The conclusion of Dreams In The Storm. I would suggest you make sure you stay to stay to the end…
So, here we are.
End of the line.
Fires burn like miniature supernovas. Black clouds gather and congregate like swirling black flocks of crows, the storm rushes across the sky and swallows whole the thundering and spluttering columns ascending like laboured sacrifices. People run through the streets. Children are screaming. The rain covers the ground in water, it splashes as the people wade through it. The water is tinted red.
Mark Lornish watches. He can’t do anything else, he is powerless against the conquering tide. It crashes over the city sprawl, scoops the chaos inwards, and submerges all it touches. The fires are burning, the flames are spreading. Swathes of blood gush.
Bursts of projectiles shoot along the streets, they bounce off walls and sink into flesh. Broken bodies collapse, houses and shops crumble and disintegrate.
There are creatures stalking the shadows. Flashes of fangs and pointed claws permeate the darkness. Mark Lornish watches as a mother and child are ripped apart like wet paper. Their blood and bones join the mounting sloppy slough.
Ranks of red-death march behind the escaping throngs. There are things Mark Lornish doesn’t recognise, can’t recognise, some are human-looking, others are monstrous aberrations more like twisted hybrids of nightmares and horror than reality can define.
The monsters reach the city centre. They claw at the door. People downstairs are screaming, running, wildly joining in a horrible chorus of howls.
Mark Lornish retreats from the window. His trembling hands reach for comfort.
His knees find the floor. His fingers find the trigger. His temple finds the barrel.
He asks god to be kind. He thinks of his family. Fat tears roll down his cheeks. He asks god to protect his wife and children. He realises they are dead. They have been torn apart, hearts cleaved beating from their chests, heads separated and disposed, and their bodies will lie shattered and buried under a thick bloody mush. He asks god that they be cared for in Heaven.
Guttural roars and screeching wails ring like klaxons. Things are climbing the stairs, crawling over the walls and ceilings. People are dying; his co-workers are screaming.
The end of all things comes in waves of red. And they will swallow you swift.
His head finds the bullet.
A metal contraption that looked considerably like a gun, but didn’t quite have the right shape, as though it had been crafted by someone who had the memory of what a gun looked like but couldn’t remember it fully, was forcefully thrust into Diana’s begrudging palm.
“What is this?” she asked.
A circle surrounded her, etched into the grassy plain. Its unknowing creator sprinted along it like a dog chasing its tail.
Jane beamed ecstatically and tussled in the dust.
“What does it look like to you?” said Adrian, adjusting his belt.
“A gun,” Diana answered flatly.
“Then it’s a gun,” said Adrian bluntly. “Keep it close. But don’t pull the trigger! I mean, if it looks like it has a trigger. I’m guessing it does. It wouldn’t be a gun if it didn’t have a trigger, would it now?”
The pebble device was sitting in a make-shift hearth centred in the middle of a grass forest. A gentle breeze drifted around it, and timidly nudged blades of grass out its path. The blue sun offered viridian warmth unhindered by clouds or birds or stormy humidity. A disobedient herd of puffy bubbles glided sluggishly, apparently setting their sparkling eyes on the farthest peak on the mountain-scape, unconcerned with the gratuitous stretch of land between their current position and their coveted trophy.
Muffled noises reached Diana. She paid them little attention.
“Hey!” Gavin shouted. “Are you listening to me?”
“What? Oh.” Reality wheeled back. “Sorry, I was miles away. What were you saying?”
The gun was heavy in her hands. She wanted to put it away but she wasn’t sure where it would fit. She experimented with her trousers, then her shirt, and eventually nominated an inside jacket pocket. Uncomfortable, she jolted and danced around, hoping the mad flapping would insulate against the cold metal of the gun. It chilled her more than she could admit; a murder machine pressing into your ribcage is unsettling for most sane people, and Diana wasn’t confident her sanity could cling on much longer. She considered handing it back.
“I was saying,” said Gavin, like he was addressing an insolent child, “that what we’re about to do is extremely dangerous.”
“You mean travel to another planet?” said Diana. “Didn’t look that dangerous on the way here.”
“No, no, would you please just listen?” He scoffed, a breath away from stamping his feet. “When we get back to your planet there’s a good chance we’ll be walking into a trap. It’s not going to be pretty. You need to keep your wits about you, have your hand on the gun, have your eyes searching and calculating. We don’t have time to run through basic training, so I’ll give you this one piece of advice and I implore you to dedicate it to memory: point, shoot, and move, duck, dodge and stay out of our way. Don’t shoot us, don’t shoot yourself, and try not to ask questions every thirty seconds. Clear?”
“Clear,” she said, doubtfully.
The pebble whizzed through the air like a plump grapefruit, carved a windless vacuous tail, and brusquely vanished.
“Are we ready?” said Gavin, unravelling his fingers to reveal the grey device.
“I think so,” said Adrian. “Jane?”
“Blueberries,” said Jane, and bent over to immerse her face in the dirt like an ostrich.
“Isn’t… isn’t anyone going to ask me?” Diana ventured shyly.
If there was an answer she didn’t hear it. A blinding blue sky collapsed downwards like a lead blanket and absorbed the world.
Night reigned the air, the heavy burden of warmth lifted and replaced with a bone-chilling winter gale, grand ice creeks spread like white frosting on the dull cake-top of the wilderness, from behind the curtain of dark storm clouds peeked the bland grey halo of the moon’s vigilant eye, but most prominently there was a deflating dome looming over the city like a slothful banner, and it was this that Diana noticed first.
Had she been of a clear mind she would have noticed the frost, the predatory ice, the winking moon poking between gaps in the clouds, she would have registered the lack of tempestuous squalls, the severe dearth of torrential downpour, or the almost short-circuiting of all three hearts, instead she saw the expanding clouds of smoke snake towards the clouds, the crumbled parapets littering the frosty ground, the spiralling pillars of fire raging and spluttering blistering embers and sparks, the overwhelming stench of death and burning flesh ambushing vulnerable nostrils, and she saw the crimson tide draw near and climb the derelict mortar skeletons.
“Oh, my god…”
By the potent flaring light of the rising flames the clouds were illuminated, orange glows stippled their onyx undersides, and that same light outlined with a seething hatred the distorted and mutilated bodies lining the streets like slushy paste, as though the streets themselves had been built on foundations of shattered bones and maimed flesh. The city centre’s great spire thrust upwards, bright, blaring light at its tip, though its former glory was inhibited by its broken and dishevelled surroundings; fiery reflections danced on its reddened surface.
Diana stared. And stared.
This wasn’t like it was in films or books or TV, where the valiant hero returns to his home and witnesses its heinous destruction, vows a bloody campaign of vengeance and ultimately stands triumphant, this was true horror. This was watching the infectious breath of fire spew carnage. This was a carnival of insanity. The entire city destroyed, its inhabitants ripped apart and their bodies strewn like piles of discarded rubbish, and the only thing that could even remotely attempt to tether Diana to her reality was the cold demesne of loneliness.
That feeling wouldn’t leave her, it stuck like glue to every page of thought. Of true thoughts she had none, but shards formed here and there in the dim glow of the total annihilation she was witnessing. This wasn’t death, this was a massacre. Tragedy wouldn’t cover it. War was insufficient.
Her home city, where she had walked the streets a bright-eyed child, where she had gone to school and to the shops, where her mothers were buried in the rambling, muddled cemetery, was gone. Just gone. And all that was left, all to cling to, was a smouldering, burning husk left as though in insult.
Conversation floated through the air. Diana’s mind closed and shunned it away. She had to masticate this… this…
Life had been drained from the world, as though the gloomy lurking clouds were in nature vampiric, even Diana’s own hearts were grinding to a halt. She couldn’t understand it, her mind and body dissociated, and nothing would bring them back together.
Her knees buckled. Her fingers dug into the ground and gripped mounds of dirt. The cold crept through her skin, invaded her arms, and crusaded victoriously towards her chest, where it festered. That bitter host gnawed at the fabric of being, a phalanx of icy spears struck in every direction; the glacial army claimed glorious victory. Tears banged insolently on the barriers of her eyelids. She refused to cry. Crying is the normal procedure involved with sadness, the physical epitome of a broken soul. This wasn’t sadness. This was fury.
Her mind and body chained together on the lash of rage, collided like stray meteors in the depths of endless space, and there it was; the cold symbiosis of one who has lost all they have. Her shoulders were heavy, her hearts thumped to the beat of vengeance, adrenaline streamed as easy as blood, and the internal amendment was complete. Loneliness would never leave her, but this wasn’t what she desired, not anymore. When you have been left with nothing and no-one, when the world has turned its back and the bonfires of hatred have been lit, loneliness and dismal misery are not only company, they’re family.
She stood, fists clenched.
“Who did this?” she hissed.
Diana was aware of three sets of eyes burning into her back.
“Uh…” said Adrian apprehensively. “I may have left a couple of things out when I was explaining everything to you. I didn’t think it would be important.”
“It’s on a need-to-know basis,” said Gavin. “You’re probably quite shocked seeing this but -”
“Who did this?” Diana repeated with added sharpness.
Sounds of nervous shuffling reached her. She whipped around.
“I won’t ask again. Who did this?!”
“The drums of war to the dance of the flame,” said Jane absently. “Hear them pound. Hear them.”
Diana found herself staring down the length of a gun. Her finger wrapped around the trigger.
“You said yourself,” she said, with a tone of rage even she was surprised to hear, “whatever abilities you might have are gone here. I reckon this gun would work as well on you as it would on me. You turn up out of nowhere and hours later an entire city is destroyed! My home! If you won’t give me answers there’s no reason for you, there’s no reason you have to be here. So… you’ll give me my answers and I won’t add you to the body count.”
She was very aware that she was trembling. She had promised not to cry, yet tears were escaping all the same.
“Give me someone to blame,” she said boldly. “Give me someone to shoot. Or I’ll just start firing.”
Diana was on an island. A meandering moat enclosed her. It bubbled and boiled, fat bubbles spurting into life. A cloud of rage descended.
Gavin walked forward, palms out.
“Shoot me,” he said. “Go ahead. Won’t bring your home back, won’t bring those people back to life. The world won’t magically heal itself because you’ve shot me.”
The gun was heavy in her hands. The trigger begged to be pulled.
“You have a thing or two to learn about how this works. Put the gun down.”
“Put it down and I’ll tell you what you don’t want to hear.”
Diana’s eye twitched.
“Don’t take another step.” Her voice cracked.
“Or what?” He threw his hands out. “If you were going to shoot me I’d be dead. Are you all bark and no bite?”
“My home is burning!” she screamed. “Don’t test me!”
