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The Shadow Basement


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#1 Rhekarid

Rhekarid

    I like it on Omicron Ceti III, Jim

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Posted 02 June 2010 - 11:49 PM

Okay, it's been forever since I really wrote anything, so I imagine this will be crappier than my usual crap. Hopefully it will help things get running again so I can practice enough to de-crap back up to my personal crap standards. Note that The Shadow Basement is also the name of the team I intend to make; this will be for fiction regarding it in a general storyline.

Chapter 1

“Hello, my wonderful subjects!” The man raised his palm as he ascended a short staircase and came into view, waving as if royalty addressing a crowd. His voice was nearly lost to the howling winds, themselves muffled by the screams of the surrounding throng of viewers as they clawed and pounded at the bars. Chunks of rubble, anything that could be found, were hurled between the gaps in the cage and clattered uselessly against the finer screen just a few feet past it. “Are you ready to see the marvels that I have wrought?!”

The enclosure was small, almost mockingly so, rising subtly from the ruins of what had once been the largest building on the planet. A dome of foreign metal forged into a screen, surrounded by a slightly larger cage of thick bars made from the same material. Inside, nothing more than a staircase descending underground, the man who had appeared from it, and a single lever protruding from the floor in front of him. The sky was blackened with clouds and ash, rumbling with the promise of a storm, unmoved despite the winds set free through the open space of what had once been a city. An ocean of people covered the ruins, pouring over the tiny structure, climbing over it and smashing each other against it in their frenzy.

“Would you like to stop me from throwing this switch?” He placed one hand atop the lever, fingers tapping restlessly. The man seemed to be one of them, just another member of the species. They had learned far too late that he was not. He wore a simple white suit, already speckled with the droplets of blood leaking through the screen as the mass crushed against itself outside. His face never seemed to remember its features, parts of a new person every moment, but the expression remained constantly wild, eyes wide and teeth bared, as though the bars were there to keep him from tearing the crowd apart as much as vice-versa. He swung his head back and forth erratically as he addressed the horde. “Then call my name!” Shrieks continued to wash over him incessantly, completely incoherent. “Worship me!” Both arms were raised into the air. “BLEED for me!” His audience turned on itself, beating those closest against the metal ever harder, murdering strangers and hurling handfuls of them through the bars. The white suit soon vanished as the man stood motionless within a rain of blood, hands outstretched, eerily peaceful.

One hand dropped suddenly to the lever. “And scream to me.” Machines rumbled underground as it was pulled, cries of hate replaced with pain, blurring together into a terrible droning as black swarms rose from cracks below the rubble and poured over the crowd. The man's crazed laughter echoed into the darkness even over the screaming, even as the cage was buried in corpses, and blood poured from above in thick flows that ran down the stairs like a waterfall.

******


Deep underground, Third's head quickly snapped back up as he caught himself starting to drift off. He remembered that day, when his world had died. It had been so long ago. Had he been present? He must have been. The name of the world and its people were gone. His own name had faded with them. Weeks, years ago? There was no concept of time here. Now he was Third, because he had been the third to be counted the last time several survivors met. He would be Third until that name was forgotten too, until he was given a new one, or until he died.

The sweltering shadows of the forest clung oppressively to his skin, demanding him to lose focus, to just drop to the ground, sleep, and be consumed. He saw that day whenever he closed his eyes, but the first time he had opened them afterward, he had been here. Here in this damnable forest hell, where the constant fear and instincts to run were all that made him think he was probably still alive. He hadn't met any others from his world. Was he the last, or were they lost deeper within the endless forest? He hoped they were dead. If his people were all murdered, then they weren't here. At times he wondered why he bothered letting those remnants of survival instincts keep him here, as well.

The forest was infinite. In the time he had been trapped there he could have crossed a continent, running in one direction, and it never changed. No features, no landmarks, no variations. The “trees” were perfectly straight, rising up from the ground and disappearing into the ceiling, without any branches. Their bark was greasy and hot to the touch, dotted with vigilant, unblinking eyes. Those eyes glowed faintly, and were the only light source in this entire place, this endless, nearly pitch-black forest of freakish trees that never stopped staring, waiting for him to succumb to the heat. He could remember almost nothing else. Any family, any life, all of it lost to fleeting, nameless scraps of imagery. His life now for weeks, for years, had been to run ceaselessly through this place and try to stay one step ahead of the beast.

Moments after rousing himself Third could hear it, too close. He risked a peek around the tree he was leaning against to see Second nearby, acknowledging him with a nod. She was a warrior, and had survived here longer than anyone else he had met. The forest was filled with survivors, those who had encountered the same man who murdered his world, and somehow found themselves here. They were scattered everywhere, and he frequently met them as he ran, but they rarely survived for long. The first he had seen, almost forgotten now, he had never even had a chance to speak to. They had climbed a tree to try and dig through the ceiling for the surface, but as his hand struck the soil the trees had squealed in alarm and the beast was there in an instant. Third had caught a glimpse of part of a face, huge and too hideous to remember, dropping suddenly from the darkness above and shearing off the other survivor's legs as it bit through the tree he had climbed. He didn't see the rest, already fleeing, and he had been running ever since.

He remembered running with Second, the two of them whispering their stories to each other between breaths. Her people had been caught in some great war she could no longer remember the details of, fighting slavers for centuries, when suddenly the battle turned against them. They lost again and again, and much of the army was wounded terribly. The general negotiated surrender in exchange for medical treatment and safety for his men, but the general had died long ago, and a strange man had taken his place and was playing both sides, intentionally losing to draw the paranoid opposition close. The medicines of the enemy were contaminated, and when Second's people were taken as slaves, they suffered terrible reactions and spread a plague among their handlers. Both races faced extinction, and the man who had killed them took what he needed and left, leaving them all to die simply so that none would know what he had taken or where he had gone.

Third spoke of his own people, primitive at the time, visited by a strange man who brought them great advances in medicine. He built an enormous structure that centralized hospital care across the planet, helping billions. But it became deeply entrenched in the global economy, and when he demolished the building and canceled all care, entire cities collapsed overnight. Over the few remaining frequencies the man invited the world to come and see what he had been doing, performing medical experiments on their race to claim some piece of their genetics. He had taken it, and then developed plague insects that would destroy it, causing internal stability and rupturing their bodies. The virus affected the youngest first. He invited the world to come and watch him pull a lever that would cause their children to explode from within.

They had run together for some time, meeting other survivors of their own disasters, seeing them die. Second told him about the trees, the roots of the genma tree, that the warps in their bark that resembled faces were what happened to those who fell asleep. They lost focus, and were pulled into the roots. It was only because of her that Third had survived this long, but she was a warrior, and could not stand to run anymore. She would kill the beast that chased them through the forest, or at last die fighting. Third watched her now, wishing he could stop her, but too afraid to speak aloud.

The beast was not subtle. He could hear it clearly now, wheezing as it breathed through a mouth so packed with corpses it never fully closed, as the monster greedily shoved those it caught into its maw regardless of room, the sound of its exhales punctuated by soft thumps as chunks of flesh dropped to the ground. Its every footstep crunched against the ground, covered as it was in several inches of white, jagged pebbles, all that remained of unknown thousands of skeletons crushed into rubble by being paced over, again and again. It was so tall that its back scraped along the ceiling, blotting out the glowing eyes and hiding its form in greater darkness. Its dimensions were unknown, seeming to carry on unseen forever.

Third wished he had been a warrior, brave enough to die, strong enough to stop her. But he was not, and almost before he knew it was happening, Second leapt from cover, leaping at the beast with a shout. Instantly, one of its hands shot from above and behind in the darkness like a viper, catching her in midair as the beast swung its head near to gaze at its prize. How many limbs did it have, obscured by the darkness above? Were they everywhere? Third didn't want to think about it, and couldn't bring himself to look. He could hear the sound of flesh being pulverized. There were no screams.

For one instant, there was silence, and then the labored wheezing of the beast's gore-clogged throat, closer now, moving slowly at ground level. It knew he was there, looking for him, and Third wished for a moment that the staring trees would betray his presence and end this life of running. And then the monster raised its head with a surprised grunt, emitted a single low howl, and was gone. Someone new was entering the upper levels of the genma tree, and the beast had gone to wait eagerly at the nearest entrance , hoping for new survivors to be dumped into the underground forest. More people poured inside periodically, but no one ever returned to flee through those openings to the surface. The beast was always there to intercept them.

Third dropped to the ground, shaking. He could no longer remember what he had lost, but he could still suffer for it. In all the time he had been there he still feared the beast as much as when he first saw it, even as the heat and fatigue robbed him of everything else. It hovered in his mind even when it wasn't literally overhead, every crunching footstep a reminder of the gnashing of its teeth. There was no peace here. Taking the brief moment while it was distracted, Third slumped to the ground with his face in his hands, eyes still open for fear of falling asleep.

He already couldn't remember what she looked like.

******


The Nowhere Bog, from the time he'd first seen it, was not what Eddie had expected. When he'd been told the obscure methods to find the strange man who lived there, someone who could help him, with the resources and inclination for some large-scale retaliation for a low price, he'd expected some kind of professional-looking outfit. Being blindfolded and led to some grizzled military leader flanked by armed thugs, a businessman's chateau, something with a degree of class. Instead it was, well...a bog. It was a stinking, soggy pit of rotting plants and water that looked like someone's assorted bouts with food poisoning.

There were no roads or paths, no easy transit. The steps to get there were secret, and once there, you got to walk a good mile or two through stinking sludge. His first time, Eddie had dressed to impress. His brand new Tanino Crisci Lilians did not survive the trip, and he'd been ready to chew out whoever he was coming to meet until he opened the door and spotted him immediately, chopping the fingers off of a young woman who was promptly tossed screaming into a bloodstained chute on the side of the room. His answer as to why had simply been “I needed more fingers.” It was readily apparent that he was not someone to yell at.

Even at midday the bog was dim, thick with a perpetual fog that cast an impenetrable layer of gray over the putrid layer of brown. There were never any visible animals or even insects, but strange sounds could still be heard far in the distance, past the cover of fog and dead trees. Eddie didn't come here often, not even bothering to claim a room under the boss' ugly-ass tree. The place was unpleasant enough on its own, and he didn't appreciate having to dress like some goddamn hobo's personal assistant.

The tree was finally starting to come into view, now. Throughout the bog the only landmark was a distant light, as if the sun were perpetually setting and barely visible. Following it eventually led one to the Genma Tree, a colossal, hideous thing that towered over the rest of the swampy plant life but was still mostly shrouded in fog, hiding the upper reaches of its branches. It was gnarled and misshapen, bulging with house-sized knobs and odd warping patterns through its bark. Hundreds of eyes peered through gaps in the wood, scattered randomly over its surface, some smaller than a human's, some bigger than a head. It spread even further below ground than above, its roots still staring at everything that moved, inside and out. Eddie's work had introduced him to the supernatural long ago, but the thing was still ugly as hell. As he approached the tree it groaned in response, acknowledging him as someone it recognized. Its surface slowly split open and spread apart, revealing a single, unremarkable door. With the eyes watching him expectantly, Eddie opened it and stepped inside.

The inside was all business, which Eddie could at least respect, without so much as a lobby or entrance room. Though the floor was crudely put together with a loose collection of boards, the walls and ceiling were shaped by the innards of the tree, to the point that there were even branches snaking overhead, always with the ever-staring eyes. The room was packed with desks, shelves, cabinets, tool boards, flat workspaces and various appliances, though where the gas and electricity for them came from he had no idea. Nothing went unused, with every available spot housing a museum's worth of occult miscellany. A towering stack of shelves ascended into the tangle of branches above and disappeared from sight, displaying countless bottles of powders of every color, most labeled in languages Eddie had never heard of. Bare walls were covered in hung oddities, such as a tribal shield covered in what he'd been told were Berbalang feathers and a large, incredibly detailed anatomic chart of a cross-sectioned human heart. He'd once stealthily opened a drawer out of curiosity while alone in the room, and found it filled with hundreds of teeth. That was before finding out that the boss saw everything that happened inside his tree through those eyes.

“You're early.” The boss in question was standing on the far side of the room, working at a countertop that seemed taken from a kitchen, his back turned. Water boiled in a pot to his right, and in front of him was some large piece of meat on a cutting board. His tone was as unreadable as always. “Eager for your chance at the Terimonts, are you?”

“You know that. I've been-” Eddie was suddenly cut off by the deafening clack of a meat cleaver striking the cutting board, neatly severing the hand from what he now recognized as an arm from some kind of strange, black-skinned creature. The boss calmly shoved the arm section into a bin off the side of the counter and produced an unpleasant-looking tool, using it to roughly tear the rubbery skin from the hand. “I've been waiting for weeks. What happened to having a great shot at them?”

The boss wrenched off the last of the skin and tossed it into the bin, hanging the dripping appendage onto a nearby hook suspended over a drain before turning to retrieve one of the powders from the shelf. “Sometimes an opportunity needs a little time to ripen. Hold your breath.” He emptied a tiny pile of gray dust into his palm, holding it up to the same level as the hanging hand and gently blowing on it. The exposed flesh fizzed violently on contact and erupted into a red foam, as muscle tissue sloughed off and left only bones, loosely clinging to veins, ligaments and cartilage. Eddie breathed again at a nodding signal, watching the remnants be removed from the hook and dropped into the pot of boiling water. The smell was indescribable. “At any rate, I've got what you need. In the closet, on your left.”

Eddie glanced to the side. He'd always thought that was a bathroom or something, with how much of the corner it occupied. He tugged the door open and raised an eyebrow at the contents, throwing a questioning glance at his boss. “The hell are these?”

