Thursday, July 26, 2012

Blood And Fire.

"Worried about tomorrow, Sam?"

"...That depends. Should I be?"

We arrived during the day.

We had such precious little clue as to what exactly we were throwing ourselves into, and we prayed that things would be less... “active” during daylight hours instead of at night. However, upon arrival, we honestly came to doubt if it would have made any difference at all.

The place wasn't... natural anymore.

At a glance, it could probably pass as normal... but only at a glance.

Before, it had been quite a lively town. Not overly big, really, but big enough that it could support itself being as isolated as it was near to the mountains. Deep in the trees. It must have been rather beautiful to arrive into back in its time. Its single road to the outside world delivering you from the acreage of lush, towering trees right into the heart of your typical, all-American hometown. People going about their daily routines right in front of your eyes. Work. Errands. School. Small shops decorating the streets. Children playing in the park. Playgrounds. The kind of place where you knew nearly every face in the crowd...

Of course, they did partake in the odd child sacrifice every so often, but that was nothing unusual for a Cult Town. Any Cult Town. Simply an offering to our Dearest Tall Gentleman as tribute to His honor. His power. His mercy. Routine, really.

And then it all Stopped.

Overnight, it became not a Restricted Area... but a Forbidden one.

No Public in.

No Proxies in.

No Exceptions.


In fact, the last ones to leave here... had been myself and Redlight.

Leaving Father and The Beak to tear reality to shreds.

No one else had made it out that night.

"Could be your last day alive for all you know. 
Same for your winged brother and sister. 
Or your Redlight's toy."

"Heh. Rest assured, Kali and Loki will be staying behind.
Wouldn't want anyone IMPORTANT to get caught in the crossfire, after all. 
Every mission is accompanied by the threat of the Grim Reaper's scythe...
 It's simply a matter of who's luck has finally run out.
That, darling, is nothing new.
Humans do have a nasty habit of being mortal, after all."

Twenty-seven walked into that Town.

Twenty Proxies.

Seven Oathbreakers, including Delirium.

Oh, yes, my friends. On top of everything else on our minds, we had run into a cluster of our lovely Cousins on our way in. Apparently, Malfatto had heard through the grapevine that a "gaggle of Gigglers" were moving in against Lockjaw and had decided... that a joint effort might benefit both sides. Of course, he hadn't known that I was one of the "Gigglers" and, needless to say, we exchanged a bit of Tit for Tat. Mockery for mockery. Plucking each others' strings. Which, in turn, earned other comments that may or may not have been in the nicest of tones... at least, that was before a long, sharp whistle cut the air from back behind everyone.

“You Cowboys done swappin’ spit with them there Ingins?” A wide grin beneath a cowboy hat. Shotgun in one hand, rope in the other. “You’re burnin’ daylight.”


He told me he heard about “Priesty” and decided to pay respects the best way he knew how. By putting two slugs into Lockjaw’s forehead.

It was good to see him. Though he did say he was insulted that I hadn’t called for HIS help while I had contacted several others. That a “Tattered Twit” like me “don’t know the first thing ‘bout showdowns.”

The Butler gave a sigh as he fixed his white glove. Telling “Rick” how amazing it was for someone who was born and raised in New York to have such a completely idiotic Southern drawl.

Diamondback practically exploded. Though others of our group intervened before we lost the number we had just gained to our team. Personally, however, I must say that I thought the scene of a machete facing off against an assortment of kitchen knives was quite the Kodak Moment.

Family Bonding.

It’s a beautiful thing, no?

While the others bickered, I asked Malfatto how badly Lockjaw’s leaks had been hurting their people.

After a moment, a treaty was called. Tentative, though it was.

We had a common goal in being there.

It wasn’t time to play politics.

"Sad but true.
It is amazing... what some people would do to escape inevitability though. 
Provides limitless entertainment, 
as it has been one of the few constants in your behaviors over the years... and yet... 
Some end up wishing their second chance never came about. 
It provides amusement to me in any case."

"...The lifestyle sometimes makes it hard to appreciate second chances, darling. 
In any case, we humans may not stick around for the long haul, 
but I'd like to think the majority of us put on a decent enough show. 
Now then... onto what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, Vivi? Missed me already? 
I didn't expect to see you come back since you completed your role as 
Messenger Boy for the Highers."

A child’s bike laying on its side against the curb was the first thing to greet us upon arrival. The bright red of its coat reflecting the light as its wheels spun in their holdings. Around. And around. And around. As if its owner had carelessly abandoned the ride in favor of promised goods elsewhere. Expecting to be right back. Only a few seconds perhaps…

And the tires kept spinning.

A few glances were exchanged amongst our group as we passed it by, but it was my favorite Butler who decided to get experimental with the first few seconds of our stay. Pausing at the bike just long enough to place his boot against the tire. Stopping the never-ending spin…

There was a single moment in which it seemed that everyone was waiting for some bizarre Stephen King moment from Butler’s interference…

And then the tire tore forward to catch up with itself. Tearing into the Butler’s boot with a viciousness that threw his leg back. Burning a slight groove into the bottom of his boot. The stench of burnt rubber rising in the air.

A touch unnerving? Yes. A touch. But I still couldn’t help laughing as my DEAREST friend swore under his breath. Telling him that I was going to make sure that “defeated by child’s bike” wound up on his record.

He asked if I wanted “killed by butter knife” written on mine.

Always so cranky.

His way of dealing with nerves.

Mine was to find something to laugh at.

(My) Jack rattled his die to ignore the chill I could tell was churning in his gut. Tossing the pieces into the air and catching them again. Over and over and over. Eyes watching the Town. The Buildings. Everywhere. But silent as the grave.

Malfatto, on the other hand, was a mumbler.

Just a glance around the others, and I picked out nearly every Tell in the book. Everyone was on edge. And everyone had their own way of biting it back. Nerves come as part of the business - either you learn to handle the strain, or you buckle and get crushed beneath the weight - but this was more than just nerves. This was more than uncertainty. Because, as normal as the surface of the Town seemed at first glance... it was, completely and utterly, Wrong.

What makes you think I ever left? 
But as to why I am here... I simply want to talk. 
You like talking, don't you Sam?"

"...So is this your way of confessing to being my personal stalker? 
I'm touched. Truly. 
Though, I must ask you to do me a favor...
Please keep any poor attempts at love poems to yourself. 
I honestly have enough around here that blesses me with headaches.
But, no, Vivi. I don't like talking. 
However, since everyone else insists on talking on and on while saying nothing at all...
I typically decide to step in as the Hero in Disguise constantly. 
Offer my fortune-cookie wisdom to enlighten the masses.
Now, isn't that just so KIND of me?"

If there was any point in my career that I can say I saw Reality TORN... it was in that Town.

It was patchwork.

Like pieces of a quilt, only the different fabrics weren’t placed in any rhyme or reason.

In places, the Town seemed picture perfect. A crisp and clean view of how it had begun before I myself had brought Hell to their doorsteps. As if our logic... our own realm of reality... couldn’t comprehend what had happened here, and, instead of vanishing, the image just got... frozen in time. Like the bike. Wheels continuously spinning... because it knows not what it is supposed to do from there.

Then, right beside... the ruins of buildings and crumbled streets were contorted amongst black trees. Branches snarled around what had once been such a beautiful town as if trying to hold the ruins in place. Spouting out from where they would never have been. The middle of the road. Inside houses. Out through shattered windows. A Forest of Black Leaves taking over the world of “civilized” man...

And then, in another spot... the crumbling skeletons of wrecked homes would be bleeding. Walls and streets that had so obviously once been wood or brick or pavement... were now mutated into stone with pulsing flesh in between. Like grotesque mortar. The stench of sulfur clogged the air. Pus making puddles like you’d see with rainwater.

All intermixed. All layered and contorted into one another. As if the two Realms - those of The Path of Black Leaves and The Crumbling Castle - had torn into each other and were now spilling out into our Realm. Using our Reality as their base to plant themselves here.

