stretched out into the yard behind the mansion. This… this was a very bad place for Denny to lock herself inside of. No wonder the other Aspects were so anxious about it. I certainly wouldn’t want to be here if I had any other choice.
Finally, as we reached the front porch and mounted the painfully creaking wooden steps to the door, I grimaced at the sight of the heavy bronze knocker. It was shaped like a twisted demon head with its mouth open in a horrifying scream, and had what looked like real dried blood over it. If this had been a real haunted house (well, ‘real’), that would have been a pretty decent bit of attention to detail. The fact that Denny had made this herself made me wonder if she was pulling from memories the older her had. Which might’ve been a strange thought to wonder about, but I really had no idea what we were walking into here. It felt like we needed to have all the information we could. But on the other hand, we didn’t have time to sit and think about it. If Denny was in here, we needed to get her out. The details could wait.
Ignoring the knocker, Marina grabbed the knob and shoved the door open. It was really stiff and groaned loudly through the entire motion, which just added nicely to the whole ambience, really. We couldn’t have more obviously announced our entrance if we’d come with a full brass band.
Despite that, we moved into the front foyer as silently as possible. Our eyes were snapping quickly around the room to take in as much as possible while watching for any threats. Not that we had any idea what sort of threat we might find in a place like this, but still. We just had to watch and be careful.
There were more webs and very realistic-looking skeletons (okay, they were probably literally real as far as the mind-space went) hanging along the walls, along with a set of stairs leading up to the second floor. Next to the stairs was a set of double doors, while a smaller door stood to the left. The whole place was lit by soft candles that flickered a lot, casting incredibly creepy shadows in every direction, which kept making my gaze snap toward them as my brain misinterpreted the dancing shadows as actual movement out of the corner of my eyes.
For a few seconds, we were quiet, looking around while listening for anything. Then Marina shook her head and muttered something about having enough of that. She raised her voice and shouted as loudly as she could, “Denny! It’s Marina and Flick! And…” She looked to the other four before adding, “your friends! It’s okay! Everything’s alright! Please, we just miss you, that’s all! We want to see you! You didn’t do anything wrong! You’re not in trouble!”
She trailed off then, and we all listened once more. Aside from the eerie sound of her words echoing through the house, there was nothing. No response. If Denny heard us, she wasn’t responding. Which didn’t really mean anything right now, considering the situation. Looking over at Bang-bang, I asked, “Come to think of it, I probably should’ve asked this before, but what did you mean when you said someone saw movement over here? What exactly did they see?”
“She was in one of the windows, ma’am,” came the answer. “All the way up on the fifth floor. But then later they saw her in the fourth floor window, and it looked like some sorta shadow moving over the second floor bedroom balcony just before we came in here. So we’re not sure where she is now. Seems like she’s moving around a lot. I’m in contact with the troops outside, though. If there’s any new signs of our girl, they’ll let us know as soon as it happens. It’s all clear right now.”
“Uh, sorry, Miss Bang-bang, but how are you in contact with them?” Marina asked, blinking that way. “I mean, do you have like, a radio you’re listening to, or…”
Shaking her head, Bang-bang replied, “Apologies Miss Marina, but I have to say, I just prefer the more masculine pronouns. He, him, if you don’t mind. I know it’s odd, considering our circumstances and where we come from, but that just feels more natural to me, personally-speaking.”
Pausing to let us absorb that, sh–no, he continued. “And, as it turns out, most of the deaths I’m connected to are Alters with powers that involve delayed or charged effects. A lot of that involves explosions of various types. Charge a rock with power and set it to go off after a certain amount of time, or when someone says a specific word. Not just explosions either, there’s a whole list. That’s the general idea. But ahh, another Alter I’m connected to happened to be what is called an Iesean.” It sounded like Ice-eon. “Among a few other things, the power I have from that includes the ability to mark objects and then see and hear through them. I’ve got a few of those objects with people outside so they can talk to us.” When my mouth opened, he nodded to me. “Just like the one you killed in Las Vegas, ma’am, for your lesser version of the power.” After a brief pause, he grimaced. “Ah, when I say lesser–”
“It’s no problem, really,” I assured him. “Believe me, I get it. But just so you know, Marina and I don’t have any powers or anything in here. We might end up being more of a handicap than you expect, if there actually is something bad in this place.”
“You might not have superpowers,” Letters informed us quietly from where she was standing near an old painting of a lighthouse on the edge of a cliff, “but you do have a lot of regular power. Denny likes you, both of you. She’s afraid you’ll hate her now, that you’ll be disgusted by her, for what she did.” She paused briefly, eyes glancing away from us while she continued in a very soft voice. “For being like Ammon.”