“Hm? Oh, blank dolls. I find them easier to work with at actual size. What you want is in the lead box in the back.”

Turning back to the walk-in closet, Eddie pushed aside the odd featureless straw mannequins to find the box almost hidden in the corner, and hefted its lid open. Inside were several dozen vials of a light blue liquid, carefully pressed into a padded lining to keep them intact. “These-”

“Only take one.” Eddie turned to see the boss in the doorway, staring down at him. He was a strange man, and one who was difficult to deal with. He was always on the edge of a grin as everything was an inside joke, even if he seemed angry, and it was always tenuously unclear whether he would react to someone else with amusement or dissection. It had always been the former with Eddie, yet every sentence felt like it would be the one to go too far. He wore the same white suit every day, simple but elegant, always stained with something that had splattered on him in his work. Despite having seen him multiple times Eddie still couldn't remember or recognize his face, seeming as it did to be ever-so-slightly different every time he looked at it, which wasn't often, since it was somehow uncomfortable to gaze directly at him. Even his voice was never quite even, making it impossible to tell his mood. It was never pleasant to interact with him, but at least his creepy-ass kid wasn't there at the moment. Small favors.

Recognizing the moment of briefly-obvious intent, Eddie removed a single vial from the box and quickly closed it, and the boss vanished from the closet to hover over the boiling pot. “So what am I supposed to with this?”

The boss reached for a row of imp-like creatures hanging from a rack, dangling from their wings like meat in a street market stall. Unflinchingly he stretched his jaw wide and bit its head off, gesturing for Eddie to approach while he chewed on it. The body was turned over the pot and squeezed, which belched forth an enormous cloud of steam with a violent hiss, both of which swiftly vanished into the branches above. Tossing the small corpse into the same bin, he reached for another powder from the shelf with one hand while producing a small piece of paper from his pocket with the other, handing it over to Eddie. “Take the vial to this address, get inside however you want, and dump it somewhere. In the food, in the water, on the carpet, doesn't matter. Anywhere in the middle of the building.” He dumped half a bottle of what looked like ordinary sand into the pot. “If it is opened anywhere else, consider yourself very fired. If you lose it, the Terimonts will be feeding at least some of you to their dogs.” He turned slightly, baring his teeth in a joyless grin. “So be careful.”

Eddie stared at the two tiny items in his hands as his employer emptied the contents of the pot into a filter, sifting out the powder. All that was left were the smooth, polished finger bones. “And...this will help me how?”

“By keeping you from asking me stupid questions.” The same vicious smile blurred whether it was a joke or a threat. “I can't tell you all my little projects. A very significant member of the Terimont family will suffer for it.” He moved the bones to another work space, one that looked to be made for carpentry. “Let's leave it at that. Understood?”

Eddie shrugged, pocketing the objects. “Sure, boss. I'll get back to you when it's done.”

“Please.” He made a small, mocking bow. “Call me Jude.”

“Whatever. Time for business.” Eddie nodded, then turned and departed out the front door, the genma tree sealing it off behind him. Jude didn't bother watching him go, sitting down at the desk and retrieving a tiny brush and bottle of ink from a drawer. Pulling down an overhead magnifying glass, he went to work drawing careful runes on the finger bones, one on each side that could potentially land upward. His task had become eerily quiet, the genma tree itself being silent and effectively absorbing all outside sound.

After nearly an hour of writing, the bones were decorated and dried, and Jude procured a flat metal disk from beneath one of the desks, one of its sides covered in elaborate patterns. Setting it on the nearest surface, he dabbed a drop of Eddie con Diermo's blood onto its center, something he'd taken in his sleep, and then cast a handful of the bones onto the plate.

Despite the muffling of the tree, his laughter as he read them echoed across the Nowhere Bog.

#2 treacherous

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    Good...Bad...I'm the guy with the Hammer

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Posted 03 June 2010 - 07:56 AM

Hot Spam On A Bun!! A Rhek Fic!!!

#3 Tarvius

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Posted 09 June 2010 - 11:35 AM

Wow.

I really liked this fiction a lot. It was everything I have come to expect from you, and more. Seems like every time I read something from you it transcends your dark and unforgiving style. Then again, this fiction isn't all just "RAWR I"M CRAZY...and THERE"S BLOOOOOOD!" There's actually a surprising amount of back story in here, and I hope that you expand on this fiction, and elaborate on some of the concepts from within. This was great, all things considered.

#4 Rhekarid

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Posted 24 June 2010 - 01:19 AM

Chapter 2

When the end had come, it had been as might be expected. Sudden, brutal, terrifying. What had begun as a normal day had gradually become suspicious with distant shouts and dour-faced men and women running quietly through the hall. There was no reason to chase after them, assuming whatever was the matter would be dealt with soon enough. The compound was well guarded, and the only ones with both reason and initiative to attack would never do so brazenly, losing much of their strength in the process and becoming vulnerable in turn to enemies of their own. It was, most likely, a bloody show of posturing and warning, sending a reminder that they were not to be trifled with, just in case.

And then it was panic, and before she knew it calmly shouted orders and confidence had devolved into screaming, chaos, and fire. She had left her room as the commotion came worryingly close, looking through the doorway just in time to see a man down the hall sniped through a window, the force of the bullet removing most of his head and sending the body rolling across the floor. An explosion from around the corner threw her off her feet and splintered the marble tiles beneath, a half dozen armed men running into view to escape the flames that poured through the door at the end of the hall. As she staggered to her feet, ears ringing, she felt for her own weapon and tried to remember where it was. One of the men grabbed her arm and gestured in the opposite direction from the fire, yelling something incomprehensible, though the message was clear. She ran.

The sound of gunfire was all that greeted her as her hearing returned, everywhere, as if everyone in the building had suddenly started firing at the walls. She had to find a weapon herself. She was not afraid to die, but the thought of being cut down without a chance to take one of their attackers with her was intolerable. Gritting her teeth and fighting to regain composure, she headed for the nearest room away from the action that was sure to have at least one spare gun. Of all the times not to be carrying one of the uncomfortable things. A more distant explosion shook the area, and in the back of her mind she vaguely wondered at why the fire sprinklers weren't coming on as she reached her destination and opened the door.

Another nearby blast scorched her back and sent her tumbling face first into a floor sticky with blood, warm and fetid, staining her eyes and clothes and fingers as she struggled to regain balance without slipping. Gunshots were close now, inside the hall, and the shouting of the men she had left behind silenced almost immediately. She needed a weapon. Balancing herself on the table in the center of the small conference room, she cleared her eyes, looked around, and felt the color drain from her face. Six people were seated at the table, each of them beheaded, apparently before any had a chance to rise from their chairs. The heads were missing, and blood still oozed down the corpses to the floor like a series of slow fountains.

“Wait.” She whirled around to see a hooded figure in the doorway, holding a gun that protruded from the overlong sleeves of its concealing robe. The barrel had already been aimed at the back of her head, but now slowly lowered at someone else's command. “I'll take this one.” The figure took a step back, seemingly oblivious to the flames that were consuming the hallway behind it, to allow space for someone else to enter the room. A grinning man in a white suit stepped through, strangely untouched by the chaos. The blood on the floor parted away from his feet, but she was too consumed by a sudden rage to notice.

“YOU!” Forgetting everything else, she lunged at him, prepared to tear out his throat with her bare hands if she had to. If she could only kill this man before she died. If she could even just scratch him. He didn't move as her hands came within inches, simply smiling derisively at her efforts.

But she hadn't killed that man. It was a brief, nauseating blur, and then she was here. Dead, she assumed, and doomed to pointlessly flee from the demon constantly at her heels. Running as fast as she could, but as quietly as possible, lest the crunching, rattling fragments of bone beneath her feet draw its attention. Running through the strange, dark forest of trees that weren't, the eyes that protruded from their wrinkled bark intently watching her every step. Whenever there was a moment of peace, she would remember her life and the events that led up to her being here. She tried hard to remember, but the image was blurrier every time. She had seen no one else here, stayed quiet for fear of the demon, and sometimes wondered if she had forgotten her own language like she forgot her own name.

For now, she stared at one of the trees, one that had caught her eye as she stopped to think. Some of them had knobs in the wood that resembled faces, horrid things she usually avoided looking at, but this one reminded her of someone. A man she had known, not long ago. She recalled wondering where he was during the attack, and if things would have gone differently if he were there. He had always been a survivor. Her hatred of the man in white had something to do with him...something he had done, or was going to do to him, among things he had already done to her and her family. She could still remember her sister's baby daughter, slowly eaten alive by cancer the man in white had given her, because the mother had failed to meet some demand. The lumpy, deformed face of wood became familiar in another way, but as she turned away in disgust the name she had been trying to call suddenly leapt back to her.

“Eddie!” The surprise remembrance slipped past her lips before she could catch the mistake, clasping her hands over her mouth in vain. It was there before she could even curse at herself, dropping from the ceiling as if it had been watching the whole time and shaking the ground with the impact of its landing. She tried to move, knowing it was too late, and one of the beast's enormous, clawed hands swung down. The tree she had been examining exploded into splinters, her skeleton following suit as the blow sent her hurtling through the air, instinctively trying to catch herself despite at least two limbs already being gone. She skidded across the pebbled ground and struck another tree with enough force to crack it, coughing and flailing weakly with the remaining arm, feeling only the soft warmth of the trail of shredded organs left behind. There was another crash as the beast leapt down upon her, crushing what was left, and a final, faded glimpse of its shrieking maw as it plunged down toward her. The end came again, and was as expected.

******


As soon as you first set foot within the genma tree, finding and using information was vital. A life of relaxed normalcy was no longer possible, not that anyone seeking such a life was likely to ever find their way inside. If you couldn't stay on top of the game, you fell behind, and were unlikely to ever stand back up. It was a strange race being here, one in which the rules were never clear, and with risks and rewards that were both vast and incomprehensible. Some were able to simply keep to their own business and act when called, but James Arekyl did not consider himself to be useful or interesting enough to attempt that sort of luxury. It was Jude who had made him immortal, and who had spared his existence on a coin toss when they were out of spare rooms for a new “employee.” The loser of that little game had been immediately and casually shoved down the chute to the meat locker as fodder for the sightwraiths.

Jude was an unpredictable one to work for. He seemed to be equal parts overconfident and paranoid, never frightened but always threatened. His followers were permitted to do almost anything they wanted within his base of operations, he smiled glibly at attempts on his life, and tampered in powers with seemingly no regard for retribution like a child digging up an ant nest, powers James would have been afraid to even give a name to. Yet he seldom personally left the seclusion of the Nowhere Bog, keeping its location and existence secret, preferring to kill problematic employees instead of fire them simply because they had even the slightest information about him that could be leaked. He worked obsessively to keep the many arrows of his enemies at bay, yet whenever one got through reacted as if the very concept were a joke. Information was vital to survive within his reach, knowing what was coming and what should or shouldn't be done.

James himself had been part of the small, still nameless organization for several years now, making he and his brother some of the most senior members, behind only a handful. There was Tobias Red, of course. Lady Malise, the Ichatryte and the gunsmith were the ones who had been there longest since Tobias, as far as James knew, aside from maybe Somn, the basement guard. If she counted. There may have been others hidden away from view, which wouldn't be surprising considering the nature of the place, but in the end it didn't really matter. Any standards of authority below Jude and Tobias were vague at best, and the members seldom had much reason to interact with each other. It made the constant hunt for information that much more difficult.

“Screw it, I'm asking him.” He rose dramatically from his chair, as if making a declaration of great importance. “He's the only one who'd know.”

His brother raised an eyebrow without turning away from the computer. “He's gonna kill you. You know he doesn't care about this crap.”

“He didn't kill me last time. And asking him last time put me in the lead.”

“Yeah, but sucking put you back behind.” He glanced over and gave him a wry grin. “Heads says he kills you.” James sighed. His brother had never let go of the coin toss that decided his life, and took advantage of every chance to do one of his own. There wasn't even any need for coins, it wasn't as if the genma tree had vending machines, but he kept some along at all times for the purpose of mockery. He watched silently as John flicked a quarter into the air. “Ohhh, heads. You're gonna die.”

“I am not!”

“Yeah, he might just mutilate you. Heads if it's just mutilation!” John tossed it up again. “Tails. Yep, you'll die.”

“Kiss my half ass. How many spares are left?”

“Check yourself, I don't keep track of your corpse. I just smell it all day.”

James made an obscene gesture at his brother, then started toward the ladder. Each of the underground rooms made from the genma tree's root structure followed a small, simple pyramid shape; a single small, square room, with a larger one below it, and another, larger room beneath that. The rooms, and the halls between them, varied between artificial and shaped from the “wood” of the tree, each wall often being a combination of both. It was unclear how much of the genma tree even had a tree shape, as it seemed to be hollow everywhere, and many rooms were made from portions forming perfect square shapes and corners without having any apparent signs of damage to signify that someone had built the room instead of simply moved into it. The twins had quickly gotten tired of being stared at by the eyes in the walls and put up wallpaper, then used a portable generator and electric lights to compensate for the lost glow. It wasn't until after they had hauled the generator through the Nowhere Bog while trying to keep it dry that they found out the Ichatryte could have provided them with one.

After that, appliances had come through request, such as the huge freezer in the corner of the top room that had appeared there two days after the form was sent in, despite being much wider than the door. The top floor was shared space, with the larger of the two beneath it going to whoever had the higher score. The numbers changed often enough that they rarely had time to finish moving their belongings from one floor to another before they changed hands again. As such, the top floor room was where they kept most of their more important belongings, while the other two were a perpetual mess of half-moved garbage and furniture.