Their mixed influence... seemed to become particularly bothersome for a few of our group rather early on. Mumbles the Mime, I’m told, is quite good with auras and energies... and the poor boy looked absolutely pained as he walked amongst us all. Flinching at times as he looked around. Shoulders slightly hunched. Gleeman seemed to lag back to walk beside him. Or, at least, that was my view of it.

One of Malfatto’s followers was absolutely shaking. Swaying and stumbling in their steps, but they - male or female, it was impossible to tell from the mask and cloak - didn’t seem to lose focus for a second. Which would only make sense - Oathbreakers tend to view suffering as a form of enlightenment, so I’m sure whoever it was was quite alright to be in so much obvious pain.

And then there was Morningstar. The boy is normally a twitchy little firecracker... but usually not to the point of muscle spasms and eye twitches. And he was partaking in both. He even got to the point where he unloaded three bullets at a store’s bell above their door. The door itself had been torn from the hinges and the shop itself was barely there - half way taken over by Black Trees - but still the bell shifted on its own. Back and forth, back and forth. Ringing and ringing and ringing. Foretelling a customer who would never go all the way in.

Shooter shot it right off what was left of the frame with no small amount of yelling and cursing. His only real explanation being that he had a headache.

I wasn’t about to argue.

Especially since it was then... that reality... “bucked”.

"Stalking? Yes. 
Like one of your hunters in the wilderness.
Observing a particularly unusual animal. 
But I agree, you do not like talking. 
If you did, you might have been a better parent. 
A better spouse. 
A better teacher. 
Indeed... A better friend. 
But more on that last part later. 
Tell me, what are you expecting tomorrow?"

"...Just so long as this 'unusual animal' remains in its natural environment
and not stuck up on some mantel over a fireplace, 
we shouldn't have a problem. 
As for tomorrow... I'm expecting to be hit hard and fast. 
To be put off balance before the Show even begins. 
I'm expecting backup showing up for her that we hadn't accounted for. 
I'm expecting a rather nasty altercation... 
and I'm hoping the mess ends in our favor. 
If it doesn't... well. You can put my head above the fireplace then. 
I won't be needing it."

There was a heave. A shove. A rush of energy that made the entire Town (or what was left of it) give a groan of near agony.

And, suddenly, where everything had been... no longer was.
I was slammed back against a wall... only, when I looked up, I wasn’t on the street anymore. I was inside a building. A rather large building. Black as night with only a few holes in the ceiling above that did little to nothing to help me see. All I could hear was my own breathing. My own heart rate. Straining to pick out even a hint of who was around...

I honestly can’t tell you... if I was praying to hear something... or to hear nothing.

And then...


A scratching sound in the dark. Oh, goodie.

I moved slow. Hand lifting to my belt... and, as I heard ghosting clicks right near my ear, I threw down a flare. The light exploded around me and the shadows shrieked back. Sunken faces crying out and retreating with their precious darkness as I let out a few shots of my handgun for good measure.



I grabbed the flare from the floor... which I then noticed was very much rotting... and started looking for a way out. I honestly don’t know much about the living shadows that are Nightlanders, but I also didn’t care to enlighten myself into their habits. I knew they hated light, so, at that moment, I knew I had time to figure my way around.

Even if they were following me.

I started hearing voices and, as I found a door and ran down the hall, I soon enough found three others shining flashlights and firing at the same visitors I had. Caesar, Brown Recluse, and (My) Jack. Luckily, none of them shot ME. Which, since Jack handles two automatics, is nothing short of a miracle.

The lot of us managed to find our way back outside again - apparently having been thrown into a gymnasium - and found some of the others stumbling (or running like a banshie) out of some of the other buildings. We were much further down the same street... but, from the calls that began to come in, others had been transferred to buildings and roads further off the Main.

Delirium was actually thrown right across Town. Alone, but still alive.

I concluded it to be Morningstar’s fault.

A statement which immediately earned me a face-full of birdseed.
Nevertheless, it made sense.

We had experienced a Shift.

Either triggered or simply by the strain of supporting itself, we came to the abrupt conclusion that the patchwork of the Town can get rearranged at any moment. What once had Black Trees growing out of the roof, could be picture perfect an instant later. An undisturbed picture of what Had Been. Or, just as easily, it could become a living structure boiling with infection and a heartbeat coming from the very walls themselves. The entire Town was stirring amongst these three realities... and we were caught in the middle.

Unfortunately, that meant we were at their mercy. We decided it was possible to wind up in the Real version of either of the two infecting Realms - which, if it was the opposite one than that which we have right to, would probably mean there would be no “Exit”. And we concluded that, since both areas are used to "teleport" in a stretched fashion of the world... then that is essentially what we had all be forced into doing. Just like in The Path, a few steps can take you around the block. But it could also take you right across town. As Delirium had proven.

Everyone agreed not to shoot anything that wasn’t trying to kill them at that point.

"I personally think you'll be fine. 
Now... My Morningstar on the other hand... 
I would keep a close eye on him if you really care about him. 
As friend or ally. 
It's going to be a rough day for him."

"'Your Morningstar'? 
Given up on trying to get a rise from calling him the 'Plaything' or the 'Toy', darling?"

"Not at all. But that isn't the point."

We decided that, since we were split up anyway, we might as well use it to our advantage. Because of the mess of energies, there was no way we could “feel” where our dearest sister was located... so we had to look for her. I had no doubt that she had known we were coming before we even got here... but, at the same time, I was betting she figured we would be annihilated by the Town itself before we even got warm to her location.

I had twenty bucks riding on that.

We had all memorized the layout of the Town to the best of our abilities and focused on the prime real estate in the area that we were in. Places where it would make sense to set up a headquarters of sorts. Only... searching them became a bit more tricky than what we would have preferred.

Thankfully, Mumbles intervened before Jack the Ripper opened the door. The mime had grabbed hold of (Shooter’s) Jack’s sleeve when he went towards it - pulling at him to get away. The Shakespearean Nut proclaimed something that none of us caught - gesturing wildly as he did which made the grip on him fall loose - before turning for the door again.

Mumbles practically planted himself in front of it. Arms on the frame. Like he himself was a wall. Head shaking back and forth quickly. A trace of that familiar Fear visible...

Shooter ordered (his) Jack to leave that door and go to the next one. Much to the obvious relief of Mumbles.

When I looked at the fearless leader, Star said it felt like there was something... wrong with that door. That he’d noticed some of the doors we’d passed were like that. He noticed them as different...

It became obvious then... that, amongst The Trees and The Plague... there was another party at play. Another Realm. Like an infection that was only getting worse.


The Empty City beckoned.

We had no sooner pressed on... when an explosion shook the Town. Further onward in another block.

The Rush came back.

I grabbed Morningstar’s jacket with some slim hope in probability... and we Shifted.

Only we Shifted as a pair.

We barely had a chance to figure out where we were before the ground shook again and The Rush came at us once more. When things settled, it was revealed that we were now the proud occupants of a movie theater. The big screen playing behind us. Or, rather, a few seconds of one scene of a movie that then flipped back on itself...

Shooter was pale as a sheet as he radioed the others. Looking like he was fighting against spinning vision or nausea...

Tiger answered back after a few moments. Caesar had tripped a wire and caused the explosion and then the Shift. Apparently, Blood Harvest and Gleeman had taken some of the hit as well. But the Shift itself must have triggered another trap across town, because there had been a fireball in that direction directly after the first Shift. Tiger himself had taken minor wounds from the one that he had been involved in, but was now pressing on. He said he could see Plumber from where he was.

Slowly, Proxies and Oathbreakers alike reported themselves as still alive. Some were wounded. Some had been thrown into The Path. Others reported encounters with Nightlanders or some other form of "creature in the night". Diamondback had apparently taken a vacation into the true realm of the Crumbled Castle, but had had Malfatto by the collar just before the Shift, so, conveniently, he had a ticket back into this game of Mouse Trap. Those two were only aware of ONE Shift, however.

Caesar was in too many pieces to drop a final word in, we assumed.

Two from Malfatto's group also disappeared at that point. 