The subsequent movement was a blur of hands and arms. Diana’s iron grip was forcefully opened and the gun swiftly retrieved. The hard ground rushed to meet her. Tears streamed in copious volumes.
Gavin’s shadow lay over her, his eyes blazed.
“I should remind you,” he said, gritting his teeth, “that I’m not under any obligation to save or protect you. You’re a means to an end, and you’re annoying. That’s not a good mix. Sad about your home? I get it. This can’t be easy. But don’t you dare turn a gun on the people trying to help you.”
The gun whizzed through the air and was caught mid-flight in Jane’s hand.
“This is a tiny city,” he continued. “It’s nothing. In this solar system it might as well be a speck of dust. In this universe it’s not even a speck on a speck on a speck of dust. If you’re really that upset, if the destruction of something so insignificant is so monumental to you, I can take you to another universe where it’s completely intact, where the streets are paved with gold, where the people have never been happier, where everything is alight with the glow of a thousand angels. Saving a speck of dust is a waste of time when everything else around you is burning.
“We’re here to stop the bleed, patch it up, and move on. All your friends, your family, everyone you’ve ever known, they’re all meaningless. They’re just a part of a bigger machine and here’s the kicker: the machine doesn’t give a shit! It doesn’t care! Somewhere in creation is a word for something so tiny and insignificant as an individual life. That word is what you are, what every single person or creature is. Nothing you do matters. What does matter is the Nexus, the grand scope, and you, nor anyone else, makes a dent. This city’s death is about as moving as an algae’s. If you want happiness, it’s only a universe away. But let me tell you, even that happiness doesn’t matter.”
The shadow absconded. Diana wept uncontrollably into the comfort of her jacket.
Diana walked head down through the winding streets. Adrian walked beside her in silence, Jane brought up the flank, and Gavin led the convoy, grumbling uneasily to the world at large.
The city was no longer a city, it was a dumping ground for torn bodies and mauled limbs, crumbling and shattered debris, the curving streets now open ducts for a syrupy red stream that hauled bones and things Diana didn’t want to register. It is not natural, she thought with a pang of misery, to not recognise your own home. It is infinitely worse when one has to avoid looking at the dense body-soup circling the clogged drains.
Salvaging the remnants requires something worth saving. She could sense, without haughty introspection, that there was nothing left alive, and all that was left standing were twisted mockeries of the once proud buildings, freshly painted in the shades of those who had called them home.
“We go to the centre,” said Gavin, taking a left. “That big stupid tower’s close to the clouds. I’ve got a plan.”
She could see where Death’s scythe had sliced the chafe, where his bony hand had coldly halted an army of hearts. But that was all she would see. She closed her eyes.
“There’s a good chance the Pantheon’s waiting there,” Adrian advised. “As long as it’s not the masked buggers we should be okay.”
The Whistling Dog collapsed inwards. Diana remembered her twenty-first birthday, as much of it as she could, anyway. The Whistling Dog was where that night began. She stepped over the splinters of the shattered bay-window.
“Must have been a big force,” Gavin observed. “This was a big city, relatively speaking, and they made quick work of it. Does beg the question…”
Moonlight drifted from above, reflected off the red mixture stealing the streets, and stabbed through the foggy clouds and sizzling eruptions. It was the silence that caught Diana unaware. A city should be bustling, alive, crowded with flooding throngs like a revolving door of faces; silence shouldn’t be an option.
Memories of dynamic fervour reeled across her vision, children playing on the sidewalk, furious diatribes howled from second-story windows, eager preachers pestering the teeming mobs, the rising clamour and uproar of cluttered life that eclipsed the sleepy and the dreary. Diana had despised the raucous bustle for adamantly destroying her sleep, and for its predatory instincts, but now, with walls of silence at every junction, she wished for nothing else.
“… why is any of it still standing? If this was Vox we’d be walking through a crater. And where’s all the soldiers? I don’t doubt there’ll be a force waiting for us in the centre, they couldn’t resist it, but I expected some resistance on the way there.”
“Do you remember Star Wars?” said Adrian.
“Of course I remember Star Wars. What about it?”
“Return Of The Jedi. That fish-head alien thing.”
“Ackbar? Oh.” Gavin cautiously peeked down a conjoining street. “Best be ready, then. Jane, take point.”
A bundle of red hair soared overhead like a demented pack of strawberries and slammed to the street ahead of Gavin.
Let the rain fall, thought Diana. Let the storm ravage the city, let the rain fall and wash away the chaos, let the wind topple the monuments of death, let my home be buried, let nature wipe clean the slate of sin.
Diana jumped. Adrian squeezed her shoulder.
“Would it be stupid to ask how you’re doing?” he said, tensely.
“Then I won’t ask.” He looked queasy as the gooey river crept by. “But you should know there’s a good chance you wouldn’t have killed him. Our abilities are weakened, they’re not completely erased, and immortality is like breathing to us. Or… whatever it is you do instead of breathing. Like the beat of a heart.”
“Okay,” she said dismissively. “Good to know I can’t kill you.”
“Oh, you could,” he said chirpily. “But you’d really have to kill us, make sure we’re dead. Kind of brutal but ripping out our heart and lopping off the head ought to do it. Burning the body’s optional. And since you’re technically not a part of creation anymore -”
“What?” A flash of a man’s torso drove itself into Diana’s retinas. She immediately closed her eyes.
“Well, we’re not a part of creation. We’re outside, like bubbles on boiling soup. That way, the only thing that can harm us is something also outside creation. Like…” His eyes flared with anger. “Like the Pantheon.”
Diana dodged as a sliver of brick whizzed through the air, narrowly missing her ear. Jane waved enthusiastically.
“Dare I ask?” she said.
“Normally I’d say no,” said Adrian. “But I think given the current circumstances you’re due an explanation.”
The great white arm of the city centre slid into view. The spire lumbered above like a giant pasty oak tree, the spotlight at its peak a beckoning and beautiful star. Diana went cold. The once mighty centre was enclosed by a ring of horridly deformed corpses, like a ghostly hearth at the heart of a savage ritual. Identification was impossible.
“This is the work of the Pantheon,” Adrian explained solemnly. “They’re the anti-us, I suppose you could say. Actually, we’re more like anti-them. Weirdos, they are. Really obsessed with the colour red for some reason. Not that there’s anything wrong with red, but all I’m saying is there’s an entire multi-verse of colours out there, why pick -”
“You’re not answering my question,” Diana snapped. “I don’t care that they’re obsessed with red. I want to know why my home is… why did they do this?”
“They follow a god they call Mother Lamia. We call it Lilith. Remember the Nexus, the landlord? It’s connected to all things, it’s the source of existence. Nothing can function without it. Lilith is the reason for bleeds, the reason the Nexus makes mistakes. Because Lilith is like this… disease, everything she interferes with is infected, taken out of connection with the Nexus, and the infection spreads. On the endless street of houses she’s a rival real estate agent who wants to bulldoze the place and claim the land for herself.”
“I’d say she’s more like a psychotic arsonist,” Gavin suggested.
“Whatever she is, the Pantheon follow her,” Adrian continued. “She’s their god, their one true love. They’ll do anything for her. By causing havoc and separating things from the Nexus, she weakens it, and can lay claim to a universe by destroying the single conduit of its power. If the Nexus collapses she wins. Simple as that.”
Great, Diana thought. Gods. Other universes. Infinity. Fantastic.
“So, that’s why you clean things up,” she ventured. “You’re here to stop damage to the… thing. Nexus. I wouldn’t call you janitors.”
“No, that might’ve been a leap.”
“And the conduit?”
“The Creator. God.”
Her mind cast a line into the cloud of impossibility, reeled in the cod of confusion, and duly beat it to death with the club of numb acceptance.
A question floated to the surface of a deep tank of condensed irrationalism. The girl… she should be able to see everything, that’s what Adrian had told her. There couldn’t be a trap up ahead, creatures waiting in ambush around the corner, because Jane would know, she would see it coming a mile off. And yet they were acting like they didn’t have the slightest clue.
Question’s already been answered, said an unfamiliar voice somewhere in the fathomless recesses of the mind. You see with your eyes, Jane sees with the Nexus. Adrian told you the Pantheon are disconnected. When it comes to them, whomever they may be, she’s blinder than an elderly bat afflicted with cataracts.
Her cognitive cogs were revolving with greater speed, dexterity and determination than she was accustomed to, launching thoughts sideways, forwards, upwards, in whichever direction they needed to go.
But, she argued, and shook away the strange feeling she received when she considered she was arguing with herself, Jane reacted when the Pantheon arrived. She must be able to see them, then.
If you were standing on a grassy knoll overlooking a giant mountain basin, said this unfamiliar voice, and a thick smog rolled over the hills and filled the basin like water, it wouldn’t matter that you could no longer see the basin. You watched the fog invade, you know that it’s there. Are you really that stupid?
Involuntarily, she shook her head free of strange nameless thoughts.
The staff entrance was empty. The door had been ripped from its hinges, which hung from the frame like threadbare thorns. A peek inside was enough for Diana. She unsuccessfully tried to suppress an upsurge of vomit.
“Pretty,” said Jane.
“Are you alright?” said Adrian and helped her to her feet.
A second surge rushed forward. It had been a long time coming. She wiped her face with her sleeve and shakily rose. Vigilant Adrian supported her.
“I can’t go in there,” she whispered, mainly to herself. “I can’t do it. I can’t!”
Adrian enveloped her hand in his warm palm. “Close your eyes. I’ll lead you.”
She did as instructed and allowed her heavy eyelids to shut out the horror. Images, when buoyed on the petulant raft of sickness, traverse the wailing waves and pugnacious floods, and eventually breach the shore of sanity. Even with closed eyes those images whirled relentlessly like a morbid play for which only she had a ticket. She desperately tucked them under the cerebral rug. The problem is, as Diana would later discover, all such an act accomplishes is a very lumpy looking rug.
The white walls had been the willing canvas in a madman’s opus; streaks of blood blemished the pastel concrete, huge chunks cleaved from the brick, corpses beleaguered the ground like a perverse welcoming party, and from the dusky ceiling swayed defiled limbs and viscous… insides.
Diana found blindness a rather warming boon. Optical silence deleted the influx of gore, at least, momentarily. But on the threshold of the open portal she froze.
I can’t do this, she thought. I’m walking on the bones of people I know – I knew. In the place I work – used to work.
A cold flood rushed over her hearts.
Is this my fault?
Did I do this?
The water splashed around her boot. It’s just water, she told herself. Just water. Something snagged the sole. It’s just a rubbish bag, she pleaded with her mind to cooperate. Just a rubbish bag.
