Layer 05: Juno Reactor
Standing up, I took in the space I called home. Most of the light came from the screen of the Portal To Knowledge (my name for my crappy starter laptop bolstered with a nest of USB accessories and external drives), owing to the perpetually-shut blackout curtains over the double window. The only difference this really held was that the bright yellow sunlight was forever replaced with a moonlike blue glow, which set the mood nicely. To my back was a shelf filled (and then some) with various novels, comics, manga, grimoires, and other useful texts, which I didn’t really need in this wired-together age, but were still nice to be able to flip through. Various collected animal parts and posters for out-of-date anime and bishoujo games filled any spare wall space, and the floor was spoken for with bins of nails, chains, bones, and the like for curse crafting. The most interesting storage space in the Room, if you could call it that, was the fuzzy shadow cast by the aforementioned light of the screen.
It was home to my partner-in-not-quite-crime, Alice Nightshade Persephone VII, called by many nicknames to save time and sentence flow. I just called her Alice, or sometimes Marisa for reasons that will become apparent.
I felt a tugging sensation at my lower back, and my warped Nosferatu-esque shadow spat out a silhouetted marble. That small, flat circle became the origin point of a tightly wound spiral that spun out hypnotizingly. It eventually warped and unfurled into a double helix, which then bent itself into the form of a second human beside me. The silhouetted form sat up, bringing a lacy witch’s hat and elegant gothic dress into the equation. The flat black tone repelled itself off her with fluidity and bounced back into the floor, to form her own shadow.
I exaggerated a yawn. I suppose she can put on a show, but it gets old the thousandth time you’ve seen it.
“You found something?” Alice asked in her typical flat-but-not-deadpan cadence.
“I definitely found ‘something,’” I said, “whether it’s something useful is another question entirely.” This was something of a standard response for me. You can’t believe everything you see, especially not on the Necronomicon forums. Like any other occult or horror-themed site, there was always the chance you were reading some urban legend bait or a failed, overly edgy creative writing project presented as fact.
“You always say we can’t take chances.” Alice shot back.
“And with something like this especially, we can’t. But that’s exactly why I don’t want to. I’m…“ I trailed off. I was going to say “scared,” but that’s not quite right. I wasn’t scared of the Steely Manticore, exactly, given its origin it has plenty of weak spots. Creatures born of pain alway fear acids or salts, sharp substances like those. Its metal-on-flesh construction meant it would probably be scared of fire. If it came to it, I could always try to trick it off a high building. I was wary of hunting and killing something that only made itself “evil” from an addiction. It didn’t seem right, punishing someone who was a victim of circumstance like this.
I had to stop thinking like that. It’s not like I’m carrying out some kind of law or code. When a Gargoyle pops up that hurts people, I stop it. That’s the debt I owe this city, and I intend to pay it in full. Besides, I wasn’t completely innocent, nor was Alice, or anyone in this world of blasphemous shamblers and creatures beyond death. One people’s taboo is another’s sacred rite. I’m not hunting the Steely Manticore for once being a victim, but for becoming a perpetrator.
My train of thought—no, at this point, more an affirmation— was interrupted. “Hey, are you ok, Alistair?” Alice asked, with a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just don’t want to fight a metal monster with nothing but these Flaying Chains.”
“Don’t be. I’m glad you could seal it away.”
I could feel my gaze slipping a thousand yards away, remembering the events of last spring. But that’s not important right now. “Shall we?” I gestured to the Door Out Of DISpace, the way out of this Room and into Wintertree proper.
Alice nodded. Her hat slumped forward like an ice cream bar in the sun, and the wide brim collapsed to become a veil over her pale face. The white cup sleeves of her dress absorbed the black apron like paper soaking in tea, before consuming her long, thin arms in their inky shadow. Similarly, the frilly ankle-length skirt of her dress stretched like a silhouette in the evening sun, until it fell into that two-dimensional pool of fuzzy indigo shadows.
With Alice in my shadow pocket and no small amount of fear in my heart, I left those comfortingly soft blue pools for sharp black ghosts that live in the corners of my vision.