"Cottard" and "The Trashcan Man".

And it was only just Beginning.

"Any chance in you telling me how 'rough' is it going to be?"

"You may want to prepare some coffins."

There was not much else to do but keep moving. Going back was the same as going forward - neither way offering any more or less luck into getting to our ultimate destination that the other. Or keeping any more of us alive, for that matter.

We weren’t alone as we moved on. Nightlanders kept us company - not completely driven away by the flashlight Shooter had. They were just as invasive of person space as they had been before, but it came to be a presence that was easily ignored. I'd feel hands ghost over my shoulders now and again. Over my arms. It would have risen the hair on the back of my neck if it hadn't already been raised. I just waved their presence off. Concentrating on trying to find a way out of a building that we had actually never entered.

The door itself was blocked. Yet another entrance to a city that offers the most final of “One-Way Tickets”, so we found our way out through a wall instead. The theater had slowly become more and more choked out with black trunks and branches - those signature leaves rustling in a breeze that didn’t exist as the limbs themselves snarled their way out of the roof - but they were also our savior. For they had shoved their way out of a window. Through a wall. Crumbling it to next to nothing to make room for its own presence.

Shooter walked right on by without a glance.

I couldn’t help but pause. Pocketing a few of the Leaves before pressing on. A faint curiosity niggling inside my head... as to whether or not they would disappear like the ones from The Path after leaving the Town. By the time I was following after my little brother... he was on his radio again.

Scrambler - his little mafia wonder - was on the other end.

He had last reported himself as being in a basement of some kind.

Now, he had an update.

He had found Lockjaw.

She was in the Head Master’s house. The Leader of the Cult. He who was responsible for everyone staying in line. A rather obvious choice, I must say, but, it seemed, not without its logic. Scrambler reported that he’d seen her and another figure disappear into a tunnel. The entrance to which was in the very basement he occupied.


Our files had told us nothing of a tunnel system in place in this Town. It was supposed to have been proposed and waiting for approval... but, apparently, the Master had gone ahead without say-so. Carving his way into the earth. Probably connecting his house to several key buildings around... and who knows where else. At a center point of several of these tunnels, was most likely the sacrificial chamber. Where the children were brought.

That, most likely, was where our target was.

Tricky to get in.

Many a route out.

And a very real possibility... that the Shifts of Reality wouldn’t be as severe underground.

Our single set of eyes on the inside, however, didn’t last long when Scrambler decided to try to follow them. Looking to see which way they went when the tunnels began to dividing...

The last noises we heard from him what only felt like minutes later... was the beginnings of a shout, cut off into a gasp... and followed by the sound of gagging on one’s own blood. The thump came as a heavy end.

Footsteps echoed after.

Another gone. 

"...More 'Falling for the Cause', is it? 
More like the Sheer Stupidity of the Highers. 
All because they can't keep their own Pet Proxy under control. 
Complete Idiots."

"Truly a shame. 
But there is nothing that can be done about it right? 
As for Lockjaw herself... Well... 
She has already ceased to be relevant as far as I care. 
But I will say this plainly and without any hidden meanings:
Tomorrow is an important day. 
It marks the beginning of the end of this particular session. 
It's been fun."

Our little game of telephone amongst each other was over. They had one of the connections, so any further communication was suicide. And so, my brother and I simply did as we do best...

After all, it was still a Show, was it not?

We may have been expected company by that point, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t pull an Opening Act all the same. Certainly, we were being expected to play Follow the Leader into the old Master’s house... but I had a much better idea. One which, personally, I considered quite a fitting backdoor...

If Lockjaw was in the tunnels, she would be setup in the Sacrificial Chamber.

And, like any good Cult Town... the Chamber would have a direct link... to their beloved church.

It didn’t take us long. Shooter and I let ourselves in and went down to the basement. I recalled all of Requiem’s favorite hiding spots, and, soon enough, we had our In. Quickly, carefully, descending the tunnels. Weapons at the ready.

We saw lights ahead.

"Well, aren't we honored. 
And where exactly do you hope your End will leave you?"

"With a new beginning. As it always does."

"Heh. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba... 
Come now, darling. I did say 'hope'. 
What is the harm in a few details as to the fruit of your labor? 
I'm curious."

Voices echoed up to us as we approached.

One sounding a little distorted.

The other was one I recognized instantly.

When we came to viewing the Chamber, I was honestly a little... surprised.

It was white.

White marble, to be precise.

Floor to ceiling.

Wall to wall.


The thin veins of black that was part of the stone’s natural element did absolutely nothing to soften the sharp contrast between this place of ritual... and the crudely dug tunnels that lead to it. Even the alter at the front of the room was carved from the stone...

And, amongst this, rose an office. Living quarters. Simple and cheap. As though the mere presence of the “furniture” was intended to insult the “holy ground” in which they remained. And that’s not even to mention the electronics. How in the world electronics worked beneath all the chaos above, I haven’t even the slightest clue.

Lockjaw was in her chair behind her desk. Still looking every bit like the panther she was when I first met her. Deadly. Beautiful. And every spice in between added for just a touch of flavor. Her laugh was like knives made into a wind chime. A very real threat - no matter how crystal clear of a sound it was. A file in hand, she conversed with her guest standing on the opposite side to her. Or, rather, the laptop screen that the masked man was holding. A briefcase placed down beside him.

Another Deal.

I was just about to give a nod to Shooter to open fire... when Lockjaw’s risen voice caught my ear.

She told us that we were early.

This. Was bad.

"Now... Why spoil the surprise? 
Besides, I am still in the process of cultivating those fruits. 
Some details are still up in the air."

"Well, apparently you watch me when I'm sleeping 
and watch me when I'm awake. 
Bad and good, 
that whole bit. 
And since you're not exactly Santa Claus...
I thought perhaps I could get a spoiler. 
Call it an entertainment fee."

I glanced to Morningstar, only to find him... unfocused. Distracted. His eyes told of a turmoil that I couldn't afford to try to understand as he stared into that room. It's occupants. But there was one thing that I did understand from the look on his face...

It was up to me to take the Lead.

So I stepped out. Gun in hand, but at my side. Tossing a pondery into the cold, damp air as to how often someone who was seeing their end take shape in front of them mutter those fateful words: "You're early." Speaking false beliefs of a long future ahead. Surely.

Thankfully, Morningstar did follow as I'd hoped he would. His eyes holding an unbreakable link on the figure Lockjaw was dealing with. And the look was returned. Only brimming with a hate and malice that made my grip on my gun tighten just a bit more. I did not, after all, come all this way to die. Especially not by a third party who hadn't even been invited as far as I care. But, with my brother's attention latched onto the wrong target, I felt rather... alone as Lockjaw regarded me for a moment, only to then lean back a bit more in her chair. An air of dismissal taking over. Eyes sharp. Cold. Piercing. A snake's.

She said she was disappointed.

She called me dull. That she'd expected more, considering all she's heard. Considering how the Highers continue to struggle to keep me on their leash and how "that red child" sought me out. How I managed to take the reins of Cult Warfare and how I'd managed to outrun the Plague Doctor. The Games. The Missions. The details of tortures I'd executed. She had my entire file... and she expressed disappointment from meeting me in person. Said that she could still see the teacher. The civilian.

I simply remarked about that in itself being a true danger of this modern world: Nothing ever looks the same on paper as it does in real life. And, as I spoke, I was already scratching for my next question. My next branch of conversation. 

I was stalling.

I asked who she'd sold out this time. Who she was selling to. A Proxy, a Cultist, or a Runner.

The eyes of the masked man finally tore away from Shooter. Turning to me instead. Sky blue. Clear. Sharp. There was a moment's hesitation, followed by a simple "None of the above" which nearly didn't get fully off his tongue before the laptop he held spoke up. Voice sounding irritated as he concluded the business here finished and demanded the file. As if that was his cue, the masked man picked up the briefcase and put it on the desk.

