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.

Nobody.

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.”

Diamondback.

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.


"Back? 
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...

Scratching.

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.

Nightlanders.

Brilliant.

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.

Doorways.

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.

Tunnels.

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. 
Pointless. 
Wasteful. 
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.

White.

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.
Darkening.
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...
...no 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.

Gleeman.

Recluse.

Tiger.

Shooter.

...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.

Birdseed.

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.

8 comments:

  1. Sounds like the world has gotten a lot more complicated. Stay safe.

    -M

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  2. That sounds horrible. Just genuinely terrible. I can barely stand to spend more than a day at a time in a loop before I start to loosing it. I can't even began to imagine the hellish sensations I would discover sitting at the nexus of four different worlds as they violently shift their hold over one location.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's certainly nothing that I want to experience again. Once is MORE than enough, and I'm not even "sensitive" to it, so my stay wasn't anywhere near as bad as others...

      Sometimes it pays to be only a normal, mere human.

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    2. We should all be so lucky.

      Delete
  3. Hmmm... so what became of that leaf when you finally left the unstable site?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It either disappeared, or I merely lost it in the scuffle.

      Delete