A/N – Hey guys, it’s not my story, but if you would like to see a new slice of life crafting litRPG by long-time reader and supporter of these stories, you should check out Quill & Still. This wholesome work focuses on alchemy, civics, and village life in a place with a kinder and more compassionate status quo. It follows a burned-out scientist named Sophie Nadash, who finally gets to fulfill her dream of being an alchemist (maybe even with fizzy liquids and swoopy tubing). Check it out if you’re intrigued at all.
Joselyn had no idea what her daughter wanted to show her. She had no idea why Denny looked so different, and certainly didn’t know why she had suddenly changed from red to gray like that. Or why her daughter had introduced… them… as two different people. It was all very confusing. And yet, she had seen many confusing things in her life. Over the many decades she had been alive, the woman had learned to roll with the often-absurd chaos of her world.
And yet, despite that experience, she was still taken aback when they found themselves transported into the middle of a brightly lit carnival. Looking around for a moment, Joselyn took in the sight of all the games and rides. There was loud, cheerful music playing from the nearby dart challenge as the targets moved back and forth along the rail, inviting someone to take a shot. Her gaze lingered on that for a moment before she turned back to where her daughter was standing with Tabbris and the gray-skinned Denny. Or Walker, as she had introduced her.
In that moment, as her mouth opened to say something, Joselyn noticed another change. Head tilting to the side, she focused before snapping her eyes back to Felicity. “Something is blocking my power.” It was an… uncomfortable feeling, to say the least. Especially considering the last time she’d had no powers like this was… was when Fossor had restored her memories. She had suddenly known who she really was, and just how much trouble she was in. And yet she’d had absolutely no power to protect herself, or her daughter. No power at all except to surrender herself to that piece of shit for a decade while—while her family went on and grew up without her. The same way her original children had been taken away from her. The same– With effort, she forced the panic about that down. This wasn’t the same, obviously. There was something going on here, but it wasn’t that.
“Oh, shit, yeah,” Felicity confirmed while blanching noticeably. “I probably should’ve warned you about that. Sorry, I didn’t want to get into the whole thing out there in front of the others right now. That whole Manakel thing is uhh… really distracting.” She let out a heavy sigh before looking back and forth between Tabbris and Jocelyn. “First of all, you didn’t randomly just lose your powers or anything. You just don’t have them in here. I guess because we’re not really physically here or something? I don’t know how that works. The fact is, we’re actually–”
Tabbris abruptly piped up with sudden realization. “Inside Denny?! That’s where we are, right? We’re inside Denny!” Even as she finished saying that, the girl stopped and looked around again before quietly murmuring, “Inside Denny is much more cheerful than I would’ve expected.”
The gray Den–Walker, Joselyn reminded herself (though she was still quite confused about that) snorted audibly. “You should’ve seen the haunted house.” She considered that before her head shook. “On second thought, stay away from the haunted house. Nobody deserves to go in there. Except maybe one person, but thankfully, he’s already dead.”
“Yeah,” Felicity confirmed, “and he can stay that way.” She turned back to her mother and sister and started to say something else, but Joselyn had already caught sight of someone approaching. Staring that way, she saw another Denny. This one, however, looked like a cross between the girl herself and a Relukun. Her body was made of wood.
“Uh, hey, Butternut,” Flick greeted the girl. “Is everything okay?”
“Peachy,” came the flat response. “Letters was saying we should hold off and let you explain things before coming over here. But for some reason, I really don’t like being told where I can and can’t go. I know that’s weird for someone who happens to be part-tree, with the whole putting down roots thing, but I like to move around a lot, and I like to go places I’m not supposed to.” Her head tilted also considering that. “I don’t know which part of me that is, but hey. It’s a compulsion.”
Needless to say, hearing all that didn’t help Joselyn’s confusion. Until it did.
