Chapter Five: And the End
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
"What? Who?" Cassandra froze.
Kurt laughed again. "Don't be mistaken that I have a specific agenda. Any of them would work. Just one will set me up nicely."
Cassandra shifted in irritation and anxiety. "Why go about it this way? You could've just taken them from the beginning."
"I could have, but their fear is just so alluring and well, deliciously irresistible." Kurtz tilted his head. "And I have no doubts I'll get what I want, I might as well have fun while I do it."
Cassandra began to fume. "Who are you?"
Kurtz stared at her and Cassandra felt a chill down her spine when his lips raised in a smirk. Then they parted.
Then he spoke. "Why, Cassandra, I'm you."
Jacob lead the way down the corridors in the walls, seemingly in a daze following the map inside his head. Eve and Ezekiel followed close behind, shoulder to shoulder, and they didn't acknowledge out loud their need for close contact.
Jacob stopped in front of a dead end. "This is it." His voice was gravelly but he looked better each minute. He reached forward and put his hand on the wall. A panel beneath his hand pushed in under his pressing and the wall swung inward as a door.
"That's freaky, mate. Are we sure Cassandra is down here? How do we know this isn't a trap?" Ezekiel tried to sound like his normal self, but his shaky voice betrayed that he was still affected by his earlier hallucination.
"No, I don't know for certain. But this is what the Hollow Men showed me. It could be a trap, but we have to try for Cassandra's sake." Jacob held his side with a grimace as he thought about what could be happening to Cassandra.
Eve reluctantly nodded as she drew her gun. "I go first." She checked to see she still had two bullets left.
Jacob stepped aside to stand next to Ezekiel. The thief sighed. "This is a bad idea."
Eve stepped through the door slowly, finding it to be a staircase when her foot dipped downward. Immediately a line of torches flared to life along the staircase to show it went down for quite a ways.
Ezekiel flinched. "Yep, bad idea."
Eve straightened her posture. "So he knows we're coming."
Jacob suddenly tensed beside Ezekiel, shuddering as if he was cold. "We're sorry."
"Wha-?" Ezekiel had enough time to see the unnatural gleam in Jacob's eye before he was pushed into Eve.
They fell through the door down the staircase, with Jacob taking a step behind them and closing the door.
Cassandra felt her heart clench. "W-what?"
Kurtz lifted a brow. "What? Don't believe me? I've filled this house with everyone's worst fear. I've given the cowboy loss of his own mind, the woman unable to save all her friends at once, the thief memories of failure over and over again, and the little girl with a dream of a cure but one that is tainted with a choice. I am all of you. Everything you want but everything you are too afraid to face."
"You are fear?" Cassandra swallowed.
"No, I am the reality of expectation." Kurtz paced around her. "The cowboy expects he won't lose his soul to magic, the woman expects she can save you all, the thief expects to be strong enough this time, and you expect you'll find an easy cure. But the reality is, you're wrong."
"So this is all, what, a fabrication?" Cassandra craned her head to keep her eyes on his pacing figure.
"Some things are, but others are very real. Like my deal."
"What does that matter now? This is just fear, you can't hurt anyone."
Kurtz stopped his pacing and grabbed her shoulders from behind. "Don't be naive. This deal is the one thing that is serious here."
Cassandra shivered at the contact, the coldness seeping through her shirt to her skin. "You know I won't betray them. I wouldn't. I'd never hurt them."
Kurtz laughed as he withdrew from her. "Oh really? But haven't you before?" He moved in front of her.
"How do you know-that was before I-" Cassandra stammered.
"How did I know? I knew you were Librarians the moment you stepped in the building and you question this?" Kurtz tilted his head. "And before what? Before you cared about them? That can change, Cassandra."
"No it won't. I won't-" Cassandra started.
"What do they really mean to you anyways? The cowboy doesn't trust you. The woman thinks you will break. The thief will leave you. They don't care about you. Just pick one, Cassandra, and you can live that life you desire." Kurtz practically oozed temptation. He turned his head, looking at the wall to his right. "And here they come."
Ezekiel groaned, blinking his eyes open and trying not to vomit as he felt his body swaying jerkily. His body hurt, bruises forming all over and his head pounding a crescendo. He blinked once more to see stairs. And plaid. He was being carried over a shoulder. Jacob's shoulder. Ezekiel saw a swinging arm and turned slightly to see Eve swung over the adjacent shoulder, still unconscious or faking it.
Jacob was carrying them down the stairs. Ezekiel tried to piece together what happened and why. Jacob pushed them down the stairs, Ezekiel blacked out, then this?
"Stone? Mate, what-?"
"We are sorry." Jacob's voice echoed slightly in the corridor.
"Kurtz knew you would help us. It wouldn't have changed anything." Eve hoarsely spoke.
"We are sorry. He has our words." Jacob said again.
Ezekiel felt like his brain was going to explode. Then it clicked. "Wait-you're the Hollow Men?"
