You try to imagine swinging an axe at Sheryl, attacking someone you counted as a friend. The idea is insane; you instantly that know you could never turn a blade against Sheryl. As for ignoring her, well, you’ve been trying that for a year and clearly it’s not working. Besides, Sheryl isn’t even your actual problem. Fear is the real enemy here. Well, fear, and whoever is wielding it, but one hurdle at a time. You can’t overcome that kind of obstacle with an axe or fake indifference, because Sheryl isn’t the source of what is scaring you. You are the source of your own terror, which means if you want to get past it, even just for tonight, you have to face that fear head on.
“My best friend should have probably been dead a thousand times over, and that’s just from drug-use and general lifestyle choices. My… other friend, Victoria, is some sort of member of Halloween royalty where magic is apparently commonplace. And I… oh god… I don’t know what I am. I don’t know what those memories mean, why I can see flashes of my own deaths, even though I’m still alive. Everything about my life is insane, I get drawn into danger an adventures on such a semi-regular basis I’ve started holding back vacation time just in case I end up in space or another dimension and have to call in sick. I don’t know what’s real and what’s not. I met you in a world created by a poorly-thought out wish, how the hell am I supposed to have any idea what the rules or consequences are for escaping something like that?”
She’s still staring at you, a touch of confusion swirled in with the hurt in her eyes. “But I guess, if there’s no way of knowing what is or isn’t real, the distinction becomes less important. Maybe Victoria is right, reality is more subjective than I realize. All I know is that to me, you were real, Sheryl. Not just that shadow life we shared I can still sometimes see flickers of, but the time we spent together that night. I was lost. I needed a friend, and you came through for me. And I… just left. Looking back, I still think it was the right choice, I couldn’t stay there forever. But you were my friend, and I bailed on you without even saying a proper goodbye. I might have ended your entire world, or perhaps you’re still out there somewhere, wondering what happened to the dude you dropped off at a graveyard. Either way, it was a shitty way to repay all the kindness you showed me. I’m sorry. I’m never going to stop being sorry. I’m never going to stop wondering, fearing, what I did to you and your world.”
Moving closer, you shift the axe to one hand, pulling Sheryl into an embrace with the other. “And I am never going to forget you. No matter what memories this curse takes from me, I won’t let it have you. Because if you were imaginary, just a figment of my mind, then that’s the only way I still have to keep you alive. It’s not enough, it couldn’t ever be enough. But I can’t let you down again.”
There’s a sniffle from your chest as Sheryl hugs you back. Oh wow. You needed that, more than you realized. Because now that you’re finally deep in your fear, you can remember all the other feelings associated with her, even a few from the life that never was. Fear and guilt blocked those out, but they’re shining through. Quite literally, in fact, Sheryl has begun to glow, brighter and brighter until the light explodes outward. It’s an exact opposite version of what happened when you opened the door to the projection area. Light is burning through the air, searing away the darkness. Suddenly, you can see Jim, gauze wrapped around his eyes and ears, probably to block something out, and Victoria, appearing mildly annoyed, then surprised as she gets a good look at you. You, and your light source Sheryl, who gives you one last sad smile before vanishing completely in the burning glow.
It isn’t over. Not really. The fear is still there, the terror about what havoc you might have condemned her to. The difference is, that fear isn’t buried in your nightmares anymore. It’s yours, and you own it properly now. Maybe one day, with all the magic and weird shit that happens, you’ll have a chance to find out Sheryl’s fate for sure, or even put things right. Until then, you’ll carry the fear with you, a burden, but not a weapon others can use against you.
“Merlin, what did you do?”
“Faced some demons. What did you see?” As the light burns away the shadows, you can make out the room you’re in properly for the first time. It is… gruesome. There are five skeletons gathered around a scroll and some scrawled symbols in the carpet. Unlike the deathite basement, this ceremony wasn’t professionally done; no blood was used, no burning candles, not even creepy monsters hanging from the ceiling.
Victoria wastes no time, strolling over and picking up the scroll, giving it a casual read while you start helping Jim with his gauze. “I saw nothing, only a binding of darkness meant to contain us. These sorts of spells are meant to prey on the more human parts of the mind, parts that are diminished, if they exist at all, within me.”
As you unwrap Jim to find him babbling softly about chips coming to eat him, Victoria gives the scroll a quick read, skimming through it before you’ve even gotten him fully untangled. “At last, this sheds some light on things. Oh for fuck’s… pun not intended. My point is that I think I am beginning to understand what happened here. This scroll is a piece of genuine magic, although not directly related to the power of All Hallow’s Eve. It’s meant to pull something from a fictional medium into our plane. Judging by the discarded cups with half-filled alcohol and the company name tags on their clothes, my guess would be that these fools were employees who stumbled onto something dangerous and opted for a little All Hallow’s Eve fun. A tradition I would applaud, if not for the obvious consequences.”
Wow, she picked up all that already? Victoria should work for the cops or something, that’s a good eye for details. It does still leave some unanswered questions, though. “I thought you said something was gathering fear? If they brought all these movie monsters over by accident, why aren’t they killing instead of scaring? From the bodies, I’m guessing whatever they summoned doesn’t have issues with murder.”
“No mention in the scroll of fear gathering, or the wanton display of power we’ve seen tonight. This is a spell to bring over one thing, not open a portal for endless hordes to pour out of. It does, however, contain directions to stop it. We must find the source of the summoning, the piece they used in their ceremony, and destroy it. Doing so will also destroy the root of the magic, breaking whatever is living here’s hold on our plane.”
Both you look around, while Jim stares at his hands. The bodies are obviously in a circle, but aside from the scroll there’s nothing in the middle. Whatever they brought forth was probably smart enough to hide its vulnerability, or keep it nearby. “Victoria, can you still sense the thing?”
“Not as well, but it is close. Perhaps it retreated into one of the projection rooms.” From this central area, you’re surrounded by doors to various projectors’ rooms, each with the soft sound of humming behind it. The movies are still going, still drawing people in and letting monsters out.
“We could go one by one, checking them until we find our culprit,” Victoria suggests. “Whatever room is guarded is where we will uncover the enemy.
“Nah, let’s fuck shit up!” Jim has finally recovered, and leaps to his feet as he declares the idea. “Screw this; let’s break all the sources of this shit. Smash every projector, burn all the film, and maybe those other monsters will vanish too.”
You sigh in mild annoyance, but it’s good to have him back. After everything with Sheryl, you could use a little levity. “Jim, we have no idea what will happen if we do that, it could trap people in the movies.”
“Could also set them free. Life is a gamble.”
Glancing around the room, you take note of how, despite being skeletal, the bodies are largely unmoved. “You know, this place is pristine. Maybe the thing they summoned still needs it for something. Think about it, this is where it tried to stop us, the room might matter. We could try to lay in wait until it comes back and spring an ambush. I don’t like the idea of stumbling into more of someone else’s traps.”
“Time is not our ally, Merlin,” Victoria reminds you. “But there is merit in every option. You’re the one who cleared this obstacle from our path, so we’ll follow whichever strategy you choose.”
You heard the woman, it’s time to choose!