Layer 06: Dark City
The purple-cloaked one showed up again today, walking carefully and nervously twitching. Avoiding crowds like the plague, or like there was one about. Talking to someone who didn’t seem to be there. Running hands over the chains adorning that endlessly folding poncho any time someone looked their way. An enigma, the most uncanny being to walk on two legs in this city from Hell.
They often say the scariest monsters are human, and while I don’t like arguing old cliches, any monster like THAT one that walks in the skin of a human can’t be called human at all. Humans have something inside, a heart that beats when its owner locks eyes with another person, not ticks and twitches. They’re warm. We’re warm, dammit. My subject is nothing but a cold blue shadow under the light of a platinum moon, even on blindingly golden days of the sun like today. Maybe it’s their shadow, that shadow that seems a little too soft for a cloudless day like today. It hurts to look at them, occupying this space out of time and this time out of space.
But it’s my job to keep watching.
Allistair snapped their long, slender (some would say pencilish) neck to the right so far their head twisted with the tendons. This was a habit of theirs, born from the kind of paranoia only late nights neck-deep in the occult can burn into the brain. There was no one there, of course; I had made sure of that. This dimension, this flat, dark plane, this universe freezing for want of another life form to give off even a little heat, provided an excellent view in its emptiness. I could see everything from here, or at least a reflection of everything. The spires jutting to the heavens from the skyline here are drills pointed to the Earth’s center. People walk on the ceiling of a cave like bats and the sky, pale as an overexposed paragraph, glows like the core of Hell below my head.
It seemed I was going to be dragged around by a wandering human form for a while, and I could live with that. Beats walking. Though, I would have liked to know where we were going. Alistair’s a rare kind of person, both dedicated and competent, but perpetually lacking in communication skills. Or ability to communicate whatsoever. Owning the keys to Juno Reactor didn’t help their hermit-ish tendencies at all. If you couldn’t guess, Alistair is really not well, at least not by my standards. But they’re the kind of “not well” that people mistake for charisma, not the kind that gets you locked up or shut away in an attic or institution somewhere. The difference is still lost on me.
“We’re here,” comes the call from my companion, but I am still lost in my own mind. What happens when Alistair is deemed a menace, a threat to themself or others? Will I be hidden away in some cloistered padded room with them? Will I be in their shadow the whole time? How will I live? None in the line of Alice Nightshade Persephone have lived normal lives within the law. No one taught me how to be human, and I hadn’t needed to worry about being one until…
My thoughts are jerked to an abrupt halt by my shadow’s owner twitching their lanky arm at its sharp elbow. Like a cheap action figure left in the sun, it hinged and flopped without any resistance on a strict axis. The odd display snapped me out of my rabbit hole of anxiety, if only for a second before I questioned if my fears had come true. I saw a pair of grinning obsidian eyes above Alistair’s purple scarf, though, and at that moment I understood their intent. “You’re alright?” they asked, in an unusually down-to-Earth tone.
Alice smiled to herself at my words, though I couldn’t see her face in the shadow. I could just… tell. That’s good, I thought. She doesn’t need to worry about me. She couldn’t see my other shadows, those black sports cars with their tinted windows and silver detailing, trailing me down narrow alleys. She didn’t see the grotesque statues made to (rather poorly) hide cameras in their throats and eyes. She didn’t see the men in black suits and red-tinted glasses, holding notepads and velvet bags of salt, waiting wherever the exit from Juno Reactor happened to manifest. And it was for the best that things stay that way.
Now, though, we were out of the radius of the drones and the droning hum that accompanied them. We were on the outskirts of Wintertree, almost a suburb really, a part of town where patches of grass separated the overlooking towers. The spindly spires, the wrought-iron, the grotesques and (little g) gargoyles, and all buttresses, flying or otherwise, were far in our wake. No cults lay claim to this part of town; everything here was built by human hands with no inspiration besides profit and uniformity. Here, I was surveilled like anyone else in the modern age, no more or less. Alice shouldn’t have to see this dead part of Wintertree, this necropolis-in-all-but-aesthetic, but she unfolded herself from my shadow nevertheless.