“Wait,” the woman announced, “You’re saying you’ve pulled us inside of Denny’s head. And these people are manifestations of different parts of her personality.” She paused, considering briefly before lifting her chin. “Oh, my God. All the people Ammon killed. He took their memories. Now, somehow, they’ve mixed in with pieces of Denny‘s personality. Their memories, their personality, bits of the people he killed are mixed with bits of her. And they’ve figured out how to manifest in her actual body. Wait… wait, what happened inside that vault? Something happened to Denny, didn’t it? Something that made her want to withdraw into herself, so the other parts of her came out. She’s in here somewhere, because she… something happened. Someone did something to–no, she did something. She did something and it terrified her enough to hide inside her own mind. She made this place inside herself and let these other pieces of her take over. Someone hurt her. No–no, it would’ve taken more than that. Someone was going to hurt her or one of you and she… lashed out. She hurt them, or… she killed them. Then she was afraid Ammon was coming back and she did all this.”
Felicity blinked a couple times at that before giving a low whistle. “Wow, Mom, you caught onto that quick. No wonder you got to be sheriff back home. Actually, I guess that also explains why Dad likes you so much.”
Despite herself and the situation, Joselyn gave her daughter a brief look before dryly retorting, “Yes, that’s the reason. Good thing I’m decent at working my way through mysteries, or I’d still be a dull old spinster.”
Blushing deeply at that, Felicity started to object that that wasn’t what she meant, before catching herself. “That’s not really important right now. There’s more to this whole thing,” she carefully announced. “Yeah, Walker, Flak, uh, Butternut–” She gestured to the wooden Denny, who waved idly. “They’re all parts of the people Ammon killed, mixed with Denny. You’re right about that. And yeah, something happened inside the vault. There was a bad guy. It’s a long story, but Denny killed him to protect herself and Dakota. She thought she was a monster, so she came in here and… yeah. She’s not ready to come out yet, but she’s a little better than she was.”
At that moment, Walker gave a loud whistle, and abruptly more versions of Denny began to emerge. As Joselyn looked in every direction, she saw more of them. They were all clearly based on the girl herself, while retaining parts of the Alters they were based on. Over the next few minutes, she found herself introduced to everyone. Everyone who would speak to her, that was. There were a few who stayed in the background and didn’t want attention. And, apparently, the one called Flak was still ‘outside.’ Their term for being the person controlling the body in the real world.
She even met Tailor (with an i, apparently), the shapeshifter who was responsible for jumping in to adjust Denny’s physical appearance to suit each Aspect (as they called themselves) who manifested out there.
Taking all that in, Joselyn found herself smiling a little more with each introduction. Finally, she shook her head. “I… I don’t know what to say. You’re obviously all your own people, but I’ve never heard of anything like this.” She looked around at the Aspects and the loud, bright carnival they found themselves in for a moment before finding her voice again. “I… I’m glad you’ve worked out a system. I am. But where’s Denny herself? She should be here. Is… does she–”
Felicity, who had been speaking quietly with Tabbris, grimaced before stepping over to put a hand on her mother’s arm. “I know this is a lot to take in. Too much, really. But even all of that isn’t the big thing. Not really. We have to go to where Denny is. She’s waiting for us. They’re waiting for us. But I have to tell you about what we’re going to see first. I mean, who we’re going to see.”
Again, it took Joselyn a moment to understand what her daughter was implying. What could’ve been so huge that it dwarfed what she had already learned? Meeting these Aspects, being pulled inside Denny’s head to this carnival, all of this stuff her daughter was fine with just thrusting her into. And yet, there was a part of it she wanted to warn her about ahead of time? What could it possibly– And then she realized. The truth fell on her like a sack of bricks, making her eyes widen suddenly. If pieces of the people Ammon had killed were inside Denny’s head, did that mean… Could it possibly…
“He… he’s….” She started, barely able to get that single word out a couple times. Her voice caught in her throat. It couldn’t–could it… wait…
Taking both of her hands, Felicity quietly explained. “It’s not Ammon, Mom. He’s gone. The—the piece that’s in here, the piece that’s with Denny right now, it’s… it’s Theodore.”
