Dolly woke up to feel the warmth first. She was grateful for it because she had vague memories of being cold but she couldn’t remember why. She groaned but was surprised to find that she was also comfortable. If she didn’t have this pressing feeling like she should be somewhere right now, she might have allowed herself to sink into the plush feeling of the fabric beneath her and doze off again. It was about now that she realized that she didn’t have any blankets on and she didn’t recognize where she was lying down. This was followed by the sudden, alarming realization that she could feel the warmth on her legs and feet. She opened her eyes and saw the flicker of firelight around her, illuminating stone walls and glinting off heavy velvet curtains. Dolly sat up and looked around at Will who was looking at the fire nervously. He’d allowed his mouthparts back into place and they moved independently as he thought. He glanced over at her and sighed, the little spider parts on his face dipping down like a frown. They sat in silence for a couple of seconds before Will cleared his throat.
“Well, you didn’t crack your head open when you fainted so I think that’s a good thing to focus on,” he said, attempting casual conversation. “And then there’s that whole hurting a Shadow thing. That’s another positive that we could be talking about. I know you don’t know this yet but that’s actually a very impressive feat. I’ve never seen a human being actually hurt a Shadow before and didn’t think it was even possible but that’s all the more impressive. Granted, I haven’t spent my whole life being aware of Shadows and what they can do so that might be less impressive to someone else but it’s still pretty cool. I mean, there’s been times when I’ve seen other monstrosities do things that seemed to hurt them but it’s harder to tell when it comes to these things because they just kind of fade but I don’t know if it actually hurts them.”
“Will, you’re babbling,” Dolly sighed.
“I’m gonna need to take this a bit slowly here,” she said, cautiously. She looked around the room before looking at him directly. “You’re not in a costume.”
“I am not,” he agreed.
“You’re part spider,” she clarified, edging away slightly.
“Well, sort of but that’s a good enough explanation for now so yes,” Will replied, his mouthparts twitching as he spoke. Dolly looked away and he sighed. “I’ll pin them back. I know it’s weird.”
“So this is just a dream,” Dolly reassured herself. She looked at Will and nodded with a kind of satisfaction that concluded an internal discussion she’d apparently been having with herself. “This is just a dream and I’ll wake up in a minute or two.”
“Well, as much as I would very much love to say yes to that and let everything go back to normal, I don’t think I have the luxury of that this time,” Will said, sheepishly.
“No, I know this is a dream because I can stand up,” Dolly said and planted her feet as if to prove it.
She stood up but there was only so much strength in her legs and it began to fade immediately. Dolly wobbled as she felt the weight of them. She pitched forward but Will caught her with his normal arm and steadied her with a much weaker, longer arm. Dolly was aware that it was a spider arm that helped her back into place on the fainting couch but it seemed to drop her unceremoniously on the seat. The strangeness of the leg didn’t seem to matter now that she was in this space and knew that she couldn’t stand up for much longer than she could in the real world.
“Sorry, those legs work but only so well,” Will said, wincing as he massaged the paw on the end of the left spider leg. “Dolly?”
“I can’t walk here?” she frowned. “But I could before. I remember being able to do it.”
“You can. Sometimes,” he encouraged. He sighed, still trying to massage the end of his leg without it being noticeable. “Sometimes you can make the situation so different from the real world, that you can change your own body into something that makes it easier to do things. You have a lot of will power so I don’t doubt that you could probably make it so you could walk but after a nightmare, that’s a lot harder.”
“So that’s what happened to you?” she said, horrified. “I did this to you? This is my dream making you like this?”
“Unfortunately no,” Will said, shrinking in his seat, finally letting go of his leg. “This was kind of how I came when you met me. It wasn’t always this way but I definitely had the legs and the blue tint before I found you. The mouthparts have only been in the last six months.”
“But you can’t be like this in the real world,” she said, shaking her head. “No, there’s no way. You can’t be like this for real. This is just a dream. Will, it’s just a dream.”