Lockjaw only smiled as she took the briefcase and set it down beside her, before holding out the file. Wishing the "two" of them luck in their sabotage as he walked away. Heading for a tunnel out, no doubt. I contemplated for only a minute trying to keep him here... but, instead, put my focus back where it needed to be. On Lockjaw... just as she was commenting about what a joyless Game this would be... if a rule was made against backstabbing.

She referred the fourth party as "Iblis."

And, not giving time for us to interject, she said she had a proposal to offer us.

"Very well.
I hope to keep the world smiling. 
Perhaps I'll even look into keeping the night sky lit up as well. 
I also want to make sure the likes of our good Mr Banks never exists again. 
He is something of an inconvenience."

"Cry me a river, darling.
I may not entirely like the man, but I must give credit where it's due:
Darling David did fill his role when I required it from him.
He proved himself to be efficient. Effective. Adaptable...
...Though further interactions have proven to be a touch... 
...unsettling at times. 
With any luck, I won't be needing his involvement in matters again."

"You aren't exactly what I would call lucky, Sam."

Lockjaw wanted to die.

But on paper only.

She wanted us to turn a blind eye, and claim that the mission had been a success.

She had her sights for home, apparently, and didn't want any baggage to follow her across the pond. Going on to say that, otherwise, she would have already left the country, but she couldn't risk letting the Highers fume. She wanted it over. Neat and tidy and all wrapped up in a pretty bow.

And, in exchange, she would provide us with information.

Information on Iblis and his buddies.

Information on Shooter's shell.

Information on who had bought MY information.

Even classified information on the training of Spencer Fitzgerald. Writer's thoughts.

And a few other tidbits thrown in for good measure.

All we had to do was sign on the dotted line.

She would die and return to England. Never to be seen again.

And all our own Games would get pushed that much more ahead...

"...Coming from you, that sounds rather ominous."

"Or it could have just been an observation instead of a prediction. 
Really, you are so mistrusting."
"With good reason.
When the equivalent of a Fortune Teller crossed with an Oil Lamp
strikes up a discussion with a mere human...
one tends to do one of two things. 
Firstly, try not to get burned. 
Secondly, try to grab onto even the slightest of hints...
as to what to expect in the near or far future. 
The Game is changing fast, Vivi.
Keeping up is proving to be easier said than done.
Walls that have stood for centuries are looking ready to crumble. 
Loyalties are shaking loose. 
Predictions aren't as easy as they once were..."

We heard shouting in the tunnels nearby.

Shots fired.

Nearer and nearer.

Lockjaw wasn't a patient woman.

She stood from her chair, wanting her answer.

Her hands on her guns.

Our own still drawn at our sides.

"So much fun, isn't it?"

"Fun? Yes. Yes, it is.
It's interesting...
to watch the waves roll in.
One by one.
As the hurricane expands on the horizon.
Lightning streaking across as contrast.
An odd show of light and beauty amongst such chaos...
but, of course, hurricanes don't remain on the horizon, do they? They hit.
Can you blame me for trying to decide which windows to board up?"

We said no.

And, all at once, chaos rushed in.

Morningstar and I fired, hoping to best her on the draw... not the least bit expecting for that cheap table to be kicked over by the assassin with a force that sent it against us. Stumbling us. Everything scattering across the floor with a mess of sound which was drowned in Lockjaw's gunfire as Shooter and I ducked for cover. Finding some, but little of it. Continuing to exchange shots...

Then backup arrived.

Iblis had come running back, twisting as he reentered to hit his back to the marble of the wall beside the door - giving himself more than enough of an advantage to decapitate Mordred. Or mostly decapitate, at any rate. He fell like a sack, before the Butler appeared behind him and threw a range of knives that had been caught between his fingers. Unfamiliar faces were automatically enemies. Kill or be killed. Others flowed in after The Butler. Each one figuring out the score on the fly as they joined the party. Lockjaw's backup joining into the chaos just as easily as ours did. A couple of which coming in from The Path. Each having been waiting in the wing, no doubt.

 And then, just as my gauntlet tore the throat from one of Lockjaw's followers... others of our group began to appear through another tunnel across the Chamber. One second, they were drawing their weapons to push the odds even more into our favor... and, the next, the entire place was shaking and groaning. An explosion which collapsed that part of the ceiling and that particular tunnel - luckily not the whole area - as dust and blood splattered out. Pieces flying.

Plumber and Malfatto's twitchy friend bought it.

And, through the cloud of dust... I saw The Butler stagger. Pausing only long enough to gingerly touch the piece of bone that had been driven into his chest from the force of the explosion... before stiffly falling down to his knees onto a floor cluttered with rubble, blood, and bodies.

I charged Lockjaw. Her blade freshly removed from being buried in Yellowbeard's back. Severing his spine. A bit of the blood actually splattered onto my face from transfer with a slash of the knife hitting my gauntlet. I fought to get an opening, only for her to get one on me. Her blade slicing a gash across my thigh before I was able to retaliate. My gauntlet raking across her face.

"I blame you for trying. 
Yours is a house made of Cardboard. 
No matter how many windows you board up... 
Cardboard is still cardboard. 
That said, nothing is certain except death. 
Not even the time of death."

"Sweetie, if I didn't try to make something out of that cardboard box... matter how futile of an effort it may be to some eyes...
I might as well bid adieu to the whole Game and end myself. 
Save someone else the trouble."

I... have a bit of a blank spot as to what happened from there. 

But, the next thing I knew, I was on the floor. (My) Jack was getting her boot to his gut, and then Lockjaw turned... and found Jack the Ripper charging her.

She aimed.

And put a single bullet right between his eyes.

He dropped.

And the outcry from the others broke above everything else.





...and Iblis.

The first four descended onto the assassin like the Four Horseman. No thought. No mercy. Just Kill. Lockjaw was able to fend it off for a while. Wounding them... but no injury was going to stop our kin. I doubt they were even feeling their wounds at that point.

Lockjaw was beaten to death.

Her followers were cut down in turn.

Some of them by Iblis himself before he grabbed the suitcase he'd left from before and ran into a tunnel. Gunning for a second chance at escape.

Morningstar ran after him.

A laugh.
"Ah, on that note... 
Have you have ever truly considered suicide?"

"You're worse than Leo's 'why' phase, are you aware of that?
You know that was never an option for me, Vivi.
And you know why."

With Lockjaw being handled, I took chase after Star.

It seems that my friend is much swifter on foot than our dearest hacker. Morningstar was able to tackle him, but was thrown off. A blade fight ensued. Iblis' sword against Shooter's own knives - a hiss of blades that I could hear singing down the tunnel in my sprint long before I saw them. They moved fast. Hit hard. Steel blazing...

Then there was red.

Morningstar stumbled back against the wall of the tunnel, biting his own tongue against such obvious pain from what the sword had delivered onto him. Clutching at the long gash across his chest and abdomen. Blood blanketing down his front...

Iblis moved forward.

I intervened.

My gauntlet cut in first and fast. Grabbing the sword to wrench it away... only to find a heavy fist driven into my gut. As if... he had expected me to do just that. I gasped a breath. Gritting my teeth as I threw my shoulder into him. Aiming to slam him into the wall... only for him to dart past me. Backing up. Putting space as he sheathed his sword... and drew two butterfly knives instead.

I knew those knives.

In a war, a weapon is as much a part of a person as their arm or leg. For me, my signature was my gauntlet. For someone else I knew, however... theirs had been those two knives. I knew them. Knew them right down to my core. After all, I'd had them coming at me far more than once. I'd sparred against them quite often in the past...

They were Morningstar's.

The Original Morningstar's.

"Before the end, you may change your tune."

"Might. Might not as well.
Nothing is for certain except uncertainty, sweetheart.
All it takes is a single breath, remember~?
I wonder... how something like you changes, Valtiel.
Decade to decade.
Century to century.
I wonder... did you ever wish to die?
I can honestly see no existence more meaningless,
more pointless,
than one with no end..."

"Of course you can't. 
Something like you could never understand something like me."

He came at me.

I met him with my gauntlet... as well as a blade that I had sheathed across my back.

We fought.

