Having bestowed my orders upon the platoons, I separate ten copepods and then use my finger to trace a path for the bulk of the copepods to follow. All but the ten copepods I separated rush toward the wall and then cling to the ceiling. Meanwhile, I command the last ten to take a lengthier route. This group’s goal is simple; they merely need to skitter past Jessica while I flee from them, causing it to appear as if the copepods and I are not related while also distracting her from the bulk.
I stagger toward her, my arms waving loosely. My antics distract her, and the coffin drops, wedging the metal rod between the floor and the coffin. She breathes a sigh of relief, falls onto her back, and then looks at me. With her attention, I wave my left arm more frantically while pointing at the ten copepods with my right.
“What the fuck,” she murmurs under her breath, squinting to see the copepod’s obscured outlines within the vermillion haze.
Glancing back, I notice a copepod is missing and then hear Jessica yelp. I swing my gaze toward her, finding a senseless copepod took an alternative route and snuck up behind Jessica. The lone copepod plods through the strands of Jessica’s dark brown hair that lie sprawled across the floor.
With wide eyes, she smashes it with a hard slap, returning it into a puff of haze. Jessica grits her teeth and strikes the floor with an open palm once more.
‘I suppose the lone copepod might have put a crack in her calm demeanor from earlier… It was not my intention for them to get so close, apologizes, that was not the path I specified.’
She looks from left to right with wide, bloodshot eyes. “I’m breathing in this stuff that turns into bugs!? What is even happening!? Keep this shit away from me! Is there a rebreather anywhere!?”
I do not know what a rebreather is, but I accept her previous request and keep them away from her; at least that is how it shall appear.
“Shit, shit, I can’t do this. I can’t do this,” she declares, shaking her head back and forth. Her breathing becomes strained. She glares at me; the red veins around her eyes, induced by the vermillion haze, become more prominent. “L-listen! I… my partner and I weren’t supposed to come in here ‘no matter what,’ is what they told us, or we’d be on our own. But I don’t care about that anymore, call someone, I don’t understand any of this shit, and I want out! I-I just wanna get the hell out of here! Take the keys from my pocket, go find my extra radio… Will you please do that for me!?”
‘...Apologies.’ I hesitate but raise my hand, perform a sweeping motion, and then wiggle my finger to indicate I will not retrieve whatever it is she is asking for.
She bites her lip with a sharp snort. “No-no-no-no! D-don’t you pull that horror movie finger wag crap right now! This is the part where the monster takes off their mask, revealing they were just playin’ with the throw away side character!”
‘Monster!? Does she know… Nay! If she knew I was a monster, she would not imbue so much sarcasm into her words.’
Raising my finger, I spell out the word “save” in the air, a single letter at a time. When I see her mouth the words, I point at her and then at myself.
Her eyebrows furrow, and she turns away with a small nod. “They’re just hallucinations. Hallucinations from the gas,” she says to herself in a tiny voice.
A few minutes pass as the copepods scour the area. Occasionally, a copepod will creep near Jessica, and I will make a small movement to act as if I am challenging it, but truthfully, I am merely altering its path. While this is happening, I work to produce an additional two hundred and one copepods; that way, the number shall be six hundred. This places my Mana at around sixty, so from henceforth, I shall only make a few replacements if they are necessary as I do not wish to use any further Mana.
‘The six hundred! That is what they shall call us! Well, at least that is what I shall call us since it is likely all the copepods will be puffs of vermillion haze once I abandon this room.’
The copepods work to build a heap of cloth behind Jessica’s head. Combined with me obstructing her vision, the thick haze, and with most things occurring behind her, she cannot witness what is transpiring. Of course, the copepods are not the brightest soldiers, so they still deliver non-cloth items to me as well. Furthermore, although the copepods do not produce sound, the objects they are dragging do.
“What’s that noise?” Jessica looks from left to right. “Hey, hey, how many of those things are there?” she whispers.
Jessica tries to stretch her neck to see, but I step in front. With her vision blocked even further, I allow the additional copepods to exit the suit and join their brethren. At the same time, I look at Jessica and hold up a two and a five.