“You’ll have to be very brave,” said Adrian’s voice in the blackness. “Don’t let go of my hand.”
She nodded. The slow bobbing coerced tears, Diana bit her lip.
By sheer repetition, her body moved on muscle memory, after all, she was a veteran explorer of these corridors and staircases. She could trace every crack in the wall – or, as she considered what she witnessed before, she could previously – and she blindly navigated the curves and turns, steered on pure instinct like a bloodhound on the trail. Admittedly, the odd obstacle obfuscated normal advancement. Adrian’s hand never left hers. More than once she silently thanked him.
Ahead of her, she heard Gavin bulldoze the cluttered corridor and battled a threatening mass exodus from her churning stomach.
“Adrian,” she whispered in the blackness, “talk about something, please.”
“Like what?” he said softly.
“Like…” Her mind rummaged for coherence. “Like the importance of a single life.”
“You want to talk about what Gavin said to you? Are you sure that’s a wise idea?”
“I want to hear your opinion,” she said boldly. The inner sanctum of pride and arrogance will seldom allow entrance to nihilism, but the self-aware are often given to a grace period during which the blank and dull stab of cosmic perspective pierces the guarded walls and psychological chainmail, and guts introspection like a grimy pig. Diana’s otherworldly understanding was on the cusp of a major evolution.
“I don’t think you want to,” Adrian lamented. “It’s not what you want to hear. You want me to agree with you that one life is important, that all of creation’s children deserve to be heard and saved.”
Diana’s hand reflexively squeezed. “I think you’ve just given me your opinion.”
“Consider what I’ve told you, and I mean really think about it. Creation is infinite, it goes on and on and on. When you’re outside all of that looking in, it’s hard to think of any one thing as important. As long as the Nexus keeps the whole thing running there’s not much that’s actually important. An ant – you have ants here, right? – is only valuable when it’s contributing to the hive, to the greater whole. I’m sorry, but Gavin’s right. One life doesn’t make a difference.”
If Diana wasn’t already feeling like she was at the last chapter of a month-long drinking bender, she was sure her stomach would’ve violently convulsed.
“Good to know I don’t matter,” she said miserably.
Adrian squeezed her hand tight.
“Don’t think of it like that,” he said, as sweetly as possible. “Don’t think like Gavin, where nothing matters so what’s the point. Think of it like this: nothing matters, so don’t sweat the small stuff. The only thing that matters in the grand scheme of creation is what you make matter. It means enjoy the experiences, say what you want, do what you want, go where you want to go and make a meaningless life meaningful, because nothing else matters. You can’t change the universe; all you’ve got is what you’ve got, make the best of it.”
“A sweet sentiment,” she said. “It would’ve been sweeter if you hadn’t called my life meaningless.”
The sound of scuttling chilled her. Something was moving overhead at an alarming speed.
“Adrian… is there something crawling on the ceiling?”
“It’s Jane,” he said, like it was an obvious fact. “Try not to think about it.”
She imagined the girl scurrying across the stained ceiling, a forest of bright red hair reaching towards the floor, moving with arachnid ease, and shivered.
Having uneasily trudged through the condensed thicket of severed bodies, Diana realised they were now in the second-floor borough, an exact replica of her own workplace; where there would be shelves of computers and screens, an extensive steel jungle of desks and filing cabinets, and dull grey cubicles that stood as definitive borders.
And everyone was out to lunch, she thought. Having a good time, drinking coffee, musing on the failures of the management to correctly define and assess all the silly little issues in the office, bonding over their mutual self-loathing. That was it. That was why the silence was so absolute. And the incessant dripping noise was a leaky pipe.
“What powers that big stupid light?” asked Gavin’s voice.
“Three generators down in the basement,” Diana replied. “Are the lights on?”
“Then they’re still running. Why do you ask?”
“’cos we’re going to use it,” he said. She could feel the sarcastic eye-roll. “We can use it like an amplifier. Jane, you’re going to go up there, tap into the electricity and slam it into overdrive. See where I’m going with this?”
“Blueberries,” said Jane’s muffled voice. Diana quickly decided she didn’t want to know why it was muffled.
“And that’ll fix everything, will it?” she said, uneasily. “Adrian, can I open my eyes now?”
He squeezed her hand. “How’s your stomach?”
As though in reply, her stomach growled. “Not great. Is it really that bad?”
“I wouldn’t say so. But we’ve lived two very different lives. Have you ever waded through a shallow pond?” She nodded. “Well, imagine that instead of clear water, you’re in what looks like a vat of crushed cherries, and instead of cute little starfish you’re surrounded by detached limbs and brains and -”
“I’ll keep my eyes closed,” she decided queasily.
She heard someone rummaging through the filing cabinets and barging down the barricades like a tiny juggernaut. There was a horrid splashing.
“What’s she doing?” Diana asked, guessing Jane was the source of the disturbance.
“God knows,” said Adrian. “Hey… this is where you worked, right? What did you do?”
“Data management,” she replied with the weary tone of someone who has had to explain precisely what that means one too many times.
“What the hell is that? Data’s information, isn’t it? It pretty much manages itself.”
Gavin laughed, tinged with a derogatory spike. “It’s fancy talk for numbers into columns. I feel bad for you, it’s not a great job.”
“It’s money,” Diana grumbled, echoing the mantra spoken by the weary and disheartened. “That’s all it is, I do it for the money.”
“Do it for the money?” said Adrian, bemused. “Funny, that used to be my philosophy too. You learn quickly that it’s not a great way to live. But it is a fantastic way to die.”
On the blank screen of her eyelids, her mind projected the image of his prominent bruises. Well, she thought coldly, who better to offer judgement than the judged?
“I worked for money too,” said Gavin, half-aware he was talking. “Or I should say I lived for money. Would you like to know what ‘just think of the money’ is code for? ‘Your unhappiness is irrelevant to me, I don’t care that you’re prostituting your dignity and sacrificing your mental well-being for a fatter bank balance.’ Honestly, do you really think the puffiness of your wallet is cosmologically important?”
Wow, he’s a bundle of joy, Diana thought. A bundle of joy made out of unicorn hair and tied up in a pretty rainbow.
“Alright,” said Gavin, reclaiming command. “How do we get-”
A bold silence descended like a blanket, Adrian’s hand clenched tight. Diana could feel his heartbeat quicken like he was under severe duress. Even Jane had stopped demolishing the office. The air was heavy, tense and rapacious.
What’s going on? Why is everyone so quiet?
Then she felt it; the incomprehensible buzzing, a menacing savage breath of destruction, like volcanic heat charging towards a glacier, grabbing her by the throat, screaming in her face, with as much palpability as a blood-crowned lance, and as much place in the exalted empire of realism as a bazooka has in a nursery. It writhed and twisted, alive and flourishing, flexing its demented muscles and snapping its rabid, drooling jaws. Diana’s lonely shell was filled with overwhelming dread, caught in the grasp of an undercurrent. Instantly she identified it despite having never come across such a feeling before.
Hands grabbed her shoulders, feet left the ground, and suddenly she was being stuffed under what she guessed to be a desk. Bloo – water lapped at her hands, she squirmed. Her hearts thumped with the brutal belligerence of artillery guns. Panic constructed an ardent settlement in her chest, cosied between confusion cove and disgust’s dominion.
Calm. Be calm!
“Adrian,” she whispered fearfully, “what the hell is that?!”
Travelling up her spine, the greedy demonic breath stampeded towards her skull, ripping and tearing. She almost screamed. A well-placed hand confirmed her silence.
“Stay calm,” Adrian whispered, voice frail and tense. “Don’t open your eyes, not for anything. Stay under here, keep quiet, don’t make a peep. You’re going to have to be braver than I can explain. Please, just stay safe.”
The desk nook coddled her like a metal womb. Somewhere beyond, furniture and computer monitors crashed into the shallow pool. The rabid hammering of three hearts dulled external sound.
“Don’t leave until I come for you. You’re going to hear some awful sounds, sounds you shouldn’t hear. I’m so sorry.”
“No, no, no! Adrian!” She whimpered. “Don’t leave! Please, don’t leave me!”
“I’m sorry.” His voice cracked, bowing under severe pressure. “You’ll understand. Just stay here. I’ll be back for you.”
“No! Don’t leave me! Adrian!” Her hands found air. The sound of rippling water retreated.
She was alone.
Something was approaching, the air receded from its passage. Diana could hear it, filling up every inch of space, a spiteful clamorous symphony determined to force its discordancy down on open ears like an iron hammer. Creation’s mellifluous melody, challenged by the incidental alien invader, battled against it, ordered the singing violins to scream their harmonies, for the orchestra of order to rise above the rebellious din. But at the finish of each phrase, the discordant chorus would emerge stronger, more resilient, and infinitely more determined for its screeching, unyielding and wild symphony to transcend the limits of musical order, for the ebb and flow of the melodic battle to end in its victory. The savage beat drummed onwards, reaching a brutal crescendo.
Diana barely heard that unfamiliar voice speaking in the darkness.
Thought you wanted adventure? it said. There was an undefined edge to it this time, a sharp sarcastic bite.
Go ahead, peek. Might as well, you’ve got nothing else to do. Unless you think hiding under a desk bathed in your friends’ blood is something worth doing. Go on, peek. Won’t do any harm.
She adamantly refused. Thus far the horror had been confined to one memory of one blood-doused hallway, and that had been enough to rock her stomach like a boat in the middle of the ocean. No, she thought firmly, no peeks, nothing. Adrian said to wait here. That’s what I’ll do.
Don’t you want to know, said the voice coyly, what creation’s most wanted and most feared look like?
A little bubble of curiosity grew, eclipsed fear, until she could no longer refuse.
She steeled herself for the moment of truth, for a peek between the gaps in the black curtain, and reassured her stomach all would be well. It growled in protest.
Eyes flipped open.
Blackness. Rigid and absolute. Diana double-checked her eyes were indeed open.
It just stood there, obscuring vision, a segment of dark void hanging right in front of her. The horror she had expected was entirely absent, no blood, no body parts, no horrible, pale dead faces glaring at her disappointedly, not even the slightest flicker of monsters or a devilish orchestra. Just darkness in its purest form.
Her eyes adjusted. The darkness sputtered, wobbled unsteadily, as if it was unsure what it was doing there. And in one chilling moment, understanding caught up with logic, tapped on its shoulder, and pointed a shaky finger towards the cold, dark and ubiquitous shadows.
Which were indeed cold, dark and ubiquitous, but not entirely shadows.
Heavy oily-black tentacles unfurled like wings, wrapped around her neck and arms, and sucked her screaming into the void.
Under a black boot, a brittle skull cracked like a glass dome.
