Thursday, July 31, 2014

Groundwork, Finale

Iko woke up with no head.

Or, rather, his head woke up with no body.

For one glorious instant, Iko thought he was dead. He believed that he'd appeared at the base of some grand throne, perhaps that of the Non god, the Player, and the game was over. But the throne was just the base of a broken rat statue, and when Iko recognized the rat's telltale snout he sighed.

"Well, shit." Iko snorted. "That didn't work. Hurts like a bitch, though. Wonder how I'm talking with no vocal cords...?"

Unable to twist around - I need to stop getting decapitated, it's so inconvenient - Iko rolled his eyes this way and that, hunting for his body. He noticed it a minute later, laying unhappily beneath a heap of fallen roofing. One of his arms twitched inside its sleeve, as if trying to escape the pinning rock.

"Oh, for pity's sake. Get up, you ol' bag of bones!" Iko tried to whistle, but only spittle flew from his lips. "Pffft! This is humiliating. C'mon, get up!"

The body stirred. Stonework shifted ponderously as one of Iko's elbows popped out of the debris. A leg followed, then another leg, and soon his whole body was wobbling about in a ridiculous stupor. It ran in the wrong direction, slammed into a column, and fell over.

"This could be a circus act," Iko grumbled. "OVER HERE! BY THE... ah... WELL, I'M BESIDE A BIG ROCK SHAPED LIKE A LEMON! Oh, hell, you can't see anyway, can you? I'm the eyes."

It took the better part of a day for the body to locate its head. In the meantime, Iko told stories to himself, quoted ancient texts near verbatim, and pondered what form his future would take. He still wanted it shaped like a volcano, yes, with lots of rings and upward paths, but the particulars... well, he'd have a few years to work out the particulars.

Eventually, after kicking Iko in the eye a few times, body reunited with head. Skin stretched out for skin, knitting Iko back together. He wrenched his skull around, wincing at the pain as his spine locked back into place. Iko patted down his body, noting the dozens of bruises and perforations, and left the temple. He padded down the front steps and into the streets of Below. 

When he looked back, the temple had mended itself. The roof looked as unblemished as ever, and rat statues stared blankly at one another. Iko shook his head and kept going.

He walked for a long time, laughing as ghost rats skittered far out of his path and into hiding. Iko knew his path well enough, and with some concentration he could manipulate the geography - had he not done so often enough in the last several weeks? - but he wanted the walk. His body needed time to recuperate, and walking often did the trick. Besides, he wanted to get one last look at the Nothing.

The orbular monstrosity lay in a broken heap in the midst of a huge crater, half buried in dirt and rubble. Its legs spread up and out from its body in an ugly imitation of a gymnast, one dangling perilously from a tangled network of mashed gears, levers, and cables. The entire upper half of the Nothing was cracked open like an egg, and a lake of black oil floated inside the broken superstructure. It rippled gently as Iko mounted the wreck to peer inside.

"Oh, dear. Irreparable. Traveller really did a number on you, didn't he?" Iko tutted. "That boy. He might actually give Kierkegaard a good fight. Never thought I'd see the day. And even if he loses... well, surely he'll weaken Kierk enough..."

Sparing a moment to say a prayer over the wreckage, Iko slid down the side of the Nothing and kept walking. The oil burbled inside the hull, seeming to respond to Iko's presence, but the Nothing would never move again.

An hour later, Iko arrived at the front gate of Below. Still open, still badly dented from Traveller's passage - The lad has no taste for puzzles, for certain - the gate loomed over Iko, the twin halves of its regulator sigil seeming to stare accusingly at him. He ignored the hatred and stepped through.

A blue flame floated nearby. A save point. Jackpot, Iko thought.

Approaching the save point, Iko raised his hands. His sleeves slid down his arms, revealing a writhing network of coiled tendons. A mixture of green and white light poured through the tendons and out Iko's fingers, merging above and around the save point as a bright halo. The room flashed -

- a haunting voice boomed 'SAVE GAME LOADED' -

- and a young girl fell out of a rip in space and time, collapsing on the floor. The light faded immediately.

Nodding at the save point, Iko knelt beside the girl. She had long, dark brown hair, pretty triangular eyes, and a slim build Iko envied. She was staring up at him, though she didn't look frightened.

"Ow," she said.

"Hello," Iko replied. "How do you feel?"

She pursed her lips and thought it over. "Sore. I think something stepped on me."

Iko laughed hard. "Ha! Oh, dear, yes, something stepped on you. Can you stand?"

The girl hopped up on her own, ignoring Iko's hand. She looked around, eventually fixating on the flaming save point. "I died, didn't I? I knew touching it was a good idea."

Iko grinned. I like this girl. "You seem to be taking this all rather well."

"Should I not?" The girl scratched her head. "I heard what happened to Mud when he came back to life. He was in a coma for several weeks. I find comas to be highly inefficient. You get a great deal more done when you're not in a coma."

"We're agreed on that point."

The girl studied Iko for a moment, then turned back to the blue flame. "You look badly off. Did you get into a fight?"

"You could say that." Iko popped his shoulders and rubbed his neck. "I feel like crap."

"Would that be your name, then? Crap?" The girl smiled.

"Uh... no. My name is..."


"No." He held back a laugh, but just barely. "It's Iko."

"No. I've decided. It's Crap." The girl extended her hand. "Hello, Crap. I'm Celine."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Groundwork, Day Four

Kierkegaard woke up at his dinner table.

"Ugh... oh man." The penguin belched, wiping his beak. He stared at the remains of his meal. "Too much wine...? Yep, too much. Ha. Oh my, that's a lovely headache."

Kierkegaard stood. He wobbled once, belched again, and laughed. His stomach rumbled discontent, but he ignored it. A discontent stomach is a full stomach, and a full stomach is a good fuckin' stomach, he mused. Though maybe next time I'll pick a dude with less cholesterol. Gotta watch my figure.

Staring at his reflection in his tent's opulent (but cracked, cracked and bloody) mirror, Kierkegaard decided he cut quite a dashing figure indeed. Military garb, plenty of medals, a fantastic hat, lovely tail feathers, what wasn't there to like? He adjusted the collar on his uniform and grinned, licking a spot of gore from the fabric.

"Perfect," he crowed. "Just perfect. The old man'd be damned proud. Damned proud."

The flap to Kierkegaard's tent slipped open. A meek voice followed. "G... general? Sir?"

Kierkegaard picked at his teeth with a claw. "I'm an admiral today. Don't forget it, Shuster."

Shuster, Kierkegaard's aide-de-camp, nodded. "Apologies, ad... admiral. May I...?"

Kierkegaard waved the younger Non inside. Shuster was one of the Non freed two years before, born in captivity, and ever since he'd served the upper echelons of the Non faithfully. Previously he'd functioned as The Baron's lackey; with The Baron fled, Shuster's ass belonged to Kierkegaard.

Seating himself, Kierkegaard pointed at the air beside his table. A roiling hole opened at his fingertip, stretching and contorting reality until the pinprick stars of codespace shone into the tent. He shovelled the remains of his meal - a head, some fingers, and a pile of entrails - inside. The portal closed with a pop.

Shuster swallowed. Kierkegaard grinned at his assistant's discontent.

"So? You have something?" Kierkegaard wiped his hands on his uniform. "Speak up, now. I am not a patient penguin."

Shuster swallowed. "We, ah, we've uncovered a door, sir. Colonel Grundle found it this morning, beneath the oil sands to the east. Just as you said."

Kierkegaard's eyes widened beneath the bill of his general's cap. He leaned forward, clicking his nails on the tabletop. "And what's inside, hmmmm?"

Shuster offered a timid smile. "The colonel believed you would like to open it yourself, sir."

Kierkegaard laughed, delighted. A good idea. Even if the little shit's hopin' I'll open it and get blown up or something. "Commendable asshole, that colonel. Let's go have a look at his door."

Kierkegaard left the tent, and Shuster followed. A pair of hulking Non sentries, several times taller than Kierkegaard's current form, snapped to attention and followed briskly at their heels. Kierkegaard wondered if he could eat one in a single sitting. Certainly not as a penguin, but... maybe...