Layer 07: I’ll be the brightest someday
It was almost too uncanny to believe. The girl in the Purple Raven’s shadow moved like a cartoon, some squash-and-stretch mess. One minute she was standing flat as a board on the other side of perception, the next she was a speck of a silhouette, darting around midair unfolding herself into two, then three, dimensions. After that bizarre ritual, she simply sat cross-legged on the patchy lawn, carefully picking a dead chunk so as to not stain the white lace border of her shin-length dress with chlorophyll. Like a human would. Even without the Council paying me handsomely and supplying me Sight Pleroma, I had to keep the binoculars glued to her like a hawk after that display.
That is, until my main target, that chain-adorned figure I knew only as the Purple Raven, made a motion for her to get up and they headed to the door together. That person lifted a slender finger to the doorbell…
Only to pause, and then knock on the heavy steel. Once bitten, twice shy, I thought. I know something about you, and you don’t even know I exist. No way does someone instinctively know to knock on a steel door when a doorbell is available, unless they know how far reaching the Sun King’s fingers are. In his infinite wisdom, Lord Oberon randomly selected buildings both in his service and under his ownership, and essentially bugged the doorbells to set off an alarm whenever they rang. Aside from the obvious benefits, keeping track of the comings-and-goings across the spectrum of his holdings, it meant in-the-know folks like the Purple Raven would stick out more, as this information would then be “leaked” to occult databases and fora.
The next step of the protocol proceeded. The doorman, Euctenjanus, would open the door ever so slightly, ask the visitor to state their business, and then invite them in no matter what they said. This false sense of trust was important. It’s how the Swarm keeps up membership in the wake of the storm of missing persons cases that had stagnated over Wintertree since its founding. To be fair, not all those, or even most, were our fault. The Purple Raven exchanged words through the slight crack in the door. As expected, they earned entry.
As Alice popped from my shadow, I felt that ever-present drilling of eyes on the nape of my neck, but for her sake, I choked down the urge to make notice of it. The paranoia never truly faded, just recessed, and mentioning it even at its worst would just worry her. Right now was an important time, too, so it’s definitely best not to say anything.
Alice took a seat on a patch of dead grass. “So, Alistair, you sure this is the place?” she asked, with an inquiring tilt of the head.
I nodded towards the sign, emblazoned with the SIDHE crest. The SIDHE buildings were all the same, those kind of squat, old, brick rectangles that populate office parks and dot every populated area built or rebuilt post-automobile. I tried to say something like “Pretty sure, now let’s move,” but the imaginary drilling gaze proved to be too much to act through. The words got stuck in my throat, they couldn’t make it out while I was swallowing the bitter pill of my crumbling sanity. It was all I could do to silently gesture towards the door with a stiff hand, saying “after you” as a butler would.
She smiled at this. “No, you’re the expert! You first, I insist.” I matched her with a wry grin and a defeated nod of the head as I went for the doorbell.
Time slowed to a crawl, and just before I hit the buzzer, an electric bolt of terror shot through me as if conducted by my sweaty palms. The dual-pronged scrutiny hitting on the back of my head was two burning cold fangs boring into my hippocampus, twisting like a spasming fish turning clock- and counterclock- wise on a parched dock. It took every ounce of my hollow and unstable resolve to not turn around, to not give myself—and Alice— away. I locked away my instinct to flee, but in that conscious repression, I could feel my body heat rising as my primal humanity prepared me to bolt and run at a moment’s notice.
So, I knocked on the door.
One second passed.
“What do you need, friend?” came a rough voice from the other side.
I coughed up some excuse about “needing to be there” without providing any specifics, and was met with suspiciously little resistance. As the door opened wider, that vague, intense “bad feeling about this” began coalescing into a solid fear. I took a step forward
And the solid fear in my gut writhed like a nest of snakes. I knew it wasn’t real, a hand to the placid skin of my abdomen confirmed as much, but there are worms underneath my skin make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop
That step felt like it took an eternity, like the ground beneath my feet and my legs were both stretching like taffy. Like my feet would forever run parallel to my next step. Like my gait and the ground were racing to the end of a black hole. It seemed impossible to pull myself forward, but eventually, of course, my chunky leather boot made contact with the ground.
Alistair didn’t notice me disintegrating into their shadow, not one bit. In fairness, it didn’t take a genius to see they were preoccupied with wearing a phantasmic mask of bravery.