“Again, as much as I want to encourage this, I can’t get away with that excuse much longer and we are dealing with something that’s a little more aggressive than I was prepared for,” he frowned.
Dolly was going to reply when a large grey mass hopped somewhere above her head and then skittered to the edge of the fireplace stones before settling on the ground. She sat gape mouthed at the large spider staring back at her with large, black orbs for eyes. It cocked its head to the side curiously and she gasped.
“Dolly, I’m going to beg you not to scream at him,” Will said, cringing. She turned to see him signalling to stay calm.
“What is that?”
“That’s Toby,” he replied, keeping his tone in that same calming manner. “He’s ridiculously skittish and loud noises scare the shit out of him. And when he gets scared, everything gets a fresh coat of webs before he wanders off to a forgotten corner of the Safe Haven to cower like a dog during a thunderstorm. He’s completely harmless and even though he can’t speak, he does understand you when you talk to him. Most of the time. Big words aren’t really part of his vocabulary so you’ll have to say things to him in gentle tones that are mostly on par with talking to a five year old but he’s still pretty capable of figuring things out as long as you keep the message simple.”
“This,” Dolly sighed, “is your pet, isn’t it?”
“For the sake of being brief, yes, this is the spider I was talking about,” Will replied, uneasily. “And his habit of exploding in anxiety webs is part of what tipped me off that we were dealing with something bigger than normal right now. Dolly, I know this is weird but try to hear me out because this is important and it’s going to get weirder soon.”
“Will, what the hell are you?”
“I’m one of many things out there,” he confessed. “Most of us aren’t really out to do anything bad. Most of us are hiding in spaces like this, going about our business and the waking world doesn’t even really know how much we tag along for the ride from one space to another. The world just assumes we’re just thoughts or weird passing moments and we just exist as afterthoughts waiting to move again. Most of us never even bother talking to people unless they’re like you or we absolutely have to.”
“What makes me different?” Dolly said, cautiously.
“There are a lot of people with wild imaginations and without them, we would probably be stuck forever in one place,” Will replied, slipping back into his normal conversational tone. If not for what was going on around her, Dolly would have assumed that she’d started listening to him talk about one of his horror films again. “Sometimes that’s fine, really, and if you end up in a place like this, it’s actually like hitting the jackpot because it’s an actual Safe Haven, which are few and far between. A Haven is pretty available anywhere, if I’m being honest but they’re really unpredictable and sometimes they aren’t all that safe. That’s a bit of a long story though. Most Havens are temporary at best and they’re usually forgotten within the span of a very short time. Some people are super flighty and the Haven might be gone after a few hours. Those people don’t exactly have the most active imaginations and even if they do, trust me, that’s super boring and you get stuck helping people figure out what they’re making for dinner or fighting with their boss over some stupid comment that they are replaying over in their head or trying to help them decide on what to watch on Netflix that night. And they never go for the horror movie suggestions either. If you’re really unlucky, you end up spending the night forced to hide in the corners of their imaginary world watching them try to reconcile how they would have behaved if they had been in the lead role of whatever kids movie they’re suffering through with their toddler.”
“This happens a lot, does it?”
“Only once,” Will shuddered.
“Steering back to why I am having a conversation with a giant spider human that I thought was an actor friend of mine playing a role on my online horror show,” Dolly encouraged.
“You have an active imagination but it’s also capable of creating and recreating a lot of new, original elements. This is a huge draw because monstrosities can exist here and, if they play their hand well, they can influence people like you into giving them a story. Some of them just want to exist somewhere. Some things, like Toby, would be more than happy to just exist in a place like a background character in a story that someone will pick up, read or watch, and then pass on to a friend and it just goes like that. Some of them never want anything else and will happily just exist there until the Haven gets neglected enough that they have to find somewhere else to be. Some of them have bigger ambitions, even. They want to be big enough that the world will take notice and those ideas never seem to go dormant. They just keep going and even when their faces and bodies and even their characters change, they live on and get stronger,” Will said. He continued, quietly. “Most of us are just looking for somewhere to be and it’s easier if you were born this way. Toby can exist in the shadows of anyone’s mind and as soon as he finds another mind to move to, all he has to do is jump and someone will think of a big spider for a couple of seconds before they forget and he can ride along until he finds somewhere else to be. It’s harder when the place is unstable or if the person has a lot of personal demons that can make it unsafe to stay there. A place like this, where we have a set that rarely ever changes is completely locked in your imagination and nothing can come in and hurt it without you deciding that’s what it can do, can provide a shelter to someone who might not have anywhere to go.”