They moved through the Non encampment, a thousand soldiers strong. Non guards and warriors left their duties and saluted Kierkegaard as he passed. He ignored them. A squadron of Sky Dwarves buzzed overhead, directed by a massive Non bird; Kierkegaard reminded himself to congratulate Emmett for recruiting the little bastards. With Eve missing, we'll need all the extra firepower we can get.

Deciding to save his fast track, Kierkegaard summoned one of the circling Non birds. It left the sky at once, descended to the ground, and laid itself flat at Kierkegaard's feet. He chortled at the obedience, and, noticing that it was female, asked the Non's name. He filed 'Alice' away for later fun. Moments later they were airborne, Kierkegaard's clawed feet pinching so hard into Alice's back that they drew blood. She didn't complain as she winged them east, over a rocky wasteland.

"News from the front?" Kierkegaard asked, standing upright as his Non transport flapped. Shuster huddled behind him, clutching to Alice's malleable skin for dear life.

"N... n... no, sir!" Shuster said, yelling over the wind. "We... ah, oh, god... our last report came three days ago! The Imperium is still entrenched at Ogdenford!"

If what I think is behind this door is behind this door, they won't be for long. Kierkegaard snorted, twirling one of his mustachios. "Fine. What about those fucks we nabbed in Bottomless? How many did you get? 

Shuster consulted a roll of parchment. "S... several hundred! Almost a thousand, sir!"

Almost the entire population. Nice. "Fine. What'd we do with 'em?"

"I... I believe they're still being held in the city, but I can check - "

Kierkegaard shrugged. "Don't bother. Just tell our guys out there to raze the place."

Shuster swallowed so loudly that Kierkegaard could hear it even over the wind. "R... raze? The city?"

"Yeah. Burn it." Drool dripped down Kierkegaard's beak. "Lock the people in their homes. I'm gonna go visit that dump soon, 'n I'd like some BBQ waiting. Extra crispy."

Alice landed a few minutes later, swooping in low over a vast plain of dark brown sand surrounding a huge digging operation. Kierkegaard playfully licked the gouges he left in her back before dismounting. Two more hulking Non guards greeted him upon arrival, virtually identical to the ones he'd left back at camp. He nodded, and they led him into the mine shaft.

"Holes, holes, holes," Kierkegaard muttered, eyes adjusting to the dark as the group tromped past a cadre of diggers on break, leaning on their shovels. "It's always holes in this fuckin' game. Everywhere I look is another goddamned hole, waiting to be dug."

"B... beg pardon, sir?"

Kierkegaard shook his head. "Forget it."

The Non guards led Kierkegaard deep into the earth, past dozens of toiling human, orcish, and goblin slaves. Dirt tunnels soon gave way to stony passages, their architecture old and spartan but immediately recognizable to Kierkegaard as Non. He smiled, memories of his school days coming back. I wonder how Plato's doing. Haven't fucked with him in a while. Shame I had to let 'im out... Jeffrey wasn't near as fun to torture... 

The tunnel widened, terminating in a wide room with a high ceiling. A dozen smaller doors lined the walls, surrounding one heavily-armoured door set into the middle of the far wall. The smaller doors were all open; the larger door remained barred and shut.

A large, well-toned Non in a shadowy military uniform stood near the door. He turned to Kierkegaard and saluted. His squad of troops followed suit. "Sir!"

Kierkegaard grinned, approaching the door. He ran his fingers across the heavy chain holding it shut. "Colonel. I see you struck pay dirt. Glad ya did - I was getting impatient."

The colonel shifted nervously, but he didn't break his salute. "I accept full responsibility for any failure, sir!"

"I'm sure you do." Kierkegaard licked the chain. It tasted foul. Acidic. "Get outta here. All of you. I'll handle the rest."

Kierkegaard issued this particular command often. He liked to get his hands dirty. Early on, his troops were stupid enough to question him. A year later, having publicly disemboweled three men and consumed their innards as a lesson to his army, Kierkegaard found himself instantly obeyed. Shuster, the colonel, the guards, and the squadron all fled the room.

Never question a hero, Kierkegaard thought. He began to change, first to a deep black, then a sickly bone white. Muscles sprouted in places where once there was only blubber, shunted out of deep, glowing portals. His massive body barely fit into the room when he was done, and he flicked the door open easily. Never.

A penguin again, Kierkegaard coughed as a wave of must and age floated out of the battered doorway. Stepping past the remains of the door he descended a stone staircase, willing his eyes to brighten and illuminate his path. Green light filled the darkness. The steps took him down -

- and down -

- and down -

- and when he reached the bottom, Kierkegaard was standing on an ancient balcony.

Long ago, Iko had told Kierkegaard a story. Iko was once a military man, so the story went, and during his time in the military Iko had been stationed at a secret base, deep in Non territory. It was a staging ground for experimental designs, meant to end the war with the regulators, and Iko swore he'd seen things that would turn an ordinary Non's stomach. But none of the other projects compared to the room with the spheres.

Gripping the balcony, Kierkegaard began to laugh. His hideous cackle bounced off the walls of the titanic storage space, rebounding weirdly and distorting into a near-scream. The black spheres sitting motionless on the floor far below, each as large as a city block and tidily arranged into five rows of ten, did not comment.

Groundwork, Part Three

June woke up beneath a sheet.

She had no sense of time. What day was it? What week? What month? What year? She struggled to remember, but her head hurt too much. Her body hurt too much. She couldn't even tell which body this was anymore.

Lesse. Her concentration narrowed to a point. I'm... June. Yeah. June. January, February, March, April... oh, I liked April, he had such fantastic muscles... May, June. That's... uh... six. Sixth. I'm on number six.

She lifted an arm beneath the sheet, touching her other arm. It felt smooth. No sign of wrinkles. Yet... oh, gods, did her stomach ever hurt. She didn't want to touch it yet, didn't want to see what it looked like. She suspected the stitches would be grisly.

Stitches. Smooth. Right. I guess that means I'm actually number seven. So... that would make me... July, now? Yes, I... I think that's right...

Memories floated back. A journey. A longing for a fresh, young body. A promise. Plots. Sickness. Possession, and not her own brand of possession. An accident... flight... weakness... betrayal... a meeting, and a bargain - 

"I think she's awake."

July's head tilted, though she couldn't see through the blanket. Her eyes still hurt too much to open anyway. She tried to speak, but her mouth was packed full of cotton. She mumbled something incoherent, spitting out a few wads in the process.

"Joy. Freakshow, lift her. We'll see how she turned out."

The blanket fell away. July felt her bed suddenly lift, twisting her almost vertically. Harsh leather straps dug into her arms, legs, and chest. She winced and shook her head, grasping her belly. The skin bulged under her fingers, held together by a thick strand of tightly-tied string.

"Open your eyes, old woman," the second voice commanded. It was high-pitched, raspy, and unamused. "Look at me."

July moaned. Her hair tugged, pinned against her back, and she realized that it was far straighter, far tamer and fuller, than when she'd gone to sleep.

We struck a bargain, she thought. They came t'me and asked for 'is life. And in exchange - 

"Open your eyes," the voice commanded again. "Or I will, ah, yes, I will have Blue open them for you. Yes? That will not be pleasant. Her fingers are rather too large for the task."

July did as instructed, though slowly. She let one eye flutter open, wincing at the stinging pain of daylight. It blurred into focus, revealing the bulk of a misshapen thing in front of her. The second eye opened more quickly, and when it did... July saw the scarred, purple face of her son. It was flanked by two other heads, one large and gruff, the other small and squirrelly.

"Ah." July grinned, spitting out the last of the cotton. "Driscol. M'boy. Didya miss your croakin' mommy?"

Driscol snorted. "You don't quite look the part anymore."

"SiLENCE!" The second voice reminded July of the bark of an angry chihuahua. "Back away, Freakshow! I wish to inspect her!"

The three-headed monstrosity did as it was bid, slinking out of the room. July followed it for a second, realizing in the process that they were in some sort of shack. Dried black blood coated the walls, and deep holes in the wood permitted natural light to filter through. July noticed a withered, dried corpse on the other side of the shack, lightly covered in blood-soaked blankets, and she winked at it.

Cheated death again, she thought. Her crooked smile hurt her face. Can’t ever get this ol’ bitch down.

Another figure stepped up. July recognized it instantly as a Non, and a big Non at that. Her head scraped the ceiling even as she hunched, and July knew that this was not even the Non's full size. Upon the Non's left shoulder, jutting out of her black skin like an ugly cyst, was a second face, surrounded by a ring of crude stitches.