Looks like a sparrow from back home, Adrian mused, and removed his boot from the marrow cave-in.
“Is that all of them?” he said, adjusting his jacket. “That was easier than I thought it would be. Where’s their reinforcements?”
Behind him, a ball of strawberry dreadlocks zoomed sideways and collided zealously with a lurking bird-man. It didn’t survive long; in the same way a snowflake doesn’t stand a chance on the surface of the sun.
Sloshing through the shallow red pool, Gavin returned, drenched in green from head to toe. He looked remarkably grumpy, Adrian thought, for someone who’d just released his anger in a mad vengeful flurry.
“Goddamn bird-things,” he said, like there was a personal inference Adrian wasn’t aware of. “Ripped off their wings, they weren’t so happy when they couldn’t float about my head.”
Adrian nodded approvingly. “I thought I heard screams. Those talons weren’t too nice, nearly took my fingers off!”
“Almost like they’re made for dismembering. Where’s Jane?”
Red hair popped up- or perhaps more accurately, popped down- between them, and gently swayed like thick red vines.
“Soup,” said Jane, twirling a red lock between her fingers. Adrian grinned. Gravity was a law here, on this planet and within the boundaries of this universe, but for Jane, as was the case for most things relating to her, it was more like a poorly-written and ill-defined guideline.
Of course, he reflected, it would be easy to emulate, and admittedly it offered several strategic advantages, as Jane had proved countless times in places not normally built for accommodating the gravitationally-challenged, but like a lot of people he preferred feet on the ground. Leave the upside-down-ness for the people who could pull it off well, he decided.
“Right then,” said Gavin. “Go get… the other one. Whatsername. The one with the pony-tail.”
“The normal one?” Adrian suggested sincerely. “Contextually speaking, of course.”
“That one. Go get her.” He brushed off flecks of cartilage that had collected on his collar and ignored the veneer of green blood covering his jacket. “The suit was a bad choice.”
“A-blah,” said Jane, rolling her eyes. “Grey…politician. Preacher. Sums and broccoli.”
“She’s calling you boring,” Adrian translated. “Or annoying, I can’t be sure.”
Several minutes later, Adrian returned in a blind panic, upturning desks and chucking filing cabinets like he’d lost a very important contact lens. Wreathed in anger and panic, he leaped and blinked around the broad room.
“Adrian,” said Gavin sternly, “could you maybe stop acting like a mad frog and explain what the hell you’re doing?”
“She’s not there.”
“Diana, she’s not there!” Adrian screamed. “I left her under a desk… I told her she’d be safe, that I’d be back for her.”
An uneasy silence tiptoed into the room like a smoggy mist, an ensnaring cloud that propagated outwards. Adrian completely ignored it, focused on finding Diana. He hoped, with the intensity of an imploding star, that he would uncover her hiding under a desk, or trapped under a metal beam. Maybe she ran off, he thought with sincere incredulity, and she’s hiding somewhere safe.
“Jane!” he shouted. “Find her!”
The girl chewed her hair indifferently. “Glasses… steam.”
“Damnit!” The wall cracked and buckled, a computer tower hurtled through a new gap. Hands ran through hair. The stress could be sliced with a sharp fingernail.
“Beaver,” Jane agreed. “Like a thumb.”
A flash of blue, and Jane was beside Adrian, hand on his shoulder.
“Planes go down,” she whispered. Her voice was quiet, soothing. “Pilot like a pilot. Hands on the wheel. Out the tailspin.”
The young man rallied, his chest puffed out, thoughts and plans congregated. This is my fault, he thought. She would’ve been in danger if she was with us or not, I should’ve seen that. She doesn’t deserve this, Ogro knows what the Pantheon are doing to her. This is my problem, my sin, and I won’t let her take the punishment for it.
Gavin waited, rather patiently, for the incoming salvo.
“Pantheon took her,” said Adrian. “We need to go save her. There should be residual energy left over, we can figure out where they took her and – Jane, could you put that body down, please?”
There was loud wet flop.
“And why,” said Gavin, closing the distance, “would we do that? She’s nothing and you know it.”
“She’s not nothing. She’s our responsibility.”
“Responsibility?” Gavin scoffed. “Is that a joke? We can finish this right now, fix the bleed and go home. We don’t need her. And before you spout some bullshit about morality or ethical rules, have a think about why we’re having this conversation. The Pantheon captured her, took her away, knowing full well we could track her down and launch some pathetic rescue attempt. They don’t take prisoners. Why would they?! This is the trap we were waiting for, there’s a bear trap set up on the path and you’re arguing that it’s just an odd-shaped rock.”
Adrian’s lips curled into a sneer. The two men faced off.
“We brought her into this,” said Adrian levelly. “This is our fault. If we can’t even fix one of our own mistakes, how are we supposed to fix anything else?”
Gavin’s scowl had never been fiercer.
“We put it to a vote,” Adrian declared sternly, unmoved by the aggression splaying in Gavin’s eyes. “That’s the only way we’ll do this fair.”
“This isn’t a democracy!”
“And you’re not Sean!” Adrian exploded, then caught himself. “You’re not Sean, you don’t get to make this call. And you know for a fact he’d give everything to save Diana. Everything! Because he knows what it’s like to have an innocent’s death on your conscience.”
Ego bruised, Gavin withdrew slyly, adrenaline draining like water through a sieve.
“All in favour?” Adrian said, and raised his hand. “All against?”
One hand raised. Well, of course, he thought, of course he’s going to vote against me. He’s just doing it out of spite!
“That’s one against one.” He turned to Jane. “The floor is yours, Little Spider.”
If he hadn’t turned away, he might’ve caught the sight of rosy cheeks flaring to life.
The girl’s hand shot into the air automatically, like it had an instinctive desire to become one with the ceiling, and fingers danced.
“Right…” said Gavin tentatively. “But what are you voting for?”
Slowly, her arm lowered. Then, the other was flung up, like both arms couldn’t be kept down at the same time.
“Great.” Gavin sighed. “In a vote between three people we’ve gone two for two. Why am I not surprised?”
Jane’s lips trembled, pupils contracted, face twisted like she was trying to divide by zero. Great mental muscles were being stretched and flexed, having remained largely untouched for an extended interval, and were moving in conjunction in the hopes of launching a pointed javelin of lucid thought. Adrian had seen this once before, when she had attempted to communicate with her pet cat, Little, through the medium of interpretive dance, which had ended rather spectacularly with the only result being a few singed eyebrows and a very confused cat.
“Pennies into pounds,” she said, eventually and breathlessly. “Bank. Piggy bank. Can’t make notes…without…”
She shrugged. Adrian grimaced.
“I don’t know what that means,” he admitted shyly. “I could quickly check with Rachel.”
Gavin raised a hand dismissively. “No need.” He sounded defeated, Adrian noted. “I know what she’s saying. Urgh! Go find the residue they left behind. Let’s go bring back her Highness and get this whole thing finished.”
Adrian nodded and moved off, charging with the kind of determination that topples empires, kills gods, and makes servants of an entire planet. Across the bloodied ceiling, Jane followed close behind like a diligently protective spider.
The only thing Gavin found surprising was Adrian’s look of shock when Jane had voted in his favour. The political landscape of the team was simple, everyone had their own agendas when Sean and Rachel weren’t involved. Of course Jane would vote for Adrian. It would take something drastic to break the unspoken loyalty the two shared. Maybe he doesn’t notice the surreptitious glances or the masked blushes, Gavin thought, but to me it’s obvious.
He kicked the corpse of a bird-man. His brain treated his skull like an old shabby drum-kit.
“I really need a break,” he moaned.
Diana coughed, body sputtered to life, head spinning like a wheel. Heavy eyes peeled apart. She groaned.
She instantly remembered the black tentacles, their slimy grip closed around her neck. Against her better judgement, she swept the memory under her lumpy cerebral rug and focused on her surroundings.
Well, I’ve lost my mind, she thought with a mental shrug. Hopefully it’s gone somewhere nice. Maybe it’ll send me a postcard. It won’t have a clue where I am, though, I mean, look at this place.
A black sea surrounded like thick tar, undulated like rippling ribbons, heaved and writhed petulantly like millions of packs of bloated and sickly snakes, the sky, if it could be called such, was a dark tarpaulin that moved and flowed and swelled nauseatingly, as if alive and restless, the air was heavy and teemed with what looked like jet-black ash, flourishing and dancing manically as though caught in a hurricane, although there was a corrosive famine of wind or anything that could be considered a determinate atmosphere. The gloomy darkness didn’t let up, didn’t allow a sparkle of light at any point in its fascist domain, it was just less dark in certain places. The whole ‘land’ reeked like rotten meat in the powerful, corroding glare of the sun. Desolate and derelict, it was the kind of place that would inspire the design of the first hearse, or a protracted back-catalogue of funeral songs.
In the same way that a mountain must at some point become a plain, or a river must at some point become a lake or an ocean, at sporadic intervals dark columns rose from the surging tar like morose spears, splitting the homogenised, endless expanse, simply because something had to break up the darkness.
And on those caliginous columns, something moved.
Diana couldn’t quite make out the figures as they swarmed over the brick – if it was indeed brick – but the darkened silhouettes permitted vague details to leak; humanoid centres hung low from eight spindly, hairy legs, that stretched outwards menacingly. They scurried like hordes of insects. The way they moved, with ease and incredible speed, was more unnerving than anything she could have imagined.
She looked down. Black tentacles permeated the tar, wrapped around her legs and crept up her back, arrested her hands and arms, and kept her locked in a seated position. Their ends flapped at her neck like cobras under the melodic thrall of a snake charmer.
Her eyes flicked left. A pit opened in the tar. A grotesque white talon clawed at the edge.
Reflexively, her eyelids clamped tightly shut.
Nope, she thought firmly. Not doing it. Not for all the coffee in Brazil. Not for the biggest cheque in the world.
Think it’ll make a difference? asked the Voice. She felt it appropriate to treat it as a proper noun given its lordly influence and brash prevalence. Capitalising things always makes them more important.
She peeked, and was immediately confused. Then, she understood.
A long toothy grin ran sideways across her vision, curled upwards at the edges. The thing in front of her retreated, so that she could behold in full horror its twisted body.
The thing was humanoid, but had long abandoned the shackles of humanity to further its understanding of insanity. Pure white, cracked skin that looked like veins had broken through the thin flesh, a completely featureless face other than a wide, manic grin, every inch of it bald and naked, two scrawny arms hung at its side, and two more, like deformed, forced additions, flapped lazily at its sides. The whole thing was emaciated and inherently alien, a skinny, pale deformation crafted from white wax and protruding bone.
Diana noticed scars, or some kind of open wounds, on both bony shoulders. She couldn’t figure out what they were.
