[ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ]
They ended up checking into a little place called the Wolpertinger Inn, a quaint-looking little place near the edge of the tourist-centric part of the village. There were a few bigger hotels closer to the outskirts, but Webb was feeling jumpy about being too close to the forest, and the others didn’t argue.
The person at the desk looked charmingly inhuman in a way that Webb couldn’t quite place: angular and tall, with pale hair and golden eyes that were all iris and no pupil or sclera, their head crowned with a row of bone-white horns. They didn’t bat an eyelash at the group requesting to check in at an ungodly early time, just offering a thoughtful smile.
“Luckily, I have a few rooms available,” the desk clerk said, picking up a tablet and scrolling through, their fingertips making a soft tik-tik. “How many will you be needing?”
“Just… just one’s fine,” Webb said.
Webb carefully examined the wood grain on the countertop. “Sure.”
“Perfect,” the desk clerk said nonchalantly, sliding a trio of key-cards across the desk. “I’ll just need a credit card, then, and we’ll be all set.”
Ariadne leaned in close to Webb as Faraday took care of the deposit, nudging lightly against their side. “You didn’t have to…”
Webb flushed abruptly, jamming their hands in their pockets. “I mean, I just… I guess I could have asked, and not assumed—actually, if you’d rather have some time alone, or you’d rather we at least get separate, beds, I—”
Ariadne pressed her gloved fingers against Webb’s lips. “N-no! Shh, shh. Webb, darling. It’s fine. I’m more than happy with it. I just wanted to make sure you were fine.”
“I’m not fine,” Webb mumbled as Ariadne dropped her hand. They snatched it up, giving it a tight squeeze. “But that—you, and Faraday, and Lore, have nothing to do with my lack-of-fine-ness. Somehow. Remarkably. Very confusingly.”
Ariadne let out a little laugh, tugging Webb closer and wrapping her arms around them tightly. “Okay,” she murmured. “Let’s just make sure it stays that way, alright?”
We’ll see, Webb thought. But they just gave Ariadne a hasty little squeeze in response, face pressed against her shoulder as they drew in a deep breath. “Fine, fine,” they muttered. “Look, Faraday’s ready, let’s go. I’m sure the desk clerk already thinks we’re here for a day-fuck we don’t need to make things more suspicious—”
“That happens a lot,” the clerk called out. “Don’t even worry about it.”
Webb, who had been very sure they’d been whispering quietly enough to not be overheard, made a face and hauled Ariadne towards the elevators. The clerk grinned, resting their chin on their hand and giving a little wave. Ariadne just laughed, still draped on Webb and allowing herself to be pulled, unresisting.
“Do I want to know?” Faraday murmured as he caught up.
“No!” Webb grumbled, pushing Ariadne into Faraday’s arms. He caught her readily, just raising his eyebrows at Webb as she gave him a hug, too.
The whole situation just seemed so… surreal. Joking around with these two like they’d been friends for ages. Booking a shared room with hardly a second thought. Knowing that they planned to share something with Ariadne and Faraday and Lore that they hadn’t revealed to anybody before.
Webb was anxious, and confused, and there were things looming over them that seemed all-encompassingly terrifying—and yet, it still seemed natural that there was time for this. It was feeling easier and easier the more they let themself relax, and open up, and just… enjoy these moments strung in between running for their life, running from their past, running towards an uncertain and actively distressing future.
“Come quick!” Ariadne called urgently from where she’d let herself into the hotel room, Faraday and Webb trailing closely behind. “There’s a chair in here that has antlers. And the bathtub faucet looks like a—like a salmon…!”
Webb kicked off their shoes, weaving their way over to the bed, and flopped directly onto it face-first. They could hear Ariadne rummaging her way around, exclaiming with joy whenever she found something new (“The complimentary robes have BEAR EARS!”).
Webb didn’t know if they wanted to laugh, or cry, or some kind of incoherent combination of the two. They settled for just kicking their feet up a few times and dropping them, letting out a low whine under their breath.
They felt the pressure of a hand pass over the back of their head. The bed indented, shifting slightly, as Lore slithered into a solid form again, sitting cross legged next to Webb.
“Hey,” Lore said quietly. “Webb… you hanging in there?”
“Don’t,” Webb grumbled, climbing the rest of the way up onto the bed and rolling over onto their back. “The last time you were nice and considerate to me, I had a breakdown.”
“I… think that means you just might be very stressed out,” Lore suggested. “But… um, you’d know best, I suppose.”
Webb groaned, sitting up again and yanking off their hat, tossing it and their glasses onto the bedside table. They ran their hands through their hair, scrunching it up, tugging, then dragged their hands down their face.
“Ariadne,” they called out. “Faraday. If you’re finished with your, uhh, tour, could you come here? There’s some stuff I want to talk about. Like, now. Before I lose my nerve.” They weren’t sure they meant to say that last part out loud, but hey. Now they were committed.