James hauled himself up the ladder and to the first floor, shooting a glance toward the door to make sure it was closed. It was getting late, and leaving doors open at night was a bad idea. All of the three-layered rooms connected to the halls from the top floor, but access to the lower rooms depending on the preference of whomever occupied them. Some went through the effort of installing a staircase or even an elevator, while for others it was just a gaping hole in the floor. After much arguing about how much weight whose limbs could effectively lift or whose unnatural appendages would snag in what apparatus, the Arekyl twins had finally settled on a ladder, the option least preferred by both of them.

Still cursing under his breath, James pulled open the freezer door. Three bodies were left. Robbing morgues wasn't the classiest thing he could do with his free time, but it was a small nuisance in exchange for living forever. The nature of his abilities had left its highly visible mark; the left half of his body, split perfectly even vertically, was dead. He was essentially half a live body hauling around half a dead one. Simple, mechanical prosthetic implants had been placed inside the tissue to let him move his left limbs, but it was far from perfect, the scars hidden only by his clothing. The left eye and nostril were stitched shut to reduce moisture transit and slow decay, the ear removed and covered over with a patch of artificial skin. Unsurprisingly, James had since become an avid collector of large coats, and though he hated the style combed his hair over the left side of his face to hide it. As his left half obviously didn't heal, its slow decay and damage required periodic replacements from corpses roughly his size. James Arekyl was entirely dead as far as the outside world knew, and only his brother used his full name. For the rest of the world, at least the tiny portion of it that knew he existed, he was Treason Jim.

Three bodies was more than enough for any non-fatal damage he might potentially receive, though. James closed the freezer and stepped gingerly over the many cables trailing across the floor from the generator thrumming in the opposite corner, most of which vanished down into the opening to the next floor, and slipped out through the door. The insides of the genma tree were fairly unremarkable, once you got past being stared at by eyes in the walls at all times, and strangely uniform. A small hatch in the corner of the entrance room, Jude's workshop, led down into an unmanned administrative room. With permission from Somn one could go lower, but most took one of the four doors leading out, evenly spaced on each wall and leading into underground dwelling areas. Each door opened into a hallway that immediately split into two, shaping into a long U that extended for several hundred feet, lined with more simple doors to the pyramid-shaped personal rooms. There was no kitchen and no bathrooms, so the place was obviously not meant for daily life, but it certainly wasn't the shape of a normal tree's root structure. The Ichatryte could make up for many absent amenities, but the place still gave the impression of having been very deliberately designed for a less obvious purpose than housing.

Down the hall to the left, the distant, muffled thumps of the gunsmith's work were just barely audible, but otherwise it was almost completely silent. Unlike the individual rooms, the halls had no artificial parts, and were simply an ominous tunnel of twisted wood and eyes. Each door was initially identical, aside from a simple identifying mark, such as NW3, or Northwest-3, for the room the twins shared. Often after moving in, someone would decorate the door to more clearly signify who used it, rather than bother remembering the codes. Whenever a spot was vacated, by the next day, the door was back to normal. The Ichatryte worked diligently, though James almost never saw it. Stepping out of the electric lights of his own room, there was always something immediately unsettling about the glow of the genma tree's eyes, as if he could feel it crawling on the edge of his skin.

James headed up the slight incline of the hall and around the corner to the adjacent NE wing, and his destination was immediately visible. It was the only room without a door, and the darkness inside was clear even from a distance. There were no lights inside, and every last eye on the walls, floor, and ceiling had been stabbed out, the stench of their rotting remains wafting out into the hall. For whatever reason, unlike everywhere else in the tree, in that room they never grew back. Slowing his pace so as not to leave disruptive footsteps, James arched his head through the doorway to peer inside. “Tobias?”

The light coming in from outside was barely enough to see into the room, completely bare and lightly glistening from the dried blood of the punctured eyes. A metal hatch leading to the area below was the only thing resembling furniture, the weak sound of moans and sobbing drifting up from the floor. In the distant corner, almost indiscernible amidst the surrounding shadows, Tobias sat motionless with his head in his hands. As James' gaze passed over him, his fingers separated enough to reveal a single glaring eye, glimmering with rage, and his hissing whisper cut through the air. “How dare you look at me.”

“S-sorry.” James pulled back out if the doorway and flattened himself against the wall next to it. Stupid, stupid. Tobias didn't have a door, but you never entered, or even looked into, his room unannounced. James was pondering whether to try and explain or simply flee when Tobias' voice emerged again from the darkness.

“What do you want? Quickly.”

“Um.” James swallowed the lump in his throat. Talking to Jude was strangely unpleasant, a nagging discomfort that gnawed at the back of all his senses, but something about Tobias directly twisted his stomach. “I wanted to ask about that new guy...Eddie. I remember a few months back I shot the new kid when he was giving me mail because he couldn't pronounce the password...I thought Jude might be angry but instead he gave me that new implant that let me finally make a perfect fist, you know?”

“And?”

“And, well...he's got this Eddie guy delivering shandverium. A damn carrier pigeon could do that. Far as I can tell he's got nothing special about him, nothing useful Jude would care about. You know I try to look out for anything that'll win me points with the boss. Think this guy is someone I should 'test' the survival instincts of?”

There was a short, awkward silence as James wondered whether Tobias was still there before he spoke. “You may look at me.” James hesitated, and Tobias promptly grabbed his throat and yanked him down to his eye level. “LOOK at me!” The emptiness of his expression was horrific, and James squirmed as he was forced near it. Regardless of his mood there was always a palpable lack of life or even emotion emanating from Tobias, the spiritual black hole of someone who had never had any humanity to lose. The fuel behind his raises in voice was more violence than rage, blistering havoc unfettered by any reason or rationale. The effect was not lessened by the fact that in appearance he was a boy no older than twelve. “Understand this. No one is to touch Edward Vicente con Diermo.” He let go of James and shoved him back against the opposite wall. “You can share that with your worthless brother and anyone else who was so inclined.” Tobias quickly vanished back into the shadows of his dwelling, the darkness wrapping tightly around him. “Now get away from my room.”

James coughed and rose quickly to his feet, eager to do exactly that. He could still feel the cold of Tobias' grip, even in his dead half. Still, he'd gotten what he needed to hear, with minimal damage. Judging by the way the cold fingerprints were deepening into sharp pain he'd need some new throat, but that was it. More interesting was that the seemingly useless new member was apparently off-limits; exactly why would have to be the next piece of information to find, though it wouldn't be easy. Jude would never tell and he wasn't about to bother Tobias about the same issue again. For now, it was time to get out of the hall before nightfall.

He quickly walked back to his room and slipped inside, double-checking that the door was securely closed and locked. He and his brother had left it slightly open one night shortly after moving in, and that was a mistake that was not going to be repeated. Ignoring the pain in his neck for the moment, James began to grin and eagerly slid down the ladders to the bottom room, where John was still at the computer. He glanced over, though it was hard to tell with his all-black right eye. “Well, *vulgarity* me. Not even limping. I guess that's two points for two inaccurate coin tosses.” John still smirked at him with the tiny, bladed teeth of his right side, the amusement apparently worth the loss. Unlike James and his many coats, John rarely even bothered with a shirt, the horned protrusions and occasional tentacle jutting from the right half of his body ensuring that nothing fit. Black markings that resembled tattoos swirled and slashed across his skin, always stopping just short of the vertical halfway point.

“Better than that.” James picked up one of the coins from the computer desk and flicked it in the air. “He called you as worthless, but didn't say anything about me. That's five points, and I'm in the lead again!”

John's smile instantly vanished. “Son of a bitch!” He angrily unplugged the computer and hauled it over his shoulder, grunting in annoyance as he slowly climbed up the ladder with it. There were never any permitted delays when it came to moving belongings between floors. “You won't even keep it for two days!”

“Uh huh. Sorry, can't hear you from all the way upstairs!” James allowed himself a moment of victory cursing as his brother shouted back, then began climbing up after him, still in need of a new throat.

Finding out the next piece of information would have to wait until tomorrow, after his stuff had changed floors.

#5 Rhekarid

Rhekarid

    I like it on Omicron Ceti III, Jim

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Posted 25 July 2010 - 02:23 AM

Chapter 3

There was always something wrong with the sky. Over every world it had visited, the clouds churned and slithered over themselves, twisting in directions that defied the wind, swelling and shriveling like great floating organic sacs. Sickly colors crawled over even the open air, reddish-green blobs sprayed forth by bursting green clouds and smearing across the endless canvas. It was a phenomenon the Nine Directors called Saan'naal de Pazx, the Cover of Anguish. In less elegant terms, it looked as though it were about to rain vomit.

At least, such was the case with the worlds that survived. That simple of a pattern had been easily recognized. The testimony of survivors had indicated that there were only two basic results from visitations. A figure in white would come among them, entrench itself into the deepest workings of the planet, and then tear them apart. Civilization would be broken down by war and strife, history would be lost, the advancement of technology forgotten, and the will to live shattered. Seemingly gaining nothing from it, the figure in white would depart on the back of some great beast. Its voice blackened the light of day and its hands tore open the sky, the two of them vanishing into the openings and leaving sores that rotted away the atmosphere.

Pax Initia did not care for such eccentric descriptions, and neither did the Nine Directors. It had been programmed to investigate the havoc again moving across the universe, and fanciful accounts of monsters were of little help. Such things were irritatingly common among organics. There were animals from foreign worlds, unnatural animals made from genetic tampering, and such things were often frightening for other animals, evolved as they were to fear and distrust the unknown. But there were no monsters, and tales of exaggerated fright did not provide an accurate label to what was actually being dealt with.

However, there did seem to be at least some truth in their claims. The ruined survivors were one of the two results. The other was global genocide, and while there was obviously no one to question, Pax had witnessed claw and tooth marks among the remains while investigating these planets, left by an enormous creature that didn't match anything in its database...save for previous incidents long before its construction. Unfortunately, even knowing this did nothing to solve the many questions at hand.

Several teraseconds before the Pax Initia unit had been built, an anomaly began at coordinates 15h 32m 39.14s −44° 02′ 68.9 of the eighth sector of Kommitus Realm. There, the results of an internal conflict between a 46-Grade Divinity Organism triumvirate defied predicted results by a wide margin, creating an imbalance that would come to be recorded by the Nine Directors as the Planet of Death incident. The incident spread to a nearby planet inhabited by twenty 7-Grade Divinity Organisms, preparing for conflict with remnants of their enemies scattered by the initial incident. Again, the results defied all logical prediction.

From there, things began to slide further out of control. The nearest inhabited planets seemed to come under some sort of attack, torched free of all life or left with a scattered of broken survivors. It was originally fairly slow, at least a dozen gigaseconds between worlds, but with each, it got worse. Attacks began and ended more frequently, and the Nine Directors could not accurately predict which worlds would be targeted next. Estimated sapient deaths climbed to the hundreds of billions. But then, as the severity of attacks rose to the point that the planets themselves were physically threatened, the anomaly vanished, as did all records of it. All surviving witnesses, all notices and warnings sent to other worlds, all individuals who had received them, all known copies of all compiled data, even the archives of the Directors themselves, were gone. Such a trespass was unacceptable, yet the attacks seemed to be ended. All that remained was the memory that something had happened, and the physical evidence of dead worlds, scarred and torn with the claw marks of an unknown organism that seemed to be getting larger as the chaos spread outward.

And then, nearly three entire sectors of Kommitus Realm were wiped out. There was no evidence at all to examine, simply empty space where there had once been stars and planets. It happened so fast that apparently any calls for help were also lost to the void; the Nine Directors had no idea it was happening until it was already done. The two incidents were not believed connected due to the period of time between them, until the same events had begun to repeat. Outside of the lost space, worlds were again suffering the same attacks. Pax Initia had been programed to search them, find evidence to what was going on, and bring lethal justice to the perpetrator before another especially large-scale disaster took place.

This time, however, the incidents were not random. The trail of ruin had been left in a straight line across the universe. Either it had a destination this time, was fleeing from the void...or was intentionally trying to create distracting trains of thought in its pursuers. The tracks left by the creature were small again, as well. Had it lost its power and somehow, its size? Had it reproduced? The lack of any solid descriptions of it was maddening. Yet, despite the clear direction, the pattern appeared the same. With each world in the line, it was again becoming larger. The sibling unit Pax Unitus had been tasked with occupying worlds predicted to be next in line, in order to witness and hopefully intercept events firsthand, but there had been no word, even after the planet it was inhabiting had been hit. The odds were almost incalculably low that it had been so fast it was unable to send a single message, yet there it was. Again, maddening. That world was the next to be visited, however. Hopefully at last there would be answers.

Pax Initia glanced back at the ruins of the city behind. The tale gleaned from the survivors here was typical. They had once had a functional society and civilization, until water supplies around the world were poisoned, one by one. Underground springs became thick and fetid. Entire oceans turned brown and dead. By the time high security and scientific study was formed around remaining supplies, there was scarcely any left. Not nearly enough for the planetary population. People began to die, and become desperate. Countries initiated barely-planned blitz attacks on each other to steal water, and murdered their own citizens to reduce demand. The world crumbled rapidly. When the man in white appeared with shipments of water, claiming to be relief from other worlds, he was viewed as a savior. Some were suspicious, but war and collapse had reduced budgets, the numbers of scientists, and their ability to work. The people had no time to wait.

By the time testing had discovered the subtle but powerful hallucinogen in the water, it had already been distributed to the population. Madness and confusion devoured what was left of the wavering society, as people killed each other and set fire to their own homes in an addled frenzy. The drug permanently damaged their minds, and even after it wore off, civilization was gone. Few people could function normally anymore. The scattered elite who hadn't needed the tainted water were not enough to rebuild. There were two many holes in knowledge, too many things that not enough people knew how to do. Painfully slowly, the population watched itself slide backwards and disappear.