The steel practically sung its deadly tones as we moved. The sound echoing out and drowning out all else. Blade hitting blade in a way that reminded me so very much of the way the knives' old handler used to manage them, but it was even more than that. Whoever Iblis was, he had the training behind him. He was calculated and precise. He knew where to move to move me.

And, what was even worse... was that he seemed to know my fighting style. He seemed to know how I thought. How I'd move before a certain hit. And he blocked. And blocked. And blocked.

Nevertheless, I kept moving. Kept shifting. Trying to find my opening. Trying to move faster. Hit harder. Telling myself that work wasn't done yet. Demanding more of my muscles. My endurance.

I was tired.

More than that, I was already injured. Several times.

And, just to prove I truly had no luck once or ever... what my gauntlet found when I finally grazed my blades across his chest... was steel.

He was wearing light armor beneath his robes.

"Try me. 
Just for fun. 
It's not as though the world is on fire. Yet."

"I can't. 
I am a bit more... Advanced than you."

I knew I had to end it. And fast.

I forced all the strength I had left into a reserve... and when I saw the slightest of openings, I took it. I grabbed his arm after he had finished a slash, twisting it hard with hopes of fracture or breakage before slamming him into the wall. Head first. Cracking his forehead against an available rock as hard as I could. His mask twisting from its set position. Cracking.

I... staggered.

One of his blades was buried in my leg. My good leg. The one that hadn't been stained red from my hip down with thanks to the gash Lockjaw had gifted me with.

I just caught the sight of blood beginning to leak from under Iblis' mask... before his elbow connected with my jaw. I stumbled back from the hit, and when I asked that leg to support me... it didn't. I fell back.

"Advanced and yet unable to dictate yourself properly?
My dear, some would call that ironic."

"You are more advanced than a Cockroach. 
Ever tried explaining yourself to one?"

"Ha! I must say, I like that one.
Nevertheless... you're the one who continues to come to ME, sweetheart.
Striking up conversations with this poor, lowly 'Cockroach'.
So, if you don't think doing so requires you to play this as Quid Pro Quo...
Then I strongly suggest you find a new hobby.
Other than these little dates of ours, I mean.
Not that I don't feel so HONORED that you'd choose to pick my brain over others...
but the entire... 'I'm a Supreme Supernatural Being' card gets a little old after a while.
Not to mention more than a little unfair.
Nearly makes me miss the Good, Old Days.
When it was just me and my fellow Cockroaches.
A lot fewer headaches."

I fought to get up... only to stop dead as I took a hit in the face.

Not by Iblis, per se.


He threw birdseed at me.

It was as if a wrench was thrown into the gears of my mind...

Because there had only ever been one person who did that to me. Only one.

And then, before I could say anything at all, Iblis was gone. Taking off down the tunnel with his briefcase at his side. I watched him disappear... and then, slowly, I began the task of wrapping up my wounds. Trying to stop the bleeding just long enough to get out. I did the same to Morningstar, who was passed out against the wall... and then I heaved him onto my shoulders. Each step a blinding pain as I made my way back.

"It should be a compliment to you that you are in the same league. 
Of course... If you want Power, you need only ask."

"Heh. Of course. Power. 
And the price is only enough to wish you didn't have it. 
Thank you, darling, but I think I'll hold with the cards I have. 
You may not believe me, but Humanity itself can be a strength... 
if used correctly~"

The Chamber looked like a massacre. Everyone was heavily wounded, but temporary bandages had been applied by those who could still move around. The Oathbreakers who were still alive - Malfatto and Delirium - even helped pull the pieces of Proxies back together. Working as more doctors than soldiers, which suited us fine. We were more soldiers than doctors, after all. Anyone who was well enough to walk had the pleasure of a body that couldn't draped over their shoulders. Gleeman took Morningstar.

I had The Butler on mine.

In all, only fourteen of us made it out.
Humans do, after all, have a nasty habit... of being mortal. 

"You aren't the first to say that to me. 
You won't be the last. 
But you remain as incorrect about that as all the others."

"Before the end... you may change your tune~"

I know I promised you all that I would post again in a "few days", but, needless to say... I've had a lot on my mind. It's taken a lot longer than it should have to write this out. Tapping at it. Picking at it. As if telling all of you was part of some odd... obligation.

I can't even count how many times I found myself just staring at the screen. Not seeing it at all.

Never seeing anything at all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Days Of Our Lives

I can see the light!

…Or it might be a train. Whichever mental picture suits your fancy.

Soon, my friends.

So very soon, my business here will be complete and I’ll once again know the joy of traveling alone. Of living and surviving alone. Of hearing a silence filled only by the soft, yet still abrupt, calls of my little shadows as they converse between each other. Of spreading out on a cheap bed in the middle of nowhere, knowing that few to none knew of where I was or what exactly I was doing.

Pardon. What WE were doing.

If I were to be honest, I’d have to say that I feel as though I’ve been neglecting my partners of Chaos and Destruction since my return to work. There are so very few missions lately with which I feel comfortable bringing them with me, and their restlessness tends to show in the most creative of ways. I remember last month (before the fire), I was audience to a rather spectacular show in which Loki distracted Shooter’s attention away from his supper for just an instant… only to find himself taken by surprise from the other direction as Kali dove in. Grabbing the piece of cooked long pork in her talons before both took refuge high up in the rafters of our new warehouse.

Morningstar’s yelling alerted both of his teams and myself into coming to see what evil mind was playing with the fearless leader…

I damn near split my sides laughing.

There was Shooter. Climbing up the walls like a maddened monkey. Swinging off one rafter to grab another as he made his way towards the thieves and his stolen bounty. Yelling as if all to Hell would pay for this massive insult. Cursing them. Cursing me. Promising that he’d roast us all over an open flame as he jumped from one siding to another, pushing off, and landing somewhere else entirely. Graceful and sure in his footing as if he had been born and raised in such canopies. Working his way along the edging until he was ALMOST within arms-reach…

And then Kali and Loki decided that another perch across the warehouse suited them better.

The profanity and ranting that had poured from Morningstar’s mouth then…

My God, I wish I had had a tape recorder. Things like that… you just can’t reproduce from memory. Period.

The crowd gathered below him watched in the kind of amusement that used to be available from drive-in theaters back in the days of my parents. Either making little comments to themselves or those beside them, or simply enjoying the show with a grin or a sigh that attempted to sound annoyed. Gleeman, of course, was the first to start yelling like an old, cranky uncle at Shooter’s escapade. Telling him to get a grip and get down already.

I really couldn't help the smile that I flashed the clown, speaking in the sweetest of voices that I could muster. Cooing as I called him ‘my darling’ as if we were an old married couple and told him to not take his frustrations at work out on our children and let them play.

I got the reaction I was looking for.

A slight twitch of glaring eyes, a reddening face beneath the makeup, and a low growl were the first of my answers, followed shortly by a snapping threat that was meant to still my tongue with fear, I’m sure. I can’t quite remember how it went for the life of me, but it had something to do with his flag-gun and my ability to walk.
His reaction was not was he was hoping for.

“Oh, my darling, you know how I LOVE it when you get rough with me. It never fails to send shivers right up and down my spine!”


So touchy.

I love it.

Blood Harvest and Tiger held him back from lunging at me. Though, if vulgarity were punches, I’d certainly be black and blue.

Then, of course, like what always happens at these manner of parties… one person took it a little too far: the sharp crack of gunfire firing not ten feet away from me.

Shooter’s pirate – Yellowbeard, I think? – was lucky that I didn’t choose to sick his chosen targets back onto him when he drunkenly took aim at my ravens. Cracking out a shot or two before I slipped up to his side and, taking the barrel of his gun in the hand of my gauntlet, I introduced him to the floor with a crack of my own. The knuckles of my opposite hand finding his temple. He gracefully relieved control of his weapon on his way to the introduction, so I then relieved the gun of the rest of its bullets.

Tasteless weapon.

Personally, I’d have had the right mind to kill the idiot. I find him dull and useless, myself. But I would never hear the end of it if I made a human bird-feeder out of Morningstar’s pirate. He seems to have grown fond of the fact that he has one.