Never been much good with stitches, July admitted to herself. Guess he's not much better, lackin'  proper arms.

The face inspected July's body, frowning. His broken white teeth clicked together. "You're a mess. But it'll do. How do you feel? Can you move?"

As if you're one to talk about messes. Wriggling her arm past one strap, July flexed her hand and stretched it out and around. She touched her face, noting a small growth of stubble on her chin. Her legs, too, seemed to work just fine, though the left one was a little stiff.

The huge Non delicately undid July's straps with fumbling fingers. She nearly collapsed onto the floor, but her young, healthy arms kept her upright. She knocked a fist against her head, laughed a little, and looked at her toes. They wriggled at her, pink and healthy and flexible.

"I seem... well enough," she admitted. "But I don't think I quite have what I want. Isna even a slight trace 'o his power, far as I can tell."

"You'll have to make do for now." The face frowned. "Be happy those legs still work. That weapon... oh, I'd love to examine it... did a fantastic amount of damage to the torso. You should be in a wheelchair, not walking around."

July stepped experimentally around the room. Wobbling soon turned into confident walking, though she couldn't feel anything from her legs like she did her arms or chest. Everything below the belly seemed to be somehow separated from her, eternally numb - but functional. She could live with numb.

"Got a mirror?"

The head nodded to a side room. A mirror hung on the wall, half-shattered. She stepped inside to peer at her face in the mirror's remains.

"Don't forget," the Non reminded her, calling out. "This isn't over. Our deal is ongoing. You help us do away with the rest of the brat... and his mother... and deliver the hybrid... and we're square. Only then. Understood?"

July inspected her face. She ran her lithe fingers across its firm, rounded jaw, along its gaunt cheekbones, across its smooth forehead. A pair of gaunt, mean eyes stared back at her, far more bitter and angry than any set she'd previously owned. She smiled and noticed that her teeth were still slightly pointed, a throwback to the body's struggle with lycanthropy.

"Understood," July said, speaking through the mouth of a young, dead man named Grayson. "Perfectly."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Groundwork, Part Two

Libby woke up at her workstation.

She'd been dreaming of her husband. It was a strange dream, really, and very silly. In it, they'd been clothes shopping for Grayson and Fynn. Both boys were off to school the next day, and Fynn had grown so large that he'd burst through his good pants. Grayson, ever petulant, wanted a new pair as well. The two boys argued about what colour pants they wanted so much that they both transformed into dodos and flew away.

The shop owner was a polite sloth named Tennyson. Libby rather liked him. Enough that she allowed him to kiss the back of her hand with his little slothy mouth. Then Dragomir had demanded a duel of Tennyson, and the resulting bloodbath was so ridiculous that it jarred Libby out of her doze.

She had a t-square stuck to her face. Growling, she brushed it away and stared at her workbench, as though it were to blame for waking her up. The workbench did not apologize.

Libby sighed, peering out the small porthole by her station. Unbroken desert peered back, the same dunes she'd been looking at for more than a month. They only changed when the wind picked up, and even then they didn't change enough to make the view at all interesting. Libby wondered why anyone would want to live in such a boring hellhole, or why they'd make guests come all the way out here for a visit.

I should have gone with him. Libby cradled her head, staring at the heavily-marked sheet of parchment between her elbows. It was covered in scrabbled design plans for a smaller version of the Dauphine, a transport with only four wheels and considerably less storage space. Why'd I stay here? Gods almighty, at least I wouldn't be so bored out there. Can't be bored if you're... 

She slapped herself. No. Shut the fuck up, Libby. He's not dead. Not again. Even he's not stupid enough to die TWICE.

... right?

A heavy set of feet interrupted Libby's thoughts. She turned, watching her son's gangly legs tromp down the stairs to Engineering. He smacked his head on the ceiling as he entered, now easily nine feet tall. His scowl, so like his father's, made her smile.

"Hi, mom." Fynn raised his hand in greeting. He seated himself beside her, legs crossed, and propped his head on her desk. "Hungry? Morris made falafels."

She snorted. "I'll make my own food. Morris sucks. Want some pie? I can make pie."

Fynn shuddered. "No, no you can't, mom. Your pie is really bad."

"Fuck you!" Libby folded her arms. "Everyone likes my pie!"

"They only say that 'cause they're more afraid of your fists than they are of your pie." Fynn smiled. "You're pretty great anyway, though. Anybody can make a dumb ol' pie. Who can build, like, big transport things? Who but you?"

"My pie is great," Libby insisted, muscles flexing. She wasn't really angry, though. Fynn was a good boy. He always made her happy when she felt bad. That was a rare quality. "What're you up to? Other than insultin’ your mama?"

Morris grinned. "Eheh. Guard duty! I'm actin' like dad. Best guard ever."

Oh, kid, you poor, ignorant fool. "... sure. Best guard. Watching the skies, I guess? Up on the observation deck?"

Fynn nodded, slapping his chin on the table. "Yep!"

"Got shade? It's hotter than a witch's balls outside."

Fynn nodded again. "Yep! Daena lent me her umbrella. Told me to watch out for anythin' weird."

"Good for her." Libby knew this conversation wouldn't go much further, and she grabbed her pencil to resume her work. "See anything?"

"Like what?"

Libby bit her lip. "You know what."

Fynn sighed. "No, no dad. But I know he'll be back soon! Him'n the rest!"

"Yeah." Libby tousled his hair. "Go on, get some food. Maybe you'll luck out 'n not have to pick desert beetle legs out of your falafel."

"I wouldn't bet on it." Fynn stood, hunched, and headed for the stairs. Then he snapped his fingers and turned back. "Oh! Right! I did see something! That's why I came down here! I guess the food sidetracked me."

He's got his father's brain, for certain. Libby spun in her chair. "Oh yeah? What'd you see?"

"A dragon!"

Libby started, sitting upright in her chair. The hair stood on the back of her neck. “What? Whaddya mean, a dragon?"

"I think it was a dragon, anyway!" Fynn stretched his arms as far apart as he could, which, given his size, was pretty far. "It had biiiiig wings, 'n I thought I saw spines on its back! Reminded me of that biggun we saw while we were savin' you that time!"

A dragon? Way out here? I didn't think dragons liked the heat. "Where was it headed?"

Fynn thought about that a moment. "Probably... this way?"

Libby fell out of her chair. She bopped Fynn on the head as she darted past and up the stairs. "Lead with that next time, dammit!"

Libby was standing on the observation deck a moment later, scanning the sky. She didn't see anything until Fynn joined her. He pointed off in the distance, and for a second Libby didn't know what he was looking at... at least not until the dragon beat its enormous wings. A thin stick floating a little ways over the desert's surface, it appeared to be gliding most of the way.

Libby swallowed hard. Barrel's friendly, but the rest of the dragons... I wonder if this one's okay. "Keep an eye on it. I'll tell the crew to man the cannons. Just in case."

Fynn nodded and saluted... though his salute quickly turned into a blockade, slapped down on her shoulder. "Hey, wait. I think there's more 'n one. There's another one. 'n... maybe... two more...? Mom, how many is... this much?"

Fynn held up his fingers. All of his fingers. When he started to wiggle his toes, Libby ran belowdecks.

"CANNONS!" she roared, staring around Command at the crew. Most were sleeping or otherwise idling, and her yell caught them off guard. "NOW! FUCKING CANNONS!"

Daena, chatting with Antonio on the other side of Command, tried to wave Libby over. When it didn't work she bellowed back. "LIBBY, WHAT'S GOING ON?"

She didn't have to wait long to find out. Two minutes later the eastern sky was dotted with the incoming forms of dozens of dragons, their enormous wingspans and twisting tails unmistakable even at such a great distance. They grew rapidly, and so did the sense of panic in the stranded Dauphine. Crew members ran from deck to deck, shrugging off heat fatigue in favour of fear.

The first dragon blasted by the Dauphine just as Libby was setting up her cannon. The force of its passage created a powerful tunnel of wind through the open cannon shutter, knocking Libby into the wall behind her. A cannon went off somewhere to Libby's left, another to Libby's right -

- but they fell silent just as quickly. Another dragon passed by overhead, and another, and another. The Dauphine creaked and shuddered, buffeted by the draconic advance. Cowering against the wall, Libby wondered if her wonderful machine might just fall apart under the concussive force of their wings.