The man in white came to them again, laughed at their failures, left them the antidotes to the hallucinogen and poisons in their water, and departed with his beast into the sky. The clouds rotted as badly as the people had, leaving them without even a veil of hope over the heads to look toward. Pax Initia had spoken to one woman who mentioned having children. She had no idea if they were safe, because she could no longer remember their names or faces after the drugged water scarred her brain. All the people had left was the faint memory of what they had lost, and the one who had taken it from them. The planet was covered in the ruins of cities, shattered, dingy, and overgrown with plants. Survivors with no meaning in their lives huddled in rags in the shade, waiting to die, staring at the ground to avoid looking at the sky. They would likely all be gone in less than a gigasecond, as even the elite had long since lost the last of their power and supplies.

It was unacceptable. This world was no worse off than any of the others. The menace spreading this plague had to be stopped, for the sake of the justice and peace crushed in its wake. It wouldn't stop, as far as could be assumed. It wasn't striking just to create misery; why leave antidotes? Why kill so many that a slow extinction was inevitable, instead of causing more enduring chaos? It wasn't entertaining itself on its journey, or else the pattern of damage wouldn't be repeatedly the same. Something was gained from this, a need that wasn't satisfied regardless of how often the events repeated, even if it was nothing more than a psychotic obsession taken to a grand scale.

Pax Initia spotted a child approaching it, the various lights and cameras that made up its face adjusting themselves with an inaudible buzz to focus. Most of the people here had been afraid of its foreign appearance, its vaguely bipedal shape and golden metallic skin gleaming with a faint, wraithlike cloak of energy. It paid only slight attention to what the organic creature was saying and doing; higher processing functions would only be devoted to it if it were deemed important. It was not. The message ascertained by lower functions was that it was begging for food.

The machine slowly raised an arm and then swing it down to strike the child in the side of the head, cracking its skull and neck and sending it tumbling down the dusty remains of the road. Nobody stood. The Pax Initia unit had been built by the Nine Directors to investigate and prevent threats to the prosperity of life, to ensure its well-being and contentment. Charity toward the dying did nothing for this, not when that energy could be devoted toward those with the will and capacity to live. Better to leave the rest to die, or kill them if they presented the opportunity to do so with minimal effort. The fertilizer they became would nourish the land and far in the future potentially help give birth to a more successful species.

It turned away from the ruins and lifted its hands to the air as if in prayer, its surface shining brightly with energy. Coordinates for the next world were set. With any luck it would find Pax Unitus and the information it needed. Otherwise, it would have to assume its duties and move on to the planet predicted to be the next most likely target. 374-436792-8, as it was labeled in the files of the Directors. Earth, as it was called by its inhabitants. With a flash of light Pax Initia was gone, leaving behind only the hum of energy from its teleport, and a body in the street.

******


Eddie had expressed his displeasure with the overly simple job he was given. He knew that the boss had access to far greater talents, but this matter was personal, and the task felt like something a common thug would do out of spite. He was a professional and he'd perform the job to the letter, but he'd be damned if he marched back the tree and acted as if all all grudges had been completed. This waste of time would not be swallowed quietly.

Even more annoying had been the discovery that apparently, someone beat him to it. The address that the boss had given him led to private property far removed from the city, fenced off land separating a large mansion from the dirt of society. Marble columns, fountain in the middle of the circular driveway, hedges that pleased the eye while directing you away from the back door. The kind of place that was grand enough to let everyone know you were rich and powerful, and typical enough to remind them that it was none of their business why. Eddie could easily see it as a Terimont household, though it seemed odd that he wouldn't know about one this ostentatious. Clearly, being so visible had not worked out.

The front doors had been ripped from their hinges, one of them split into fragments over the fountain, the other embedded into the wall one floor up, the top half of a corpse that had been caught and severed by the impact still resting above. Eddie didn't care to speculate how it had gotten up there, but he did wonder why no one had tended to the scene. His approach toward the mansion had initially been a stealthy one, but this mess was visible from across the entire sprawling lawn. Judging by the look and stink of the bodies, this had happened two days ago at the most. How had no one noticed?

Inside was far worse. Someone had gone to town on the place, punching holes in the walls, tearing lighting fixtures from the ceiling. Eddie thought he saw bite marks in a banister. The corpses of the residents had been left where they fell, surrounded by the bullet holes of the fight they'd tried to put up. Their enemy had clearly not employed the same means. Someone dangled over the railing of the stairs, their head smashed down into their torso, still visible as a lump in their chest. Two men sat opposite each other in a hallway, leaning against the walls, their arms torn off and rammed through each others chests. Blood painted the corridors, sometimes literally, fingerprints sliding out of some of the larger pools and traced into childish, indecipherable drawings on one side and complex, flawlessly formed runic patterns on the other. It was a grim scene, but even his short time at the genma tree had done much to subdue his surprise at such things.

Eddie found a room toward the back that looked like it came from a bad movie. The word 'Why' had been written on the walls and ceiling hundreds of times, in blood, human waste, strips of dog flesh, and various other fluids he didn't care to look at long enough to identify. Bodies were scattered all over the floor, some of them apparently killed by having handfuls of them torn out to use for writing. Pieces of paper were strewn everywhere, all of them too badly stained to be legible, aside from a sheet fixed to the wall with a finger used as a nail. It was still useless, blank aside from a single nonsense sentence: Woke up again.

It seemed as good a room as any to do what he'd come here for, despite the fact that any occupants of this house it might have been intended for were likely going to be washed out of his clothes later. If anybody came back, they would certainly spend some time searching this room. Eddie pulled the featureless blue vial from his coat pocket, rolled it in his palm for a few seconds, then shrugged, pulled out the stopper, and poured the contents onto the floor. His eyes burned for a moment, but predictably, nothing happened, and shortly even the odorless stain in the carpet had vanished. He ground his teeth over the uselessness of it, then placed the vial back in his coat and walked away.

The current method for entering the Nowhere Bog was fairly simple. Find a room or hallway with two doors on either end, close them both, draw a specific mark on one, a different one on the other, wait one minute, erase them both in order, and open the second door. The portal would be open for about twenty seconds. It was a nuisance, and even more of one to have to remember a new sequence of events every couple weeks, but Eddie could at least appreciate the desire for security. No one would ever stumble upon the method by accident, and even if someone was caught and the information forced from them, it would be inaccurate before long. It didn't take long to find a usable location inside the mansion, and Eddie produced a simple pencil, went to work, and opened the door to the bog.

He was immediately greeted with the twisted face of the creature waiting on the other side, its remaining eye rolling languidly in its socket to gaze at him. “Ed...die.” It leaned forward, the eye oozing out of its casing and splattering on the floor.

Eddie con Diermo had always been proud of the reflexes that kept him alive. They saved his life again in the next instant as he ducked under the claws aiming to tear into his face, kicking out one of the creature's legs to slow it down long enough for him to get some distance between them, sparing a glance back as he ran for the opposite door. For a moment he thought it was whatever had attacked the house, until he saw the craterous wound in its chest where the heart used to be. No, he knew what this was.

It still looked mostly human, but had changed enough that it clearly wasn't anymore. A thick, transparent slime dribbled out of the empty eye sockets in place of blood, congealing on the tattered strips of flesh hanging loosely from the gaping hole in its chest. Its teeth and hair were falling out as well, the former being unevenly replaced with rows of long, spiny growths that glinted with oily black venom. The fingers had split open into similar protrusions. Skin sagged in some places or stretched to the point of tearing in others, as the human organs inside were consumed or replaced. The skull had collapsed and taken some of the face with it, pulling the skin back and permanently baring its teeth.

Taking advantage of his few seconds while it regained its footing, Eddie pulled his weapon from its hiding place in his coat and sprayed a few shots at its legs, bringing it down a second time and resuming his flight. It was vital to slow it down and create enough of a distance to hide himself. The eyethrall was immature, probably no more than an hour past the start of the transformation, and wouldn't have adequately developed senses to replace the lost eyes and other organs. Superficial damage like a few bullets to the legs would be recovered from, but for now the important thing was making it unable to track him.

It had other ideas. Moments after the door was closed and locked its claws punched through, the creature's wheezing howls barely audible over the sound of splintering wood. The human base was long dead, along with the level of intelligence needed to work doors. Eddie ran up the stairs while cursing the fact that his discontent had prevented him from properly searching the house, glancing in all directions to get a feel for the building's layout. He couldn't simply slip outside and make a break for it; this thing had to be dealt with, now. The boss did not condone threats to the secrecy of the genma tree, and an eyethrall wandering into a residential area would be high on that list.

He wheeled just as it crested the top of the stairs, peppering it with another hail of bullets. Perhaps he should have let the gunsmith outfit him after all. Eddie had used a standard MP7 for years and grown rather fond of it, choosing to decline the offered upgrades in favor of sticking with what he was used to. Watching the eyethrall fall in a slick of blood and syrupy ooze, only to immediately continue the chase on all fours, he was beginning to regret that decision. It had no sense of pain or self-preservation, nor any vital organs. Eddie slammed another door in its face and moved on, mind racing. He had to find a kitchen and put this thing down for good, or else he'd run out of ammo before he did enough physical damage to stop it.

That wish was granted sooner than expected as he ran into the next room and found himself falling through the floor, caving beneath his weight due to structural damage below. Eddie prepared himself for a hard landing but was met with only a soft crunch, falling onto the rotten bodies that had weakened the structure by being smashed into it. He lay still for a moment, recovering from the fall and wondering if it would notice him among the bodies. He'd gotten lucky with the padded landing; anything worse and the pain would have drawn it straight toward him. Eddie rose quietly and finally realized where he'd fallen, within arm's reach of a stove. Wasting no time, he turned on the gas and backed into the piled bodies nearby, clearing his mind as best he could in the moment of peace to further hinder its ability to track him.

The eyethrall dropped through the hole in the ceiling in the next breath, landing on a countertop and swinging its head back and forth as it examined the room. It rose up once, then dropped to all fours again, mouth agape and gurgling. It knew he was near, but couldn't find him. Eddie kept still, wishing it would take just another step closer. There wasn't enough gas in the air to pose any threat; it would have to be standing directly on the stove. He had a clear shot, but it was close enough to be a huge risk, and it would simply be drawn away from the gas. It might wander away looking for him, but it could also find him at any second.

As Eddie considered his options, the eyethrall rose to stand upright and began gasping erratically, wheezing and sputtering without any exhales. For an instant he dared to hope that it was so immature the gunshots were really enough to kill it, until he remembered that the lungs were first to go after the heart, and there was only one reason for it to be taking in air. Ignoring the stink of his surroundings, he set the gun down, took a deep breath, and covered his nose and mouth.

With a final convulsing gasp, the eyethrall doubled over and retched a thick mixture of blood and sap, as a third arm burst from the hole in its chest, grasping wildly at the air. The new limb had no pretensions of being human, strips of muscle tissue clinging over black and twisting knobs of wood, dripping in transparent sludge and ending in fingers that more resembled enormous thorns. That, however, was not what concerned Eddie. If he inhaled any of the spores that had been expelled from its chest along with the arm, he was finished. Adjusting to the new balance, the eyethrall leaned forward and planted its third hand on the counter, directly atop the stove's burner.

Eddie moved immediately, leaving one hand over his nose and using the other to grab his gun off the floor and fire. The eyethrall lurched about to face him in the same instant, screeching as the sparks from bullet glancing off the stove ignited the gas and set it ablaze. Oblivious, it threw itself at him, narrowly redirected by the butt of the gun smashing against its face, but it was still too close. Claws raked across Eddie's left arm and side as he escaped, the limb falling loose as he turned to gun the creature down yet again, was rewarded with an empty click, and cursed at not having time to reload as he ran through the door. There was no point in worrying about whether it could track him now, but the venom hurt more than he'd expected, already paralyzing his arm.

The creature was only feet behind him, but the fire had spread to most of its body, and it was slowing down. As it chased him into the “Why” room it faltered as if afraid, then finally, abruptly collapsed, silently burning away on the floor. Taking no chances, Eddie kept his distance and quickly reloaded, emptying another magazine into its smoldering corpse and, at last, gasping for breath. It was times like this that he was glad to have a lifestyle that kept him in shape, even if that lifestyle was itself less than healthy. He sidestepped the burning remains, moving for the stairs to find another location with two doors to again open the portal to the Nowhere Bog before the whole place burned down.

But, this situation bothered him. He had plenty of experience with setups. The eyethralls didn't have the brains to go to and from the bog of their own will, or to follow any sort of orders. As well, that one had been very immature. The only way Eddie could think of for it to have been there was if someone had created it and left it there without any stimulus to prompt it to wander...at the time he was expected to return, exactly on the other side of the portal he would open. He stopped at the top of the stairs, frowning. There didn't seem to be many other explanations.

Someone in the genma tree wanted him dead. The eyethralls could not be found anywhere else. The boss? He was easily bored and prone to violence on a whim, but it wasn't his style. Too much effort for a spontaneous desire, for a result that was entirely capable of failing. If he wanted Eddie dead he could just snap his fingers as he stepped inside the tree. Tobias? No. If that freaky brat were out for his blood he'd just walk right up and tear him in half. Who else could create and deposit an eyethrall that easily? Jude ran a tightly observed ship. The Ichatryte was probably the most capable of the deed, but he couldn't imagine a motive. The twins had given him predatory glances in the past, but they would certainly want to do it in person for that idiotic point obsession they had.