Hearing that, Joselyn rocked backward on her heels. A soft, yet audible gasp escaped her. Theodore, the name she had given her son when he was still hers, before Fossor had… before all of that. It was all she could do to remain standing, helped by her daughter’s strong grip on her hands. Joselyn’s mouth opened and shut a few times, absorbing the truth of what she had just been told. Finally, she found her voice, and it sounded soft, almost broken even to her own ears. “Theodore?”
Swallowing hard, Felicity gave a quick, short nod. “It’s him, Mom. I mean, as much of him as it could be. It’s not like Theodore mixed with Denny. It’s just him. It’s the part of him that Fossor locked away, the piece that got chopped off to turn him into… into what he was. It’s the good part of him. Maybe his guilt, maybe his innocence, maybe all of that and more. I don’t know. But it’s him.” She hesitated then before carefully adding, “I’m sorry. I know this is a lot to take in. Maybe it’s too much. If you want to wait–”
“No,” Joselyn put in immediately. “You’re right, it’s a lot. But I’ve been through a lot my whole life. Everything in my life has always been ‘a lot.’” She paused, closing her eyes while a heavy, emotional shudder ran through her. Then she met her daughter’s gaze once more and spoke firmly. “I want to see my son. I… need to see my son.”
Giving a short, understanding nod, Felicity released one of her hands, while tightening her grip on the other. Then she turned and looked toward the blonde Denny, Letters. “Are they ready?”
Letters confirmed that after conferring with the boy Denny, Bang-bang. Then the group set off. Mostly it was Bang-bang and Letters leading Felicity, Tabbris, and Joselyn, while the rest of the Aspects trailed behind. They led the group through the park, past dozens of rides and games, though Joselyn didn’t take any of that in. Her mind was too busy spinning from… from realization and emotion.
Finally, they were in front of a cheerfully decorated ice cream shop. Felicity asked her mother to wait a moment, then stepped up to the front door. As she did, it opened and Joselyn saw the actual Denny there. There was a quick flash of guilt that crossed the girl’s face when she saw Joselyn before saying something quietly to Felicity. They had a very brief conversation, then they both stepped out of the way.
“You… you can go in now,” Denny informed the woman. “He’s…” She hesitated. “He’s ready for you.”
He was ready, but was she? Even as that question passed through her mind, Joselyn answered it. Yes, she was. She was more than ready. It was all she could do not to sprint through that door. She didn’t want to scare the boy, not any more than he was obviously already scared. With effort, she managed to force herself to relatively calmly walk past the others. Her gaze found Felicity’s, receiving an encouraging, understanding nod, before she pushed the door open with a cheerful jingle from the bell above. And then she stepped through.
It was a small shop, with almost no one inside. And yet, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was the size of a dozen football fields, populated by the guests from every Super Bowl for the past two decades. Her eyes still would have found their way immediately to the small, somewhat huddled figure sitting in the back corner with his eyes locked on her. Seeing him like that, knowing who he was, Joselyn stopped short. Her hand found its way to her face as a soft gasp escaped her.
Even knowing ahead of time what she was going to see, actually being there in that moment was still overwhelming. Her knees almost buckled under herself. She very nearly fell. One thing alone stopped her. If she fell, it would be even longer before she reached her son. Hand still pressed tightly against her mouth as a torrent of emotions ran through her, the woman took one step, then another. She walked that way, while he sat, looking frozen in the moment. Their eyes were locked on one another, neither of them able to look away.
One step, then another, Joselyn moved until she was right beside the table where he was seated. Then it was too much. She felt the weight of everything settle on her shoulders, falling to her knees right by the chair. Her shaking hand rose, freezing partway before she managed to speak a single word, the same word she had spoken outside when the realization came. “Theodore?”
The moment that followed was not silent. It was filled with a very soft, yet audible keening sound coming from the boy. He squirmed in his seat, staring longingly at her. It was a tiny whimper, as he clenched his own hands, his tiny, helpless hands. His wonderful, amazing, so strong hands. His mouth opened, the soft whisper turning into a single word of his own. “M… Mom?”