Something heavy landed in the sand outside and to the left of the Dauphine. Another heavy something landed with it, and another, and another, and more behind the transport. The floorboards shuddered with each landing, and when the heavy somethings began to roar as one Libby thought the world might just be coming to an end. She curled into a ball, regretting all those times she'd berated her husband for cowardice, and waited for the dragons to attack.

They didn't attack. 

"Mom?" Fynn called after a moment of tension. His voice was shaky, fearful. "You... uh... mom? You here?"

Libby peeked out from between her work gloves. "... Fynn?"

He rounded a corner, crouching so low that he was practically crawling, and slid up beside Libby. He begged for a hug; Libby granted the request. She needed one too.

"Mom..." Fynn swallowed. "You better go upstairs. There's... somebody... who wants to see you. I think. You're in charge, right?"

Libby didn't want to go upstairs. She wanted to go home. She was tired of the stupid Dauphine. She wanted a house, a hearth, a proper bed, a workstation in a shed. She wanted a husband, two sons, maybe even a daughter. She wanted a life, not a nomadic ramble through the fucking desert suddenly cut short by dragons.

She went upstairs. Fynn held her hand.

They stood side-by-side on the observation deck together, looking out at a sea of dragons. Red dragons, green dragons, blue dragons, sandy dragons, diamond dragons, dragons chipped out of onyx and dragons carved from marble. They were tall, they were staring at mother and son alike, and they terrified the world.

The dragons weren't the scariest part of the scene, though. Knowing what she knew, Libby was far more frightened by what rode on the backs of the dragons: an army of rats, a million or more rodents strong. They scurried between wings, clung to horns, sunbathed on scales, hid in hair, and nestled on snouts.

One of the dragons - Barrel, my gods, it's Barrel - leaned in close to the observation deck. His nose came so near to the deck that a puff of hot breath blew away Daena's umbrella. A cluster of five rats hunkered between Barrel's nostrils, their eyes glowing white and sinister. Barrel matched their glare exactly.

When Barrel's mouth opened to speak, his voice a throaty, awkward boom plainly unaccustomed to human speech, their words rang through instead. "We are here for your husband."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Groundwork, Part One

Jeffrey woke up in a bed.

When he saw who had woken him up, Jeffrey started to cry.

"LOGAN!" Throwing his arms around his son's neck, Jeffrey pulled Logan roughly down into his shoulder. "You're... you're ALIVE! Oh my gods, my gods, my GODS, you're..."

"Whoa." Rubbing his cheek, Logan slipped away from his father's frantic embrace... though he stayed near enough that Jeffrey could still hold his arms. "Calm down, old man. Yeah, it's me. I'm okay. Settle."

Jeffrey sniffed away his tears, nodding a little. Manliness, he thought. Logan wants to be manly about it. Okay. Just this time. I can do manly. I am a manly man. Boxing makes you a manly man. But... manly men can also be fathers... and when fathers think they've lost their sons and their daughters - 

Jeffrey's bawling exploded. Logan couldn't avoid another smothering hug.

Once Jeffrey had calmed down, his smile radiated pure joy. He looked around the semi-familiar-but-only-semi room, noting the sculpted, ovular walls and opulent silks. "Are we... is this...?"

"Iko's place," Logan confirmed. "You're in his bed. We've been bunking out here for two days, now, waiting for you to wake up. Damned lazy coot."

Jeffrey fluffed his sheets. They reminded him of his kingly bed back home. Iko knew how to live, plainly. "S... sorry. I, uh, guess I needed a good rest. So... so if you're here, then... is...?"

Logan's face darkened. He tipped his head, staring at the floor. "She's gone, dad. I’m sorry. We never should've run off. Was fuckin' stupid."

Jeffrey's good humour fell about a dozen notches. He squeezed his blanket tightly, hoping the gesture would prevent his hands from shaking. He shook his head hard, then looked back at his son. "She'll..."

Logan looked up.

"She's... dancing in heaven, now." Jeffrey swallowed. More tears, formed of grief, speckled his cheeks. "I just bet she's... dancing for the gods."

"Yeah. Her 'n Grylock." Logan forced a smile. "Though I guess he's more likely t'be challenging them to a drinking contest, the lil' bastard."

Jeffrey sighed, running one hand through his hair. He thought of all the dance recitals he’d forced his subjects to attend. He’d loved watching Celine twirl about the throne room, veils drifting from her arms, a sly smile always on her lips. 

Logan slapped his father’s shoulder lightly. “We’ll get her back. Don’t forget that blue… flame… uh… thing. Once we find someone who can use it, she’ll be bothering us all over again. It worked for Dragomir, ’n it’ll work for Celine.”

“But we don’t have a witch to make it work,” Jeffrey moaned.

Logan barked a grim laugh. “Oh, we’ll find one. Don’t worry about that.”

Jeffrey dressed and followed Logan downstairs. Nagi was waiting for them, a plate of fresh-cooked greens in front of her as she sat at the kitchen table. Somewhere outside, Traveller whooped and laughed, and Plato quacked loudly. Jeffrey couldn't hear what they were saying.

Nagi flashed Jeffrey a genuine smile. "Good lords above, finally! Welcome back, Jeffo. Glad to see you're out of bed. Means I can steal it for myself again. I've missed it since you lot showed up. My tail just doesn't fit on that coot’s couch."

"Thanks." Jeffrey seated himself at the table, patting his stomach. "Any chow? I'm starving."

Nagi shoved her plate across the table at him. "Eat. I've been chewing on greens for weeks. Pretty sick of it. Guess we stole all of Iko's meat on the first trip through."

Jeffrey popped a slice of green pepper in his mouth. It crunched loudly, flooding his taste buds with bitter delight. "Wow. That's good. Iko knows his gardening."

"You have to, out here." Logan seated himself, picking a carrot off of the plate. "Speaking of Iko, you have parts of the story to fill in. Start talking, dad."

They chatted for almost an hour. Nagi was the most eager to talk, having lived in stony silence for nearly a month while her body recovered from the effects of the hydra scorpion venom. Logan and Traveller had only emerged from the hole outside the house two days ago, Jeffrey hanging limply over Traveller's shoulders, and Plato and his rat were newcomers as of three hours prior. Plato wouldn't speak a word about Iko or Dragomir, only confirming that Dragomir was still very much alive.

Logan's tale was the most interesting. After the failed surprise attack on the Nothing, he'd nearly died trying to take it on a second time. It was only thanks to the last-second intervention of Traveller and Iko that Logan had survived the encounter. He'd spent the next week with the two men, watching over father and surrogate father from afar, trying constantly to reach both and failing every time.

"Iko had this... influence, I guess... on Below," he explained, smacking a hand off the table. "You didn't go where he didn't want you to go. No clue how he did it. All I know is he wouldn't let me get near you, Dragomir, or Grylock. I... had to watch... when... and I couldn't do..."

Jeffrey stared at the table. None of them said anything for a long time. Jeffrey couldn't tell if his son bore a grudge, and though he hoped not, he suspected Logan might. In more bitter times, Jeffrey's role in Grylock's death could easily get thrown back in his face - and Jeffrey would deserve every bit of recrimination he got.

Nagi, perhaps uncomfortable with the tragic brooding, broke in with an unsteady laugh. "Uh, well, hey! You should see the shit they've been up to since Traveller got back. Idiot's damned near ruined Iko's farm. Says he swears that Iko had newt turnips last time, and he's determined to find a few. Going to turn them into a new pair of boots."

Jeffrey peered out the window of Iko's house, watching Traveller skitter by. Yelling loudly, he leaped into the pond at the rear of the house and landed with a heavy splash. Water exploded up and outward. "I thought he had boots."

Nagi shook her head. "Lost 'em."


"It's a new story every time. Iko found him barefoot, so I doubt we'll ever know what happened." Nagi leaned in close. "'tween us? I think he loses 'em on purpose. Just won't admit he likes to air out his toes."

Jeffrey snorted. He watched Traveller flailing wildly in the water, laughing a little as Traveller grabbed Plato's leg and pulled the platypus into the water. They wrestled, Traveller easily winning, and he lifted Plato over his head like a trophy. 

