Okay, yeah, that was obviously a lot to get dumped on us on top of everything else that we were dealing with at that moment. I felt myself physically reel backwards, before looking quickly to the four Aspects who had accompanied us into this place. “Guys? What’s he talking about?” Even as I asked that, my gaze was snapping right back to where Amm–Theodore(?) was still standing. Part of me wouldn’t–couldn’t believe that this wasn’t some sort of trick. Ammon was right there, he was inside Denny’s mind. Of course he was, of course. She had his memories. Having the boy’s mind as well, his personality locked in this–but he said he wasn’t actually–what?
Letters spoke for the others, staring that way as well with an unblinking gaze. “I promise, we didn’t know anything about this. We thought it was just Ammon’s bad memories that were locked up in this place. That’s what it’s for.”
A–Theodore spoke again, his eyes glancing away while he seemed to shrink in on himself a little. “That’s the whole reason I’m here. I am one of his bad memories. The worst memory. I’m what he used to be before our father changed us. I’m what he was, or maybe what he could’ve been. And the piece of him that our father locked away, so he could create… him. But part of him still remembered who he was. He hated me, hated those memories. Or maybe he loved me. I… I’m not sure. Maybe it was both. But I am his worst memory, that’s why I’m locked up here.” His voice was soft, resigned.
This was so much to take in. Just staring at the boy like that, I had to force myself to unclench my fist. My nails had left marks on the palm of my hand. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him. God, what–what was I supposed to do with this? What was I supposed to do with him? Was he really the–for lack of a better term, ‘good’ part of Ammon? Was he Ammon’s good personality that had been suppressed and locked away by Fossor? Or was this some sort of trick? When it came to Ammon, I felt incredibly paranoid about any evil ‘games’ he might have been playing. I really could not have put it past him to try something like this, just to fuck with us. Or rather, just to fuck with me.
While I was thinking about that, the boy spoke up once more. “There’s something I know. Something I remember from when he died–when we died. I can’t say it out loud because it’s dangerous, and I don’t know how… how it’ll react in here. Maybe it won’t do anything because we’re all in her head. But you know why I can’t say it.”
Oh. Oh yeah, I did know what he was talking about. He remembered the fact that Professor Dare hadn’t been affected by his power, and what that had to mean. He was the one who had ended up with that memory. Was he trying to give me some proof that he wasn’t evil, that he really was what he claimed to be? Would the real Ammon, the one I knew, have thought things through like that? Or would he just have blurted it out for fun to see what happened? I wasn’t sure. I just–I didn’t know. There was no way to know. Not right now, not like this. So what could–
“Flick.” That was Marina, speaking firmly as she tore her gaze off the boy to focus on me. “This isn’t the time to work all this out. We have to find Denny.”
Of course, she was right. Dealing with the whole Theodore situation was going to have to wait. Whatever else was going on, we had to get Denny the hell out of this haunted mansion. The other stuff could wait until we had her out in the main– wait. “Is she even in here? Is she here, or did everyone just see–um, him in the windows? How good of a look did they get?”
Before the others could answer that, Theodore spoke again. “She’s here. In this place, I mean. I–I can help you find her.” The offer came a bit hesitantly. But it didn’t sound like he was reluctant. It was more like he was afraid we would throw the offer back in his face. “If… if you want, I think I know where she went.”
Right, this could still be a trap, of course. But something told me it wasn’t. Maybe I was just being stupidly naïve. Either way, we had to do something, and wandering around this enormous place completely blind was taking too long.
While all that was working its way through my mind, Walker spoke up. “Look, if he wants to help, let him help. If it’s a trick or whatever, we’ll deal with it. We don’t have time to stand around debating this whole thing all day. She’s in trouble. So can we get a move on or what?”
Pushing all those other thoughts out of my mind, I nodded. “She’s right, we need to find Denny. So if you know where she might be… Theodore, lead the way. We’ll be right behind you.” And yes, I had more than one reason for deliberately pointing out that we would be following him. It might’ve made some level of sense to give him some benefit of the doubt in the moment, but I wasn’t going to be stupid about it. We still couldn’t be completely sure what his deal was.