That single word pierced her heart. But rather than draw blood, rather than inflict grievous injury, it filled her with incredible joy, a specific joy she had never in her life expected to feel. “I–” Her voice caught on the lump in her throat, before she managed to force the words out, the words she had to say in that moment. “I’m here.” Tears filled her eyes, blinding her save for the image of her son. Yet that was the only image she needed. “I’m here, baby.”
The chair squeaked under the boy as he shifted his weight, and then he made a noise deep in his own throat, a cry of so many emotions being released at once. And just like that, he threw himself off that chair. The tiny boy, that so vulnerable, so tender boy, the boy who had cuddled up to her, who had been torn away from her by that monster, threw himself across the distance between them. He half-lunged, half-fell into her arms. And Joselyn caught him. She caught her son, hugging him as tightly as she could. Her eyes tried to close, but she forced them open. She had to see him. She had to hold him, and see him, and smell him and… and… everything. She needed all of it.
Holding the boy so tightly she was afraid she might hurt him (if that was even possible in this place), Joselyn kissed the top of his head and sniffed his hair, his beautiful, wonderful blond hair. She leaned back, staring down at him in wonder as he pressed himself even tighter against her while murmuring under his breath. “Mom. Mom. My mom.” His tiny hands gripped her arms, squeezing tight as he clung to her. His shoulders shook heavily, and she could see the tears running down his face. He was crying. And so was she. Mother and son both held tightly to one another while shaking almost violently.
She had no idea how long they sat there like that. Not nearly long enough, that was for certain. Not after what had been torn away from them, after what that monster had done. Still, the boy eventually spoke, voice cracking audibly. “Mom, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m–”
“Shhh.” Shaking her head, Joselyn pulled him up against herself even more tightly. “No, baby. No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t you. I know, I know. You wouldn’t do that. You didn’t want to do any of that. I know.” Her own voice shook with emotion. She was terrified for how he must feel, and enraged at the thought, the reminder, of what Fossor had done. “It was him. It was all him.”
Another brief pause followed, before Theodore shuddered and tightened his grip, his finger sticking into her as he gave his soft, terrible sob. His own memories were obviously overwhelming. Yet he was here. He was here, and so was she. She would not let him go. She would be there for him, as she had been unable to be back then.
The guilt, that deep, hard lump of guilt had been held inside Joselyn ever since she failed to protect her son. And, in many ways, it had gotten worse when she chose to ensure that Denise had come back to life instead of him. The horrible, overwhelming sense of betrayal, that she had chosen to let her son remain dead in order to bring Denise back instead, had been hidden there, deep in her soul. It had been the right choice, she knew that. She knew that. A resurrected Ammon would have been just as terrible as he was before his death, if not worse. What Fossor had done to him could not have been undone.
And yet, here he was. Her son, her real son. That part of him that Fossor had taken away, the part she had resigned herself to never, ever see again aside from within her own memories, was here in front of her. He was holding onto her, and she to him. She felt him, she heard him. She was there with him. He was here, the way she had never thought he would be.
“Mom,” his voice murmured as he buried his face against her shoulder, his tears staining her shirt. “Mom.” Another heavy shudder came, a shudder she eased by hugging him closer, each of their bodies a buoy against the storm of emotions they were both feeling.
“I love you, Mom.”
Joselyn’s eyes closed briefly, as she took in a low, shaky breath. After all that had happened over the past decade, after everything he put her and her family through, she was here. She and her son were here together.
“I love you, Theodore. My son.”
And in that moment, another thing became patently clear. For all he had taken away from them, for all the terrible trauma and damage he had inflicted, the filth who had tried to destroy Joselyn’s family was gone forever. And they were here. Cracked, perhaps, but not broken. All his power, all his plotting, and all his rage had, like his body, become less than dust on the wind.
Fossor had lost… again.