Something tickled at the back of Jeffrey's mind. He squinted.

"Yo." Logan poked his father's shoulder. "Story? You have some telling to do."


Jeffrey didn't look away from Traveller. The shaggy man was laughing hard, hands busy tying back his mane as Plato draped from one shoulder. Big, spiky clumps of half-wet hair fell down over his eye and patch. For about three seconds it looked as though Traveller had gotten a major haircut.


The something tickled again.

Jeffrey turned reluctantly away from the rowdy scene outside. "Have... you ever noticed how much Traveller looks like - "

A loud 'click' from the rune-covered door in the basement cut the thought very short indeed.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Intus Opaca, Part Nine


She turned, slack-jawed, sweaty and smiling. "You're back!" 

Libby dashed across their cabin, delivering a swift (but light) punch to Dragomir's jaw. Her hug was much fiercer, and Dragomir felt as though his eyes might pop out of their sockets and rattle about the room like a pair of dice.

Dragomir stroked her hair. It smelled of engine grease. And fire. And badly-baked pie. He loved it. "Thank gods. I'm back. Did you miss me?"

She kissed him. That was answer enough. Their embrace lasted for a long time. Dragomir was home. The Dauphine, Pubton, their house back at the castle, their dinky apartment, it didn't matter. Libby was home.

She pulled away. Her smile faltered a tiny bit as she brushed away a tear. "I... I wasn't... I didn't know if you'd... ah, you smell like shit. Welcome back."

He kissed her. "It's good to be back."

Libby's nose wrinkled. "What did he tell you?"

Dragomir rubbed his hands, looking at the ceiling. "He... uh... nothing. He didn't tell me anything. It was a waste of time."

Libby frowned. Her hands fell to her hips. "What do you mean, 'A waste of time?' We came across the entire fucking world! He must have told you something! And where's everyone who went with you? Is Traveller outside somewhere?"

Traveller. Dragomir swallowed. "Uh, see - "

Libby brushed past him. Her eyes lingered on Dragomir a moment longer, teeth showing, cheeks scrunched up. She looked like she'd walked past a dirty toilet. "What's wrong with you? Did you go swimmin' in a swamp? Cripes."

"Libby? Hey! Wait up!" 

"Get away from me! You smell!"

Dragomir tailed Libby into the hallway. She stomped into the Neo Neo Beefiary, searching, finding. Traveller was standing at the bar, chatting happily with Morris. Libby made a beeline for him, and Dragomir followed.

Only this wasn't the Traveller Dragomir knew. This Traveller had shorter hair. This Traveller was wearing a wide-brimmed, straw hat. This Traveller was properly clothed, like a farmer, with a nice pair of boots on his feet. This Traveller had both eyes, and when he turned to greet Libby, he winked at her. He held out one arm, and she slid easily into his embrace.

Dragomir stopped short. "Libby...?"

She didn't turn around. "There you are. I thought something was wrong. Who's this?"

Traveller laughed, kissing Libby on her cheek. "Oh, just some guy. Looks a lot like me, doesn't he? Kinda uncanny, like."

Laughing, Libby shook her head. "Yeah, I thought so at first. But he stinks like piss, and you never do."

Dragomir fell to his knees. He reached for Libby, his arm too long, far too long. His skin reeked of drying tar.

Traveller swatted the arm away. "Do you want me to get rid of it? Wifey?"

Libby shook her head again. Giving Traveller one last, long, lingering kiss on the lips, she spun around. Her knuckles clicked as she cracked her fingers. "No. I'll do it."

The world shifted. Suddenly they were back in their cabin, only Libby and only Dragomir, and Libby was slamming her fists into Dragomir, smashing his oily black body over and over and over. Her punches left deep imprints in his chest, the skin popping back into proper pectorals a few seconds later. Green blood spilled from his mouth. Libby's eyes glittered, and in their violent reflection Dragomir saw his own eyes as two globs of shining emerald.


Dragomir collapsed. She punched him in the face. Dragomir huddled into a ball and begged for mercy. She kicked him in the side. Dragomir tried to crawl away, ribs broken. She stomped on the back of his neck. Dragomir gave up. She didn't. Eventually, she killed him.

They left Dragomir's corpse to rot in the desert sun as the Dauphine rolled back to Pubton. The buzzards refused to pick at his flesh.

When Dragomir opened his eyes again, the Catastrophe was back in his hand. It blazed more brightly than ever, its square edges hungry for blood.

"You can't tell her," he whispered. "No one can tell her."

Iko smiled. He lowered his head.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Intus Opaca, Part Eight

Somewhere in Rodentia, standing vigil over a fallen tower, one of the Imperium's lowliest guards farted. He blinked, surprised.

A flower on the Indy Plains, or what little remained of the free Plains, sprang to sudden life. It grew three sizes larger than normal in the span of a minute.

A coyote, scavenging for food in the desert far above Below, decided to gulp down a mouthful of sand. It quickly regretted the decision.

A merchant in Bottomless, in the midst of a deal to smuggle a wealthy orcish debutante out of the city, abruptly keeled over dead. His client screamed.

Harold the Mayor, carving pictures of trees into his cell wall with a stone, felt a sharp, painful tingle in his left arm. He complained to one of his squat, green guards, but the guard ignored him.

No one would ever make a connection between their odd moments of discomfort and the blazing Catastrophe in Dragomir's hands. Not even Iko truly understood Dragomir's weapon, though had he learned the truth, he would not have been surprised.

"Please... stop ruining... my... temple," Iko huffed, looking around in dismay. "I wanted to... redecorate, but not... like this...."

The temple looked near as bad as the rest of Below. Most of the rat statues were gone, either defaced beyond recognition or reduced to smoking rubble. Two of the columns lay in pieces, bringing several large sections of the roof down in the process. The ground, once smoothly pristine, bore countless scratches, cuts, and gouges, courtesy of the Catastrophe's tip.

Dragomir cut again. Iko ducked out of the way. The Catastrophe sheared halfway through a third column. At the same moment it cut through the stone, a little girl in Pubton collapsed for no good reason. Her mother helped her up, and they carried on to one of the city's shelters.

Dragomir clutched his chest. His inky black fingers seemed to merge with his skin. Disgusted, he pulled away, instead clutching the side of his head. Something wet and sticky dribbled out of his left ear. He staggered, dipping to one knee.

Iko stood on the opposite side of the dais, watching Dragomir. His hat was gone, sliced in two, and several tips from his spiky hair lay lost in the ruins of the temple. Lumpy, ashen grey skin peaked out of the slices in his robes, though it looked unharmed. Iko steepled his long fingers together, seemingly a man in prayer, though he was breathing as hard as Dragomir.

"Hoo... you... you have stamina... I'll give you that..." Iko wiped sweat from his brow with his sleeve. "No wonder you survived... for so long... shame you didn't... keep... Traveller's strength... or you'd be a hell... of a warrior..."

Dragomir shook his head. He tried to rise, but his knees buckled. He collapsed to the ground, and just before his neck hit the blade of the Catastrophe it vanished. He panted on the floor, half crying, half laughing.

"This... bullshit..." Dragomir weakly pounded the ground with a fist. "Such... all... just bu... b-bullshit... ha, ha... ha..."

"Oh, c'mon... you can't... be done... yet..." Iko shook his head. "Can't keep up with... with an old man...? You owe me... more..."

Dragomir laughed, rolling onto his back. He stared at his trembling hands. One was coated in a thin smear of green blood.

"It's true," Iko insisted. He flopped onto his butt and propped himself up with his arms. His fingers snaked out of his sleeves, clicking against the floor and oozing. "I... because of me, you can... use that thing... properly... now... man, you glitches have... all the fun... in life..."

Dragomir considered asking what Iko meant by 'glitch'. Instead, he ran one of his shaky fingers along his forearm, testing. The tip of the finger, already pointed, transformed into a razor-sharp nail and drew a line of green blood. Dragomir's laugh echoed throughout Below, scaring the phantasmal rats that wouldn't dare to approach the temple.

"Tainted," Dragomir eventually said, dabbing at the blood. "This... this is what... what they meant... I guess... ha, ha... yep, pretty... pretty fucking... tainted..."