And yet, despite my restraint… Gleeman still snapped. His words wounding me so very terribly as he wrestled off the hold on him, seething with a wish that Yellow had had better aim. Voicing some glimmer of hope that trimming my flock would shut me up for a bit

I smiled.

I invited him to take aim himself. See what happens.

A threat. A challenge set.

I saw in my brother’s eyes that he was contemplating taking me up on it.

If it had not been in that scuffle of seconds that Morningstar had jumped back down from the canopy and retaken his position as the Leader of his squads, I do believe Gleeman and I would have had to do a little dance. Instead, Shooter dismissed most of them and ordered Yellowbeard to be “strung up for practice.” Nothing harmful, of course, but more to make a point.

Kali and Loki were MY team, if it were to be said I had one.

If Yellowbeard had nicked but a single feather on either Kali or Loki… Shooter is well aware that I would have made certain that the idiotic pirate would be able to make up for his mistake one agonized scream at a time. A show completely open for public viewing. Leather restraints groaning in just that perfect pitch as the trembling body that they held midair trashed and jerked uselessly. Every movement just another desperate attempt to prevent the next beak from tearing at swollen flesh. The next talon from digging in and clawing across…

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Kali has always liked going for the eyes first.

As the emergency meeting was adjourned, Morningstar gave me a look that practically pleaded “Play Nice” even with a mutter on his lips about how I should just forget about being a Proxy and become a professional shit-stirrer. That I was a natural. And yet, despite the sharpness of his words, what I could see in those eyes only asked me to give it time. That I’d get used to working with others. That I’d get used to having a team to call myself part of. That I’d come to like it. And that they would come to accept me. That I could be among them permanently… if only I stopped trying to give someone a reason to slit my throat while I slept. All of it read so plainly in those eyes…

Storm cloud eyes.

Ever since he attempted to crush my ribs at the Café, it’s been no secret that he doesn’t care to see a fork in the road in the future. That he wants me to be at his side as the second half of the ultimate Dynamic Duo of Destruction, so to speak. Opposites working in perfect rhythm. Chaotic logic. Logical chaos. For one like me, who prefers to create a nightmare in one’s own mind, working with someone like Morningstar, who breathes only to create a nightmare in one’s physical life… it has been a touch difficult to find the balancing act. To work together instead of getting each other killed in the most creative of ways.

And, trust me, I’ve wanted to kill him in a creative way more than once.

It’s that sort of hate that you have for a little brother who makes it his life’s purpose to make your life more difficult.

Only this little brother in particular nearly dropped a fire-truck on me. A fire-truck that was on fire at the time.

And that’s not even to mention getting my gauntlet stuck to one of those large magnets that move cars around in scrap yards. Suctioned me right off of the ground. A good twenty feet up. Straight up.

I couldn’t move my shoulder right for two weeks.

And yet, every time I mention getting off on my own again… the poor idiot looks like I sucker-punched him. It’s as if he thinks that, if I take flight on my own two wings without him and His Squads there at my back… that I’ll just disappear. That the last time he’ll see me will be just as the door is closing, and that will be that. No more exchanges of “bitch” and “jerk”. No more birdseed thrown in my face. No more headlocks provided by yours truly after said birdseed-attack. No more reminders to keep smiling.

No more sleeping back-to-back (or stealing my bunk while I mess with files, you little bastard) when the madness of the day threatens to keep sleep at bay.

And, honestly, I believe I know why it means so much to him. It’s why I’m still here. Among them like I am…

Myself, Tiger, Gleeman, Jack, Recluse… we are part of the world that he had lived before. Five constants in a Game that is barely recognizable. As if we each stand as living reminders of who he was.

Or, perhaps, who he is supposed to be.

Once, he even asked if I didn’t want to stay “because of this” and held up his hand with the ring and the red stone. Redlight’s mark.

I nearly cracked my gauntlet over his head.

We had a talk then. I very long talk. A reminder of who I am. What I do. And how I do it. A reminder of my strengths… and my weaknesses. A reminder that some things change, but others will always remain the same. That even though Kali and Loki have come to accept him as Shooter In A Different Shell (proven by their spectacle above), and even though I’ve learned to trust his resurrection more than I did originally…

I don’t do well in groups.

Never have.

Never will.

I do my best work when I’m only answered by head tilts and the odd ‘caw’.

But, even still… I’ve been trying.

I’ve been working with Gleeman and his side of the operation, mostly. I suppose that in itself is a good reason why I can get under his skin far easier now than ever before, but I digress…

You see, since I agreed to hang around, I figured it only logical to take advantage of what was available to me. After all, I had business matters to handle and, when I began, I only knew one thing: Requiem had been ratted out. Plain and simple.

The Priest was one of the most diligent undercover Proxies you could want to head that kind of operation. Although he was cold to most of his kin, his smile turned on for the Norms that passed through his doors. I can remember watching him from the shadows as he brushed shoulders with your white picket-fence variety. Blending right in as he commented on the glow from one beaming, pregnant sheep in his flock and asked another about his son’s hockey game. He knew them all. Small enough town for it, I guess, but he still took the time to Know.

I even attended one or two of his masses. Once even at Easter. Just a stranger in the crowd that he could sense was a sibling, but didn’t know which one. I feel that he may have guessed, but he never once brought it up with me. Nor I, him.

He spoke beautifully in those sermons.

And then, after the Norms were gone, the chill would return. A business man who had a squad to operate and torture to inflict on any so unfortunately to have been dragged into the basement of the Church. Bound and gagged, usually. The entire system was ran tight. He and Mother Vex made sure of it. There was no way that there would be a big enough slip for Moriarty to find out.

But he did.

And I wanted to find the rat. Personally.

As I dug, Gleeman and I found other inconsistencies in Organization “mishaps”.

Specific sponsors suddenly winding up dead. The words “Cultist” or “murderer” or “blood money” carved into their chest or along their arms. Their companies usually burnt to the ground.

A Cult Town in the far West found itself under just as much firepower as what was aimed at the Church. If not, than more. The people there were hauled from their beds and shot in the street. Only the children left alive.

Even “Joseph’s” kidnapping was strange. Out of thin air, Moriarty just suddenly knew where the Café was located. The man getting in and out seamlessly. Not once putting a foot wrong to give our little Tin Soldier even the slightest warning of what was to come. A chance to fight back.

And those are just to name a few. There have been dozens across the last year. Slowly growing in frequency.

And then, with further digging from the unit, we discovered some more interesting little tidbits. Things that, on their own, shouldn’t amount to much, but, when grouped, certainly bring on a “huh” moment. Even me. Back at the beginning of the year. When someone managed to track me long enough to not only spoil the climax of a certain mission, but also resulted in vandalism to Requiem’s own church.

Hell, even Hakurei Ryuu found our warehouse in order to discover the pyro-maniac hidden deep inside herself. Though something in me is niggling that this one was a coincidence…

In any case, it’s no secret that knowledge is a deadly tool. Especially in this game.

Either we had a turncoat on our hands, or a spy.

My own Game with a certain captive we had back at the old warehouse confirmed for me which it was.

Like I said in my previous post, I was taking on the role of Prisoner of War for the little play we were putting on. Because our guest was just a few years older than me and had lost his wife to our dearest Father, I chose to step into a female version of the role. I fixed myself up and, by the time they would haul my future friend into the cell, I was already chained to the wall. The sudden light from the door making this poor, beaten woman flinch. A show of weakness that was quickly banished and covered up as (Shooter’s) Jack and a few of the newbies dragged the man in. Morningstar following them with that typical, wide grin of his as he made rather loud comments about hoping the accommodations were to his taste.

I did my best to try to be invisible. Keeping my trap shut – dry lips already carrying a heavy bruise and a torn lip. Dried blood down my chin.

Shooter’s doing. A doing done nearly too happily.