The creature twitched, like its physical presence was unstable and likely to fall apart at the slightest hint that it couldn’t hold itself together. The toothy grin was a permanent feature. A disgusting, perverted feature.
Right then, she thought. I know who to blame.
Behind the thing lurched forward an inimical, predatory cloud of smoke, advancing over the writhing tar. The thing whipped around in a lithe flash, apparently heralding the invading black mass, which was in constant flux, twisting and moving, growing and receding, as though its form grabbed standard dimensions, ate up the pieces, and disgorged volatility. It was impossible to tell the size of it, but something suggested to Diana that it was enormous, the size of a mountain, and just as robust.
As it reached the pale, cloying creature, six massive orbs emerged from the dark and the shadows like luminous spotlights, arranged like a bottomless triangle. Each one was deep, blood-red. Diana thought they looked like eyes.
The creature bowed. The orbs flickered. The air changed very abruptly, a whistling sound pervading and promulgating, like there was an unseen but vaguely audible broadcast.
They’re talking, she realised. Without words, like telepathy but different. Something clicked in the swirling chaos of her mind, like a record player hitting the right groove of vinyl and began to emanate lucidity. It wasn’t telepathy, so to speak, it was an immediate transferral of pure ideas, not precisely a discussion but an understanding.
You’re catching on, said the Voice. See if you can’t figure it out.
She did, and converted the ideas into something she could understand.
‘- and there,’ the creature radiated, ‘it was done. The Optivarr. They will come.’
‘The All-Mother will be pleased. And Vox?’
‘His blessing, graciously accepted. The Optivarr will come. And we will break them. Break them.’
At that point, there was something similar to a laugh, but so distorted that it sounded more like crying.
‘Ol-Tor. May the All-Mother break their bones. We will tear out their hearts.’
Diana snapped, without entirely meaning to.
“Like hell you will!” she raged, and immediately regretted it.
The creature rounded, grin stretched horribly on its pallid, deathly face. Its arms unfolded, talons jerking.
“And she’s back!” it screeched horribly. “Back! Awake!”
Its voice sounded like the crack of brittle bones under steel boots, the split of ice under a pickaxe; a warbling and unstable melody in every spit syllable.
Oh, god, she thought. This thing doesn’t just look insane, it’s a factory line of crazy. What the hell do I do?!
The floating orbs, red against the black sky, seemed to turn their attention in her direction. She could feel their steady glares on her skin.
“And you have awoken,” the cloud boomed, with a voice that could shatter planets. “As predicted. Do you feel the cold on your flesh? Do you feel my hands on your throat?”
Tentacles obligingly snuck to her neck.
“Do not worry. It will be over. The Optivarr will come, and if they do not, you shall be released.”
“You won’t break them,” she said, unconvincingly, correctly assuming the identities of the Optivarr.
“I will not,” it agreed, and seemed to chuckle, which sounded like shifting tectonic plates. “But you will. You will be the one to break them. It will be glorious.”
As soon as the last word was inflected, the orbs faded and the cloud gradually vanished as though its presence had been but a fever dream. The pale creature moved suddenly and erratically towards her. With a cold, dark stab, she realised what the shoulder scars were.
Mouths. Mouths that matched the incessant, mad grin on their owner’s featureless face. She would have quivered, if her body wasn’t locked down tighter than handcuffs.
It cupped her chin. This close, its overwhelming stench, like rotting fish, overpowered the senses.
“You feeling good?” it cackled. “Nice, warm? I should think so. You smell good. Good, good, good.”
A missile of spit crashed into its forehead. It didn’t seem to notice.
“What are you?” she whimpered, voice feeble.
“Whatever you want me to be.” Its grin widened. “You don’t have to worry, I won’t be killing you. Unless your friends are a no-show. That would be bad. Bad, bad, bad. You don’t want that to happen.”
Her mind was racing. Random thoughts collided, screamed impatiently. She was trying to tell herself something important, something that could matter, but against the clamour and fear the little frail voice didn’t stand a chance.
Focus, said the Voice. Think this through. What is this thing? To you, of course.
Mad, she thought, fearfully. Insane. Not like Jane insane, it’s not wrapped up in a cute bundle. This is… different.
And what is it? the Voice insisted urgently. When you take away the sickly coating, what is it?
Diana thought hard. Thankfully, her mind managed to rally.
It’s arrogant, she figured. Really arrogant.
It plays games, the Voice echoed. It enjoys the madness, playing with its food. And what do the insultingly arrogant and veteran players hate the most?
All the disjointed pieces fit together.
They hate someone who plays the game better than them, she realised, a hopeful star exploding into life.
She summoned the courage and hopeful bravado that had inclined her to run into a spiralling sapphire tower, that had catapulted her to a new planet, that had opened her eyes to a new world and expanded her mind.
“Woe be,” she said boldly, “to the ears that have to suffer your stupidity.”
The thing twitched.
“I mean, come on!” she continued, allowing adrenaline to fill her up. “You think I’m scared of all this? You think grinning shoulders and a place that looks like a goth’s wet dream is scary? You’ll have to do better than that! Go on, do something scary. Be frightening! And don’t half-ass it.”
Surprise is usually confined to the minute movements of muscles, and the involuntary widening of the eyes and the little confused sparkle that illuminates them, yet despite a dearth of these indications, Diana knew for a fact she had adequately shocked the thing.
“Brave little thing, aren’t you?” it mocked, sick grin wobbling. “Won’t do you much good. Good, good, good. No, no, don’t kill her. Not yet. Patience! Patience!” It lowered its head. “Would you like to know how loud your friends screamed?”
Diana’s hearts thudded.
“Would you like to know how hard I’m going to punch you in the mouth?” she said defiantly.
“Have you seen what I did to your city? Did you enjoy the bodies? I certainly did.”
“Bring it on, you twitching ball of crazy!” She wrestled against the ensnaring tentacles. “Let me out and we’ll see how brave your bony ass really is!”
Reel it in a bit, said the Voice warily.
“I’LL HEAD-BUTT YOU SO HARD IT’LL TURN YOU SANE!”
Right then, the Voice sighed.
The thing moved forward, wiry talons reaching towards her like curved scimitars. Its fluid motions belayed its erratic style, where Diana expected it to be rigid and brittle, it was elastic and malleable. Sharp claws circled her vision. Death stalked the writhing tar.
And there was something else… something moving and something she knew, like a pleasantly familiar smell.
“Do you feel fear?” the creature asked, grinning.
“No,” she said, and smiled sincerely. A friendly sensation circled around the fringes of her mental boundaries. “And you’re about to find out why.”
What happened next was a blur. A red-blue blur.
All she saw was a furious flurry of bright red dreadlocks, a twirling blue dress, and felt an expulsion of raw energy. The creature flew through the air like it had been at the mouth of an exploding geyser, tumbled clumsily across the tar.
Hands moved quickly to forcefully pry open the tentacles’ vice-like grip.
“Adrian?” she said.
“Don’t panic,” he replied sweetly. “And don’t struggle, it’ll just make these things hold on tighter.”
The creature reassembled, all three grins wiped away. Jane growled, hunched over like a prowling tiger. Creation’s most psychotic anomalies stared each other down.
They crashed together like two bears colliding in the woods, fighting over a scrap of meat; one mighty tide smashing against another with the full fury of nature’s unkempt anger at the helm. Acute, powerful energy filled the air, pressed against Diana’s skin as palpable and real as armour.
Jane was a wry, uncoordinated jumble of power; she flipped, dodged a red bolt, and replied with her own, skimming the creature’s thin hide and left behind a hastily-healing scar. The creature fought back, slashed with a wild talon, found nothing but air. The girl appeared ten feet above it, hair floating lithely, dress fluttering like a cape, and let loose an electric blue barrage that pummelled it into the tar.
Diana’s hands came loose, movement in her legs returned. As soon as she was free, Adrian erected an invisible blockade between her and the wild battle. He was her defender, and she knew he wouldn’t leave her. Something told her to be very quiet.
Unpredictability was Jane’s forte, the fighting style she employed deviated too far from convention for anyone to keep up with. The creature was retreating like a beaten dog, limp and lame, blocking each brutal attack with reducing returns.
Jane didn’t let up. The short glances Diana made out in the madness confirmed the girl was experiencing a surge of blood-lust, and she was enjoying it. She launched forward, ducked under a black beam that exuded from the creature’s palms, and suddenly exploded in a glinting bubble that might’ve been beautiful had it not been for the murderous intention.
The creature was thrown backwards, clambered for steady footing. As it prepared to answer, Jane followed it through the air like a homing missile, plunged her nails into its chest, and yanked furiously. The creature discharged a noise, a scream perhaps, and wrestled itself free.
It didn’t bleed, Diana noticed, and its rapid healing kept its skin unbroken, but exhaustion was manifest in every movement, its spasmodic twitches seemingly coming to a stop. It limped backwards, withdrawing from Jane’s pugnacious assault. It started to realise, with a heavy resignation, that it couldn’t fight her any more than a bullet could fight a river.
It glanced in Diana’s direction, or at least, its bald head swivelled towards her, and its perverse grin resurfaced. She felt that sick smirk in her soul, penetrating her thoughts and saturating them in fear.
And then it was gone. Red smoke hovered for a second, and vanished.
Adrian turned around and exhaled in relief.
“Well,” he said innocently, “that was pretty easy.”
Diana was alive. Extra alive. Super alive. So alive she could be shot in the face and still be alive. It was rather beautiful, she thought. It’s not until the foggy veil is lifted that one can see how obscured their vision has been.
And her vision was crystal clear.
“The creepy one was Ol-Tor,” said Adrian. “Didn’t the Nephilim tell us it was dead? Anyway, the orbs in the sky was Vennjar. The less said about that thing the better.”
Blood lapped around Diana’s feet, bones drifted athwart the maudlin surface. She looked around at the horrifically defaced borough, and wondered why she’d been so worried. When life has left the body, it’s just a body. It’s a different state of existence, and not necessarily a bad one. It’s how things go. Everything that lives has to die, and in this universe that was an unbreakable rule. They were all going to die at some point, the end was always written and waiting, all the Pantheon did was skip the middle. Simple.
“The way you explained it,” said Gavin gravely, “makes it sound like Ol-Tor gave up. Obviously Vennjar disappeared, it doesn’t fight. But Ol-Tor… from what the Nephilim told us, it would fight to the bitter end.”
“I don’t think it expected Jane,” said Adrian, and glanced sideways at the girl, who was enraptured with her fingernails. “Very few people ever do.”
“It was definitely a trap.” Gavin rubbed his temples. “They put out the cheese and we ran at it headfirst. Thank Ogro Jane’s not a mouse.”