"Don't... don't change the subject!" Iko coughed. He breathed deep, forcing his lungs to pull air into his chest more evenly. In, out, in, out. "Ack. T... there. Yes, you're... tainted. Whatever. I wouldn't worry about what... rats... think, if I were you. They're little bastards."

"Like you!" Dragomir howled. He rolled weakly from side to side.

"Yep," Iko agreed. He settled into a more comfortable position. "My little brother is right about me. I'm... quite the bastard. You still owe me one."

"I... I don't owe... you... shit..."

"You're wrong on that." Iko stroked the remains of his beard. Much of it was gone, cut away by the Catastrophe. "I revealed your secret without revealing your secret. Now you know what my brother... what Bora... wouldn't tell you. And I did it without anyone else finding out. You can still lead a normal life, once you figure out how to change back to your human form. Can probably manage that before you leave this temple."

Dragomir's frantic laughing died. His voice became a tired hiss. "You... kept your fucking... secret... by getting people killed... Logan... Jeffrey... Celine... Plato and his rat - "

"Plato's still alive. And the rat."

" - and Grylock... gods, Grylock, he suffered... so much... and it's your fault..."

"Oh, please." Iko rolled his eyes. "None of them had to come with you. If you'd shown up alone, we could have spoken the moment you set foot in Below. I was hoping you'd be smart enough to reach the same conclusion and ditch your friends in the night, but noooo, you had to be the dutiful leader. And the goblin? He was a moron! Who carries a poisonheart around all the time? Little fool was begging to die."

Ignoring the last comment, Dragomir gritted his teeth. "Then... you could have said... you only wanted to meet me..."

Iko smiled, almost shyly. "True. I suppose I could have done that."

"Bas... bastard." Dragomir coughed. He felt a little better, the pain in his head clearing. "For the sake of... asking... what the hell... do you want...? Assuming I do... owe you... a debt..."

Iko answered at once. "Death. Mine, to be specific."

Dragomir rolled onto his belly to stare at the hermit. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't still dreaming. "W... what? Why?"

"You don't get to ask that question," Iko replied. "I want death. You'll give it to me. Using the Catastrophe-Formerly-Known-As-Crimson."

For almost a year, Dragomir had wanted to kill Iko. He'd thought of their inevitable confrontation every day, overlapping it with the memory of his daughter's severed head, speaking to him from the mud. He'd concocted dozens of scenarios, from poison to stabbing to poetic decapitation, in which he could do away with his tormentor. Even after his role in Edmund's death, Dragomir refused to let go of Iko's execution.

And now, the old man was asking for it. Dragomir suspected that Iko would beg if given no alternative.

"No." Dragomir lowered his head to the floor. The refusal steadied his lungs at last. "I won't do it. Find someone else to do your dirty work."

Iko sighed. He didn't say anything for a long time, long enough for Dragomir to pick himself up, dust himself off, and stare at the old man, waiting. They studied one another, Dragomir conscious of the slow crack of masonry above them. Given enough time, the roof of the temple would completely cave in and kill them both.

Eventually, shrugging rather easily and abruptly, Iko spoke. "Fine. Then I'll have to have another conversation. With your wife."

Dragomir barked a laugh, but his stomach also lurched. "Wow. What a grown-up. Gonna tell on me?"

"Yes, I am." Iko's eyes glittered. "I'm going to tell lovely little Libby that her husband is a Non. One of the monsters that has ruined her life, several times over.  Considering how she's reacted to freakish family members in the past, can you just imagine how that news will go over?"

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Intus Opaca, Part Seven

"I am not a Non," Dragomir whispered. His voice felt raw, and the Catastrophe's burning in his hand seemed also to burn his mind.

"True," Iko conceded. He raised one long, spindly finger to his face thoughtfully. "You're more of a hybrid. A half-and-half. Coffee with a large dollop of cream. Lito always was one for strange science - "

Dragomir lunged. His legs seemed to stretch further than possible, bounding him nearly fifteen feet across the room. He swiped at Iko with the Catastrophe, but the old man ducked away again, sliding behind the line of rats on his left. The floor hissed and smoked, badly scarred from the tip of the Catastrophe.

"You certainly have her temper!" Iko wrapped his fingers around one of the statues, seeming to strangle it. The stone cracked under his grip. "And here I believed we could have a civil conversation."

The rat's head flew across the room, and two more flew with it. Iko dodged each of Dragomir's swipes, no matter how much Dragomir's arms seemed to stretch or twist. He felt like he was made of rubber.

"You're clumsy! You need lessons." Iko straightened his hat. "A shame you didn't attend our school. Weaponry was a state-ordered mandatory class for all students. Mako the Blademaster would've set you straight. Although, since you're a part of Lito, technically..."

Dragomir raged. He hacked at the statues of the rats, reducing one to a pedestal, another to a fallen head, yet another to a heap of clean-cut debris on the floor. Each time the Catastrophe hit something Dragomir's head hurt a little more, but he didn't care, he just wanted to kill, kill, kill. Then he wondered if Non thought about killing all the time, and he attacked another statue.

Iko settled against one of the columns holding the temple's roof aloft. He inspected his impossibly-long nails, tapping them against the floor. Striped ooze dripped from the edges. "Don't feel so bad, Dragomir. You're not the only freak in the room. The things I've stolen over the years... they haven't always been to my liking. I'd give these blasted hands back to their owner, if I could... oh, but he was a bastard... who has claws that can't retract? Honestly."

He's fucking with me, Dragomir thought, letting the Catastrophe dip. It left a sparking green hole in the floor. He's fucking with me and I know it, but I can't... concentrate... agh, my head...

"Why are you doing this?" Dragomir swallowed. His mouth was dry. He wondered if Non salivated."Who... who the fuck are you to do this to me?WHY ARE YOU BEING SUCH A BASTARD?"

From the beginning, Iko's expression was kindly. Exasperated at times, curious at others, but always with a hint of good intentions and benevolent humour. When Dragomir spoke, the humour remained... but the old man's features hardened, and his eyes took on a gleam Dragomir did not like one bit.

"I was bored. I thought it would be fun." Iko shrugged. "You try living for multiple millenia. You run out of things to do. Oh, but, being a Non, now, I suppose you'll probably last to at least one thousand. Surprise!"

Dragomir charged.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Intus Opaca, Part Six


But he knew it wasn't.


But he sensed the truth.


The old man's steady, unsmiling, almost sympathetic face said otherwise.

Dragomir hadn't said a thing for almost an hour. He'd paced, he'd rubbed his head, he'd picked at his nails, but not once had he disturbed Iko's story. Not even when Iko began calling Traveller 'Dragomir'. He waited, patient but impatient, dreading the climax, until Iko was done speaking. Even then, the loudest exclamation was a harsh, bold whisper, whistled through chapped, shuddering lips.

Iko shook his head. "Not bullshit. I only report the news. I don't embellish. I don't lie." 

Dragomir clutched his chest. The wind whistling in and out of his mouth hinted at hyperventilation. "Y... you couldn't fucking... you couldn't know this shit, you're a gods damned hermit..."

Smiling, Iko tapped his temples. "I have ways of collecting these things. I'm not called 'the Plunderer' for nothing. And I can prove it."

Dragomir backed away, nearly tripping off the edge of the dais. He didn't want proof. He didn't want this old bastard anywhere near him. "No. Fuck off. We're... we're done. I'm leaving."

Iko smiled. He slid something from his left sleeve: Dragomir's diary. "Come now, you know we're not done here. Don't you want to learn how to use the, ah, 'Crimson Catastrophe'? I believe that was the name you gave it?"

Dragomir turned. He stared towards the entrance of the temple. It was little more than an open portal, looking out on the city he'd dubbed Below. A cadre of rat statues watched him blankly from both sides, accusing and hungry. They looked ready to leap off of their pedestals and attack. Eager. He considered running past them anyway, simply disappearing into Below and dying in some ancient building.

"I'd prefer you didn't go anywhere." Legs popping, Iko lifted himself off of the ground with a weary grunt. "Yikes. Ow. The joys of getting old. I suppose it's kind of a comfort that you're technically only a few years old, eh? You won't have to worry about this pain for a long time."

A few years old. Dragomir raced to remember past birthdays, those unpleasant gatherings where dad would get drunk, mom would sing happy birthday, and Robert would bake them all papaya cake. He'd enjoyed... how many such birthdays?

