Ch. 108 – As Long As it Takes
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Benjamin’s first urge was to ask what the fuck just happened, but he ignored it. Instead, he let his emotions lead the way and leaped forward, intent on punching Ethan in the mouth. His one-time friend didn’t even try to dodge the clumsy attack. 

He just laughed as the blow reduced him to a cloud of whirling smoke. He reconstituted behind Benjamin, still laughing, but even as Benjamin turned around to face his foe, Ethan launched a job of his own that sent him sprawling. 

“Come on, man, you’re going to have to do better than that,” Ethan smirked. “Aren’t you supposed to be a big-time mage, now? Why don’t you hit me with one of your spells, and we can see if that works any better.” 

Benjamin had been considering doing just that, but the fact that Ethan invited it gave him pause. If everything else was an illusion, then I could very easily hit someone else, right? He thought to himself as he lunged again, trying to stay as unpredictable as possible. Or is it something else?

For the next few minutes, Benjamin got his ass kicked, that only reaffirmed his suspicions. Ethan had plenty of opportunities to kill him already, probably with a weapon or with magic. He didn’t, though, and Benjamin wanted to understand why. 

“Is that the best you got?” Benjamin asked, spitting blood as he rose to his feet. 

“Benji, you underestimate me,” Ethan gloated. “Out there, I had to be nice to you in the hopes you’d be reasonable, but in here… No one’s coming to save you.”

As he spoke, Ethan lashed out with a series of quick jabs, but he was just messing around. He let Benjamin block all three of them before he delivered a hard uppercut that went right through Benjamin’s hands before hammering his jaw. 

“You’re all alone now, Emma and Matt can’t help you. We could stay here for decades before Emma makes it over that table, and that’s all the time I need to make you into whatever I want.” Ethan continued. 

Something about the way that Ethan said that was finally enough to trigger all the doubts that Benjamin had been feeling up until now. Whatever he was talking to certainly had an excellent Ethan impression, but it was just off enough, and for Benjamin, that slip was the final straw. 

Suddenly, so much more made sense, from the way the letter that brought them here had been signed to the location and the hostages. Even the reason why this thing wanted him to use his system instead of his fists suddenly had a reason. It was like those nesting Russian dolls he couldn’t remember the name of. This was an illusion, inside an illusion, inside an illusion. 

“You’re not even Ethan,” he grunted, wiping the blood from his lip as he turned to face his opponent. “So drop the act, Kitsune Miku. If you want to talk, let’s talk.”

He stood there quietly for a long moment, smirking, but after a few seconds, he said in the voice of the fox demon, “Awww, and what was it that gave me away?”

There was disappointment in her voice, but there was a taunting, too. Almost like she’d been waiting for this reveal and dropping hints. 

As Kitsune Miku stepped out of Ethan’s body, Benjamin noticed that she looked nothing like he’d seen before. She was no longer the beautiful fox girl with mischief in her eyes. Now she was a feral thing, with red glowing eyes and a body that was more like a tiger than anything resembling his one-time anime waifu. 

He couldn’t fixate too much on that, though, because his eyes were inevitably drawn back to the mutilated, pale form of the man who had once been his friend. There was a dead look in his eyes and a fresh and ugly scar shaped like a bullet on his left side where he’d taken a centaur arrow. Those were hardly the only signs of suffering that Benjamin saw, though. 

The man’s pale chest was crisscrossed with scars. Some of them looked like combat injuries that had healed poorly, but others seemed almost ritualistic. Benjamin studied Ethan’s battered form until he saw that several fingers were missing from the man’s left hand. That was what finally made him turn away. 

“I… What did you do to him,” Benjamin asked. 

He’d planned to tell her about how only his phone could have possibly remembered all the details she’d gotten right about his house. He’d planned to gloat that he knew that the people she’d been parading in front of him were fakes and phonies to try to gain some kind of upper hand, but he hadn’t expected this. He didn’t, though, because he was unable to shake the horror at seeing the thing that had once been Ethan like this. 

This was more than just a hard winter. The spirit that controlled Ethan like her own personal puppet had obviously been torturing him. Whether that was for nourishment or entertainment on her part, he couldn’t say. 

“This old thing?” she laughed as he struggled for words. “He was no more important to me than your smartphone. He was simply a source of energy to get me through winter until I could get my revenge on you.” 

“But that’s impossible, I—” Benjamin started to say, but she cut him off immediately.

“You tried to murder me, Benjamin,” she shouted. “And in water, no less! I hate water! Did you really think that wouldn’t come back on you?”