“I thought it was a bear trap?”
“Oh, shut up,” he said wearily. “Now that’s done with, can we please clean this mess up? Home is calling, my bed is calling, and my head doesn’t do conference calls. Let’s go to that big dumb light and blow the storms away.”
Something pricked at Diana.
“It won’t work,” she blurted out. All eyes turned on her.
“What?” said Gavin.
“It… it won’t work,” she said, just as confused as everyone else. “I… you need to go… down to the basement, to the source, and power up… the light from there. That’ll make sure it functions like an amplifier.”
She stared down at her feet, a little unsure from where her sentence had been conjured. It was like writing on the inside of her brain, just there, ready to be uttered. Gavin’s eyes narrowed.
“Since when did you know…” he began, and suddenly stopped, a look of intense understanding dawning.
Diana’s mind detected a whistling noise, similar to what she had experienced between Ol-Tor and Vennjar, but softer and more delicate – less stab and more finessed.
They’re talking about me, she realised. Talking about me like I’m not here. I won’t stand for it!
She turned the mental dial until it tuned to the right frequency and indifferently eavesdropped.
‘-forced evolution,’ Gavin broadcast, ‘and it’s your fault.’
‘This is known,’ Adrian replied. ‘Problem?’
‘Big problem. Can’t wipe her mind now, it’ll repair.’
‘Offer her a place. Vanguard, maybe.’
‘Might as well.’
Jane, she figured.
“What’s the Vanguard?” she asked, grinning. If knowing is half the battle, the enemy was looking very tired.
“Uh…” Gavin shook his head. “This is like being shot in the foot over and over again. I don’t want to walk to the finish line anymore.”
“Stop moaning,” she said. “We’re almost finished, then I’ll come with you. And hey, silver lining, I don’t have that many questions! Forced evolution: the involuntary evolution of the mind when exposed to forbidden knowledge outside the scope of the Nexus’ charge. Adrian, you really shouldn’t have told me all this stuff.”
Adrian glared at her blankly. “Should’ve… I don’t, uh, I don’t… Jane?”
The girl shrugged, groggy eyes whirling. “Eh. Speck of ash. Not like dirt.”
The basement area, concealed poorly under the massive centre, was a labyrinth of grey corridors, a dungeon of dim light, skulking shadows, exposed pipes and wires, abandoned storage cupboards, and decaying computer devices. It wasn’t a nice place, and always seemed to remind Diana of dingy caves that hadn’t seen the light of day or felt the breath of man in aeons, but as she walked resolutely towards the generators’ storage room, she admired the corridors’ grey glaze and cracked paint, the dusty cobwebs and corners filled with shadows, for their utter mundanity, like walking through a forest of faces, knowing that yours is the prettiest.
She stopped at the metal double-doors.
“My key-card doesn’t work,” she said sadly. “One of you care to open the doors?”
“Sure…” Adrian mumbled, and with a swift kick, knocked the doors from their hinges.
“Great, thanks.” Diana skipped forwards. She was aware that she made the anomalous trinity – the Optivarr – nervous, like she was a bomb that could go off at any moment, but it was irrelevant. Nervousness wasn’t going to break her stride, not today. The will of other people would have to wait.
The generator room was dingy, cramped, blocky computers, lights flashing and blaring, covered the walls, clutters of wires scampered from the chaotic machines and dug into the brick, and formed a messy nest that utterly obscured the low-hanging flat ceiling, and one titanic panel, brimming with dials and bright buttons, sat at the far end, directly opposite the entrance. It wasn’t so much a crammed assembly of wires and manic buttons as it was a Frankenstein’s monster of demented machines, a science experiment gone horribly wrong and abandoned by its despairing creator in the hopes of a new, streamlined intellectual venture.
Diana immediately took charge.
“Adrian,” she ordered, “see that bundle of wires? Re-route them into the main panel. You’ll have to take out the ones marked ‘External Source’. Jane, somewhere in that mess up there, there’s a large, thick cable that has a weird connector that looks a bit like a duck’s bill. Could you completely disconnect it from both ends? And Gavin… just stand there and… look pretty. That’s probably the hardest job I could give you, I know, but try and focus really hard. I know you can get the job done.”
It was a quick operation; within seconds all the wires were in the right place, the dark stage lit and prepared for the actors to play their roles. Jane tentatively approached the main panel, eyes flashing in glee at the pretty, blaring lights and copious volumes of big buttons begging to be pressed.
“You know what you’re doing, right?” said Gavin.
“Blueberries,” Jane replied, grinning, and smashed her palm downwards.
There was an awful noise, a cataclysmic burp of whirring machinery groaning to life, and begrudgingly they fired all the necessary information to empower the panel. The ceaseless beeping and blaring accelerated.
“Like fireworks,” Jane mused zealously. “Fireworks… not like wheels.”
She gripped the edges of the panel, fingers curled. The grin on her face was endearing. She was a bubbling cauldron of energy, lightning in a cloud waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Like a wave she filled the room from top to bottom, wall to wall, infusing every inch of space with pure potential. It made Diana’s hairs stand on end.
And then she sucked it in, an intermediary for the swirling energy, and through her it flowed into the panel, which glowed with a striking blue silhouette. Power surged through the cables and wires, a charging rhino of unburdened strength, each of which burned brightly blue. Whirls of energy enclosed Jane like a shawl.
Although she couldn’t see it, Diana sensed the build-up surge upwards, following the thousands of cords and wires to the building’s pinnacle, forced its way to the lofty light, that had been the city’s proudest triumph, and imbued it with the power of a god. It surged, swelled, flourished, bloomed, transcended the rules of nature, ascended beyond its mundane confines, escaped the terrestrial penitentiary, flooded the dumpy, dark storm clouds, cast out the fanged shadows and musky claws, and detonated intensely, blazes of sapphire lightning speared through the darkness, illuminated the shadows, scorched away the overcast vapours and mists, and expunged the hanging storm like tipex on the messy journal of the disordered world.
And then it was over. Relief indulged Diana. She didn’t know why, but she was positive something would go wrong.
“Right, we done?” said Gavin.
Jane let go of the panel, shakily. “Not like a chicken.”
“Good, let’s -”
“Wait,” said Adrian, concern crumbling his voice. “What do you mean ‘not like a chicken’?”
“Door… dormouse.” She turned, eyes blazing. “Mouse to an elephant. Elephant… trees.”
Gavin looked desperately towards Adrian, like a silent plea.
“She’s saying… we’re not done.”
“What do you mean we’re not done?!” He charged towards the panel, fingers snapping at every available button. “How can it not be done?! We fixed the bleed! It’s bandaged, we’ve done all we can!”
“Is it possible,” Adrian ventured sheepishly, shying from Gavin’s rage, “the storms were just reactions? Like… echoes. Local creation reacts weirdly when there’s a bleed. The source is out there, still shouting, still echoing.”
Diana felt control slipping. “Are you sure it didn’t work? You haven’t been outside yet. Maybe you’re wrong.”
“Could be anything,” said Gavin, finally letting his exhaustion show. “Pantheon turned the city upside down, tore it to pieces… if it’s somewhere in that mess we’ll never find it. Could be as small as a pen or an orange… or…”
His raging gaze settled piercingly on Diana’s key-card, which hung from her belt.
“Or a key-card.”
Diana looked at the white rectangle, flipped it around in her hands. “This thing? This is the bleed? Well, hell, take it! It’s no good to me now.”
She chucked it to his feet. He didn’t pick it up, just looked at it like it was an insulting homage. Adrian shuffled towards it, gave it a soft kick.
“Could that be it?” he asked.
“No,” said Gavin firmly. There was a hint of misery Diana couldn’t pinpoint.
“Then…” Adrian stumbled backwards. “Oh… No. No.”
“What is it?” said Diana, feeling like she was being left out.
He turned away. She trusted in Gavin to espouse the idea Adrian was obviously concealing.
“The key-card isn’t the bleed,” he said quietly. “You are.”
Diana stepped back. “What?!”
“You’re the bleed.” His shoulders slumped, eyes down at the floor. “You don’t make sense, Diana. Your flat was bare; it didn’t look like anyone had lived there in years-”
“Because that’s how I like it!” she insisted. Something prodded. She batted it away.
“That’s your mind lying to you. You’ve adjusted, knowing that something wasn’t right, and instead of jumping over the impossible hurdles, your mind’s lying on the grass next to them, pretending you’re already at the finish line.” He inhaled sharply. “Your key-card doesn’t work, your flat is nearly completely empty. And think about how willingly you accepted everything Adrian told you. You just went with it. It should’ve turned your entire world upside down.
“That’s why we turned up in your home. The Nexus sent us directly to the problem… we just didn’t know it.”
Diana’s stomach overturned.
Don’t listen to them, the Voice hissed. You know who you are, what you are. They’re lying.
“I’ve lived my whole life here,” she said insolently. “My entire life! I’ve never even been on a holiday! And you’re telling me I’m from another universe?! Do you know how crazy that is?”
“You switched places with another Diana,” Gavin explained wearily, and completely lacking any desire. “Close enough that the differences, the variables, were small. You were just similar enough to fit right into place. Ol-Tor knew it. It knew you were with us, that you were the bleed, that’s why you were captured instead of killed. We come for you, means we care. They let us have you… because they knew what we would have to do…” He paused. “It was a game. And it outplayed us.”
No, she thought firmly. I’m from here. I’ve been here forever. I was born in this city. I lived in this city. I’d remember being shot into another universe.
That’s right, said the Voice. You’d remember, you’d know. Tell them to leave you alone.
“We’re not… we’re not doing it,” Adrian refused. “We’re not! Not a chance!”
“We don’t have a choice,” Gavin whispered, afraid the world would berate him. “Wherever she goes, whatever she does, she’s a walking wound, a fire that’ll keep burning unless we put it out.”
They’re going to kill you, said the Voice. Leave. Get out!
Something prodded again, painfully this time. It was a persistent, urgent nudge in the gut. She brushed it aside with a wild swoop.
Her cheek burned. A quick check with her fingers confirmed what she had feared. She was crying.
“But…” she blubbered. “I know my life… I know what I am!”
“Your mind is doing everything it can to protect you. I’m…” He gulped. “I’m sorry.”
Get out! Now!
Gavin wiped his brow and lowered his head. Adrian was a flurry of rage.
“We’re not doing this!” he screamed. “The only way to fix this would be to kill her, and there’s no way in Ogro’s name that’s going to happen!”
Like a defeated soldier, Gavin’s arms sagged, his eyes looked every which way but Diana’s, and his body seemed to deflate.
“We put it to a vote,” he said, voice barely a whisper.