“Twenty-five! What are those things; how did so many of those things just appear!?”
I raise my hands, making what resembles a shrug.
It is not long before a few of them carry forth what I presume I have been waiting for—a black frock. I order all the copepods to take residence upon the wall behind Jessica. Like a flock of passenger pigeons, clouding the ground beneath them, they charge toward the wall.  To be frank, them charging Jessica was not my intention, but I continue to play my role.
Jessica gasps, but I straighten my back, stomping at the beasts, causing them to part ways and almost making it seem like I just saved her life. That is how I hope it would seem to her anyway. As if I am ensuring they do not return, I clumsily chase them out of Jessica’s eyesight and peripherals. I can hear her whisper numerous curses as she tries to push the coffin off of her body.
I move to the frock and begin inspecting it to ascertain where the pockets may be. Commanding the copepods, they open up the front of the frock, revealing a yellow tome that seems to be buckled to the inside. I flinch when a small bolt of lightning strikes one of the copepods returning it to a puff of haze.
Remembering that Emily’s tome did something similar, I shake my head. ‘My second casualty. The sacrifices of this quest, so great, was it truly worth it?’ Shrugging, I form one additional vermillion copepod. ‘Aye, I would say it was a necessary sacrifice, and I am thankful that the lightning does not seem to affect me as it does the copepods!’
Along with the yellow tome, there is another black book, titled “Gospel of the Hexed: Contracting Man’s Past,” opposite the tome, but it appears more typical for the era; presumably, it balances the yellow tome’s weight. Despite that, the topic is interesting.
‘I will most certainly take that book if I can carry it, and why not the yellow tome as well.’
A thought crosses my mind, and I run the cattail out of the arc suit. The tendrils unravel and grip the tome, like the time before, it rushes through my haze, producing various hues of color and motes of light to appear. Yet, I feel nary any pain from it; from what I can perceive upon striking the kiln’s shell, it seems to cease its struggle and vanishes.
‘If I absorb a small bit of it, would it inform me of what it is?’
With a nod, I allow the tome to enter the inner area of the cattail. The lightning grows ever more intense, and the outer coverings of haze slough off, reminiscent of a snake shedding its skin. I can hear the Hex Church woman groan and claw at the wall behind me. When the cattail does not seem to pull any haze from the tome, I eject it.
‘I… that was odd. It certainly did not seem as if it was going to digest it, and I do not think the cattail could handle it either.’ I glance at the Hex Church woman, discovering she has returned to her former demeanor. My thoughts stray, and I recall the time I wrote in Emily’s tome. ‘Emily had a strange reaction when I scribbled in her tome, and that woman also acted oddly… I think I may still bring it with me, but I am not certain if consuming it is the best of ideas.’
My gaze moves to a sewn-on pocket above the black book. I command one copepod to enter and remove whatever may be in it. It removes two items, a folded yellow epistle and a white pill. By my order, they bring me the two items. I take the epistle and unfold it. The script is penned in tidy, running letters, and like the previous epistle, does not have a signature. Recognizing that it matches the last epistle I read regarding the Acerb, I take a moment to read it, “After you have completed the experiment with the specimen, and once you have decided it is time for you to return, give the Consortium this neutralizer. Ensure the specimen has been returned before informing them of how best to mix the neutralizer.”
‘That is all?’ I reread the notes and glance back at the Hex Church woman noiselessly gawking at the Arcade’s wall. Shaking my head, I grasp the pill and inspect it closer. ‘I suppose it says, “how best to mix the neutralizer,” so that must mean it can be mixed in a variety of ways, and it is a small spill, so I may be able to solve this yet… Aye.’
Gripping the pill tightly, I command the copepods to bring me some of the cloth they gathered along with four white coats they salvaged from someplace. All this in tow, I approach the three people who have been scratching at the wall with their bloody fingertips. Making sure I cannot be seen by Jessica, I release the cattail, and with a few wily movements, I manage to get a piece of cloth between the wall and each person’s fingertips.