Ariadne and Faraday came obediently when called. Faraday took a seat in the antler-crowned armchair, facing the bed. Ariadne, who had swapped her leathers and her helmet for her tank top and one of the bear-ear housecoats, took a seat cross-legged at the edge of the bed.
“Sorry,” she told Webb, tugging a little at the drawstrings. “I just got excited. What is it?”
Webb opened their mouth, then closed again, glancing aside at Lore. “Maybe… let’s start with what happened with you?” they suggested, voice sounding a bit weak even to their own ears. “How’d you end up getting away from the Inquisitors?”
Lore tilted their head to the side, but didn’t protest. “Of course, Webb,” they said. “Things went… as expected, when Veracity handed me over. She played her part, really leaning into the whole—’my, my, well this is unprecedented’ sort of attitude. Tried to spin it so she was coming out on top, handing ‘you’ over.”
“Which she did, I assume.”
Lore nodded. “The Inquisitors took me and started walking me away from the Drawing Dead. I tried to talk to some of them, but they weren’t… um, very chatty. So… I’m afraid I didn’t get any of them to spill many details about what they wanted, but… I did get one thing.”
“What did you find out?” Ariadne asked quietly, leaning forward on her elbows.
Lore hesitated. “They started heading towards the woods,” they said quietly. “Leading the way out of the city. They didn’t seem to want to hurt me—to hurt you, I mean, Webb. And they didn’t have any questions. They just—seemed like they wanted to take you somewhere. Alive.”
An icy chill passed through Webb at that comment, sinking leaden into their stomach. “Into the woods.”
Lore shrugged, wisps of smoke drifting out of their mouth as they frowned. “I didn’t stick around much longer than that. I saw some of them break off and head back towards the Drawing Dead, and I was worried they’d realized something, and were going after you. So I escaped. When I searched for you, I realized you’d been tugged further away, up north, so I followed.”
“Wait, when you searched for them—?” Faraday asked, curious.
Lore’s expression grew serious. “I’ve already told you a lot more than I ought to,” they said, their tone much firmer than usual. It was clear that on this point they weren’t going to be swayed. “Let’s just say that—wherever Webb goes, I will be able to find them.”
That thought was unsettling on some level, but mostly Webb just felt tired. Maybe even strangely reassured. “Alright, so, then you found us,” Webb said hoarsely. “Meanwhile, yeah, Pax got us out, but it turns out the harpy that worked at the Drawing Dead was working with the Inquisitors, or ratted me out to them, or something.”
“So the harpy and the Inquisitors were on the same side,” Ariadne murmured. “But she said it definitely wasn’t Grimm that they were working for. So if not Grimm, then… who?”
Webb hesitated. “I have… a guess,” they said very slowly. “And maybe there’s more to it, and we’re missing some pieces still, or there’s another player involved, but…” their voice faltered. “I think someone’s been looking for me for a long time. And maybe—maybe this situation with the Inquisitors and Grimm might be… might be wrapped up in it a little.”
All eyes were on them now, curious, concerned. Webb couldn’t keep their gaze up, looking down instead and fiddling with a loose thread on the duvet, smoothing out the stripes in the soft plaid.
“I was pretty young when the Valefication happened. Eight or nine. So I grew up actually super interested in the occult, the paranormal, and all the magical stuff that was happening. It was all I ever dreamt of doing, of being involved with. I always thought it was… kind of disappointing that I was normal. No hidden magical or demonic bloodline, no estranged family members inviting me to their mysterious haunted houses… I know, I know,” they waved a hand a little, “that didn’t exactly go, uh, well, for some of you. But I was just a kid. I didn’t know what was best for me. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
They continued. “During my university years, I fell in with a crowd of… well, of like-minded people, like me. The leader of our little group was called—his name was Jasper.” Webb swallowed, the name feeling like it rasped and caught on the way out, ragged. “Jasper was—amazing. Beautiful, brilliant, confident. We…” they hesitated. “We didn’t always get along, because we were both very strong personalities, but he was… he was important to me. And he was very sure that even if we were mundane, and boring, that we could still be a part of that world, and do amazing things. And for a while, you know, things were going pretty well. We did odd jobs, helped some people out. Got a little bit of a reputation as amateur detectives, problem-solvers, hunters of the magical variety. We hung around with the fantastical and powerful, like Pax. It was rewarding. It was dangerous, but it was thrilling, and it was… validating. I thought it was everything I could ever want.”
They paused to gather their thoughts. Ariadne reached over as if to squeeze their hand, then seemed to change her mind, tucking her hands back in her lap again.
“Then what happened?” she asked softly.
Webb closed their eyes. “I mean, I’m sure you can guess how this story goes,” they said. “We got in over our heads. We accepted a job that took us deep into fae territory and we got caught. They got Dominic first—just swallowed him up inside a tree, devouring him before he had a chance to do more than scream. Jasper tried to get him free, but then we heard just—this thunderous noise. Hoofbeats and horns and the sound of bells.”