My targets entered the building and left my sight.
Similarly to my first step over the threshold, my eyes seemed to revolt against the idea of looking at my host. It felt like they were spinning 360 degrees square, except right in front of me where I needed to see, dammit. Finally, as with that terrifyingly slow step, my vision adjusted to the building lit only by what little of the harsh sun could seep through the cracks in the boarded up windows. That was more than enough light to know what I saw, though.
A tall, skeletal man waited on the other side. He was so tall that he had to hunch to fit below the standard 9-foot ceiling, and he wasn’t so much skinny as shrink-wrapped in skin to an organless extreme. His straw-colored hair hung lank from his gourd-like head, but the most uncanny thing about him was his face. He was movie-star handsome—no, angelically beautiful, but with the stubble and angularity modern cosmetics afford the platonic ideal of male beauty in the present day. Everything else about him churned my already-shaky stomach, a sensation only amplified when he began to speak.
His voice was raspy, like it came from an acid-burnt throat, and he gestured while he spoke with movements erratic and jerky like a marionette. His mouth opened too wide for the sounds he was making, almost unhinging like a snake’s jaw on his ‘O’s and long ‘A’s. Fitting his repulsively thin frame, he seemingly lacked any control over his forearms, but moved them as if they were linked to hydraulics in his upper arms or strings at the elbow.
Despite his looks, his greeting was fairly standard, if a bit formal. “Hello and welcome. What may I do for you on this fine afternoon?” He tilted his head as if an invisible noose had tightened around his neck to stop his words.
“Ah, I heard there was a call out? For people wanting to know more about the truth of the world? That’s… why I’m here,” I replied, with enough of a nervous fervor to my voice to sound like I hadn’t slept in a while. The facade of madness was essential to gathering signs of the Swarm.
The skeletal puppet’s shoulders shot up. “Certainly! Do you have an appointment? Ah, no matter, no matter, the Celestial Crown is always hungry for new adherents, please, please, please, follow me!”
I nodded deeply and followed down that tunnel of white cinderblock. His gait, all things considered, was surprisingly human. The clack of his bare feet, and the turnover rate of his steps, were all that betrayed his walking silhouette as uncanny (well, besides his proportions.) Hell, from the back, the white jacket he wore as a cape largely hid his husk-like build. I could almost pretend I was just walking through a nice hospital… Behind a nice doctor… Someone who would poke me full of needles and nice, cooling serums, give me a nice, long nap, and make me wake up feeling all better… I could feel my stiff shouldderrrs loosinngn, my tensioooo;;n vaporizin g gg with my lucidddi; tyy yy…
Something spiked me in the ankle—inside my boot? I dug my numbed fingers in and found a jet-black pin, like a tack with the plastic broken off. How did that get there? Who put it there? I looked around in a panic and found myself standing with heavy lungs in a room filled with a pinkish haze.
Layer 08: I am falling, I am fading
Alistair looked confused, betrayed, like a tattered rat in a corner trap. Blood on the walls, gaps in the mind, well on the path to madness. We may not be able to change you to the shape of a monster, doll, but we’ll fill you with the mind of one. Forget your actions, surrender to the Swarm once more, give us your power and you can have power. It was already right in our hands, it was already a part of our spiral, like all others who draw breath. Why did it still fight us? What did we do to deserve such disrespect?
I idly glanced over to my expired puppet in the corner. I had almost mastered the art of faces, so I suppose that’s good. Though a lot of the beauty the best of my successors held was tarnished by the ashen gray pallor of death, and I never could get the limbs just right. I had this drive to make them long and spindly, like the Ancestors’, but humans found that repulsive. The INSOLENCE! They DARED defy the Gray Old Ones? I settled the buzzing cacophony of voices within me. Now, now, little ones, the young ought to be the true object of our worship. We will all fade to ash someday, and be surpassed. Praise those who will follow us. Be not envious! Rejoice for them!
The Swarm within me responded. Indeed, rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!
Those words would cause an intellectual feeding frenzy, but the hive would be sated. For my part, the Noosphere would be at equilibrium. I knew not if the Lunatic Queen could say the same, nor if she had captured anyone as powerful as
THIS. This panicked creature before me. Oh, how it crawled and writhed and slithered, so unintelligently, so inhumanly and alone! What a pitiful approximation of life, this love-born doll was! You’d be better off if you’d just Turn already. Adknowledge what you are, stumble across that knowledge and join me in your despair!
