I remember the masks most vividly.
We got into the town centre at about 7:15pm. The streets were fuller than I've ever seen them. Packed. "The Better Angels Of Our Nature" has been at knocking around the Times Bestsellers' list for months now. Marcus Stonehall has been on a whole bunch of tv shows. And this event had been VERY well-publicised, in spite - or perhaps even because - of Stonehall decrying the event as glamourising a murderous religious cult who killed his cousin. There were estimates of about fifteen hundred people there from out of town, and the locals had stepped up to the challenge. Every shop and restaurant was packed, every hotel book up months in advance. Our hotel is suddenly full, after two months of being "busy...for Kansas City".
I was walking around with Peter. If it went well, it was a date. If not, it was just going in with a friend. For a while, it was going well. We hung out, we even went around with
I keep needing to tell myself to keep going. Keep going. Keep going.
with Rachel and her girlfriend Fiona at one point, before Fiona's shift started.
And then, at 11:00pm, the parade began.
And all that discomfort I'd had around those masks since the beginning all welled up and overcame me as the masks and the lights came on and I felt sick, sick to my stomace. Post-traumatic stress disorder, I thought. I'm amazed we don't all have it. Like masked heads being cracked apart by heavy lead pipes, or stomped to mush. The next thing I knew Peter was supporting me, pulling me into a side road. "Christ, you're in a bad way," he murmured, as he placed me on a bench and sat down beside me. "I felt it too." I leaned over and rested my head on his shoulder. We sat there for a while, him stroking my hair, me just staring off into nothing, trying to block out the panic. The music was loud and we could see the lights and the crowds from here.
By the time we got up, the parade had gone, moved up the road to a clearing outside of the town where there'd be some gift-shop-pagan bonfire, up by some big old dead tree. We couldn't see them from where we were, so we walked up to where they were. It was a little past midnight, and the festivities had already started. The crowd was huge, and it took me a while to spot, on my left, Rachel, looking small without Fiona. They'd grown close quickly, and she was happier than I'd seen hers since - well, ever since I wasn't around for her anymore. On my right, Roland and Shannon...arm in arm. Huh. Really should have picked up on that happening.
In front of the roaring fire, on a high wooden stage, the Mayor was decked out in lavish robes as he intoned a speech about the history of the town, and of the Church of Faceless Angels. It was melodramatic and overwrought and the crowd ate it up. They gasped and laughed at all the right times, and a strange sense of vague, unseated discomfort settled. The mayor, for what it's worth, was an exceptional public speaker - he really sold it.
And then people in the crowd started pointing.
Behind the stage, around the old, dead tree, people in their medication hoods started to gather.
More and more.
Surrounding the entire crowd.
And suddenly I felt sick, even sicker than I had before. My eyes scanned around and took in every detail faster than I could process the whole thing and suddenly, forcefully, I realised that, clad in these "meditation hoods", I was staring at
Keep going. Keep going.
These masks were proxy masks.
And we realised that, in the light of the bonfire, that we're surrounded by proxies.
And, standing in the shadow of the tree, a tall, pale, bald figure in a suit, his arms open wide, as if to embrace us.
White-hot pain coursed through my head.
The next thing I knew, I'd grabbed Peter's hand and was pushing through the crowd to where Roland and Shannon were standing. They were much deeper into the crowd, but the tourists were confused by the display and didn't fight us.
A shot rang out.
Screaming from the crowd.
Roland's hand grasping my arm , pulling me towards him.
The next thing I know, more gunshots. Roland and Shannon had pulled their guns from their waistbands and fired. I momentarily go deaf, sound blocked out by the KRAK of gunfire.
Two proxies go down. More draw knives and crude weapons. Some even draw guns and return fire, their bullets lost somewhere in the mass of tourists.
Rachel's next to me. More proxies fall. We still have the advantage of human shields. Suddenly a gap forms.
We run. Months of running have made our muscles taut and powerful, and we're out of there, back in the deserted park before we even know it.
He was there.
Suddenly, at the end of the road, a woman. Probably in her mid twenties. Blue patterns on her mask, in the shape of flowers. A proxy. Roland raises his gun.
A scream of "NO!"
There's a KRAK and Rachel goes limp next to me. Roland fires back and the figure is gone. More appear, firing. Shannon grabs Rachel. We run. Gunshots echo around us. They're civilians, not crack shots, but they're entirely willing to kill. We round a corner and Roland fires back. He IS a crack shot. He's willing to kill.
Rachel's bleeding. She's bleeding too much.
She murmurs "Fiona..." and then she's silent.
There's a splintering sound behind me as Roland breaks a door down. We move inside. Shannon settles Rachel in a corner, and rifles through her bag for her first aid kit. She's sobbing. I'm sobbing. We're all sobbing, we're aching
Keep going. Keep going.
Rachel was already lost. I reach into Peter's bag and pull out our guns. My hands are shaking so much that I almost can't hold the zipper. Roland pokes his head out of the doorway. No gunshots.
He steps outside. "They're...they're walking. They're all walking into the town hall."
And the next thing I know, he and Shannon are walking outside. Peter too. They ignore me as I ask where they're going. They don't even look at Rachel.
I see what they mean. A crowd of people, numbering in the hundreds all in those masks, are filing into the town hall. Townsfolk and tourists alike. We follow them, but they don't even notice us. That, or don't care that we're there. Eventually the stream of people thins.
Suddenly we see a glimpse of a skinny young man in a mask. A familiar young man, in familiar clothes, and a mask. He's too skinny. No muscle on him. No stamina.
Roland charges for him. Shannon screams for him to wait, but he doesn't listen. How is he even here, from England? He just disappeared. I'm reminded of something Stephen mentioned once, that Proxies have a special way to get from place to place
Roland sprints through the door, Shannon and Peter after them. I'm where I was crouching before still, watching them disappear into the distance.
No. I can't leave them. I run up to the door.
I didn't see the smoke until I was through the door.
The proxies are writing in great piles of bodies, still living, as the room begins to catch light. They are muttering and singing and praising the "Faceless one".
We wondered why this place was safe from the Slender Man. It never was. This was simply a settlement at such an advanced stage of Slender Man establishment we didn't know what we were looking at.
Suddenly, in a room to my left, screaming. I burst through the doors. Instantly, pain. Enough to almost bring me to my knees. He's there, and so is Stephen. Peter is on the floor, doubled over, at His feet. Peter's arm is...warped. It's long, too long, and limp, a mass of muscle and blood and torn skin and jutting bone. The others we've seen him do this too have been clean, but for Peter, he's really being cruel. I raise my gun and fire, without thinking.
The proxy that I'm sure is Stephen falls. I feel His gaze shift to me. I sprint forward and grab Peter around his waist, before pulling him towards the door I came from. The pain in my head is so harsh I want to scream or cry but I don't have time. Peter isn't moving.
When the pain in my head clears, we're in Roland's car. Peter had the key. He murmured that Roland gave it to him before he lost consciousness.
So that's it, folks. We've been driving and we've been surviving. Our friends are dead. We're shaken and wounded and terrified. We've been driven from anything we could call a home, and we're not headed anywhere in particular. New refuges, new places. Anything that keeps us alive.
Because we didn't escape. Not really. We got out of the town, and the sun rose, and nothing's happened since. But there's always another nightfall coming. And you need to be ready, because otherwise, that sun's never coming up again.