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 - "
"RUDE?!" Dragomir bolted upright, hands aching, the pain in his forehead burning intensely. "OH NO! NOT RUDE! YOU'VE ONLY JUST TOLD ME THAT TWO OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE DEAD IN CASUAL CONVERSATION! OH, AND LET'S NOT FORGET THAT I'M A FUCKING FAKE! NOT RUDE AT ALL!"
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."