There was no reason to worry. Harold had lived by himself in this messed up world for long enough, it wasn’t like he’d immediately be in danger just because he ran off in the middle of the night. Still, I felt responsible for driving him away, and if anything did happen to him, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to live down the guilt. I was an only child, so I had never experienced that whole “protective older sibling” thing, but despite the fact that I had known Harold for just a handful of hours (most of those being hours where he was acting incredibly annoying), I was a little surprised to realize that I harbored a small bit of desire to make sure he was safe.
Also, a really, really did not want to spend the night alone with Creep 1 and Creep 2.
The question now was, where would I even begin looking? It wasn’t like I knew his favorite hiding spot, or even basic general landmarks, for that matter. I could reasonably assume he hadn’t run back to the forest, unless he had a Minotaur-based death wish.
Had he gone ahead to the town off in the distance? It made the most sense; our best hope at getting home rested on the hope that someone there had an idea about just what the heck was going on. Of course, for all we knew, the town could be completely overrun by the monster brethren of the Minotaur.
At a certain point, I realized that going back and forth on whether I should follow him was pointless. I had made up my mind the moment I realized he was missing. Careful not to wake up the others, I tied up a sack of dried meat and assorted scraps of fabric that were lying around. Unsurprisingly, the bunny-cubes hadn’t had any clothing for us to wear (our own clothes permanently left in Minotaur land) so Harold and I had done the best we could with makeshift wraps and togas. The extra fabric could serve as a change of clothing, although I suspected that I’d need to find replacement underwear sooner rather than later. The unexpected, yet mundane problems of being stranded in a universe devoid of any other humans…
With my entire collection of worldly possessions amounting to a few stolen pieces of food and cloth, I headed out along the dark path into the unknown.
The determination I had at the start of my trip soon faded as I realized that I probably should have brought some form of torch or lantern. I know people complain about light-pollution all the time, but hey, at least it means you can find your way at night. The further I got from the Church, the less I could distinguish if I was even following the path anymore. To an extent, I could feel the rough gravel beneath my feet, so at least I was certain I hadn’t strayed off into another forest, but what if I had passed a fork without even realizing it?
“Eden, this was probably one of your stupider impulse decisions,” I said to myself, partially to fend off the encroaching sense of loneliness that was creeping up around me.
Better to be alone in the dark than be with something unseen…
As If prompted, something rustled to my left, only a few feet away. I let out a small yelp and quickened my pace. In fact, the only thing keeping me from having a total breakdown was the knowledge that Harold was out there too, and I’d be damned if I lost my cool before he did.
To my relief, the lights of the town appeared at the edge of my distance, much closer than I had expected. Although I still couldn’t see my immediate surroundings, it was nice to finally have a destination. Lights meant civilization; civilization meant intelligent creatures, maybe even some kind of human. I’d find Harold, get some rest, and tomorrow we’d ask around for a way out of here.
Except the closer I got, the more I realized the light wasn’t coming from any kind of building. In fact, it wasn’t even stationary. The light seemed to rise and fade, occasionally blocked by trees in the distance. For a moment I thought it was some kind of lantern being carried by another traveler, but if it was, it was the brightest lantern I had ever seen.
There was a familiar noise coming from the direction of the light, and it took my second to place it. Crying. More specifically, Harold crying.
I know I’m really going to regret this later.
I ran forward in the direction of the light, tripping occasionally as the ground underfoot became gnarled with roots and tangled weeds.
So much for following the path…
I had a vivid image in my mind of Patrick lying on the ground, guts torn out of his chest, as the Minotaur towered over him. Whatever I was going to find, I had to prepare myself for something beyond my most terrible expectations.
I expected a monster. I got a janitor.
Harold crouched, cowering in fear before a normal looking, haggard man dressed in overalls and a blue cap. He carried an almost comically oversized broom, as if he was the exaggerated representation of the janitor stereotype instead of an actual person.
I would have laughed if it weren’t for the area around him.
The light I had been following didn’t come from any lantern. From what I could tell, it came directly from the world itself. Around the janitor, the trees and ground had been drained white, as if he stood within the unfinished pages of a new coloring book. Most of the effect emanated from around him, but I could see it extending into the distance in a lazy wave, tracing the path the janitor had been walking.
“Harold!” I said, rushing to his side. “I have no idea what’s going on, but we need to run. Like, now.”
The janitor turned to look at us, and casually swiped the air with his broom. Everything along its trajectory, the thin outlines of what used to be the forest, was literally wiped away, leaving a pure and gaping white void hanging in the air.
“You’re lost,” said the janitor.
“Yeah, no shit,” I said, grabbing Harold’s hand and trying to pull him away.
“Let’s get you home then.”
“I’ll take my chances with the non-reality-destroyers, thanks.” I had the feeling that his definition of “home” was a bit different than mine.
The janitor scowled. “Misplaced items must be removed.”
Harold was being annoyingly resistant. “Harold, I swear to god, now is not the time to do this.”
He continued to stare at the ground. “It’s my fault. I deserve this.”
The janitor had begun moving in our direction.
“Ok, look. When I said this was your fault, maybe I was being too harsh. Can I apologize later, at a time when we’re not about to be erased from existence?
“He said that if I opened the portal, I’d be able to be the hero. It would be my own world. But I’m just a side-character, at best.”
“Harold, you’re not making any sense-“
He looked at me, tears streaming down his face. “It’s all my fault. Everything. It wasn’t supposed to be like-“
He froze. Then the color started draining from his face. I looked up and saw the janitor holding Harold’s other hand, the white blankness spreading up Harold’s arm and overtaking his whole body. I dropped his hand and fell backwards, but not before some of the white had transferred over to me. At the point of contact, the colorless tips of my fingers were completely numb.
The janitor raised his broom and swung down in our direction.
I put my hand out, pointed towards the ground.
The earth ripped open beneath our feet, trees growing sideways in the chasm, helping to push it open further. Rocks and mud literally tore themselves apart, splintering and shifting in all directions.
There was a sudden lurching sensation, my feet falling out from under me, and then we were falling. Plant life continued to grow above me, forming a protective cover that prevented the janitor from following us into the ground.
For a moment, all I could see was Harold’s stark white body, falling in unison.