Something caught my eye.
That purplest creature had taken to pacing the halls like a tiger in a too-small wrought-iron cage. Now this was interesting. This… felt almost like Glamour. I tried to remember the last time I was fascinated like this, but the hunter’s spectacle blocked that light I was trying to focus.
I don’t remember how long I stumbled around that orchid-pink labyrinth for, how many hallways led to nothing but concentrations of that pink Vapor. I could only tell you that I made it out with hollow-feeling veins and unbelievably heavy limbs. If there are no gaps in my memory, I thought, then it wasn’t that long ago I was judging the Doorman for his encumbered gait. Was he once human? Is there any saving him now? I wasn’t going back into that Vapor for a while, though, that’s for sure. Now that there were but traces of it in the air, it was qualifiable beyond its intoxicating properties. It was a perfume, of all things, but a sickening one, one that made the most concentrated chemical deodorant smell like the lightest touch of rose water. As disgusting as it felt settling in my chest, in my lungs and stomach, it felt like it was pulling poisons out from my sinuses and throat, like it was revitalizing me in some way. Was that a trap, to entice me to breathe more of it? I pulled up my purple scarf over my mouth and nose. Either I was paranoid or I was taking the proper precautions, and neither prospect scared me.
All I felt was… oddly enough, rage. Not a warm rage, the rage of a beast cornered and bleeding, but a freezing rage. The rage of a being acknowledging that they had been hurt and putting a clear mind to premeditated revenge. I didn’t feel the kind of rage that made the wielder’s face burn red, it was the kind of rage that turned other people’s faces a blue pallor. The kind that’s scary, not an embarrassment. The kind of cold-blooded rage you hear about maybe once a century now flowed through my brain. Right now, there was nothing but finding out who had attacked me, how, and then dispatching them. In the blizzard of my thoughts, phrases like by any means necessary and flay their brains with iron chains could be picked out, devoid of any other context.
Alistair was scaring me. I was losing them already. I knew it couldn’t be done, I knew my blood couldn’t make a proper seal and my magic couldn’t make Flesh proper, but there was no other choice. There was no “attempt,” only “create” or “fail”. I had been locked into a pocket existence of game theory, and could only escape by locking Alistair in there in my stead. I swore, on that day, to make it up to them… somehow. Putting that shadow pin in their boot, to save them from the Haze, was just the first step.
But now… What could be done for this beast? Beneath tendrils twisted lay two sharp, cold eyes of obsidian, then a shapeless shadow of purple studded with glimmering silver. This was no longer the form I had made to seal a wayward soul; this was something wrong. No, someone wronged. Something I made and had no idea how to stop.
So, shamefully, I did nothing. Nothing but reach into my pocket and pull out a certain ruby crystal that glittered scarlet even under a blanket of sheer blackness. I looked into it and felt numb at my failed machinations, the trials of a failed mage, at my life, no, at seven lives of failure.
I pushed on, stalking the Vapor-free halls for any sign of life to snuff out. I could no longer feel my feet touch the ground, nor my clothes on my skin, nor the twitching of viscera beneath. Every single bit of my attention was poured into my binocular vision and my ears. I drew shallow, slow, silent breaths.
Time passed by. The golden light of the sun gave way to the moon’s less voluminous silver rays, and my frozen rage slowly melted into a puddle of mere resolve. I was less hunting, and more searching. I felt a calm from the blueness around me, that thawed me slowly rather than the sun’s attempts at sheer sublimation. Then I rounded the corner and saw it.
I saw someone I’d never seen before, but knew the shape of. I saw a man, a tall man concealing an obviously-muscular frame in pale green robes… no, they were somewhere between robes and the kind of green scrubs a surgeon would wear. This man was definitely not a surgeon, though. You couldn’t fit his scraggly silver beard under a mask for operations, for one. And, well… I couldn’t see his face. All I could make of it were two glowing eyes beneath a hood adorned with a rhinoceros beetle’s horns.