Only three, a woman's voice hissed in the back of Dragomir's head. You didn't tell Libby the day of your birth 'til the year of the hole. This year's birthday was closer to the truth than what you thought. All the others...

Dragomir wanted to puke. Instead he asked, "Where is he?"

Iko pointed to the door on the far end of the temple. It bore the same runic symbols as the door in his house. "Back home. I sent him up after he, ah, did away with your 'Nothing'. He's perfectly safe..."

The thought that Traveller might still be alive somewhere, alive and amnesiac and utterly ignorant of his status as the real deal, both gladdened and horrified Dragomir. His fingers twitched and burned as he contemplated putting a dagger in Traveller's belly.

"... but your other friends... "

Dragomir's head whipped around. He glared at Iko, his own plight momentarily forgotten. "My other friends?"

"Ah... yes." Iko's brow furrowed, and he frowned apologetically. "I'm sorry. I sent Traveller and Logan off to stop the Nothing once it had served its purpose. Logan distracted it while Traveller saved you. He... paid the price, I'm afraid."

Dragomir bit his lip so hard that it bled. "You're lying."

"I don't lie. There's no point."

Logan... the shudders wracking Dragomir's body became more intense. "And... and... Jeffrey...?"

"Crushed." Iko sighed. "The mother will be devastated. This isn't your day, is it? I'm sorry if that sounds rude - "


Iko pursed his lips, taking one step towards Dragomir. "You came here looking for the truth. That's what I'm giving you. Honesty."

'Honesty'. That word set it off. Throughout Iko's story a dull flame had burned inside Dragomir's chest, each word throwing another tiny twig on the fire. Now it was a bonfire, a regular three alarm blaze, and 'honesty' added one final log to the pyre. Dragomir's hands erupted, alight with red -

- and Iko immediately jumped into action. Surprising Dragomir, the old man flew past him, moving so quickly that he reminded Dragomir of Logan. A hand fell on Dragomir's shoulder, a hand both incredibly sharp and sickly oozing, and the burning sensation of the Crimson Catastrophe seemed to flow into it, to change

The sword, the weapon, the whatever-you-call-it, appeared in Dragomir's hands. He held it just as he'd held it a year before, prepared to cut down his daughter. This time, though, the Crimson Catastrophe was not red. It glowed a bright, evil green.

"That's its true form," Iko whispered in Dragomir's ear. "You just didn't want to see it as green. But there it is, and there... there are you."

Dragomir spun around, swinging the Catastrophe in a flat arc. Iko swept away, a thin line burned into the front of his robe. He chuckled, eyebrows raised, and pointed a long, thin, black-and-white striped finger at Dragomir's hands. 

Dragomir looked. They were flat, matte black. And so were his arms... his shoulders... his chest... his legs... the tips of his bushy hair... everything. He was nude, indistinct, and utterly alien.

"Allow me to greet you formally, fellow Non." Iko bowed. "Hello, Litobora the Farsighted. Welcome to the truth."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Intus Opaca, Part Five

"I'm gonna be a guard, y'know. And a husband. I got a letter 'n everything. I bet my girlfriend is awesome."

"I'm sure."

"Girlfriends have boobs, right? I like boobs. Not mom's boobs, of course, 'cause that'd be so weird. You don't like your mom's boobs, right?"


"Have you had a girlfriend before? They're great, I'm told. You get to have sex with 'em. My dad tells me sex is fantastic. He is so damned proud of me, you don't even know. I can lift more rocks than Robert, 'cause Robert is a wuss who only likes to cook, and if you think about it that kinda rhymes - "

Balancing three mugs between his fingers, face red with irritation, the innkeeper pointed at the front door of his establishment. "Out. Out. Ye're fuckin' annoying."

"But I have a room - "

"Get out or I ram these up yer nose, lad." Huffing, the innkeeper smashed one of the cups against a table. It left a sizable indent in the wood. "Ye can have yer room when ye're talked the fuck out."

"Oh. Well, I guess I could use a walk - "

Punt. Slam.

Retrieving his wide-brimmed hat from the heap of manure by the front door of the inn, Dragomir sighed. I talk too much, don't I? Blabbermouth. Doesn't he get that I'm just nervous? That's what happens when you're on the road for the first time, y'know. You get nervous. 'specially when you're off to meet your wife. Man, I bet she's hot. Girlfriend to wife, within five minutes of meeting -

An old woman trying to get at the door kicked at Dragomir's leg. "You! Day-dreamin' idjit! Out of the path! I need te use the loo!"

Leaning back against the door, Dragomir smiled up at her. "Well, heck, ma'am, you could be like me and go pee outside instead! The fresh air gets between your bits, and it just feels so nice - "

Punt. Dragomir had to admire an old woman strong enough to punt him.

Picking himself up a second time and dusting off his clothes, Dragomir stretched. A warm breeze passed beneath the brim of his hat, lightly toasting his nose. His face wrinkled at first, but he decided he liked the heat and smiled instead. Tawdry thoughts of dallying with a dainty, kind, buxom mistress kept his spirits afloat.

Leaving the inn, Dragomir walked down onto the dirt road, jingling the change in his pockets. He enjoyed the sound of four or five coins rubbing together. It was the sound of wealth, more wealth than he'd ever possessed, the first portion of a dowry that would see him across the Indy Plains to his new home. He couldn't remember the name of the castle - it seemed to change every time his father brought it up in conversation - but he was sure that any castle where he worked must be an awesome castle.

"Clink, clink, clink," he mumbled, the words slowly breaking into a happy, discordant tune. "Clink, clink. Money. Gonna... gonna eeeeaaaarn a lot of moneeeeyyyy... best guard eveeeeer, that's meeeee..."

Dragomir sang as he walked. He sang for nearly an hour, repeating his good fortunes to every farmer and wayfarer he chanced upon. Some attempted to excuse themselves politely, and failed; most yelled at Dragomir to leave them alone, and failed; one old tanner hit Dragomir with a rock. Dragomir retrieved and threw the rock so hard that it sheered through a nearby tree and disappeared over the horizon. His point made, Dragomir sang some more.

Why shouldn't I be happy? Dragomir thought, tipping his hat at the old man when the latter faked a heart attack and rushed off to find help. I'm out of the house. I'm free. I love mom 'n dad 'n all, and Robert's okay, but I'm free. I can be an adult, get a house, do something other 'n picking rocks out of the ground all day... life. I've got a life!

He walked. The inn disappeared behind a hill. Farmsteads parted and the road widened, giving way to huge, fenced-in fields. Delicate white flowers blossomed along the side of the road, and Dragomir paused to pick one. It made him sneeze. He flicked it away, swearing that he would never smell another flower again. Then, stopping to think about it, Dragomir decided that 'flower' could be a euphemism for something else. He immediately changed his vow and began to sing even more lustily, throwing his hands above his head.

"Doo de doo de doo!" He danced, clapped, and threw his hat into the air. "Staying at an iiiiiiiinn! Goin' for a waaaaaaalk! Got a new joooooob! Girl's really hooooooot! 'least I think she's hooooooot!"

The path curved upward, past a forest. Ignoring the nervous patter of his heart, Dragomir embraced the heat of the day and performed a cartwheel. His fingers left deep grooves in the worn road.

"Life is so greeeeeat!" Dragomir belted out his lines in a passable, but far-too-cheery, imitation of his father. Just for kicks. "Couldn't be betteeeeeeer! Everythin's goin' my waaaaaaay! Gonna get me someeeeee - "

The revelry ended when, somewhere nearby, somebody whistled at him. It was a high, melodic sound, rather like birdsong, and it stopped Dragomir in his tracks. He looked around, from one side of the road to the other. 

"Hm?" Another whistle turned his head. "Somebody there?"

He didn't have to search for long. A lithe, dark, stocking-clad leg slid out from behind a tree on the right side of the road, catching Dragomir's attention at once. Feminine fingers slowly pulled a dress back so Dragomir could drink in the exposed thigh, covered by a thin strip of lace and silk. 

Dragomir stirred. Immediately, passionately, almost violently. "WHOA. I NEED TO GO ON TRIPS MORE OFTEN."