Theodore, visibly and audibly swallowing, stepped out of the doorway he had been standing in, and slowly began to walk past the six of us. His voice was a soft murmur. “This way. I think she’s downstairs. Very, very far downstairs.”
So, we followed him. Things got worse rather than better as we kept going. The images were even more horrific and consistent, often shoving themselves right in our faces so we couldn’t ignore them. And it wasn’t just images, but sound as well. We heard the screams, the sick sound of bones breaking, even the horrifyingly slick sound of blades carving through flesh. We saw it, heard it, and smelled it. Even though they were ‘just’ holographic images in front of us, or played along the walls and windows, we could actually smell the blood and rotting flesh. It made my stomach churn and my heart ache.
But then I realized the truth. The images weren’t worse just because we were getting closer to Denny. They were worse because of who we were with. What we had been seeing and experiencing before were just shadows of what these were. The main point of all this was to torture Theodore. The holograms were so much more realistic now because we were with him. He was the target, the one the images, the sounds, the smells were focused on. Even if everything he’d said was true, and he was really the ‘good’ part of Ammon, he was still being tormented by the memories of everything the other side of him had done. If this was true, then he was a little boy who was being viciously tortured by memories of things he’d had no control over.
Fuck, fuck. This whole place, all of it was just–it was wrong. We had to get the hell out of this mansion, as fast as possible. But first, we had to find Denny.
And find her, we did. Though it required following Theodore all the way down into the lower subbasement of the mansion. We tracked down heavy wooden stairs into what amounted to a dirt pit with cement walls, and found the girl in question huddled in a corner with her knees drawn to her chest. There was a line around her, a half circle from one corner wall to the other, with Denny curled up behind it. The line glowed a bit with what seemed like magical power, and I could see the ghost images that we had been subjected to all around her. They didn’t cross the line. Apparently they couldn’t. I wasn’t sure how that worked or how Denny had figured it out. Maybe it was just because this was her mind and she controlled it, to some extent anyway.
Theodore, who stepped back out of the way and half-disappeared into the thick shadows, spoke in that soft, tentative voice. “They’re here for me, but she’s close enough for them.”
“Flak?” I immediately announced while glancing that way.
She, in turn, nodded and sent a burst of fire that actually dissolved the various ghost images. With the way clear, all of us ran to Denny. Marina was first, though she stopped short of the line. Somehow, it felt wrong to cross it. Even if it didn’t affect us, the girl had put it up as a bit of protection. Instead, Marina took a knee in front of her. “Denny, Denny, it’s us. It’s Marina. It’s okay, you’re okay. I…” She hesitated with her hand partway outstretched, still not crossing the line the girl had drawn. “Denny, are you alright?”
For her part, the younger girl drew her knees to her chest and shook her head rapidly. “Have to go away. Have to be gone. Can’t be outside. Can’t be there. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t let him out.”
The line slowly dissolved, disappearing as she dropped her gaze with obvious shame, unwilling to look at us. Immediately, Marina reached out to pull the girl up, dropping beside her so she could wrap both arms around Denny. “No, no. It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s alright. You saved Dakota. You saved her, Denny.”
Nodding, I put myself on the other side of the girl, taking her hand with mine. “She’s right, Denny. We know what happened. You stopped Perrsnile. You stopped him. We know all of that. We know he was the bad guy. You saved Dakota. It’s okay. No one blames you for that. He was a monster and you stopped him.”
“I killed him.” That was her soft, pained reply. “I know I had to. I know. But…” Her eyes closed, and I saw a tear slide its way down her cheek as she admitted in a hoarse, horrified voice. “I liked it. I enjoyed it. I wanted to see him die more. He was afraid, and I… I watched him die and I…” more tears came, her eyes squeezing even more tightly shut. “I loved it. I loved seeing how scared he was. It was Ammon. It was that part of him. I wanted to kill again.”
“I’m sorry.” That was Theodore. The boy had come forward, and slowly sat down a few feet away from us, still on the edge of the line.
Denny, looking up, gasped a little and reflexively recoiled while blurting a half-panicked, “Get away fro–wait.” She stopped then. “You… you’re not him. You look like him, but you’re not. I can tell you’re not.”