He called out to me. “Hello! Are you alright? It’s rather late, you know…” He trailed off into a chuckle.
I approached with quick and decisive strides. “What’s your name?”
“You may call me Kurtzberg. Might I have your name?”
“You may call me Seelie February Melting, or just Melting if that’s too much. Do you know where the way out of here is? Or where any head doctors are?”
“Doctors?” The man looked as confused as one without a face could.
“Yeah, doctors… this is a hospital, isn’t it?” Maybe a hospital for souls. I was absolutely trying to confuse this… thing into giving up any information I could get.
“Close enough. This is a place of healing, surrounded by death, though unlike your hospitals this is also a beautiful place of rebirth!” His words were followed by a high-pitched hum, or buzz, or something, that seemed to come from all around us.
“Right. Well, should we find whoever’s in charge here? I need to get home,” I said, turning around in preparation to walk. I threw a nervous chuckle in there to lighten the atmosphere, but I somehow already knew what I was going to hear before the words escaped Kurtzberg’s lips.
“You’re speaking to him!” came his booming reply.
Once again, my nerves became nothing more than a white-hot filament for a prickling bolt of terror.
Layer 09: The Chains Are On
Those eyes. Once again, I could feel the glare of unfeeling red sclera on the nape of my neck. Exactly the same drilling, tearing feeling, like a lens focusing sunlight to a burning point, that I felt at the entrance to this SIDHE compound. This time, though, it wasn’t like it was chopping through my flesh with abandon. This gaze was like pounding hooks into a mountainside. Its owner was waiting for me to do something specific, not just watching to see what I would do like so many Men In Black had.
Might as well put on a show.
I staggered my bony fingers in a claw, then brought it up to the brim of my hat. My other hand wrapped around my waist from the back. I tilted my hips back, though it couldn’t be seen under my cloak, and finally
I turned around.
I knew I wasn’t going to see anything nice, but I wasn’t prepared for the view before me.
The man had shed his scrubs, and stood before me a twisted mess. His body was lean, with a surprising amount of striation to his muscles for how deformed he was. Most obviously, he had an extra pair of limbs; vestigial arms, with all the apparent strength of a chicken’s wings, halfway along his ribcage. His legs were proportionally short and stumpy, and the expected set of arms at his shoulders stuck out to the sides somewhat but were otherwise the same: short and muscular. His torso was his greatest incursion into the uncanny valley. The scant, pale moonlight accented the ridges of gnarled muscle and bone, which seemed to have churned and fused together to protect his organs better than any ribcage could. In the top left and bottom right corners, the skin twisted together in clock- and counterclockwise spirals, shot through with dark purple veins and converging in a pool of almost black blood pooling beneath the skin. From what I could tell, he held an otherwise pale gray complexion, though it was mottled with patches of sickly yellow and bruised magenta.
As with looking upon the Doorman, shifting my view to his face seemed Sisyphean. Space seemed to warp before my eyes, or perhaps my vision was being endlessly zoomed in, focusing on smaller and smaller patches of the beast before me. Once I laid eyes on Kurtzberg’s face, I immediately wished I hadn’t. I couldn’t count how many eyes he had. I just knew it was too many. His nose was a non-entity; instead, tiny pinprick holes dotted the space above his beard but below that patch of vision. And even through that loose cluster of wiry silver on his chin, I could still pick out a pinched together wreath of twitching mandibles and probosci that no humanoid form should possess. How he spoke was anyone’s guess.
Most jarring about this accursed form was the spike in his head. Or rather, two of them, grafted onto a perfectly bald scalp. One was longer than the other, and forked in the front, while the second was shorter but thicker and curved up from the nape of the neck. These were the rhinoceros beetle horns that I assumed were a part of some weird getup, but no, these were genuine parts of the distorted Gargoyle before me.
At any rate, this wasn’t a fashion show (despite my pose.) All appearances, right now, are psychological warfare, and I was falling behind in this arms race. I locked eyes and walked backwards from the imposing form, left and right feet on a straight line, as if walking a runway in reverse. I moved my head as little as possible from a slight downward tilt, and froze my face in an emotionless glare.
Space bent again.
My left foot took entirely too long to come down.
The effect would be broken.