‘Now they will not claw their fingers to the bone.’
Next, I take the two jackets, wrap one around the young woman from the Hex Church’s bust and tie the sleeves and then a second jacket around the woman’s backside, securing its sleeves as well. I do not know if it is still possible to infect these people with the vermillion haze, but I try to do this as carefully as possible, considering my time constraints. Repeating this with the other woman, everything requires five or so minutes.
‘That shall do for now. Dignity can be difficult to recover once lost. Though its loss is typically a product of one’s own mind.’ With that complete, I peer toward the barrels of water and begin stumbling toward them. ‘I could do without this arc suit… but a disguise is a disguise, I suppose.’
The reason I am going to the water is simple; my plan is to rather roughly mimic the method for Acred production, which principally consists of water. Arriving at the barrels of water, I glance back to ensure Jessica’s vision is impeded by the table, coffin, and vermillion haze. Confirming this, I pull the handle on the suit, releasing the head. The arc suit falls to my ankles. My gown’s hem spreads wide as I stretch my arms and perform a small spin to celebrate my release.
Bending down, I pick up the chalky white pill that was gripped in the arc suit’s gauntlet. My strategy for this is quite simple, and it starts with me breaking the pill. I pinch both ends of the pill and snap it in two with my fiery red hands. A small sprinkle of residue from the pill drifts downward and makes contact with a scanty puddle of water, creating a tiny pop.
I tilt my head and squint my eyelids. ‘This must be the neutralizer… the pill is a different color, and the notes that came with it implied it. Aye, there is nary a way this is a hoodwink, but still, I must be cautious.’ 
With a hard nod, I search the barrel of water, find a small handle at the base and a bucket next to that. I twist the handle, and out comes the water as bubbles rise in the barrel. When the bucket is approaching the top, I once again turn the handle and nod.
‘Aye. Now for the delicate part. I shall take a very scientific and precise approach.’ I fling half the pill into the bucket, grab the arc suit with the cattail, and run away with the other half of the pill in hand. ‘Flee for thy life!’
From behind, a white gas bubbles from the bucket, and a tumultuous bang resounds as water shoots into the air, painting the ceiling in a milky liquid. ‘Aye, I believe fleeing was the correct decision.’
“What was that; are you okay!?” Jessica whisper-shouts.
I grip a piece of glass with the cattail and tap it against the ground in a rhythmic pattern.
“If that is you, you know you could reassure me by, y’know, coming over here!” she scoffs.
‘This is a complicated predicament, Jessica!’ Rushing back to the bucket, there is still a palm worth of water at the bottom—like the liquid on the ceiling, it is milky white. I grip the side of the bucket and pour a small amount onto the ground and find it does not show a reaction.
Lifting the bucket, I approach the pit from which vermillion haze still spews. ‘Prithee, solve this issue so that I might finish my business and depart.’
I keep a few yards away from the hole and then extend the cattail with the bucket held tight in the tendril’s clutches. With a twist of the cattail, the milky water pours onto the leaking root. When the liquid hits the Acerb, a sound reminiscent of water running unto hot ash resounds from the pit of roots.
A cloud of thick white smoke rises, and a purple wall appears.
Update: The obstruction has been cleared. The repair will be concluded shortly, and the user’s presence is no longer necessary.
Retracting the cattail and raising my arms, I shout a rousing, ‘Huzzah!’ to the copepods. I hold the other half of the white pill toward the cattail that then proceeds to take it into its tendrils and engulfs it. ‘Nary a need to waste it!’
A thick milky white haze runs up the cattail, and a bitter, unsavory feeling makes me want to shiver when it flows into my neck.
Absorbed ‘Concentrated Acrid Pellet Superbase’
Details: A condensed and dehydrated sample of the element Acrid. It would require a highly advanced method of refining or a particular race of creatures to produce.
Finding myself unable to move until the bitterness recedes, I shake my arms and read the purple wall. I push the wall away and step toward the hole, finding it full of a white film of powder. ‘So one is Acerb, and the other is Acrid, and they seem to rival one another. Interesting, but I do not have time to dally!’