“I don’t understand,” Benjamin said, “I dropped you in the water and watched the lights go out. I—”

Suddenly, she was behind him with her smoldering claws to his throat. “You did,” she purred, “and I watched you watch me, too. Fortunately for me, you bought a waterproof phone, and Ethan snuck back to camp later that night to summon me from a distance. Maybe if you’d tossed me in the fire instead, that wouldn’t have happened. After that, the only place for me to dwell was in his body, so really, he has you to thank for that, too.”

“Thank you for doing this to me, Benjamin,” Ethan said robotically, slurring his words like a stroke victim. 

Normally, that might have been enough to break Benjamin’s heart, but this time, he rejected her accusation completely. It was that anger that was enough to hold any amount of her terrible words at bay.  

“I didn’t do any of this; you wanted free, you possessed Ethan, you forced him to turn against his friends, you…” his words trailed off as he felt her claws dig into his throat. 

“So close,” she whispered in his ear, “But Ethan happily threw you away with barely a nudge from me. Just like I’m going to do to you.”

“You won’t kill me,” Benjamin said finally, “You need…”

“Wrong again,” she cheered, sinking her claws deeply into his flesh before dragging her claws across his carotid and jugular.

Benjamin felt the hot blood spill down his chest at the same time he started drowning in it. It was a terrifying experience, and as he fell to his knees desperately trying to hold the wound shut, she walked away laughing. 

“I’m not just going to kill you, Benji,” she smiled, bearing her sharp teeth. “I’m going to do it over and over again. Here, in this little space between spaces and moments between moments, I can do whatever I want, as long as I want. More than even illusions or serving her master’s wishes, that is the true gift of a rakshasa.”

Benjamin knew he’d heard the word but had no idea what it meant. It didn’t matter. He could feel his blood leaking between his fingers, and within seconds he was feeling light-headed. 

He tried to stand again, but his vision was already starting to blur around the edges, and when he finally collapsed and pitched forward into the darkness, the relief was remarkably short-lived. One second, he was dead, and the next, he was lying on his back while the demon straddled him. 

“See?” she said with a bloodthirsty smile. “As often as I like. Of course, we could do other things too if you wanted to be a good boy. I could be your Kitsune Miku again if you just said please. She could show you delights that you’ve never even dreamt of, but I have a feeling that’s not your style.”

“Why?” Benjamin asked, reaching for his throat and finding it whole and intact once more. “Why are you doing this? You had your freedom. Why not simply go back to wherever it is you came from and leave us alone?”

“Back to where I came from?” she shook her head. “Why would I return to hell when it’s so much more fun here. It’s true that I would have preferred to remain a free agent a while longer, but once those horse friends of yours almost managed to kill my beloved host, it behooved me to renew old allegiances with my Lord Jarris instead.”

Benjamin’s mind raced at that name, but he forced those thoughts down as he focused instead on what she was saying. Kitsune Miku, or whoever she was now, was so confident that he’d lost that she was practically monologuing, and he needed to soak in as much information as he could, just in case what he’d planned next didn’t work. 

“You’d understand what a foolish question that was if you ever visited it, of course, but a real trip there would certainly mean your death, and I have so many secrets to pry loose from your brain for my master,” she purred. 

As she spoke, the darkness they’d previously been immersed in began to brighten, even as Ethan faded away. Soon, whatever little pocket dimension the two of them were in took on the characteristics of hell. Green flames licked against the black sky to the horizon. It was broken only by inhuman monuments and cities that looked like they were built by the insane. 

None of that was as bad as the monsters that glided through that madness, though. Benjamin saw several of the monsters that he and his friends had fought so far, including the strange bone clouds and the magenta jellyfish things. Far up in the smoke-shrouded sky, he even saw a prismatic eel dragon like the Prince had once summoned. 

“None of that is real,” Benjamin mumbled, as much to reassure himself as to make it clear that he wasn’t afraid of her. 

“Of course, it isn’t. If we were really in the beyond, your blood would already be boiling in your veins,” she smiled. “It's what the world beyond the walls of reality looks like, though, and where the summoners obtain their finest pets. Still, just because it isn't real doesn’t mean that it can’t really hurt…”

As she spoke, something large and dark moved in the distance. He’d thought it was another one of the broken citadels that dotted the horizon, but this one twitched and moved, and as it stomped closer and closer with giant strides, he could see that it was not windows he saw, but far too many eyes and mouths. 

The idea that something like that could be real hurt Benjamin’s brain on some level. He had never imagined such an impossible monstrosity before, but he knew that some part of it would haunt his dreams after this. 

But if he wasn’t smart enough to change it… Benjamin held tightly onto that hope and sent the command he’d held in reserve, praying it would be enough.