There was a brief pause before Theodore wrapped both arms around his stomach and hunched in on himself protectively. I could see the shudder that ran through his small form. “I think… I think when you get down to it, I’m his… his guilt. I’m the part of him that was locked away, the part that felt bad about… about all of it. The part he was trying to find.” His eyes had been closed, but they opened as he looked up to stare at the girl, and I could see the tears there. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for… for what we did to you. But you’re not this.” His gaze turned to look at the nearest of the horrific images playing out nearby. “You didn’t do that. You didn’t do any of it. Please, stop torturing yourself with it. You didn’t do that stuff. You aren’t that person.”
“Neither are you.” That was Marina, suddenly speaking firmly. “Neither of you are the person responsible for any of those things. You aren’t him. So you don’t need to be locked up in here either. Nobody does. This place should be burned to the ground. But… failing that, no one should be inside.”
Swallowing as a myriad of thoughts ran through me, I glanced up. “Walker,” I murmured, “we need to get out of here. All of us.”
The gray-skinned girl gave a little nod, then made a sharp gesture with her hand. Shadows enveloped us that time, until we were all back outside the mansion, in the middle of the carnival grounds. The six of us, along with Denny and Theodore.
“You knew the other versions of you were here, didn’t you?” Marina quietly noted, still squeezing Denny closer to herself. “You made this carnival for them.”
“I had a dream about going to the carnival,” came the hoarse whisper, “just before the other dreams, before I found out about Ammon and all of that. It was a really good dream. It was so… realistic. I dreamed that I was… older, just a couple years. I was at the carnival for a school trip, with my friends. There were four of us and… and they were my best friends in the world. We spent all day at the carnival and it was my favorite day ever. We won these big teddy bear things and they had these little top hats. We had those Dippin Dots ice cream and it was–we were sharing the–” She cut herself off, taking a deep, shuddering breath.
“I thought it was so weird, having a dream that was that real. It was like a memory, but it couldn’t be, because I was older in the dream. Now… now I guess we know why. But whatever the… the reason, it was so vivid. Then when… when I felt everyone in my head, I wanted… them to be somewhere nice. They deserve to be somewhere nice. Even if I had to lock myself up. Then I remembered the carnival, so I… I made it.”
I still had no idea how she had managed something like this, or exactly how the whole ‘creating alternate personalities based off a combination of some form of herself and pieces of the Alters Ammon had killed’ thing worked, or… a lot of it. But it was right in front of us. Clearly, it happened.
“You deserve to be somewhere nice too.” That wasn’t Marina or me, it was Letters. She stood alongside Flak, Bang-bang, and Walker. In that moment, Bijou joined them, as did Peanut, landing on Letters’ shoulder. Loudpound, the taller, sort of Orcish Denny, moved up behind the others. Even the wooden/Relukun-like Aspect I’d caught a brief glimpse of earlier, whose name was apparently Butternut, was there. Soon, the rest of the Aspects had formed a circle around us. At a glance, there were somewhere around twenty of them. And they were all echoing the sentiment that Denny deserved to be happy.
“And you definitely don’t need to lock yourself up in there,” Marina added, with a glance toward the haunted mansion. “No one deserves to be in there.” She gave a quick glance toward Theodore, who was standing a bit apart from everyone else. “No one.”
There was a moment of quiet, as Denny stared at the ground, then looked up and took in all of her Aspects. “Thank you. I… really did want this place to be fun for you.” She took a breath and let it out before looking over to Marina and me. “I won’t go back in the mansion. But… but I don’t think I’m ready to go back out… there again yet. The things I… I felt when I killed him, I can’t–I can’t go out there right now. Not yet. But… the others can.”
“You mean us?” Walker put in.
“All of you,” Denny confirmed. “And me too, sometimes. I mean, later. I made you. Or… something made you. I don’t know, exactly. But you’re here. You’re real. You’re people too. You deserve to walk around in the outside world. We can share. We can take turns. Maybe if I just take turns it won’t be so hard.”
Oh boy was there a lot I wanted to say to that. I felt like this was far out of my league. Denny needed a psychologist. Maybe we could get one inside here to–right, yeah. That was going to be a whole thing. But on the other hand, she was right that if all these Aspects were real personalities and all, they did deserve to have their own chance ‘outside,’ as it were.