They were breathing too fast, their heart hammering as though they were actively being chased again. They heard Lore make a low noise, curling up against Webb’s back.
“The wild hunt,” Faraday said quietly.
“We… ran, of course,” Webb said with a shaky, humorless little laugh. “What else could we do? One by one I heard my friends fall behind, or be taken down, or be lost, and I couldn’t—I couldn’t do anything. And I was never the fastest or the strongest, but maybe I was always the most cowardly and self-interested, because I made it to a stream, and I started to cross.”
“Oh, Webb,” Ariadne blurted out helplessly. “… escaping from a situation made to harm you doesn’t make you a coward, or selfish.”
Webb gave a jerky shrug. “Maybe not,” they said bitterly, noncommittally. “But I’m not finished. Partway across, I heard Jasper behind me, calling out. I turned back—but behind him, I saw… him. The Erl-King. King of the Elves. Indescribable and beautiful and absolutely dreadful and awe-inspiring. And it seemed like just a game to him, him on that nightmare mount of his, rising up over Jasper and holding his blade up high, and I met his eyes and I felt like—like everything in me was on fire from the inside out. Like everything was wrong, but also, like I was his, I belonged to him from then on and I knew that with every fibre of my being. And I took a step back towards him and—and I’m sure that I would have walked willingly into the jaws of my own death, then, except Jasper struck. He managed to hit the Erl-King square in the side of one eye with—with a rock, I think? I wasn’t thinking clearly anymore. All I could remember was this searing pain, and feeling like I was suddenly going limp, like a marionette with its strings cut and suddenly falling slack.”
They drew in a deep breath. “And then I ran. Through the water, and out of the woods. Everything was—off, wrong. Disorienting. Everything about me was changing, and the forest itself seemed like it was trying to drag me down and devour me, like it had done to all of my friends. But I fucking made it out, and it took months in the hospital before they were able to put me back to even the most pathetic shape of a human. Or… or whatever it is I am now.”
The others were silent. The room was very, very quiet; all Webb could hear was the rhythmic hammering of their own heart, the blood rushing behind their ears.
“When the harpy said that you’d never be free of him…” Ariadne whispered finally, as though she was also feeling the oppressive weight of the quiet in the air, “do you think that meant…?”
“I dream of him every time I sleep,” Webb blurted. “Every single time I close my eyes, I dream of the hunt. For years, I’d hear them in the distance—chasing me, calling for me. And recently… they’ve been getting louder.” They drew in a shuddering breath. “Earlier today, I dreamed of the Erl-King himself. And he spoke to me. He told me I should just give up and let myself be caught.” They let out a hysterical little shadow of a laugh. “For some reason, I don’t think he’s very happy that I got away.”
Faraday was sitting with his fingers steepled, his brows furrowed deeply, elbows resting on his knees. “So the Inquisitors… could be working with the fae,” he said slowly. “That seems to check out, from what Lore said. And—I mean, based on the fact that literally nobody knows who they seem to work for in the first place. They may have been trying to capture you when they found out about you, not because of Grimm, but because of the Erl-King…”
“But it’s still true that Grimm had been using you to send people his way…” Ariadne said with a frown. “So the Erl-King was after you, and Grimm was manipulating you… are they working together? Or—or against each other?”
“How should I fucking know?” Webb croaked, sprawling back onto the bed and staring up at the ceiling. “Maybe Faraday is right, and I’m just a ragged chew-toy caught in a tug-of-war between the vampires and the fae. Maybe every bit of agency I thought I’d ever had has been a lie. Maybe I should just go walk out into the forest and be done with it. Maybe—”
“Shh,” Lore murmured, running their fingertips soothingly across Webb’s hair, leaning in to press a shadowy kiss against their forehead. “Webb. There’s… a lot going on, I know. But… you’re not alone. Nothing… nothing has really changed in that regard.”
“Lore’s right,” Ariadne said firmly. “If anything, this just makes me feel even more determined to figure out what’s happening here. Things are going to be okay, Webb.”
“And what if they’re not?” Webb demanded, brushing Lore’s hand away and shoving themself up onto their elbows, glaring around at the others with their breath coming fast. “I just told you—everyone that I cared about died, and I couldn’t do shit to save them. I ran away and saved myself. And then I spent the next decade after that absolutely wasting my life and refusing to get involved in anything like that ever again. They had dreams. They had things that were important to them, and I just—I just gave up on everything I ever wanted and decided to let myself live vicariously through others. Others who I thought I was doing right by, but it turns out I was sending them to their gruesome deaths, too—!”
They knew this would fucking happen. That they’d tell them everything and it’d just be more of the same—let’s stick together, it’s not your fault, let’s figure it out. Let’s charge up Vampire Party Death Mountain and get ourselves killed. Webb didn’t know what to do or say to make things go differently. Maybe they did want to be caught, just to get this over with. Maybe that would be the easiest way out.
Because when push came to shove, they hadn’t been able to save their friends, or protect Jasper, and now they’d left Pax behind—how could they risk losing anybody else?
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