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96 The Bear, The Vampire, and The Broom Close

    --Eira POV--

    Stepping through the muddy tunnels, the ground shakes under the heavy footsteps of the Brute. Who, speaking of which, now wears a new steel cable around its neck, which Aponi holds like a leash. Additionally, I've added a blood collar for insurance.

    In the meantime, Sam has changed from his hospital gown to some casual clothing I took from Robert's apartment all the way back in Japan. Glancing back I observe him tugging at the graphic t-shirt with 'Nuclear Residue: Old Vegas' written in big letters.

    "T-this shirt is two sizes too small," Sam says, stretching the shirt, "Where did you even get this? Didn't this game come out when I was in kindergarten? No, it was earlier than that. Anyway, this shirt is decades old, but it looks brand new!"

    Watching him stretch the shirt, my heart hurts. "It... it was a retro-collector's item."

    'And it was supposed to be my comfy oversized bedtime shirt, idiot.'

    When we entered the tunnel, we all wrote ourselves a message on a piece of paper as well as the back of our hands, for good measure, to remind ourselves why we were entering. We also decided it would be better to have our discussion after we entered the tunnels so we would not forget anything.

    Eden, who stands next to me, is carrying my scythe to allow me to focus on a different task. I notice her glancing at me frequently before she finally asks, "Hey, Eira, can't you put this scythe away like everything else? And why does it vibrate? It's eerie."

    "It's not eerie; it's a heartbeat, and the scythe is alive, so no."

    "O-oh..." Eden says in a small voice.

    "Forget Eira's eerie scythe for a second. Did you notice anything strange when the Brute walked through the Mind Magic stuff?" Aponi asks everyone.

    "Yeah, I did. The Mind Magic didn't seem to affect him." I glance back at the Brute sauntering lazily as a big drip of saliva drips from the corner of its mouth, splashing against the floor. "Though I wasn't sure if that was the case or his face just always looks the same. Which is why I didn't mention it. Still, it's what I've sorta expected, and part of the reason I came back for it in the first place."

    'I suspect their Title "Breakaway" might have something to do with it. If it's not that, then it might be their low levels of intelligence. If I had access to \u003cAnalyze\u003e, I would already know by now.'

    Sighing, I remove a filled bottle from the ring and grab the scruff of a bear cub who clings to my leg. Flipping the bear cub onto it's back, I tease it with the bottle until it starts sucking greedily.

    "Is... is something wrong with Trixie- I-I-I mean Eira!?" Sam stutters.

    I grind my teeth together and eye Sam with a burning smile. "Sam, please tell us what happened before I rip your tongue out."

    "Of course!" he responds with unexpected emotion, "After Aponi hit me and I jokingly exaggerated how hard the punch actually was, I remember falling into the pool! There was a tearing sound, and then I completed a graceful somersault, handspring combo in order to break my fall! Unfortunately, where I stuck my landing, there was a group of gigantic creatures. I fought off a few doz-"

    Launching the empty bottle at Sam's head, it bounces off with a thunk and falls into some mud. "Stop being stupid. While you were napping, we've all been struggling with very little rest."

    His face drops pitifully. "Fine, I'll tell the boring one," he says with much less enthusiasm, "I fell into the pool and landed on my ass. Although there was a layer of mud on top, below the mud is solid concrete, so I thought my ass was broken. I jumped up and bumped into something big, and before I knew it, something had wrapped its hand around my face like my head was a golf ball or something. I kicked and screamed, but in the end, I almost suffocated and eventually passed out."

    I glance at the Brute's hands. "Big enough to cover your whole head? Was it an even bigger Brute?"

    "I don't think so. It wasn't gray, and... it felt a little moist."

    'Moist? I hate that word. Still, does he mean like an eyeball, maybe? Gross, but very important information.'

    "What happened next? Did you ever wake up?"

    "Yeah, I woke up once and was being dragged around in the mud. When I went to take a deep breath, after nearly dying, a smaller hand suddenly smashed a bunch of pills into my mouth. I tried to spit them out, but the big hand wrapped around my head again, and I ultimately swallowed them since it was that or dying of suffocation."

    'Pills? Would Brutes' be smart enough to use pills? Highly doubtful.'

    "Anything else?" I ask.

    "Then I just lived through the best and worst moments of my childhood, teenage years, and adulthood to the point I thought I had gone insane. At first, you don't notice, but the longer it went on, the eerier everything got."

    Summoning another bottle and flipping a second cub on its back, I ask the nervous sounding Sam, "We already have an idea about the dream stuff, but what about the thing that took you? Anything about it?"

    "Eh... Not really," He plays with his beard, and his eyes go wide. "Wait! When I woke up the second time, it felt like the thing that was dragging me was... crawling, maybe?"

    Eden tilts her head, asking, "Like a worm? We read there was something called "Worm Man" here."

    "Worm man? It sounds like a lame superhero, but I don't think so. It was more like a person that was too big to stand in the tunnels or something. Like someone who was army crawling, and not like the Crawlers, at least I don't think it was." Sam clutches his head with a grimace. "Man, my head hurts."

    "What? Are you sure? That's creepy as hell!" Aponi blurts out.

    Sam shrugs with a half-smile. "Obviously not. I just lived through who knows how many lifetimes, all while being drugged up. Right now, I'm not sure of anything." He pauses and glances at everyone with shifty eyes. "I'm... I'm just kinda going with the flow and hoping none of you do anything freaky that makes me realize I'm still dreaming."

    'Alright, now that he's said everything he knows, it's time to scare him a bit to teach him a lesson.'

