I must apologize for not updating this record over the past few days, particularly in light of the presence of a new reader wishing me luck in my endeavors, but things have been quite busy recently.
I suppose that I should resume narrating this tale where I left off. I last posted just before departing the city limits in order to search for the Epping AquaTarkus - or, at the least, The Camper - in the surrounding forest, as we were accosted by them not far from here. It was not much of a lead, but it was better than sitting in the hospital and feeling useless while waiting for James to recover.
I found The Camper not far from the town. The AquaTarkus, it seems, was waiting for me. Its "arms" were assembled by a small pond, seated around the edges. A few of them were standing in the center of the water in a circle. Only one of them reacted as I approached. I am sure that the AquaTarkus' choice of forms with which to communicate with me was deliberate. The child bore a striking resemblance to my son as I last saw him, tall and thin with short-cropped black hair.
"You talked to him, then," it said.
I shrugged. "Something like that, yes. I believe that it would be more accurate to say that he talked to us. He did seem to control the flow of the conversation, despite Miss Waterman's best efforts to the contrary."
The Camper-child only smiled. "Of course he did. As far as you humans go, Thaddeus River is something special."
"He is a serial killer."
"I believe he likes to be referred to as either 'a collector' or 'a liberator', depending on what form his psychosis has chosen to take on any given day. But yes, 'serial killer' is accurate."
"I do not believe that he will be doing any more killing any time soon," I answered. "Miss Waterman may have been a little overzealous in her efforts to make him cooperate, but that, at least, was a positive result."
The Camper shrugged. "He's lasted this long. I wouldn't be so quick to assume that a crazed Runner with a bat could put him out of things for more than a day or two. He's not exactly normal. But that's not the point."
"Then what was the point?" I asked. "What did Thaddeus River, a crazed lunatic and mortal, know that you, a self-described 'being of knowledge', did not? Why send me to speak to him rather than telling me these things yourself?"
The Camper grinned. "I knew you weren't a stupid one. I sent you after Thaddeus because, yes, Thaddeus knows some things I don't. Didn't." A slight laugh. "Until he talked to you. He won't talk to me."
"Then how do you know what he said?"
"I have arms everywhere." The Camper turned away and began making its way back towards the lake, motioning for me to follow. "Not all of them are human."
I refused to follow the AquaTarkus' servant any closer to the waters. I know enough not to fall for something like that. Instead I called, "That reminds me. What is 'Indisen'?"
The Camper stopped in its tracks and looked back over its shoulder at me. "Individualistic sentience. One of my arms that has escaped me."
I admit, this stunned me for a few seconds. I am not normally a man given over to wordless pauses, as I possess a vocabulary large enough to deal with almost every eventuality. This, however, left me speechless. Eventually, I mustered the focus necessary to ask for clarification.
"Exactly what I said," replied The Camper. "You're part of me. Or you were, anyway. You're one of my arms. Part of The Camper, as you'd put it."
"No, I am not."
The Camper laughed. "Not anymore, no. But that's the key, isn't it? You're Indisen. You're not part of me. You were never part of me, because you heard the silence howling."
Something seemed to click in my brain at this point, and I regained command of my faculties. "Aqualung," I said. "It erased the event which led to my assimilation. That is what Thaddeus was referring to. You cannot ever really be destroyed."
The Camper turned to face me again, grinning, and nodded. "Right."
I spent a few long seconds thinking. "But this still does not explain what you want with me. Thaddeus claimed that I am essentially proof against you, and the others like you. That Aqualung cannot erase me. That The Archangel cannot embrace me. That you cannot drown me. The Cold Boy cannot freeze me. If I am all of that, then what do I matter to any of you?"
The Camper snorted derisively. "Come on, Sullivan. You've got to be able to come up with that on your own, at least. Think about it. Also-" another grin "-you're not invincible. Just... resilient. And positioned so that none of us can move against you without the rest stepping in."
Again, I fell silent, though this time it was due to my thinking hard rather than my being too stunned to speak again. "This piece of you that I carry," I said, after a few moments, "makes me valuable."
"It makes me a prize to be won."
"Because it has the power to tip the scales of your game."
I stared. "So why should I not willingly go to one of your counterparts and offer myself up? If I reason correctly, as long as I am alive, you still have access to... whatever it is that you have inside of me, even if it lies dormant. But if one of the others claims me, then they seize this piece of you, and... well. I cannot imagine that you are too fond of that idea."