A woman slid into view, back pressed against the tree. Skin a creamy brown, hair whiter than milk, dressed like a sultry bar wench, she curled her fingers in greeting. Dragomir hungrily watched each one bend, his eyes creeping down her slender wrist, up her too-perfect arm, up to her gorgeous face... down, past the tempting bump of her breasts, down, down, down... oh, the things beneath that dress...

Oh man. Look. She's waving at me. AND she's leggy. I like that. Legs are fantastic. Despite the lusty drool already gathering at his lips, Dragomir stabbed blindly for logic. What does she want, though? Might be a con job. Might be a bandit're somethin'. Don't fall for a pretty face too fast.

The woman smiled. Sliding delicately away from the tree, she took two steps towards Dragomir. He goggled at the view, slapping a hand on his mouth to hide his enormous grin. She giggled.

Maaaaaaan. Dragomir tugged his tunic down a few inches, doing his best to... hide. What does she want? Whatever it is, keep your cool. Don't wig out. She could be big trouble. Keep your EYES on the PRIZE.

Pausing by the fence, the woman leaned over, spreading her arms along the wood as though she were a bartender about to ask for Dragomir's order. He got an ample, generous look at her cleavage. That was enough to destroy his willpower; her first words were mere overkill.

Touching her lip and moaning a teensy bit, she smiled. "I want you."

She will be an excellent prize.

Giggling, the woman turned abruptly. Her dress flying back in a wide, revealing plume, she darted behind the tree again and waved at Dragomir. "Bye byeeee!"

His nerves and unease overridden by attraction, Dragomir immediately started forward. He nimbly vaulted the fence, leaving the road behind. "Hey! Hey! C'mon, baby, don't be like that! You tease! C'mon back!"

The woman ran towards the forest in the distance. Her merry laughter floated back to Dragomir on the wind.

"I'm a mean lover!" Dragomir called, hands at first fumbling with his britches, then thinking better of it. Should catch her first. "I'll give ya a spanking for runnin' off like that! I mean, sure, never actually had sex, but I can learn to be mean!"

The woman's white hair whipped between a pair of trees and vanished. Her inviting smile, flashing at him between tree branches, tempted Dragomir onward. He pranced across the grass, nearly tripping over a fallen tree, and dogged her path into the forest. 

"More trees? Kay! I can dig it!" Dragomir pushed into the forest, skirting around a bush and ducking beneath a low-hanging cluster of half-fallen twigs. "Hard to get, fine with me! An-ti-ci-pa-tiooooon!"

The woman's giggles seemed to come from all directions now, sliding delightfully out of the darkness and tantalizing Dragomir's ears. He caught faint glimpses of the hem of her skirt, the smoothness of her arm, the flick of her hair. Yet he never managed to spot her for more than a second before she vanished again, somehow able to skip through the dense greenery while Dragomir stumbled about in vain pursuit.

"S'all good," he called into the darkness, peering from side to side. "Wouldn't wanna have my first time in, like, an open field. That's just weird. A forest? Dark forest? Totally good. TOTALLY good."

The forest swallowed Dragomir. He didn't mind. He liked his girls flirty and evasive. Soon he was hopelessly lost, though he barely noticed. His brain was too busy running over all the gross things his father had told him about sex in the last four years. Now they seemed so delightfully real that he figured he needed a quick refresher course before the main event.

His father.

What had he arranged again...? Oh yeah. That marriage thing.

Laughing as he accidentally put a foot in a rabbit hole, Dragomir waved to the retreating flicker of a foot. "Just don't tell my girlfriend 'bout this, kay? I think she might get mad. Maybe." But what she doesn't know...

Dark, tall, claw-like trees stretched over and around Dragomir from every angle. They ushered him onward, inward, deeper and deeper, and he followed their embrace willingly. His every thought was lost on that first kiss, that first grope, that first sliiiiide... the sound... that soft, squishy sound he'd imagined every night for the last two months, ever since the news of his impending marriage...

Not sure if this is right, Dragomir thought. For the first time his smile faltered the tiniest bit. But... well, I mean, this is a thing people do, right? They have sex. It's natural. For all I know, this is my girlfriend. Man, wouldn't that be great? She's super hot, so...


He swallowed, wiping sweat from his head. Okay, she's probably not my girlfriend. But it's okay. It's a thing adults do, and I'm gonna do it! You only live once, and you only get married once, and I'm not married yet, so hey! I just have to - 

Dried leaves crunched at Dragomir's back. Thin fingers caressed his shoulder.

Peering back, the smile returning, Dragomir began to turn. His unreasoning lusts went with him. "There you are! C'mon, let's crack open..."

Her arm was too long.


Her legs, though thin, were now too numerous.


Her hair, still white, was too shaggy and ragged.

"Fire... works..."

Her eyes, before so alluring and full of life, glowed a pale green. They reminded Dragomir of his mother's fake emerald earrings. 


They stared at Dragomir out of a broad face, and a long, insectile jaw, complete with pincers, dropped open in a gruesome smile.

The woman waved. Dragomir did not wave back. He couldn't take his eyes off of her bloated body. It looked like a massive heap of raw, grey meat, supported by four sewing needles and covered in thin veins.

"B... b... baby," he stammered, "you... got... got... real... ugly..."

The thing -  not a woman, no, darkness writhed on its back - towered over Dragomir. It seemed to blend into the treetops, becoming one with the forest, a single entity of flesh and wood that had trapped him and was now ready to gobble him up. His mother had told him stories about such things, evil stories of vile forest creatures who preyed on the weak and the stupid, but oh, no, he'd not listened, he'd paid attention to his genitals, and now... and now -

"Hiya, baby." The thing's tongue seemed to test the air, licking and curling. A network of green veins pulsed along the tip and disappeared somewhere in the back of the thing's cavernous throat. "You'll do just fine."

The thing touched Dragomir's face, inspecting his chin, his cheeks, his lips, his nose, even pressing his eyes closed for a second. Its skin burbled and pulsated, as though a living creature of its own accord. Dragomir quivered, paralyzed, feet held in place by traitorous legs that refused to move despite the danger. Urine ran down his thighs. The fingers lingered over long on his brow...

... and slid his hat from his head. It chuckled sickly. "I really like your hat. Mind if I take it?"

He nodded, the slightest tip of his head.

"Thanks." It bent in close, fingers slipping back down his face again. Its breath stank like a slaughterhouse. "I'll take good care of it. Promise."

Dragomir began to scream. The rustle of the trees smothered the sound, and no one heard him. Eventually, carried away by pain and mental anguish, Dragomir fainted. He continued to scream as his one good eye closed. 

The thing laid Dragomir's curled body in a heap of wet leaves, draping his hat over his face to hide his wound. It held its prize gently in both hands, cradling it like a baby: a bloody, but intact, human eye. 

"That man is too sentimental for anyone's good." The thing shook its head, shaggy white locks flowing from one side to the other. "His plan's too damned convoluted. Ah, well... down the hatch... this is gonna suck..."

Grimacing, the thing lifted the eyeball to its mouth and dropped the squishy orb whole down its throat. The eyeball bounced once, rolled along its tongue, and disappeared. The thing swallowed, gagging - 

- and at once its body began to bloat and contort. The fleshy lumps on its back, chest and sides burbled, writhing and pulsating hideously as the thing settled onto the ground. Its legs spasmed and twitched, scraping deep furrows in the soft dirt. Faces, heads, limbs, body parts of all description but only smoothed features, began to press and poke out of its skin, as though trapped beneath a thin layer of translucent goo. It shrieked, its scream as high and tortured as a dying animal... or a woman in labour.

Time passed. Minutes. Hours. Half a day. Animals abandoned the trees in droves. The thing's bellows scared a group of old women, passing by the forest on a journey. Later, reaching a tavern, they swore they'd been chased by a demon.

When the cries ended, the thing's body collapsed back into a lithe, feminine form. Its innumerable folds and boils disappeared, replaced by solid black skin. She groaned and propped herself up on her elbows, wiping a leaf from her forehead and staring at her handiwork.

Dragomir lay, still curled, upon his leafy bed. His face beneath the hat looked taut and pained. Beside him, naked, skin slowly shifting from an oily black to a soft, healthy pink, eyes faintly green and wholly vapid, lay a second Dragomir. 

"Shit." Shaking away a severe headache, Litobora rolled her eyes and sighed. "His... his hair's blonde. Should be... a brunette. Fuck... ow... fucked that one up."