The man bit off a few cutting comments that Shooter only laughed at. Giving the captive a ‘tisk-task’ with his finger and a mockery about everything coming with time. And the second “time” rolled off his tongue, those eyes turned sharp onto me. I stiffened under that glimmering stare. That grin. My lips pressed into a tight line as he cooed something to get my agreement on the matter. As if I had already proved him right. He walked over to me, speaking to the new addition to his “collection” as his fingers brushed under my chin. I tried to think back to the most fearful time in my life, then attempted to hide it. Hoping it would show – if only slightly – in my eyes as Star tilted my head out of how I’d had it tucked in and down defensively. He commented about how I had been a little viper too when I’d first come down here, but I’d since become quite the "pretty, little songbird." With Time.

I chose then to snap my teeth at his hand.

He backhanded me. Hard enough that I felt it snap up my neck as my head twisted around. My eyes clamped shut against the sting… then against the sting of sharp steel against my throat as he held his blade just under my jaw. He was close. Far too close for any manner of personal comfort. I strained my restraints as he came in even closer. Whispering in my ear. I made as though to shrink, only to stop. As though steeling myself. Forcing strength when I had none left to offer.

“You’re lucky I’m a busy Proxy, sister.”

Just loud enough for our guest to hear.

A guest that Morningstar made sure to wave at before commenting about how he was sure we’d land up being best of friends. Two little stool pigeons in one cage.

Then the door slammed shut, and there was only silence.

I waited for him to break it. My own gaze turned away. Glaring tiredly at some innocent piece of the shared cell. Cursing it to oblivion with thoughts alone. I could feel the eyes of my company on me. Studying me. Trying to assess me. Looking for red-flags that he was being set-up…

He would see someone who had hit rock-bottom weeks ago. Filthy. Covered in dried sweat and blood. Purple bruises risen on some visible flesh. Other wounds so obviously made by a knife. Some being cosmetic. Others, decidedly not. Hair nearly one solid mat - hanging in clumps around my head and partly in front of my face. The material of the Killsquad uniform was torn in just the right places to give light to a number of my old scars and some of my fresher ones. Giving age to my suffering.

A small chip beneath my clothes recorded the conversation.

“…Seems like a charming guy. Any more charming, and he’d be roadkill.”

I didn’t look over at his words. As if I didn’t want to make eye contact. “…Only if the roadkill was a skunk, maybe.” It was a muttering. Words bitter, but spoken as if part of a sigh.

“How long have you been here?”

“…Don’t even know what month it is, leave alone what day.”

“…Yeah, I guess there isn’t a clock on the wall for a reason. Fucking Proxies.” I could hear the smile tilt his words when he continued. “Name’s Hunt. Hunting Wolf, actually, but just ‘Hunt’ works.”

Ah, yes, I forgot to mention he was of Native blood, didn’t I? Brown skin, black hair, black eyes, well-built… not sure which band. I purposely didn’t read his file. Didn’t want anything to slip, obviously.

I left silence as my answer.

“…So are you going to tell me your name, or do I have to guess it?”

I turned to him then. Eyes accusing. “You can knock off the buddy-buddy act, alright? I know you heard what that son of a bitch called me and I know what you people think of people like me, so just… just save us both the lie, alright?” Then I looked away again.

A moment of silence spread, but when the voice came back, it hadn’t changed. “So I was right then. You’re a Flipper. A Proxy turned Soldier. Though it does look like you’ve flipped right on back...”

“Shut up. We’ll see how long you can sit there grinning like some righteous faggot at me when that shit in your system starts turning on you too. The Withdrawal isn’t a bloody picnic, dick-weed. See who’s grinning then when you think you have acid in your veins instead of blood. See who’s... who’s grinning...”

“…Seems like you’re doing alright by me. I heard the whiplash is bad enough to kill. How long did it take you to get through it?”

“What do you care?”

“Call me curious.”

“I’d rather call you that then fucking ‘Hunt’. What is it with this war and stupid names…?”

“You know what I mean. And you still haven’t told me YOUR name, so I’d wait before shooting down mine.”

“…Pariah. My name is Pariah. Or it used to be. Just… call me Natasha okay? Born with that one. Might as well die with it.”

“…Pariah? Think you won the contest on Stupid Names.”

“I told you. Call me Natasha. Or just ‘Tasha’, if shorter words are easier on your brain.”

“Heh. You really are a bit of a Viper, aren’t you, Flipper? Think I might call you that instead. Too bad you didn’t get a hold of that bastard’s hand. It would have been nice to see what that venom does when it’s injected instead of spat.”

 I threw him a glare… but the pleased smile he had on his face forced out a small smile. Just a slight tilt on the corners of my lips. Not too much, but still giving a bit of a voiceless laugh that almost felt like a sin in that cold, damp cell. “You really are a pain, you know that?”

“I consider it a bad day if I can’t make at least one pretty girl laugh. Flipper or not.” Those dark eyes fixed on mine. “Look, let’s make those rabid dogs out there work for their dinner, okay? I don’t care if you are a Flipper. You got off their side – that’s what matters in my book.”

I let my smile become a grin. A sadist’s grin with eyes like sharp, glistening blades. “You sure, darling? ‘Once a Proxy, always a Proxy.’ Isn’t that what you people say?”

“…Think of it like your name. You tossed it away in favor of ‘Pariah’, right? But now you went back and picked up ‘Natasha’ from the dirt. Your human name. I think that symbolizes something about how your gears are working upstairs, don’t you? I’ve heard this ‘Once a Proxy, always a Proxy’ thing… and I think it’s bullshit. I had a friend who was a Flipper. He was part of my squad. A good guy, if a little nutty. Just like him, you were born human, Tash. You can become human again.”

Such a nice way of saying that one stopped being one at one point, hm?

I let the ‘facade’ drop. Sharp eyes melting into a sad, nearly lost, expression that I quickly turned to face the opposite wall. As if to hide it. Cracked and split lips pressed tight into a line again. “…And what about your name? The one you use…?”

“Sometimes… you need to be more than just a normal human when you’re fighting evil. You have to represent something. I wanted the Hunters to become the Hunted… so I decided to be Hunting Wolf.” He winked. “So they’d know I was coming for them.”

“…What’s your human name?”


“…It’s nice to meet you, Mark.”

“Nice to meet you too, Tash.”

And so it goes.

We spent time talking. Joking. Never asking anything too personal. Respecting the wall of safety that every figure in this war keeps around themselves. I warned him about an injection that those “fucking Proxies” had concocted to mimic the one used by Killsquads. A friend of mine named Delirium actually made the copy, though it doesn’t seem to last as long as their own drug. Still, one can’t complain about progress. It stops the backlash. The Withdrawal. And I warned him that they use it as a reward for us being “good little birdies.” And as I spoke, I let the self-loathing bleed into my words. I let the walls around me thicken that little bit more. Muttering about how he’d land up talking. Just like I did. How he’ll just want it to stop. Want it all to just… stop…

Sometimes, they’d come for me. Drag me out for some more “play time”. Sometimes, I’d go without much of a fuss. Other times, I’d fight back. Lash out in a “weakened” state in some desperate attempt to delay the inevitable that little bit longer. Of course, that would earn me a bit of “punishment” right in front of Mark’s eyes. Suffering as a traitor in the hands of my ex-siblings…

Such fun.

Then, once out of the cell, I was Nightscream again. I had duties to attend to. Obligations. Missions. Research. The days became longer and longer, as did the nights. Never getting enough hours in a day to get everything done that I wanted to, and, before long, I’d need to go back into the cell. Shooter would give me some fresh marks, and then I’d let myself get dragged back in and chained up. Exhausted and sore.

His times being dragged out of the cell were obviously a lot more… painful than my own. Various forms of torture came to litter his body like graffiti. At first, he just tried to laugh it off. Saying it was “Just a flesh wound” or some other cheap movie line. But… his condition gradually worsened. And worsened. And worsened. Day by day. Not only from my kin’s handiwork, but from The Withdrawal setting in as well. Fever and shakes kicking off the show, followed shortly by muscle spasms and headaches. Hallucinations and vomiting.

The joys of life, in other words.

He came to be too weak to stand, and yet still refused to talk. Refused everything. Wanting death instead. Wishing for death.