    Glaring at Sam, I say, "The only freak here is you and your impertinent obsession with vampire women."

    His mouth opens and closes before he starts blurting out questions, "What!? Where did that come from!? How do you know!? Besides, I am a vampire! What's wrong with liking vampire women?! Huh!? Huh!?"

    "Because books written by humans about vampires are generally insulting and based on old propaganda and lies. But more importantly, because of what your eyeless doppelgängers said to me. Oh, and let's not forget that slip of the tongue from earlier... So, tell me, Sam." I scowl at him wickedly. "What do you see when you look at me, huh?"

    His mouth drops open until he eventually forcefully squeaks out a response, "W-what does that mean?"

    I put the cub down and take my scythe from Eden. "I'm genuinely curious, Sam. I really wanna know. When you look at me, what is it, you think?"

    He hesitates for a long time as the gears in his head turn. "I-I think you're a... a great and dignified leader?" he says with a shivering smile, "Oh! Oh, no! I'm not feeling so well all of a sudden. I better stop talking or I'll pass out again."

    "That's okay. I'll carry you if you do," I reply with a smile taking a step toward him, "I may not be Trixie, but I do hope that's okay."

    Sam backs up against a nearby wall. "Eira, don't come any closer."

    "But I thought that's what you wanted?" I laugh, raising the scythe.

    **Splat**

    Mud splatters into the air, and I blink awkwardly with a smile still frozen on my face. "...Eh?"

    ...

    ...

    ...

    "Eira, did you really have to do that?" Aponi asks, exasperated.

    I throw my arms up as if her remark is a personal attack. "Do what!? He fainted on his own! I didn't know he would just faceplant in the mud!" I point at Sam, who stumbles weakly with a muddy face. "Besides! I wasn't actually going to do anything beyond teaching him that I'm his superior, not the character from his book. I was just scaring him."

    "What about the thing about family?"

    "Children need to be disciplined."

    "I've never had a brother or sister before, but do sisters discipline brothers?"

    Shrugging, I hand Eden the scythe and pick up the last bear cub. "In some families, I think they do. Regardless, in this case, yes, they do, and if anyone should be mad, it should be me since he ruined my shirt."

    Eden stares at the scythe, handling it gently after learning it's alive. She looks at me and asks, "What about you? Did you discipline your stepbrother, Eira?"

    'Stepbrother? What is she... Oh, yeah, the thing about Robert.'

    "Uhm, no," I say while flipping the bear cub on its back and putting a bottle in its mouth, "My stepbrother kept to himself, and never... intentionally caused problems."

    "What about your mother? Did she discipline him?" Eden asks.

    "No," I shake my head, adding, "No one was ever around to discipline or even talk to him."

    I notice Aponi raise an eyebrow. "Uh, what about you?"

    "O-oh, well, of course, I was..."

    Sam runs his hand over his face tossing a handful of mud to the floor. "What are you guys talking about? I'm lost."

    "You weren't here, but Eira talked about herself! It was incredible!" Aponi pauses for dramatic effect. "Then... she apologized!"

    Suddenly, Sam starts to collapse again, but Aponi catches him. "A-Aponi, you shouldn't joke about things like that. I almost passed out again."

    "Okay! Stop being so dramatic, and no more talking unless it's pertinent to the situation! There's apparently something crawling around, and I don't wanna hear you guys talking about me like I'm not here."

    Eden lets out a muffled giggle, staring at me with sly eyes while Aponi and Sam whisper to one another.

    'These people...'

    Several hours pass when we exit the muddy tunnels and reenter the big concrete tunnels. Like every other time, the worms were everywhere, but they don't do much more than hiss if we get too close to the eggs.

    "If we see the Crawlers, what are we going to do, Eira? With this big blockhead Brute and all?"

    "I wouldn't worry about it. Just the fact the Crawlers ambushed them the first time must mean they either hide, runaway, or fear them." I look at the Brute with a big smile. "And in the worst case, I'll cut his achilles tendon and leave him to the Crawlers."

    The Brute looks at me, confused. He blinks a few times before mimicking my smile and grunting happily.

    "Mhm, see, he likes that idea," I say, maintaining my big smile.

    Everyone smiles awkwardly at the big Brute, who grins back at them even harder as if it's a competition. We begin to turn toward the warehouse, but the Brute unexpectedly seems reluctant. Aponi tugs the rope, but the Brute just looks at her and grins widely and then grunts.

    "Is he broken? Did you break him, Eira?"

    "I'd hope he has enough brain cells to smile and walk at the same time, Eden."

    The Brute grunts and then starts walking off toward another area of the tunnel. Aponi tightens her grip on the, but slides behind the Brute, like a water skier, helpless to stop him.

    "S-stop!" Aponi whispers, aggressively.

    Eden and Sam look at Aponi and then stare at me. I shrug with tired eyes. "Let's give it ten minutes and see where it goes. If it doesn't stop, I'll put it in its place."

    A few minutes pass, and I'm pondering idea's to convince this Brute to follow.

    'Hmm, actually if this is where they've been living, maybe...'

    "Where is this thing going?"

    I turn my attention back toward the Brute to see him approaching a broom closet. The Brute kicks the door open and steps through the door pulling Aponi behind him.

    'I think I was overthinking it.'

    Walking to the door, I look through the doorway to find the room has been dug out to be considerably bigger than any broom closet. Still, what catches my attention far more than the room's size is the dozens of Brutes of various heights and sizes staring at us with furious gazes.

    "Shit," Aponi says in a small voice.
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