With the main issue resolved, I am free to take a less delicate approach. I return to the arc suit, slide back in, and seal the helmet, leaving a gap for the cattail. With the arc suit on, I march up to Jessica, extend my thumb, and then for additional flavor, raise my other arm to flex.
She chuckles and rolls her eyes. “Don’t be so stupid. Just get me out from under here.”
I hold up one finger to indicate for her to wait and then turn my attention to the nine people. My concern is that with the haze not flowing any longer, they may become aggressive when it thins, so I wish to bind them more thoroughly before allowing that to occur.
Just as I am about to commence delegating orders to the copepods to search for rope, a harsh clicking sound reverberates from outside the Arcade, and a bright light illuminates the plastic blankets that cover the entrance.
The sound is one I cannot forget. ‘It is one of the floating copper orbs—one of those clicker things!?’
My gaze swings toward the back of the room, the clicking is coming from the grand staircase that leads into the Arcade. This is the same grand staircase I originally entered the Arcade from a fortnight or so prior, where the two rooms labeled, “Men” and “Women” are located.
I command the copepods to take shelter in one of the ceiling’s corners. It does not particularly matter where on the ceiling or which corner, for if one is discovered, they will all undoubtedly be discovered. With the orbs approach imminent, I collapse to the floor, pretending to be naught but a vacant outfit. The suit does deflate a tad, so I use the cattail to retain most of its rigidness. With the cattail’s assistance, the suit does not press against my comrade cracker layer, which would cause it to look as if a feminine figure is hidden within the suit. Instead, the suit appears rather lumpy and as if it might be full of air.
“H-hey, what’re you doing?” Jessica whispers.
Raising my arm and my index finger, I place it against the helmet of the arc suit. ‘Shush! I have seen and experienced much Jessica, and perhaps they will assist thou, but they will certainly not assist me, and I shall keep my tongue steady!’
I drop my arm limply to my side as sounds of a muffled male voice join the clicking sounds. “Alright, leave the clicker here with us. For now, just scout the situation, Gary,” I faintly hear someone say.
Shortly after those words echo, a copper orb enters the room. This one is smaller than the clicker I expected; instead of the size of a big pumpkin, as the clicker was, it is around the size of a melon or gourd. It has four bright torches at its base, each resembling the pupil of an eyeball. On its front, some kind of bright blue window or picture that displays the orphanay bird of the Consortium. The torches turn every which way, illuminating the figures of the nine people infected by the vermillion haze. It then illuminates my own figure in the arc suit.
“Is it a drone; it’s got Consortium markings?” Jessica whispers to herself.
Approaching me, I shut my eyelids. The dread of the dark swells within me, but it is hindered when the orb hovers above me, and its bright torch is enough to relieve my nerves.
“English? 普通话? हिन्दी? Español?” the eyeball speaks in an unemotional voice.
‘English, Spanish perhaps, and some other languages…? It can speak!? The other one did not appear to speak; Nay! I shan’t answer, I am naught but a vacant suit!’
It repeats this a few times. When I do not answer, a small piece of metal slides open at the base of the copper orb, then sounds of gears turning sounds, and a needle slides out, gripped by a metal claw-like appendage.
‘Should I flee… Nay. Just do not move. I do not believe for a second it knows that I am in the suit or it would not be speaking to me in so many languages.’
It lowers itself, sliding the needles into the neck of the suit, and then slides out. Hovering for a moment, it rises into the air and approaches, then moves to the nine people.
“English? 普通话? हिन्दी? Esp—” It stops speaking, and another voice replaces it. “Alright, alright, enough of the auto-recovery settings. The other scout won’t work, so I’ll just run this scouting orb myself. Hmm, now, let’s see…”
I slide my eyelids open. ‘Scouting orb? So it is called a scout?’
The scout turns, and its torch once again shines upon me. I shut my eyelids! It peers at me, and I see that the blue window that was once a picture of an orphanay, displays the image of a young man with messy black hair, thick spectacles, and a scraggly stubble around his mouth.