There were others, but Eddie had deliberately spent as little time at the genma tree as possible. Not enough to meet everyone, or to make enemies. He grimaced as the smell of smoke wafted closer. If he returned, he was potentially walking right into a trap. If he stayed away, he was leaving himself isolated and vulnerable, whereas inside the tree the culprit could be easily caught making their move. In the end, he decided to return. If it were the boss hiding would do no good anyway...if not, he probably already knew who was responsible. Reloading the MP7 with his last magazine, Eddie glanced over the railing to confirm one last time that the eyethrall wasn't getting up again, hoping that the job still counted as done despite whatever he'd poured out of the vial being burned up, and went to find another pair of doors.

#6 treacherous

treacherous

    Good...Bad...I'm the guy with the Hammer

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Posted 26 July 2010 - 07:49 PM

Damn, Rhek snuck in a chapter on me. Whoo hoo.

#7 Rhekarid

Rhekarid

    I like it on Omicron Ceti III, Jim

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Posted 10 September 2010 - 11:19 AM

Chapter 4

It was immediately apparent that things were not right. When traveling to the Nowhere Bog, the door opened into a short tunnel, thick with mist. You walked forward a few steps until suddenly your feet sank into mud, the mist cleared, and the bog was all around you. Trying to pass through either of the walls was likely to end with you reappearing in a random, probably fatal spot somewhere in the vicinity of Earth. Despite the danger, however, the tunnel had always seemed oddly serene, a calm and quiet pocket of safe nothing.

There was no serenity now. The mist was hot and noxious, spinning at the whim of some unfelt wind outside the tunnel, a distant hum breaking the normal silence. Eddie felt immediately unwelcome there, a trespasser instead of an invited guest moving through, and walked as quickly as he could to leave it behind. He could feel the fog grabbing at him, thin fingers of nothingness biting into his skin for the slightest instant before dispersing at his touch. The tunnel was no longer than usual, however, and all at once the oppressive mist gave way to the moderately thinner haze of the Nowhere Bog as his boots plunged into the mud below.

It was worse, predictably, but the reason was apparent now. Night was coming. He knew it happened here, that the place had its own day and night cycle wherever it was, but it never seemed to be in the same time zone as wherever he was coming and going from. There were a few things Jude always told newcomers, rules and recommendations, and one of them was very clear. Do not move through the bog or the tree at night. Stay in your room and wait it out. Even for the usually dim bog, the light was clearly failing; it wouldn't be long before the darkness arrived. Scanning the blurry horizon for the light of the genma tree, Eddie started his walk, moving as quickly as the sludge below would allow.

If the tunnel had felt hostile, the bog was approaching murderous. What had before been silent seethed with sounds of movement, gurgling through the water and eliciting creaking groans from the trees as unseen limbs climbed through their branches. Distant moans and cackles echoed from every direction, carried by splashing footsteps that circled just out of few. Eddie could feel a strange heat from the muddy water through his boots, just past the point of discomfort. The heat had burned away much of the usual curtain of fog, revealing the tangled labyrinth of skeletal trees that covered the bog, fading out into the darkness. Eddie simply focused on the guiding light of the genma tree, but soon realized how bad the situation was. Despite the contrasting darkness, the light was only getting dimmer as the night deepened. As the time passed, the water got hotter. If he didn't reach the tree before its light went out, he would have no chance of finding it, and would be either cooked alive or eaten by the wildlife.

A hyena-like spate of whooping laughter passed far overhead, fading off in one direction and then turning back, circling in the air over Eddie's path. He slowly drew his gun without changing his pace, cursing again the encounter with the eyethrall that had cost him almost all of his ammunition. He had no idea what was out here, or if bullets would even do any good. Another giggle moved in from behind, soon joined by more of them, drawn by the first one's call. Eddie had to struggle not to quicken his pace, tightening the grip on his weapon. He was being followed as prey, and running would likely trigger an attack. The glow of the genma tree floated tauntingly in front of him, barely visible now, the only light against the starless sky. He wanted to think he should have been there by now, but it was hard to judge amidst the distractions since arriving.

One of the creatures circling above screeched suddenly, a panicked squawk of alarm that was soon cut off by a pained gurgle. Eddie felt the rush of wind from something large flying overhead, carrying with it a freezing pall that numbed the heat of the Nowhere Bog, stopping dead his sweat and biting at his joints. A shape crashed into the muck a few meters away, slowly sinking beneath the surface, the darkness making it impossible to see anything more than a winged clump of disfigurements, too obscured by mud and shadow to tell if it was supposed to look that way or had been turned inside-out. The sounds of whooping laughter faded, scattering in all directions to escape the new danger, and Eddie followed suit. It was time to run. He pushed forward as fast as the thick terrain would allow, taking advantage of the short break from heat exhaustion. The bog had gone almost completely silent.

In the darkness Eddie nearly collided with the genma tree, its light reduced so much that it was nearly invisible. Everything else was in pitch blackness now, and in the sudden quiet it felt as though the entire Nowhere Bog had vanished, leaving naught but the faint outline of a tree floating in the void. The reason for the onset of "night" was immediately obvious; most of the eyes had receded deeper into the tree and taken their glow with them. Only a few were still visible, gazing lazily down at Eddie, another slithering out of sight as if to scorn him. For an uncomfortably long moment the tree did nothing, but just as Eddie began to despair that he was too late it emitted its familiar groan of recognition and split open to reveal the door inside. The inside of the tree was considerably dimmer than usual, but it was still blinding compared to the outside, and the bustle of activity was jarring as well.

Several of the work desks that filled the entry room had been moved aside to make space for a strange-looking cage, twisted into an imposing shape with as many bars inside as out. An enormous humanoid body was stuffed inside, still wearing a few tattered fragments of armor, its bones broken countless times to fit into the winding cage. It lay limp, beheaded, the removed skull resting nearby on a bloodied operating table. The figure leaning over it turned as Eddie stepped inside and holstered his weapon, and for a moment he wondered if being indoors during the night was just as bad. It resembled a doctor, a white coat stretched over its oddly barrel-shaped frame, the sleeves extended for extremely long, thin arms ending in hands that appeared to be nothing more than scalpels wired together into the shape of fingers. What stood out on the "doctor", however, was the absence of its own head, wisps of steam rising from the hole that may have once been a neck.

"Ignore him. Latitude seventy-one point three eight two, seven one two. Longitude one hundred and four, point three five seven, five seven two." Jude didn't bother acknowledging their guest, facing a large sphere raised to chest height by a metallic altar. At his command the doctor turned back to the severed head, which Eddie could now see had been operated on...and was still alive, looking at him long enough to impart a glare of unimaginable hate before returning its gaze to its tormentor. It was clearly not human, nor did Eddie care to examine it long enough to find out more. A pair of needles was embedded in its exposed brain, connected to wires that traveled back into the doctor's chest, vanishing under the coat. Composite hands creaking and twitching, it removed the needles with surprisingly delicate precision, carefully sliding them into new locations. The instant they were in place, Jude leaned toward an old-fashioned communication horn that had been attached near the orb, reaching down into the floor and beyond. "Eight thousand volts!"

Electricity burst up from the floor, surging through the cage and its inhabitant, immobilized corpse twitching uselessly as its face twisted in pain and rage, unable to make a sound without its lungs. Tubes and wires snaked from the head to the bloodied stump of its neck, and from there to the base of the metal altar, its sphere glowing brighter with the charge. Jude focused intently on the unintelligible symbols and images that flickered rapidly across its surface, his hands hovering just over and dramatically changing its display with the slightest touch. Eddie knew it was something probably best left undisturbed, but after the day he'd had he was in no mood for patience.

"Boss. You should-"

"I'm busy! I don't have anything for you right now." He nodded toward the doctor. "Alter longitude negative zero point zero zero zero zero one four."

"You can tell that to the eyethrall that almost ate my ass! If-"

"Impossible. And I'm busy." Jude finally looked at Eddie, the usual calm amusement completely gone from his expression. It somehow made him even harder to look directly at. "You shouldn't move around here at night. Find a room. Come back in the morning."

Eddie spun the options around in his head. This was clearly a bad time to be pushy, but his instincts to observe weaknesses in others were intrigued by the boss dropping his usual facade. And if someone in the tree was after him, he didn't care to wait until morning to make it known. "But you-"

Jude wasn't having it. "Remove him!" He shouted into the horn and went back to his sphere, apparently done acknowledging Eddie. An instant later black smoke erupted from the hatch in the corner, a thick, squid-like tentacle shooting out of the cloud and straight toward Eddie. He reflexively tried to reach for his gun but it was too fast, wrapping around his head and covering his eyes before dragging him off his feet. His stomach twisted and he felt the floor below dissolve, replaced by the sensation of floating in water he couldn't feel, surrounded by sounds that were clearly never meant for human hears.

And then the smoke cleared and the tentacle was gone. Eddie sat up abruptly as if waking from a nightmare, seeing only the dimly lit administrative room below Jude's workshop. Apparently the equipment that had been set up above was snaked through the bulk of the genma tree itself, as none of it protruded from the ceiling. Mildly surprised he was still alive, Eddie stood, immediately noticing the mailboxes on the wall. He had been dropped specifically facing his own, one he didn't know existed as he'd never claimed or requested one. Inside was a small cardboard box and a flashlight. Mail inside the tree was delivered to a simple wooden honeycomb of labeled boxes, without doors or other adornment. It offered little security, but theft was not much problem in a place where the walls were always watching you, and the repercussions could be much worse than the crime. Examining the box, Eddie found only one distinguishing mark; the eye-straining series of small concentric patterns that acted as the signature of the Ichatryte.

Eddie frowned. He'd heard of this. Though he'd never seen it himself, the Ichatryte had been described to him as a monster of chaos, not truly understood or controlled by even Jude, with possibly even more influence over the genma tree than he had and an agenda of its own. It was also one of the more benevolent creatures living within, providing the residents with many of their basic needs and performing almost all of the managerial and mundane tasks that needed doing. Eddie had heard it rumored that on rare occasions, the Ichatryte would send someone a personal letter. Cryptic riddles and divination warned the receiver of an imminent danger, one that seemingly both the Ichatryte and the target would not want to come to pass. Those who deciphered the letter were often met with good fortune. Those who did not were often dead.

Taking one of the items in each hand, he turned toward the door to the south wing. Whatever was in the box, he wanted to open it in privacy, and this room was not it despite being currently empty. The south wing was currently unoccupied; there, he would at least improve the odds that whoever sent the eyethrall would be unaware that he had even returned to the genma tree during the night. Upon opening the door Eddie was immediately grateful for the flashlight, albeit slightly unnerved that the Ichatryte had known he would need it. The eyes in the halls beyond had all completely receded, leaving only a thick wall of blackness that clung hungrily around the edges of the beam of light. Quietly moving inside and closing the door, Eddie randomly chose the left hallway.

Almost immediately, however, the intended solitude was broken. He could hear footsteps following him down the hall, turning and finding nothing with the flashlight, only to hear them again as soon as he started walking. Eddie ground his teeth. He was either being stalked by someone with no grasp of stealth, or someone was screwing with him. The empty south wing was completely silent, each step easily audible. Eddie stopped again, waiting a moment instead of turning around. "I swear to God, Zalris, if that's you I'm going to shoot out both of your *vulgarity*ing kneecaps." Waiting a few seconds more for the cold silence to reply, he again spun the flashlight around to see behind himself.

Eddie con Diermo had seen no shortage of unpleasant things in his life. He'd caused his fair share of them. He had seen monsters and their insides, seen what they could do when they got hold of those who couldn't defend themselves. The frequency of such incidents had jumped sharply since first entering the genma tree. Through all of it, however, he had maintained his calm, because to lose your self-control in any dangerous business was to ask for death, either by personal mistake or by figurative and literal predators catching your weakness. He considered it to be the only reason he had survived thus far through today.

But he ran now, from what his mind could only process as a tide of corpses, smashed and stitched together into a massive duplication of a human face made from parts that didn't belong by someone who had forgotten what they looked like. A torso split open and pulled apart to form an "eye", hair made from shredded, rotten strips of meat that fell apart in chunks, dozens of arms wriggling free through its mouth, nose, and empty eye sockets grasping desperately forward and shrinking away from the light as it flickered over them. Eddie could still hear it thumping after him, oversized head scraping against the walls, painting them in its pulverized tissues as the writhing mass of its body filling the hallway behind shoved it forward. The rumble of footsteps rapidly increased, the sound of individual corpses tearing themselves from the mass and individually giving chase.

Eddie could see the occasional door flash by on the left, trying to reconcile his panic. None of the doors in these wings led anywhere but a trio of rooms, a dead end, but if he kept running he would simply find the same thing at the end. His best hope was that he was wrong about this wing being empty, and would spot a marked door in time to get inside. With any luck the resident would be willing and able to keep this...thing out of their room. Trying to keep the flashlight steady enough to check the doors while running, Eddie nearly missed the familiar shape waiting ahead in the hallway, almost tripping as he tried to stop in time to avoid colliding. His panicked mind spun as he righted himself; he had no desire to stop running for anything, but you never, ever, told Tobias Red to get out of your way.

The child looked up at him balefully, the shadows seeming to slither over and around him even against the flashlight. He stared at Eddie as if the effort of not burning him alive with his gaze was an insult he didn't deserve to live through, yet was also staring through him, seemingly undecided as to whether he was worth acknowledging long enough to burn in the first place. Eddie shifted uncomfortably at the thought of what approached from behind, but Tobias beat him to it just as he was about to speak. "You shouldn't be moving around here at night." He pointed at the unmarked door to his immediate right. "Get in this room and stay until morning."

