Chapter 112: Interlude 3/3 — That Kind of Story, Part 2
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Content Notes for This Chapter:

Spoiler

Discussion of Mind Control, Discussion/Description of Dying, Brief Mention & Discussion of Deadly Injury and Blood, Cave Exploration/Diving (may trigger Thalassophobia & Claustrophobia), Questioning Own Lived Reality and Memories

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To Hell with the Author, Chapter 57: Determination

It quickly becomes very apparent that this structure was made, or at least largely modified, by people, for a specific purpose. The purpose of keeping Errata inside, that is. The rock is black and extremely strong, not brittle in the slightest. Lots of branches lead to smaller cavities, and to progress to the next section of the dungeon, Gonell repeatedly has to float through extremely narrow, long tunnels with many opportunities to get lost in.

The cave looks completely different when you make your way in than when looking back, with multiple paths appearing out of nowhere. Several layers of that in a wide maze make it very unlikely for an automated entity to randomly make its way out, especially if one knew the rules by which Errata operate. In addition, rainfall flooding into the cave causes some sections to be filled with water. And even if they did get out, they’d find nothing but ocean outside, and probably just go back in.

It takes a while for us to get attacked by the first batch. Gonell hasn’t been here before, so she doesn’t know the layout, and has no Skills to aid with exploration either. It’s dark and murky. We are still drenched from diving through long stretches in complete darkness, and I keep having to tell myself that this is Gonell, and she will be fine, despite it having been hours already. It gives me the creeps. Sometimes she makes her hand glow with some kind of spell when she dives the wrong way, but most of the time she doesn’t even seem to need that.

The idea that I would have somehow made my way through all this without my Ultimate Skill is laughable. I would have been stabbed to death by the first Erratum I met if I hadn’t miserably drowned in the first section after throwing up tons of silt. And the Errata tend to jump at us from dark corners right after making it through a section.

The fact that she can float and doesn’t have to somehow climb makes this even more of a breeze. And the entire time, we just casually talk. She asks me questions like what my favourite colour is, and whether there were other stories I liked in my old world, and she rambles about things going on in the asylum that she’s unhappy about, and gives comments saying she’s sad she won’t get to help with that anymore, and hopes they’ll be fine.

“Would have been kinda boring to go through this on my own,” Gonell says. “I’m a little glad you came with me.”

“And I’m a little glad you figured out the Skill.”

She chuckles. “Yes. Now we get to do it together. Seems like this all turned out the best way it possibly could have, all in all.”

“Really?” I let out. She might actually be right. If I think about all that had to align to allow for this, we were lucky. My initial plan was to just have her run into her death completely unaware. Looking back, I wonder if I could have stomached that. Not like I’d have had a choice though. “Honestly, I’m still a bit surprised you just… believe me. This stuff is really… out there.”

As Gonell peeks around a corner to see where that path leads, she laughs out loud, the sound echoing through the silent cave. “Not going to lie, your version of the story sounds more believable than anything Fran Fan and I could come up with. Too many things didn’t make sense about it all, but now? It’s somewhat reasonable, despite being… out there. Also, why would you lie to me now? Makes no sense, because I can’t defy you anyway.”

“I don’t know,” I murmur. “It would make sense to lie to you if I was afraid you could somehow break or overcome a suggestion. Like. I mean, to trick you into doing what I want, without having to resort to a suggestion that might fail. And, considering you are the strongest person in the world, that’s not unthinkable.”

She frowns, knocking a piece of rock against the cave walls to judge the layout by the echo. “That’s not really how it works. Me being very strong doesn’t just give me some magical immunity to everything. There’s just a specific thing I’m good at, which is defeating opponents in traditional fights.”

“Yeah,” I say, and I already regret that I’m about to nerd out. “But that’s the realistic way of looking at it. But this is fiction, so we need to consider the narrative perspective too. When you introduce a character and hype them up a lot and make them stand out above the rest, then letting them fail breaks a narrative promise, which may frustrate readers. So, even if something is realistic, that doesn’t mean it’s the way an author would write it. Of course, there are some authors who would still put realism above their narrative promises, but I don’t know if the ones we are dealing with here are of that kind.”

“Huh. So, being a character changes the rules of how the world works?”

“Sometimes it can, yeah.”

“So when you were reading stories, did you always think about them like that?”

“Hm?” I tilt my head. “What do you mean?”

“In terms of structure, instead of just leaning back and seeing what happens. I imagine that kind of analytical lens takes away from your enjoyment.”

I give a defeated scoff. “What can I say, that’s just how I’m wired. Probably because I was a writer in my old life too.”

“Oh? What did you write?”

Fuck.