I twisted around, showing my back for the briefest of seconds—
—I could already feel Kurtzberg lowering his shoulder and charging—
And I made up my mind to counter. I flicked both sets of index and middle fingers, and four silver chains ending in cross-shaped stakes flew forth from my shoulder blades like wings. Center of mass and center of magic were often the same, so I’ll send two to the left shoulder and two to the right waist—
As always, the Crucifixion Mass struck true.
I willed them to keep spinning, to drill into that false exoskeleton, push through the reinforced husk and wound it… But they didn’t. Those craters, heavy with blood, just held my stakes and spun them like bullets on ice.
This wasn’t working. A twitch of my fingers, and the chains returned to their origin. I jumped back, with less composure than before. Kurtzberg frowned at this.
“Didn’t you want to go home? To return from the Nothingness Spiral you came from?”
“Don’t play like that. You want me dead, and we both know it.”
Kurtzberg cocked his head, or more accurately he slumped it to his left. There was no control in this movement, it was more a spasm of a puppet with a cut string. With a surprising softness he said, “I don’t want you dead. I want you to see your folly! You can never win, can never cut out the space around you, without accepting followers! Without accepting your personality as the basis for a cult! People tie themselves to your shadow willingly, and you cut their bonds to you…” He shifted his weight forward. “SO IT’S BACK INTO THE COSMOS WITH YOU UNTIL YOU LEARN!” Kurtzberg flung himself at me, horns first and with all his weight, with all the hydraulic power of those short, jointed trunk legs.
I sidestepped, but couldn’t prepare a counterstrike in time.
I could feel color and heat fade from my face. Alistair didn’t stand a chance as things were, and our opponent knew something of my existence. Something had to be done. I strode carefully over to Alistair’s choppy, moonlit shadow, and whispered to its ear, “The bird of Hermes is my name, eating my wings to make me tame.”
It didn’t matter what I said in that moment, only that I reminded Alistair that they weren’t alone. This power, Shadow Suggestion, wasn’t optimized for combat at all. I could do the most to help from a support role. And it seemed I had done exactly what I needed to. Alistair’s eyes once again went obsidian-sharp and glimmered with the colors of an oil slick beneath the silver of the moon.
I don’t know what it was, but images, words, sounds, streams of thoughts rushed through my head from that moment. Listlessness burnt away. My hollow veins seemed to suddenly fill, almost bursting from the volume and heat in my blood. And yet, I wasn’t aimlessly angry, the way I was when I was hunting earlier. I had a goal, and determination, and a million ways to achieve it.
I focused on one memory, a vividly detailed cut from an old anime movie where some city-dwelling psychic or another released his mental constraints and let the flesh of his arm swell and bubble into a monstrous biomechanical appendage. Almost unconsciously, I let my left arm go limp like a puppet’s, accepting strings.
I sent chains, so many chains of various sizes, all writhing like silver tentacles, to coat the drooping limb. To reinforce it, and grow it, into a cat-o’-countless-tails, into a squirming metal monolith, a nonliving monument to life born of a cold vacuum. Something made with love, used to flay and fight and lash out. A supporting spear of pale bone pierced through the middle—
—through my palm—
And acted as a reinforcing core to the nest of living metal. At last, those chains stopped growing, though they thrashed around still. Each ended at a cross of some variety, be it a small, angular bladed stake on the thinner chains or the meatier, glistening maces on the end of the four industrial-grade chains, the “pillars” of my improvised flail. I lifted my left arm, heaved it at the shoulder, and threw this writing mass of metal at my opponent from the side. No matter his strength, he won’t be able to parry all of this, and no matter his speed, he won’t be able to outrun it.
With a last minute jump, Kurtzberg hurled himself like a cannonball through the ceiling above , tiles and frames alike, and hunched in the dark space between the next floor and this one. That twisted face glared down at me, tilted to one side. “Why do you have to go and react like that? I’m only trying to help you home, poor lost Doll…”
“DON’T FUCK WITH ME!” I wrenched a clump of chains from the wall they’d been embedded in and flicked them upwards. He chuckled, and rolled left so my attack overshot him, and missed to the right. He was too confident.