Tears were in full stream now. Diana couldn’t hold it together, breaking down, mind swirling into a mad whirlpool of chaos.
“You’re going to vote on my life?” she whimpered. “You can’t… you just can’t!”
Adrian stepped into the fray. “She’s damn right! This isn’t how we do things, we don’t wander around shooting innocent people! She’s done nothing wrong, she’s not with the Pantheon, she doesn’t even know what Lilith is!”
Gavin stared at Diana.
“All in favour…” he whispered.
“No! NO! We’re not voting on this!”
A bony hand raised. Whatever was holding Diana together fell apart, crumbled like eroded rock, crashed into the ground. Her legs buckled. Mental strength is a valorous quality, a gift to emulate, but it is also a volatile glacier that can melt when the heat is simply too powerful. And the heat in that room, in that pit at the bottom of a spire, in a smouldering city, on the face of a tiny planet, at the peripheral verge of a dish-shaped galaxy, in a blurring cosmos, was like a blazing furnace, dissolving Diana’s skin and soul.
“Jane!” Adrian shouted in shock. “What are you doing?!”
The girl diffidently withdrew into the shadows. “Nexus… says bye. Doesn’t… want to. Has to. Like instinct.”
Adrian’s face was a twisted mess of anger. The panel vibrated under his fist and cracked at the edges.
“All against…” said Gavin.
“Do I really need to put my hand up?!”
Diana silently pleaded with Gavin. Don’t do this. Please. It can’t just end like this. I stood up to a mad god, I fixed the problem – the thing we thought was the problem – you can’t take that away…
He returned her gaze. Oval eyes watered.
“The Nexus doesn’t want you dead,” he said quietly. “It needs you dead.”
She was staring down a hole, a deep, endless, black pit. It stared back at her. Blue metal glinted. Her hearts convulsed, her stomach flipped.
It can’t be over. Not like this. “You’re really going to do this? Kill an innocent?”
Run! Get out!
“Gavin,” Adrian entreated, “don’t do this. Let her go, put her in with the Vanguard. Don’t let this happen! You have no idea what it’s like to have an innocent’s death on your conscience, how it eats you up. And this will swallow you whole.”
Move your feet! Turn around, get out the door, and run until you can’t. Run to the sea and start swimming. Never stop.
“I don’t have a choice.” Gavin’s hand trembled, the gun shook. “She’ll tear apart entire worlds if she’s left unchecked.”
Leave. What are you waiting for?
Hands clenched, legs straightened. She was unsteady, vision blurred by tears, hands quivering. Sanity had already cleared its desk, placed all its possessions in a box, and sprinted out the door.
What are you doing? said the Voice urgently. Don’t just stand there, move!
Death was at the door, bony knuckles rapped on the metal. The gun swayed, its wielder looked ready to collapse.
“Put the gun down.” Adrian’s voice had never been fiercer. “You do this, you’re never coming back from it.”
“She’s a bleed,” Gavin said, and tried to conceal his voice cracking. “There’s no fixing her.”
Adrian turned, his back to Diana. She was abandoned by her advocate, her one friendly fish in a cloud of sharks. She didn’t care.
She gathered what was left of her shattered mind, she ordered the messy shards to fit into place, to settle down, calm their voices. If this was the end, she would be allowed to face it bravely.
“This is it, then,” she proclaimed, voice wobbling. “The end, the last line. You’re each an ocean under the world, powerful, unstoppable, untouchable, adaptable. But every ocean has an end, when it slips onto the shore, where it breaches the coral and the tropical tundra. You have to be careful the banks don’t break, the kind of work you do, the kind of lives you lead. And this will break you.”
Acceptance and rage heated her body, thrilled and spread. She was shaking.
“I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m dying because of a mistake made by the system you defend! This is your fault. And you’ll have to live with it! You jump around, untouchable, moving around universes, claiming to be their defenders. You’re not even close. You’re not putting out fires, you’re waiting for the building to crumble and collapse, for the smoke to clear, so you can run in and pull out the survivors. That’s not saving anything. You keep taping up the cracks in the wall without filling them in, and eventually, that wall will crumble.
“This isn’t something you can ever walk away from. This is the sin that will stain your soul forever. You’ve gone against your own will, your own code. No matter what, you’re going to kill me in cold blood. And that will stay with you.”
Diana was an island. And she was brave. Braver than she’d been her entire life. She wished she had been braver, that her life could have been her own, and that her death would have been a normal one; where she grew old, found happiness, and drifted off peacefully in her sleep. But that wasn’t the case. All she had was the right now, the one moment. When control is relinquished, like the release of iron shackles, the world is clearer, simpler, and so much more horrible.
“This is the end of you, as much as it is the end of me. We go down in the flames together.”
Jane’s head dipped in mourning. Adrian looked blankly at the wall. Only Gavin had the guts to look her in the eye, gaze unsteady. He didn’t want to shoot, didn’t want to do this. He was as frightened as she was.
But Diana was alone. And afraid. Abandoned. In a dead city. Not a city – a grave. And it was to become her grave. Death was inescapable. She had grappled with gods, tampered with the natural order. There was only one way this was ever going to end.
There was a ghastly scream.
And then there was silence.
Stale air stewed, a gentle buzz drifted, unnatural light spilled out into the cavern like liquid gold, and occupied the crevices and sporadic holes. The light was inexorable, a fact that couldn’t be denied. There was one hole that the light didn’t touch, but it circled nervously around it on its tiptoes, fingers on lips. It was a pit that had no discernible end, no bottom visible to the eye, or any external or internal sense that could be employed to distinguish its depth.
Rachel sat at the edge, feet kicking the air. She dropped an apple and watched it plummet helplessly into the black abyss, and waited irritably, ears peeled.
“Nope,” she said. “It’s not here. I’d say that’s a good thing. For me. Not so sure about the hapless idiots that talk to me today.”
Home was silent, as it always was when everyone was out on business. Sean was rummaging around in the kitchen irately, fuming about a perceived insult he had received from the Nephilim. She would leave him to boil a while, for the bubbles to stop frothing, then –then she’d strike. Legion were in Jack’s room, absorbed with a chess set they had discovered. They weren’t playing with anyone… else. Jack was out. That’s all she knew.
She glanced over at the mirrors to her left, etched in the walls like deep reflective puddles on the side of a mountain, and noticed she wasn’t as alone as she thought.
“Hey, Little,” she said, and petted the tiny grey ball of fur. “What have got planned today?”
The cat purred unhappily, big green eyes studied her like a big juicy mouse. Little’s paws shifted weight, her tail flicked.
“I’ll take that to mean ‘nothing’. Jane’ll be back soon. Then you’ll have something to do. I hope she’s in a good mood.”
Little purred and circled on the spot. She was getting restless. Jane had been gone for nearly two days, at least, Rachel guessed it to be two days, and Little hadn’t been without her for longer than a couple of hours. She petted the poor cat sympathetically. It meowed contently.
The centre mirror rippled like water, outwards from the centre, as if the whole entity was about to implode.
As soon as one inky black legging, one red lock, and one ugly floral design materialised this side of the mirror, Little exploded in a grey bubble of excitement.
The furry ball was scooped up in thin arms and coddled like a new-born baby. It released a volley of slimy face-licks and a honeyed chorus of giddy purrs. Rachel winced, but moved gently aside to let the two tumble across the floor. No-one over the age of twenty should be that attached to their pet, she thought. But then again, like most things, Jane was a firm exception.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said, embracing the girl after the ebullient squeaks and ecstatic, albeit slightly disgusting, greetings were concluded. “How’d it go?”
Jane grinned, clearly happy to be home. Little nestled in the gap between her neck and shoulder.
“Black and blue,” she said.
“That bad?” Rachel looked down. “You ruined your dress, sweetie. What happened?”
“I see,” she said quietly, and guided Jane towards the kitchen. “Have you eaten? Little’s due for feeding soon. Think you can handle it?”
The girl smiled sweetly. “Blueberries. Snakes regurgitate their food.”
“I know. Off you go. We’ll talk once you’ve had something to eat. You remember where your food is?”
Jane nodded unsurely.
“Bottom left-most cabinet,” said Rachel. “Blue bag. And remember, if it has sugar in it, you can’t eat it.”
‘Shouldn’t’ would be the correct word, but Rachel preferred to keep that fact between herself and Sean. Jane didn’t know any better, and if left to her own devices would shovel a vast sea of sugar down her gullet, predictably become over-hyper, and… well, if the last time was anything to go by, she’d end up in a universe where each planet was a giant bouncy-castle, and she would assume the role of a very large and very sharp pin intent on helium genocide.
Two shabby, dishevelled figures appeared behind her, trousers and boots drenched in blood, jackets and shirts scabby like they’d been sent through a shredder. Worse still were the men on which the tattered clothing was draped like the banners of a conquered nation. Rachel took one look at Gavin…
“Sean!” she roared.
There was a flash of ocean blue and a rush of air, and the man in question appeared instantly.
“What?” said Sean impatiently.
“Well, my little bundle of rainbows, Gavin needs to talk to you in private,” she said. “I believe there were some issues on the latest job.”
“That doesn’t cover it,” he griped timidly. “Not even a little. Sean?”
“We’ll take this to the War Room,” said Sean sternly, unmoved by the torn clothes and grave faces. “Rach, could you-”
“If the Nephilim contact you,” she said, “I’ll be sure to kindly tell them where to stick it. Unless it’s Veritas, then you’re on your own.”
Adrian stayed behind as Sean and Gavin disappeared. Jane hopped spritely towards the kitchen and slid out of view, Little clutched the tail-ends of her dreadlocks for dear life. There was an immediate crash of crockery, followed by echoing booms of the stools and table as they were no doubt forced to kiss the ceiling.
“Not a good day, then?” said Rachel.
“No,” Adrian replied flatly.
“Could I give you some advice?”
“Don’t come between a girl and her cat,” she said, smiling. His vacant expression remained dull and inattentive. “Hey, I’m trying to be nice! That was funny and you didn’t laugh!”
Footsteps pounded in the opposite direction. Adrian’s coat flapped and vanished into the main storage room, where the team’s bounteous collection of gear was kept, secured and locked down.
I’ll get him later, Rachel decided. I’m not a monster. She then hurried quickly into the kitchen, worried that she had heard Jane checking the other cupboards; a rustle of packets usually meant she had discovered something she shouldn’t have.
Adrian placed his concealed sword on the cluttered rack. It was a very small room, and even smaller on account of the sheer volume of curious occupants; guns, swords, sword-guns, robust sets of armour, and weapons that had the outline of things that didn’t look like weapons at all, and could only be discerned when one focused incredibly hard. He sat in the centre alone, head in hands, and massaged his scalp.