"Again correct." The Camper inclined its head. "I knew that you must have learned something locked up in there with all those files. But you should be able to figure out the answer to that question yourself as well." Another laugh. "You are a creature of knowledge yourself, Sullivan. In more ways than one. So put that mind of yours to work."
Again, I paused to think. "Because tipping the balance of the game would result in something that I consider undesirable. Having one of you gain the upper hand over the others would be still worse than letting your assorted campaigns of torment continue unchecked."
"Right again." The Camper looked pleased. "And besides, you've really only got one option anyway. That piece of me that you carry is important for more reasons than that."
I made my way over to a nearby patch of clear ground and sat down. "Then explain."
The Camper shook its head. "Stop asking for the answers, Sullivan. You already have all the information you need. Just think for a minute. I know you can."
But the answer had already occurred to me. "Aqualung. It threatens you. All of you."
The Camper nodded.
"It is not one of you. Not really. It is something other, even to you. Not alive, as Thaddeus says that you are, but the end of all life. The end of everything. And it has finally managed to create a weakness. It has separated you from a piece of your very essence."
"The Grand Game was always between all of you. The 'normal' ones. It was always outside, only able to affect things in the smallest of ways, when your attention was elsewhere and it bled in around the edges. But now it has hurt you. And it finally has an opening. You are already wounded. The Archangel is being torn apart as Aqualung eats through its very being. And when the Archangel falls, it all falls. You all need me. You need me to fall to one of you, rather than to Aqualung. You need the strength to shore up the defenses that Aqualung is eating through. But none of you is willing to stand aside and allow another to claim the power that I represent."
The Camper grinned. "We're cutthroat that way."
I stood again. "And you expect me to voluntarily surrender myself to you. To become a piece of The Camper and return your power to you."
A third nod. "Otherwise, you just give another one of them the power to hurt even more people, and you won't do that. You're a bitter old bastard, Sullivan, but you care. Restoring the status quo will hurt fewer people than tipping the scales."
But I had already made my decision. "No," I snapped. "Never. Or, at least, not yet. I have other matters to deal with. There may be another option."
The Camper snorted again. "There isn't. But if you want to fight me, go ahead and try. You're resilient, Sullivan. You're not invincible. And you can't fight me this close to the water."
As if in answer, the rest of the Camper turned to face me in unison, save for the group standing in the center of the lake. Those sank down, beneath the surface, out of sight. And the surface of the water began to roil.
"But you cannot fight me at all," I answered. For once, I was not afraid. "The rest of them stand against you. I cannot imagine that The Slender Man is unaware of our conversation. We are in his domain, after all, even more than we are in yours. The Cold Boy has defended me once already." I took a step forward. "Perhaps one of the others has the strength to claim me. But not you. You need my surrender. And you will not get it here. Not yet. Likely never. I can think, as you yourself are so quick to point out. I can find another option. And while I search, all of you will only continue to trip over one another in your efforts to claim me."
The Camper laughed. This time, it was not an amused sound. It was a gloating, derisive cackle. "It isn't that simple, Sullivan. You're drunk on power you don't actually have. I can take you easily now."
Here, I faltered. In truth, I was not - and still am not - entirely sure that what I was saying had any truth to it whatsoever. But I had come out into the forest to find The Camper solely because I believed that, if it could take me as easily as that, then it would have done so already. Perhaps I was - and am - wrong about how weakened it actually is. It may be as much of a threat to me as any of the others. But taking this gamble was my only chance, at this point, and so I said, "Then try."
And I closed my eyes, waiting for something to happen.
Nothing did. After a few moments, I opened my eyes just enough to make out the assembled pieces of The Camper. None of them had moved. The only thing that had changed was that, on the opposite side of the lake, barely visible in the dimness of the forest, was a tall, thin figure with no face.
And so I turned to leave. As soon as I was out of the clearing around the lake, I broke into as much of a jog as my lame leg could manage. Running with a cane is quite difficult. The best that I could do was to limp quickly. I still do not know what form the struggle between The Slender Man and the Epping AquaTarkus - if, indeed, there was one - took. I know only that I saw no sign of either as I made my way back into the city.