I relaxed control over the stuck clump of chains and allowed the two halves of my weapon to rejoin, like a room-sized pair of scissors. Kurtzberg dropped from the ceiling like a leopard from a tree with a mad grin of confidence on his face, but it was too late. The sheer wall of metal chopped his horn clean in half.
He landed hard, rolled on his twisted stomach from the strike’s momentum, and stood with that mad grin still on his face. Laughing. It took me a second to see what inspired such joy. Where his horn once was, a glistening pink elephant’s trunk now jutted forth. It lashed out at me, and continued forth as I wrapped it in silver chains and studded it with blisters. Such a sensitive-looking instrument must feel it, I thought, so it’s safe to assume its wielder is either berserk or insanely determined. Either way, he doesn’t seem to feel pain. The trunk approached my face in a charge to the beat of a mad cackle. I flung everything I had at it, to knock it off course, but the trunk was undeterred by even heavy shipping chains, and
Erupted into two clusters of tiny, writhing, worm-like tentacles.
These grew longer and approached my mucus membranes, my nose, eyes, and mouth, like they were going to pry me open from the face like a fleshy shellfish. Thinking fast, I leaked the thinnest silver chains I could muster from my tear ducts and wept to burn away the attack. It didn’t matter how resistant Kurtzberg was to pain, if I could blister his weapons until they couldn’t fit where he needed them. The skinless worms swelled with blood and pus under their thin outer membrane and were forced to retreat; but I pushed on. This time, I only controlled my legs as I ran. Control of my chain arm was entirely up to my instinct, informed only by what my own two eyes could see regardless of my ability to understand it. Metal writhed like flesh, futilely picking at armored skin like a school of sharks frothed into a feeding frenzy against a shipping container.
Until a hit landed.
Just above Kurtzberg’s stout throat. Out of thousands I registered one successful hit, against his mouth.
The only weapon any devil ever needs.
That twitching pit of disgust and bubbling saliva and frothy apathy.
Kurtzberg’s mad cackles could still be heard, distorted by blue blood gushing from those rapidly-tattering mandibles. Chains struck true, time after time, burning away chitin, and he just laughed through it all, until he coughed and collapsed. I called off the chains and went over to see his condition for myself.
His weakened eyes conveyed as much of a smile as the mangled remains of an already-grotesque face could. “You bested me, Purple Raven.” he choked out.
“So reward me. What do you know about the Steely Manticore?”
“That’s what you call it? The evolution of the Man In Yellow?”
“Who? Yeah, sure. The metal beast that’s been eating people’s brains. Let me pick yours about it for a moment. You know where it is?”
“I last saw it at the spire, being born. Search places of decadence. Drowning in excess is its nature, and its poison is terror.
Enjoy your prize, Doll. But you will not beat my puppetmaster. You cannot triumph over Oberon, he with thousands of lives pledged to his shadowy wake. May the Descendants help you, should you incur his wrath.” Kurtzberg dispersed his body into thousands of uniformly iridescent beetles that scuttled off, rejoining the bluish shadows.
I had no idea what Alistair saw that made them run like that. I heard it, of course, that overwhelming buzzing, and I knew it must have been something from the squirming shadows that hung from the floor around me. But we needed to get out of there. The sun was rising again, Alistair was no doubt exhausted, and I was too, from fading into the shadows for so long. This was going to be a tough move, but it seemed like our only choice. From Alistair’s shadow, I pulled the opposing wall’s silhouette until its caster collapsed in a single chunk of brick. I yanked Alistair by their shadow through the new gateway and out into the deep orange, before pulling up the wall behind us from its raw shape and returning to the world of color.
Alice popped out of my shadow with no fanfare and promptly collapsed. Here we were, having escaped the clutches of death by the skin of our teeth, with nary a clue towards the Manticore’s reign of terror. “We’re fucked.” I reached for the handle of the door to the Juno Reactor, and entered my cluttered space once more. Door ajar, I picked up Alice’s disturbingly light unconscious self and laid her down on her bare mattress. (I slept in my chair at the Portal to Knowledge.) We knew slightly more than we did 24 hours ago, but at what cost? Was this all a pointless endeavor? I sat at the Portal and began chronicling it for the Necronomicon nonetheless.