"I-"

"NOW!" His voice echoed through Eddie's skull, threatening to crush it as he hurriedly moved to open the door and slip inside without accidentally bumping Tobias in the slightest. Surprisingly it was light inside, the eyes in the walls all still present and glowing, turning to observe his entrance. Eddie tried to warn Tobias of the danger in the hall, but was again cut off. "Shut up." Tobias began slowly walking up the corridor, quickly vanishing into the shadows. "Everything in the darkness belongs to me."

For a time Eddie simply waited at the open doorway, listening for some kind of conflict or sign of change, but the hall was as deathly silent as when he first entered. He closed the door and edged toward the back of the room, noting that there was no ladder or other means back up if he were to drop down the hole into the floor below. A door and some light hardly made him feel safer, but as he waited for something to happen it being increasingly apparent that it really wasn't going to break inside. He glanced at the countless eyes on the blank, unfurnished walls, for the first time glad they were staring at him. Why they were still present here when they had withdrawn all through the rest of the tree he had no idea, but it was no wonder people were told to stay in their rooms at night if the light they gave off was so effective in keeping away creatures that seemed to be specifically waiting for that darkness to emerge.

Finally satisfied that he was alone, Eddie sat on the floor and turned to the small cardboard box in his hand, its edges bent by an ever-tightening grip. He was rather surprised he hadn't dropped it along the way. It was sealed with ordinary tape, opening easily to reveal some packing material and an old, portable compact cassette player. Eddie had expected something a bit more dramatic, but after the day he'd had, a mundane surprise was a welcome change. He looked over the device for anything that might be important, finding only that it was loaded and ready with batteries and a tape, and with a shrug, he set it on the floor in front of himself and pressed the play button.

He didn't know what he'd expected the Ichatryte's voice to sound like, or if he was even hearing it, but he was not prepared for the agonizing cacophony of shrieks and grinding, countless grating, disparate sounds that were not quite even or constant enough to form a more merciful impenetrable static. Eddie almost turned the thing off by reflex, when he realized the sounds were slowly changing, becoming more in sync with each other in what was gradually beginning to resemble a voice. It was not the sound of a mouth speaking, but a collection of disjointed noises simultaneously playing with the exact timing and pitch needed to mimic the sound of what he recognized as words.

"Traaagedy." The sound came together all at once, unexpectedly grabbing his attention and settling in the pit of his stomach, its tone somehow expressing importance instead of mood or emotion. It could not be ignored, and the instant it played the light in the room flickered, as the eyes suddenly began twitching and squirming in place, rolling back as if in pain, and Eddie realized with the strange clarity the moaning voice brought why the Ichatryte had chosen an audio message, instead of the letters he had heard about. Anything written would surely and easily be seen at some angle by the eyes in the tree; he would not be the only one reading it. This message, however, was for him alone.

"Tragedy of the house is passed. Tragedy of the blood is nigh. Drink naught of the life of freedom, for it nourishes all but tragedy." Eddie was distracted for a moment by a popping sound, looking up to see several of the eyeballs rupturing, dripping a syrupy goo down the walls. Was the voice of the Ichatryte harmful to them, or was the tree suffering from some internal struggle in response to it?

"Death waits in the jaws that devour the sky. Darkness escapes from the jaws that devour the light. Darkness survives in the shadows of those who face death. Those who face death. Those who face death.

Filthy is the darkness and tainted is life. The unclean cannot partake of the chalice of flesh, nor the river of birth that flows from the rotting hole in the sky. Drowned is the light and dead is hope below the depths of the river in sleep.

Salvation lies not in life but in life. Tragedy lies not in the palms of those who cannot reach the sky. In order to save your life, you must die in traaagedyyy...
"

The voice fell apart on the final word, dissolving once more into a screaming web of bedlam. Seeming to choke on the sound, the cassette player gurgled and abruptly burst into translucent flame, melting into a sputtering gray slime that oozed between the gaps in the tree's floor and was gone without so much as a residue. Eddie stared at the floor for a moment, then up at the recovered eyes that stared back expectantly, and sighed.

"I hate this goddamn place."

#8 Rhekarid

Rhekarid

    I like it on Omicron Ceti III, Jim

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Posted 22 December 2010 - 12:03 AM

Chapter 5

A cry echoed through the dark halls of the genma tree, driving back the silence even as it faded into the shadows. The gurgling moan of a child rose and fell into piercing wails and choking sobs, punctuated by occasional screams of agony that burned through the air. Through it all the doors of the north wing stayed closed, both as safety against the night, and for the fact that they were all familiar with the sound, and knew well enough to never get involved. The shrieks continued unabated, pouring out from the only room in the halls without a door.

Tobias writhed in the corner of his empty room, clutching his head and screaming at the darkness. The groaning from the floors below had ceased, everything in them dead. He had bathed himself in their blood, all of them, even the chattel he needed on the third floor, but it wasn't enough. Unclean. The filth was still on him. Tobias involuntarily bashed his head against the wall, fingernails digging through his skin. His clothes had been torn to shreds as he clawed himself, his skin stained with his blood, that of his victims, and that of the genma tree itself as it bled from the empty holes that had once contained eyes in response to his pain.

He had to remember, struggling for control with his own nature as it twisted in revulsion inside of him. Remember why it was necessary to dirty himself by going out of his way to save a human life. The thought of it burned anew, but it was a small hatred compared to his memories. Revenge would come in time and would be worth the suffering and indignity of these acts. There would be enough blood to drown this wretched tree and all of its inhabitants forever.

"I'm rather surprised you came, accepting an invitation from someone you're hunting." Jude had been waiting in the forest that the door opened into, a jarringly beautiful place thick with life, flowers hanging from vines as if to frame his presence. A conspicuously shaped tree stump acted as a chair, in which he sat cross-legged with fingers tented. He certainly seemed to be expecting company, despite his words. "I could have easily closed the doors in the tunnel here and left you drifting between dimensions."

Tobias had looked the same then as now, as always, a small child dressed in formal but not businesslike attire, pale and thin but imposing all the same, the only sign that he had prepared at all for a fight being his shoulder-length black hair, loosely tied back to keep out of his eyes. He was not afraid of the obvious trap, and felt no need to exercise caution. "You are too stupid to do such a thing. I will finally eat you here, and what you could have done will be as meaningless as whatever you have done." The strange and beautiful plants of the garden withered into black husks at his feet as he spoke.

"That's hardly-" He was interrupted as Tobias shrieked and leapt at him, eliciting a tiny gesture from Jude. The ground between them erupted in a muddy shower as something enormous launched itself from hiding, grabbing the child in midair and swinging him back into the dirt. As the silent garden was suddenly filled with the sounds of tearing roots and falling rocks, the ground seemed to split everywhere, a bulky, serpentine shaping wrenching itself free from a coiled position around the chair. Jude sat unmoved. "..something someone in your position should say."

The thing shook off a clinging layer of mud and vines, lifting the limp body of Tobias that it still gripped and turning to face it, despite its presumable inability to see. It loomed over most of the trees, its body the width of a bus and endlessly longer, held up by long, spindly legs that lined its entire body like a centipede's and ended in long, thin hands. A thick, featureless metal mask sealed its entire head, and black fabric mummified the rest of it, loose straps hanging off as remnants from wherever it had been restrained. Muffled growls echoed from behind the mask, barely audible amidst the shuffling of its cloth prison. Metal claws were attached to the fabric over its fingertips, replacing any sealed within.

"It sickens me that I had to expend effort hunting one as foolish as you." Tobias dangled motionless from the creature's hand, not bothering to resist or straighten himself in the slightest, fixing his blank stare on Jude. "This is your first move?"

Jude was unmoved. "You charged me expecting worse?"

"I expected magic. I expected more than the simple warding circle you tried to hide in the undergrowth." He pointed at the patch of blackened flowers that broke the circle. "I've seen your normal preparations before, but this...you can't even use your magic at all in exchange for controlling this pathetic animal, can you?"

"Well aren't you clever." Jude leaned forward slightly, still grinning insincerely. "Do you have any clever last words?"

Tobias hissed and the creature holding him shifted uneasily, the plant life surrounding them decaying into sludge. "I am great and alive!" Huge fingers were torn from their sockets as he ripped free of them, yanking on the monstrosity's arm and kicking at its masked face as it reeled forward. Its countless limbs clawed at the dirt for balance as Tobias dropped to the ground and lunged at Jude a second time, one of the massive hands swinging toward its grinning master to retrieve him. Tobias flattened his palm and thrust at them both, severing a finger with his claws and plunging them into Jude's chest as he was lifted off the ground in the same instant.

He pulled away with a handful of dark powder, ignoring Jude for an instant as his pet placed him on its back. It was blood, surprisingly human blood, but it had been dead for years, dried solid and reduced to sand by the body's movement. Jude's expression was unchanged as he glanced back, the faint trickle of dust pouring out of the hole in his chest ignored. "I'm afraid you won't find anything useful in there." He passed his hand over the wound, his skin and clothes neatly patches as they returned to view. "And I hope you weren't expecting this to be that easy."

"It enrages me that it is this easy!" A figure emerged from behind Jude as Tobias' shadow grabbed him, passing unseen beneath the cover of the foliage. Silhouette grinning fiercely in a silent laugh, it threw itself against his back, knocking him from his perch as Tobias again rushed forward to meet him. The creature snarled in frustration and tried to swivel around, numerous limbs moving independently to slash at its enemies, but it couldn't move quickly enough. Tobias' hand once again reached its target, this time slicing at Jude's throat as a massive paw intercepted an instant too late, pushing him back. Another slammed into the ground to block the shadow as a third reached for Jude, but his assailant was more vicious than his monster. Tobias screeched and tore the fingers from the hand shoving at him, hurling their clawed tips at Jude and puncturing an arm before he was lifted to safety once more. Gurgling hatefully, the beast dove at Tobias with intent to crush him with its mask, but the child slid beneath its neck and kicked it with enough force to rupture the fabric on the opposite side, further staining the garden with a spray of black, syrupy blood. Scrabbling at the dirt and air and still clutching its master, it crashed against the ground.

The scene didn't take long to change. As Tobias surveyed the creature, it heaved itself back to its feet, neck crunching back into place and fabric rustling as it regrew itself into the shape of missing limbs. Jude again sat on its back, his injuries closed, but his white clothing remained smudged with powdered blood. Though he still looked simply amused, he didn't bother with words. Casually gripping one of the restraining straps for balance, he tugged it like a rein, and his monster went on the attack. It lifted its serpentine body into the air and flattened dozens of hands into blades, stabbing at the ground in a rain of claws that splintered trees and tore the soil asunder. Its quarry dashed between the strikes, almost too fast to follow, breaking limbs and dragging them downward to stagger the beast long enough that he could gouge at its underside. In a mad rush it sliced into Tobias' leg, the metal claw snapping in two in a vain effort to cut deeper, as the child fell to the ground and landed on all fours, the plant life in a circle around him collapsing into black slime as its life was drained to heal the injury.

For six hours the two of them fought, raging back and forth across the garden landscape. For every scratch the creature delivered to Tobias he responded with breaking a hundred of its bones, but it rose back up every time, unhindered. Its master riding patiently and silently on its back, it seemed tireless, no matter how deep the wounds it reassembled from were. If anything, it seemed to be getting slightly larger and stronger over time, even its metal mask stretching imperceptibly.

The ground shook as it crashed to the ground, its head torn completely off yet again. Tobias watched it fall, the rustle of fabric mending itself immediate. Indeed, the fabric itself was its flesh despite the crunching of bones and splatter of blood beneath, the sign of a creature only partially manifest and using another material as a medium. Tobias didn't care. He had almost gone completely feral with rage, his thin veneer of humanity long abandoned. The skin over his hands was split to make way for claws nearly as long as his fingers, protruding from rough, gray skin underneath, the rest of it pulled grotesquely tight over his body under the strain of something larger. His teeth had fallen out and been replaced by twin rows of fangs, his eyes bulging and solidly pitch black, joined by another pair just beginning to emerge from further up his forehead. Sputtering gurgles echoed from between his teeth as he choked on barely restrained fury, the only reason he wasn't shredding this pathetic animal across the length of its body faster than it could heal being that he'd already done so twice before.

"You really are a strange one." Jude slowly rose back up to a sitting position, limp and bent as if he were being propped up by strings. His skin hung loose and shredded from his bones and ancient, mummified flesh, nearly all the sand drained from his body through repeated wounds. The ubiquitous grin was twisted and horrific, most of his face having been stretched to the back of his skull to keep it from falling off, leaving half of his teeth permanently bared and the other side shrouded in a wad of mangled skin. "So much pride and anger, so little concern for the lives of others, yet it's only when you're winning that you start to cry." He glanced aside at their environment. It had been quite difficult to separate this small piece of the Sifting Garden for his own use, but Tobias had devoured the life energies of everything there over the course of the battle. There were no signs it had ever had any beauty, the soil turned into mud with the ooze of rotting plants, skeletal trees reaching out hopelessly from pits of fetid water. At this rate nothing would ever grow here again, a doomed and empty bog forever. He turned back to Tobias, his eyes hideous slits cut into his own skin after it had stretched over them. "I think we're finished here. It's been fun, but...now it's not." A shriveled hand was held forward as if in peace. "I understand your kind has problems with starlight. There's not much here, but...I think condensing it should be sufficient."

The ambient light shimmered in response to an unseen call, and soon a faintly glowing orb could be seen in Jude's palm. Beams of light bent and focused themselves into his hand, a bizarrely silent show of movement as the area quickly went dark. Soon the only illumination came from the blinding, miniature star, hovering in ominous stillness. Tobias calmed immediately, his more monstrous features retracting as he stood straight and scrutinized the scene. Though he seemed sedate once more, the look on his face made it clear that his anger had anything but receded.