I messed up! “Maybe better if I don’t say that…”

“Oh, come on!” Gonell lets out, laughing. “We’re about to die. No secrets on the last stretch.”

“Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I sigh. “I wrote fanfiction. About you, mostly. Lots of stories with you in them, to give us what we couldn’t get from the main work.”

Gonell stops exploring for a moment and looks at me. “About me?”

I blush… Oh, this is bad… “I told you I was your fan… And the original story didn’t have a lot of material, so…”

Gonell raises an eyebrow.

“Of course,” I quickly add, “That was when I thought of you as just a character. If I had known that I’d get to meet you one day, I would have never done it.”

“Huh.” She continues down the cave, but her mood seems to have improved for some reason. “So, how was it? Actually meeting me, I mean?”

Oh god, so she decides to torture me right at the end. “You are… different. Definitely not in a bad way, though.”

“Flattering.”

We keep going, but the conversation stops for a while. She’s smiling to herself, and gosh, it’s awkward. I kinda want to die in shame.

“I don’t think it’s going to take much longer,” Gonell says after a while. “Which brings me to another question. How would you like me to do it?”

“What? Do what?”

“Lose to the Messenger, obviously. Like, I know I’m supposed to lose, but how should I go about it? I assume it has to be stronger than me, so I could go all out and try my best; we could fight to the last drop of blood until I get overwhelmed or make a final miscalculation. A big, grandiose last stand, of sorts. They do that in stories, right? To put it bluntly — I could try my best.”

“Oh.”

“Or,” she continues, “I could have our head chopped off right from the start. No pain, no suffering. Over as quick as it starts.”

What a question…

Gonell shrugs. “Last option I can think of is that I could get myself mortally wounded and then attempt to escape. Take a calculated hit to the stomach, for example, so that we slowly bleed out, but we could share some tranquillity and solitude in our last moments. Would be a bit romantic, right?”

Oh.

Maybe I misunderstood all this. Oh… 

Fireworks start off in my brain with the realisation. Ah, this makes a lot of sense now. Yes. This actually makes a lot of sense.

Perhaps Gonell always died this way. I always thought it was odd that she’d lose to a Messenger in the original story. I always thought it didn’t make sense. That it only happened off-screen because it could have never really happened. But didn’t I, through all my efforts, create a situation where it actually works out perfectly well? I manufactured a scene where everything’s consistent, and totally checks out.

Perhaps this entire subplot I went through to get here was actually always in the original author’s outline? Maybe the real Gonell never died, and just got sealed. Perhaps I was already a character in the original story. Perhaps I never was alive in the first place.

Can someone really die in the way that I did? Probably, but how often does it actually happen? On paper, the summary sounds like the type of death you’d make up for a reincarnation story. Why didn’t I call an ambulance at the last second? Why would pain and fear not eventually take over? Going through it in my memory, my actions all make sense to me. I was stubborn, and I was fed up with the world. But if I read it in a story, I might get sceptical.

Perhaps I was never alive. Perhaps the secondary book Theora and Dema talked about never even existed either. Maybe they are made-up too. This might have all just been a quirky little storyline in the original author’s head, maybe written in a spin-off later. Or perhaps they wanted to write it, but then decided not to bother, because it was too convoluted.

And honestly, if that’s all true, I can find my peace with it. It would mean that Gonell never truly died, that even in the original story, she was framed for her own defeat.

“I think bleeding out together works best,” I say at last. “In the story, the protagonist found you that way. Heard of you coming here to find the key from some of your associates, so he tried to make his way to help at the last minute. That would be closest to the original.”

“Let’s do that, then,” Gonell says.

“Thank you for asking. You are far too kind to me,” I say, and I mean it.

By now, the path is widening, and I know why. This place was described in the story. We are only a few steps from the final hall.

Truth be told, I’m just some girl with main character syndrome. I make big speeches about screwing over the author and taking on destiny itself; about tearing it all down to suit myself. But in the end, I was always pretending.

And despite everything, I get to make my last steps together with a person I admire, and it feels so warm. So tranquil. Gonell called it romantic earlier, and yeah, that’s what I want to call it, despite how bad I feel. Dear author, it was such a good idea to have her talk to me. I’m glad I got that closure. I’m fine with all of this.

“You’re crying,” Gonell says, and I blink in surprise, wiping away the tears in our little space in her head. I try to swallow my sobs. We stand in front of a large gate. All she has to do is enter. “Do you need a moment?”

“I’m ready,” I force out, despite choking up.

She pushes gently, and the gateway fully opens on its own.

The ceiling is oppressively high, invisible even, obscured by rays of blue light raining down. Errata float above, where they find other ways into the dungeon to veer out of this hall. The Messenger is the only Erratum on the ground, standing close to a pedestal where a key floats. The rifts are far above us, spitting out Errata that get lost in the fake sky.