“She’s not like–” Stopping myself as I realized that Denny was the person who really needed to hear that, I took a breath before turning to start walking to the stairs. “Let’s go. If she’s in here, we have to find her. This isn’t a good place for anyone to be, let alone Denny. Especially not in the mindset she’s probably in right now.”
Dad had taken me through a few different ostensibly scary places in the past, wanting to show me the various ways you could tell that there was nothing actually wrong. It was part of his teaching me to logically think through things and spot inconsistencies. Especially when it came to what people said and what the rest of your senses told you. He’d wanted me to learn not to let a few frightening images mixed with the power of suggestion completely take control of my brain. Between that and the much scarier, very real life and death experiences I’d had over the past year and a half, there really wasn’t a lot that a normal haunted house could’ve thrown at me.
But of course, this wasn’t a normal haunted house. Not in the least. As we began to make our way through the place, we all began to see half-transparent images floating along the walls and in the corners of the rooms. It was all images taken from Ammon’s memories of the horrific things he had done throughout his life. They were like bits from a video projector that was always just out of sight. And they were often better than flat images. More like holographic videos played on the windows, on the walls, or even right out in front of us now and then, as though whatever was behind these images wanted to drive home a particular point about how evil he was. The people he had killed, everyone he had tortured and destroyed, we saw it all as we slowly made our way through that mansion and looked into all the rooms we could find. Not every second of his interactions with them, but just… the highlights. Or lowlights, rather. The worst parts. We saw him kill them, we saw them beg, we saw–we saw all the terrible, horrific things that were part of Ammon’s past and had been passed on to Denny’s memories. We saw what Denny was torturing herself with through all of this.
It was, to put it mildly, not a very fun time. The four Aspects who had been walking with us were mostly huddled together, trying not to look at the various images that kept presenting themselves to us. Flak had created a ball of fire and was making it fly in front of us to illuminate things better, but also had another, smaller fireball cupped in her left hand protectively. It seemed like she was just barely stopping herself from lashing out with that one to burn everything around us.
Finally, as we were subjected to yet another image of Ammon pushing a girl and an old man down an elevator shaft while a bunch of people looked on in horror, Flak blurted, “So what?! That wasn’t us!” With those words, she finally reared back and hurled the ball of fire she was holding so that it went flying out to burn away the ghostly images of the screaming, falling girl. It created a very disturbing effect as the girl in the hologram seemed to be burning up while in mid-fall. “We didn’t do that! None of us did! It wasn’t us! It wasn’t her and it wasn’t us! Fuck off!”
“Damn straight,” Bang-bang insisted. He held his hand up, speaking firmly toward his palm. “Johnny Nines.” His voice sounded odd in those words, sort of echoey and deeper than it should. A second later, a nine-millimeter pistol appeared in his hand. He saw us looking that way and gestured. “Other side of the Iesean powers, ma’am. If I touch an object and empower it with a name, I can call that name and summon the object to me. Also fits that whole ‘charge an object for a later effect’ theme my power set’s got.”
“You named a gun Johnny Nines?” Marina realized, blinking a bit at that.
He, in turn, shrugged. “Well, you know, guns and cars always get girl names. I wanted to switch it up.” With a cough, the boy added, “We gonna go find the chief or what? Feels like we should probably get a move on. This place is… more unsettling the longer we stay in here.”
He was right, of course. So we kept moving. Now we knew some more of what Bang-bang could do, though I was still curious about that whole ‘timed explosion’ thing. And, of course, we already knew about Flak being able to create and control fire as well as fly, and Walker was a teleporter (though given we had no idea where we were going in this place, that didn’t help as much as it might have). Finally, Letters, as she explained it while we were walking, was basically a technopath. A pretty strong one too, apparently. Which, again, didn’t help a lot in here. But she wanted to come along to help, and I was pretty sure we would need as many different… Aspects as we could get if we were actually going to convince the… first Denny that she wasn’t turning into some evil monster.
Yeah, this whole thing was so complicated I could barely keep up with it. But all that really mattered, past all the confusing parts, was getting to Denny and talking to her. Seeing all these Ammon memories, which she had clearly locked herself up in here to torment herself with, made that even more clear than it had already been.
The creak of a door at the end of a nearby hallway made my head snap that way. I could barely catch a glimpse of some shadowy figure standing there, visible through the crack. “Denny?” I called. “It’s us. It’s… it’s okay, we’re here to help.”
Marina nodded. “Come on, let’s get out of here. You don’t need to torture yourself with this stuff.”
“The torture isn’t for her,” a familiar voice quietly informed us, before the door creaked open even more, so we could see the figure standing there. A small boy with bright blond hair. “It’s for me.”
My eyes widened dramatically, as I found myself reflexively stepping in front of Marina. “A-Ammon?”
There was a brief pause before the figure shook his head slowly. “No. Not Ammon. I’m the one who was locked away, the one my father tried to destroy.
“Our mother called me Theodore.”