Jacob didn't answer, just stopped at the end of the staircase, opening another door. Ezekiel craned his neck to get a glimpse of a dungeon like basement, with cacti growing out of the walls, and shuddering branches like snakes in the room.
And in the middle of it stood Cassandra, Kurtz smiling wickedly in their direction next to her.
"Just in time. You didn't think you could betray me and succeed, did you?" Kurtz waltzed towards them. "A valiant effort, but useless when you are mine."
"Jacob? What are you doing?" Cassandra gaped at him.
Kurtz turned his attention back to her. "Bring them." He addressed Jacob, who followed obediently.
Cassandra kept staring in horror. "What did you do to them?"
"Oh nothing. A little possession here. A dash of betrayal there." Kurtz waved his hand. His eyes gleamed. "Now that everyone is here and truly terrified, can we start?"
Jacob set down a dazed Ezekiel and Eve in front of Cassandra's feet.
Kurtz grabbed a branch and broke part of it off into a sharp stake. He came up to Cassandra and held it out.
"Now you pick one to kill or I do it for you." He motioned at the two dazed people on the floor.
Cassandra shook her head. "No!"
Kurtz motioned to Jacob. "Grab the boy."
Jacob bent down and hauled Ezekiel to his feet. Eve started to get up shakily but was held down by branches Kurtz conjured up.
"Here's the deal, Cassandra." Kurtz' voice was dripping venom. "Either you kill one and we both get a long life, or I make your friend slit the boy's throat and get half of that. Now which sounds better?"
Cassandra stared at them as she grabbed the stake, tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry." She told her friends as she blinked away tears. She raised the stake and plunged it into her own stomach.
"What?!" Kurtz actually sounded surprised by her decision.
Eve cried out in pain from her trapped position and Ezekiel let loose tears from his place in Jacob's arms. Jacob let him go as he stumbled back a step, eyes watering at the edges.
Ezekiel crawled over to Cassandra's whimpering form on the ground.
"That wasn't the deal!" Kurtz cried out in frustration, the walls shaking with his rage. He bent down over Cassandra, throwing off a sobbing Ezekiel who snuck a hand in his coat.
Jacob stood frozen, staring at Cassandra's bleeding body and then at Ezekiel.
Ezekiel held up a parchment as he stared back.
Jacob moved forward to Kurtz. He grabbed him by the shoulder and roughly pulled him away from Cassandra.
Kurtz spun with the force. "What are you doing? I was going to get what little life I could from her!"
Jacob stared him down. "You are going back to hell, Leon."
Eve stared at them. So it really was Kurtz this whole time?
Kurtz froze as he felt his jacket pocket. It was empty.
Jacob smirked at his shock. "You no longer have our words and now we will reap you once more."
Kurtz looked scared. "No wait!"
Jacob took a step forward.
Kurtz brought forth branches that pinned Jacob to the spot. "I'm not going back!"
Jacob calmly watched him. "You have our words no longer. You will now know why we are the reapers of hell."
Jacob's eyes showed black for a moment and he phased through the branches in a smoky haze. He kept approaching Kurtz as the latter tried everything to trap him.
None of it worked.
"Your time is over, Leon." Jacob backed Kurtz against the wall and grabbed him before he could phase through it.
"You are finished." Jacob pressed his hand over Kurtz' eyes and there was a scream from the ghost before his lifeless body crumpled to the ground.
Jacob turned back to the others to see Eve released from the branches and sobbing over Cassandra beside Ezekiel.
Jacob approached them and knelt down next to the weakly gasping Cassandra. "Your sacrifice will not be in vain. You freed us and will not be reaped today." Jacob placed a hand on Cassandra's wound and Cassandra groaned as her skin knit back together.
Jacob fell back with a gasp, placing a hand on his own abdomen with a grimace. "We helped as much as we could. She will survive."
Eve and Ezekiel stared between him and her. Eve cleared her throat. "What about Stone?"
Jacob smirked. "He will survive."
Eve frowned but accepted the answer.
"Who are you?" Ezekiel held Cassandra's hand as she gained awareness back and addressed him.
Jacob smirked at her. "We are the Hollow Men." He turned his head away from them. "And now we must go."
"Thank you." Cassandra grabbed his hand and his attention.
"You're welcome." He brought his hand to her face and then fell backwards into Eve's arms with a single spasm.
Half corporeal forms slinked from him and away into the shadows.
Eve sighed as she looked over her LIts. From the one that nearly died to the one who almost actually died, to the unconscious one in her arms. They were all going to need therapy after this.
Jacob groaned in her arms. He blinked dazedly and stared up at her. "They gone this time?"
Eve looked around. "Yeah I think so."
And so they gathered themselves up and as they all stumbled away from that house, they knew they would never forget what happened there.
Under the dark sky above them, they came out alive. Yet the further they got away, a solitary whimper was left behind as a token of the pain they underwent, but unlike their suffering, it was quickly swept away by the slight breeze.