Sean wouldn’t be angry, but he would be frustrated, and in some ways this was worse, like discovering you hadn’t lost your foot in a car accident, then noticing a rather sizeable gap where your hand used to be.
Diana’s words rung in his ears like a bitter-sweet melody. He didn’t want to cry, to admit fault. Such a choice was beyond his control.
Footsteps rebounded around the room cautiously, like their owner wished not to be disturbed. Adrian’s head flicked up. Jane, he hoped. Please, be Jane.
A man filled the entrance, swathed in heavy, plated armour, shoulder-length brown hair rested comfortably on his pauldrons, which centred a scarred face harsher than a desert tundra. Panicking brown eyes drooped depressively. He was the kind of man who would skin you, then claim it was your fault for having skin in the first place. He was at least a head taller than Adrian, and twice as wide; a burly mountain of muscles that exuded strength and impatience.
“Stenror,” Adrian grunted, surprised, and found his feet. He would mourn later. “What do you want?”
The Vanguard commander, usually the pinnacle of indifference, trembled nervously.
“There is a problem,” he said solemnly. “There has been a mass defection. I’m afraid you are in danger, all of you. You must close the gates and prepare for an attack.”
Adrian’s heart went cold. Defection to the Pantheon was normal, the Vanguard force was like a sieve, but it had been a steady loss of man-power, never a mass exodus.
“How many?” he asked.
“A count is impossible,” said Stenror gravely. “In your terms, a lot. We’re looking at a force that would silence this cavern, an army. I am unsure as to the Nephilim, but it is likely several of them have abandoned us.”
Adrian tried to stay calm. His mind swirled and rocked. Vanguards were fine, manageable, and primarily used by the Pantheon as cannon-fodder; the Nephilim were an entirely different matter.
“I’ll go get Sean,” he said. “You can wait in the main cavern. The Ogrohad isn’t… isn’t here, I think, but It should be back soon.”
“Thank you,” said Stenror sincerely.
Adrian moved with determination, solely focused on preparing the defences. Home wasn’t exactly a fortress, but Sean would think of something. He always did.
Stenror kindly stepped aside, gestured for Adrian to leave. And…
By definition, betrayal isn’t truly betrayal unless it is wearing the mask of a friend.
Hands lunged forward. They grasped the skull, and smashed it fiercely into the cavern wall, again and again and again, until it split and exploded, bone and blood cracking and jetting like a visceral spring. It was then savagely dethroned from its spinal seat. The decapitated body flopped downwards in a heap. Brutal, blood-soaked hands continued their work. The ribcage was pried apart. Hands plunged into the cavity, found the heart, and yanked the thing free. In one fatal swoop, it was crushed like a flower bulb.
Stenror stood away from the corpse…triumphant.
Jane was alone in Rachel and Sean’s room, gorging on a seemingly endless supply of sugar-free snacks. Little pawed at her leg, having finished the plate of tuna, desiring attention.
“Blueberries,” she said, and bundled Little up in her arms, rocked her gently from side to side. “Hush little lakey, don’t break a wave, Mama’s gonna find you a spiral sword, and blue bloops earn a massive…”
Her fingers came away from her cheek wet and shaking. Cohesion tiptoed like an assassin in the shadows, blade drawn, lust for blood growing by each second.
Clairvoyance is a matter of fact, a law that Jane could never rebel against, no matter how sharp her claws or how determined her soul, it would always be there. Infinity and eternity were open books, and each line screamed in her ears. Yet, despite all of this, there was blankness, numbness, insulting and aggressively dumb.
Disbelief insulates the mind greater than faith when it comes to affairs of the heart.
She placed Little down calmly on the bed.
“Stay… paws like quicksand.”
Little cocked her head sideways but seemed to agree. Jane checked her cheek. More tears. She hopped off the bed, adamant that there was a mystery to uncover, and worried that the world was about to fall apart…
Something was wrong.
“We’ll talk to Veritas,” said Sean as he walked beside Gavin into the main cavern. “I don’t think this is a problem, but I’m sorry you had to make that call.”
Gavin was gravely silent. He followed Sean around the Ogrohad’s pit, where they stood in reverie. The light from above was absolute, but didn’t come close to breaching the yawning maw. It also stayed away from the shadows in Jane’s eyrie, which was etched in the cavern wall a few feet below the high, domed ceiling, probably scared off by the dangling vines of bones that covered the entrance like a door of beads. Nobody knew what she kept up there, and nobody stifled a secret desire to explore. Besides, she spent most of her time annoying Jack, or playing with Little in Rachel and Sean’s bedroom, or furtively peeking at Adrian when she didn’t think anyone was watching, and she never slept, so it wasn’t as if there could be a lot up there. No-one was willing to pursue the mystery.
“Have you eaten?” said Sean, trying to lighten the mood. “I had the Vanguard deliver food earlier, I’m sure there’s…”
A figure appeared out of the storage room, the clink of his armour clattering in the silence. Sean recognised him immediately.
“Stenror,” he gasped. “What are you doing here? Come to impose the will of the idiots? We’ve got plenty of our own, keep it to yourself.”
His eyes told him to look downwards, and then refused to tell him anything else. The holster of the gun he hid in his pocket was about to be called upon, his fingers wrapped around the handle.
“I am afraid,” said Stenror loudly and sternly, “that there is a pertinent and grave matter we must discuss.”
“Anything to do with all the blood?”
“Yes,” he said, voice wavering. “There has been a mass defection. Your safety here is no longer guaranteed. On my way here I was attacked. I have dealt with that problem, but I must implore you to prepare your defences. You can trust no-one, even the Nephilim are compromised.”
Sean allowed a smidgeon of muscles to relax. He looked around towards Gavin, who was backing away frightened.
“Go get Rachel,” he ordered calmly. In the corner of his eye, Stenror started walking slowly towards them, leaving a trail of blood behind him. “And see if you can’t get in touch with Veritas. He won’t have left us.”
Stenror sauntered casually, and sluggishly, across the cavern, bridging the gap. His head was down, almost mournful. Sean sensed someone enter from the bedrooms, and heard a pitter-patter of small feet, nearly inaudible. It was difficult not to sense Jane, since she inadvertently projected power like a lighthouse projects light in the dead of night.
Then he heard her, a frail voice, barely strong enough to rise above the clinking armour, shy, a sorrowful note that echoed desolately, so lucid, so heart-breaking that Sean felt it resonate in his heart like a bullet.
He looked at Jane bleakly, a sneer emerging on his scarred face. She returned the gaze, eyes blurred with tears. Then…
Hell opened its gates.
Sean was knocked off his feet, back smashed into the cavern wall. He recovered quickly, slid down the wall and landed squarely on his feet, gun raised in the process, and his free hand primed with energy. Jane was screaming horribly beside him.
The entire cavern was alive, the air penetrated with writhing black snakes that reminded Sean of old legends, ones that inferred the existence of basilisks, or the pictures he had once seen of prehistoric, ancestral predators that roamed the planet in search of lesser prey. There were hundreds of them, massive and inky-black, swarming like birds, snapping huge jaws and mandibles, a slightly wispy outline to each of them.
It didn’t matter why he was fighting, all that mattered was winning, surviving.
He immediately erected a barrier and dodged a charging snake. Stenror was the epicentre, summoning the ghostly creatures to enact his bidding. Sean dodged left, ventured a gambit shot or two, let fire rain from his palm. Chaos ensued around him.
Jane was going supernova, unstable and shedding all illusion of control. She was in tears, and Sean didn’t have the time to wonder why. Couldn’t be the fight, that’s what she lived for, the opportunity to maim and luxuriate in the remains like a dog in long, dry grass. But as he blasted a charging snake out of the air, and turned it to specks of ash, Jane’s thoughts meandered carelessly into him. It was a nonsensical jumble, with an overwhelming bulk of anger, but there was an image, a memory, that ascended above the gibberish and the chaos.
Stenror’s hand around Adrian’s heart…
Without meaning to, he froze. Fury should have riled up his spirit, inspired the killing blow, but loss took him in the opposite direction. Withering, he defended against the prevailing attacks and snapping jaws, blocking what he could, and found his feet hitting the wall.
Screaming, Jane swooped upwards into the air, hair fluttering, and zoomed through the swirling black mass of writhing serpents. She didn’t bother to heal, withstanding severe damage to her torso and face, but she homed in on Stenror regardless, bearing the brunt of damage indifferently, dress hanging from her body. Exposed skin was slashed and gnawed.
Stenror ducked as claws swiped at his face, but couldn’t stop the girl crashing through him, and grunted painfully as an explosion of power knocked him down. Jane’s hands gripped his arms, kneeled on his chest. She roared furiously, rage paining her throat, and grabbed Stenror by his temples, thumbs raised and ready.
Stenror screamed in pain. The last thing he ever saw was two nails bearing down like fangs. Jane’s thumbs disappeared into his eyes, pushing down, forcing their way through the globules, entreating blood to pour out the cracks and stream down his temples. She didn’t stop. Her nails dug downwards, further and further, Stenror screamed and struggled in a vain, desperate attempt to remove the girl. Jane kept true, kept burrowing, kept squeezing, until the skull cracked like a ceramic jar. She still didn’t stop. She was still screaming. The skull came apart like two halves of a deformed apple, and tossed aside. The snakes gave one last snap at her side, leaving reddening gashes on her side that started to bead, and dissolved.
Jane was not satisfied.
The corpse became a playground for her unadulterated fury. He was dismembered, his organs flayed, his brain smashed, bones forcefully ripped from their joints, tendons severed, skin lacerated in a vicious spout of flesh, marrow, and blood, and finally, Jane broke down, sobbed uncontrollably into her blood-soaked hands.
Sean healed his wounds and gathered his senses, regained his footing, and stumbled towards the storage room. Rachel slid in at his side, a few cuts and bruises around her face and legs gradually healing.
“Sean! SEAN! What the fuck was that?! Gavin’s arm’s been… I mean… it’s, it’s been…”
He stormed forwards, as calm as he could be, mind falling away from him. His heart pounded his ear like a steel fist. He wasn’t thinking straight.
Adrian wasn’t dead, couldn’t be dead. No, he was safe. Damaged, but safe. He grunted something at Rachel, something about Jane, who he could hear at his right weeping like an admonished child, and whipped around the corner.
The smell of putrid smoke burned in his nostrils. The storage room was normal, crammed with all the weapons and the armour they didn’t use, shelf upon shelf of metal and materials beyond average understanding.
His eyes swivelled left. There was a small moment of cold, terrifying comprehension, that absolutely surmounted every other feeling.
There was a smouldering pile…