“So why can’t you do this?” Dolly asked, quietly.
“I was human once,” he replied, looking away. “I still am somewhere and because of that, I have to be let into these places. If I’m not allowed into these Havens, I end up out there. Toby and the Shadows and a whole load of other creatures are all from a different plane of existence. They can walk between but most of them can’t exist outside of the imaginary world. They can influence your reality but they can’t stay in it for too long. I didn’t start there but I found my way into a place that existed in both planes at the same time. When this spider business happened to me, I couldn’t stay there anymore. It got too dangerous for a lot of people and I had to leave. Before I met you, I had a hell of a time trying to find places to exist. The waking world wasn’t kind when I still just had weird eyes and blue skin. There’s a reason my phone plans are only ever changed around Halloween.”
“I did wonder why you didn’t just go online and adjust your data cap,” Dolly said, slowly trying to grasp the situation she was looking at. She was still trying to reason with herself that any minute now, she would wake up and all this would just be the weirdest dream that she’d ever had. “So this is why you came to the show? This is why you’ve stuck around all this time even though the money is crap?”
“No,” he said, quietly. He seemed a little hurt. “There’s other places and people but this is the only one I figured that I would have a shot at fitting in, even a little bit. Before this happened to me, I was just a guy working in a curio shop and I sold off people’s weird crap along with whatever odd DVDs they weren’t watching anymore.”
“Most of them were horror movies, I’m assuming?”
“And most of them were full of creatures that I would eventually meet when I got turned into this thing you know,” he sighed. “I know this sounds like bullshit but not really believing in this stuff is what got me turned into a spider and considering that I’m not exactly the hero type, I need all the help I can get if this stupid Shadow is this aggressive.”
“What does it want, Will?” Dolly said, rubbing her shoulders. She was getting colder all of the sudden and she didn’t like that she felt heavier.
“I’m not sure,” he frowned. “But it will come back and it might not be alone if it wants something that badly.”
“Did that thing hurt Trioxin?” Dolly said, sharply.
“Oh no. That’s impossible,” Will said, absently rubbing his hands together to warm them before trying to warm up his paws on his spider legs.
“You’re absolutely certain? You said it was impossible to hurt a Shadow.”
“Well, like I said, Shadows are sometimes able to be caught by fire but only certain things can do that,” Will replied. “Cats, on the other hand, are understood by the greater world – or any world, if we want to get technical – as being the perfect little killing machines and they largely choose their fate regardless of what world they’re in. They are highly respected among monstrosities and in some circles, it’s an act of outright war to hurt one. This thing was counting on you not knowing that.”
Dolly cupped her hands and tried to warm her fingers with her breath. She didn’t know why she was so cold but she was vaguely aware that she could hear the rain nearby. She looked behind her to see that the window had been reduced to cardboard painted black on the wall. The curtains were cheap valour and she was perched on a broken couch covered in the same purple fabric. The Haven was gone but Will remained the same. He was absolutely a real human spider and he looked exhausted. Dolly was about to say something to him but stopped when she saw his expression change to one of pure panic. She looked behind her, expecting to see a shadowy figure but instead she saw a large spider, about the size of a terrier, sleeping soundly in front of the heater that was just restarting. Before either of them could move, they heard the sound of a car pulling up outside the storage unit.
“Shit!” Will hissed under his breath.