The Messenger is not large like the others of its class. It is the final opponent of the original story, a creature condensed to the size of a person, its special ability being unsurmountable physical strength. Thin legs and arms, androgynous body, a faceless hairless head. Compact, short wings reach out horizontally to both sides — too small to let it fly, but it can teleport far distances when commanded to, which is how it will break out of this place later. It’s made of white clay, except for dark lines across the surface of its skin. The material doesn’t quite look like that of other Errata. It’s polished. Unbreakable.

That’s it. I got a bit more than I was hoping for, but our time finally ran out. “I’m sorry I ended up dragging you to death with me,” I say.

“Huh,” Gonell lets out, aloud. She takes a few steps forward. The thing is on the other end of the hall, still far away. “Yeah, alright. This is bad news.”

“Hm?”

“You know,” she says, and her voice is mild, deep, almost serene. “For months, my heart was beating so hard it hurt.” She shrugged. “I killed them all. That was the only thought I could think when my mind went idle.”

She pulls on her cloak, discarding it, and leaves it behind. Meanwhile, the Messenger notices us, then investigates its limbs as if learning to move. It taps a foot on the ground as it approaches, splitting it into endless cracks like it’s nothing.

“But, turns out, you protected them,” Gonell says. “From me, of all things.” 

Somehow, again, I get nervous.

“Yes,” I say, and swallow. “Yes, they’re fine. What are you trying to say?”

“You saved them from a terrible fate, and now, you turned that attention to me. Tucked me away so nobody could hurt me. That doesn’t happen to me very often, you know? Feels kinda nice.”

“What?” I blurt out.

“I guess I’m saying I’d like to keep you around?”

Okay, it’s time to panic. This is not what I want to hear right now.

“Please,” I beg. “That’s— Please don’t do anything reckless. Please. Let’s not be rash. We’ve been over everything—”

The creature, still mostly looking and exploring itself, clenches a fist, black lightning pressing out from that violent gesture. Gonell just laughs. “Rash? You don’t seem to get what I’m trying to tell you.”

“What…?”

“You made my heart slow down a bit, I guess. To have someone right next to me, exploring a little cave together, having nice talks for hours, and she does what she can to make sure I’m okay. What can I say? It’s cosy.”

She looks right at me. Suddenly, I notice where I am. I’d been too focused on the cave and the Errata. Too focused on the outside to notice. Too focused on her. The storm has quieted, turned into a warm night. Grass has sprouted under me, and I’m sitting on a tiny isle, surrounded by an infinite still lake. 

Gonell steps up. “I’m saying that now, more than ever, I feel calm.”

Too close now. The Messenger attacks with its open hand in a gesture of absurd speed. Gonell casually sidesteps to dodge. The cave breaks in half.

 

ERROR.

 

It’s not just one of them — a massive red wall of errors sprouts behind us to stop her escape, but she simply moves past them like through a curtain.

The prompts mirror my thoughts. This is wrong. This is the kind of attack Gonell should have had to parry, taking heavy damage. The messages keep popping up, but she’s too fast. After ducking beneath another strike, she punches the Messenger's right wing, and it vaporises into glittering dust.

 

ERROR.

 

Oh god.

Oh god, this is bad. One hit? If she damages it that much, the rest of the story won’t work!

The creature swirls around itself to deliver a devastating kick — and I brace myself, because that should knock the wind out of us. Throw us across the hall and break a few of even Gonell’s ribs. But she just catches the thigh with a single hand and twists it, firm in her grasp. In the span of a second, the entire leg is covered in angry red prompts.

She breaks it.

“What are you doing?” I cry out. “We had a deal!”

“Amanda,” Gonell says, not unkindly. “I think you might have miscalculated? Right now, I don’t think I could possibly lose to this thing, even if I tried. That outline was a good attempt, but it just doesn’t work out.” She gives a faint smile. “And honestly, maybe this is just the more interesting tale to tell.”

She takes her other hand, and firmly wraps it around the Messenger’s head. It struggles, but the movements fall flat — it just wobbles around helplessly, gushing errors like a fountain. Then, a string of final, giant prompts emerges.

 

CATASTROPHIC SYSTEM FAILURE.

Outline Integrity compromised. Calculating alternatives… Failed.

Reconciliation deemed impossible.

Activation of Failsafe Protocols… Unsuccessful. None adequate.

Initiate Author Intervention — DEUS EX MACHINA.

Outline discarded.

 

Gonell’s eyes are turned at the Messenger, but I can feel that really, she’s just gazing at me, not paying it any mind. Her fingers dig in.

“Let’s make this the kind of story where people like us get to live.”

She crumbles its head apart like brittle wood.

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