"Even now, you prefer to hide in that human shape, when you hate them so much? How sad to be so afraid of your own power." Jude leaned forward, examining his enemy. "And how boring that you were never willing to play this game."

The sphere of light wobbled and stretched as if trying to move on its own, only to sluggishly snap back into shape, its owner giving it a curious glance, clearly expecting more. "The darkness is mine, and everything it touches is mine!" Tobias hissed from the deepening shadows, taking a step forward as the light of the orb dimmed. "Your idiocy kills you yet again. I am great and alive, and this place is mine now." Darkness swirled about the sphere like a living thing, chittering and gnawing at it, squeezing it down and smaller and smaller, until it silently and suddenly vanished in a black crush.

"Heh." Jude's chuckle echoed into the inescapable darkness, his realm disconnected from normal space and the stars and so truly and completely without light. "Great and alive, worthless and dead, it doesn't matter. Nothing you are will ever be able to reach me."

There was a terrible screech as Tobias tore loose from his own skin, howls and the flapping of wings seeming to come from everywhere as they thundered through the empty landscape and expended its last specks of life. The creature leapt to its feet, clawing at the source of the sounds, only to be struck down by a kick that split its head in two, mask and all, shattering the ground with the impact of its fall and deflating into a mound of rags as the magic sustaining it faded. Jude fell from its back and hit the ground in pieces, his head fluttering to the ground in shredded remains sprinkling like dried leaves. His body did not rise again, and for a moment it appeared that nothing was left.

Before attention could be turned toward how to leave, however, the ground pulsed violently, shaking in rhythmic tremors as something smashed against it from below. The thing that was Tobias growled and took to the air, watching the soil buckle and split, rotten pools of water disappearing into the cracks. Even he couldn't see in the absence of even a shred of light, but he didn't need to. The darkness was a part of him, subservient to his majesty, and everything it touched formed an outline he could clearly feel through it. The land was dead, but he no longer craved the flavor of life. As long as the darkness embraced him, he was invincible. Whatever Jude kept buried deep underground, it was inconsequential.

It was also angry, hurling itself bodily against the dirt instead of simply digging. With surprising silence it finally broke free, its form spreading up and out against the sky. Tobias moved back, sensing its body through the darkness and trying to make out its shape. Something was wrong about this thing. His senses numbed at the touch, blurring into a confusing tangle of limbs that whipped and clawed at the air, unable to get a clear image of its shape as if the shadows were recoiling from touching it. Its body snaked into the air, writhing madly, parts of it smashing into the land below and splintering the dead trees. Was it flying too, or just immensely tall? He focused his attention but couldn't make sense of its shape, no apparent beginning or end to its body, whale-sized portions of its mass there in one moment and then gone. Claws raked at the ground alongside tentacles and twitching, chitinous blades, quivering lumps with teeth swelling out of its hide like boils, flanked by appendages he had no name for. And its face...it was hard to grasp through the fragmented image, but for a moment Tobias was glad there was no light to see it.

His inspection was cut short by the four-foot talon that drove itself through his heart from behind, breaking off at the fingertip from its own momentum as the beast swatted him out of the air and toward itself. He snarled in frustration and wrenched it free just before crashing into the ground, catching the hand that was falling to crush him and tearing it, and the entire arm behind it, in half up to he elbow, launching back into the air as the darkness rushed into the hole in his chest and closed it. His awareness was everywhere, just as the shadows were. It shouldn't have been able to even move without his knowing, or have any limbs where he couldn't see them, let alone catch him off guard with one. For that matter, it shouldn't have been able to see in complete blackness at all. The creature regarded its wound with disinterest, then abruptly bit into its own arm, severing the useless portion and trying to swallow it, only to give up and leave it to rot in the mud. Tobias could smell the blood trickling from its mouth. How many bodies were packed inside, that it couldn't seem to swallow or even entirely close its jaws, was impossible to tell.

Blood exploded across the sky, as another hand attempted to strike from behind and was eviscerated. He would not be caught by surprise again. The beast bore down on him, absurdly fast despite its size and impossible shape, wheezing through its clogged maw. Tobias condensed the darkness and shaped it into a circular guillotine around its throat, spreading his wings wide and leeching the heat from the atmosphere as he severed its head, flash freezing it and shattering it against his fist. Its body continued undeterred, dozens of limbs striking from impossible angles, but it could do nothing. Everything in the darkness belonged to Tobias. His weapons were everywhere, and with a thought he impaled the creature through a thousand organs, crushing its body in the inescapable pressure of the gloom. Sailing on the black curtains faster than simple currents of air would make possible, he weaved through its thrashing claws along the squirming length of its blurry form, the icy blades of his wings severing neatly through flesh and bone. It collapsed in lakes of its own tar-like blood, massive form shredded and destroyed in moments.

Tobias looked at the ichor staining his skin, a dense, sticky sludge that seemed more like oil than blood. It had no life in it, none, and stank of countless centuries of decay. It didn't even seem to belong to the beast, traces of it human, most of it foreign but not from the same source, as if all the filthy, abandoned corpses of history had been squeezed into the creature's veins as substitute for lacking any blood of its own. But for it to contain no life...it didn't make sense. Blood was life. Even the dead carried the lingering scent of it, even those reanimated from death had the breath of magic or science coursing through them, the flat, sterile odor of false life. This was nothing, a rotten slime of devoured lives whose meat had fed nothing. For the first time in Tobias' life, the blood on his hands simply felt...dirty.

The teeth that plunged into his wing were not entirely unsuspected, though still infuriating. The jaws holding him thrashed back and forth until the wing tore loose entirely, sending him hurtling through the swamp and nearly into another set of teeth waiting to catch him, a cushion of darkness swatting it aside and then ripping it apart. Much of the creature had already reassembled itself, smaller monstrosities forming from pieces too far away. They clambered across the landscape like injured beetles, car-sized husks of mangled flesh, many barely able to move yet pursuing him anyway. The beast was no smaller for their absence, and if anything seemed somehow slightly larger. Tobias eradicated another of the smaller creatures and turned to face it, his wing already grown back. Where was it getting this strength? Even in magic, you didn't get something for nothing. He had drawn energy from the life of the garden, and now from the darkness; if it were using either he would have sensed it. It couldn't have possessed so much power inherent in its body, not with the lifeless grime of its blood, not after sustaining its projection for hours. Immortality and regeneration were not easy tricks without power. It reared up again, and Tobias prepared for another charge.

However, the beast did not attack. Instead it writhed and gagged as if choking, convulsing down the length of its body, until finally its jaws split wide and it vomited its throat's burden to the ground. Shrieking heaps of flesh tumbled between its teeth in a forceful current, the stench of blood and twisted life assailing Tobias as both flooded across the bog. The bodies and souls of those it had eaten had not separated in death, instead being digested and dissolved together into a single mass, screaming in the pain they could no longer consciously register. Its stomach emptied, the beast turned its attention back to its enemy, a river of blood still pouring from its mouth as it gushed past where the nightmarish blob of people had once acted as a dam. It took an enormous breath, the churning air and suction blotting out even the sound of the agonized carpet of flesh, and bellowed in defiance.

Tobias instinctively gouged out his own ears, flying away nearly fast enough to escape the sound waves themselves, but it was too late. The sound of its voice was poison. He could feel it squirming inside his head, injected into him through his ears as surely as any venom through fangs. It echoed through his body, gnawing at his already blurred senses and ringing painfully in his ears even after they had been torn out and regenerated. He frustratedly condensed the darkness around himself in an effort to sharpen his awareness through it, stabbing it behind himself as he sensed the attack, not even bothering to wonder how the beast had managed to get both behind and above him. It spat an enormous mouthful of blood and vanished behind the the spray as it collided with the black spear, suddenly coming from below and nearly taking a leg as Tobias spun in midair and grappled with the offending arm, tearing it apart and moving on to the next six of them slashing at once.

The creature was not a match for him, but neither would it be stopped, pounding over its regurgitated victims in a frenzied pursuit even as its bones were ripped out and pulverized. It showed no signs of tiring, and indeed, seemed to rise up faster than each previous time, its blows only increasing in force, its body somehow, imperceptibly, getting larger. Heat radiated from it, another flow of energy seemingly from nowhere. The two of them fought through the dark in what seemed doomed to be an endless, futile struggle, a fate Tobias would not hesitate to embrace. He would murder this thing for eternity, if necessary. His rage would not allow him to relent until nothing was left of this wretched thing that presumed to strike at him.

His focus was broken in one instant when the beast abruptly stopped pursuing him, baring its teeth in an unmistakable grin as Tobias realized too late what had happened. It was not just some slavering monster; it had tricked him. As its innumerable legs had clawed at the ground, they had not randomly trampled the lost souls strewn about in the mud, but had deliberately torn and stretched them into the form of a colossal runed circle of magic under the cover of chaos, its contaminating voice a distraction from why it had vomited the substance up in the first place. Tobias soared away from the mark as quickly as possible, seeing it rapidly go up in flame as the creature spat a streak of flaming blood, the screams still audible as the souls were sacrificed into the spell and their bodies burned, light from the inferno blinding from the contrast.

The magic acted instantly, penetrating the darkness with a brief flash as Tobias felt the shockwave from below strike his feet, his ability to see with the shadows saving his life as his legs began to painlessly dissolve into ash. Letting himself fall in midair, he broke his upper wings to point at himself, slicing off the lower two thirds of his body as the effect claimed and destroyed it. Darkness rushing into the wound to fill it, he turned his briefly redirected attention back to the beast, again too late as it fell upon him, spitting another mass of scalding blood that covered him and briefly cut off his direct connection to dark. Claws fell in a torrent as the monster screamed, and for a moment the world faded from view, nothing left but the tearing of flesh, burning and corrupted blood being stabbed into wounds, and the infinite echo of its foul voice ricocheting through bones.

Tobias crashed to the earth with enough force to sink several feet into the mud, where the assault finally stopped. He was not impressed. He was invincible in the darkness. Invincible. The tattered remains of his corpse rose out of the dirt, restoring itself in seconds, but he could still feel its loathsome presence everywhere, contaminating his blood, shrieking in his skull. It was difficult to think straight or remember, the beast's shape a blurry smudge of an image, the idea of it painful to think about, as if its voice were driving away the memory of it. He could distinguish the outline of it, surprisingly far away, raising its many limbs up as if preparing to receive something from the heavens. Tobias ground his teeth, pulling the darkness in to fill himself, preparing to mangle its body once again. He was undeterred, ready to murder it for as long as it took. It would die eventually and he would not, and as it looked down slightly to face him he shouted in challenge. "I AM NOT AFRAID OF YOU!"

To his credit, he hadn't been, even when it summoned back the light and he saw it for what it really was. Now, huddled in his empty room below the genma tree, part of him wished he had. Nothing had been accomplished. He had killed the old Jude, but the new one was just as infuriating. The beast still seethed further below. Both of them worthless and inedible. Now they were trapped in a stalemate, Jude unable to strike down Tobias before he could annihilate his tree and everything in it in retaliation, Tobias unable to finish the job here, in the seat of their power. If he simply left the door would never be opened for him again and his chance for revenge would fester lost forever, while Jude gave him occasional tasks to pay for his stay, taunting him with the indignity of servitude by tempering it with the fact that it may expose weaknesses in his plans and desires.

He would raze this place and everyone who had ever seen it. They would all die for looking upon him. He would devour the sun, drain their frozen blood, leave their hearts for whatever feculent gods they loved, and toss away their corpses to drift in empty space. Jude would die for the insult of giving him a name and again for presuming to give him commands. He would die, his corpse would be violated, and his name would be spat into the throat of the devil. And the beast...

The beast would die for the unforgivable sin of making him feel pity.

#9 treacherous

treacherous

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Posted 22 December 2010 - 12:06 AM

Wheeeeeee!

#10 Rhekarid

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    I like it on Omicron Ceti III, Jim

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 10:47 PM

Chapter 6

There were times when Pax Initia wished it could see things from the angle of the organic. Flaws necessitated creativity. Mortality fed struggle and evolution. For all their inferiority, they excelled at finding a way to function regardless. None of this was relevant at the moment, however. The organic life in the vicinity was a case study in failure. Only one insight of theirs was valuable at the moment.

It was clear that the ruined sky had some kind of lingering effect on the survivors. They made no efforts to rebuild. They barely defended themselves from thieves or the elements. Half-heartedly bandaged wounds festered untended. Yet plants were growing back amidst the ruins. Mindless insects scavenged contentedly across the skin of what remained of the populace. Initial assumptions had been that the survivors had lost the will to live after witnessing the destruction of their society, yet even in cases where they lasted long enough to produce additional generations, the effect was the same. Some were more deeply affected than others, but most made no effort to live. Pax Initia felt nothing from the sky, and could extract nothing helpful from the listless organics. It was rendered ignorant by its own superiority. Truly frustrating.

Even in the 1.114 gigaseconds it had spent searching this planet for signs of Pax Unitus, observing the locals had been disappointingly unhelpful. They spoke of the attack as if it were a dream, its details faded and unimportant, as they were themselves. Deducing the events of the conflict manually had slowed things down interminably. When it returned home from this mission, it would have to bring up the inability of its hardware to physically and forcibly upload information from organic brainwaves. Surely dire matters demanded it be an option. Still, it was not impatient. Pax Unitus was eventually found, its body crushed and torn, small parts strewn about a field in an empty wilderness. Its face, for it had actually been built with such a frivolous thing, stared passively into the trees as if its destroyed state were no more than a temporary period of relaxation.

