“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.