The Aspects were all talking amongst themselves about what it would be like to go outside. Some seemed eager, others uncertain but willing, and a few made it clear that they had no desire whatsoever to do it.
“Maybe I can help you,” Theodore put in, clearly hesitantly. “I mean, if you want to talk about… about what happened, about our memories. Maybe that would help?”
“I think it would help both of you to talk about them,” I managed. Sure, the idea of Denny getting help from someone who looked like the boy who had killed her–yeah, the whole thing was fucked up beyond belief. But if this was really a part of Ammon that wasn’t evil, the part Fossor had suppressed or… or whatever, then they might just be the only two who really understood each other and what they were going through.
“I’d like that,” Denny was saying, while staring at him. Her voice was just as hesitant as his, yet she had clearly thought it through. “I have… questions about a lot of things.”
“We can stay in here and talk about all of that,” Theodore offered, squirming a little uncertainly. “While the others go outside.”
“Outside,” Jordan, the water-focused Aspect with the blue skin/scales and trident put in. “We can really go outside?”
“We… have to be fair about it,” Denny murmured thoughtfully. “So… you go outside with the hall pass. Like the restroom at school.” As she said that, a white plastic thing about eight or nine inches long, four inches wide, and thin like a bookmark appeared in her hand. The words ‘Hall Pass’ were written in cursive purple letters across the front, and there was sparkly glitter on it.
“One at a time,” she announced, before holding it out. “You can give it to each other, but you can’t take it without permission. You have to share.” There was a moment of uncertainty among the Aspects, but in the end, Walker took it. She, after all, had been the one to bring us in here in the first place. Well, Bijou had asked for our help to start with, but she was still a bit skittish about the idea. So Walker would go first.
“Denny,” Marina started.
The other girl interrupted. “It’s okay. I just… I’d like to be in my carnival for awhile, with my new friends.” She glanced toward Theodore with a hesitant smile before turning back to us as the smile faded a bit. “I can’t go out there. I’m not ready. Tell Dakota I’ll be watching. And she can come in here and visit. Just have–have Walker bring her.”
This… hooboy, this whole situation was really confusing. But I had no idea what to do or say about it. Obviously, Denny needed help beyond what either Marina or I could give her. Not because she wanted to share her body with the other Aspects, that was understandable. But her reluctance to go outside at all, I felt like someone should talk with her about that. Someone who was better at it than me. When you added in the whole Theodore thing, it was… eesh.
Instead of getting into all that, however, I leaned over to embrace the girl. “You have Walker pull us in to talk to you a lot, okay? And Dakota’s gonna want to hop in and see this place too.”
Marina expressed the same sentiment while embracing her as well. Both of us made her promise to have us and others visit her. Finally, we all stood up. The rest of the Aspects closed ranks around Denny, clearly protecting her.
Turning to Theodore, I hesitated once more. “I don’t know–I don’t know what to say to you. Not right now.”
“That’s okay,” he murmured with a self-conscious squirm. “I don’t know what to say either. I… I’m sorry. I’m sorry about everything. If… I know it’s a lot, but if you ever want to talk again, you know where I’ll be.”
I paused, then nodded. There wasn’t a lot I could say to that, but there was one thing. Reaching out, I forced my hand to stop trembling before putting it on his shoulder. As he looked up at me, I took a moment to find my voice. “I’m glad you aren’t in the haunted house anymore. Just… just stay away from those memories, okay? You belong out here, where you can… where you and everyone else can help each other.”
He nodded solemnly at that, looking like he had no idea how to respond. Which was fair, since I had no idea what else to say just then. At least I didn’t have to figure it out right away. He would be in here, and if I wanted to talk to him again, well, I could.
Yeah, this situation was fucked up, to say the least. But we were just going to have to deal with that. Just like every other fucked up situation in my life.
With the other Aspects clustered around Denny and ready to help her, Walker remained standing near the two of us. The gray-skinned girl cracked her neck, then glanced to Marina and me while clutching the hall pass in one hand. “Ready to go back outside?”
Before either of us could answer, I felt that twisting, shifting sensation. And just like that, we were gone once more.