Though even death needs to be earned in this Game, doesn’t it?

And, all the way through his ordeal… I was there. Always there. In our cell, waiting for his return after each session. Slowly, he began to respond to me as an ally. More and more. Day by day. I could see the change, but couldn’t let the personality I’d chosen slip out of place. I played the Game. I played my part… and, slowly, I let this character I developed begin to care for this Native. Mark. I let my character begin to show shreds of weakness in seeing his state. Wanting to help. Needing to help. And when those “fucking Proxies” didn’t even both chaining him up anymore and just dumped him on the floor… this woman earned herself a bit of leniency from the guards. Selling pleasure to demons in exchange for the freedom to treat the wounds of her friend. To use the water dripping in the corner to wet some cloth and put on Mark’s forehead. Trying to soften the headache. To chill the fever.

Like some cheap romance novel.

Of course, nothing actually happened, but it made for some beautiful dramatic moments, if I do say so myself.

And then, to top off our little Daytime Drama… I could swear I smelt smoke.

Gradually, I began to hear shouting. Yelling back and forth as the smell of smoke became more intense. As it began to seep through the door. Swirling above our heads in a thick cloud and the crackle of flames came to my hearing next. Heat slowly rising as the fire spread fast. Far too fast for any manner of accident.

I tried to figure out what to do. We’d gone this far into the play, it would have been a shame for it all to be wasted…

And then his hand grabbed my wrist.

Those dark eyes, nearly overflowing with pain and misery, weren’t the least bit lifted by the pained smile he forced onto his lips when he looked into my own eyes. His slurred speech coming out slow as he fought to keep the muscle spasms from shaking him too greatly. Fought to keep his mind clear and focused.

He told me I was strong enough to get out. That I had to find a way and get out. That I could make it. That he could still see worth in me, even if I didn’t see it myself.

He told me everything.

He told me where to go when I got out of the warehouse. What to tell who I’d find there.

He told me that there was someone who could give me the information I needed… to pay these demons back for what they did to me. To him. To everyone. For abandoning their humanity. For siding with a monster.

He told me to talk to Lockjaw.

I smiled.




An expression he never would have seen on me before. An expression that he numbly rose a weak hand to touch. Brushing my cheek. And, when I slowly leaned down to thank him properly for such kind words… the kind expression he wore suddenly tore. Eyes clamped shut as his teeth gritted tight in a scream that would never have voice. Refusing to make even one sound more even as his chest arched up under me…

And I just kept leaning in closer. And closer. A knife slowly piercing through his chest bit by bit. My own weight pressing it in so very slowly as I waited for those dark eyes to flash open. To see the agony. The betrayal. The anger.

The Hate.

He didn’t disappoint.

And my lips just grazed over his when the blade was buried in full. When the blood was trickling down his chin, choking every breath…

Then I gave the knife a sharp twist, and it was all over.

By the time I stood to retrieve the key in my pocket and let myself out of that cage, the pain and hurt and betrayal in those eyes had emptied out. Staring blankly up to the swirling smoke around the ceiling. Body uncaring to the approaching flames.

I joined the flood of Proxies on their way out of the burning building. When we found out who had done it, I honestly couldn’t help but laugh. I couldn’t have been happier in that moment amongst my kin. A few of them a little singed, yet nothing lost but material assets. Ammunition. Files. Food. All things that can be replaced.

Hakurei… sweet, little Valerie… you truly are the Hope Bearer.

I have my Name.

The One Name that it has taken me nearly two months to find…


The Pet Proxy of the Highers themselves.

One of the very best in the entire Organization. The prized pick of the Highers. An assassin that they went out of their way to obtain. Her only job being to Eliminate those of her fellow Proxies who became too unruly, too wild, to remain in the business. The ones that caused more trouble than what they were worth…

And she had become a turn-coat. Selling information to the highest bidder.

It’s no wonder now that the Highers had “failed” to recognize the accumulated “huh” moments over the past year – they’d been trying to keep their big blunder under-wraps. After all, losing control of your best dog – one that you yourself sought out and trained to be the Best of the Best – is a little bit embarrassing, no? Sort of like locking your keys in your car and it starts rolling down a hill with you left to either pound on the window or walk away pretending it's not yours.

But now I knew. We knew. The entire unit. And it didn’t take long for the Highers to find out that we knew. Nor did it take long for me to be entertaining a guest, ordering me to continue to follow the Yellow Brick Road. As if he already knew I was second-guessing if I wanted to try my luck in taking out The Lock. Someone who I’d seen at work before. Someone who I had watched Eliminate two of my allies – Trapper and Hawkeye - when I’d first been figuring out the business. Radicals, the both of them. Spent their entire Service pushing their luck too far… and, as a Newbie with a tag beside my name that I’d killed my own Handler (who had been in quite close relations with the Highers themselves), Lock made sure to take a moment and warn me about keeping bad company. Following poor examples…

I can still hear that voice. The British accent had never sounded so sweetly malicious than when it came from that woman. Especially when paired with movements that more resembled a panther stalking her prey rather than those of a normal human. Honestly, I've always half-expected to wake up one morning with her sipping tea in a nearby chair. I'd get that same tell-tale smile that she gave Trapper and Hawkeye... and there would be flare in the depth of her black eyes that would tell what wordless lips wouldn't.

"Time to put in for an early bath, kiddo."

But now, in perfect irony, I'm now the one who's been officially ordered to take out her.

In other words, since I’m in The Know now, they might as well use it as an opportunity to fix one of two problems. Her. Or me.


So, once I came to the conclusion that it was either her or me, I began to make some calls. The Butler has been assisting me for the past few weeks and, though many of my contacts were too busy to come, my old friend Jack was free to join the party. I'm sure everyone reading this has a friend with a gambling problem... and Jack would be mine. He even tries to take up bets on whether or not Gleeman is going to burn his toast for breakfast again. That being said, he's a smart man, when all is dealt and checked.

And, even with the three of ours heads plus whatever you make of Morningstar's team... I still had another friend on the outside who I was keeping informed and vice versa. I had hoped to keep her at a distance from everyone else and avoid unwanted questions...

But then Morningstar went for a little trip. Right into a pool of the Fear Ichor. He was dragged out as quick as possible, but his condition went south staggeringly fast. When he began hearing more voices than usual... I was quick as well to throw caution to the wind. 

I brought Delirium in from the sidelines. 

An Oathbreaker.

She's been an ally of mine for a long time, as well as of the late Requiem. He gave her shelter in his Church a few times, and it was during one such stay that we were introduced. For the past few months, she's been assisting me in monitoring my own health and overall situation with The Beak (Which has been oddly quiet. The odd smell of sulfur and decay, then nothing.), so when Shooter took ill... I gave her a new experiment to poke at. She's been treating him since infection... and doing so rather joyfully, I might add. Apparently doing work on one of Redlight's "experiments" has her tickled pink. Of course, it was only after I took away her scalpel and other such knives that I allowed her to "study" him.

The others were more than a bit leery, understandably. Gleeman basically threatening to kill me and have me stuffed if she hindered Shooter instead of helped. Thankfully for us all, Morningstar has been recovering well enough. Starting to look a little less like a corpse, which is always a promising start, and has started poking at food again.

The Butler asked if there was a special gene of stupidity that Shooter and I shared for getting screwed up with more than one Fear at a time, or if we were just that lucky. Frankly, I'd be interested in testing for that, but settled for just asking him if he had a gene of stupidity for continuing to come when I called. It has become practically a miracle at this point that he hasn't blocked my number on his phone yet.

And yet... it's all coming together. Slowly. Gradually. Over the past two months... we did it. We're finally there. We're ready. By the time you read this, we will have infiltrated Lockjaw's hideout hours ago...

And most likely have hit the Welcome Party that she's been getting ready since we started on her trail. She probably knew we were coming before we did. Bloody limey.

So there you have it. If you don’t hear back after a few days… now you know why.

Keep smiling, my friends.

Especially when facing the grin of the Grim Reaper.