"I detect above minimal functionality in core systems 5556-8761 through 19421-50, and repairable damage of eighth and tenth tier to pseudo-warp shield husk and anim-heart life support." Pax Initia gazed down at its ruined kin, its cluster of cameras and lenses unreadable but the tiniest fraction of annoyance in its voice. "Necessary status is acceptable. Why have you not activated a distress beacon or sub-dimensional encryption?"

Pax Unitus' remains adjusted themselves where parts still moved, its golden mask of a face no more expressive than its sibling's lack of one. Its voice trembled with static and distortion. "Discovery...undesirable."

There was a brief pause as Initia turned to survey their surroundings a second time, the area long abandoned. For its entire time here there had been no sign of lingering threat. "Potentially hostile forces have moved on. Threat does not meet minimal risks of interception. Why have you not activated a distress beacon or sub-dimensional encryption?"

"Discovery by any entity...undesirable."

Pax Initia stared in consternation, switching its views into deeper internal imaging. In what had initially appeared to be simple battle damage, several components had been removed from Pax Unitus. In particular, any that would have allowed the unit to attempt to damage or destroy itself. Some outside force with apparently more knowledge of a Pax unit's inner workings than should have been possible had picked through the wreckage with the goal of making sure it remained active. This was disconcerting. "Submit your memory database for analysis."

Pax Unitus emitted a series of churning and grinding sounds for several seconds before responding. "...denied."

"You are my inferior in rank and responsibility. You are my inferior in all measurable aspects. It is not your place to deny."

"...denied."

Initia hissed in audible frustration. If this wasn't the result of damage, Unitus was looking at a major rebuilding with this. "I am inheriting your duties. I require all data you have gathered on Saan'Naal de Pazx, the Planet of Death incident relapse, and primary antecedent suspects."

"Do not pursue -click- do not pursue the beast. Monster. Monster. Monster."

That word again, and from its kin. Pax Unitus had obviously been damaged more deeply than outer trauma had suggested. "You have witnessed the suspect? Describe its nature. I demand."

"Do not pursue. Do not intercept. Do not interfere with the beast. Do not look upon the beast. Better to die. Better to let everything die. Better to let it devour every sky. Do not obstruct the beast. Better to wait and let Pax Hallejus destroy it all." It wheezed with the effort to speak.

"Pax Hallejus has been reactivated?" The frustration with Unitus' rambling cooled instantly before a wave of trepidation. Pax Hallejus? Initia had never seen it. That unit was the reason that there were nine directors instead of the original twenty. It was the reason Pax Initia had been created, as a replacement when the original Pax units had been destroyed trying to contain it.

"At my rec-click-recommendation. Investigation must be abandoned. Preservation must be abandoned. It is the path of justice." Its voice rose and fell uncontrollably. "Life will not suffer at the hands of the beast if it is first wiped clean from existence. Too late. Too late to cancel. No action is too far. Monster. Monster. Monster. M-" Unitus' words were cut short as Pax Initia held its palm out, tearing the memory drives from the wreckage and levitating them into its hand.

"I have sent a message for you to be salvaged and rebuilt. Current status is unacceptable. I will adopt your mission." It turned and began walking away from the site, scanning Unitus' memory. Infuriatingly, it had intentionally erased much of it, particularly that which was most relevant to the matters at hand. Some could probably be recovered, but it would take time, and that which was immediately readable was of little use. The creature had not been unharmed by the population's weapons, or unhindered by their defenses, but they could not stop it. No matter their efforts it kept coming until they were destroyed, kept growing in size and power until the planet was as ruined as the sky. No details on its nature, on the source of its power. Useless. As Pax Initia walked to a distance safe enough for the wreckage not to interfere with a portal, it could still hear Unitus' fading voice behind it.

"Do not interfere with the beast. Do not. Do not look upon the beast. Do not attempt to stop the beast. Only his light can burn away the pursuing death. Only his light. Only his light can safely destroy us all. Do not...stifle...the light..." It continued making a series of unintelligible sounds before finally shutting down, its emergency systems preventing it from spending any more energy.

Pax Initia raised its arms and began summoning the energy for teleportation, locked into the coordinates for planet 374-436792-8. This planet was the currently designated nexus checkpoint, after the last had vanished with the rest of the lost sectors of Kommitus Realm. The damage that could potentially be wrought was truly unfathomable, and the 1.114 gigaseconds wasted here was time that the planet had been occupied. Still, despite the ongoing pattern it was unnecessary to worry much. Nexus worlds had a tendency both to attract and crush trouble, from the petty to the enormous. It was just as likely that the problem would have been resolved by the time it got there.

The accumulating energy trembled and Pax Initia was gone, as Pax Unitus lay in the dirt, breathlessly sighing in relief at the loss of the last of its memories.

******

"Honestly now, what sort of monster do you think I am?" Jude lounged in an easy chair, right leg over his knee, a glass of wine in one hand and a cookie in the other. The aftermath of violence surrounded him, bodies strewn about what had been a very nice house, kept spotlessly clean in eerie contrast to the quiet sterility of death and dried blood. Bullet holes riddled the walls, but most of the carnage was confined to the living room by the entry way, where the family had been taken by surprise. "It was like this when I got here." He took a bite from the cookie, one taken from a plate on a small table by his chair, and frowned. "And frankly, they're better off. This woman was a terrible cook."

The woman known as the Harridan eyed the situation uneasily, still standing in the doorway of the home. She hadn't been a resident of the genma tree for long, but it didn't take much more than a short visit to become accustomed to images one would rather forget. Still, she didn't have the casual numbness that the others seemed to embrace, revolting lot that they were, and her stomach twisted at having to be called to such a sight. She hated to stand here and do nothing, but she could almost laugh at the idea of trying to call the police to apprehend this man. Catching a glance at what appeared to be an enormous, arm-sized syringe leaning against the wall did nothing to calm her.

"...I don't care," she finally said. A blatant lie, but she had no illusions that it really mattered to him what he said. Harridan was not an intimidating or remarkable woman, not quite old in years but old in face thanks to an unkind life, prematurely gray hair died brown, just unkempt enough to be pitied. Her brown coat and jeans were functional, affordable, and as forgettable as the rest of her. She doubted she could be imposing to anyone but a child, even with the weapon from the Gunsmith that she'd fondly named Wonderbuss, which she always carried. "What did you need me for?"

"Would you like a drink?" Jude gestured with his glass toward a bottle in the kitchen, just visible through a doorway, an image of depressing potential. "I don't think there will be any occasions more special than this for them to save it for."

"No." Harridan tried to avoid looking at the bodies, remembering happier times of the sort Jude was mocking. "I'd rather just deal with business."

"Suit yourself." He knelt down and dipped his cookie into a pool of blood near one of the bodies, taking another bite and making the same dissatisfied face. "Still dry. I'm here to talk about our arrangement."

Harridan felt an internal mixture of relief and anxiety, having expected as much. She had made a deal with Jude to remove some of the memories that prevented her from having a normal life, and in exchange, she would perform some task for him at a later date. Ever since she had stayed at the genma tree, waiting to be called for just that, until he had finally summoned her here today. She was glad to finally be done with it, but didn't want to guess at what would be asked of her. "You'd like me to deal with my end of it?"

"Hm? Oh, no, that's been taken care of. No, I'm here to promote you! Here, take these." He reached into his pocket and produced a small, featureless metal cube with a keyhole on one side, the key resting right beside it.

"Promote...me?" She awkwardly accepted the items, staring at them in confusion. There weren't even any ranks within the tree. Taken care of? Harridan struggled to formulate a response, but Jude continued.

"Go ahead and open that now. I'm sure you recall that I was to take some memories from you in exchange for a service. I felt it would be of greater benefit to both of us if I also took the memory of that service, as it was performed. But..." He knelt down and lifted the oversized syringe, "with that all finished, I didn't feel like carrying around a bunch of silly old memories." Jude glanced at Harridan, who had frozen in place with the key turned in the lock, hands shaking and eyes wide. "So, I gave them back, and as long you're remembering things, I hope you'll take this piece of advice to heart."

Jude placed his hand on her shoulder, the woman still unresponsive. "In your next life, try and learn some basic cooking skills."

******

Tobias stood impatiently jabbing out eyes in the wall of the laboratory as Jude stepped inside, carrying a massive syringe filled with blood over his shoulder. The child didn't bother raising his head to look, simply holding out his hand. "Hurry up."

Jude complied, gently pushing the syringe's plunger to drip a handful of blood into Tobias' waiting palm. It could be amusing to stretch his impatience, but his tendency toward destructive tantrums was less entertaining when surrounded by shelves of fragile materials. As soon as he had it, Tobias lifted his hand and licked most of the blood into his mouth, the residue turning to ash and flaking off his palm as it came in contact with his breath.

"The garbage will work. About three years worth. Are we done here? I need to go hunting."

"Three years? Well, that's better than the last...wait, already?" He dropped the syringe into a chute in the wall, where it vanished silently. "What happened to the last three I caught you?"

"All dead. I'll replace them, but I need new cattle. We're done here." Tobias stomped past and out the door, making a point to be gone regardless of whether anything more was said.

Jude sighed, then pulled a phone from his coat as it began to vibrate. "Ah. I guess I'm going back out anyway." He sent a thought into the genma tree, its roots burrowed deep enough into the Nowhere Bog that they pried into the edges of the tiny dimension. Beyond, there was no space or distance, and going somewhere else was a matter of opening a door to the right destination. The tendril of a root claimed a location and brought it back into the tree as Jude turned back to the door, opening it and stepping through.

The office building on the other side was quiet; it was about 1am in the city, and aside from a few cursory lights and maintenance staff the place was abandoned. Jude stepped out into a vacant floor, bare pillars forming a tiny, sterile forest dotted with the fireflies of distant windows. It was far off the ground, but a city like this was never very inactive, and the sights and sounds of bustle were inescapable. The forest wasn't quite lifeless either, however, and not long after Jude had entered the man he was here to see emerged.

"Mr. Terimont! I'm glad you were able to make it here on time. And let me reiterate how sorry I am about that awful business with your mansion burning down, and now your brother falling ill so suddenly. I do hope he recovers soon." His grin didn't waver as the hand he outstretched was rejected, simply shrugging and returning it to his side.

"Yeah." He glanced around suspiciously, making no effort to hide his distrust. "You got what you promised?"

"Of course." Jude produced a small case, opening it briefly to reveal the vial of blue liquid inside, tucked next to a piece of paper. He snapped it shut and handed it over. "Simply empty the contents at the address provided. Do that for me, and I promise you I'll track down those responsible for this attempt on your life."

Terimont accepted the case and tucked it into his own clothing, then hesitated and glanced up at Jude, staring intently at him with a cruel smile. "What?"

"You're planning to betray me."

The reflexive positioning of his right hand toward his gun was instant. "What are you gettin' at?"

"I can smell the lies in you. Oh, don't make that face. I don't care. By all means, take your best shot. If anything it's just funny that you think you can hurt me." Jude spread his arms slightly, as if presenting himself as a target. "People try it all the time. Just finish our business before setting whatever your trap is."

Terimont took a step back, hand ready at his side. "You think you can just accuse me-" Jude emitted a terrible sound, the grinding of meat and bone as his right arm lashed forward. Terimont drew and fired, placing a bullet in his attacker's chest as Jude's finger came to rest, pressed against his forehead. His was several feet too long, and several corners too many, the hole in his heart doing nothing to dispel his constant grin.

"You have no idea how small you are to me. You literally can't even comprehend it." Terimont seemed to be paralyzed, gun still clenched in his hand as burnt skin hissed under Jude's finger. "I could expel your brain from the back of your skull with a word. I could replace it, you, with a puppet with greater mental sophistication than you could ever achieve in your life. It's like holding my breath, just speaking to you at all. I have to slow my perception of time just so that I'm not distracted with thoughts of higher things, only to turn back and find your tiny lifespan is gone, your entire 'civilization' returned to the dust it's built from. Billions of people completely indistinguishable from you died on this world long before I came here, and the only way I can barely tell your speck of a life apart from the innumerable dead is that I know your name."

He withdrew his hand, the arm settling back to normal shape with another series of grisly cracking sounds, the sleeve of his white suit adjusting with the process. "But no matter what you do to me or I do to you, the next time I breathe you will be gone, another grain of sand that never had any meaning. Do your job, Mr. Terimont, while I still remember your name."

The gun was briefly raised as Terimont regained control, feeling for blood on his head with the other hand. For a moment it seemed he would refuse to back down, but eventually he lowered the weapon, spitting at Jude's feet and storming into the elevator. Jude passively watched him leave, still smiling, then procured his phone to make a call.

"...yes, it's me. You have it? Three years this time, but make preparations for two just in case. I may have another option coming up. Yes, it's related. Bring up his file, would you? Have I killed any of his children? No, the mansion doesn't count. Of course I don't remember, hang on a moment." Jude switched hands and lifted his finger, a single drop of Terimont's blood still dabbed on its tip. He muttered an incantation to himself and the liquid burned away in a flash of light, before he returned to the call.

"Seventy-four. Just pick a few at random, I'll handle it. Tell my wife I said hi, by the way. I'm sure she's tired of Tobias' moaning. Oh, that reminds me." Jude walked up to the window, looking down at the darkened city below. It teemed with people, even at this hour, tiny specks moving slowly across the ground.

"Send down some twine and a crate, would you? I need to pick up some supplies."

#11 treacherous

treacherous

    Good...Bad...I'm the guy with the Hammer

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 01:46 PM

Well I'll be damned.




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